Disclaimer: I don't own it! I don't own anything! cries

With her brother and the Fridiot out of the way, Natsumi had approximately three hours at the most, or two and a half at the least, to prepare dinner. Realizing that chopping the vegetables could prove the most difficult task of the day, she opted to make something simple. Though the sergeant typically complained when meals were obviously frugal, she had often resorted to spice trickery to keep him content and quiet. Reaching up to open the refrigerator was awkward, but luckily the ingredients she needed were in the crisper drawer at the bottom. In the future she would have to drag a chair over just to get the cheese.

She tossed the sack of potatoes and plastic bag of unused leeks onto the countertop. She withdrew a large cutting board from a slender floor-level cupboard and a small sharp knife from a higher drawer, thanking her mother for making it a rule to sheath each blade before putting away, as she had to feel for the handle from below. Deciding to approach cooking as if it wouldn't be too different with three-fingered hands, she worked quickly and had everything ready in no time. She set a saucepan of water with a bouillon cube dropped in to simmer and measured two cups of water into a large pot while she was at it. She rinsed the leeks, cut them lengthwise, and chopped them, then peeled and cut the potatoes into chunks haphazardly. She sautéed the leeks in butter, dumped them in the pot of water and then added the potatoes and broth. While the stew cooked for twenty minutes, her hands itched to try cutting again, so she dug out a loaf of French bread and meticulously sliced it, taking care to focus on the motion instead of the feeling that she must have sliced off her own ring finger at some point.

She pureed half the stew in the blender, returned it to the pot, and went ballistic with the spices on it before lifting the heavy, but not as heavy as it logically should have been, pot onto another burner to cool while she fried some breaded tilapia in oil and lime juice. With all jobs done, she found herself unable to stall any longer. Natsumi fingered the star mark on her borrowed hat, took a deep breath, and yelled as she had known how to yell since the first grade. "DINNER!"

The boys knew once was all they would get, so that left her little time to ready herself. Fidgeting, she cursed herself for not thinking more on what she would say while she had been cooking. She climbed the chair established as "hers" and awaited their arrival with apprehension permeating every pore of her alien body.

Too soon, Fuyuki entered the dining room, looking weary of geometry and history. "Leeks again, how nice," he said politely, sniffing with his eyes closed. When he opened them he was met with the startling sight of a magenta Keronian sitting at the table. Rather than attack her ears with an outburst of fright, however, he blinked. "Er…hello, I'm Fuyuki Hinata. Sarge didn't tell me he was inviting anyone over…"

"Sit down, Fuyuki."

He gaped. "You're—you can't be—"

"I said sit down, loser!" barked Natsumi, diminutive size or no. "Do you have any idea what an experience it was making this shit for you? Eat it before it gets cold!"

Obediently he slid into his seat and picked up his spoon. "But—"

"Shut up and I'll tell you about it. No interruptions." Her hands, laid on the tabletop, were trembling. She inconspicuously removed them and placed them on her lap, fisted. "It's not all that complicated. Giroro shot me this morning with something that put me in this body. He says he'll come back in a week, and until then I've got the wonderful job of thinking about what I wanna do with my life."

"Well said, kerokero," chortled the primary invading alien, entering stage left.

"Sit down, shut up and eat," ordered Natsumi. I'm going to get through this, she thought. With or without help, I'm going to beat him, I'll teach him not to mess with me! She fixed him with a rabid stare as he waddled to his chair, and made her glare more pronounced when he did it much more gracefully than she.

"Bon appetite!" He slurped up the soup greedily and made no sign of interrupting.

"Fuyuki," she continued. "I dunno what he's thinking, but it looks like it's serious. If I had to guess I'd bet the most important thing to him is fighting, so he must want a fair fight between us." Keroro snorted. Natsumi ignored him. "So I want you to help me on this. Can you talk to the teachers at school and get my assignments? I want to train this whole week so I'll be ready when he comes back." She sat back, signaling it was his turn.

"I think you've got the wrong idea, Natsumi," Fuyuki said immediately. Keroro looked at him in surprise. "You say he just wanted you to 'think' while he's away? Call me crazy, but if he really wanted to fight you he would have just come out and demanded it."

"What else could it be? Stupid frog, you said yourself all he thinks about is fighting," she entreated him to contribute.

He scrambled for a foothold in the conversation. "Th-that's not exactly what I said, Natsumi-dono."

