Chapter 21: The Trees

It was weird having Nelly out of the room. Kaneda had picked her up early that morning. Literally. At 6:00 am sharp he showed up in the room, had Nelly crawl on his back piggyback style, and leaped out the window. Or that was what Kon said happened. Asuma wasn't about to let his teacher's training excursion rob him of the one day he got to sleep in. He had roused himself enough to give her a weak wave goodbye and promptly gone back to sleep. Now that he was fully awake, Nelly's absence actually felt evident.

Aside from her mattress, which was rolled up neatly in the corner, and a few of her affects from home stacked on her desk, there were no indications that she had been there. All of her clothes were hidden out of sight, and all of her school papers had been left in the school office. Anything else she owned she had taken with her. For all practical purposes, the room was the same as it had been before she arrived.

Kon seemed just as unchanged as anything else in the room. He stood in front of the stove, cooking a veritable mountain of bacon, just like he always did. It was uncanny.

"Morning, Asuma. You're up right on time," Kon said. "Got your bacon ready."

"Thanks." He scratched himself in an assortment of places and took his seat at the table. "I guess Nelly's gone on her way."

"Yup, Kaneda came by and got her and Milly this morning. You were only kind of asleep."

"Guess that's why I was able to sleep so well. Didn't have her worming her way into my bed. And I don't have to worry about that damn ermine stealing my boxers."

"Well, she did go to the trouble of rifling through all your drawers before you left. I crammed everything back in there when I got up."

"Thanks," Asuma groaned. "I just don't get it. What the hell is up with that ermine? I know there are some weird fetishes, but why on earth is she so obsessed with underwear? I mean, yuck! What on earth is the appeal of that?"

"Maybe it has something to do with the proximity," Kon said. "Maybe she likes the sense of intimacy she gets from handling something that was so close to-"

"EW!" Asuma recoiled in horror. "Dammit, Kon. That was a rhetorical question! Why the hell do you even have an answer? I don't even want to think about it."

"Oh, come on." Kon giggled. "It's not that weird. If you had a chance to steal a pair of Takahata-sensei's panties, you'd totally do it."

"I would not!" Asuma's face turned a bright red.

"Really?"

"No! Of course not!"

"Reeeaaallllly?"

"Okay, so maybe I would, but I'm only human!" He folded his arms and snorted. "She's an ermine! Never thought I'd be living in a room with a talking ermine."

"It is kinda weird when you think about it, isn't it?"

"It's weird even when you don't think about it. Animals aren't supposed to talk." He sighed. "It's nice that things are finally back to normal for a bit."

"Doesn't it feel a bit strange?"

"Does what feel strange?"

"Not having Nelly in the room anymore."

"Wmmfff mu muu Mnnn?" Asuma mumbled, his mouth full of bacon. Kon correctly assumed that he meant "What do you mean?"

"Well, I was almost getting used to having her around, you know? She's been around long enough that it feels odd when she's not here."

"You got used to her that quick? I don't know how you manage it. I'm still a bit weirded out by her."

"Maybe it's the magic thing," Kon suggested.

"Huh? What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, you found out that she was a mage like right after she showed up here, right?"

"Yeah..." Asuma thought back to that fateful day. "It was the afternoon she showed up. I saw her use her magic to levitate Nobou after he fell off a staircase. Then she tried to erase my memory and ended up shredding my uniform."

"Maybe that introduction is why it took you so long to adjust. When I got introduced to her, it was just as a teacher. Sure, it was a bit weird that she was only ten years old, and that she was living in the dorm with us, but other than that she was just a regular girl. It was a little strange, but not 'your teacher is a wizard' strange. So I guess I just got used to having her around. By the time I found out she knew how to do magic, she had already worked her way into my routine."

"So you think it took me longer to adjust because I got all the weird magic crap dumped on me all at once?"

"I guess. Maybe it's also because you associate magic in general with her. I mean, you found out at basically the same time that you met her, so it's only natural that you'd create a subconscious connection."

