Standard issue disclaimer: Sunrise created and owns Mai-Hime. I am not them. This is a parody, protected speech.

A word of further warning: Maybe you missed the M rating on the story listing, not to mention a few few choice words in the summary. If that somehow happened, well, I don't really think you deserve any pity, but have some anyway.

This story features sex. Dirty sex. Morally questionable sex. Sex between people who do not have sex in canon, and should not have sex in the real world. Lots and lots of sex. And some violence. But everyone likes violence, so never mind that.

This is an alternate universe. Things are not quite as they were in the original series that inspired this story - any of them.

And now ... on with our show.

Disturbing Routines
Chapter One: Mai

April, 2004

The sun was bright but not unbearably hot. The wind was steady but not too strong. And the motion of the ocean - well, the river - was gentle, and the great bulk of the cruiser was more than enough to absorb most of it. All in all, it had been a beautiful day.

Well, Mai thought so at least. "You're okay?" she asked her younger brother a bit anxiously as she came over to sit down beside him on one of the deck's benches, facing the ship's starboard railing. (She was pretty sure that it was the starboard. Reasonably sure. Okay, she wasn't sure at all and was just guessing.)

"I'm fine," he assured her, a bit wearily. "I was a little queasy when the ship got underway, but it's passed." Takumi favored her with one of his increasingly rare smiles. "And I'm glad, because I wouldn't miss this for the world."

She shook her head, but smiled back. "We'd see the exact same view on the train, you know."

"It's not the same view," he disagreed. "The angle is different, the sun lights things in a completely different way ... and the train moves so much faster than this ship is going. I get a whole 'nother look at the landscape this way." His eyes were distant as he spoke. From experience, she knew that he was seeing the painting, not its subject.

But then his eyes focused again, meeting her gaze, and he smiled a bit sheepishly. "Besides which, Dad doesn't do things like this very often. We ought to enjoy it as much as possible, don't you think?"

Mai made a sound of polite agreement. Inwardly, though, she was frustrated by Takumi's lowered expectations. Most people, on hearing that a father had offered to send his two children on a cruise to celebrate their admission to a prestigious private school like Mahora, would probably have viewed it in the same way that Takumi did - as an incredibly generous act.

Mai ... didn't. The word she would have used was "extravagant". Or maybe "unnecessary". As she'd said, they could have taken the train like normal people did. It would have been less expensive for their father to do it that way.

That wasn't her real objection, though. If she'd believed that her father was really trying to be generous, she'd have swallowed that sort of complaint. But deep down, she knew that the fancy cruise was another way for him to seem involved while doing his level best to stay out of the lives of his children.

The money that he would have saved by buying three train tickets instead of two cruises couldn't possibly have been equal to or greater than the amount that he'd lose by taking a day or so off work to be with them. But Mai understood perfectly well where they fit in the calculus of their father's life.

She let Takumi see her smiling, though. None of this was on her face. He was happy, and that was what mattered. She'd do anything to make sure that her little brother was happy.

"And there it is," he said, hushed. "The World Tree."

She turned to look where he was looking, and, despite herself, felt a bit of awe as the size of the enormous tree became clear, with buildings that had to be several stories tall dwarfed by it. And they were still some distance from Mahora. They wouldn't pull into port until tomorrow morning.

"They say it's visible from space," Takumi added in that same vaguely reverent tone.

That's probably pushing it, Mai thought, but it drew her attention to the sky above the tree.

And there It was. The smile that she'd painted on at Takumi's enthusiasm melted away as she looked up at the strange red star; the star no one could see but her. It was getting brighter.

Mai wasn't sure when she'd started seeing it. She'd taken the fact that nobody talked about it to mean that it wasn't all that important, and only found out that she was the only one to see it a few months ago, when it first started to look reddish. Commenting on that change to Takumi had yielded a confused look on his face and the question "What are you talking about, oneechan?"

His confusion had quickly turned to concern, and that concern was back on his face. "You're still seeing it, aren't you?"

"Mm-hm," she admitted, then quickly segued into an attempt to calm his worries. "It's no big deal. It's just there, you know? It's not like I'm hearing voices -"

You have to look after your little brother from now on.

"- more than I usually do," she added in a fit of honesty.

He still looked a bit upset, but didn't press the matter as he looked away, turning his gaze on the river. He blinked. "Oneechan," he asked hesitantly, pointing as he did. "Do you see that, too?"

