"Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy."

- Sir Isaac Newton


It felt like I was talking on a cell phone.

That's the best way to describe how it felt to talk on Washu's crab-tooth beacon communicator. Thing...

It was like a cell phone. A long range, interdimensional cell phone with the clarity of a short band radio headset with crappy microphones used in fast food restaurant Drive-Thru's. But a cell phone.

Or rather, that's how the last twenty minutes of conversation with Ayeka felt. In a situation where I had all but abandoned my perspective of what was normal in order to keep from having a complete and total nervous breakdown. It was this conversation that to me felt so very calmingly normal.

I'll admit, I've been hiding my nerves quite well. But I'm still scared. Despite how well things have been turning out. I'm still scared. I'm scared to relax. To relax, and become complacent in the patterns I've noticed and started to bank on at this point.

I'm scared that if I relax, something will change. Maybe I won't wake up where I thought I would. Maybe I'm going to guess horribly wrong about someone's personality. Maybe I'll miss judge one of the seeming narrative conventions I've picked up on. Any and all of which could get me killed.

When Judge startled me back at McPhee's, it was that hot and cold flash more than the pain of my broken hand that had reminded me just how precarious my position was. It was that moment when I had been so utterly, completely surprised. Not merely given an unexpected result. Completely and totally: 'BOOM! Headshot!' surprised. It reminded me how utterly, insanely terrified I still was inside. Truth be-told, if I had access to any of my weapons at the time, I'd have blown his head off without thinking. Luckily, with my shotgun stuffed into a spatial pocket, Judge remained safely naive of what Washu's custom bullets could do to watermelon analogues.

The normalcy of the conversation with Ayeka did wonders for my stress after this.

Washu had gone out to take care of something. And by gone out, I don't mean a trip to the corner store like we'd done two days ago. The Greatest Scientific Genius in the Universe has errands to run too, yes. But they just fall on a completely different scale.

Washu was heading out to the GP Academy I believe Ayeka had explained. Which meant she'd be out for the rest of the day. Washu had asked the princess to give me a call and check up on how my hand was, and how far along I had gotten in my homework.

That's how it started anyway.

The princess felt the need to chew me out for not completing Washu's instructions to one hundred percent. At which point I argued back that it's not going to get all done in one sitting, but quickly found that Ayeka was well-versed in selective hearing and aggressive counter response on a level equally as stubborn as I am.

Luna, now back in her cat form to conserve energy as we walked along the road, snickered a little at the conversation. Even as Ayeka continued to rake me over the coals for busting my hand up, and all the screw-ups that lead up to it.

Pardon me, but I didn't exactly expect to play psychological war games with Motoko. I didn't know she thought she'd killed me. And I certainly didn't realize I would have to intimidate Naru using brute force just to get her to leave me alone.

I decided to leave the whole four-way plan I had concocted conveniently out of the conversation. Luna was still trying not to laugh outright as Ayeka continued with the third degree.

The discussion of what Junpei had explained to me, with Ayeka, went a lot better than I would have expected.

Most people, after watching Washu trying to explain something like the MASU to the girls, would expect them to be a bit clueless with any technical explanation. I mean, the concept of the MASU was rather straight forward, at least in my opinion. But only Sasami seemed to get it.

Maybe the child-like infighting between Ryoko and Ayeka had been too distracting to actually pay attention to a simple explanation. Maybe it was just the way I conveyed what I was talking about. I'm used to translating technical into layman's speak for people after all.

But digressing. As it turns out. Ayeka is quite smart. Not SMART-smart... But not the clueless girl without the slightest comprehension of basic sciences you might think of on the surface. Now, while she feigned interest in the workings of Washu's suit. (I could tell from the way that her voice went flat.) She did have some interest in the explanation Junpei had for wearing a glove. She even went so far as to concur with what he'd said about throwing a punch.

It turned out though, that the interest was only because it allowed her to segue into a conversation on my clothing.

Of all the...

First Kitsune criticizes my clothing; now the princess.

Ayeka thought my choice of clothing was abominable. I guess that from a princess that can be expected. Even Tenchi's clothes, simple as they were in terms of costume design, had an air of sophistication and a sense of style.

I was wearing a thin brown shirt, and black pants.

While it was not the epitome of style, it was what I was comfortable with. Partially a product of my military training, partially a product of Texas summer heats. And all designed to be light and comfortable. But the princess wouldn't take that excuse.

Somewhere in all this, I explicitly remember demanding to know my pants and shirt sizes. Honestly, as fast as I had been losing weight, I couldn't really tell her. So I said: 'Check with Washu, I'm not sure any more.'

Luna even got into the conversation a little. Having that superb cat hearing, she could pick up everything Ayeka said without even wearing the device. And before I knew it, I was being doubled teamed by the two for my total disregard of my physical image.