"What, are you a shrink now or something? What's next, asking me about my parents?"

"No, nothing like that." Kon held up his hands in a placating gesture. "I just mean that I think of Nelly first and foremost as a teacher. You think of her as a mage because that's what she was essentially introduced to you as."

"Sure, sure, whatever." He turned his attention back to what was left of his breakfast for a moment. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"What did you think of Nelly? You know, before you found out about magic?"

"About...Nelly?"

"Yeah. Like you said, I'm kinda preoccupied with the wizard thing. I mean, I know that I was a bit grouchy because she was a kid, but once I found out about magic, it was kinda hard to think of anything else. You weren't thinking about any of that crap."

"Well, my first impression was that she was just a cute kid. She was certainly bright, though. She talked like an adult. A childish adult, but she just felt a bit older than she looked. But even so...I have to admit that...well..."

"...Well, what?"

"Even though she seemed really sharp, I was a bit skeptical. I didn't really think that she'd be able to teach."

"Well, neither did I. You know how our class is."

"It wasn't about the class, though. I just didn't think that she could teach. She was too naive. Even if she is really smart, it doesn't mean that she'd be able to explain it, you know? She might know a lot more than us, but even then I thought she'd be too childish to be able to actually teach. I feel kinda bad about it."

"Well, obviously. She's what, ten? Of course you wouldn't expect her to be able to teach." Asuma rolled his eyes. "There's no reason to feel bad about expecting a kid to act like a kid. Sure, she's smarter than I am, but come on. Even if she's the smartest kid in the world, this is ridiculous."

"You still don't think that she's cut out for teaching?" Kon said with a sigh. He had rather hoped that by now Asuma would have had a bit more faith in his teacher.

"Not now, no." Asuma sensed the intent behind Kon's question. "In five, ten years maybe. Right now? Hell no. She's ten years old. It just isn't going to work." He refocused his attention on his bacon. Kon watched him for a moment, eyes narrowed.

"I think I know what's going on here."

"Oh really?" Asuma's voice was pure sarcasm.

"You don't think she's a good teacher because she isn't Takahata-sensei."

"Oh, not this again-" Asuma started to turn away.

"Wait just a minute!" Kon grabbed Asuma shoulders and turned him back around. "Just hear me out, okay?"

"Fine," Asuma snorted.

"I'm not talking about you specifically, I'm talking about the class in general. Takahata-sensei was really good at keeping everybody in line, even guys like Haru or Asakura. Nelly can't quite manage that yet because they treat her more like a little sister than as a teacher."

"I guess you could say that." Asuma nodded. "You really think that she's a good teacher if she can't deal with stuff like that?"

"Well, she did manage to get everybody's grades up. She did manage to teach us quite a bit. She even got some stuff into your head that Takahata-sensei couldn't manage. Isn't that what makes a teacher a teacher?"

"If you're going to be like that, I suppose so," he admitted. "But there's a lot more to the job than just that, isn't there? I mean, you have to be able to organize class activities and school trips and take care of problems and stuff."

"Speaking from experience?"

"Oh shut up, you know what I mean. Like this whole mess with Everett. Vampire or not, I bet you Takahata-sensei would have had the whole thing fixed by now. She wouldn't spend a week preparing for the issue or go off into the woods to train."

"Well, of course Takahata-sensei has it down to a science by now. She's like three times older than Nelly is!" Kon said. "She's been teaching for a decade. She probably wasn't any better than Nelly when she started teaching."

"I doubt she started teaching when she was ten."

"Okay, she was probably a bit older, but come on; even if you take Nelly's age into account, she's doing a remarkable job. I actually kinda thought that she'd have cracked by now. You know, given what our class is like and everything. You have to admit that it's impressive that she's made it that far. Even more so if she has to balance the whole magic thing. She'd probably be doing great if she didn't have to deal with the stress of sitting on such a huge secret."

