Chapter 7 – Flight and Fight
The next couple of days were a whirlwind of clandestine meetings in back rooms, little sleep, hand cramp (the first time they saw Haruna clone herself, they were affronted, demanding the real thing. She simply made sure to make them out of sight) and pumping her new patron for every scrap of information on the city's political structure and its place in the world.
The drachma began to pile up as whispers spread behind fluttering fans and into ears of the miracle-worker who (it was rumoured) could offer anything you desired.
And she finally had paper. Her rest-breaks were filled with more drawing, sketching out scenes and even mini-storyboards of the spicier trysts. At the rate she was knocking the scenarios out, she'd surpass those CLAMP harpies in a fortnight.
Melda had turned out to be a treasure. She'd nervously shown Haruna her tentative starts at a Rakan x Nagi story, which they'd refined and expanded upon one inspiration-filled night. Her drawings were (treachery!) even better than Haruna's, though she had to be taught comic staging, panel types and everything else; she was shaping up to be an excellent assistant. An 'idle' suggestion of publication had Melda asking her father about printers, which led to another night spent convincing her father of the potential of a brand-new, untapped market.
It wasn't until she blacked out after a particularly elaborate scene involving the Duke of something-or-other, a lake of chocolate pudding and a school of mermen that she finally realised she had to ease off. She'd done all-nighters, even a double all-nighter when Octo-Love and a school assignment deadline came right after each other, but pushing yourself hard enough that you collapsed into your client's scenario was just unprofessional. Plus, the artifact, while it was almost certainly fully fuelled by Negi's prodigious power, seemed to take nibbles of the Ministra's power as well. And the small matter of her not knowing the fate of any of her classmates had really begun to dog her undernourished conscience.
So it was, a week or so after Haruna's arrival in the city, that Filius Galin came to breakfast and found nothing sitting at the table but a note saying 'TAKING DAY OFF. POSSIBLY TWO. PARU-SAMA'.
"Oh Izley, it's not that bad. I think you look pretty", said Haruna as the pair of them walked away from the house. If there was any sincerity, it was destroyed by the smirk on her face.
"I am a tiger-man. Proud of it, even. So why do I have to be a Siamese cat-man? Do you know what they say about them?"
"Now, now, Izley, you shouldn't disparage your fellow man...cat. I had to make sacrifices too."
When Haruna had snuck into Izley's bedroom that morning clutching a rod with a crystal on top, the dread didn't quite have time to outpace the sleepiness before she stuck it in his hand and said, "Moon Power, Harem ni nare!" and he found his black and orange fur transformed into the equivalent of an exotic dancer's fur coat. She then used it herself, turning her hair fiery red, which she supplemented with a pair of fake cat ears.
The clothes she'd conjured hadn't helped dispel the 'exotic dancer' impression. She wore a green wrap dress that opened in the front to show a scandalous amount of leg, a mass of jewelled bracelets and a ruby brooch set in the deep V of her neckline.
"Sacrifices, yeah." Dammit, she looked far too good for her age.
What he was wearing...
...seemed to be straight out of an Old World legend. Gleaming pearl silk vest that went with his creamy fur, loose trousers of the same material and a turban that had a big, tacky green jewel on the front. Fouled by his ears, it kept slipping off his head.
"I haven't had breakfast yet. What was so important that you had to sneak out?"
"Nothing", said Haruna.
"Nothing", repeated Izley.
"Weell, I thought I could use a break. Getting spooged in the face with chocolate is art's way of telling you you need to slow down."
Haruna grinned up at him, daring him to ask.
Izley opened his mouth – then shut it. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction. Instead, he asked her the question that had been on his mind since his forceful transformation.
"...so why me? You could have taken any of the guards along, even that little girl Melda – she would have jumped at the chance. I know we had a deal, and I appreciate the money, but I was pardoned. You don't need me." Why did he sound so petulant? "If it's a bodyguard you need, Filius would guarantee you safe passage to any city, if only to get you out of his life." He adjusted his turban, which had slipped down again.
Haruna sighed. "I leave you alone for a couple of days and you lose all sense of adventure. The main thing is, well, I think you answered your own question. Melda wouldn't really listen without wanting to get into it, and I can't tell anyone else in the house for fear of it reaching the boss's ears. He was a bit too happy to take his share of the money. I need a neutral yet friendly party and... you're it."