Just what I needed... The princess and the aristo-... Okay, I'm game for the pun: 'aristo-CAT'.

In order to at least try and get back at Luna's pompous teasing, I decided to poke back at her own fashion sense by grabbing and throwing a hat at her like a Frisbee.

"Here! See if it matches!"

It was funny to see the kitty 'gak!' under a hat almost bigger than she was. And I afforded a few seconds of relaxing chuckles before Luna's question stopped me dead in my tracks.

"Where'd you get this?"

Dead silence.

It's the kind of full stop you get when a piece of logic just doesn't connect. Even Ayeka on the other end of the crab-tooth went quiet. Having been so absorbed with just the casual argument between the two females, I hadn't even realized I'd picked up something that didn't belong.

But on the mental playback, the fact that I had pulled what seemed to be a lady's sun hat off a bush where it had been snagged as I passed...

What's a hat like this doing stuck to a bush?

It didn't take long for my mind to catch up with me. You're walking down the road back to camp... A camp with Those Who Hunt Elves. You find a hat belonging to someone who is no doubt a girl snagged on a bush.

I looked at the bush, and noticed several snapped branches, and further trampled plants leading away up the hill. As if someone who had no experience with the wilderness, period. Put a bunch of unlikely circumstances together...

"Ayers..." I grumbled, letting a long drawn out groan of frustration rattle along behind it.

"You sure?" Luna asked. The feline went over to the bush and tilted her head. "She wasn't wearing a hat before."

"I'm... Ninety five percent certain," I shook my head. "Who else COULD it be?"

Luna sniffed the branch, and then turned, trotted over, and gave the hat a sniff.

"Well," she continued. "It DOES smell like her."

"Great," I sighed.

"What's the matter?" Ayeka crackled over the earpiece.

"Revenge-happy Elf," I pushed a branch aside to try and look up the path that had been trampled through the bramble. "She's about to do something monumentally stupid, and now I've got to stop her."

"I thought we weren't going to do anything," Luna commented.

"That was before," I commented back. "I thought she'd take a day or three to plan her little scheme. But it looks like she's got no patience whatsoever."

"I could have told you that," Luna frowned.

Yeah, I thought she'd waste her time plotting some elaborate, doomed-to-fail Incredible Machine styled trap. You know; the type you'd find with a super villain. Something that would be right at home in Those Who Hunt Elves. At least then we'd be well and gone by the time she got around to putting her plot into action. And nowhere around when she got thoroughly humiliated by Those Who Hunt Elves.

Not for her go tromping through the woods the moment she made her mind up. Which means she's likely to interrupt the rest of Luna's martial arts lessons from Junpei. That makes her my problem.

Oh god dammit...

"Another wonderful day in Those Who Hunt Elves," I sighed sarcastically in English. "This freakin' world is so messed up..."

Turning to Luna as I mentally switched myself back to Japanese...

"Stay here," I instructed. "I'm going to go up there and try and talk her out of whatever it is she's up to."

Then I paused, and looked at my shoulder.

"Senbei?"

"Yesu?" he appeared in a spout of 'Engrish'.

"You stay too," I continued. "Everyone and their mother seems to be able to sense you. I don't think it's a good idea to come off as 'demonic'... If you get my meaning."

Senbei just floated off my shoulder and down to Luna. Where he quickly made to sit on her back, only to be swatted straight to the ground and pinned by a paw.

"Try it and I'll fillet you," Luna admonished the demon.

"Yes ma'am," Senbei responded with a gasp.

"Should I hang up?" Ayeka crackled on the other end of the comms.

"Nah," I replied as I shook my head at Luna's feline antics. "I can't sneak up on an elf anyway."

Leaving the two sidekicks to themselves, I started pushing my way through the brush and up the hill. It was easy to follow the path of broken branches and trampled underbrush. About twelve meters into the mess, the bracken made way to a small runoff ditch etched in by years of rainfall. That made the climb a bit easier until another obvious path had been cleared nearby.

Clear was relative though. Aside from some trampled weed-like plants and the occasional broken branch, it was typical density underbrush. In other words, desperately in need of a machete...

I had to be mid way up the hill when I finally announced a conclusion to the princess.

"I think this Elf had to pick the hardest path up the most scraggly overgrown hillside on the freakin' planet."

"What?" Ayeka crackled. "Why do you say that?"

'THWACK!'

"GAH-OD DAMMIT!" I snarled. "Because I just discovered Mesquite!"

I'd pushed a branch to the side with my bad arm. And it had slipped free since I couldn't hold onto it and snapped back, alerting me to the presence of several inch-long thorns only in the milliseconds before it gouged several cuts across my cheek. Examination of the offending plant while I wiped at the scratches on my face with my good hand confirmed that it was pretty much a carbon copy of a Mesquite. I had one in my backyard back home.