"I guess you're right," Asuma reluctantly admitted. "When she first showed up I was positive that she'd be on a plane back to England by now."

"You mean Wales."

"Whatever. Even if she has issues actually doing everything, she's tough, I have to give her that. It takes some serious balls to keep up that kind of schedule without going crazy."

"She doesn't have-"

"I know. It's a figure of speech, you idiot."


"Are we almost there, Kaneda?" Nelly gasped. Even though the ninja was zigzagging in and out of the trees that lined the mountain path, Nelly had trouble keeping up. At first she had resolved to make the trek under her own power without the aid of magic, but she had given that up almost immediately. Even with the arcane power boost, her legs and lungs burned. The steep climb and heavy backpack were taking their toll. She couldn't imagine how he kept moving so quickly. Doubly confusing was the large metal barrel strapped to his back. It had to weigh several times as much as the backpack that was dragging her down.

"Almost." Kaneda hung upside from a tree branch. "Just one more hill." He pointed at a particularly rocky and treacherous-looking trail.

Nelly took a deep breath, and began the ascent. The steepness of the path forced her pace to a crawl as she stooped down and pulled herself along with her hands. She barely even noticed when a small white face popped out of her bag.

"Can you try not to jerk around so much? I'm going to get motion sick back here."

"It's just a little further," Nelly gasped. "I still don't know why you didn't let me ride my staff up here. It would have been much faster and smoother."

"That defeats the whole purpose of coming up here!" Milly barked. "You're supposed to train! Get stronger! You don't get stronger without hard work! Now go faster!" The ermine pulled a tiny riding crop out of her tail and cracked it next to Nelly's ear.

"Ow! Where did you even get that!-?" Nelly protested. "I thought you wanted me to slow down!"

"Faster! Faster!" The ermine continued to wave the crop. Despite her fatigue, Nelly found herself speeding up.

"We're here!" Kaneda bounded up the incline and stood atop a large boulder.

"Here? Where's-" Nelly stopped as she crested the hill. She was met with a small clearing, circled on one side by trees. Across the other side a large stream gurgled past. In the center a circle of stones surrounded the remnants of a campfire.

"I try to come up here to fish at least every other week," Kaneda said. "Hi-Ya!" He leaped off the boulder into a superfluous double somersault and landed next to the fire pit.

"So that's why you're never around on weekends."

"Yup yup."

"Alright, let's get the training started!" Milly perched on Nelly's head and pointed. "First off, climb that tree using only your feet!"

"Now wait just a minute, I thought that Kaneda was going to be training me!" Nelly removed the ermine from her hair. "How is climbing a tree supposed to help me, anyway?"

"Well, it's ninja training," Milly said. "And climbing trees is totally a ninja thing. I mean, look at him, he's like a monkey or something!" She pointed at Kaneda. The boy was indeed scurrying up one of of the trees, not unlike a squirrel. "Now get climbing!"

"That will not be necessary." Kaneda dropped down right next to Nelly. "We have a couple of other things to do first."

"Fine, fine," Milly relented. "What's on the agenda then?"

"First, we set up our tent. Second, we make lunch."

"Well, that's a bit domestic," Milly grumbled. "I thought you were going to train her. Give her ninja lessons and stuff."

"You want a lesson, yeah?" he asked Nelly, more or less ignoring the ermine.

"Yes!"

"First lesson: necessities take priority."

"I see." Nelly dropped her backpack and began to dig through it, eventually retrieving a notepad and pen. "'Necessities...take...priority.' Got it."

Kaneda snatched the notepad out of her hands. At least that's what she thought happened. It was so fast that it looked more like the notepad just disappeared and reappeared in his hands.

"Lesson two." His ever-constant grin widened a little as he tapped the side of his head. "Never write down what you can remember."

"Uh..." Nelly was still distracted by the sudden theft of her note-taking implements. "I guess I should try to commit it to memory then."

"Yup yup."

"So, I guess we should put up the tent first."