Izley narrowed his eyes at Haruna. "Paru, what are you planning?"
She looked left, right, left – then smiled wickedly up at him.
He took to his heels, not even caring where he was going...
...and ran straight into a wall. At least, it might as well have been one. The hulking giant had appeared out of nowhere – wait, Haruna had her artifact out... oh. That.
"Aniki, lift!" It lifted him up by the scruff of his neck, just far enough that he couldn't touch the ground.
Haruna didn't quite blame him, but she was hungry, and didn't have time for consent. The three of them walked to breakfast.
Izley, now resigned to his fate, had taken them to the cheapest inn he knew, which nevertheless sold acceptable food.
After breakfast, Haruna told him what she wanted.
"That's all? Just a message to your friends? What was that evil smile for, then?", demanded Izley.
"Well, you're just so much fun to tease", said Haruna, grinning. "I need you because I have to know where my friends are first. That's going to be the hard part. I just have to know whether they're alive or..." She trailed off, suddenly aware of what she was implying.
Shaking off the fell mood, she continued, "You wouldn't happen to know how up-to-date the Guard keeps bounty records, Izley? There might be a clue."
Izley held up a hand. "All right, I get it. We – they – get communiques from the bounty hunter guilds and the major cities' police forces daily. It's not even confidential information. I could have asked the captain if my Telepathia link hadn't been revoked, but I can ask around."
"Thanks, Izley, that's a load off my mind." Some dormant sense of Haruna only then alerted her to the lack of customers. It had been busy, but now it was deserted, save for two burly men in the corner. They were giving her the same feeling of 'I could drop you before you blinked' she got when facing off against Ku Fei.
'At least they waited till after I've had breakfast', she thought. Resolutely not freezing up, she said, "Izley? Does Taoyuan have its own bounty hunters' guild?"
"It's not really a guild, more of a gang-", he began. "Ah. Two gentlemen in the corner? Looks like the Funnelli brothers."
"Any chance they're here for a nice, peaceful breakfast too?"
"Slim. Barrat and Urbell Funnelli take liquid lunches. I can't count how many times I've hauled either of them into the drunk tank for bar brawls. They're probably here for you."
"Which one's which?"
"The uglier, taller one's Urbell. Don't call them the Barbells."
Whilst they were talking the two men had got up and approached Haruna and Izley's table. Izley realised he was still disguised as a damn Siamese harem guard, and he dreaded the unsubtle jokes almost as much as the upcoming fight. Still, he was supposed to be a protector, sort of counted as a chaperone, and should try to make a token effort to head them off before it kicked off.
"Hello, gentlemen. Can I help you?", said Izley. He could smell the fumes off them; enough to make them belligerent, not enough to impair their judgement. Damn.
""Hello, gentlemen"", repeated the shorter one mockingly. "So fancy. Lose your balls, did you?", said Barrat, sniggering.
There it was.
"My brother and I wish to ask this fine courtesan a question", said Urbell, emphasising every 'fancy' word. "Would you be interested in accommodating the two of us, my lady?"
Haruna made a show of thinking deeply, hands seemingly clasped below the table. "Hmm, I'm not sure I could do the deed with such... unique specimens. Perhaps if you wore a bag over your heads..."
"...but, no, I'm afraid I'll have to decline." She smiled sweetly at them.
"You die now, little bitch!", shouted Barrat, raising his fists.
"Wait", said Urbell, holding Barrat at bay. He leaned closer, scarred face gaining many interesting shadows. "I was curious about Paru's Pleasures; I was even thinking of letting you go after we'd had our free ride, but you hurt our feelings. We want compensation, Miss Paru. Or should we say, Miss Haruna Saotome?"
This instantly told Haruna three things. One, a change of hair and clothes was ineffective against experienced bounty hunters. Two, her real identity was out in the criminal community. Finally, any hold Izley had on her was now almost nothing. 'Crap.' Out loud, she said, "I don't suppose I could simply give you a session, pay you the bounty, and we could pretend the whole thing never happened?"