"I'm afraid I don't follow," Ayeka sounded like she was shrugging.

"Thorny bush," I replied with a touch of irritation. "Absurdly tough for its size, and even harder to kill. Annoying to stumble across at random, bad on tires if you run it over. Worse on your foot if you drive a thorn through your shoe. If any of the trees in the Royal Arboretum are Mesquite, you should tell Ryu-Oh to let it know it'd be one badass battleship."

"You're not really supposed to know about that," Ayeka crackled.

"You don't seem to get it," I began pushing my way up the hill again. "I probably know more about you than YOU do."

"Oh really?" the Princess asked.

"Really-really," I replied.

"Try me," she crackled.

Easy win.

"Ask your brother some time why he looks like he looks like a sixty year old man when everyone else looks no older than thirty," I shoved my way past another Mesquite, being careful not to get slashed a second time. "If you haven't figured it out already..."

There was a long, slightly static silence, and then:

"HE WOULDN'T!"

"Ouch!" I snapped in response. Too bad I can't adjust the volume on this thing.

"He would have told me!" Ayeka continued in a slightly quieter tone.

"He didn't tell you the first time," I pointed out. "In fact, once you found him out. You were all too ready to believe the facade was real. Considering how old everyone seems to be. I would have at least checked."

Another silence...

"Attention to detail," I commented idly. "If you want to act a little more like Funaho, observe more, react less. You'll spot more that way..."

Speaking of which. Even as I said that, I noticed something I'd almost stepped over.

"Oh look, I found a shoe."

"Okay," Ayeka continued at last. The chagrin in her voice was thick as paste. "You keep managing to comment on things I didn't think you knew. Just what else do you really know?"

"Can't tell you," I commented back. "Classified."

"That's an order," she demanded.

"Nope," I shrugged more for my own benefit. "Too busy looking at the shoe I found."

"Seriously?" she asked. "Is a shoe that interesting?"

Not really, but if you'd just take the hint and stop nagging me about the twenty plus hours of solid information I have on your world... If I told you everything I knew we'd be here all day. I hope I can go home at some point again and grab the rest of my DVDs. She just flat out needs to see for herself.

"Fine," she grumbled after a bit more silence. Somewhere, my brain filed away the tone as 'I'll get my revenge next time I see you'. Goody...

"So you found a shoe," she continued, masking her irritation under That Tone. "Think it belongs to that elf?"

"Yeah," I shook my head and looked in the direction the path continued. "Snagged on a root."

"I thought elves were supposed to be 'at one' with nature or something," the princess queried.

"I thought so too," I replied as I started through the brush, avoiding more Mesquite. "But if so, she's got to be the most un-elfy ELF I've ever heard of."

Maybe it's because she was a rich aristocrat. Probably pampered and spoiled. Never done a hard day's work in her life. That makes enough sense to me. Spoiled little girl in an adult's body. Has no idea what she's doing.

Even more reason to find her and stop her shenanigans. It's just like putting a junior officer in charge of unit navigation. There's a reason that the most dangerous thing in the army is considered a Second Lieutenant with a map and a compass.

"Now I'm worried," I continued pointedly back at Ayeka. "The more I think about it, the more crazy my imagination's getting."

"Better hurry up then," the princess crackled.

"Oh, easier said than done," I responded, doing my best not to slip on a particularly steep incline. "I'm trying to find an elf in the woods. So far I've found her hat and her shoe. I've found Mesquite the hard way where it probably shouldn't be growing. Knowing my luck lately I'll probably find scorpions and rattlesnakes before I find Ayers. This world is REALLY messed up."

"It can't be that messed up," Ayeka returned.

"Gasoline fruit," I stated matter-of-factly.

"Oh," curt reply.

"Yeah..." I replied. "That pretty much sums it up."

"I never realized..."

"Nobody ever realizes the little things," I continued. I think I was getting close to the top of the hill. "You know? When you read a story, you never think about the things you'd encounter. The dust in a dry field... The number of unseen holes you can roll your foot in."

I broke through the brush into a clearing near the top of the hill.

"The fact that nobody in fantasy settings ever seems to encounter fire ants..."

Last week when I was here, a few bit me before the operation to strip Ayers had begun. It kinda' slipped my mind at the time because I was still kind of in disbelief of the whole situation.

"We're here." I announced, looking around. "Wherever here is."

Note to self: Before it becomes an issue, do NOT get lost. Unlike home, if I get lost here, I will not eventually stumble across a major road just by going one direction. Good thing I think of these kinds of things some time BEFORE I go romping through the woods without so much as a compass...

