"If that Darkenning guy jumped down a cliff," my mother told me, "would you jump after him too?"
"I don't think I understand the question," I said.
Somewhere amidst the darkness, this had happened:
"I wonder what he is thinking," Loki chuckled to himself, stroking his long, sharp jawline while looking down at the catatonic young man at his feet. "No doubt thinking of his pathetic juvenile fantasies. Of banal classmates and fleeting attractions of the flesh. The same things all mortals this age think obsessively about. A shame, really, for a being with this much power to be trapped in this sort of laughable shell."
They had retrieved him from the last major realm to be plunged into darkness. Even when everything around him had been consumed, his comatose body remained physically the same, but ineffective regardless. The boy with no real name. The one the Data Overmind, or Overmaster, it made no difference, was afraid of. And yet he had fallen as easily as the rest of them. Being unaware of his own potential, and reluctant to use it even in any subconscious level, all of his power had made no difference. Might, after all, only makes right when you bother to exert it.
That had been a mistake Loki himself would not commit.
"My Liege," the hooded minion behind him carefully said, "please keep in mind we are dealing with the unknown here. This is a creature even the other gods, your peers, have chosen to leave alone…"
"Loki has no peers!" the Trickster god snarled, casually backhanding his lackey. "And no superiors either, not now I shall control this 'anomaly' even my Father, foolishly, chose to leave to his own devices." He reached over to wrangle his fingers between Kyon's dark brown hairs, and pulled him up towards himself. "First this, then the Kingdom Hearts, and then—"
Then everything went stark white.
Disclaimer: Mahou Sensei Negima!, Love Hina, UQ Holder and all related elements and characters are the property and creation of Akamatsu Ken, and the authors of this humble piece have made no material profit from it, and never will do.
Shin Seiki Evangelion and all its characters belong to Studio GAINAX, Anno Hideaki and Sadamoto Yoshiyuki.
Sailor Moon belongs to Takeuchi Naoko.
Fate Stay Night, Fate EXTRA, Fate Apocrypha, Tsukihime, Melty Blood and all their many characters belong to Type-Moon.
Oh my Goddess! and all its characters were created by and are the property of Fujishima Kosuke.
Mai-HiME and all its characters belong to Sunrise.
Batman, Superman and all related characters and elements belong to DC Comics.
All other characters mentioned also belong to their respective copyright holders. We make no money out of them, either.
Any resemblance of anything in this story with anything in real life beyond 'human beings have eyes and mouths' is a mere coincidence.
This chapter will certainly make no sense if you haven't read The Keys of the Kingdom yet, and probably even if you have.
Thanks a million to Shadow Crystal Mage, Darkenning, and all others who have collaborated with Unequally Rational and Emotional, and hopefully will continue doing so.
Unequally Rational and Emotional Special 6.
The Hand that Rocks the Unequally Cradle.
Original Idea by: Darkenning.
Somewhere in Mundus Magicus:
The horned, fanged figure in barbaric armor (we will leave the debate on the barbarians of Mundus Vetus and Magicus and their respective dress codes for later) backed away, experiencing, for the first time in his long life, fear.
The figure stalking over towards him, smirking fiendishly, flexing its hands in obvious menace, began cackling madly as it walked over his downed, charred comrades, through the wrecked corridor a couple sneezes away from collapsing.
"Please... no..." the demonic guardsman begged, dropping his axe, for he knew it would avail him naught against the monstrous attacker and its taller, more robust-looking follower, who marched a few steps behind, glowing sword in hand. "I'll give you all of our treasure if you just let me go!"
"Now, that's what I've waited to hear all day long," the red haired menace chuckled grisly, stopping. "However, you should have offered that earlier, and you'd have saved yourself a world of headaches ... assuming you still have a head by when I'm done with you. By now, all I have to do is bring the place down and dig your treasure out. So why should I spare you?"
"Um," the short figure's companion hemmed. "But, Lina, there's the matter of the prisoner we were sent for in the first place, isn't - GUHHHHH -" The tall blond man in light armor was silenced when the girl's elbow slammed into his stomach, hitting like a brick even through his protection.
The demon guardsman blinked. "The prisoner? I have no idea who you're talking about, but - GIIIIIIHHHHHHH!"
Lina Inverse, the Dragon Spooker, the Enemy of All Living Things, She who Only Fears the Mistress of Puppets And Her Own Sister (and slugs, but no one but Gourry had ever learned that and lived to tell the tale) pulled her foot back from his crotch, grabbed the much taller hell-beast of a man, and rattled him around like a kitten. "Okay, yeah, so we came for her! Who sent us, that's no business of yours! Just tell us where is she and maybe, perhaps, probably, we'll let you go!"
"- second door to the right after taking off the fifth block up from the floor on that wall and going through the secret passage, Ma'am!" the feared guardian whined like a small child.
Lina smiled very cutely. "Thanks!" And then she headbutted him into unconsciousness. She was feeling sort of nice today.
After pulling the block off, sure enough, a cryptically dark corridor was revealed. The handsome young blond man picked his nose twice, then said, "You know, when they stick these prisoners in these sealed dungeons, deep underground, isolated from the outside world... why don't they suffocate to death? I have always wondered."
"Mages do it. Duh." An annoyed Lina started inwards, carefully, a light spell in her fingers, and a wary expert eye looking around for traps. "You wait out there and yell if there are reinforcements. You can't even walk into a kitchen without triggering traps."
"How could I know that duck would set a trigger in his icebox to drop it on us?" Gourry Gabriev tried to protest, but by now Lina was too deeply inside of the tunnel to listen or care. He sighed. "And I only wanted a glass of water!"
After several minutes of walking through the darkness, Lina came to a halt. There had been no traps so far. That was weird, to say the least. True, the place itself, never mind its true purpose of keeping a prisoner instead of stashing demon haul, had been a total secret until her current, mysterious employer learned of it very recently. (Or so he claimed.) So maybe they hadn't thought they needed booby traps. Demons could be quite careless at times, she mused as she resumed her march. But then again, far too crafty other-
"Oh my L-Sama," she breathed out, as she arrived at the sole door at the end of the tunnel. The door was a simple, rusty jail one with black bars, allowing her to see, inside, a huge bubble of containment, of the sort often used by sorcerer technicians to preserve their live specimens in a state of hibernation.
Inside that bubble, which floated two feet above the ground, there was a naked beautiful woman, with very long and trailing golden hair, frozen in such a way she almost looked dead, her eyes fully open, fixed on nothingness.
One blue eye. One light green eye.
After the shock, after the realization, after all the implications sank in, Lina Inverse smiled, for once without greedy joy, sadistic glee, or mischievous superiority.
It was just an eager, anxious smile full of the utmost devotion.
The kind of smile Lina would only save for a single person in any world.