"Then you tell me what this is about, 'cause I'm just hanging here without a line!"

"I told you, I didn't have anything to do with this!" The lights in the dining room reflected an undisputable glimmer of sincerity in his eyes. "Kero! Why don't you believe me?"

"Think hard!" growled Natsumi. Keroro resumed eating tearfully with a cowed countenance. "I'll tell Mom tomorrow night, Fuyuki, but tonight if she asks I'm pulling an all-nighter for studying."

"Where will you really be?" Fuyuki asked, already thinking along her lines.

"What do you mean?" she replied, blanking her face carefully. "Tomorrow I'll see what Kululu has to say, spend the rest of the day training, and then we'll regroup after school."

Her little brother pinned her with a hurt expression. It was disconcerting how he looked at her as he would if she were still human. "You're lying," he muttered. "If you trusted Kululu's information at all you'd have gone and tried to beat it out of him in the first place." She couldn't deny it. He knew her too well. "You know you don't have to face this alone; Sarge and I, we're here to help!"

"Kero?" blustered 'Sarge'.

Natsumi retained her silence. She took her spoon and began swallowing the potato-leek soup with avid concentration. Fuyuki said, "Wherever you go, be safe, and take your phone." Then he excused himself and went back up to his room, leaving his half-empty bowl behind him.

"Uh…" Keroro followed him with his eyes. He looked back to Natsumi, who was putting all her effort into not spilling a drop. He tilted his bowl back, drew several long gulps, and clonked it down on the table. "Dinner was great! I'll leave the rest to you then!" he said in his most garrulous and grating voice, used when cheerfully sly and never successfully against Natsumi. He drifted toward the doorway, daring her to stop him.

But she only murmured, "Yeah, I'll take care of it," and didn't look up when he exited.

Natsumi's proximity to the ground complemented by her unbelievable speed was thrilling. She was riding that thrill to Koyuki's house in the nearby mountains, or so she planned. Giroro had said he was going to the mountains, so there was a possibility that he was taking refuge with Dororo, though it was a slim chance due to his natural independent streak. And it's not like he's averse to camping, she thought discontentedly. She preferred direct confrontation as soon as possible, but it seemed even if she managed to find him before he expected her he would probably evade.

The feeling of being enclosed by the bushes she passed pushed her to run at a pace her human legs could never have achieved. The darkness enveloped her snugly; the cool night air breathed beautifully on her skin. Who'd have guessed streaking could be so refreshing? Despite herself, she was beginning to identify the perks of her Keronian body.

Suddenly she was tumbling down a hill without a break pedal. Her oily skin didn't scrape as her human skin would, but she felt each skid mark forming with every bump. Keroro's hat acted as a buffer between her head and the ground, but a thin one, and she instinctively reached out for a hold on anything that could fit into her hand. Unfortunately vines were not native to these forests, and the extended twigs on the bushes snapped clean off with the force of her dense body crashing through. Frustrated at her helplessness with such short arms, she cried out.

At that moment her hat caught on something—or rather, something caught the earflap of her hat, because she was nearly yanked straight out of it with the abrupt stop. She landed on soft, moist earth and moaned. Huffing profusely from the excitement, she let out a relieved sigh. "Oh man, that would have been an embarrassing way to go. And so soon, too!"

"Tell me about it! You were all, 'whoa, whoa, save me, I no longer have spaghetti Pekoponian arms! Whatever will I do!" Natsumi whipped her head around at the sound of the pseudo-Southern accent designed to mock all human teenage girls, but most assuredly specifically her, and was mortified to see the alien sergeant leaning against a birch tree trunk for support as he openly laughed at her. "Kerokerokero!"

"Stupid frog!" she yelled, too enraged to thank him yet. "What are you doing here?"

"Keepin' your sorry tail safe from your own ineptitude, of course," said the Keronian with a giggle. "Oh yeah, and Fuyuki wanted me to bring you back before you did something stupid, but I guess it's too late for that!"

"You've obviously wanted to say that line for a while now, haven't you?" grated Natsumi.

He leered at her. "That's right! Not so smart now, are you? You're not even tough the way you are now!"

"Is that a challenge I hear?" she returned boldly. It was only bluffing, but she had to believe that if there was a shred of decency in the world, Keroro being Keroro and Natsumi being Natsumi canceled out any extraneous factors, and she would find a way to beat him. "I bet I could still take you down!"