"Yup." Kaneda nodded. "I usually build the shelter myself out of branches, but you'll need a good night's sleep. I'll take care of it."

"Maybe this won't be so bad after all," Nelly said, half to herself, half to Milly. "I was afraid that he'd have me fight a bear or something."

"Nah, that would be silly." Kaneda chuckled. "You watch too many kung fu movies. Most training is far more mundane. Alright, the tent is up."

"Already!-?" Nelly could only stare. The last time she had gone camping, it had taken Nick and Alex almost an hour to figure out how to set the tent up, let alone actually putting it together. And the one that Kaneda was now standing beside was much larger and more elaborate-looking. It was every bit as impressive as his ability to cart a metal barrel up the side of a mountain.

"Yup. Now it's time for lunch."

"Yeah, I guess you'd be pretty hungry after that hike up here," Milly said. "What did you bring?"

"Nothing."

"Huh?" Milly skittered down Nelly's body, and onto Kaneda. She leaned towards his head, talking directly into his ear. "I don't think I heard you correctly. I could have sworn that you said 'Nothing'?"

"Yup."

"We don't have any food?" Nelly was a bit taken aback. Maybe Kaneda hadn't planned this as well as she thought he had. "I thought you said we were going to eat lunch now!"

"We are, we just have to catch it first."

"Catch it?"

Kaneda pointed at the stream.

"We're having fish."

"Well, this is just turning into a regular old camping trip, isn't it?" Milly groused. "What's next, s'mores?"

"Nope, that's not until tonight."

"Ugh, what kind of training excursion is this! How is fishing supposed to teach her anything?"

"Where's the fishing equipment, anyway?" Nelly asked.

"Don't have any," Kaneda answered.

"Then how are we supposed to get lunch!-?" Milly growled. Kaneda's ever-present smile was growing infuriating.

"We catch it ourselves." He leaped up and landed at the edge of the stream, where the water bubbled over a ledge, forming a short waterfall. He drew a kunai out of his uniform. "Watch." For a long moment he stood perfectly still, staring into the water. Then, with a shout, he flung the knife into the spray. With a thud, it embedded itself in a tree on the far side of the stream, a fish flopping about weakly on the blade.

"Wow!" Nelly stared in awe as Kaneda hopped over the water to retrieve the fish. "So you're going to catch our lunch that way?"

"Nope. My lunch."

"Wait, you mean you aren't going to feed her?" The ermine sniffed unhappily. "That's messed up!"

"I thought you wanted her to train." Kaneda patted Milly's head. "I'm just giving her incentive."

"Don't worry, I'll catch something," Nelly said. "Can I try?"

"Yup yup." Kaneda brought out another kunai, and offered the handle to Nelly. "Don't cut yourself."

"Okay, let's see..." Nelly wound up to throw, only to have Kaneda grab her hand.

"Hold it like this." He readjusted her grip. "Release the blade when your hand is level with your shoulder, and be sure to follow through."

"Alright." She took took a deep breath and threw the knife into the stream. That was the intent, anyway. In reality, the kunai buried itself in the dirt about four feet in front of Nelly. "I think I need a bit more practice. Let me try that again."

Half an hour later, her form had improved to the point where she could successfully get the kunai as far as the water. Unfortunately, she couldn't so much as see a fish, let alone hit one.

"This is ridiculous," Milly grumbled. "At the rate she's going, we'll starve to death before she catches anything. Do you really think she's going to be able to catch a fish like that any time soon?"

"Nope. It takes a week or so to even throw the kunai properly. It took me months to learn how to hit a fish."

"Then why on earth are you letting her waste her time like this?"

"Don't worry, she won't be doing it much longer." Kaneda nodded at her. Each failed throw seemed to sap a little more of her enthusiasm. At the moment, she seemed to be scraping the bottom. She sullenly waded into the water once more to retrieve the knife.

"Um, Kaneda?" she called. "I don't think I'm going to be able to catch a fish. I'm not used to throwing these. I can't hit anything."