To her credit, Lina had offered to take her somewhere else, anywhere. If her admired Princess didn't wish it so, she wouldn't take her to her current employer. Just this once, and just for her, she could bend her own rules, reneging on a job, and her reputation as a bounty hunter wouldn't suffer too badly for it.
But the Princess would not even hear about it. The given word, no matter to whom, was sacred, and Luna would be greatly disappointed if she ever heard Lina talking like that. Of course, that sufficed to make the mighty Lina Inverse cower back and whimper her acceptance. Gourry had been, for once, really freaked out at that, to the point of also agreeing just to get that woman away from them as quickly as possible.
"Besides," the Princess has said, looking at the line of the horizon ahead of them, "I am rather curious to see who would ever want me back. Although I already have my suspicions..."
Lina never knew for sure what those suspicions had been, but she guessed they had been correct, for the Princess had not been startled at all when they finally entered the rendezvous cabin in the mountainside, not too far away from the old prison, where the contractor had told Lina and Gourry to bring the prisoner into once they had retrieved her. The cabin had only one large room, and was empty except for a small table at the middle of it, with a single chair, where a man who looked to be in his early sixties sat, his bespectacled face framed by the contours of the dark hood he wore, attached to a cape that wrapped itself around his still tall and vital body. Lina guessed you could say he remained attractive, in his own way, and yet there also was an unmistakable aura of latent danger about him that prompted her to keep him at arm's length at all times.
"Hey there, old man," the Bandit-Killer casually waved as she walked in, a hand easily hanging above the sword at her waist. "Here we are, with the charge as promised. I sure hope you've also made it with the gold."
"I have, indeed," the old man's still strong and steady voice sounded confident and calm, as he placed a heavy bag on the table before him. Lina's red eyes, for a moment, flickered with the habitual spark of unchecked greed, but she held herself back with a great amount of effort as she gave a step aside, all the better to allow the Princess a direct access to the table, towards which she strode at a pace that was just as confident and calm as the man's speech. "And I see it was well invested treasure. It has been quite a while since I last saw such fine goods."
"Lina the Pink," the Princess said, not bothering to look back at her or her companion. "Are you sure this man is the same person who hired you to search for me?" Her voice was nearly without tone.
Lina blinked, the woman's usage of the old despised title barely registering. "Um, yeah, of course I am. I never forget a contractor's face, after all..."
"Have you ever seen this man," her Princess asked, voice unchanging, "without his glasses?"
And suddenly, the old man laughed. It was not a pleasant sound, not an indication of mirth or pleasure, but something far colder. "I suppose I shouldn't really have expected these to fool you, of all people, with these," he said, touching his hand to his thick spectacles' frames.
"Not when your face is indelibly etched in my memories," the Princess agreed steadily. "Why are you alive?"
"I could ask the same thing from you, child," the man answered, standing up as if he wasn't facing the dreadede Queen of Calamity and two of the most feared mercenaries on the planet. "I had been led to believe the Senate's underlings had you murdered roughly ten years ago."
"I am sure you mourned," she all but hissed, poison dripping under the cold control of her tongue. "Years before that, I had you executed," and her voice grew more serene but even harsher, as she quickly pulled out a sword she had kept concealed behind her back. Instantly, she pressed its tip against the old man's throat, a thin trickle of blood coming out. He barely flinched. "Give me a reason why I shouldn't finish what I started back then."
"You would achieve nothing through it. That man truly died back then, child. By striking me down, you would only hurt all those who depend on me now."
"Then, do you admit someone died for you that night?"
"You out of everyone should know sometimes, death is a path that can be walked back, my dear. I see we are alike even in that." There was a low, dry chuckle. She snarled in response. The chuckle stopped. "Going back that road has changed me."
"If there are any changes in you, I am sure they are only in your surface, for I still can smell the old stench under your false skin."
"Very well. I suppose it is possible Fate has decreed I haven't paid enough. Strike me down again, then, if you consider that will please your heart. Maybe it's the best thing I ever could have done for you. In trade, I only ask for you to leave my youngest child alone."
She followed his gaze to a small portrait on his table. She looked at the smiling face of a brown haired girl with a small mole under an eye.
"As you know, when an emperor is toppled, both his princess and his subjects suffer," he said. "Or didn't last time teach you that?"
The blade remained where it was.
"If I had ever wanted your child hurt in retaliation, I would have done it, long ago," he spoke when it was clear she wouldn't talk back. Gourry Gabriev opened his voice to express his opinions on the subject, or perhaps to ask if he could go use the bathroom, but Lina silenced him with a nasty elbow to his stomach and a just as vicious hiss.
The edge pressed tighter. The crimson line on the old man's skin became thicker.
Now he didn't say anything, either.
And then the blade wasn't against his throat anymore.
"I can give you all the answers you want," he spoke again.
"But you won't give them," she said. "I will learn the actual truth, whatever it is, myself. If I don't like what I learn, this sword will meet your neck again. All the way through. And I will make sure to burn the body this time."
He nodded, single-handedly tossing the heavy bag of gold coins into the expecting Lina's hands, who caught it just as easily. "Won't you even ask about your son's whereabouts, Arika?"
The blond woman gave him another chilling glare. "Isn't he in Mundus Vetus, under the Magus' protection?"
"Not anymore. Recently, he fell under Konoe's protection instead. He is residing at Mahora, my dear," the old man shook his head quietly, pushing his glasses further up his strong nose.
"Mahora..." Princess Arika pondered in a low, somber tone, her brow curving down even further. And then, without a single word more, she stomped out of the decaying cabin, sheathing the sword back.
The mercenaries kept on looking at him, still where they stood, for a few more moments, until he smiled and nodded at them. Only then, they walked out as well, after the Princess, but always keeping wary eyes on him.
He waited until he couldn't hear their steps on the grass anymore, and he was fairly sure they had marched down the hill, no doubt heading directly towards the nearest Gateport.
"Hm. If that's your way of forgiving me, thanks. I'll accept it," he told no one in particular. "I only wish I could return the feelings."
And then he smirked. "But thank you for giving my faith on the future back, either way."
There were three now, after all. His dream project could be realized.
"I find these means of transportation to be awfully-" Princess Arika began.
From where he sat at Lina's other side, munching on a large piece of fruit, Gourry interrupted with a curious, "Undignified? Cheap? Dirty?"
"No, none of those, certainly," Arika quickly replied. "I meant slow. As globetrotting adventurers, have you ever considered getting horses?"
Lina and Gourry looked at each other, blinked, and then sheepishly shook their heads to Arika.
She sighed. Right now, they were sitting on the back of a haywain pulled by two old donkeys and driven by a half-sleep old hick smelly of liquor and sweat, making their way through the hills of a certain peaceful kingdom Arika had not visited for years, even before her imprisonment. It didn't seem to have changed at all, all things considered, but knowing the royal family as she did, she did not find that fact to be surprising in the slightest. Although she certainly had been hoping for the locals to adopt speedier means of transport during her absence. That was a particular instance where she definitely favored Mundus Vetus.