She followed his pointing finger, and peered out at the river. What was he - wait, was that - could it be -

Mai got to her feet. For all that she knew, this was every bit as much of a cliche as shouting 'stop the presses' in a newspaper office, and likely to be as well-received, but nonetheless - "Man overboard!" she shouted at the top of her lungs.

About an hour later, Mai was in the small cabin she shared with Takumi, pulling off her shirt, now drenched with water and, well, other stuff. No good deed goes unpunished, she thought ruefully.

The body floating in the river had turned out to be a girl maybe a couple of years younger than Mai herself, dressed in a blue school uniform that she didn't recognize. She hadn't been breathing when they brought her up onto the deck, and the sailors who'd done so promptly asked if anyone present knew CPR.

As it happened, Mai did, and she'd volunteered when it became clear that no one else would. So she'd cleared the airway, pressed her mouth to the short-haired girl's, blew in to inflate the lungs, and did the chest compressions. The girl had promptly revived enough to vomit up all of the water she'd swallowed onto Mai's shirt.

That had been a little embarrassing. What had come afterwards was worse. There'd been this one guy in the crowd gathered around the girl. Mai had thought that he wanted to volunteer to help, but was holding back for whatever reason. In any event, he'd come over to praise her after the sailors took the girl to the infirmary, and he'd praised her. It had been very flattering, at least until she'd realized that he was angling to get a look at her soaked chest.

Fortunately, the guy's clingy little sister had been just as mad about it as Mai was, and she'd started telling him off, but not without directing a scorching look in Mai's direction. As though it was all Mai's fault. Mai really didn't appreciate that. So she'd stalked off to the cabin, dragging Takumi along with her.

"Uh, maybe I should wait outside while you change," he said as her shirt hit the floor.

Mai blinked. "Why?" she asked as she reached around to start undoing her bra. "You took your meds today with lunch, right?"

"Uh, well, yes."

"Then you're good for some exercise." She smiled, raising an eyebrow. "Did you really think I didn't notice that that jerk wasn't the only one who was taking a good long look at my boobs, all wet like that? You must really be hurting now."

"I'm, well, it's, it's not so bad," Takumi stuttered, looking incredibly flustered and cute. "I can -"

"I'm supposed to take care of you," Mai said firmly, reaching out to pull him closer to her. "All of you. Sit down, and we'll do some things. It's probably not a good idea to do everything, since people might hear us, but ..." She trailed off as she got him seated on the bunk, and knelt on the floor before him.

Takumi had a brief moment to look at the metal bulkhead of the ship's cabin and wonder what his sister expected to hear through them. Then the feeling of her warm hand on his private parts drove away all non-immediate thoughts.

"See?" she said. "See how hard it is? It's filled with blood, right now, and your blood needs to circulate. It's bad for your heart for it to be like this. I have to take care of you. Let me take care of you, Takumi." And with that, she leaned forward to slide his length into the damp valley between her breasts, then pushed the two globes together with her hands.

"Oneechan," Takumi moaned. "It's, it's so, it's wonderful, but ..."

"Later," she interrupted what was obviously a request for more intimate contact than this. "Later, I'll take it in my mouth."

They'd come a long way in less than a year. Mai supposed that it had been bound to happen, really. She'd been giving him baths for almost six years, and from the beginning, he'd liked to play with her breasts, which had always been been very large for her age.

Of course, she'd let him do so without complaint. A mother wasn't supposed to object to her child doing such things, surely, and she had to be Takumi's mother in all but name. So she endured the touches, and the suckling and biting. It wasn't so bad.

And then, several months ago, just before she'd turned fifteen, she'd been bathing him and realized that his, well, his little man wasn't so little. It had looked very painful for him, and he'd seemed so tense ... so really, she hadn't had any choice except to try and relieve his painful tension. And there was a simple, straightforward way to do so.

So she'd rubbed him off.

It had been one thing after another from there. He had climaxed on her hands, on and between her tits, on her face and in her mouth. And a month later, on his birthday, she'd let him inside her, relieving him of his last virginity. Since then, they'd fucked in pretty much every room in their house, taking a certain amount of pleasure in using the bed their father almost never used, and done it in a few public washrooms as well.

It was wonderful to care for her brother.

"Oneechan," he gasped. "I'm, I'm going to -"

Dammit, she'd gotten distracted again. She stopped the paizuri and quickly leaned in so she could fulfil her promise. Just in time, for his boy juice exploded on her tongue. It was difficult to swallow all of it quickly enough that it didn't escape from her lips. She didn't want to leave a mess, after all.

