Megu and Suigin Tou's Excellent Adventures

A Rozen Maiden fanfic by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: the characters and concepts of Rozen Maiden are owned by Peach Pit, not me. This story is based on the anime, not the manga.

Chapter 7: Rumors of Spring

'Well, there it is,' Megu thought as she rounded the last corner and came within sight of the Icebox. 'I made it all the way here without running into anything surprising.' Her lips quirked into a smile. 'Unless that counts as surprising all by itself. But I guess it's not so strange if Nerima hasn't quite woken up yet. Let's see, what time is it now?'

She reached into her handbag, pulled out an old-fashioned pocketwatch, and consulted it. "I've still got fifteen minutes," she murmured, closing the watch and walking over to sit on a bench. There was no point in going inside yet; that would just leave her waiting for Jun in the central lobby rather than outside in the street, and if she had to spend time in aimless anticipation, she would much rather do it outdoors. "I suppose I shouldn't have left so early. But then again... if something interesting had happened on the way here, I wouldn't have wanted either to run away or be late.

"Oh well." She smiled again, a gentle grin that was no less ironic for being soft. "I can always do some more reading."

Megu reached into the handbag again, her fingers closing around the cover of a manga. She began to pull it out, but stopped when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. A familiar figure, clothed in white but this time not carrying his bow, had just turned onto the road and was now walking toward her. The rising sun was behind her and falling clearly on his face, which meant it took him longer to recognize her. When he did his sudden awkwardness was plain for Megu to see.

"Hello, Ishikawa-san," she said, standing up as he neared her, wondering at that awkwardness but not letting it infect her. "Did you get your manga back on Friday?"

"What? Oh, yes. Thanks for leaving it at the front desk for me."

"You're welcome." Megu lowered her head in a brief, apologetic nod. "I'm sorry I didn't get Suigin Tou to sign it."

"I... it might be just as well," Uryu said reluctantly.

Megu blinked. "Pardon me?"

Instead of replying, he held silent for a few moments. Then he sighed and said, "Kakizaki-san, I wouldn't ask this if it wasn't important, but... after I left, how did Suigin Tou react? When I wasn't right there in front of her, what did she show, or let herself to show?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you're asking," Megu temporized.

"It's... well... I imagine it was obvious how I felt, right?" Uryu looked off to the side, grimacing and tugging on the collar of his shirt. "That I hoped I could get to know her better... and I mean as something closer and warmer than just a friend."

"Well... to be honest..." Megu paused, wondering how best to explain. "I didn't pick up on that at the time. But it wasn't your fault... I'm not sure I could accept it even now, if I hadn't seen fifty boys all try to hit on her later on." She paused, watching Uryu's face darken into a glare then smooth reluctantly back to calmness. "Seeing that was traumatic enough that I didn't have any choice afterward but to believe. Without that, the idea of anyone pursuing Suigin Tou... the First Angel of Rozen Maiden... for that kind of relationship... it was just too hard to imagine. Too far away from my idea of how the world worked."

"It's not that I assumed I was worthy of her," Uryu interjected. "More that I hoped I might be. That I might be able to help her with the challenges ahead of her."

Megu frowned. "You keep saying things like 'felt', 'hoped', 'assumed'. Past tense. Have you changed your mind in the last two days, Ishikawa-san?"

"Not like that..." Uryu sighed. "I still think it would be wonderful, if she were to open up to me like I wanted to open up to her. If I could help her lay the pain of her past to rest, and we could walk on into the future together. I still can't imagine anything greater... but..."

"But what?"

"I never pretended it wouldn't be a challenge," he said quietly. "That wasn't a scary thought, because it wouldn't cost me anything I was afraid to lose. Time and effort? I spend those every day, enough to break an ordinary seventeen-year-old. What if I helped her but in the end she flew away? I'm sure it would hurt, but accomplishing something so great would outweigh that. And I was at least confident that I wouldn't make things worse.

"Now..." he closed his eyes and sighed. "All of that's changed. I was wrong, I didn't know at all what pursuing her would cost. That's why I'm asking you this, Kakizaki-san... if I did walk away, would that hurt her? Would it be the very thing I was certain I'd never do?"

"Well... that is to say..." She took a deep breath. "Okay, I'll just say this straight out. Suigin Tou has so many boys chasing her that one dropping out would be a relief."

Uryu let out a sigh even deeper than the breath Megu had drawn. "I see. Thank you," he said sincerely.

"However..." She drew the word out, watching as new beads of sweat prickled on Uryu's brow.

"However?" he prompted after an uneasy moment of waiting for her to continue.

"I do need you to tell me what changed."

"What? Why?"

"Why do you think? I meant what I said, about Suigin Tou feeling relieved that you won't chase her anymore... but if I just tell her you changed your mind for no reason, how would that look? I told you there are many boys chasing her who aren't as polite about it as you. I don't want to give her more reason to think poorly of half the world."

"But... didn't I already say enough?" he protested. "If I had gotten through to her, if she did want me..." he took a deep breath, then said firmly, "I wouldn't stop now. But she doesn't, and I can't justify sacrificing what it would cost to keep trying to change that." He stared beseechingly at her. "Isn't that enough of an explanation?"

Megu shook her head. "No, it isn't. If she wants to know why you changed your mind, I need to be able to tell her."

Uryu frowned stubbornly. "The details are my own private business. I think you're just asking because you want to know."

"If I was just being curious, I also would have asked why you didn't bring your bow for today's training," Megu riposted. "Oh well. If you really don't want to say, I suppose you don't have to..."

"That sounds good, except for the tone you used to say it," he replied flatly. "What's the catch?"

"I'll just tell Suigin Tou something that would make sense to her. Let's see, based on how that girl looked at us on Friday after you left... how about..." Megu paused for a moment longer, then offered, "Natsume finally snapped during your training session... scattered your arrows... shattered your bow... froze you completely helpless... did everything she'd never admitted she wanted to do... and now you're going to be a father?"

"GWAUUUGH!" Uryu hit the pavement hard enough to see stars. Not that flying through the galactic void wouldn't have seemed more attractive at the moment anyway.

Megu grinned excitedly. "Did I get it right? Really?! There are some things Suigin Tou knows without needing to learn them, and I've always thought it's a nice trick. It would be great in the pachinko parlors and at the racetrack, that's for sure. And even better in challenge matches once I start fighting too. But this is the first time I've gotten something so big perfectly right!"

"I hate to burst your bubble," Uryu said with sarcasm thick enough to spread over an okonomiyaki, "but you didn't. She may have frozen me, but all she did after that was kiss me hard enough to knock me unconscious. It was a good guess, not some kind of psychometric epiphany."

"Oh." Megu pondered this. "But if you were unconscious, then how do you know...?"

"AHEM!" Uryu cleared his throat with enough effort to break an ordinary seventeen-year-old. "In any case, you now have all the information you need to explain things to Suigin Tou. And..." His vehemence trickled away. He swallowed, then said, "And... also tell her... I hope she finds all the answers she's searching for, and all the happiness she deserves."

"I hope so too," she murmured as she watched him turn and stride briskly toward the Icebox. Once its doors closed behind him, she sat back down on the bench, reaching into her handbag for the manga.

The soft sound of impact from behind distracted her once again. She turned her head, her eyes widening in surprise when she caught sight of Jun Sakurada, who had apparently dropped from the sky (or at least the rooftops). "Hello. You're here early," she noted.

"You too," he said. "So... um... about that guy you were talking to..."

Megu blinked. "What about him?"

"I was just wondering what that was all about? I stayed on the roof so I wouldn't interrupt. I didn't listen in, but I thought I caught Suigin Tou's name there toward the end."

"You did. But I don't see why that makes it your business," she returned.

Jun shrugged uncomfortably. "I guess it's not... as long as she isn't going to go crazy and try to break me again. Like she did before you met her. And after Shinku and I stopped hiding our relationship."

"I don't think there's any danger of that," she reassured him. "You might have made her uncomfortable two days ago, but she's got more important things on her mind than you."

"Glad to hear it." He paused, then said, "Um... what about Shinku? I know she matters way more to Suigin Tou than I do, and they're either meeting already or they're about to. Did it look to you like Suigin Tou was looking forward to it? Or like she hated the thought but didn't want to back out of it? Did she seem like she might be thinking about 'asking' Shinku for another rematch?"

"I don't believe so," Megu said. "I haven't seen her since Friday afternoon. But from the look on her face, what she said and how she sounded, I don't think that's what she was planning."

"Wait," Jun said, "you haven't seen her in that long? Why?"

"Because she left that early for her N-field. She wanted to get it ready for Shinku's visit."

Suigin Tou stood at the peak of the mountain, her eyes closed, her hands clasped in front of her, and her wings at rest. Around her, snowflakes drifted silently and peacefully down. She paid them no heed as they speckled her feathers and vanished into her hair. Instead she focused on the stillness around and within her, listening, watching, waiting.

There—the faintest of trembles off in the distance, as the door to her N-field opened and Shinku stepped through. Suigin Tou didn't open her eyes yet, but one eyebrow rose in faint surprise as she got a good look at her sister. "At least this time I expected her to do unexpected things," the First Doll murmured.

She kept watching through her mind's eye as Shinku took in her surroundings. During her last visit, the ruined city had been snowbound but still there. Now those ruins were only a memory, and the Fifth Doll found herself in the shadow of the glacier that bulldozed them. She remained there longer than Suigin Tou expected, now staring up at the ice, now looking beyond it to the mountain which loomed far higher, now turning in a long slow circle to regard the broken earth of the plain.

When she did move, it was not to fly toward the mountain where her host was waiting. Instead, Shinku meandered along the glacier, using an N-field trick of her own to cover the distance quickly without hurrying her pace. Thirty minutes of leisurely strolling took her three-quarters of the way around the glacier, all the way to the top of it and down to earth again, somehow managing to pause at every point of interest along the way. When she found the crack that offered a glimpse of Ice Angel Grotto, she stood in quiet study for nearly five minutes. It was gratifying, Suigin Tou admitted within the privacy of her own mind, although that gratification faded when Shinku found the tiny rivulet of meltwater trickling away from the glacier and studied that just as long and intently.

At last, though, Shinku turned and began making her way toward the mountain. Suigin Tou watched for another ten minutes. At the end of this time, she concluded that for whatever reason, her most troublesome little sister wasn't going to use her distance-diminishing trick again. At this rate it would be hours before Shinku's legs carried her to the summit... especially since today she wore the body she was 'born' with.

"Capricious. Unpredictable. More powerful than sensible," Suigin Tou muttered, opening her eyes and shaking her head at her sister's foibles. "I should have been clearer about not wanting to bring Nerima into this."

"Oh? Then you would have been disappointed at the time when you asked that, instead of now."

Suigin Tou's eyes widened. She whirled around to find she was no longer alone on the mountaintop. Shinku, Fifth Doll of Rozen Maiden, was clad in the same gown she'd worn for centuries, and her hair was done in the same style. Her hands bore none of the battle-scars that both Megu and Suigin Tou had noticed on her human form. In fact, there was only one real difference between her appearance now and in Poland fifty-odd years ago: the pink rose that had rested over her front green bow was gone, replaced by a flower-patterned brooch.

Well, there was also the fact that today she carried a potted cactus.

Suigin Tou was still baffled about that last detail, but wasn't ready to give Shinku the satisfaction of asking about it. "Were you just waiting for me to take my eyes off you before you skipped over to join me?" she inquired.

"That or an invitation," Shinku replied. "Or you joining me, of course. You did mention something last time about wanting to give me the grand tour."

The First Doll blinked. "Did I?" she asked. "I don't recall the details. That was years ago, and before this era none of us were ever awake longer than a few months at a time."

"That is so, but I remember. Those memories are important to me." The Fifth Doll smiled gently at her, and continued, "Seeing the changes you had begun here was a hopeful sign, a very hopeful one once I'd had a little time to consider everything. Yes, I remember the visit quite well."

"H'rm! I, I see," Suigin Tou managed, looking away, knowing her cheeks were flushed and wishing that reaction weren't beyond a Rozen Maiden's control. "I do remember you trying not to admit you were impressed, with how quickly I saw to the heart of the communications plan you were hinting at."

"Yes, well, there are much more impressive things here, I think," Shinku said briskly, her own cheeks pinkening. "Those rose gardens I can see a little way down the mountain are a particularly fine sight. Would you like to lead the way over there and offer me a closer look?"

"Hmmm... no," the First Doll replied.

"I see. Is there a reason why not?"

The faint disappointment in her sister's tone was music to Suigin Tou's ears. "Why should I give everything away at once?" she asked lightly. "If you're good, I might invite you back for another visit. This way you have a little more incentive to come again later."

"...Ah. Is that so."

Shinku's relief, muted though it was, came as an even greater satisfaction to her older sibling. 'It's about time I managed to set the pace and control one of these encounters,' Suigin Tou thought. 'If I can bounce her around for a few more minutes, I should be able to keep the advantage all throughout the meeting.'

"I happen to agree with you," Shinku continued. "In fact, I thought to provide something like that myself." She held out the baby prickly-pear cactus. "That is why I brought this gift for my host."

"What?" Suigin Tou asked blankly, her thoughts on keeping the tempo flying away like the elusive Blue Bird of Happiness. "...A cactus as a guest-gift?" She stared at the tiny plant, which almost seemed to be huddling down against the cold, then looked into Shinku's eyes. "Is this supposed to be some kind of commentary?" she growled.