"See her at all?" Ayeka asked into my ear.

Nobody...

"Not at a glance, no." I replied.

I'm sure this is where she'd be if she was going to be anywhere on this hill. Okay, so she's an un-elfy Elf, but she's STILL an elf. She can probably hide when she wants to. The question is whe-

'Crack!'

"Yi-"

Above dofus!

I glanced up, scanning the trees in the clearing, and found her. Yep, just like the creator's comments in Portal. People just never bothered to look up without some kind of subtle cue. I should really learn to think more in three dimensions.

"Found her," I chirped.

Ayers was, well, clinging to a branch in a tree, glaring down at me.

"Go away!" she snapped irritably. "I'm trying to work."

"Work on what?" I asked, stepping towards the tree she was in. "Breaking your neck?"

As if to emphasize my point, the branch she was trying to move through crackled a little more in warning. Ayers yipped again and quickly went to work shifting her weight to another branch before that one could give way.

"You're going to fall," I pointed out. And I have absolutely no intent of making any attempts to catch her. That would just end with something else of mine broken.

"Am not!" she snapped, quickly scrambling for handholds.

'Crack!'

The branch she was hanging on snapped, causing her to scramble back with a yelp, dropping something I hadn't noticed from this angle. A crossbow...

Oy. What was she planning?

"DAMMIT!" she snapped. I guess she wasn't completely un-elfy. She managed not to come crashing down. Some things must just come naturally. Still...

"I think the tree's winning," I pointed out. "You might want to quit while you're ahead."

Ayers scowled down at me, and then down at her crossbow. Then finally heaved a sigh and started making her way down. As she did so, I noted how much of a mess she'd become. Her dress was ruined. Ripped up and torn in several places from her passage through the woods. She also had several noticeable scratches as well. SOMEBODY found Mesquite too...

"Glad you see it my way," I smiled when she finally reached ground level. Ayers just shot another glare at me while moving to retrieve her crossbow.

"How did you find me?" she began, picking it up and inspecting it.

"Lose this?" I asked, holding her hat up.

Ayers glanced at the hat, then closed her eyes and sighed.

Then after a moment, she turned back to her crossbow, and glared.

"Dammit," she muttered. "I just got this thing armed too."

The elf set about fighting with the weapon. Apparently she'd somehow managed to get it armed before I had arrived. And when she dropped it, it had lost its bolt and dry-fired, losing all the tension on the string. It was interesting to watch her grunt as she tried to re-cock the weapon.

"So what are you doing out here in the woods with a crossbow anyway?" I asked.

"What do you care?" she grunted, almost whining as the weapon refused to cooperate.

"Just wondering..." I lied.

"Hunting!" she snapped.

"Hunting?" I asked. "For what?"

"Those Who Hunt Elves," she snapped again. The string got free of her grip and snapped back, forcing the elf to drop the weapon, swear once, and retrieve it from the ground.

"So you're hunting the infamous elf hunters," I let myself get deadpan and sarcastic.

"Yes."

"With a crossbow..."

"Got a problem with that?" she snarled, working again to pull the string taught.

"Do you even have the slightest clue of what you're up against?" I asked.

"As long as I can catch them by surprise..." she grunted. "Then I'll pay them back for what they did to me!"

"You don't..." I shook my head.

"And you do?" she turned, stopping.

"As a matter of fact," I frowned. "Yes... Yes I do. And all that pathetic little crossbow is going to do is earn you an artillery strike from a Type Seventy Four main battle tank."

"And what pray tell, is an artillery strike?" Ayers asked.

"Boom," I stated, waving my arms to emphasize. "And we bury what's left of you in a hat box."

Ayers glowered at me suspiciously. I probably said too much at this point. But I needed to get it through her head that trying to go up against Those Who Hunt Elves with little more than a bad attitude and a single-shot weapon was just going to end in failure.

"I don't believe you," she stated at last. "You're probably just Judge's lackey come to talk me out of this. Well I'm not falling for it."

Ayers went back to wrestling with her crossbow.

"Stubborn girl," I shook my head. "Reminds me of you Ayeka..."

"I'm not stubborn!" the princess denied through my earpiece.

"WHO'S THERE?" Ayers snapped her humorously uncocked crossbow up at me. She glanced around several times trying to find the source of the voice.

"She can hear you, you know..." I replied to the princess.

"Who are you talking to?" the Elf was looking slightly scared now. Of course, no cell phones in THIS world. No radios, no telephones... Not even a telegraph. I might seem just a bit weird talking into empty space. Well...

"Just talking with someone on my magic far-talking device," I shrugged, and reached up to tap my ear. "Say hello Ayeka..."

"Hello." The princess crackled on the other end.