"Very well." Kaneda stood. "That's lesson three."

"Lesson three?"

"Know your limits." His smile widened slightly.

"How am I supposed to catch any fish, then?"

"Well, you don't have to use the kunai." He wiped the knife on his pants and stowed it away. "Use your own abilities?"

"My own abilities?"

"Your magic!" Milly interrupted. "Use your magic to catch the fish! I'm hungry!"

"Exactly," Kaneda said. "What kinds of magic do you know?"

"Well, I specialize in wind magic; manipulating air currents and things of that nature."

"Do you think you can use that to catch fish?"

"I can try."

"Good." Kaneda nodded. "You do that."

"Okay..." Nelly closed her eyes for a moment as she thought through the list of spells that she knew, searching for one that would help her. Maybe she could cast a binding spell to catch a fish. But that would be complicated. She'd have to think of a way to keep the flowing water from tripping the spell. Or she could summon a spirit of wind to spear the fish. That was a possibility. But it would require direct control on her part to get the spirits to do what she wanted, and that would use up far too much magic. Maybe she could just shoot the fish with an arrow of light. But she could barely even see the fish, let alone hit them. And an arrow strong enough to make it through the water would probably blow up the fish anyway. She needed something with more finesse, something that she could have more control over.

She thought back further in her training, back to the basics that the spells were built on. What was the first thing she had learned? A simple breeze spell. The ability to manipulate the wind. Surely if she could create a breeze as a five-year-old, she now had finer control. More finesse. She silently recited the spell to herself, turning over the syllables in her mind, calling up a gentle breeze. She focused on it, pouring a bit more magic into the wind, bending it to her will. The stream of air curled in on itself, forming a small cyclone just above the surface of the water. I hope this works, she thought.

The aerial drill drove into the surface of the water, tunneling a pathway through the current. Nelly smiled. Her initial idea had worked. She focused on the clearest, smoothest bits of the stream, trying to make out which of the dancing shapes were fish and which were just shadows. Her air spell circled around one of the shapes, prodded at it. It responded. Her makeshift spell followed snaked after it, cutting it off as it tried to head downstream. Just a little bit more. She widened the spell and made a grab at the slippery shadow. The air burst out of the stream with a splash.

"I got one!" Nelly jumped in excitement as she pointed at the fish that flapped around on the bank.

"Good job." Kaneda nabbed the fish's tail and held it up. "But I think you're going to need a few more." The fish was roughly as long as Nelly's hand, which wasn't very big. "This isn't going to make a meal."

"How the heck did you do that?" Milly cocked her head at the girl. "I've never seen you do that before."

"Well, I didn't have any fish-catching spells, so I sort of made one up," she answered. "I just used a basic wind manipulation spell to grab it."

"Huh, I never realized you had quite that much dexterity with that sort of thing."

"Neither did I. I never really tried to use it for anything like that before."

"That's your next lesson." Kaneda patted her on the shoulder. "Make life training."

"Huh? I don't quite get it."

"You get better at something by doing it a lot, right?"

"Well, yes. Practice makes perfect, after all."

"If you want to improve your skills, in this case with magic, you must use them as much as you can. Work them into your life so you're always practicing. You certainly won't learn any new skills that way, but if you want to hone your existing abilities, this is a good way to do it. That's why I come up here on weekends. There isn't much occasion for using my particular skills on campus."

"I see. That's definitely a good idea!" Nelly nodded enthusiastically. "I'm going to catch some more fish."

"Get bigger ones this time!" Milly shouted after her. The ermine scurried over to where Kaneda sat and scrambled onto a rock that sat beside him. "I have to admit that was pretty clever, getting her to practice her magic like that."

"Yup yup. It would be impractical to teach her any more advanced techniques, so I thought I'd focus on the basics."

"Good call. And you even used it get lunch. That's some classic kung fu master stuff right there. Mundane tasks that are secretly training and everything. Although I guess it's not much of a secret, since you told her the reasoning behind it and everything."