"Yes, but not in the way you mean," Shinku replied with an inscrutable smile.

"And what other way is there for me to regard this small, dull, spiny cousin-to-a-weed?"

"Well, Suigin Tou, how long do you think it would remain alive if I stopped sustaining it and set it down, and you and I walked off to take that tour?"

Suigin Tou held out one hand. Three of the snowflakes that drifted lazily down altered their course to land on her palm. "You need to ask? It's not at all adapted to life in this environment." Then she blinked. "Are you trying to admit I was right after all, about Nerima being no place for me? You might have the courage to just come out and say it, you know."

"The cactus isn't any kind of metaphor for you," Shinku sighed. "I brought it because of how quickly it will die without any care." She set the plant down and stepped away from it, looking her sister in the eye. "You would need to make a space where it can live, or change it so it can survive these conditions. Or you can simply allow it to die. The choice is yours."

"Did you hit your head in a challenge match yesterday?!" Suigin Tou demanded, quickly extending one wing far enough to encircle the pot and take over the reinforcement that Shinku was no longer providing. "A choice? I'm not a Gardener! I can't manage either of those first two!"

"I believe you can," Shinku returned evenly. "And if you want proof of that belief, just think of what Suisei Seki will have to say to me once she learns of this exchange." She was unable to maintain her impassive mask; a faint grimace marred it for a moment. Recovering from this, she continued, "As I am certain you can imagine, justifying it to her won't be easy or fun… but I have set myself up for it nonetheless. That should be all you need to convince you I'm certain of what I say."

"When are you ever not? It doesn't make you right!"

"Perhaps. But I am right this time."

Suigin Tou growled for a moment. Her eyes drifted from Shinku to the cactus, then to her sister again. Back and forth, back and forth, a little more desperately each time...

"Hm," Jun said. "I hope 'getting it ready' didn't mean stocking it full of traps and stuff."

"I hope so too," Megu said. "She's come a long way, in putting the worst of her history with Shinku behind her. But being able to have a friendly match with her, without breaking open old wounds? I don't think she's there yet."

"But you do think she'll get there someday?" he asked, his tone equal parts caution and hope.

"Yes," she said firmly, smiling. "I do."

"I'm glad." Jun offered her a smile of his own. "I don't know what you wanted to talk to me about, Kakizaki-san, but as far as I'm concerned this meeting has already been a good thing."

"Thanks! Then let's go inside," Megu said, turning and leading the way. "I booked sub-rink eighteen for us," she added as he caught up with her.

"Okay... huh?" Jun did a double-take. "Wait, why would we need a rink? You said you wanted to talk, right? There's plenty of places we can go to do that, and they aren't nearly as expensive as booking a whole room. Number eighteen isn't even one of the small rinks!"

"Well, I started thinking about things on Friday evening. Shinku said that I was actually your apprentice, as far as things are concerned around here, and I want to take advantage of that. I'd like to get some training. I don't mean a real fight," she added hastily, "or even a full-force spar. But we can practice things like control, creativity, and finesse, right?"

"Just as long as you're okay with me not putting much effort into it," Jun warned as they entered the building. "Like I said, I hope Shinku won't end up fighting Suigin Tou. But if she does, I'm gonna be sure she'll have plenty of my strength to draw on."

"That sounds perfect," Megu said agreeably. She walked over to a wall display that mapped out the various sub-levels of the Icebox and studied it for a minute. Once she'd figured out the route to their destination, she added, "I think I'm ready for a challenge—just not the pain that usually goes with it."

Jun grinned ruefully. "Yeah, that takes some getting used to." He thought for a moment as they walked down the corridor toward their first staircase. "Maybe for your first real fight, you should challenge someone who uses Martial Arts Acupuncture."


"You spent all that time in the hospital, right? Getting stuck with needles is a pain you're used to. It would kind of bridge the gap into stuff you aren't."

"That may be true," Megu said with a frown, "but I don't want to be reminded of that time. Unless it's something that's reinforcing how different and how much better things are now, I mean."

"Well, wouldn't that be the case? I mean, back then the needles were meant to give you medicine, fluids, nutrients... healing, useful things. In a fight, they'd be trying to nail you at pressure points that cause all kinds of wacky, screwed-up effects. That's about as different as you can get."

"You're right, Jun!" she said, brightening. "Thank you, I think that is what I'll do."

"Glad to help," he said modestly. "Heck, I'll even pay for half the fee of renting the rink today."

"Um..." Megu gave a sheepish chuckle. "You don't need to say that."

"I insist."

"No... I mean you really don't need to say that." When Jun offered her a curious look, she explained, "When I was on the phone with them yesterday, I... well... kind of made use of my status as your apprentice... and rented it in your name. They said they'd charge the fee to your account."

Jun grimaced, and muttered something under his breath about how fighting strength and credit ratings ought to be completely unrelated things.


"Nothing. Look, Kakiz—Megu. What do you know about how the 'master-apprentice' thing works around here?"

"I'm a little shaky on the details, but basically... the apprentice gets to act in the master's name, use his resources, share his glory, and in return does whatever the master says or gets the living daylights thrashed out of her?"

"Right. Now, I know it's been a while since we spent much time around each other... but do you honestly think I would thrash the living daylights out of you? Even if Suigin Tou weren't in the picture?"

"Well, no."

"So then do you really think it's fair to take advantage of me like that?"

Megu pondered this. "Hm. 'Fair' is such a complicated word," she mused, "and I've still only spent the smallest piece of my life outside of the hospital. I wonder, is it 'fair' to ask me such big, philosophical questions?"

Jun massaged his temples. "Just ask next time, okay?"

She beamed at him. "Really? Thank you, Jun! I mean, the only reason I did it this once was because I spent all my own money helping someone else. I didn't expect you to say it was okay for the future too!"

He sighed, shook his head, then, almost unwillingly, gave a small grin. "Well, I guess I shouldn't complain. After all, the Chinese have a saying, about how when you save someone's life that makes you responsible for them."

"Do they?" Megu thought about this for a while, as they passed through two more corridors and down another staircase, then a few feet down one more hallway and into sub-rink eighteen. The rink was half the size of the one on which Jun and Mousse had fought, ringed by a thin strip of raised carpeted floor. There were no tables, chairs, or benches; the only extra feature of the room was a large rack of shelves which held complimentary pairs of ice skates.

As Jun closed the door behind them, Megu broke her silence. "Hmm... it's true you saved my life, but Suigin Tou was just as involved in that as you were."

"Tch. That almost sounds like joint custody," he joked. "And it makes it even more appropriate for me to teach you something today. After all, you've obviously already learned some lessons from her."

"Yes. So, when are you going to stop fighting with Mama and accept her, Papa?"

Jun's facefault put Uryu's earlier one to shame. Megu grinned down at him, a grin that would have annoyed the teen had he been in any condition to notice it. 'I wonder if that counts as first point to me.' Probably not, she decided. She had said she didn't want full-force sparring, and he'd hit the ground pretty hard.

"Very funny," Jun grumbled as he pulled himself back to his feet. He shot Megu a nervous, sidelong glance. "Uh... it was a joke, right?"

"Of course it was," she assured him. "I don't think of Suigin Tou as any kind of mother. More like a sister, and really it changes from day to day which of us is the older sibling. Sometimes from minute to minute."

"That wasn't what..." Jun decided to drop it. He walked over to the ice skate shelves near the door, selected and put on a pair in his size, looked down at them for a moment, then brought Megu a pair.

She slid them on, grimacing as the skates pinched her feet. She'd never got around to renting a pair on Friday, but she had to wonder if doing so then would have better prepared her for today.

Almost immediately, though, the pinching sensation faded. The skates became even more comfortable than her normal shoes. "Is that good enough?" Jun asked, looking up from the stare he'd been directing at her feet.

"Good enough?" she echoed. "They do feel fine now; did you do that? Reshape them to fit me?"

"Yeah. Being a Maestro has its uses," he said, then gestured toward the ice. "After you."

"You're too kind," Megu said with a smile. She lifted into the air, drifted to the middle of the rink, and settled carefully down with her personal gravity running at fifteen percent and flows of power bracing her legs to stabilize her.

"Have you ever skated before, Megu?" Jun asked as he joined her on the ice.

"No," she admitted... then leaned forward onto her right leg and kicked off with her left, rocketing away at a speed that matched anything Jun had done during his fight with Mousse. The young Maestro gaped as he watched her zip around the room in a long, graceful, wobble-free arc. Grinding to a stop and grinning at him, she continued, "But that's okay. I can just do ten percent skating, ninety percent flying."

"I see." He gave her a long, studying look, then began skating backwards with his hands clasped behind him. "Still, let's take some time to get you used to it. See if you can follow me."

"All right," Megu said agreeably, gliding after him and matching his pace.

"Actually I meant for you to skate backwards t—WAUUGH!!"

He'd been too busy watching his so-called apprentice, studying the rhythm of her movement and trying to see how much of it was physical skill and how much was the work of the Rose Bond. After all, he didn't want to return a bruised or bone-weary medium to Suigin Tou. He'd focused too much on the wrong parts of the picture in front of him, missing the gleam in Megu's eyes and the nearly-suppressed mischievous smirk on her lips.

The giant spiderweb that billowed out of nothingness behind him had likewise gone unnoticed, at least until he tore through the first layer and got caught in the second.

Had the web been spun out of matter, Jun would have escaped immediately, or even sensed it in time to avoid it. But Megu was no Maestro; all she could create was a net of energy overlaid with illusion. Of course, by the same token Jun's unique abilities were useless against the snare.

"Ha!" Megu exclaimed, going from a glide to a blur, and angling her course to pass just beside Jun rather than smashing into him. A harmless tap on his side, and the first point of the 'match' would go to her!

The ice beneath Jun's feet dropped, forming a three-foot-deep depression. Of course, the displaced matter had to go somewhere... and it did, rearing beneath Megu's feet and sending her shooting into the air. For a moment Jun hung unsupported except by the web, but it had only been reinforced against horizontal force. Under the vertical stress it tore and vanished, dropping him just in time for Megu's extended fingers to miss his head by inches as she zipped by him.

"More Maestro powers?" the girl said, staring down at him from her position in midair. So far his ring hadn't shown even the hint of a gleam."I was hoping you'd train me in stuff I can do."

Jun shrugged as the ice slumped back into its original form. "Megu, I am. I could've raised the ice in front of me into a wall for you to smack into. I did it this way so you'd still have a chance to get me—if you were good enough at flying."

She blinked, then offered him a rueful smile and sank back to the ice. "Hm. I see. And... I'm sorry. I guess it just bothers me a little, that you're using something else, something that's just yours, instead of the abilities we both have. The ones I'm trying to develop."

"You have to let that go," Jun said seriously. "If you want this kind of training, anyway. We can forget about sparring and I'll just show you things I've figured out how to make the Rose Bond do, if you'd rather have that. But if you want to practice like this, you don't get to tell me what tactics to use. Just like you couldn't in a real match."

Megu sighed. "You're right, of course. And... and really, it's stupid of me to be jealous. So what if there's something I can't ever reach for myself? I've been given so much already... Right!" She nodded decisively, then drew herself into a reasonable approximation of a ready stance. "Let's go, Jun! I'll take whatever you throw at me!"

"...I can't accept it," Suigin Tou whispered, closing her eyes.

Shinku said nothing in return. The silence stretched until Suigin Tou couldn't bear it any longer. "Just now you said you wanted to see the rosebushes," she said, her voice tight and rasping. "And I also remember you were very impressed when you first saw them, two and a half years ago. Do you know how I made them?"

"I do not," Shinku said carefully.

"They were just sculptures at first. Real roses could never have lived here, so I made something to stand for them." Suigin Tou gave a mirthless laugh. "Better than littering the place with broken dolls, I told myself. Putting my flames into them came later, to make them prettier, and more importantly to help me learn how to place that power into a vessel without harming it.

"I don't even know when it happened," she continued. "I didn't come to that part of my world every time I visited, and even when I did I didn't always look closely at the roses. But one day I realized there were more blooms than there had been—and that the new growth wasn't something that had been done by an intruder. I still don't understand how, but life arose inside those stems and leaves and blossoms. They're the only thing in this place that I can't imagine scrapping and starting over."

"And you think that taking the cactus and caring for it, would be saying you no longer valued those roses so highly?" Shinku ventured.

"Not even close, little sister," Suigin Tou shot back. "I haven't finished explaining yet. Just be patient.

"On Friday you said you were eager to see the changes I had made here. Two parts of me immediately wanted to take the invitation back. One felt that way out of spite, and one wanted to make this place grander and more impressive before anyone—" She grimaced, then forced out the correction, "Before you saw it.

"I'm not sure if that first part will ever be entirely gone, but I'm trying to let it go. It's much smaller now than it once was. The other... just like the roses, I don't know when it grew so large. And so I barely paused for a moment to say goodbye to Megu, once we got back to our home. Five minutes after that, I was here and getting to work."

"Is that so?" Shinku asked. "What changes did you make? When I was walking around, nothing seemed out of place or rough around the edges."

"There were trees," Suigin Tou said heavily. "On the mountain's lower slopes. I didn't put fire inside them, but I crafted them as carefully and beautifully as I could. They were a match for anything Suisei Seki has in that overgrown flowerbox of hers, or at least they would be if they had come alive as well. I was hoping they would, over the next few months. But even without that, they were beautiful enough to take your breath away.