The elf looked at me quizzically, her head tilting to the side as she tried to make sense of what was going on.

"Are you with the Elf Investigative Comittee?" she asked at last.

"Nope," I shrugged.

"Then how'd you get something like that?" she asked. "How'd you get that... Far... Talker. I can't even buy something like that."

"I've got good connections," I replied. True, in a sense...

"Who do you work for?" she asked.

"Nobody," I stated.

Ayers seemed to mull on that, then lowered her crossbow.

"Good," she began. "You're hired."

Hired?

"Pardon?" I asked.

The elf walked up to me, her near panic having evaporated into a more regal bearing. I'd like to think of it as Snobby Mode.

"You seem to know more about Those Who Hunt Elves than I do," she continued. "So I'm hiring you to help me get my revenge. Just name your price. I'll pay whatever it takes."

Didn't Haruka warn me that one should never let the one being bribed set the price? It's official. Ayers has more money than brains. Of course, that, combined with the way she was trying to present herself despite looking like she just lost a fight with a lawnmower made me almost snort with laughter.

"What do you say?" Ayers continued.

So, the question of the day is: 'Do I take her up on her offer?' A few hours ago I might have been tempted simply for the need of money. But after selling ten thousand USD worth of toilet paper, (I really did snort at that point, earning a look from Ayers) I wasn't so strapped for cash.

Now, I could take her up on this, exploit her for a little more cash, and then turn around and ruin her revenge scheme. But I don't think I've reached the level of depravity where I'd effectively become a double-crossing con artist. One has to set some kind of standard, or risk turning into a Xellos, or a Quattro.

Oh how quickly my mood soured just thinking of that girl. If ever there was an invisible line that said 'DO NOT CROSS', it was the one leading down the path to her.

That settled it without question.

"Sorry," I replied. "I don't do petty revenge."

Ayers' face screwed up to a look of audacity.

"PETTY!" she snapped. "Do you know what those bastards did to me?"

"Yes actually," I kept my voice calm. "Very much so."

"Then you know this is very much NOT petty!" she snapped. "So why won't you help me? I'll pay anything you want!"

Oh let's see...

"Because I'm not crazy enough to think I can beat them," I glared back. "These guys TOOK APART the army of the Dark Elf Gabriella in forty-five SECONDS."

"Wow..." Ayeka muttered on her end.

"It's not all that impressive Ayeka," I muttered. "You could do that in your sleep."

"PLEASE!" Ayers continued.

"No..." I stated in a flat tone.

"FINE!" she snapped. "At least tell me more about them. What they're weaknesses are. Any suggestions! I'll compensate you handsomely just for that!"

Girl's getting desperate here.

"Okay," I began. The elf's face lit up and in an instant, I knew I had her full attention.

"My advice," I continued. "Is to turn around, go home, and pretend none of this ever happened."

Her face fell as quickly as it had perked up. That was not an answer she wanted to hear.

"If it helps, drink until you can't remember up from down."

"That doesn't help me at all!" she snapped. I think if anything, this elf was about to throw a full-scale tantrum.

"Let me make this absolutely clear," I continued. "YOU. CANNOT. WIN. There is nothing I can tell you or do for you. If you keep this up, you're just going to humiliate yourself."

"NO!" she about screamed. "I CAN BEAT THEM! I KNOW I CAN!"

For god's sake! It's like arguing with my niece. Only my niece has the excuse of being a little kid!

"Shut up." I ordered, my tone dropping. "You're just being stupid."

Ayers stopped dead in her rant and looked at me in shock. Yes, 'Tiffany'. I just called you, the incredibly wealthy and powerful aristocrat, 'STUPID'.

"Did you just?" she asked, bewildered. I just glared.

"Why you impertinent little..." she began. Her hand came up, palm open. The elf was actually about to slap me.

I didn't think; I just reacted. Her hand came around to give my face a new red mark, but never made contact before my good hand came up and caught her by the wrist.

I absolutely refuse to be struck by anyone else around here. I've had enough damn fucking pain to last me the rest of my life.

"No." I stated. The tone in my voice made it absolutely clear that this was not an option. Then I calmly started twisting her arm down.

Ayers tried to yank free, and got nowhere. That's when I realized it.

She's weak as a kitten! No wonder she was having trouble with that crossbow. I wasn't even on an amplified strength setting and her struggling hadn't even fazed me. How...

"Is this the best you've got?" I asked. "I'm not even trying. How do you expect to defeat Those Who Hunt Elves? Huh? How do you expect to beat Junpei? The guy punches through walls. How do you expect to beat Ritsuko with a crossbow you have to fight with just to load? She has weapons that can shoot from distant hills. She has a vehicle that can knock down a building in one shot. What about Celcia? She may look like a joke right now but her magic will FUCK YOU UP. What can you do that an entire army couldn't? HUH?"