Urbell rubbed his chin. "Or I suppose we could beat you and pretty-boy hollow, then take all your money and the artifact you found, cash in the bounty and use the artifact to do whatever we wanted." Comedically furrowing his brow in thought, he continued, "...wait a second, that means we get more. What do you think, Barret?"
"I think we do get more, brother."
"Well, it seems we're in agreement. Hold her." He selected a lightning club from his weapon belt. "I hate to mess up a cutie, but given your artifact you're too dangerous to leave conscious."
Several things happened all at once.
Barret moved to grab Haruna.
The club described an arc towards Haruna's head.
Izley jumped towards Urbell.
Haruna shouted, "Come forth, Grand Aniki!"
Momentarily blinded by the sudden cloud of sparkles, the bounty hunters failed to spot two massive hands emerging from it. The giant musclebound golem Haruna had been drawing under the table while they were talking palmed each of their heads like basketballs, lifted them back and conked their heads together with stunning force.
"Aniki, drop!" The gorilla dumped the groaning men on the floor, where they were quickly tied up by some hastily-drawn ropes. She shocked them with the lightning club for good measure. (It had been less than an inch from her face. She'd heard the crackle of the magic... She'd sparred with Sakurazaki, so was no stranger to lightning attacks, but...) Shuddering a bit (...they'd actually tried to hurt her! Seriously! And no handy healer nearby!), Haruna was about to ask Izley something, but her mind kept listing all the ways it could have gone wrong and why was she provoking them when she was an outlaw with few allies in a hostile land... she suddenly felt quite young and alone, and a little freaked out. 'Brain, stop that right now. Self-pity won't help.'
Picking himself up from the floor, Izley had spotted the interplay of emotions on Haruna's face, but refrained from saying anything. He could pretty much guess what she was going through anyway. After a few deep breaths, the colour came back to her face and she addressed him in a level voice. "Izley, how do we deal with these idiots? If I understand the bounty law correctly, they didn't announce precisely what they were taking me in for before attacking."
"They didn't announce it", she insisted.
"...uh, right, yes. No, they didn't."
"...and thus it was an unprovoked attack after a solicitation was rejected. But I'd have to present myself as a witness. Humph."
Haruna spotted the cook backing away into the kitchen. "Hey! How'd you like to make the biggest tip of your life?"
"Okay?" she said nervously.
Fishing out a thousand-drachma bill from her cleavage, Haruna waved it at the cook. "Tell no-one what you've seen today, and bring me a bottle of your cheapest, nastiest wine. Several bottles. Got that?"
The cook, one eye on the brute and tiger-man both deferring to the crazy courtesan, nodded and dashed into the kitchen.
"I'm going to require your services once more, Izley." The glimmer of a smile on her face brightened to its usual intensity. "How do you feel about having a sister?"
"...the terrorists responsible for the destruction of the World Gate are still at large. No demands or reasoning have been given by the group, though several inconsistencies in the evidence have cropped up. Authorities are not ruling out shapeshifters or other third parties."
"Local news: In Taoyuan, the infamous Barbell brothers have once more been locked up for harassing citizens while under the influence. Although they were dropped off at the station, tied up with a signed confession, the city guard are still asking for witnesses. The Bounty Hunter's Guild was not available for comment, only stating that they were not responsible for the actions of independent contractors."
In the bustling market, a tiger-man and his little sister moved through the crowds.
"Ahh, I should have done this in the first place", purred Haruna.
Izley was seriously starting to fear this girl. This... body-suit... she was wearing spelled all kinds of trouble if the technique came out, besides being creepy as hell when she asked him to do up the zip. Not only was she walking around as a completely realistic female copy of himself, it even changed her voice to match. Magical voice-changing was simple, illusion and animation magic could be bound to inanimate objects and made to mimic body movements, but no-one had considered combining the two to do... that. Being recently pardoned himself didn't help his uneasiness – he'd put away several criminals that would love the chance for some payback now he was out of the force. He didn't want to ask Haruna for a disguise, either; she might have said yes. At least he was back to normal. He even had ordinary (conjured) clothes, though the dragon leather jacket and dark glasses were a bit much.
"So, "Katrina", now that you're going to have to flee, do you have a plan?"