"How about hiring a whaleship, then?" Arika asked. "You certainly earned the gold for it, Lina the Pink. On my hide, I might add, not that I am ungrateful for the rescue..."
Lina held a finger up. "My sister and you taught me on the values of frugality, Your Majesty. How could I allow those lessons and this wonderful gold go to waste?"
"We certainly did, didn't we," Arika monotoned in grim defeat. She had to wonder why, despite being nearly unbeatable, she always would keep on finding ways she could and would defeat herself. She supposed it took someone as awesome as herself to do it, although that was of little comfort.
"Besides," Lina pointed at her companion, "Gourry just hates flying! Otherwise, I'd have enchanted us all with a Ray Wing!"
Gourry shuddered. "If the gods wanted us to fly, they'd have given us wings! And feathers! And colorful beaks without teeth on them!"
"Well, I agree flying in that manner is rather troublesome. For starters, it makes one an easy target, and when one has as many enemies as one has-" Arika started.
"One has reached the site one described," one of the donkeys pulling on the car snorted, with a gruff, deep voice, as they slowed down close to the narrow access path to a secluded valley Arika had visited only once before, but which directions she had made sure of memorizing to the letter then. It was distant enough to be isolated from the scarce towns in the immediate vicinity, yet not enough for three older women to periodically visit said towns for supplies. Without using their magic.
"Oh!" Lina perked up, jumping off the car and landing on her feet on the muddy road. "Isn't that just great? Thank you, Cranky, buy Matilda something nice," she said, tossing the male donkey with the bad ugly wig a gold coin, which he caught between his large teeth with a gruff huff. The female donkey at his side giggled good-naturedly as the man driving the vehicle just burped, muttered an incoherent litany of goodbyes, and took hand of the big jug at one side of his seat, taking a long, avid chug from it.
From there, through the forests and narrow mountain passes, it took them slightly longer than Arika expected to get to her destination, but they were rewarded by, before anything else, the wondrous sound of a mesmerizing voice that simply had to be blessed by powers beyond mankind's reach. It was a young lady's singing voice, melodic and pristine like no other, leading Arika and her borrowed horse towards a small, peaceful clearing in the woods, near a small lake.
There, Arika stopped, halted by the classic, youthful beauty of an angelical creature in peasant's rags that, if anything, only increased her attractiveness. She was fairly shorter and lighter in build than the more mature and somewhat buxom Arika, and her hair of a lighter and shorter golden; her small feet were bare, and she moved with grace and agility as she sang, surrounded by small woodland beasts and birds that were as fascinated as Arika.
"I wonder, I wonder, I wonder why each little bird has a someone to sing to, sweet things to. A gay little love melody. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder if my heart keeps singing, will my song go winging. To someone, who'll find me and bring back a love song to me."
"Uh..." a suddenly mesmerized Gourry mouthed, mouth slightly open, before Lina violently stomped on one of his feet. He barely noticed it and chalked it up to a misstep.
For a moment, the innocent beauty of that scene made Arika feel ashamed of herself. It was not an unknown feeling, that. Often, she had paused during her machinations, both before and after her imprisonment; then she would contemplate her ultimate goals, and feel scorn and disgust for herself, before shaking those thoughts away and rekindling her drive. However, being faced with that girl made those troubling sensations come back twofold, and Arika actually contemplated simply heading back unnoticed and abandoning her developing plans for good. The greater good.
But alas, even if that pondering had been honest and lasting, the younger woman prevented it from bearing fruit when she realized the newcomers' presence and mouthed a slightly shocked gasp. "Oh!" she backed away, for visitors were extremely rare, and she often had been warned about them. "My apologies, you have startled me! What... May I help you with anything, Madams, young sir?" she humbly asked, picking back up a basket with fruits she obviously had been collecting before distracting herself.
"Sir?" Gourry blinked, rather befuddled at the strange treatment, and pointing a finger at his own chest. "You mean me?"
Arika steeled herself, once again dispelling the doubts in her mind. "Greetings, young Briar Rose. I am an old acquaintance of your aunts, and these are friends and allies of my house, the house of Vespertatia. I apologize in advance over my arrival with not prior warning, but I am in dire need of council with them," she formally exposed.
"She is a good, honest girl," the tallest of the three older women, named Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, told Arika as the former Queen and his two current companions sat, taking wary eyes back to the dining room's closed door. "She is not going to spy or eavesdrop."
Of course, height is always a relative term, so even Flora did not reach to Arika's jawline. She was almost as tall as Lina, however.
"So, not much in the way of initiative, then?" Arika asked, evenly looking at the trio sitting across the table, facing the three of them, within the small cabin in the woods. "I suppose that can be worked on later. You look well, Fair Ones. My congratulations on raising Aurora into a healthy young woman who stays out of her house when she's told to."
Lina, who was a healthy young woman who wouldn't stay in or out of her house when she was told to, just pouted bitterly. Gourry just eyed towards the kitchen's door, wondering when would they start offering them food.
"And congratulations on staying alive this long, Queen of Calamity," bluntly said the shortest of the three, the one clothed in blue. "For once, you have rekindled my faith on the human race."
The graying fairy in green at her side discreetly elbowed her.
"It has not been without its difficulties," Arika allowed. "But thankfully, I have lived enough to see the day when I will rejoin my son and heir. And so, the time has come to make good on the promise given to my father."
The three older women seemed perhaps more startled than they should have. "But... are you sure you would wish, to carry on any enterprise left behind by him?"
"King Stefan," added Merryweather, the shortest one, "seems to consider the treaty to have been between kingdoms rather than families. And now Vespertatia is not a kingdom, he plans marrying Aurora to Philip, Hubert's son."
"Well, isn't this a surprise," muttered Lina, who had little to none respect for the Fair Folk, tapping her gloved fingers on the table. "King Stefan, eh? So that silly girl is the Cursed Princess? Even my sister believed her dead."
"Cursed Princess?" Gourry wondered aloud.
"That's good to hear," Merryweather grumbled. "And I only hope your arrival hasn't clued anybody else towards her survival."
"We were not followed at all. I made well sure of that," Arika bluntly reassured them.
"Isn't your son... too young yet, Your Majesty?" asked a concerned Fauna. "I was given to understand that..."
Arika narrowed her eyes. "Regardless of my feelings towards my father, I shall not have an oath given to my house broken. Tell that to Stefan, if you please."
Merryweather's already stern frown grew fiercer. "Perhaps you should tell him yourself, Your Highness."
"Far from me," Arika replied, "pretending to use the Fair Folk as my messengers. But, seeing how Stefan has already seen fitting making you his assistants..."
"Thank to which," Flora replied, "your son's intended bride still draws breath."
"And I'm eternally thankful to you over it. But it doesn't mean you have the agency to decide on our children's destiny."