"LET ME G-OW!" Ayers struggled and I instinctively tightened my grip, causing her to yelp. Careful... I don't want to hurt her. I almost broke my sister's wrist like this one time. I'm trying to keep this girl FROM hurting herself. Not expediting the process. I need to pay attention to how much force I'm using here.

"You're just going to get HURT," I continued, emphasizing the last word with another mild squeeze. Easy...

"I said let-" and Ayers spun and raised her foot to kick me between the legs. I curled instinctively to protect my 'vitals' from the blow, saving me from the end result of being on the ground curled up in a ball.

Okay, that's it.

"You need to calm down," I instructed, and twisted her arm. In just a few moments, despite having only one good hand, I had it tucked around behind her, and locked in an arm bar. That would be easy to curl out of however. And since I couldn't hold her in place, I quickly swept one of my feet under her, and dropped her face first on the ground.

"STOP IT!" she about screamed. "LET ME GO!"

"What are you doing?" Ayeka's voice suddenly crackled at ear-splitting volume.

"I'm not doing anything to her," I replied to the princess. "She's just throwing a shit-fit because I'm not letting her do whatever she wants."

It's like a four-year-old.

"LET ME GOOOOOOOO!" Ayers bellowed.

"That doesn't sound like 'not doing anything' to me!" the princess replied.

"It's only a restraining hold," I argued back. "I'm not hurting her."

I'm trying NOT to hurt her.

"How do I know you're not lying?" Ayeka's glower could be heard in the tone of her voice.

"Because you'd kill me the moment I got back," I replied. "You'd kill me, then Tsunami would resurrect my ass and kill me, followed by Washu... What? You think I'm stupid? I'm not suicidal!"

"AAARGHH! GET OFFA' ME!" Ayers bellowed.

"She doesn't sound happy about it!" the princess chided me. "Let her go."

"No." I stated matter-of-factly.

"EXCUSE ME?" the Princess crackled in self-righteousness.

"I said NO." I replied. "I'm not moving until this Elf's learned her lesson."

We're going to sit here until she calms down. Very simple. She can't throw a tantrum forever.

"Let me go!" Ayers bellowed again, sounding weaker this time. The girl was starting to cry.

Great... If she starts bawling on me I'm going to feel like an ass. It sucks to be an ass, but sometimes you just have to be one. And-

What's hissing?

SOMETHING TO MY-

'WHAM!'

I only just managed to spot movement in the corner of my vision as I turned my head. Then something slammed into my side just above the kidney. It felt like someone had splashed me with a bucket of scalding water and then kicked me. The sudden burning sensation made my vision spin as I tumbled sideways and rolled to a halt. I had to blink away a few black spots in my vision before I could get my bearings.

"GOD!" I snarled though the pain. "FUUUUUUCK!"

"What happened?" Ayeka's voice crackled with worry. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I grunted, sitting up. "I think... Ow! Dammit..."

Instinctively, as I sat up I reached across with my good arm and patted down the spot I expected to find a nasty burn. But there was no damage to my clothing. After a few seconds, the sensation began to dissipate. What the hell hit me? That felt like napalm, or frying oil, or boiling water! SOMETHING!

"I'm impressed," a new voice began.

I almost swore heartily upon realization as I looked up to see Judge not ten feet away.

"To think you'd all but shrug off a stunning spell like that."

The sensation all but gone now, it was easy to roll and push myself to my feet. Ayers had also managed to crawl to her feet and moved herself to the corner of the clearing, looking a touch scared.

"Stun spell?" I asked. Not a fireball? Not a physical blow? That doesn't make any sense. I'm transparent to magic. That shot should have gone right through me.

Judge just nodded.

"Most people would be out for the rest of the day," he continued. "You're a lot tougher than I thought. I applaud such talent."

Then his eyes narrowed.

"However," he continued. "I did warn you earlier about what would happen if you hurt someone."

Judge shot a glance at Ayers.

"Looks like I showed up just in time too," he continued.

Hurt someone? Just in time? Uh oh. I know how this looks. Ayers, on the ground kicking, screaming, and crying... Her clothes torn. Her face, arms, and legs all scratched up. Me, straddling her... Pinning her down.

Oh FUCK NO!

"You don't seriously think I was trying to-" I began. "No. NO! Do NOT lump me into the same category as that kind of pond scum!"

"Really?" Judge raised an eyebrow. "Well, I suppose her current appearance can be blamed on all the thorny bushes in this area. So I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt there."

Then he raised his hand. And what looked like a miniature aurora shaped like a ball appeared in it.

"But like I said," he continued. "Reckless endangerment gets my heckles raised. And I don't hold back."