"Nah, don't waste them fighting words on me," said Keroro, waving her war aura away. "I don't feel like fighting right now, and anyway you're not a worthy opponent in this state."

"Not—I'm not worth a fight?"

"Nope." He winked. Then, to her astonishment, he sat down comfortably on the mossy, spongy ground and patted an area beside him. "C'mon, let's just talk till you feel up to going back."

There were so many reasons to distrust him, to shove his olive branch back up his ass where it came from, but she suddenly felt her legs turning to jelly and realized she still had no gauge of her limits. She could afford to play better-than-you once she had recovered her strength. Reluctantly, she settled beside her arch-rival. For a time they were both silent, listening to the echoes of the Earthen frogs croaking. She sometimes forgot that even if he was usually faking interest, since early on they had been able to converse comfortably so long as neither was angry with the other. Even false peace, she was inclined to believe, was better than bickering, so she could act civilized if he could, she decided. She didn't prickle when he spoke up. "So what's bothering you the most so far?"

She could have told him she could feel that her organs were all screwed up, the nakedness although strangely pleasant was also intensely awkward, and her vastly broadened vision gave her the willies, but in the end what emerged from the tip of her consciousness was: "For some reason I don't want Giroro to think I'm weak."

"Kero…I didn't know Giroro was so important to you." He sounded amused. She refused to turn her head toward him.

"I didn't say that!" She didn't know why she had all but said that, but she had to turn it around fast.

"Yes you did, Natsu-dono."

"Did not! I wasn't thinking of him in particular!" Backed into a corner, she mended quickly, "I meant all of you! It's very important that I get some kind of respect from you invaders." And also, I couldn't stand it if you didn't look up to me. Even just being literally at the same level as the alien had cut down her ego considerably.

"In that case, don't worry about it. All Pekoponians are weak next to Keronians. It's nothing to be ashamed of," he said graciously.

His semi-benevolent attitude was beginning to grate on her nerves. "What are you saying? You're always screaming and backing off if I get serious."

"Most of the time I let you. If I fought you seriously, I'd kill you."

It was said so calmly, the latter phrase cut through the background noise and reduced the space between them to inches. She swallowed the convulsing lump in her throat. "I don't believe that! You've got too much pride to let yourself be humiliated regularly by a little girl like me!"

"Kero…" He said this softly, and she wished she could detect the usual alarm at being caught in a lie instead of the passive tone of an adult confronted by a child.

"No way… you've just been protecting my pride?"

"…kero…" Now he sounded a little ashamed.

"All this time… you've been patronizing me?"

"…" Her indignant shriek induced not a flinch.

She had to try, though. "I should hit you for tricking me."

"Kero, please don't. Even if doesn't do any lasting damage whatsoever, it does hurt."

"Now I don't know what to think." She was intensely, overwhelmingly embarrassed. At long last the alien invader was putting the upstart Earthgirl in her place, and he was doing it with the truth! "All this time I've been giving it my all and you've all been laughing at me!" she accused bitterly.

"Natsumi, I'm close to 200 years old. So are Giroro and Dororo. I think we can handle your feelings with maturity."

"Whatever! Like you've handled our pseudo-battles in the past? The slug man, the comedy contest, the swimming contest, the racecars? I thought you were always trying to one-up me, but now you're saying you're not even trying! I'm just a kid in the sandbox."

"Sort of, but not exactly. You're a very strong Pekoponian, and it's customary—granted, an old custom-among Keronians to honor a race to be conquered by giving the strong a fighting chance on their own terms. I do have to admit you tend to keep us occupied when provoked, and that's the honest truth. You're not willing very often, so I'm obliged to take the fight to you." He let that sink in, then added, "And also, nobody likes to be humiliated by a little girl."

At least that last comment was accompanied by a pout; she could tell by the way his voice lilted. "All right, I guess I can apologize for the way I treat you sometimes, but even you have to own up to the fact that most of the time you bring it on yourself."

"What about the accidents you blame me for? And the disasters I didn't plan or forgot about anyway?" he wheedled shrewdly.

"You're close to 200 years old; haven't you thought to run away?"

"Keronians face adversity with pride."

So she'd gathered from all his screaming. "I can respect that. So then it's up to me to decide when you mean it to be mean and when you mean it to take over the world."