"And the glacier... I set angels on its peaks and ridges, five times the size of the ones sleeping inside that gallery. By the time I finished with them, I was exhausted. I flew to my garden and laid down to sleep, planning to tear holes in the clouds when I woke up. I wanted sunlight to shine down in just the right places to flash onto the angels and blind you with their glory."

Shinku looked up into the clouds overhead. The clouds were thinner than the last time she visited, thin enough that a surprising amount of light leaked through, but there were no holes to be seen. "Is that even possible?" she asked doubtfully. "I have always thought the sky is a true reflection of the state of the dreamer's heart. That it can change, slowly over time or quickly in a period of crisis or triumph, but it can't be changed on a whim."

"Well, add a little more supporting evidence to that theory," Suigin Tou said bitterly. "The clouds overhead were rolling and seething when I arrived. I ignored them. I had far too much to do to waste time with random disorderly elements. I think they got worse as I worked, but I can't even be sure—that's how little attention I paid.

"I woke up to a combination of a blizzard and a thunderstorm."

Shinku drew in her breath with a shaky gasp, as if hearing behind Suigin Tou's bald words an echo of the ferocity and destruction that had lashed this world so recently. "And that is why those angels and trees are gone?"

"Blasted, shivered, shattered, erased. The angels were gone before I woke up, as the storm swept in from all sides at once. The trees came crashing down even as I tried to regain control and protect them."

"But you saved the roses," Shinku returned. "Is that not so?"

"Barely," Suigin Tou growled. "I'd never realized there was a limit to how far I can extend my wings. The most I could do was weave them back and forth eight layers deep over the garden. And the ice and wind and rain pierced all the way through the top six layers. If a bolt of lightning had struck..."

Shinku frowned. "Was there really such danger, then? Not to you personally, but to the element of this world that matters most to you? I would not have expected the storm to do more that sweep away the changes you'd just made." She blinked. "In fact, I would not even have expected that, unless there was a part of you that didn't want them which was larger than the part that did."

Suigin Tou stared at her sister for a moment, before exhaling a weary sigh. "You have no idea what really happened here, do you? What I'm trying to say?"

Shinku hesitated a few moments, before offering a small, uncertain smile. "Perhaps not. Won't you tell me? I will be glad to listen."

"I was hoping I wouldn't have to say it outright. After all, you were the one who told Sakurada that this world was created out of my heart."

After waiting a few moments for a reply that never came, Suigin Tou continued. "I will admit I didn't understand the storm either, at first. It lashed down, pounding everything, and every attempt I made to silence it or push it away did nothing. But... as I tried, as I kept on trying... as the hail and sleet and freezing rain lashed into my wings... I slowly began to realize where it was all coming from.

"It was the confusion and chaos in my heart, from visiting that town of yours."

Shinku continued to say nothing, though it looked to Suigin Tou like her sister might actually be biting her tongue to keep silent. "Do you understand now?" she continued. "Think back to what I said earlier. I pushed all those feelings out of my mind, shoved them out of sight as tightly packed away as I could." She laughed bitterly. "Like anything other than an explosion could have come of such foolishness. I suppose I'm lucky it generated a storm—the mountain could just as easily have become a volcano."

"Surely not," Shinku murmured. "Such a passion, so hot and all-transforming?"

"Don't say it like THAT!" Suigin Tou squawked.

Shinku raised her eyebrows. "Why should I not? I said I didn't believe you were in danger of such an... eruption."

"You've also been known to lie through your teeth," Suigin Tou shot back.

Her sister winced. "Yes, but it's been two hundred years since I did about anything important. And when I do these days, it's usually in the hope that it will help an important truth come out."

"And that works, does it?"

"Suigin Tou, do you really want to derail our conversation and turn it into a series of accusations against me? Weren't we discussing more important things?"

The First Doll sighed and relented. "I suppose so. Anyway, once I recognized the storm for what it was, I was able to take control. I couldn't stop it, and at that point I didn't even want to. Instead, I poured out all the negativity I could find inside myself, dredged up every scrap of confusion and pain and doubt and released them as five hours of freezing rain onto the glacier. I finished only an hour before you arrived."

"I will admit, several times now you've seemed less volatile than I would have expected," Shinku said cautiously. "Was it really so effective, redefining and disposing of those feelings in such a manner? I never realized our worlds could be used like that."

Suigin Tou was quiet for a long moment, then admitted, "I think this was more than just a natural quality of my field. Awhile back I encountered a human whose songs drew hidden pain up and out of the listener's heart. I think I managed to duplicate a little of her trick." She stared grimly into her sister's eyes. "And so it goes. I keep on learning lessons from humans, learning them more quickly than I even realize I'm taking new things into myself. It... it's frightening, Shinku... because I know I can't stop entirely, and I don't dare push ahead too far too fast..."

"I'll help you if I can, sister," Shinku said gently. "That is why I wanted to talk to you, after all."

The First Doll heaved a deep sigh. "And that means discussing Nerima, I take it?"

"Specifically, a certain thing that happens each time you show your face there."

"You mean, how people always challenge me to fight?" Suigin Tou said hopefully. "Humans who shouldn't have a prayer of standing against me, but somehow seemed to have tricked reality into looking the other way?"

Shinku stared flatly back at her sister, then held up one hand. A stream of red petals darted into the air, forming two big hearts over the word 'Cupid'.

"I didn't think so," groaned Suigin Tou, closing her eyes. "Shinku, I'm sure you can find something else to discuss. I don't want to talk about that."

"I'll admit that desire can sometimes bend reality," Shinku answered, "but when it does not, pretending that it will is a recipe for disaster. After all, their hope and warm regard for you exists despite you wishing it would disappear..." She paused, letting Suigin Tou growl at the reminder, then struck like a viper: "Is that not so?"

"That question didn't sound nearly as rhetorical as it should have," Suigin Tou shot back, glaring as fiercely as she could manage. "No!... I mean, yes!... Wait..." her anger was blunted by confusion, as she realized she didn't quite know how to reduce her response to a one-word answer. "I mean, I've certainly never encouraged any of them!"

Shinku sighed. "That is not true, I'm afraid. Whatever your intentions were, your efforts have been anything but discouraging."

Suigin Tou stared wildly at her sister, then dropped to the ground, closed her eyes, held her head in her hands, and emitted a low moan... although Shinku noted that she didn't release the cactus or quit providing energy to it.

She let Suigin Tou have a few moments to recover, then said gently, "Is it so unsettling then, that so many young men in Nerima would call you desirable?"

"What do you think?" Suigin Tou fired back. "I can't even count how many are clamoring for me... and it only took one human calling for you to abandon Father's will forever."

Jun grinned. "I'll hold you to that," he said.

Megu blinked as she recognized an opening for a retort, one that should leave him flat on the ground. She opened her mouth to give it, but the words "Hold me? Are you sure Shinku wouldn't mind?" never came. They were trampled by her cry of surprise as the ice beneath her heaved once again, more powerfully than before. She was flung into the air, as was Jun—the ice below him had surged as well, throwing him on a course at a thirty degree angle to hers.

Concentrating fiercely, Megu took control faster than she had before, turning her passage into true flight and angling to intercept Jun. Just as quickly, a pillar of ice surged from below, catching Jun and flinging him farther away. Its task done, the pillar gave a shivering crack and shattered, most of it falling as shards which vanished smoothly into the ice below, the rest forming a cloud of crystal that obscured Megu's vision. She could dimly see more pillars rearing up and throwing Jun around the room, now to her left, now to her right, now completely invisible as pillar after pillar shattered and added to the obscuring cloud. The speed and chaos of Jun's technique were more than Megu could handle; she hung motionless in the air, too shocked to manage any kind of adjustment or recovery.

A feather-light touch on her forehead signified Jun had scored the first point of the match. Megu was so disoriented that it barely registered. Jun landed another one fifteen seconds later, to which she managed an awkward counterattack that came nowhere close to hitting. Two more touches, and her irritation rose high enough to overwhelm her confusion.

"HYAA!" Megu shouted, summoning power into the image of billowing white wings she'd used once before in Nerima. This time, though, the appendages were more than just an illusion to excuse her hovering. Now they were brilliantly, blindingly bright—shedding light enough to equal the flare bomb Mousse had used two days past.

"Waugh!" One last crash of ice shook the room.

Megu lowered the arm that had shielded her face and opened her eyes. The air was still thick with ice crystals, but it was clearing quickly now. Squinting through the fading haze, Megu made out Jun's form, at the base of the broken pillar that had failed to catch him. He was groaning, rubbing his head with one hand and his eyes with the other. His glasses lay on the ice beside him. Megu couldn't tell if they'd been knocked away in the collision or set there by Jun to let him nurse his dazzled eyes, and she winced as she realized that if he had run face-first into the ice, they could have shattered and blinded him for good.

Unless being a Maestro was enough to fix that too, she reminded herself. From the reading she'd done, it seemed likely that she was worrying over nothing. After all, Enju's powers were presumably how he'd made himself into a near-clone of Rozen.

Jun opened his eyes and picked up his glasses. "I really need to add a flare filter to these," he groaned, then slid them back onto his face and stood up. "Knew I shouldn't have spent the whole day yesterday letting Shinku comfort me after my loss."

"Well, if you tell her how you lost to me, that should earn you another day of comfort," Megu said with a cheeky grin, trying out the venerable Nerima tactic of taunting your opponent to knock him off-balance.

"Lost?" he echoed, rolling his eyes. "I make the score five-to-one so far."

"Actually I think it's four-to-one," she corrected.

Jun offered his own grin. "You sure about that?"

"Well, no. That attack was so tumultuous I guess I could have missed one touch," she admitted, annoyed both at that fact and the itch that had sprung up between her shoulder blades. Reaching around to fix that second thing, her fingers encountered something unexpected—a solid object floating in midair. She whirled to face it, finding what looked like a dagger without a point or sharp edge and formed entirely of crimson petals.

"Situational awareness," Jun spoke from the ice below her. "I won't pull any more tricks like that today, but I wanted to do it just once. Because knowing what's going on all around you is critical in a real fight."

"Hm," she said absently, turning the implement over and over in her hands. "So we can even do this with the Rose Bond? You can summon Shinku's petals? Could I call up Suigin Tou's feathers, I wonder?"

"No, it's not like that," he answered. "I didn't summon them out of nowhere, like Shinku does. Those petals are from a supply she gave me yesterday."

"Oh." Megu sank to the ice and began to skate idly around in a long looping figure-eight, most of her attention still fixed on the petal construct. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"... I don't really know how to put it," she admitted. "It's just... as I watched you fight Mousse, there were so many questions I had. Why did you fight the way you did? Why did he? Shinku eventually explained about Mousse, but I still don't understand so much about your tactics. In fact, it's even worse now."

Jun blinked. "Worse? Why?"

"Because now I know what you could have done with the rink, using just your Maestro powers." Megu scraped up a tiny, wry smile. "I'm guessing it wouldn't even have taken much power, since you said you weren't going to do anything that would keep Shinku from having most of your strength available."

"Yeah, but didn't she tell you about Icebox house rules? Messing up the rink means you lose automatically."

She gestured at the surface of the ice, pristine and unmarred even after Jun's frozen blitzkrieg. "So what? It's not messed up at all."

"Not now. But fixing it afterward doesn't count. If I'd done that on Friday, I'd have lost as soon as the first throwing-arm rose an inch higher than the rest of the ice."

"Oh." Megu's smile widened. "So really, I won today after all."

Jun gave her a flat stare. "So we're finished now? Through for the day?"

She winced. "Five-to-one it is." Her outfit lacked any convenient pockets and her handbag was sitting on the carpet forty feet away, so she slipped the rose construct into her left hair-braid for safe keeping. "But I have no intention of leaving it there, sensei!"

"That's more like it," he said with a smile, kicking off into a fast glide that matched her own increasing pace.

"Obviously I didn't think to borrow any feathers from Suigin Tou," Megu said, as shadows curled around her right hand, forming a mass of transparent black pinions. "But can we say I did, for the purpose of this practice?"

"Yeah, but we can do better than that." Jun slid to a halt and raised his hand, summoning a flurry of rose petals. Even as Megu watched, they fused, elongated, and darkened into a reasonable facsimile of Suigin Tou's feathers. "How many do you want?"

Once again Megu considered the shortcomings of her garments. 'I really need to learn how to store things in subspace or an N-field or wherever it is. For now, though...' "Could you give me thirty... as well as some pockets to hold them in?"

One exercise of Maestro powers later, Megu's clothes were capable of storing the feathers Jun provided. She gave him a bow of thanks, then zipped away in a fast curving arc that would have seen her circling him had he not moved as well.

They danced around each other for a minute or so, eyeing one another warily but neither making the first move. Gradually Megu increased her pace and decreased her contact with the ice, until her clothes rippled and cracked with her speed and her skates had nothing to do with her staying upright.

Rather than match her speed, Jun had slowed down. He wasn't sure how his apprentice's flight technique worked, and maybe it wasn't even possible for her to slip and break her fool neck... but it wasn't something he wanted to leave to chance. Keeping one normal patch of ice beneath his skates while rendering the rest soft and bouncy was the most challenging stretch of his powers he'd had in some time, and it reduced his speed to little more than a walk. Megu was able to circle him with ease.

'This is getting ridiculous,' he thought as she sped even farther up. 'I shouldn't let her set a pace like this.' He waited a few moments more, until Megu's path curved away from the walls and toward the center of the rink. Then it was Megu's turn to crash into a massive spiderweb, although this one was soft, billowy, and formed of countless rose petals.