Gourry placed a hand on his stomach and groaned, hoping somebody would get the hint. No one seemed to do so, although Lina herself had begun eyeing the kitchen's door now, as well.
"Maybe..." Fauna shyly pointed out, "that's something Rose, I mean, Aurora, should decide on by herself?"
Flora and Merryweather, normally polar opposites, coincided in their sharp glare at their mutual sister, who seemed to shrunk back from them.
"Now that," Arika said, "is a completely valid point. And so, Aurora should be allowed to meet Negi, to see for herself if he's worth her-"
Flora placed her hands on the table. "Your Majesty, even if we could or wanted to break our vows, Rose, that is, Aurora, could not pass through to your husband's world. Where I was last told your child would be."
"That can be arranged for," Arika easily answered. "And you cannot deny, in that side of existence, it'd be far more difficult for her to find a spinning wheel with a spindle, nowadays..."
"No, she'd just be ran over by a horseless carriage, instead," muttered Merryweather, folding her arms and shifting aside on her seat.
Flora sighed. "One of us will talk with him on the subject, but of his reaction, we make no promises. The other two will have to stay. Every day must be one of vigilance and supervision."
"And before you ask, we have a surveillance spell on her right now!" Merryweather grumpily added.
Arika nodded. "As I would expect from ones as wise as you. My apologies if I have sounded insensitive or far too urgent. But from this day on, nothing will be denied to my son anymore, if I can help it."
"We could have gone tell the King ourselves, for a small added fee," Lina offered, with a slight grunt.
"I am afraid I currently lack the funds to repay your kindness, however, Lina the Pink," Arika pointed out.
Lina shrugged her shoulders. "You're a special case, Majesty. You always could pay me later."
"I believe the King would simply barricade himself and his subjects if he ever learned you were approaching his domains, Bandit Killer," Flora cautioned.
"... what makes you think I would announce myself?" Lina asked, genuinely curious.
"I'm sure the trail of bodies would do that for you," Merryweather said under her breath.
Gourry blinked. "Wow, for a bunch of hermits in the wild you sure are well inf-"
Lina viciously elbowed his stomach.
"Where have you been during these years, Princess?" gently asked Fauna, mostly to derail the conversation from that dangerous turn.
Arika sighed. "I have spent them as the forgotten prisoner of demons, in a small secondary jail in the outskirts of Tartarus' domains. Somehow, someone was informed about my whereabouts and paid Lina the Pink and Mr. Gabriev here to retrieve me dead or alive, and valiantly, they strode in to rescue me..."
"Well," Merryweather huffed, still looking intently aside, "isn't that just a relief?"
"I could add that rescue left us rather hungry..." Gourry lamented. "As a matter of fact, I think I will..."
"Could you please stop calling me Lina the Pink? My name is Inverse," the small young redhead muttered, her patience strained far beyond what would have been its breaking point with anyone else. "I wouldn't even mind 'Dragon Spooker' or 'Scourge of All Living Things'..."
"I am afraid, out of your whole family, I still only can address your sister by those titles," Arika sort of apologized. "Perhaps, over time..."
"Blergh," Lina grimaced.
"I'm sure that nice girl out there wouldn't have denied us a meal," Gourry mused aloud.
"Oh my goodness, where are our manners...!" Fauna gasped, almost springing back to her feet. "I shall return shortly with a dinner for you..."
"At last! I should have spoken far earlier," Gourry deflated with a relieved sigh.
"Unless you are going to ravage this whole forest," Arika warned, "I don't think you will have enough in this cottage to feed them properly."
"Hey!" Lina snapped. "That was mean, My Lady, I don't eat anywhere as much as I used to do...!"
"You almost ate one of the donkeys pulling on our car," Arika reminded her.
"That was just a figure of speech during a rough patch and you know it!"
"The way you brandished that fork towards him was rather convincing, however..."
"The old-girl donkey looked more plump anyway," Gourry mused, rubbing his strong chin with a hand.
"I feel bad, you know. About those nice old women at that forest..." Gourry mused, rubbing his strong chin with a hand.
Lina looked back at him, exasperated. "Wait, are you telling us you're feeling bad about them NOW?! Days after you ate everything they had?!"
"Days after you two ate everything they had," Arika calmly corrected her, as she led the way into a little town that barely remained a shadow of what it had once been, in the peak times of the local contraband and illicit commerce..
"I didn't eat as much as he did," Lina argued, holding her small, pointy nose high.
"You ate less plates, but you poured a lot more onto each plate," Gourry said.
"I hope you realize, if my son's fiancée starves to death before he even can meet her, I will hold you both accountable," Arika told them, as coolly in control as ever.
"Whatever," Gourry nonchalantly waved a hand before Lina kicked him in a shin. "Eeep!"
It was night, in this part of Mundus Magicus at the moment, and shortly after trespassing the entrance to the village, they were heading into a large rural market lit by torches. All around them were stalls where they could see vendors hawking a variety of goods. The scent of torchsmoke filled the air, in a way that reminded Lina of her own childhood days at Zefiria.
Arika led them directly towards a modest building two stories high near the market's back gates, where they found a short, grossly fat man with a bushy beard and a pair of thick glasses napping behind the sole desk in the reception area.
Arika, who was wearing a hooded white cloak over her humble travel fatigues, rang the bell on the desk. "MacTavish," she said, not loudly, but not low at all either. It was said in a tone and delivery that made it clear immediate attention was demanded for.
The small man woke up suddenly, rattled by the voice, and straightening up on his wooden chair as best as he could. His face went pale. Even with the hood obscuring most of her face, he recognized her as soon as she calmly pulled her glasses off, and those now mismatched eyes fell squarely on him. "It's... you!" he said, his voice choked and tense. "W-We-Welcome back to the Goblin Market! W-What a pleasant surprise, it's been a-!"
"Yes, it's been," she agreed, not curtly, yet far from warmly. "I want to know if your secret passageway is still functional."
"Why do they call it a Goblin Market if they don't sell goblins anywhere?" Gourry asked.
"Shut up," Lina muttered.
Arika breathed out and gestured towards them. "These are Lina the Pink and Gourry Gabriev. Please do address them with as much respect as you would pay me, MacTavish."
The short man adjusted his glasses, giving the pair a perplexed glare. "Lina the Pink...?"
"Also known as Lina Inverse," Lina said, rather simply.
MacTavish staggered back with a choked cry, dropping on his back, stubby legs kicking up frantically.
Arika only stared down at him. "I asked, is your secret passageway still-"
"I, I, I don't know, honestly!" the tiny man garbled out, sitting up as if shook by a jolt of electricity, glasses askew on his paling face. "Please don't hurt me! It's been long since they outlawed non-officially sanctioned Gateports, since you left, My Lady, and, and, and-!"
"Is it still available?" Arika asked.