Fuuu-

Judge stepped froward like an all-star pitcher and chunked his spell. I managed to twist, but it was a vain attempt to dodge at this range.

It slammed into my shoulder; twisting my body and causing me to stumble as the searing sensation of scalding hot water struck me. Instinctively I wanted to slap the spot to try and make the burning stop, but it went away on its own after only a few seconds.

I swore at the sensation and tried to sidestep the other way as a blow caught me in my bad arm near the elbow.

Nothing was sore, but it was hurting, like surface pain. Like my skin was being lightly slapped over and over again. But it was doing it right through my clothes, and right through Washu's sui-

The Hazard Suit is in sync with my nervous system! It acts like a second skin!

I'm immune to magic, that's why the attacks aren't stunning me outright.

But I'm completely wrapped in an object that is NOT immune to magic! I'm wrapped in a 'magic permeable' touch sensor.

God damned Medium Transfer Principle! I HATE YOU! I traded out my total immunity to magic for added physical protection. If only this suit were made out of matter from home! Then it'd be immune too. But it's from Ayeka's universe, so it's from a realm that has magic interaction.

FUCK! I'm wearing a man-sized resistor!

I managed to successfully duck another shot, trying to backpedal away from the elf investigator. I can't fight back against Judge like this. For starters, I'm down a working hand at the moment. So I can't even get access to Mossy. Using my augmented strength barehanded might just end up with me going head-to-head with one of his golems. On top of that, he can actually hit me with spells, so he's got no disadvantage at range!

SHIT!

What if he decides to use something nastier? Something that uses plain force instead of whatever kind of stunning or paralyzing effect the current spell has. It probably won't kill me, but it'll certainly leave me hurting!

"I don't want to fight you!" I snapped.

"That's too bad," Judge chided, tagging me with another scalding stun spell. "You should have thought about that before you attacked Miss Ayers."

Then he changed stance and summoned up a distinctly more substantial looking attack. I'm no expert in magic. I couldn't tell you what one spell would do from the next against normal targets. But being the strange mix-target that I was. There was absolutely no telling what might happen. Would it just flash over me like the stun spell? Would it ignite the suit which would in turn BURN me? Would it cause spalling somehow?

What would happen? WHAT?

Come on... Don't panic...

I need to get control of this situation... I need-

'POP!'

Judge spun around at the balloon-like sound.

"What in the-"

'CRACK!'

-Help...

The elf investigator went as limp as a wet noodle as his body spun and hit the ground. Behind him, Luna stood, blinking in surprise; her fist still balled up.

"I'll take it," I sighed in relief. "Nice shot Luna."

"Good thing I decided to check on you," the catgirl replied, still looking at her hand. "Wow... That really does work."

I wandered over and crouched down next to Judge's prone form. Still breathing. Still alive... Just out like a light.

"What just happened?" Ayeka demanded.

"Luna just sucker punched the guy attacking me," I commented. "Damn Luna, you dropped him like a bad habit."

"He's still alive right?" the Felis Sapien asked. "I didn't hit too hard did I?"

"No," I replied. "He's just taking a surprise nap."

"Good," she sighed. "I was afraid I overdid it there."

Glancing over to Ayers, who was now quite thoroughly scared, I just shook my head.

"See what I mean?" I asked. "This guy went toe to toe with Those who Hunt Elves before. He had me on the run, and I had you easily restrained."

"What- What are you going to do to me?" she asked.

I sighed. Looks like wrestling with that elf scared her. But better scared of me then charging into a fight half-cocked.

"I'm not going to do anything," I continued. "I'm just showing you how REAL it gets."

Ayers seemed to calm down a little at that. Then after a moment, she frowned, and learned forward where she was sitting, clutching her head in both hands.

"What was I thinking," she choked. "Stupid, stupid, stupid..."

Oh! Finally we agree on something. It takes scaring the shit out of you to make you realize how out-classed you are single handedly. But at least you're not completely bone-headed.

"Go home," I continued. "Go home. Get over it. Move on. It's not worth the effort."

"But," she began. "What they did, it's unforgivable... I can't just let them get away with it!"

"Perhaps I should talk to her," Luna looked at me, raising an eyebrow.

Diplomacy, yeah. Sure. Let the diplomacy expert handle this. I very nearly turned this into a massive fiasco.

"Go right ahead," I motioned. "I'll just be over here sitting on Judge or someth-"

Luna spun her head around, right at the same time Ayers did.

"NO!" the Elf's eyes widened. "It can't be!"

Then came the rustling and the crashing.

"EEEEYEEEAAAAAAHHHH!"

Junpei came ripping through the underbrush like an express train. The Mesquite that had dogged everyone else seeming to present no obstacle to his advance as he jumped straight over it. When he landed, he took a fighting stance, looking ready to destroy anyone who so much as twitched wrong.