"AAUGH!" Getting caught by Jun's snare heartbeats before she could launch her own attack was disconcerting, to say the least. However, memories of her earlier failure galvanized Megu. With a surge of power she broke the web before Jun could move in to score against her. She scattered crimson petals everywhere, mixed with a thousand illusionary black feathers; the petals sank to the ice while the shadows continued to multiply, spreading with nearly the speed of Mousse's Flight of the Night Hawk to obscure the entire rink. Megu took a few seconds to recover from the large expenditure of energy, then rose silently into the air. She didn't believe Jun could fly, and so it shouldn't be too hard to locate him by the sound of his skates.

Unfortunately, she'd taken too long. The petals had naturally fallen in a configuration that encircled Megu's position... and now under Jun's command they rose gently into the air and began swirling around. Most of them came nowhere near hitting her, but there were plenty that brushed against her.

That was all Jun needed. The furious scrape of his skates across the ice reached Megu's ears, seemingly only an instant before the first poke landed in her side. As fast as she could, she pulled and threw one of her feathers, putting enough force into it that it would sting if it hit. As far as she was concerned, until Jun started doing that with his rose petals their brushes against her didn't count as points.

Jun's next strike landed a heartbeat later, under her shoulder on the opposite side of her, making Megu realize she'd been too slow to connect with her counter. She gritted her teeth and threw twenty feathers into motion, swirling around her in concentric circles at five different heights. This time she caught Jun off guard. A startled grunt reached her ears simultaneous with the thud of feathers against flesh, and she felt the breeze of a strike that missed her hip by a hairsbreadth. Capitalizing on Jun's moment of unbalance, she darted up and away at full speed. She stopped a few seconds later before she could run into the wall or ceiling, but with enough distance between them to hopefully give her some options.

As she frantically planned her next move, a rose petal brushed her. Megu swallowed a groan of indignation and moved again. Thankfully the petal had come straight from Jun's last position, directly in front of her; the area behind her and to one side should still be clear. She darted fifteen feet in that direction and focused on the feathers that were shielding her. They pulled out of their five rings of four and queued up into one line of twenty, positioned in the air below Megu's feet. Another burst of power and the makeshift rod was spinning like a propeller, generating a wind strong enough to scatter the rose petals she could feel creeping forward. Riding on the wind were her remaining feathers, spread like a net that she hoped would trap her sensei and earn at least a couple more points for her.

The firm poke of Jun's finger into the back of her neck shattered her concentration and her hopes. The shadows fled the room, as if chased out by Megu's wail at the unfairness of it all. "HOW?!" she demanded, spinning to face him. Rather than flying, he was standing on raised stilts of ice. "How did you get there so fast? How could you possibly have known that well where I was? You didn't keep a connection to the feathers you gave me, did you?!"

"No, but..." To Jun's credit, he looked a bit abashed as he reached out and plucked the crimson petal-dagger out of her hair. "I guess you forgot about this, huh?"

Megu stared, glared, then closed her eyes and sighed. "No, I didn't forget. In fact, I was planning to use all thirty of my feathers, then hit you with that when you thought I was out of throwing weapons."

"That's not a bad idea," Jun said encouragingly. "But it's not likely to do you much good against an experienced fighter. Anybody who's worth your time to challenge will already know you can throw energy blasts." When Megu blinked and stared at him in obvious puzzlement, he smiled and continued, "That story of you against Happosai spread through the whole district in less than a week."

"You know, I completely forgot about that. The story spread so far, so fast? Why was everybody interested?"

"Are you kidding? I guess you haven't been here long enough to understand. But managing to get Happosai or Cologne impressed with you, the first time they meet you—that marks you as someone to watch. Even as you are now, with less than an hour of fighting experience, you're far enough along that nobody in the bottom level of skill should bother to challenge you. You're already out of their league."

"Really? I'm glad!" Megu said, smiling broadly. "MISANDRY MISSILE!"

Jun never would be certain which caught him more off-guard: Megu's launching the attack in the middle of their conversation, or the technique's name. In any case he was caught completely flat-footed, smashed to the rink below by an attack that worked much better on him than it had on Happosai.

Megu sank graciously to the ice and offered him a hand up. "I was hoping for more than three points, but I guess that will have to do. I'm running low on energy."

Groaning, and with more than a little trepidation, he accepted the aid. " 'Misandry Missile'?" he echoed disbelievingly.

"It passes harmlessly through females but impacts with full force on males. Well, males who aren't whatever that Happosai thing is."

"Hm," Jun said, a vaguely worried look on his face.

"Is something wrong?" she asked, feeling her own sudden pang of worry. "Should I not use an attack like that? Would it scare men away, thinking I really was a misandrist?" It had been uncomfortable when several guys at once began flirting with her on her first trip to Nerima, and even a little scary when several more appeared and joined in. But she wanted to take things slow in that arena, not destroy those opportunities entirely!

"No, it's not that," he hastened to assure her. "Actually... I was just thinking about how well you're already doing, and wondering whether it'll even be a year before I have to worry about my own student challenging me."

Megu smiled brilliantly. "Really? Well, remember, just because you're my sensei doesn't mean you have to train me for free. You can ask for things from me in return."

He gave her an odd look, as if he couldn't decide whether that remark had been flirtatious. Which, Megu decided on balance, was probably just as well. She wasn't sure herself.

"I'll keep that mind," Jun said. "So, you're low enough on energy that you don't want to practice any more. Do you want to sit down in one of the lounges and talk? I'm sure you've got more questions."

Megu agreed enthusiastically, and the passage of a few minutes found them sitting in relative privacy. Their table was one of ten in an observation deck that overlooked one of the smaller challenge rinks, but as no-one was using it they had the deck to themselves. The bright glow Megu had felt on hearing Jun's praise of her skills and potential was still there, though it had died down enough for her to think seriously about other things.

"So tell me, Jun," she started. "How long did it take you to get pulled into the Nerima way of life? I know we didn't really get close to each other, while you were teaching me how to strengthen myself. But based on what I saw then, I wouldn't have expected you to be such a fighter now."

"It took a lot longer for me than for you," Jun said with a slight grin. "And honestly, Megu? I'm not as far into it as it probably seems."

Megu gave him a doubtful stare. "Two days ago you were fighting a rematch with Mousse, one of the top twenty young-adult fighters in Nerima. And it was a rematch because you won the first fight."

He shrugged. "True, but I won it with one sneaky hit, using powers I was probably born with."

" 'Probably'?"

"Well, yeah. I've never in my life fit in with normal people. I was always interested in crafts, sewing, and things like that. I made a stuffed toy for my sister when I was only five years old. But... I don't know how I became a Maestro. Was I born to be one, like Shinku thinks? Why? What does it all mean?"

Megu stared into her teacher's eyes. He wasn't in anguish over these questions; really, she wasn't even sure it would be accurate to use the word 'distress'. But it was clear that the questions were important to him. She didn't have any answers to give, so she did what she could—leaning forward and squeezing his hand. "You'll figure it out," she said encouragingly as she drew back. "And you aren't trying to do it all on your own. Think how fortunate you've already been! You could have been born in Africa or Australia or something, and never met any of the Rozen Maidens. You would have still been who you are, but without even a word to put to your nature."

"Believe me, you don't have to tell me how lucky I am to have met Shinku," Jun said fervently. "And everyone else too, of course."

"Even Suigin Tou?"

He took a moment to answer, but when he did he managed a tiny smile to go with his nod. "Yes. Even Suigin Tou."

"Were you thinking, 'that which does not kill me makes me stronger'?" Megu asked shrewdly.

"Er... if I was, wouldn't it be smarter not to say that to her medium's face?"

"I suppose we can leave it like that," she said. 'I bet it won't take much longer to master this technique, of knowing things without being told. Ha, I wonder if right now Natsume is telling Uryu that she didn't stop at the kiss after all, that he really is going to be a father.'

For the fifth time in five minutes, Uryu squinted through the cloud of snowflakes that should have been blinding and located his target without difficulty. He knew he hadn't gotten good enough for this level of success, so the issue must be on Natsume's side. Her aura wasn't matching the snow screen nearly as well as it had at first. A quick dash through the snow brought him close enough to see her face, and caught her enough by surprise that he had one instant to see her true, unguarded state. "Ah... Natsume?" he asked tentatively. "Is something wrong? You look... anxious."

"I... suppose I am." The young woman took a deep breath. "There's something I need to tell you. Something about Friday. I hope... hope it will be good news, a good surprise... hope you won't be angry..."

Sweat prickled Uryu's brow as he thought back to his conversation with Megu. "R- Really? A surprise from Friday?" he asked. Swallowing and forcing a ghastly grin that did absolutely nothing to reassure Natsume, he croaked out, "Let's hear it!"

She closed her eyes and stood trembling for long moments, obviously screwing her courage to the sticking place... and then, in one convulsive movement, whipped an object out of storage.

He blinked, staring at it. "What...?"

"I hope this isn't presumptious!" she said desperately, eyes still closed, hands clenched tight around the superbly-crafted longbow. "I know your family makes their own weapons! But I wanted to replace the one I broke, so I purchased the best I could find. Even... even if you don't wish to use it in battle, please accept it as a keepsake... a token of affec—MMPH!"

If Uryu could have laughed in relief and kissed her at the same time, he would have. As it was, he settled for the more satisfying course.

'Now, if I were really good, I could predict whether she's having a boy or a girl,' Megu thought.

Jun cleared his throat. "So... earlier you said you had questions about why I fought Mousse like I did."

"Yes. You won your first battle against him effortlessly, by using your Maestro powers to wrap him in a cage of stuff. From what I understand, almost everything that he did in the rematch was designed to not give you that opening again. And I can certainly understand how he must have felt the first time, after giving you such an easy victory."

"I haven't heard a question yet."

"I was setting it up. Here it is: today you showed me with Shinku's petals that you can store things in subspace too—so why didn't you just bring your own set of weapons and tie him up again? Why did you give him, give everyone that dramatic, hard-fought battle?" She coughed demurely, looking off to the side. "I think someone might not have been entirely honest, about not being caught up in the Nerima way of life."

"I didn't say I wasn't caught up in it," he noted. "Just that I wasn't as much as you probably thought."

"Hmm. I see."

"Actually, I don't think you do," Jun said quietly. "There's a difference between using my opponent's own weapons to do something like that, and bringing my own. To me, it's a big difference, but that's probably not true for most people."

"Well, I can only speak for myself," Megu admitted, "but it seems like a very small difference to me. In fact, the only real difference between them that I can see, is that by sticking to the first one you're giving yourself something of a handicap." She flashed him a teasing grin. "You know, something that would make the match more challenging and more intense. As someone told me on my first visit here, 'the harder the fight, the more satisfying it is when you win—and the less disappointing it is if you lose'."

"Definitely less than a year before she'll be challenging me," Jun muttered under his breath.


Louder, he said, "Megu, that's not it. Not for me, anyway. The reason I take other people's weapons away and don't use my own... it doesn't have anything to do with wanting more of a challenge or a thrill. It comes from things that happened long before I heard of Nerima... in fact, even before you met Suigin Tou."

She blinked. "That far back? You weren't a fighter at all then, were you?"

"Not this kind of fighter," he corrected. "But I had my own battles, and for the most part I did win them.

"But they weren't the kind of challenges that people around here live for. I had to learn to stop being afraid of failing, of letting other people close to me or having them depend on me. Because Shinku, Hina Ichigo, Suisei Seki... they needed me, in different ways and for different things. I couldn't see it at first, which was probably just as well—it would've scared me to death and I would've shoved them all away just like I had the 'real' world."

"That almost sounds like Suigin Tou, a little," Megu interjected. "Because it took her some time to accept how much I needed her, and to care back enough to do what it took to help me. I think you've got more in common with her than you realize, Jun."

"Maybe. And Suigin Tou's a perfect example of where I'm going with this." Jun took a deep breath. "There are so many things about Rozen I still don't understand. Why did he make his dolls the way he did? Why did he tell them to fight each other, to kill each other, in order to see him again? Why did he hurt them so much? Shinku... Sousei Seki... Suigin Tou worst of all." He clenched his fists and spoke through gritted teeth. "They're all so different, and each one is so beautiful in her own way... there's so many different things they could be, so much of life they could experience—but it's like he gave that with one hand and snatched it away with the other, by telling them to just be weapons."

"I never thought of it in those terms," Megu admitted. "Don't you think it's a little harsh? After all, he told them eventually that it wasn't true."

Jun shook his head. "He lied to them when he made them, let it stand for hundreds of years, and only changed his tune after someone else interfered and ruined everything. If anything, Megu, I'm not being harsh enough. Based on everything we can see, he's a damned poor excuse for a father." He let the sentence hang there in the air for a few moments, then added, "Even now I'm not sure if the reason he told them about other ways to Alice was because of Enju... or me."

"You?" she asked, giving him a skeptical look. "Weren't you all of fourteen years old then?"

"You weren't there, to see the last fight between Shinku and Bara Suishou." Pain rose up in Jun's gaze, enough that Megu reached out and clasped his hand once more. He gave her the faintest of grateful smiles. "I was. And so was Enju, except we thought he was Rozen. Shinku had Bara Suishou down, and would have killed her. Would have destroyed her for what she'd done, and to please the man she thought was watching.