"I may, brother of mine. Do you have a way of getting that message out?"
"You have several options. Adventurer's post, a friendly mercenary, or standard post to a couple of big cities, as well as a bribe for an official to look the other way when one of your friends comes calling. You'd have to match or exceed the bounty in the last two cases. No-one likes AP, though."
"It's just what it sounds like – hand your letter to an adventurer and hope it gets through. It might be days, months or even years before they get it. It's only used because it's cheap. The rest take about the same time – maybe two weeks if you wanted to post to Megalomesembria."
"There have to be faster ways. Magical telephone? Telepathia cell network? What about the police communi-whatsits? How do you get those?", asked Haruna.
"It takes a synchronised spell – you have to pair the foundation stones at the site and ship the receiver..." Haruna turned towards him, hope dawning. "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking? Because no. Never. Asking my former colleagues for Bounty Guild info is one thing, but asking the Guard com-mage to send friendly messages to criminals just isn't possible. ...Trying to persuade me with those fake kitty-cat eyes isn't going to work either. Stop it."
'Kat' grinned toothily, entirely unrepentant. "I have to practice somehow. Besides, I like this form; always wanted a cute tail."
They walked on in silence for a bit, passing by the central square and its anachronistic 'television'.
"...Did you just say Nagi Springfield?"
'Katrina' whipped her head round in shock at the tinny voice from the square.
"That's the same name as the "Thousand Master". Could you be related?"
Haruna walked as quickly and unobtrusively as she could towards the fountain, where on the screen, a red-headed teenage prizefighter was being interviewed. SURPRISE UPSET IN GRANICUS QUALIFYING was headlined below. "Izley! That's him!", she hissed.
"My teacher! He's alive! He's alive, thank goodness." Haruna felt tension she didn't know she'd had drain out of her. If one survived (admittedly the strongest of the Ala Alba) then others had to have, too.
"...I'm sure it's just a chance resemblance", the boy on the screen said. "So that means the name is, too?", said the compiere. "Yes, just a coincidence."
Another teen, with dog ears nestled in his shock of black hair, leaned in, having a heated discussion with his partner. They must have cut it a bit, because now 'Nagi' had grabbed the microphone and said, "He and I share no relation. However, I'll show you a battle that will not shame the name of the strongest man." Gesturing dramatically, he continued, "I'll be waiting for the strongest opponents! Bring them on by the dozen!"
It cut back to the newsreader. "Grand words from the pair whom experts are calling the rookie duo of the year in the Granicus Minerva Cup. No-one so young has displayed such power since the days of the Thousand Master..."
"And that was Kotaru."
"Are you sure? They looked, well, older", said Izley.
"Trust me, I know. Negi-sensei's got... a disguise." She looked about the light crowd in the square, wondering who else had decided to go for her bounty. "Let's get back, I don't know who's watching or listening."
Negi and Kotaru were fine, and now she thought back, she'd heard Chisame shouting, "Damn you, Chachamaru!" just before the forced teleportation scattered them. That probably meant the Love-Love robot was with them as well. Knowing Negi, the purpose for entering the tournament was for something incredibly brave and heroic, a way to get stronger, or both. Also knowing Negi, he'd do whatever it took to get his students back, which, while reassuring, also meant she was still on borrowed time. A different, way more hopeful borrowed time, but still.
"Izley, find me an adventurer's stall. I need a map."
There was planning to be done.
After a hurried change back to humanity in the Galens' grounds, the requisite apologies to Filius and looking over Melda's roughs for what would be the first volume of Paru Publishing's RaganNaki Spin!*, Izley and Haruna sat on a bed in an empty bedroom to discuss tactics. He had been briefly amused to discover that the boy who was tearing through combatants in Granicus' prizefighting arena was her language teacher, and she was effectively truanting from a school trip.
"We'll set aside sending a message to the others for now; Negi-kun, bless his heroic little heart, will search till he's found every last one of us, and since Chachamaru can detect our Ala Alba badges over 500 kilometres away, he'll be good at it. However, I've a once-in-a-lifetime chance for real funds here that I certainly don't want him to discover. As far as I can figure it, we have four options to stretch this out:
One, stay here and make as much money as possible before I'm found. That's the worst option – most boring and I don't want to make it easier on the bounty hunters or the authorities to capture me. Melda's father wouldn't like it either." Haruna traced a line on the map from Taoyuan. "Two: Travel east away from Megalomesembria, getting gigs wherever we find a town or village. Are there villages?"