MacTavish hesitated, trembling, before seing Lina smirking and crackling her knuckles. Then he trembled even more and nodded. "I, I think so, in the sense that they haven't outright closed it, but I haven't used it for so many years..."
Arika eyed several nearby stands of fresh goods of clear Mundus Vetus origins. "Don't tell me. Then I suppose I should ask about your current suppliers. It is simply amazing they could deliver these so efficiently, since the closest airport is at more than five days of distance."
MacTavish seemed to shrink down even further. "Y-Yes, it is incredible, isn't it. You know me, I only work with the best..." He worked back to his shaking legs and discreetly led them towards a back door, placing a finger on his thick lips.
After a few minutes of hurrying through the suburbs, along several narrow streets that were mostly deserted, MacTavish brought them across a field and up a hillside, where the valley ended and the imposing mountain range started. Soon, they stood before an average looking cave that didn't particularly impress Lina, much less Gourry.
"Hey, halfling," Lina snorted, hands on her slim hips, "are you sure this is it? I can't feel any magical energies coming out of this thing."
"Of course not. It is supposed to be a small gate used by smugglers," Arika explained, walking towards the cavernous entrance with nothing but the clothes on her back and the sword hidden in said clothes. Then, before actually stepping inside, she turned back and placed her hands on Lina's shoulders. "My deepest and most sincere gratitude, Lina the Pink. You have proved being a far better friend in need than many of those I once considered comrades."
Lina gulped, and Gourry almost thought he saw a brief shade of red on her cheeks right then. But it surely was only a trick of the moonlight. Lina just never could blush! "Ah... Thank you, but this is nothing for someone like me, really...!"
"If you say so," Arika pulled her hands back. "I wish you could follow me where I am going, but alas."
"If you really want to show me gratitude, however, you could start stopping calling me Lina the Pink..."
Arika was staring directly into the darkness of the cave now. "By the way," she said, oblivious to Lina's request, "I think you and Mr. Gabriev really should fuck already."
"WHAT?!" Lina and Gourry cried at once.
"I happen to own a lovely motel a few blocks away from the market, with a fairly romantic atmosphere, I'm just saying..." MacTavish innocently commented.
Arika stared back at him over her shoulder, sharply. "Miss Lina the Pink will pay for your assistance as she has been told to. Of course, I expect this to stay between us and nobody else. Or else, my hand might be forced from generosity to animosity."
He nodded eagerly. "Our house's lips are sealed. Shall we be having more of your presence in the near future?"
"Yes, you shall be having more of my money in the near future," the woman answered his true query. "My errands are far from being over yet. Just remember, MacTavish," she added, her tone softening down just so slightly. "My enemies' gold is as good as my own, but it also comes along with betrayals, while mine doesn't."
"I know. I might be an exploitative cheater, Your Highness, but long ago, I learned true evil only devours its own accomplices," he muttered.
She only nodded in a thoughtful silence before gently waving her goodbye at Lina and starting her march down the tunnel.
Lina rasped and hemmed a few times before sarcastically asking MacTavish, "That thing you learned, you learned it the hard way, didn't you?"
He looked at her. "About my generous offer for a love nest, what do you say about it?"
A second later he learned you never should answer a lady's question with another question.
Arika made further down it into the cave, passing by the wards that would have misdirected or stopped others. No doubt MacTavish, who was far craftier than he seemed, had nullified them long ago, since her last trip through that forbidden, allegedly abandoned entrance. Never doubting or looking back, she walked into the darkness, marching steadily, through the tunnel that had once been used by much bigger smugglers and other outlaws before Konoemon had sealed it. Before long, she saw the small, faint and flickering light at the end of it, and she knew she had crossed through between the worlds yet again. She had been mildly concerned it might have stopped working, or that Konoemon would have wised up and sealed the other end of it. After all, it had been too long since her last visit to know for sure.
The light grew and grew as she approached it, until she emerged through the other end, and the light was clearly visible as the sun shining over the hills of another world, and the wide valley that rested beneath them.
She saw the gigantic tree in the distance, and despite herself, her heart knew true awe once more.
On her way towards civilization, or what passed for it in Mahora, Arika passed through a river of low, shallow waters, making little effort to cover her tracks. She felt reasonably sure no one was bothering to follow her around, and why would they? MacTavish still remained too afraid of her, and if Lina the Pink and her manly, appealing, yet terribly dense partner had wanted to betray her, they would have done it before. She still had the almost certain feeling her father was setting her up in some fashion, but she also suspected his schemes were long term enough she did not need to fear for her own safety in the immediate future. Otherwise, there would have been no point on having her freed instead of disposed of, in the first place, especially if he already knew of Negi's location. The rest of her known enemies were too witless or self absorbed to suspect what she could have been doing. And very, very few knew about the secret passageway to start with.
In any case, in order to distract and confuse any unlikely pursuer, Arika decided not heading directly towards Negi just yet. Instead of looking for him or confronting Konoemon first, she surrounded the Mahora Academic District and headed into the parts of the Old Tokyo that had been turned into Academy City after the War, when Japan's reconstruction demanded for the creation of many educative and cultural centers, many of them heavily or partially influenced by the Westerners. Now, decades after, the metropolis had become the sociocultural epicenter of the rechristened Area Eleven, and its districts were each named after the Academy they had been built around.
It was relatively long trip on foot for a currently penniless person, from the Mahora District to Furinkan District, one that Arika Springfield took through that whole night and into the next morning, so she could arrive to her destination before breakfast. After the spring break, classes still were a couple days away, as she had seen in the newspapers on the newsstands, so the youngsters she wanted to see should be at home, where she wanted them. And true enough, she saw one of them sweeping the front entrance of the old, mildly decayed, Tendou Residence as soon as she arrived. She was very beautiful, as expected from a daughter of Kimiko, even if her long, dark brown hair made into a ponytail tied up with a pink bow didn't match the black hair of both her parents. But Arika chose to blame receding genes. As far as she knew, Kimiko never cheated or dreamed to cheat on her husband.
"Good morning," Arika greeted, stopping before the front steps and the mildly surprised younger woman in the long blue dress and white apron. "You must be Kasumi. You have grown a lot. Is your father in?"
"Ah... good morning," the young woman replied, in a deliciously soft and sweet voice. "Excuse me, but do I know you? You seem familiar, Madame, but I'm afraid I can't place your face..."
"Tell Soun Arika Springfield is here," the blonde requested. "He will understand."
"Arika..." the young woman mused, before setting the broom aside. "Oh! Arika-sama! Now I remember! I hadn't seen you since... Mother's funeral..."
"I will always remember Kimiko fondly," the blonde honestly said, while a shorter and younger girl with long black hair wearing a white gi with black belt stopped behind Kasumi, looking over her shoulder, at the newcomer. "Oh, but if it's little Akane. Still with the same adorable eyes as Kimiko..."