"But when I asked her to, she stopped. She chose not to kill her last sister." Jun's free hand clamped the table, clenching it hard enough to warp the wooden surface. "And then Bara Suishou took advantage and stuck a crystal dagger through her chest, and threw Shinku aside like she was garbage. And as she... as she... died... she reached out to me. Not 'Rozen'."

After a long moment of silence, Shinku asked plaintively, "Must you really put it like that?"

"What, you'd like me to sugarcoat it?" Suigin Tou spat back. "Were you even listening to what I said just now? To what I... admitted...?"

"Yes, I did, but..." Shinku closed her eyes and exhaled a noisy breath. "I am sorry," she said, sitting carefully down a short distance away from her sister. "I came here to help you, not justify myself."

"Help." Suigin Tou laughed humorlessly and closed her eyes. "What kind of help would that be, I wonder? To melt some snow and heat it even more, dump it over yourself, and remind me that a whole body is just a quick swim away? To tell me it's all right if those unformed thoughts, those moments of longing, keep on growing until theysweep the rest of me aside?"

"None of that. Those choices are yours to make as you will, and I have no intention of pushing or pulling you. All I want to do is tell you some things before you find them out the hard way."

" 'The hard way'?" Suigin Tou echoed in disbelief. "I'd say I'm already experiencing that, thank you very much!"

"I promise you, things could be much worse," Shinku retorted. "As you have said, you cannot even count how many young men are clamoring for your attention and favor, all of them hoping you'll turn your back on Alice to embrace them instead." She watched the full-body shiver which ran from Suigin Tou's hair down to her toes, then said, "You don't imagine all of them are chasing you for the same reason, do you?"

Suigin Tou stared blankly back at her. "Er, yes, I do. Because they..." she swallowed, "...want me. That desire... it's like a flame, burning so bright and fierce... after what happened to me, even the thought of fire ought to push me away, but there's this one stubborn, stupid part that wants to draw near... just like a moth..."

'Such poetic words... honestly, is she trying to come up with good material for a future volume of the manga?' Aloud, Shinku said briskly, "Yes, yes, they pursue you because they desire you. Let me rephrase my question: do you think that desire looks the same for all your admirers? That in all cases it grows from the same roots?"

The First Doll gave her another stare. "I... I don't suppose I ever really thought about it... How would I know anyway?" she asked, grimacing as she supplied an answer to her own question: "Sit down with the more impressive would-be suitors one by one, and have long, intimate chats?"

"There are other ways, other people you could ask for help. Megu, for instance. Did it never cross your mind to have her serve as your intermediary?"

"Yes. I tried, and it failed utterly. That last trip to Nerima was the first time she and I went together. I was certain that with her there, they would ignore me in favor of a more appropriate target."

"I did not mean use her as a decoy, but rather have her hold those conversations. And who are you trying to deceive? I know your understanding of people is not so poor; after seeing what enthusiasm you provoked, you couldn't have thought everyone would forsake you for Megu."

"I'm telling you, I did!"

"I do not believe it. Although, if you told me that part of you hoped it was true, while another part feared it would be and wanted to know for sure... That, I would believe."

"Shinku—! " Suigin Tou growled, her wing rearing up and brandishing the cactus. "The only reason I don't smash this plant over your head, is because it deserves better than that! Not that you do!"

"Come now, you've as good as admitted part of you was pleased at what happened. That Megu's presence didn't make everyone 'wake up' and realize you were not as desirable as they first thought."

"Damn it, I thought you were supposed to tell me things I didn't already know!" Suigin Tou's eyes widened as the impassioned protest slipped out. She fought the impulse to clap her hands over her treacherous lips, then, with somewhat more difficulty, the impulse to bring her other wing around for a quick knockout attempt. 'So help me, if she says oneword...'

Shinku nodded, generously—or prudentlyopting not to explore the ramifications of her sister's statement. "I am, but I'm trying to lead into that gently."

Suigin Tou snorted as loud as anyone had ever heardfrom her. Coincidentally or not, at the same moment a gust of wind blew Shinku's hair into her eyes. "Spit it out, or leave. I don't suppose you've noticed, but so far your little visit has done more harm than good."

"What?" Shinku asked, blinking.

Suigin Tou replied without words, standing and raising one hand to point at the sky. Obediently, Shinku stood as well and looked up, gasping in shockat the clouds overhead. She couldn't tell if they were admitting less light, but they had undoubtedly grown thicker since her last inspection. Worse, here and there they rolled with faint but ominous motion.

The Fifth Doll looked down again, and Suigin Tou flinched at the look on her face. She had seen Shinku register worse shock and pain before, but only twice—once when she crushed her sister's original brooch, and once after she tore Shinku's arm away. Witnessing such emotion now, because Shinku thought she'd hurt her... Her next sarcastic comment withered and died in Suigin Tou's throat.

"I am sorry," Shinku said bitterly, turning away. "I should not have assumed I was so competent, so qualified to talk to you. Please... please forgive me."

The space around her began to twist, as one foot came up for a step that would take her hundreds of feet away. When a hand grasped urgently at her shoulder before she could complete the move, Shinku stumbled and nearly fell flat on her face. Blinking tears away, she turned back to face Suigin Tou. The First Doll wasn't looking at her, but rather staring down and off to the side with her teeth clenched. "Suigin Tou?" Shinku asked.

"Don't," Suigin Tou replied thickly. She swallowed, then said a little more easily, "You picked a fine time to forget things I said earlier."

"I do not understand."

"The earlier turmoil in the sky, in my heart. Yes, I got rid of it, emptied myself of those feelings... but that didn't solve anything. It just gave me some relief. Some time to think without a hundred different emotions bombarding me." Suigin Tou sighed, then admitted, "I can do that again, as many times as I need to... but if I don't work matters out for good and all, I'll never really get better.

"So go ahead. Tell me everything you came to say. Help me... help me deal with these things. Push me at least enough that I'll admit truths to myself, even if I can't say them to you... I don't want answers from you, Shinku, but so far you've been useful to help me define the problems."

"Some of the things I have to say will hurt," Shinku warned.

Suigin Tou grimaced, then shrugged. "Fine. Now sit down. Sit," she repeated, pushing down with the hand that gripped her sister's shoulder. Rolling her eyes, Shinku did as she was instructed. "Good girl," Suigin Tou said as she made her own seat on a nearby rock.

Shinku took a moment to marshal her thoughts, then began. "I have heard stories of two other times you've visited Nerima, and Holie tells me you've sent Mei Mei to gather more information. I don't know how much you have learned about the district, but you must know that power matters very much indeed. Those who have it seek more, testing themselves against one another, always striving to learn and grow. Those who have none stand on the outskirts and look in with envy and longing, sometimes trying to join in, but the divide is so great that they're almost bound to fail."

Those words hit a little too close for Suigin Tou's comfort. Almost without realizing what she was doing she brought up a diversion, a question that had mystified her for some time now. "And yet with such a divide, neither Mei Mei nor I have ever seen a weakling get pushed around. Why is that?"

"There is only one rule that every master and grandmaster enforces, and it is the one that outlaws such actions. If that were allowed, Nerima would collapse in a matter of months," Shinku replied. "I mentioned envy and longing, but people being what they are, there is also resentment, which must be minimized because it cannot be eliminated. Those who never learned what was possible until they were too old to begin effective training, those who would love to be able to leap from ground to rooftop but would never sacrifice the time and pain required... even in Nerima, normal people outnumber the martial artists and other empowereds five hundred to one or more. If they rejected these strangers in their midst, these people so far removed from them, everything we hope for would fail."

" 'We'?" Suigin Tou asked.

"If I didn't agree, do you think I would participate?" Shinku asked. "In any case, you are the Rozen Maiden best suited to understand those people's feelings. Standing on the outside, looking in, wishing to take part but fearing deep in your heart that you'll never be good enough..."

The First Doll gritted her teeth. "Is there a reason you're spelling it out in such excruciating detail?!"

Shinku bowed her head. "Yes. Everyone who cares to learn about us, knows that the contract with a medium is formed and ended at the discretion of the Rozen Maiden. Fully half those boys who importuned you two days ago were ordinary children, or at best martial hobbyists with no real power and no likelihood of changing that... unless..."

Suigin Tou sucked in her breath, her eyes widening and her head giving one tiny, involuntary shake.

"...perhaps, they won the affections of someone who could provide them with a shortcut," Shinku continued remorselessly. "How is Megu doing these days? She's become both powerful and versatile, has she not?"

"...I see," Suigin Tou replied, her voice tight and her eyes closed tighter. "Well then... thank you. I, I don't think it changes anything, though; the ones who have truly unsettled me have always been extraordinary people."

"Yes," Shinku murmured. "Those who know what it is to struggle, to reach for a prize that common sense would say is too far out of reach, who cast caution to the wind and charge ahead with all their might. Those who aren't afraid to give everything in a pursuit which might gain them nothing... because the harder it was to reach and take hold of the prize, the more glory there is in the winning of it. To be the one who succeeds when everyone else fails, and afterward to look at those others and say to them, 'I may not be able to defeat a Saotome, but I've won a contest that matters more than any challenge match!'"

Suigin Tou drew a long, ragged breath that nearly caught in her throat. "I understand," she choked out. "Is there anything else you...?" She couldn't finish the sentence, but the meaning was clear.

"I'm afraid so," Shinku said, grimacing when her sister flinched at the words. Steeling herself and pushing ahead, she continued, "You must know from Mei Mei that several of the high-profile male fighters have more than one woman in their life. By virtue of the Amazons providing a large pool of women not offended by the concept, plus the demographics of power, plus the general desires of men and boys, polygamy is accepted in Nerima. It's still quite rare, though... any man who thinks he can get that just because he wants it, is going to end up slapped silly and dumped like yesterday's garbage... or into yesterday's garbage, more than likely."

"But... what does that have to do with...?"

Shinku sighed. "Well, Suigin Tou, if someone did seduce you... how difficult would it really be for him to pull in Megu as well?"

Suigin Tou flinched so violently that Shinku half wondered if the mountain beneath them had twitched. The First Doll's posture tightened further, her arms crossing over her chest, her knees coming up and her shoulders dropping down as she curled nearly into the fetal position. The wing that did not hold the cactus curved around to hug her body as yet another barrier. The other wing held motionless, and power still flowed through it to sustain the small plant... but Shinku noticed, with growing alarm, that the color of the cactus was fading toward nothing, and the spines were growing almost quickly enough to watch.

"Thank you..." Her sister's voice—cold, controlled, and distant—wrenched Shinku's attention away from the plant. "I should have known. I shouldn't have had to hear it from you. But thank you for not leaving me to discover these things on my own. Thank you for giving me these truths, Shinku."

"Suigin Tou..."

"This... it hurts, but this pain... it's nothing less than I deserve. I should not have let these dreams draw me away from Father's ideal. I should never have listened to them... or at least I should have heard the truth behind their pleasant, comforting, lying words..."

"Suigin Tou!"

"Damn it all, though... why, why does it hurt so much?"



"I'm finished with the bad news. That does not mean I am finished," Shinku said reprovingly. When her sister just sat there and blinked, she added, "Surely you remember how I teased you after watching Hiroto fluster you. Do you think I would have acted like that if he were just out to get what he could from you?"

"I... that is..." Suigin Tou spent a few moments struggling for composure and words. "What, then? Are you going to list good, wholesome, healthy reasons for them to chase me, to counteract the ones you've already given?"

"Yes, exactly," Shinku replied. "Though I should not have to. After all, you must have had at least a few ideas of your own, softer and kinder that the ones I wish I hadn't had to spell out...?"

"Hm. At first I just thought they were masochists and lunatics," the First Doll pronounced.

"You can do better than that, I'm sure," Shinku gently pressed.

"I can... I don't know... can I?" Suigin Tou shot back, her cheeks tinted an undeniable pink. "What I mean is... well... in those earlier visits, I thought I was as strange to them, as they were to me... or at least almost as strange, because people there could have met you... they might have some ideas, but they didn't really know me...

"But that's not true, is it? They, they do know me... a lot more of me than I knew had been revealed. If... well... someone sees that, takes that whole picture in, and, and says they like what they see... what else is there to say? How much closer can you get to specific reasons?"

Shinku smiled, scooted over, and patted her sister on the arm. "Well done. Was that so hard?"

Suigin Tou's face had developed the tiniest hint of its own smile, but at these words it faded. "Yes," she whispered. "Speaking of such things, caring so much about them... it feels like one step closer to turning my back on Father's wish..."

"I cannot help you with that, sister. But I'll warn you—I do not know if that ought to be true or not, but if you believe it is, then true it shall be."

"...I see." Suigin Tou took a deep breath. "Any more bombshells you wish to drop on me? Any more words of great and terrible wisdom?"

"Yes," Shinku said soberly. "There—"

"You know, I really should stop asking questions like that," Suigin Tou commented.

Her sister smiled. "Perhaps you should," she agreed. "But there was one more reason I wished to share. One thought that would warm the hearts and stiffen the sinews of your suitors who are wise enough to grasp it."

"A good one?" Suigin Tou ventured. "You said you were through with the bad news."

"Hmm. Let us say, a commendable one," Shinku temporized. "Though I cannot promise that hearing it will give you peace or reassurance."

Suigin Tou grumbled a few choice phrases in German, then lapsed into silence. She gave her sister a half-expectant, half-hesitant look.