"There's no reason to hide the reason from her. Speaking of which, can I ask you a question, Milly?"

"Shoot."

"Why did you ask me to bring Nelly up here?"

"Training, of course!" the ermine sniffed. "I thought I explained all of that to you when we were organizing things."

"That is the reason that you told me, but I don't think that it's the real reason."

"Why do you think that?"

"Because even you should know that Nelly isn't at a level of skill at which two days of training would allow for a noticeable amount of progress. I realize that you are hardly an expert in this sort of development, but I believe you know as well as I do that Nelly's abilities won't increase that quickly. Even the most intensive training methods will take at least a week to show improvement if the person being trained is an amateur. So unless you plan on making these excursions a regular occurrence, which I doubt, you must have some sort of ulterior motive for bringing her out here."

Milly opened her mouth to protest, but realized it was pointless.

"Okay, you got me. The training stuff is just a bonus," the ermine said. "Promise you won't tell Nelly why I really dragged her up here?"

"Yup. I won't tell her anything. Unless it's really really bad, of course."

"Good enough." Milly lowered her voice. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Nelly's been having a bit of an issue with one of your classmates. He's kind of a bad apple, if you know what I'm saying. Normally I'd be all for letting her figure out what she has to do, but in this case I think she's in over her head. This guy is totally out of her league. I wanted to get her off campus for a day or two. I'm hoping one of the other teachers will step in and fix things while she's gone."

"And this was your best idea?"

"Well, my original plan was to have Kon take her on a day trip to Tokyo, but she's dead set on solving this thing herself. She's not going to go off on a vacation while something like this is going on. She's way too dedicated to that. I have to admire her dedication to the whole teaching thing, but she really needs some help here, and she's not gonna ask for any. Sorry for using you like that, by the way."

"It's alright. I had a feeling that the training wasn't the real reason. It just made my usual training trip a bit more interesting. Besides, it's quite nice to share my knowledge with someone besides the Narutaki twins."

"Oh, I bet that's fun."

"Yup. In exchange for my assistance, do you mind if I hazard a guess at the identity of Nelly's problem student?"

"Might as well. You don't seem like the type to blab. What's your guess?"

"Everett."

"Bingo. How'd you figure it out?"

"My training has made me rather perceptive. Mostly Nelly-sensei's obvious agitation combined with the fact that no one in class has been causing any trouble. Not to mention that I listen to rumors just as well as anybody else. But you may be right; if it comes to any sort of physical altercation, he's most definitely too strong for her, odd as it is."

"Wait, what?" Milly blinked in confusion. "How do you know that? Has he caused trouble before?"

"No, but again, when you train as much as I do, you become rather perceptive. There are clues. When someone trains themselves extensively in a martial art, their movement changes. They walk differently, hold their arms differently, their posture is different. The training molds you. After a while I learned to pick out my classmates that have trained in that manner."

"And Everett is one of those students."

"Yup. It took me a while to notice since he's so much younger, but he's definitely trained."

"How much?"

"He certainly isn't a novice, and he isn't a dabbler either. He is a dedicated practitioner. Beyond that, I don't know. You would need a master to tell you anything more exact."

"Out of curiosity, what about the other students in the class? Are there any others with a comparable amount of skill?"

"Well, there's Wei. But that's a given as he's the captain of the Kenpo club. Li Shen is also fairly well versed in Kenpo. Of the others, Manuel and Setsumaru appear to practice martial arts as well. Although there are a couple of other oddities in the rest of the class. Both Chachataro and Zack have unusual elements to their movements, but I'm not sure whether it's as a result of martial arts training or something else. And of course, the Narutaki's are constantly begging me to train them, but it's more of a game to them than anything."

"Hmm. Interesting. So in your professional opinion as a badass ninja, you don't think that Nelly could handle Everett?"

"In a straight fight, no. Could she handle him as a student? Maybe. It may not come to fighting."