"Kerokerokero! You'll never get anywhere being that nitpicky!" After acknowledging their adversarial relationship he was attempting to return the atmosphere to non-threatening, like a true negotiator. He could have made an excellent politician on Keron if he weren't born into the military, Natsumi speculated disconsolately, for as constant the threat was she hated to be reminded of his invader status.

"…I kind of suspected."

"You're always suspicious. It's what your planet is counting on."

"No, I mean…" It really was the worst, to confess it directly to him, but she strained it through. "I sort of knew I was just super lucky most of the time."

When he broke the pause this time, he spoke in a mellow, musing tone. "Everyone knows luck is often a fighter's best weapon. You continue to meet us with an unprecedented amount of luck, but you can't believe that's all that protects you." He stood abruptly, before she could contrive a question, and offered a hand to help her up, which she accepted only because she wasn't absolutely certain she didn't need it. Keroro started walking up the hill she had tumbled from, and she followed without thinking. He called over his shoulder, "Our ride is parked at the top."

That meant, she realized, he had probably sprinted down the hill as she fell. Gratitude swelled in her, and she deep-sixed her plan to ditch the alien and continue to Koyuki's house, thinking how well it would be to sleep in her own room if not her own body. Now that she could see he couldn't see her face, she worked up the pluck to say, "I still don't know what's going to happen once the week's up."

"There is the matter of Giroro acting alone, without orders." He went on to explain: "His insubordination would be punished in the main military forces, but we'll be having our hands full just stopping him. It looks like he's in determined mode, like the time with the urban jungle, only here that energy is being focused on…"

"On me, for some reason," supplied Natsumi. She scratched at her borrowed cap in frustration. "I just don't get why it's only me and not Koyuki and Mom, too! It's not like I'm that strong! And if it's not about strength, then what?"

Keroro sidestepped that by not addressing it. "Giroro's a complicated guy." They boarded the unconcealed hover craft and were on their way home in a jiffy. "Anyhow, I plan to make him spill how he did it, and once this is all over we can all go back to school or invading or whatever."

So he knew Giroro's 'why' but wasn't sharing it with her. "It doesn't seem likely that he did it all by himself. I'd bet a week's worth of gaming Kululu was in on it." With her arms around his amphibious waist-less form and her face resting on his small shoulder, she felt him nod.

"Then I guess we can go with your original plan."

"This was my original plan."

"You're fake original plan. It has promise of results," he told her. "I can promise that much," he said. She didn't have to lift her chin to sense the malevolent gleam in his eye.

They made a skidded landing on the roof. Natsumi didn't wait to be asked to help him carry it inside, but picked up the back end when the engine cut. Keroro wisely made no comment as he heaved his end, and together they lifted it to the pad that would transport it to the bowels of the Keronian base. She entered the house before him, swinging the door so it would close after him. She heard him padding quietly behind her. His unusual squishy footsteps weren't so aggravating now that her own matched. When she stopped at her bedroom doorway he walked on. "Keroro," she said, before she knew she would. He halted immediately. In the close darkness she sensed he was listening attentively and with genuine surprise. She very seldom if ever called him by name. "Earlier, you said, um, that…" her lungs were inflated to the max with anxiety. "…that Tamama and you would um, would help…and I'm not reminding you because I expect it or anything," she said hastily, jumbling her consonants so the words ran continuously. "I just would like to say thanks for the offer, and I may have to accept it."

"Sure," came his easy reply. His obscured form didn't move.

And here she gathered her remaining dignity and hurled it at him in a vehement whisper. "But don't make the mistake of thinking you can go along with one of your crazy invasion schemes while I'm like this, because you already know I'll find a way."

"I know you will, Natsumi."

She didn't wait to see if he lingered. She dove into her room, hopped onto her enormous and poofy bed, and dove straight into blessed oblivion.

Author's Note: If the later part of the forest conversation seemed contrived it's because I wrote only the dialog first in spontaneous comic format (in other words, in little sketches all over a lined notebook page) and had a hard time fleshing it out with actions and thoughts. Believe it or not that part came before all else; it's what the whole fic is based on. Just Natsumi and Keroro talking civilized-like. College is starting up again for me, so if someone wants me to continue this through the week of awkward adjustments just drop me a line via review. Know that if I do continue this story quality will convert to 1,000 word chapter lengths and probably less varied vocabulary, replaced with more dialog—because I like dialog a whole lot more than describing settings and such, in case you couldn't tell. Thanks for reading! I hope I don't seem pretentious here…