"A fair few. We might run into your friends, too."
"Hmm. Enjoyable but not the most profitable." She tapped on a city roughly northward of them, in the middle of an island. "Three: Head here for richer pickings in... Al Jamyla?... to set up something more permanent, with the help of some of the diplomats I took for clients. Oh, don't look at me like that, it's not blackmail if they actually offered to pay hush money. And you're not exactly Mister Clean there, either. Is it another untapped market, Izley?"
"I guess. I haven't been there, but it's a bigger city than Taoyuan. There are other cities you could go to."
"I'll consider it. Four: Let others spread it by taking my concept to publishing houses. Nuh-uh. This is my one chance to make a heap of drachma and a name for myself, and it'd ruin all the fun if I had to waste time with stuffy, shortsighted, censor-happy editors."
"I'm sensing a story there", deadpanned Izley.
"It's nothing. Just... some of the university circle took an exception to certain completely rational and plausible situations", Haruna grumbled. "Soon, though, I will have my four-corner four-way** in print, and there'll be nothing that damn Haraguchi can do about it. Muhahahahaaa!"
Izley remained poker-faced, because there wasn't much you could say to that. He ruthlessly crushed his curiosity at 'four-corner four-way'. Nevertheless, he had to say something.
"*cough* What about Melda? Isn't she doing the same thing you just complained about?"
"Doesn't count. RaganNaki is her creation. Besides, Melda is my disciple, and it's only right and proper that I give her a place at my right hand!"
"That, and her father is promoting your harem business and printing both your work."
Haruna studied the map some more, plotting out possible patterns a search might take.
As he added, 'Has almost certainly got blackmail material on key figures of political parties' to his mental danger-to-the-world tally, the mention of her clients and their money brought something to the foreground. Something he should have been keeping track of instead of sulking in his room like a teenager. "Haruna, just how much have you made?"
"I kinda lost count. I was working nonstop for a week, with at least two duplicate mes here and there, and I was charging double rate, so..." – her lips moved as she calculated – "...about ...whoa." Suddenly excited, she scrabbled for a piece of paper to work it out properly. A few minutes of furrowed brows and carrying the three later, she had her answer. Not taking her eyes off the paper, she said, "Izley? How much of a tip was that thousand-drachma bill I gave to the waitress today?"
"Roughly two month's wages for a low-paying job. Why?" At the sight of her shellshocked face, he snarked, "I'm guessing it's slightly more than that, then."
Instead of speaking, she stuffed the paper into her art folder on the nightstand and mutely held up seven fingers.
"So... seven times that?"
"More like... seven figures."
Izley's mouth was suddenly dry. "But that doesn't take into account my, er, damages and..."
"Galin asked for fifty percent of the gross, which is why I doubled the ten thousand fee." Looking round nervously, she leaned in and whispered, "If I pay you the eighth you demanded, I still have one and a half million drachma. In cash."
She didn't think she'd be swindled – Filius'd been forthcoming and even-handed with her all the way – but she doubted he had forgotten how to multiply. Haruna felt she was fairly genre-savvy. She knew stories; she knew the math to maintain interest. When a protagonist came into such a vast amount of money, you stepped up the pace, something horrible happened to balance it out, or you had them retire and go home. In his place, she'd be doing everything she could in the form of contractual loopholes and supplemental fees to drain the sucke- newcomer dry. If it didn't happen that way, awfulness would come along, sooner or later.
So... If she was writing this, how would she escalate and avoid losing everything to grasping vizers or hordes of violent bounty hunters?
Hypothetical heroine-her would dash downstairs, declare the contract null and void by application of boots to Filius' head, then fly out on her metallic angel wings, Melda's eyes boring into her melting chocolate orbs...*** 'No, that's stupid.'****
Heroine-her would gather everything she wanted to take with her, say her goodbyes to Melda, beg a leave of absence to Filius because of overwork, sketch up a bodysuit and slip out of town to go – where? Without Izley, she wouldn't know...