"I'll go look for Father," Kasumi perhaps swallowed just a little, quickly heading inside. "It won't take long, please step in and make yourself comfortable. Akane-chan, please entertain our honorable guest, will you?"
Akane blinked while her older sister walked past her and out of sight. "Um, welcome?" she bowed, gesturing for the stranger to walk in. "Yeah, I'm Tendou Akane, and you would be...?"
"Arika Springfield, wife to Nagi Springfield, also known as the Thousand Master," Arika bowed at the breakfast table, sitting opposite the suddenly very pale Tendou Soun and his three teenage daughters, including the middle sister, the short haired, shapely and barely tank top and Daisy Dukes-wearing Nabiki, who looked critical and analytically at the visitor. "My husband and I were long term acquaintances of your parents, and that is what brings me here today, actually."
"Arika," the mustachioed man in the dark gi rasped. "You're welcome as always, Arika-sama, but I must admit, it's strange to see you again, after so long... You'll excuse me, but I was under the impression you and Nagi-"
She shook her head. "As you can see, I remain quite alive, Soun. Nagi's whereabouts remain unknown. Negi, however, has just finished his studies at Wales, and I hope you do remember what that means."
Soun swallowed a visible knot of saliva in his throat.
"Yes, you indeed remember, don't you," Arika hummed, taking her tea cup between her hands and then to her lips. "Hadn't you ever told them? For shame, man, although sadly, I can't say I find myself disappointed."
"What did Daddy do this time?" asked Nabiki, who always was cold and to the point.
"It is rather more about what he and Nagi did ten years ago, after our only son's birth," Arika sighed. "Shortly before leaving and never returning, my husband made an agreement of gentlemen with your father. They agreed one of you would marry Negi and bring our families together."
That made a long and unbearable silence reign over the table, which Arika made good use of to sip her drink before the questions started pouring down. Soun just looked down and braced himself for impact.
"Oh my," Kasumi finally said, a hand on a cheek.
"This is gonna suck," predicted Nabiki, clenching her teeth.
"WHAAAAATT?!" Akane slammed both hands on the table, cracking it by half without even realizing. Soun sighed deep and sadly; he had liked that table and lot, and so he liked his inner organs where they were, as well, which made their likely imminent removal all the sadder. "YOU MUST BE JOKING THAT CAN'T BE TRUE IT'S A VERY BAD TASTE JOKE WE AREN'T MARRYING ANY TEN YEAR OLD OR ANYONE WE HAVEN'T EVER MET BEFORE FOR THAT MATTER WE AREN'T IN PRE-WAR JAPAN ANYMORE WHAT WERE YOU GUYS THINKING NO NO NO! WHY DO YOU KEEP DOING THESE THINGS TO US DAD DIDN'T YOU HAVE ENOUGH WITH RANMA-KUN ANYWAY?!"
Then she sat back, seething and puffing, her face colored crimson, and drank a very long gulp of tea. "In short, I have serious objections against the idea!" she summed up.
"It never was my choice, either," Arika said, "but as one of the last wishes I ever heard from Nagi, I insist on it to be fulfilled."
"Arika-sama, please..." Soun said, making a truly cringe worthy face. "Don't you think it's a bit too early to be bringing this up...?"
"When were we going to learn then, Daddy?" asked Nabiki. "When the kid is twenty and we are almost thirty, and you interrupt our weddings to tell us we've to marry him instead?"
Soun narrowed his eyes at her. "Why do you have to be so cynical and caustic over everything?"
"Like Akane said, why do you have to keep causing problems like this?" Nabiki asked in turn. "Why, if we had a dime for every time you goofed up in the past and your mistakes cost us dearly now..."
"Nabiki, don't talk to me like that, especially not before a visitor!" her father barked, streams of Manly Tears running down his face.
Nabiki huffed and folded her arms. "Saying it aloud or not won't change the facts, and you know it. Also, don't cry like that. That only humiliates you further!"
"... but we all do love each other. A lot," Kasumi told Arika.
Arika nodded. "I can tell. No, honestly. That is the discussion of people who are passionate over each other and care over their respective failures, not that of those who don't care, and those who don't care are those who can't love."
"Wow," Akane admitted. "That's really deep."
"So," Nabiki said. "Where is that son of yours, anyway? And, well, how much money do you guys have?"
"Direct and to the point. I like that sort of honesty," Arika nodded, "But sadly, our family lost the wealth it used to own. To be perfectly honest to you, I don't have a single coin to my name, or on me, at the moment. We are working on rectify that, however."
"Huh, good for you, then," an unimpressed Nabiki said. As for my other question, however-"
It was amazing how fast things had changed back, at least outwardly. Granted, a gigantic change of scenery from an alien fantasy world back to the familiar and now positively almost sane-looking grounds of Mahora Academy did a lot to justify that. Sitting now back on the old chair, in the old classroom, near the same old window showing the same old blue sky and wearing the same old uniform, Hasegawa Chisame almost felt like all those days- weeks, even months- spent running around dangerous parallel worlds filled with talking animals, hostile shadow demons, and insane supervillains had been nothing but an insane fever dream.
And yet, it never could be that easy, could it?
One thing was for sure, her classmates had not changed and never would change in how annoyingly noisy they were.
She was currently trying to ignore Saotome Haruna, who was chattering up a nonstop chuckling, innuendo-filled storm at her as they sat together making decorations for the incoming School Festival. All in all, Chisame was somewhat surprised by how long that year's Festival seemed to be taking to just start already. It had been, to her, like years since Negi had been trusted upon them. And, after all of that, it seemed like the problem with Evangeline, the brief breather at the start of the new term, the class trip to Kyoto, and the Golden Week had come and gone in a very slow succession.
Inwardly, Chisame decided, despite how apathetic she was towards studies in general, that Academy had far too much free time and not nearly enough time spent teaching and studying. Not that she would ever say it aloud. She might have been lynched.
Of course, not that any of that mattered for Evangeline A.K. Mc Dowell, who slept like a log on her seat while everyone else worked diligently, or at least pretended they did. Not so with Evangeline, the proverbial 800 pound magical vampire gorilla who slept wherever and whenever she pleased, no explanations or excuses needed.
Negi was currently struggling to pull out the old, tricky, rusty drawer in his desk, which seemed to have grown even more stuck than ever during the objective weeks spent away. Of course, Chisame knew, it was more like he was struggling to apply enough strength to pull it open without breaking it. It was almost tragically funny how much things had changed in that regard, and yet still look like they always were before.
Sure enough, Negi's efforts failed, and he ended up falling on his butt, with the handle of a broken drawer in his hand. And then a decoration hanging on the wall fell on his head as his back hit said wall. "Ow!"
Miyazaki Nodoka, Yukihiro Ayaka and Ayase Yue, who had been hanging even more decorations around the door, rushed to his side. "Negi-sensei!" Ayaka gasped. "Are you okay?"