"I think you could guess this one yourself, if I gave you a few nudges," Shinku began. "You have already spoken of many of the pieces. The warmth you feel when someone looks at you with approval and desire... the answering desire which echoes within you, to be loved and cherished... the certain knowledge that you will face a crossroads, that you cannot pursue Father's desire for Alice while still holding out your hand for someone to love you as you are... the yearning for somebody who will come to you, not say you must cross all the distance to him..."

She noticed her sister's eyes narrow, but forged bravely ahead. "Those young men who are wise enough to consider such things, would know why it would be worth almost anything to win your heart. Because if you choose one of them, it means letting of everything you have had and known and lived for. A choice like that... a man ought to be both proud and humbled, to find himself worthy of it. Certainly he would know that he never need fear you changing your mind, or throwing him away later for someone stronger or prettier."

"I'd like to think they should be so confident," Suigin Tou said, her voice nearly inaudible. "But not for that reason. They should believe it from what they already know about me—how I have stood by Megu, and held nothing back that she needed or wanted."

"Yes, there is that as well," Shinku said with a smile.

"But... but those things are completely different, aren't they? Megu, my medium, my friend... caring for her doesn't disqualify me from becoming Alice. What all those humans want... that would show I couldn't hold to my chosen course, that I gave up after fighting so long and hard... why shouldn't they think I would abandon them as well some day?" She shook her head. "You say that it's the wiser suitors who believe this? I, I don't think so, Shinku..."

"You are wrong," Shinku said calmly. "What are you trying to say? That if you do choose to love someone like that, it won't really be out of love for him at all, but as an act of hatred and rebellion toward Father?"

Suigin Tou recoiled like the words had been a slap. "No! Never!"

"Of course not. It will be because your heart waited too long in the cold and the darkness, longing for someone to draw you close and say that as you are now you do not lack anything. That you do not have to become perfect to be worth loving. If Father had said that..." Shinku sighed, then shook her head. "Well, that's simply not the way of things, however much we might wish otherwise."

The air all but sizzled with the force of Suigin Tou's glare. "Do not speak of Father like that!"

"You said that I was to help you see things as they are. And I have earned the right to speak," Shinku retorted, her tone hardening. "When I came to the brink of my own choice, I left Jun and everyone behind. I fled to the dark, empty N-field where Enju and Bara Suisho played out their masquerade, to the room where Jun called and Father answered, and I screamed with everything I had for him to come to me. To say something, anything, to settle things one way or the other. I knew in my heart that I couldn't hold out any longer. My feelings for Jun had grown too strong, and now that I saw a way forward I was going to take it. Unless Father himself came to draw me back to him, I would choose Jun, and life as a human, embrace all these new uncertainties over the ones I'd carried for so long...

"And there was nothing. For twenty-four hours, not a whisper of sound, not a hint of light. It was the very last chance, Suigin Tou... if he had come then and asked me to go with him, to let go of everything else and become Alice, I could... I think I could have said yes. But afterward, my decision was made for good."

She spent a moment in quiet reminiscence, then sighed and continued. "Whoever becomes Alice will meet Father again. That is all he has ever wanted. A few times in the past, he picked us up and restored us, so that his dream could someday be realized—but now that Jun has grown strong enough to repair us, even that does not draw Father out. There is no need to reach down to us, and so he does not. I believe that only one thing might provoke him to show himself again, and that is if it looks like everyone will make the same choice I did. Otherwise..." Shinku shook her head. "We are on our own."

Suigin Tou wasn't quite sure where the anger was. Surely there ought to be some, on hearing such a speech from her wayward sister... but all she could feel was a crushing weight of fear and grief. In a voice that was barely a whisper, she asked, "And do you still claim that you love Father?"

Despite the low volume, Shinku heard. All severity faded from her face, leaving behind gentleness and a sorrow that easily matched Suigin Tou's. "I do," she said. "Can you only love him if you imagine that he is perfect?"

"I never knew that," Megu breathed. "The manga doesn't go into that much detail. And Suigin Tou couldn't tell me, because she wasn't there to see." She thought about this for a moment, then added, "Which is probably just as well."

"No kidding," he muttered.

"Still, I think you might be a little more compassionate toward Rozen," she continued. "After all... you won, didn't you?"


"It's just like you told me. Shinku chose you and the new life you have together, found someone other than him to love. Rozen created seven incredible girls... but one of them has already turned her back on the very thing she was made for, and I don't think she'll be the last."

Jun stared bug-eyed at her. "You can't mean Suigin Tou is thinking that way now?!"

"No," Megu admitted. For a moment she was quiet, struggling with what to say next... then, stiffening her spine and summoning up courage, she said, "Not yet. But I can hope... hope that might change..."

"I'll ask Shinku what she thinks, after she gets back from spending today with her," Jun promised. "And Megu? I know you wouldn't want me to repeat what you said just now to Suigin Tou." She gave an involuntary nod. "I won't, and I'll tell you something you shouldn't repeat either: you're not the only one who feels that way. Shinku does too—I'm sure of it."

"Thank you, Jun," she said.

"You're welcome. So... if you didn't mean Suigin Tou, then who were you...?"

"Suisei Seki and Kanaria. I can't see them becoming Alice either. At least, not unless some other big change happens in their lives, to knock them onto a new course." Megu thought for a moment, the added, "Or unless the manga I read yesterday was making lots of stuff up."

"Oh, yeah. The manga," he said with a sigh. "No, everything that's in there is accurate."

'He sounded awfully unenthusiastic.' But Megu supposed she couldn't blame him. If her first kiss had been captured for the world to see on a glorious two-page spread, full-color in a manga that was everwhere else black-and-white, that would probably bother her too. 'Come to think of it... I'm a character in there as well, even if I'm only in the last few volumes. That very thing could happen to me!'

"Megu?" Jun asked. "Are you okay?"

"I was just thinking that once I do start dating, I need to make sure Suigin Tou never sends Mei Mei along to watch out for me."

"Good luck with that," he said sourly. "Shinku had to threaten Holie with water from the Spring of Drowned Sloth to get unchaperoned time with me."

Megu brightened. "Now there's a thought."

Silence fell over the table, and stretched for a little while.

"So—" Megu began.

"Then—" Jun said at the same time.

They stumbled to a halt, Jun chuckling sheepishly and Megu giving him a rueful smile. "After you," he said.

"Of course! Ladies first, after all. Ah..."

"You forgot what you were going to say, didn't you."

"Um... oh! Of course not! I was going to get back to what you were saying, concerning your feelings about Rozen and weapons and why you fight like you do. I'm still not totally clear on that."

"Well, that's probably not going to change," Jun warned. "I'm not totally clear on it, even though Shinku and I have talked several times."

Megu sat silently, giving him an expectant look and waiting for him to continue.

"As best I can put it into words, it's about respect," he said quietly. He held his hands up before him, rotating them so that he stared first at the backs, then at the palms. "The very first day I met Shinku, I learned that plenty of other dolls had life. The ones that were made with particular care, great skill or great kindness... if a Rozen Maiden gave them just a tiny nudge, they would move and act. Even if they hadn't wanted to.

"I could... I could reach out and take hold of everything this table is, and the chairs we're sitting on, carpet from the floor under us, wood and plaster and electrical wiring from the walls. I could grab them all and mold them together into a statue, and if I put every bit of care and focus and desire I could into it, after I was done there'd be a spirit living inside. Maybe sleeping, maybe awake and even able to move. I don't know if I'm skilled enough do that even when I'm not inspired, but I do know that I can make something good enough for some kind of life to settle there. I wouldn't have put that life there, but I'd have power over it anyway, since I made the vessel it lives in.

"It's a frightening responsibility, Megu." He clenched one hand, the blood fleeing his knuckles under the pressure. "Sometimes, in the dark hours of the morning, I think about the anger I feel toward Rozen. And I wonder if the biggest reason for it is that anything he did wrong, I could too someday."

"I wouldn't want such a responsibility," she agreed. Then, forcing a grin, she added, "You should have told me this earlier! Then I wouldn't have felt jealous at all, when you were using your Maestro powers instead of the Rose Bond in our spar."

The joke failed to appreciably lighten her sensei's mood. "Does it make sense to you, why I did that? Why I fight using these powers, even though abusing them scares me?"

"I can guess," Megu said gently. "I remember how you talked on Friday, about that dragon you brought in and then set free. You can't not use your Maestro powers at all, can you? And since that's true, since you have to use them, you want to understand them... and the only way you can learn is by trying." She watched as Jun nodded in agreement, then added, "Unless Rozen were to appear and share what he knew. That would help, I'm sure."

The nodding stopped abruptly. All of a sudden, Jun looked as stunned as if she'd blasted him with another Misandry Missile. "Jun?" she asked in concern.

"I... Megu, I think I just realized another of the reasons why I get angry these days when I think of him," Jun said, still looking a bit blindsided.

"Oh? I would say 'happy to help', but I'm not sure this will help you any," Megu confessed.

"Maybe not. Not unless Rozen was watching right now and hearing that made him put in another appearance," her sensei half-joked.

Silence stretched in the wake of that statement, increasingly tense as the moments slipped past...

The tension was finally broken as Jun sighed, and continued, "So, anyway. As a Maestro, I set some rules for myself. If something's got an intended purpose, I can make it better at that, or change it to do it a different way. I won't make things into weapons, or even buy weapons that other people have made. The most I'll do is let Shinku convince me to accept a stash of her petals."

As he spoke, his voice gained in power and determination. "And in that moment when I put the last touches on a design that's come into my mind out of I-don't-know-where, when the body is complete and I feel the life well up within it, when I could put hooks and chains into it so it believes what I want and hears only my voice... that, I will never, ever do!"

"Wow..." Megu breathed, staring starry-eyed at him.

'Uh-oh. She's looking at me just like Noriko did, the day before she announced that she wasn't going to let Shinku discourage her from going after me too.' Jun broke out into a cold sweat. He and Shinku had resolved that situation swiftly (if a bit brutally), but shattering a schoolgirl crush was a lot simpler when the girl didn't have a history like Megu or a supporter like Suigin Tou. 'Crap! Being three years younger than her ought to have meant I was safe! I never should have forced myself to grow this tall! Okay, quick, think of something to say so that I don't seem so attractive.'

"Enough about me!" Jun said, emphatically enough to make Megu jump in her seat. "I want to hear about you, how you're adjusting and how you and Suigin Tou are doing these days." As if dimly sensing that this might not have accomplished its intended purpose, he added, "Is there anything Shinku and I can do to help with that?"

"Maybe..." Megu said, looking at him with a consideration that spiked Jun's nervousness higher. "I'll get back to you on that, all right?"

"Sure!" he replied, wiping sweat off his brow. "No point in rushing into things!"

"Yes," she murmured, looking past him and off into the distance, her eyes losing focus. Then she gave her head a brisk shake, and met his gaze again. "I don't need to charge as fast and fiercely as I can. Sometimes I feel like doing just that, and maybe it's a good thing every once in a while. But I don't have to race blindly forward for fear of never getting anywhere if I don't. I am changing now, after so long when I didn't. And... I like that very, very much."

Jun said nothing, just gave her an encouraging smile. Megu paused for thought for a few moments, then continued. "You asked how both Suigin Tou and I were doing. And what I just said... it's one more thing that links her and me, that is the same in some ways and different in others. Like I said, I'm happy to see how I'm growing, moving, becoming something new. And when I see the same thing in Suigin Tou..."

"Has she really changed that much?" he wanted to know.

"As much as me?" Megu shook her head. "No. And the ways she has, and continues to do, aren't the same as me. At least not completely. But they're similar in many ways. And... and although I know she's not nearly as comfortable as I am with all this, I can say for sure that what I see in her is a good thing. Just as good as what I see in my own life. And sometimes, when I really stop and think about it all... when I think about how I could never have been who I am today without her, and then turn that around and think that maybe without me, she couldn't have changed like this either..."

She fell silent, once again looking past him. She wasn't sure how much time passed before she woke out of the reverie, to find Jun regarding her with a curious expression. There was a warmth there that she'd never seen him direct toward her, which brought a tint of pink to her cheeks. "Um... Jun? What are you thinking about now?" she asked.

"Just remembering something. A good memory with my sister, Nori. You reminded me of her, just now."

Megu blinked. "Your sister? Well, I suppose she is the same age as me, but other than that... what's the resemblance?"

Jun gave her another warm smile, then turned his attention to the tabletop. He gently slid one hand over a patch in front of him, causing the wood to swell into a raised likeness that Megu recognized as her own face. But the expression on the face... the look of wonder, of happiness, of joy... She had certainly never seen that when she looked into a mirror!

"That's what you looked like, just now," he said. "That's what I saw, when you thought about how you were able to help someone who was important to you. It's the same thing I saw in Nori's dream once, when Suisei Seki dragged me into it to show me exactly that, without any barriers—what Nori felt to know that I'd finally beaten all the pain and fear and despair, and that she'd helped me do it. Dream-Nori had that same look of joy."

"Yes, that is how I feel," Megu said softly. "Although..." as she returned to a normal tone of voice, "now you've gotten me curious. You say Suisei Seki 'dragged' you there?"

"Yeah, she waited until Nori and I were both asleep, and did it without asking either of us."

"Why did she do that?"

Jun shrugged. "Honestly, I never got a straight answer out of her. She and Shinku were squabbling at the time—or rather, Suisei Seki kept starting things only to have Shinku put her in her place. I think she was trying to get me to pay more attention to Nori so I'd be paying less to Shinku, or something like that."