Izley. There was a problem. What was she to him? And what was he to her?
All debts would soon be discharged. Her identity was already out; he couldn't get her into much more trouble than she already was, barring revealing her location to Negi, and they both knew she could skip town immediately if he turned up. Even if she didn't, the publishing profits were all set to go to an anonymous bank vault administered by Filius, with her and Melda as the trustees once they turned sixteen. She'd won, sort of. And any future summer job her parents proposed could go suck a tentacle.
She didn't think he accepted her enough to fit into 'annoying younger sister' (maybe in another week), and 'if only you were older' was definitely out of the question – he'd need to remove the stick up his behind first.
For her part, she liked messing with him and could rely on him, but wasn't sure he would come with as bodyguard if she asked. Whilst his name had been cleared, he couldn't be hired back to Taoyuan's guard without a demotion. 'Oh. There's that guilt again.' He could get employment in any number of adventuring parties, fund his own mercenary band, or join other city guard companies, but Haruna didn't think he'd go for any of those. Searching her feelings, she found that she wanted him to come along, not for any romantic feeling, just the need for safe company she could trust. She wanted him to want to come along, too. The little imp of her libido also wondered what his perfect scenario would entail and demanded to watch, but she told it to pipe down for the moment.
'Okay, here I go. Humble, serious. Ask him to come along. Deep breaths. ...Ah! The plan, the plan. Can't ask him to come if nothing's decided.'
Glancing over the map, she noted the scale of the world. The coincidence or translation spell that let her understand the people of the city extended to writing, so she could see that Mundus Magica was a little smaller than Earth. A little less than three weeks remained before their holidays ended; assuming Negi wanted to collect everyone, defeat Fate and return home before they were missed (and she wouldn't put it past him), they could just about hit every major town on Taoyuan's continent, travel on one of those nifty airships to Al Jamyla, spread the word of yaoi and perversion there (hmm, maybe she could give out lightning-drawn manga of the finished scenarios to patrons), then hop across the equator to... Ostia? No, that'd be where the finals of the Nagi cup were held, Izley having told her what Granicus' fighting tournament was the qualifying event for...
That settled it. She needed her source of exposition along. An overlord without her minion was merely a disgruntled criminal with delusions of grandeur.
It would be just like her teacher to get to the final, too. And it'd make a good rallying point for the rest of the class, meaning that for maximum fun, she'd have to skip it till the last minute. Damn. At least the Ostia festival gave her a definitive deadline for her to be 'found'.
The other three cities near to Al Jamyla, Moer, Antigone and Elfanbaft, didn't look any different from the former, but they were right in the middle of likely search paths east from Granicus.
There was one place they might not search – Hellas, capital of the Helladin empire. It was closer to the north pole of the map than Taoyuan was to the south pole; she'd have to fly nearly pole-to-pole to reach it. Good for avoiding a search party, bad for arriving in time to do anything. On the third hand, capital city of the largest empire in Mundus Magica. There would be no better place to lay the global foundations for Paru Publications.
Well, who's to say she couldn't go straight there? If she was ever run out of a city, maybe. But the distances... she'd need fast transport. 'WAIT! Best idea ever! Errgh, have to ask Izley what he wants first. Put on your serious face. Modest, modest.'
"Izley? I'm going to leave soon", said Haruna. She examined his face for any reaction. He showed no surprise, simply quiet acceptance. "Probably tomorrow or the day after, I'll say my goodbyes to Melda and Filius and set off for Al Jamyla. And I want, no, I'd like you to come with me as my bodyguard again."
That surprised him, but only briefly. Hmm. Perhaps he wasn't as unwilling as she'd imagined.
"It's only temporary, you know. Just until I get some proper mi- employees, then I will drop you wherever you wish."
"Okay," said Izley.
"Oh! Er, good! But if you don't mind me asking – why?"
"Because you're a 14-year-old schoolgirl who's being chased by bounty hunters. Because you are a terrifying young woman who is breaking as many physical laws at the same time she violates legal statutes. Because if I don't keep you in some form of check, it could be so much worse for the world."