"Ah, yes, of course, no problem!" the red-haired boy said, straightening up with a goofy chuckle and a faint blush. "It was nothing, not even a scratch..."
No, of course it couldn't be, could it? Chisame sighed to herself, ignoring Haruna's latest tease. It was so stupid. Now she finally didn't have to worry too much about him being hurt anymore, why did she still feel bad about it, even if in a fully different way?
Then the classroom's door slid open, and in walked Minamoto Shizuna, same not-so-old, blond, gorgeous, quite stacked and almost forgotten Minamoto Shizuna, with one of her pleasant angelic smiles that always were an omen of doom, ever since that day when she guided Chisame into the room she'd share with Hakase Satomi. "Negi-sensei?" the woman asked, musically. "The Headmaster would like to talk with you and the rest of the English Research Society at his office, please!"
Negi stood back up, blinking. "Ahh... Ah, yes, of course! Immediately!"
That, on itself an innocuous, routine moment, was such an innocent prelude to otherwise monumental, world changing events, it still would never leave Chisame's memories after the fact, anyway.
"You asked for us, Konoemon-sensei?" Negi carefully asked as he entered the most luxurious office of Mahora Academy. His fourteen Ministra Magi then walked in after them, all of them but Konoka and Asuna showing varying degrees of discomfort or reluctance. That included Haruna, who was just sure something was about to be pinned on them, and more specifically on herself.
"Of course I did, Negi-kun," said fondly the old man with the strangely shaped head sitting behind the wide desk. "Please sit down. No problems readjusting to your old post, I trust?"
"Oh, no, far from it, Sir," the boy said, obeying him, hands on his knees. "Frankly, it's been a relief, coming back. I feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders."
"You can say that again," Chisame muttered.
"I'm just sorry you couldn't find Nagi-kun after all," the old man said, pouring him a cup of steaming tea, and inviting the girls to help themselves with the teacup and a tray of lovely white cups.
"I'll find him yet, I'm sure of that," Negi replied, accepting the drink. "Thank you. Regardless," and he smiled, "I found something else that is just as precious, in any instance."
Alice blushed adorably while most of the other Ministra glowered silently. Exceptions included a chuckling Haruna and Yuuna, indifferent Asuna and Setsuna, and giggling Konoka.
"Yes, you did," Konoemon agreed, applying his dry lips to his own cup. "Please, do try being the best Magister you can be for Liddell-san and the others, Negi-kun. Not that I doubt your capacities for it. As a matter of fact, I have summoned you here precisely because of such capacities of yours..."
"What do I need to do, Sir?" Negi eagerly offered.
"Oi, oi, hold your horses, Negi-kun," he chuckled. "Even you should take rests and enjoy your earned peace every once in a while. This isn't about what else you can do for us, but what we can do for you instead."
Negi stared at him, without understanding, until he finally ventured out a weak, "... will I get a salary raise?"
"Oh-hum! I hadn't thought of that yet, to be honest..." Konoemon admitted, rubbing his own chin. "I suppose it can be discussed later. However, this is more directly related to all you did in the other realms, son. You and your companions broke nearly every law not related to manslaughter in more than a dozen countries during your travels. You also have established an unheard record of Pactios for someone your age, something the magic associations strongly scoff at. Yes, you had me in the uncomfortable position of having a lot to explain to nearly every Association across both worlds. And yet-"
Negi began hyperventilating. "Sir! I'm sorry, Sir! I'll accept my punishment, I knew I was reckless and thoughtless, but please, don't punish my students as well! I dragged them all into my selfish quest, I endangered them, and I know now you'll make me cancel all my Pactios, except the only one I'm supposed to keep, but please, even if it's the standard procedure, don't wipe their memories of those events away, they have earned that knowledge, and, and, on second thought, maybe they'd be safer that way, but-! At least give me until the weekend to decide for one! Tomorrow is too tight a deadline, I have to consult them first!"
Konoemon gave him a perplexed glare. "Now, why would we do that?"
Negi blinked. "... because that's the standard regulated procedure?"
Konoemon waved a bony, wrinkled hand. "Forget the standard procedure! Nothing about any of this was standard, so your punishment wouldn't have to be standard either! We didn't cancel Nagi-kun's Pactios with Jack and Al even after years, did we?"
"Jack and Al? Um, but those are men's names, so… Um, never mind, I suppose you didn't," Negi allowed. "But, but I'm not even half, no, not even a quarter of the worthy hero my father was, I bungled my way through all of that, I couldn't possibly deserve the same accolades and permissions he got..."
Konoemon fought back the urge to whack the self-pity and self-despise right out of the boy's thick skull.
"Negi-kun," he patiently said instead. "We would have to be complete idiots to waste the impressive amount of potential seen amongst your partners. Only a pack of complete imbeciles would let resources as valuable for the whole magical community as your friends and allies. That's not the way to treat a band of heroes."
"Ahhhh..." Negi said.
"Damn straight! Recognition at last!" Haruna cheered, her earlier fears dispelled by then.
"Granted," Konoemon said, "the Clock Tower DID want to force you pick a single partner by tomorrow and erase the rest's memories, but they ARE a bunch of completely idiotic bigots with their minds stuck fifty years ago. So they were majorly overruled. Mundus Magicus' associations were particularly supportive of you."
"Sir, I'm so grateful...!" Negi said.
"Thanks for sticking with us, Grandpa!" Konoka said.
Asuna nodded. "Yeah, it means a lot for us!"
"Negi-kun, girls," Konoemon said. "You have helped to save at least one world, and quite probably all of them. You already have proved yourselves. That is why, after I presented your case, and after careful examination between mages from all corners of the worlds, and with a seal of approval of Stephen Strange himself, we have decided to stage a ceremony for your official titling... as a Magister Magi on probation period."
Negi blinked again.
Then he creaked a slow, rigid smile.
And then he fainted from the chair, splashing what was left of his tea all over his suit.
Konoemon looked down at him. "Oh, my, my. Nagi would have just laughed about it on my face... Now, for further matters related to your probation evaluation, I'm going to introduce you to your new special test period officer. Oh, Silverberg-san? Would you care to join us?"
The tall, obviously European woman with long golden blond hair and a pair of glasses that seemed just a bit too large for her face who now entered the room did so in complete silence. She nodded in the headmaster's direction, but her eyes were firmly fixed on Negi's fallen, spiral-eyed figure, though she said nothing.
"This is Arika Silverberg, your new special test period officer," the headmaster stated, maybe just a bit redundantly.
"It, it's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Silverberg!" Negi said in English as he quickly sprang back to his seat with Ayaka's help, somewhat embarrassed, then shook his head quickly and added, in Japanese, "I'll be in your care."
"Yes," the woman said in that same language.
"Oh, and one more thing," the headmaster elaborated. "Konoka, Asuna-kun, would you be so kind as to let Silverberg-san stay in your room for a while? We haven't yet worked out-"
"Eeehh? Wait, what!?" Asuna burst out.