"That little Gardener can be devious when she wants to be," Megu agreed. "Or at least, that's what I saw as I read through the manga."

This time, Jun managed a rueful grin. "And like I said, the stuff in there is accurate."

"I think... I think I'd like to meet her," she continued thoughtfully. "Her, and her twin, and Hina Ichigo too. And I'd like to spend more time with Shinku, get to know her better than the glimpses I was able to see on Friday. If things go well today between her and Suigin Tou, that should be all right, shouldn't it?"

"I don't see why not," Jun answered. "You left out Kanaria, though. Why was that?" Then he grinned. "Was it just your way of keeping up with the running gag about everyone forgetting her name? I still don't know how Holie and Mei Mei managed to sneak that into the manga right under her nose."

Megu giggled. "That is a good question, isn't it? But I didn't mention her because we already met. She's a little too... eccentric... for me to want to spend time around her when I don't have plenty of energy to sustain me."

"Or when you don't have Suigin Tou with you to keep her in line."

"Yes, exactly," she said with a smile. "My angel watches out for me and does things to help me... and when I see the chance, I do the same for her..."

Something about her thoughtful tone of voice and the speculative look in her eyes sent another prickle down Jun's back. "Megu... is there something you're thinking about doing for her now?" 'And do I really want to ask?'

"I think so... not so much that I can do something, more that I can ask you to do something for her."

"And what would that be?"

Megu took a deep breath, and committed herself. "Pursue her like those other boys are. Flirt with her, draw her toward you and away from Rozen and the ending of Alice. You're a Maestro too, and you've already taken Shinku for yourself—if anyone can succeed at this, you can!"

She paused and studied him, taking in the effect of her words. His face was as pale as hers had been in her hospital days. His eyes were wide enough that she thought she could glimpse a hint of white outside the rims of his glasses. His hands were once again clenching the table hard enough to twist the wood beneath them. Not too promising a response, Megu realized, but at least it wasn't anger and instant refusal.

After a long, long moment of silence, Jun got his voice working again. "Kakizaki-san..." Another pause, as he sought for more words.

'Not 'Megu' anymore?' Another not-so-good sign, she realized, and reached deeper into herself for resolve.

After considering and discarding three approaches, he settled for, "How can you possibly think that's a good idea?!"

"How can I not?" she fired back with spirit, pulling a volume of the Rozen Maiden manga out of her bag and slapping it down onto the table. "I've read all of these, and you confirmed that everything in them happened like they said! I know there's plenty that isn't in there, and maybe if I knew some of those things I would think differently. If that's true, tell me what those things are—but don't expect me to change my mind without some kind of reason!"

"Me being engaged to Shinku isn't a reason?! Just because we haven't married yet, doesn't mean that it's a question of 'if'! Only 'when'!"

"Okay, I see where I should have been clearer," she said, relaxing and offering Jun a contrite look. "I should have agreed with what you said earlier, and stated that this was something you and Shinku could do."

Jun massaged his temples for a moment. "So now you're asking Shinku and me to chase her together? Megu... no. Just... no."

" 'No' is right," she riposted. "That wasn't what I was asking! I want you to chase her, and Shinku to let you!"

"Okay, you're just asking for a hurricane, not a tsunami." Jun took a few deep breaths, then said, "Putting aside the question of why Shinku would agree to such a thing... why would you ask me, of all people? Just because I'm a Maestro?"

Megu blinked. 'That last question sounded a little... disappointed? But I can't blame him, if he thinks I'm only thinking about that.' Aloud, she said, "No. That's not the reason, just a part of it. Just like being a Maestro is only a part of you."

Seeing Jun was waiting for her to continue, she took a deep breath and said, "Let me tell you what I think. I think that if you did join in the chase, it would fluster her more than everyone else combined. You are a Maestro too, but unlike Enju you'd be disgusted at the idea of breaking her father's works to prove you'd surpassed him. No, what you do is about as far from breaking and tearing down as you can possibly get.

"You've already seduced one Rozen Maiden away from the goal of Alice for good and for all—the very one of her sisters that Suigin Tou has always tried to surpass! What do you think it would say to her, to see you go from being satisfied with just Shinku to saying you wanted, needed her too? Don't you think there'd be a part of her who wanted to say yes just because of that? Because to her, it would be an important victory over Shinku... in a fight that wasn't a shadow of the Alice Game?"

"How is it a victory if I'm only chasing after her because Shinku said it was okay?"

"Well, obviously we wouldn't let Suigin Tou know about that part. In fact, if Shinku could pretend to be upset about you wanting Suigin Tou as well, I think that would help."

"So we've got outright lies to go along with manipulation. That's a great foundation you're trying to lay for your angel's future," Jun said sarcastically.

Megu flinched back, then balled her fists and spoke angrily. "Jun, I'm trying my best here! If I'm wrong tell me so, but please try to do it a little more gently!"

"Even if that's not as effective?" he shot back. "If you want to be a part of Nerima, you'd better prepare yourself for much harsher lessons than this."

The girl fumed quietly for a few moments, then forced away the worst of her frustration with a sigh. "Point taken. Or both your points, I guess. You wanted to make it very clear to me that you don't think my idea is a good one. I'd like to hear your reasons."

"You already did. That bit about manipulation and lies wasn't just a snarky comment," he said. "You're asking me to tell Suigin Tou I want her, when the truth is that I don't. There's just no way that could end well!"

"Couldn't it? When you first met Shinku, you certainly didn't think you'd want to spend your whole life with her! Why can't you give Suigin Tou that same chance?" On seeing Jun grimace and start to shake his head, Megu sped up. "Just think about it! If you can't do what I'm asking now with a good conscience, then let's start simpler! If I ask her if she and I can spend time with you and Shinku outside Nerima, I'm sure she'll say yes. You can interact with her in ways that you haven't before, get to know her in a new way. Who knows, maybe in a month or two you'll be happy to chase her seriously!"

"No," he said flatly. "I don't mind the idea of spending time with her, at least if it doesn't blow up in my face like it always has in the past. Heck, I could even put up with a few more explosions if it helps her lay her demons to rest. But I'm absolutely not open to anything more than friendship with her."

"You won't even try? Can't even consider trying?"

"No," Jun pronounced. "Why are you so determined for it to be me, anyway? Why should you try to change how I feel, when there's so many strong, decent guys who already want her?"

"But none of them are a Maestro, or have someone as important to her as Shinku is with them, to welcome her in and help her adjust!"

"But they do want her like that, and I don't."

Megu's shoulders slumped and she stared blindly down at the table in front of her.

"I can promise you, that's more important," he continued, trying to cheer her up. "It's true that being a Maestro is one of the things Shinku loves about me... but it's not the most important reason." For a moment he studied the manga lying on the table in front of him, then picked it up and flipped through it. Sure enough, this volume was the one that had the scene he was thinking of. "Here... look at this."

The raven-haired girl dragged her head upright again and accepted the book. She stared at the page, identifying the scene Jun had turned to. Laplace had been destroyed, Jun and Shinku had heard the first fateful mention of Furinkan and Nerima, and now Shinku and Nori sat in the kitchen chatting over tea. She read again the words that chilled her more each time she saw them: 'Becoming Alice means your old life, your old self, would be gone for good. All that you have, all that you are, lost to become the vision he carries in his heart.'

"What am I supposed to see here?" she asked. "I was actually thinking about showing this scene to you, to support my position. This is the single most clear-cut place about what it really costs to become Alice. I'll give anything to let Suigin Tou see she doesn't have to do that!"

"This is where Nori really accepted that Shinku and I might be together for my whole life," Jun said quietly. "That I wouldn't set her aside for a 'real' girl once I grew up enough. And the reason she did was that even though Shinku couldn't be a normal kind of wife, we could still have children together. It's just that they would have been dolls as well, created by me with knowledge and help from her, and raised by us being a real Father and Mother.

"Nori was thinking about things like that before either of us were, although she didn't tell me until much later. And... she was right. We could have done that, even if Jusenkyo didn't exist or we'd never heard of it. And as my Maestro powers keep on growing and I learn more about them, someday I'll be able to change Shinku's doll body instead of just repairing it. I'm pretty sure that in a few more years I could grow her to the size of an ordinary woman." Jun blushed and looked away, coughing as he said, "And although somehow I know I can't give her a functioning womb, I could make... certain related activities... possible."

"What exactly is your point?" Megu asked, fighting her own blush.

"That I could have done all of that, with my abilities as a Maestro. But that's not what she wanted," Jun said. "She chose Jusenkyo. It wasn't her giving up on one Maestro because another one snatched her away. She took a path that wasn't related to the powers that defined her life until then. Shinku, as a person, chose to come as close to me as she could. And I'm doing the same thing, changing in ways that wouldn't necessarily have been my first choice, so I can be closer to her." He managed a slight grin. "Hence my involvement in Nerima."

"I see."

"Do you?" Jun shot back. "Then why don't you think Suigin Tou deserves her own chance at that kind of relationship?"

Megu was silent for a long moment, then heaved a morose sigh. "I guess you're right. What I was asking really wouldn't be the same at all."

"There's just no way I can give someone else what I already gave away to Shinku," Jun confirmed. "It's true that polygamy is an option in Nerima... but as far as I've seen, the only times it works is when the relationships develop at the same time."

"I don't think that should be true," she protested. Jun just gazed steadily back at her, and eventually she admitted, "But I suppose that doesn't mean it isn't. Or maybe it's just usually true, but that's bad enough. Suigin Tou certainly deserves better than one chance in ten, or whatever the odds are."

"Right. So..." Jun coughed and looked away. "If someone happened to be thinking that she might first get her sister and best friend happily hooked up with a good man, and once that relationship was safely established and she'd seen what she could expect then she'd try to slide her way in as another partner for him... let's just say that would be the kind of plan that crashes and burns fairly often in this town."

Megu stared wide-eyed at her sensei, jaw gaping feebly. 'I guess I'm not the only one who can know something without being told it,' she thought.

"Hypothetically speaking, of course," he added, continuing to look away and giving her time to recover her dignity.

"O- Of course," she agreed.

Once she had scraped most of her composure back together, she said, "All right, Jun. You've convinced me that what I wanted to do isn't a good idea after all. Do you have any ideas on how you could help her?"

Jun shrugged. "If there's ever a guy who manages to work his way close enough to her, I can challenge him and beat the crud out of him. If she's feeling sympathetic, that ought to lower her guard and let our prince on a white horse cover a little more ground."

"And if he beat the crud out of you, that could make him look attractive to her for a completely different reason."

"Yeah, I guess. But everyone I know who can do that is already engaged or married. Besides, if Suigin Tou's anything like Shinku in this area, she'll want someone who's strong but not as strong as her."

"Maybe you're right," Megu allowed. "Even if Shinku tried to be as gentle and kind as she could be, every time she dealt with Suigin Tou it was from a position of strength. My angel probably could use a change from that."

For a long moment all was technically silent, though Shinku's question seemed to echo between earth and sky.

Then Suigin Tou reared her head back and screamed.

Shinku had already begun moving, reaching a tentative hand toward her sister's shoulder. But at this she jerked back, reflexes both old and new prompting her to get some distance between herself and Suigin Tou. The air itself had begun to churn violently in concert with the First Doll's cry, winds moaning and snowflakes coalescing into hard pellets of ice that whipped round and round as they fell.

Nor was this physical violence the end of it. Before she knew what had happened Shinku was shielding herself, blocking some kind of psychic drain. The technique had little in common with the chi-theft she'd experienced when fighting Miss Hinako, but it was similar enough that she knew that Suigin Tou was trying to pull something out of her, and that whatever it was she could resist.

She had no intention of trusting herself to the air just then. A blurring step took her ten feet farther up the mountain, positioned behind and to the left of Suigin Tou. Petals infused with strength whirled around her, white rather than crimson to blend in with the driving ice and snow. Shinku spared one moment to regret not knowing when to quit pushing her luck, then focused everything on her sister. She didn't want to cut and run, but if Suigin Tou was serious about attacking, retreat was probably the best of a bad set of options.

The First Doll had left the ground behind, and was now floating at a height which placed her roughly equal with Shinku. If she had noticed her sister's disappearance, she gave no sign of it. She held steady in that position despite the winds that whipped around her, as her dress flared and countless black feathers were pulled from her wings. Shinku squinted through the storm, doing her best to track all the feathers and prevent a sneak attack from behind, while at the same time wondering whether Suigin Tou's wings were truly shrinking under the loss of pinions.

As the seconds ticked by and nothing changed, Shinku began to suspect that she might have retreated too quickly. Out of all this tumult, the only thing that felt like an attack against her was the mysterious blocked drain. She still could not identify it, but by now she had realized one thing: whatever this was, it didn't feel nearly as debilitating as Miss Hinako's technique.

A few more seconds passed, with still no change. Shinku took a deep breath and summoned a single petal, one that was tied as strongly to her as she was capable of. Although she was still shielding herself from whatever Suigin Tou was doing, the bloom was not so protected. That one tiny piece of Shinku was exposed to Suigin Tou's full force, and then the Fifth Doll had her answer.

She let out a sigh of relief. 'Not an attack at all,' she realized. It had been sadness that was drawn out of the petal. Her sister was just doing what she had described earlier, drawing out and destroying the grief that their conversation had provoked in her. 'I do not think it was a mistake, to say to her what I did. Still, I wish my words had not made her feel such a resort was necessary,' Shinku thought regretfully.