Haruna was puzzled and vaguely insulted. Where had this come from? She wasn't that much of a threat. "Come on, Izley, you know me..."
"Are you or are you not planning on taking over some percentage of the world?"
She cringed. This was dangerously close to a few of her greater chewings-out in the teacher's office. "...just a little bit."
That did it. Something stressed and weakened by the rollercoaster of the day snapped. No-one called her a young lady unless they were convinced they were in the right about something. Now here he was, acting like he had the right to boss her about, simply because he was older than her. "Adeat!"
Izley's eyes widened, but he held his ground. "What are you doing! We're indoors!"
"What do I care? If you're convinced I'm a supervillain, then a supervillain's life for me. Start running." Pen touched pad... but did not move.
His eyes flicked to the still pen. "Tell me something. Why did you want me to come with you?"
Her hair hung down with her head, seemingly examining the inkblot on the pad where the pen rested. "...I trusted you." Louder, "I trusted you! I thought you had my back, Izley!", shouted Haruna. "I... miss my friends. And I'm not so good at being alone." Her voice was hoarse. She wasn't crying. She wasn't. "I wanted someone who'll stick by me, not turn me in because I'm a little girl playing at being a grownup. I wanted an extra pair of eyes, a back to lean on when we're surrounded and a sword arm that won't disappear after an hour. I thought you could be that when you helped with the Barbells, and I thought you might want to be."
Eyes screwed shut, willing the tears not to come, she continued, "So I let my guard down, and believed that you might become a friend in time if you tagged along. Stupid of me, I know."
She opened her eyes once more. The smile on her face was nowhere to be seen. "No, it's clear you don't trust me. And I admit I might not have given you much reason to trust in me. So I'll make a pledge, here and now: I promise to restrain my activities to what I can accomplish with my artifact or money. I will not blackmail or coerce any high-ranking government official into giving me lands or deeds. I will not terrorise people without cause. I will try not to break any physical laws." The smile reappeared at the last line, somewhat sardonic, but present all the same. "That's all the concessions you're going to get, Izley." Haruna dismissed her artifact and offered her hand across the gap between the beds where they were sitting. "Now, are you coming with me, or what?"
His tentative handshake was better than any stammered apology. "Thanks Izley."
He coughed to break the spell. "Shall I book the tickets today? We still have time."
Her earlier idea emerged from the drama gloom and waved a shiny metallic fin. "No, no. I have a way better idea."
Izley was learning to identify the smiles of his... partner? Friend? Employer? Whatever. This smile was simple glee.
"Is there a shipyard in Taoyuan?", asked Haruna. "Because I have all the pocket money."
*Hotheaded boy demands to fight the champion musclebound martial arts master he's always worshipped, master is agog at boy's sparkly prettiness and loses because he's so distracted, boy is aghast at his hero losing so easily and offers to make it up to him by becoming his extremely devoted disciple.
**Insert peg 1P into slot 2M, 2P into 3M, 3P into 4M, then insert 4P into slot 1M. Haruna had been inspired by her father assembling a set of drawers.
****...Thankfully tempered by Nodoka and Yue's reluctant editing.
"Dear Father Christmas, this time round-"
-you're getting the same airship. Sorry Haruna. Recorded history is set. People notice if their transport turns into an aircraft carrier.
"But if we'd had the Great Super-Paru... people wouldn't have, y'know, died."
You named it? Chickens, hatch, et cetera. Nothing I can do. The protagonist has to do what they've been seen to have done in the original timeline. As it is, I'm going to have to wiggle around a bit to wedge in that report about the Hellas Empire that came out. Besides, they got better.
"What was the deal with pulling the drama tag? I'm not that gloomy."
I didn't pull it so much as jiggle it around in the slot. You had a tough day, I think it's reasonable you'd blow up. I touched on the trust issues and wanting to be treated like a grown-up in the first chapter. Helps humanise you too.
"Hmph. Keep it out of my romp, would you?"
Yeah, yeah. Let me address the readers?
"'Kay. Whistle when you need me."
It's been over a year since I last updated. I have many excuses, but that's all they are – excuses. I have to finish this story. That's all. I pledge to finish by the end of the year. In the meantime, you get a chapter to tide you over.