"So you think that Nelly can make it as a teacher?"

"She has the persistence for it."

"Good to know that somebody has a little faith in her." Milly glanced back at Nelly. She already had two more, slightly larger fish flapping on the bank. "The teaching alone is enough without having to handle all the stress of working on her magic and having to deal with vampires in the class. I dunno if I could take all of it, and I'm an adult."

"She may not have much experience, but she has the endurance to gain that experience. I don't know if she's a naturally skilled teacher, but one can get good at anything if you work hard enough at it. Although it certainly does take time."

"Yeah, and we don't have that time!" Milly grumbled. "It's too much, too fast. There's no freaking way that she can figure out so much stuff so quickly." She flopped onto her back. "I guess our only hope is that the principal steps in while we're away."

"Hey, I got a big one!" Nelly shouted. There was an explosion of water and a fish as long as her arms landed on the bank.

"Good job!" Kaneda gave her a thumbs up.


"So you're just going to sit on this? Even you are normally a bit more cautious than that." Takako sat in front of the principal's desk, legs crossed, propping up her chin on her hand, watching as the Principal worked on her house of cards. "Not that I don't trust your judgment, but isn't this a bit much?"

"Eh, consider it an acid test," Konoeko replied. "It is a bit extreme, I'll admit, but it's rather difficult to avoid. If it were just a generic evil mage, I'd have you take care of it, but this is a rather unique situation. Everett has a personal vendetta against Nelly's family; we knew that he would hold a grudge against her."

"I don't know if I'd call it a grudge..."

"It's close enough." She added another card to the construction. "He has personal issues, and it was bound to come up at some point."

"But isn't it a bit early? You know what he's capable of, and we both know that she's no match for him at this point."

"Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? To see if she'll be able to deal with a legitimate threat?"

"I thought that was the point of your stunt on Library Island."

"Eh, we'll call that a dress rehearsal. She wasn't in any real danger there."

"So that's the point, to put her in danger."

"She's always in danger." The principal placed another card. "You know very well that she has more enemies than she knows. Everett might have a grudge, but he also has certain hang-ups. I doubt he'll cause any permanent damage."

"And why is that?"

"She resembles her mother too closely."

Takako couldn't help but give a skeptical chuckle.

"You're banking on that of all things?"

"I might as well. We can't keep her past under wraps forever. It's going to come back to bite her eventually and the sooner she gets a taste of it the better. It won't be the first time that she faces somebody who has it in for her."

"And we aren't supposed to give her any help? Or at the very least inform her of the severity of the threat?"

"She's found her own help. I know for a fact that one of her friends is aware of the situation. If they aren't a complete idiot, they'll inform her. If she figures this out herself, it will mean far more than if we fight the battle for her. We won't always be able to do that, and the sooner she figures that out, the better. So are you going to step in, or are you going to let her figure things out for herself?"

"For now I'll trust your judgment, but I'm keeping an eye on her. I hate to say it, but I think you're overestimating her a little."

"Well, I'm not going to stop her. I have nothing wrong with giving her a safety net the first time around. Just don't let her know you're there."

"Duly noted."


"Do you go through that every time you come up here?" Nelly gasped. She plopped down on a rock next to the brook.

"Foraging for wild mushrooms? Of course." Kaneda held up an enormous mushroom that was nearly the size of his head. "These mountains have great mushrooms."

"She was talking about being chased by the bear!" Milly popped out of the mushroom sack, where she had been cowering in fear.

"Oh, that? Only sometimes. Good aerobic exercise. Plenty of incentive to not slack off."

"What happens if that bear comes back while we're sleeping? I don't want to get mauled!"

"Don't worry about that. I'll set up some bells around the camp, just in case. That bear doesn't usually come this far up the mountain, though."

"How on earth can he be so blasé about being attacked by a bear..." Milly grumbled.

"It's starting to get dark." Kaneda switched tones so quickly that it seemed that he had forgotten all about the bear. "We had better start chopping more firewood. We used up the rest of it cooking lunch."