Then she blinked, realizing that in that moment—when she felt sadness of her own—it had become significantly harder to keep up her defense against the drain. 'Do I even need to maintain it?' she wondered. 'Suigin Tou must have heard echoes of my own pain, as I explained those things to her. She could be deliberately trying to help both of us.'

She hesitated for a moment, then shifted further to one side, to a position which let her see Suigin Tou's face. The First Doll's head was tilted back and her eyes were screwed shut. Tears streamed down her cheeks, falling away to mingle with the sleet. Her hands were tightly clenched and she was trembling slightly. All in all, it was clear that she spared not a thought for Shinku at the moment.

If Suigin Tou had been looking at her, perhaps she would have dropped her shield. But as the minutes passed with no sign that her sister cared one way or the other, or even that she remembered Shinku's presence at all, the Fifth Doll never quite managed to surrender that barrier. Eventually, the issue became a moot point. Suigin Tou released a long sigh that blended with one final moan of the wind, then sank to the ground as the gale died and the sleet was replaced by gentle drifting snowflakes.

Feeling strangely guilty, Shinku hurried over complete the gesture that had been interrupted. "Suigin Tou?" she ventured as she placed her hand on her sibling's shoulder. "Are you all right?"

Suigin Tou's eyes opened and she smiled at her sister, an expression that nearly had Shinku staggering back again. Not out of fear or need for defense, but because it was as if four hundred years and more had been rolled back. She had never, ever expected again to see such a look of gentleness and purity from her oldest sibling.

"Yes, I am," the First Doll replied, bringing her hand up to clasp Shinku's arm. "Not forever, not yet. I won't feel this much peace for long, but it is good to have it now. Good to have something to help me stand, as I grow stronger on my own. One day, I won't need this for myself any more... but maybe then I can extend such aid to others."

"I see. I am glad," Shinku murmured.

"Good. There is something I need to say to you now, while I still can."

"While you still can?"

"I expect you'll understand once I say it, why I might not be able to speak such things in a normal frame of mind."

"If it's something you do not truly feel, then you should not feel that you need say it now," Shinku advised.

The First Doll shook her head. "I'll say it now because it is true now, and one day it will be true all the time." She paused, gave her sister another smile, then said, "I forgive you. For all the ways you hurt me when you meant to. Even more than that, for the ways you hurt me when you did not mean to, before I had ever given you reason to hate or fear me. For being stronger and prettier than me, for always being so far ahead of me, and for the fact that I may never change that. For being Father's favorite, and leaving that to walk away on your own path. For all the pain I've ever felt because of you, whether you meant to cause it or not. And I hope that you can give me that same kind of forgiveness."

"I already did, a long time ago," Shinku replied instantly. "I would have told you, if I thought I could say it without you feeling wounded or insulted." She paused for a moment, her hand squeezing harder on her sister's shoulder, then gently let go and added, "And I'll gladly acknowledge that you forgiving me stands as a greater thing than me extending forgiveness to you."

"That will probably be of some comfort to me, once I'm back in my usual mood," Suigin Tou mused. "And it's certainly true enough."

Shinku held back a wince. Hearing that now, even after her sister had emptied herself of all spite and bitterness... 'Perhaps it was a mistake, not letting her draw out my own feelings of sadness and regret.'

"I did not mean that to accuse you, Shinku," Suigin Tou reassured her. Apparently dumping all her negative emotions had left her more perceptive as well as more at peace. "If anything, it is the other way around. What hurt I caused you was deliberate and exactly as intended. There was never anything I did that you took the wrong way and endured pain because of it, and there was never a time when my very existence made you feel worthless." She shook her head, her gaze shifting beyond Shinku to the horizon. "So much of my pain... is it even fair to say you caused it at all? Or was it myself all along?"

Shinku shook her head. "If nothing else, you suffered a great deal of it because for so long you could not accept having anyone stand with you and help you. And I feel that the reasons for that must lie at my feet. Mine and Sousei Seki's, anyway."

"Well, like I said before, I forgive you. For mistakes you made with good intentions. For times when you were deliberately hurtful. For always being so far ahead of me. For abandoning Father's ideal... and hoping others will too."

Suigin Tou followed those last words with a long, calm stare. Shinku took a deep breath and met the gaze, saying nothing in reply, and it was the First Doll who broke the silence again. "I'll even forgive you for the manga, for putting out my story for all the world to see without asking me first."

"Eh?" Shinku hadn't flinched when her true feelings about Alice were exposed, but this last pardon had her blinking and mystified. "You'll forgive me for the manga? There were already eight volumes out before I noticed, and by then it was too late to do anything."

"What are you talking about?" Suigin Tou asked. "You're the one who wrote it... aren't you?"

Shinku swallowed a quiet snort of amusement. 'It's not exactly painful, but apparently there has been at least one time when Suigin Tou did something that could offend me without meaning to.' She held up her hand and said, "Holie!" The nachtgeist appeared and spun in a quick circle above Shinku's hand, summoning a copy of Rozen Maiden Volume 1 that dropped to land in her palm. She opened it to the title page and held it out to Suigin Tou.

The First Doll accepted the offering and studied it for a long, silent moment.

"If you're going to ask me how it ended up titled Rozen Maiden and not The Adventures of Kanaria, please be advised I have no idea," Shinku said.

"I suspect it has something to do with the four names listed as 'source credit'," Suigin Tou said evenly. She regarded Holie with a stare that had the spirit pulse nervously for a moment then disappear from the field. Suigin Tou's gaze dropped to the volume in her hand. She gave a tiny sigh and handed it back to Shinku. "I'm glad I purged embarrassment along with all the other hurtful feelings," she noted.

"If it makes you any less embarrassed, I did decide that the manga was something I should not only accept, but even support," her sister replied.

"Support?" Suigin Tou asked, cocking her head to one side. That her mental state had begun trickling back toward normal was evidenced by her next statement. "I never thought of you as an exhibitionist, little sister."

"Not because of something like that," Shinku hastened to claim. "And if you do decide to read through the series, I would ask that you skip the parts that show Jun and myself expressing our affection. For your sake and for mine."

"That's probably a good idea." The First Doll's mindset was still a long way from the usual, though, and this was said thoughtfully rather than obnoxiously. "Do you think I should read the whole thing, then?"

"I think you should try, and decide for yourself after you've read the first few volumes whether to keep at it. After all, each of your sisters has seen many pieces of your story that she did not know before. It only seems fair that you should see ours as well."

Slowly, Suigin Tou nodded in agreement. "Yes, I think you're right." Her lips curved in a tiny, self-deprecating smile. "Once again."

Shinku coughed and looked away. "On a side note, if you do read it you will get to see a few times when that definitely was not the case."

If Suigin Tou had been in a normal frame of mind, she would have grinned, shouted "To the bookstore!" and hurried off for a little shoplifting. As it was, though, this revelation left the First Doll staring wide-eyed. "So... why exactly did you decide to support the manga?" she asked. "It would make sense to me if it had only been written for us, rather than the entire world. If that were true I don't think I would have been angry at all. But with such an audience... why should you not only accept it, but even agree?"

"Because of what it means, to have so many people understand our story," Shinku replied quietly. "It has generated all sorts of reactions; you've seen a few of them for yourself, and there are many more besides. Some people admire us, others are curious, still others like some of us and dislike others. We have received approval, admiration, pity, envy, desire, rivalry, indifference, and more.

"But all of those reactions have one thing in common: each person who is responding, is doing so because they acknowledge that we are real, that we are worth responding to. Even if the response is indifference, that is a perfectly acceptable reaction to something that does not directly impact one's life. Nerima is now filled with people who understand enough about the Rozen Maidens to accept the reality of our existence. We now have a place where we can live and move about, without a need for secrecy or worrying what would happen if people beyond our mediums should confirm that we are real. You, Suisei Seki, Sousei Seki, Hina Ichigo, Kanaria, even Kira Kishou... rather than hiding in the home of a medium, there is a place where all of us can have meaningful, direct interaction with the world at large—even without a shape-shifting curse."

"As long as you don't mind having half the ward hit on you," Suigin Tou observed.

"Even that can be avoided, if you decide you truly do not want it." Shinku called for Holie once more. As before, the spirit circled around her open hand, summoning a rectangular object before disappearing. Shinku held the photograph out to her sister, who took it and studied it. The subject was a Japanese boy in his middle teens, with the build of a fighter but wearing clothes that looked too constricting and too high-quality to wear to a fight. His hair was black and his eyes were green. As for his face in general...

"What happened to him?" Suigin Tou asked. "I don't believe I've ever seen such a look of shock and horror."

"Keisuke is one of those people who simply doesn't care for manga. All that he knew about the Rozen Maidens, he learned from interacting with me," Shinku said. "He made a few attempts at winning me away from Jun, which we crushed as ruthlessly as you and I handled Laplace. It would have ended there, save that Hina Ichigo followed us to school one day. Keisuke decided that if he couldn't get one Rozen Maiden to fall for him, he would try another."

"I take it this picture chronicles the moment when he realized he was effectively trying to romance an eight-year-old."


"Do you mind if I hold onto this for a day or two? I think that in another thirty minutes I'm going to laugh myself sick at the sight of it."

"You may keep it." Shinku smiled hopefully at her sister. 'Good,' she thought, 'it seems that hearing and seeing that will help her face her own situation with a little more equanimity.' Even at the prices Nabiki Tendo charged, it had been worth it to buy that photograph in preparation for today's meeting.

Although it still disturbed her a little, that it had been Nabiki who sought her out and suggested that plan, rather than the other way around.

"Thank you," Suigin Tou said. "I think it's too late for me to use a tactic like that myself. But it is... reassuring... to see proof that they can be reasonable."

"I am glad."

The First Doll took a deep breath, then said, "I'm glad too. Glad that you came here today, glad that we could talk like this. You've given me so much to think about, Shinku... I don't want you to feel unwelcome, but I need some time by myself now, to do that thinking."

Shinku inclined her head. "All right. When you would like to speak further, you're welcome to come to my home or my field. Or you can send Mei Mei and have me come here again, if you would rather."

"Thank you."

"Then, if there is nothing else, I will take my leave." Shinku turned away, ready to take the first step on her journey down the mountain. The clearing of Suigin Tou's throat arrested her motion. She turned back to face her elder sister, an inquisitive look on her face.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Suigin Tou asked. When Shinku just gazed blankly back at her, she stared meaningfully down to the mountain beneath her feet. Or more specifically, at a heaped-up pile of sleet and snow that had accumulated in the lee of a boulder. Once the Fifth Doll was looking at it as well, Suigin Tou elaborated, "A certain guest-gift you brought?"

Shinku blurted a particularly unpleasant word in German. "Suisei Seki is never going to let me hear the end of this," she groaned. "I wonder if there's any way I could fool her with a replacement cactus."

Suigin Tou made a mental note to bring up that comment the next time her sister tried to claim the moral high ground. Then, with a self-satisfied grin, she extended a wing and brushed the snow away.

The Fifth Doll blinked. The cactus wasn't there after all. She glanced around, but saw no sign of it, nor any other piles of slush that would be big enough to cover it. She turned to Suigin Tou, a question on her lips.

"Mei Mei." It was the host's turn to call her artificial spirit to summon something. Mei Mei spun at the far reach of Suigin Tou's still-extended wing, bringing the plant in question into existence. Suigin Tou caught it without looking and brought it around in front of her, her grin now an outright smirk.

That expression vanished, though, as the cactus entered her direct field of vision. Suigin Tou hadn't really noticed the changes it went through earlier, as the color bled away from it and the spines multiplied. She'd been too caught up in her own turmoil. But those things had happened because the plant had been entirely within her grasp at that point, a true part of her N-field and under no-one's influence but hers, and so she had been aware of them on some level.

Now the cactus stood an inch taller than when Shinku had held it. Its hue had deepened to a healthy green with hints of blue. There were still spines, but they were shorter and softer than that species ever naturally produced. And at the very top, there was a tight-closed, pale lavender flower bud.

"Are you still certain you wish me to take it with me when I go?" Shinku asked, breaking the long, awed silence.

Suigin Tou didn't say anything for a while. Then, with a motion of her head halfway between a shake and a nod, she said, "Yes. I still am."

Her younger sister didn't say anything, just stood quietly and regarded her, waiting for Suigin Tou to meet her gaze.

The First Doll took a deep breath and did that. "I'm still not ready. When I am... then I'll ask you to bring it back."

Author's Notes

Good freakin' grief, that was long. In fact, chapter 7 by itself is longer than the entirety of Atmung. I suppose length was inevitable, though, since I was trying to give equal weight and importance to four different characters and interweave two separate major conversations plus action. I did consider splitting the Jun-Megu and Shinku-Suigin Tou interactions into separate chapters, but decided against it in the end.

If anyone's curious, until the Friday meeting of chapter 5 Natsume had not been aware of Uryu's interest in Suigin Tou. Learning that was what spurred her to force her way past the student-sensei barrier. If it had been some other, more normal girl that had caught Uryu's eye, Natsume might not have been able to do so... but learning that you could lose the man you want to a two-foot-high animated doll? I imagine it would give any girl a swift kick in the motivation.

This is the end of Megu and Suigin Tou's Excellent Adventures, though it's possible I may write a sequel to it one of these days. To anyone who's read this far, I hope you've enjoyed it. I have tried to include many thought-provoking ideas while holding true to a trend I saw in the original series—answering only some of the questions raised by the material and leaving the viewers to think about the remaining issues for themselves.