"I'm good with it!" Konoka said cheerfully.
"No," said Arika.
There was a blunt silence right after that. Asuna blinked, then poked a finger into her ear and began twisting it inside. Surely she had just not heard someone denying the Headmaster something…?
"We haven't yet worked out her final rooming arrangements and - I'm sorry, what was that?" the headmaster said to the new officer.
"No," she repeated dryly.
Asuna's finger began twisting faster and harder, while she clenched her teeth.
"What is the meaning of this, Silverberg-san?" the headmaster asked the woman.
"The meaning of this," she said as she reached up to remove her glasses, "is that I am not playing your little game." She turned then to look at Negi.
"My goodness," Negi said, startled. "What an odd coincidence, you having the same heterochromatic condition as Asuna-san."
"It is not a coincidence, Negi," she said, further startling him by employing no honorific while still speaking Japanese. "My name is Arika Anarchia Entheofushia... and I am your mother."
"Oh," Negi said.
"Oh?" Arika repeated, a delicate eyebrow arching.
"Eh?" Chisame said.
"Bweh?" Satomi added.
"Ah," Misa said.
"Uh!" Misora interjected.
"Gyah..." Sakurako went.
"Whu?" Matoi asked.
"Ah! You were here?!" Setsuna asked.
"Yes, always," Matoi nodded.
"What is this I didn't even," Haruka piped in.
"..." Sora said.
"Oh my goodness!" Alice covered her small mouth with a just as small hand.
"Asuna-san!" said Ayaka. "Her eyes!"
"It, it's probably just a coincidence," Asuna stammered. "She couldn't possibly be my mom!"
"Yes, it's much more likely that you're the daughter of my remote ancestor, kept young through suspended animation for centuries if not millennia," the lady agreed.
"Yes, that's way more plausible!" Asuna said with relief. Wait, no, that makes no sense whatsoever!
Haruna just pointed at the woman and cried. "Holy guacamole, Negi-kun, your mother is Shannon Tweed with Asuna's eyes!"
Her teammates managed to, somehow, snap out of their shock long enough to stare back at her. "I beg your pardon?" Negi asked. "Who is Shannon Tweed?"
"Well, you'll see, she-" Haruna began to explain, then waved her hands before herself. "Never mind, the explanation would take longer than it really merits, given the circumstances."
"I suspect it involves discussion of porn?" Satomi asked. "If so, it baffles me you would choose to sidestep further discussion on the subject..."
"It's just softcore! And what is so shocking about me skipping ecchi discussion for a while so we can focus on a totally shocking reveal?"
"You didn't even bat an eye when your family revealed your father was actually your brother, your grandparents were actually your parents, and your mother was just your brother's fiancée, all on age changing mushrooms just so they could-" Satomi began to remind her.
"Eh? When did all of that happen?!" Negi cried.
"- don't ask, just don't, for the sake of your sanity," Chisame pleaded, turning him around so he faced Arika again. "Just keep yourself focused on your own insane family drama, will you?"
"Well... I'm sorry, but I really have no idea how to react to this revelation. I've never..." Negi's voice trailed off, and he started shaking his head, back and forth, slowly.
"Never wondered about your mother?" she concluded for him.
"Well, actually, no, as far as I am aware, he never once—" Satomi began, right before an annoyed Chisame tightened a hand around the genius' mouth.
"I... wouldn't say that I never... but when I wondered about my father... what happened when I did that..." Now the boy was trembling as his head swung back and forth in an unceasing, pendulum like movement.
"Ah, yes," Arika said, nodding. "The attack on your village. Believe when I tell you, please, that I wanted nothing more than to go to your side when that occurred, and would have done so but for my continuing involvement in the schemes of demons and wicked old men."
"I'm sitting right here, you know," the headmaster interjected. None of them seemed to pay him even a bit of attention, however, and he slumped back in his chair, visibly pouting.
"You're my mother," Negi said, his trembling now strong enough to disrupt his head shaking, so that he simply stared at her.
"You are the child who grew under my heart," Arika answered, with a simple nod.
Abruptly, any trace of the decorum drilled into him at the wizard academy and the university afterwards departed the young boy, and he ran at her, crying out, "Mommy, mommy!" as he flung himself into her open arms, to be crushed against her ample bosom as he descended into sobs.
Much to everyone's surprise, Yuuna also broke into uncontrollable tears right there and then.
The other girls stared at her, amazed.
Yuuna kept on crying for the next few moments, then angrily said, "What?! I lost my mother, you know! You're all fortunate you still have yours, and you don't even realize it!"
"I'm a full orphan," Misora reminded her. "And so are Asuna and Setsuna-san!"
"Yeah, but you never knew your parents in the first place!" Yuuna kept on crying as Makie patted her back comfortingly.
Now, Arika turned her steely gaze on the headmaster. "I will stay with him," she said.
Chisame blinked. "Hey, what? I think we'd have to be asked first, wouldn't we?"
"I believe that we can at least temporarily accommodate that request," the old man said easily.
"That was not a request," Arika said
"Well, it should be!" Chisame exclaimed. "One aimed at us!"
"Chi-chan, please…" Sora moaned. "Control yourself, will you?"
Misa chuckled bitterly. "Why, Chisame-chan! Don't tell me you'd really be that rude at poor Negi-kun's poor mommy, after all this time without ever seeing her son…!"
"You'd better stay out of this, Kakizaki!" Chisame snapped at her.
Misa smiled and shrugged. "If it's too bothersome for you, Negi-kun and his mom could stay with us, and, I don't know, maybe Madoka-chan can go live with you instead…"
"Misa-chan. That was low," Sakurako said. "I mean, Madoka-chan is our BFF!"
Konoemon ignored them. "Let us discuss the matter in greater detail this evening, after she has settled in at your quarters, Negi-kun. I suppose, under the circumstances, that today will not be the day for him to begin her stint as your evaluator, after all."
"Wouldn't that just create a conflict of familiar interests, however?" Satomi mused aloud.
Arika gazed at the headmaster, clearly suspicious, yet for the nonce she simply nodded, rose up, still cradling her son to her, and turned to walk out of the room. After a few moments, the girls followed them in silence, with Konoka pausing just long enough as to wave at her grandfather and blow a wink and kiss to him.
The old man stroked his beard with an annoyed expression, then reached out to the phone on his desk, dialing a certain number.
"Sarutobi-sama," he said after a moment. "A new difficulty in the plan has presented itself. Ah. Yes... yes, that might work. Clever, clever. And it would be the last thing either of them would expect... yes. Indeed, let us do so."
With that, he stroked his beard and let out a deliberately crafty laugh, in synch with a faint yet similar sounding crafty laugh coming from the phone.
They were no evil laughs, however. Seriously, they weren't.
For real. This isn't that kind of story, like the other story is.
To be Continued?