"Let me guess, you didn't bring an axe along?"

"Nope. I chop wood like this." Kaneda set a chunk of wood on end. He struck a brief pose and with a shout made a dramatic karate chop. His hand whipped towards the log, suddenly stopping a hair's breadth from the wood.

"Oh come on, you didn't even hit-" The ermine was silenced as the wood popped and split apart, divided neatly down the middle. "Right. Ninja."

"Wow! That's amazing!" Nelly snatched up the two pieces of wood and began examining them, as if they contained some clue to Kaneda's ability. "Could I learn how to do that?"

"Controlling one's ki is a fairly difficult skill. You could certainly learn it eventually, but I think you'll be much better off using your magical abilities for this, like you did for catching the fish."

"Yes, sir!" She saluted and turned her attention to the massive stack of wood. Milly shook her head.

"You know, at this point you could probably tell her to do your homework for you as a training exercise and she'd probably do it."


"It's weird, isn't it?" Kon stared out the window, trying to see past the glare of the campus' lampposts to the forested hills in the distance. "That Nelly is out there someplace."

"Yeah, I didn't really nail her as the type to rough it," Asuma said, his voice coming from his bunk. "You think she's ever been camping before?"

"I think she mentioned going camping with her cousin a few times. This is probably a bit different, though. I wonder how she's doing."

"She's probably fine. The worst she'll have to deal with is not having a bathroom. If she can handle traveling to Japan on her own, I think she can handle a camping trip."

"You're right," Kon mused. "Going camping is probably cleaner than living in a dorm with a bunch of guys anyway. Bears don't have underwear to leave lying around everywhere."

"Hey, I stopped leaving those lying around right after Nelly moved in. If you see any boxers around now, it's that ermine's fault." Asuma rolled over. "Besides, you clean so much that our room is probably better than the girls' dorms. Sometimes it's honestly kind of creepy."

"How is good hygiene creepy?"

"You iron your underwear."

Kon just rolled his eyes.

"First, that's not even a hygiene issue. Second, what's so creepy about that? I'm just picky when it comes to my undergarments."

"But your boxers are the only things you ever iron! If you showed the same level of attention to all your clothes, yeah, I guess it would just be picky. But giving your underpants all that care and none of your other clothes? Kinda weird."

"It makes them more comfortable."

"I thought ironing just made stuff more stiff. Stiff underwear just sounds really uncomfortable. I guess, if you're into that kind of thing, though-"

"It only does that if you put too much starch on it. If you do it properly-"

He was interrupted by a knock on the door. It's wasn't a flesh-and-blood knock either. It sounded like someone rapping on the door with an object. He recognized the sound; his grandma always knocked on the door with her cane. It probably wasn't his grandma; no way she'd be out and about this late. He opened the door.

"Hello?" Then he saw who was standing on the other side of the door. He managed to keep his smiling expression the same, although now that the blood had drained out of his face it was a good deal paler. Chachataro seemed a good deal taller than Kon remembered. Sure, the guy had always been tall, but somehow the knowledge that he was capable of crushing an aluminum bat with his bare hands appeared to give him maybe another foot and a half. Even though his face bore the same non-expression that it always did, Kon felt he was being glared at. "Um, how may I help you?"

"My master instructed me to deliver this. Apologies for coming by so late." He held out an envelope. Kon accepted it, rather afraid that some vaguely bad fate would befall him if he didn't. "I realize that we may have gotten off on the wrong foot," Chachataro continued. "At the very least, please give the invitation proper consideration." He bowed and departed, leaving Kon standing in the doorway, holding the envelope.

"What was that about?" Asuma asked.

"I have no idea."


.


So this is mostly character stuff rather than plot stuff, although the payoff should be interesting enough when I finally get around to it. This is one of those weird cases where the substance of the chapter isn't that different from the original, but it ended up happening for different reasons. Hopefully my version still works.