"I heard screaming," he announced informatively. "Who's the asshole that would like his bones rearranged first?"

"NOOOOOOOOO!" Ayers screamed in terror, clawing away from the fighter. "GET HIM AWAY FROM ME!"

"What?" Junpei glanced in her direction. Then his eyes went narrow.

"AN ELF!" He crowed. And began to advance. Okay. Watching this on a DVD was funny. But the way it actually looked now... It's not funny. It's not even remotely funny. It's disturbing.

"S-STAY BACK!" Ayers yanked off her remaining shoe and threw it at Junpei. The girl was absolutely terrified.

"DO SOMETHING!" Ayeka suddenly snarled in my ear. "Can't you tell she's scared?"

"Do WHAT?" I asked in reply. "He's about as single minded as Ryoko, and I can't exactly fight a six-foot-something martial-arts champion with one bad hand."

That's when Luna stepped in and grabbed Junpei's arm with a shout of 'Wait!'

Junpei reflexively twisted and somehow managed to end up holding Luna upside down by the foot in a second. When he stopped to examine her, he blinked.

"Kitty?" he asked.

"Hi," Luna commented in a slightly annoyed tone. "Mind putting me back down?"

"Oh, sorry," Junpei replied sheepishly and let go. Luna managed to land in a crouch before standing up again.

"Okay," Junpei looked around one more time. "What's going on? What's with the Elf?"

"She was out to get you," Luna admonished. "We were trying to stop her."

"She's that rich elf you went after last week," I supplied. "Her name is Ayers."

"Ayers, huh?" Junpei turned back to the elf. Tiffany just cringed more.

"Relax..." the fighter chided. "We checked you for spell fragments already."

"Wh-" the elf began. "What?"

"I said we already checked you for spell fragments," Junpei stated. "If you don't have any spell fragments, I don't need to strip you. So stop whining like I'm the big bad wolf. I already met the guy, and he's kind of pathetic."

And I thought I was coarse with words.

"I don't have time for your whiny vengeance nonsense," he continued. "You're naked. Big deal! Chasing after us like this is just plain stupid. And a good way to get lost and eaten by tigers. Or raped by bandits. Are you TRYING to get hurt?"

"What's wrong with him?" Ayeka crackled in my ear. "Does he not understand her feelings?"

Feelings? Oh don't get me started on that quote...

Ayers just sat there, looking emotionally and physically defeated. After being told off by just about everyone today, it seemed to finally be sinking through.

"Stupid elf," Junpei muttered under his breath, turning away.

Then he got a glance at Judge lying prone nearby.

"WHOA!" he exclaimed. "Who managed this one?"

"That would be Luna's handiwork," I replied as Junpei walked over.

"Not bad for an amateur," the fighter appraised the Elf Investigator's unconscious form. "Blow to the jaw- how'd you get THAT close? This guy's no slouch."

"I'm a cat," Luna crossed her arms. "I'm good at sneaking up on things."

"No kidding," Junpei nodded.

Then he stood up and walked back over to me.

"You're right about teaching her how to fight," the fighter grinned. "If she can take HIM down with only a few hours practice, imagine how good she'll be as a master."

I half expected Junpei to add 'Not as good as me of course', but the egocentrism never came.

"Come on," he continued. "Let's get back. Ritsuko was getting a little worried when you didn't return from lunch on time."

Somehow, the way he said that made me think it wasn't really the case.

"And bring her too," he continued, pointing at Ayers. "I'll never hear the end of it from Celcia if we just leave her out here."

"Luna," I nodded at the catgirl. Luna just nodded in understanding and went over to help the Elf up.

Junpei, in the mean time, started back the way he came, plowing into the underbrush again like it was challenging him to a fight.

"Hey," I called, then pointed at Judge's prone form. "What about him?"

Junpei stopped, turned around, and scowled.

"I don't care," he shrugged. "Leave him. He'll wake up in a little bit."

"Okay..." I shrugged back. Honestly, I felt the same way. Judge had a habit of rubbing me the wrong way by being an arrogant ass-hat. And he wasn't exactly helpless on his own anyway. Let him lie.

Waiting for Luna to come by with Ayers, who seemed a little reluctant to follow Junpei, I fell in behind them.

"Hey Ayeka," I commented as a thought hit me.

"What?" she asked.

"Well," I began. "An FYI... This is the kind of crap I've had to put up with, every day for the last week. So don't take it the wrong way if I get a little high strung. Because this is not easy."

"You really did have a bad week," she replied. "Didn't you?"

I sighed, giving a long pause. I still had to go get Senbei from the roadside.

"Yeah," I finished at last. "Sucks to be me."