Eventually, she let go of the softening ex-hardness. "See?" she said. "It's soft now. The blood is moving again. And you got some good exercise, too, didn't you? Doesn't it feel good, Takumi?"

He stared at her, eyes half-closed, for a moment.

"Well?" she asked.

""Yes," he said, with an air of surrender. "It feels very good, oneechan."

"Then it's good," Mai said, smiling brightly as she moved his briefs and shorts back into place. "Now, why don't you go freshen up in the bathroom, while I get changed?"

"Okay," he said with a sigh, getting up. He paused as he was about to open the hatch, looked at her where she was still kneeling on the floor. "You know I love you, right, oneechan?" Takumi asked abruptly.

"Of course," she said blankly. "I'm your big sister. You have to love me."

"Right," he said, walking out.

His moods were starting to get very hard to read. Mai shook her head as she towelled herself off, doing her best to ignore the sensation of nausea that she nearly always experienced after these encounters. It was probably just a reaction to the meds in Takumi's system being transferred into hers, she told herself. Nothing to worry about. She looked at his baggage, and, on an impulse, checked the pillbox where he kept his meds.

"Why did you lie to me?" she asked her absent brother as she saw the pills he was supposed to have taken with lunch. She'd have to have a little chat with him about that. Well, now she needed to change into some of her other clothes ...

... all of which, she abruptly realized, were packed in her bags down in the ship's hold. Ah, what a day. Well, there was at least one option open to her. It was probably all right, right?

As she got dressed, she reflected that at least the day couldn't get any worse, and took comfort from the fact that she'd probably never see anyone involved in the embarrassment every again.

At about the same time, a young woman was standing in the bow of a much smaller boat a bit further down the river, looking in the direction of the World Tree ... as well as what hung in the air above it. Neither sight occupied her thoughts very much, though. They were both too familiar to do so. Instead, her thoughts largely focused on a conversation she'd recently had. It hadn't gone the way that she wanted it to go. And now she was waiting to see just what the consequences of that conversation were going to be.

The boat's owner, a smuggler and occasional pirate whom she'd hired for this job, poked his head out of the boat's hut. "Miss," he said. "We've searched this whole grid, and the sonar's not picking up anything on the bottom, either. If this girl really fell in the water here, then she must have been picked up by the ferry that goes along here."

The ferry that would, of course, take that girl right where she had been trying to stop her from going. Dammit ...

In the ship's infirmary, the girl pulled out of the water had regained consciousness. Some people asked her some questions that didn't make much sense, so she ignored them until they went away. In the maelstrom of her mind, there was really only one coherent thought. She'd let go of something when she'd lost consciousness. Something important.

She wanted it back.

So of course, it came back, its hilt sliding easily into her grip.

My arm is once more whole, she thought, then went back to sleep to the sound of water dripping on the floor.

Women were crazy.

Tate Yuuichi had concluded this long ago, but every now and then something would happen to remind him. With Shiho around, it was actually a lot more frequently than 'every now and then'. For instance, if Shiho thought he was even slightly likely to be interested in some other girl, she'd be all over him, making hissing noises in the other girl's direction, before he could even glance that way.

But if it was just Shiho doing it, he could have concluded that his friend who was a girl but not his girlfriend was crazy, rather than all women. But no. There was ample evidence for it being a pretty darn universal trait.

For example. After they met up with that Takumi kid again, things seemed to be going pretty okay for once. Usually, Shiho, being crazy, was not only maniacally jealous of all other women but also borderline paranoid of all men except for her father and Yuuichi himself. Granted, she'd had a scary experience not too long ago, so the crazy might actually be understandable. But for some reason, whatever set her off about guys wasn't being set off by Takumi, and they were having a nice sit-down conversation in one of the ferry's lounges.

And then Takumi's sister had shown up wearing the plaid skirt and maroon jacket of his school's uniform, took one look at the two of them, and started laughing her head off.

"What?" Yuuichi asked, moderately startled by this. People weren't supposed to laugh at nothing. "Hey, what?"

"Oh, I'm just laughing at my life," she said as she calmed down a little and headed over to sit down next to Takumi.

"Okay," he said, once more bewildered by the craziness. "Listen, I think we got off on the wrong foot before. Lemme just start by saying that I'm sorry about the misunderstanding, earlier."

"What misunderstanding? You were staring at my chest, and I understood that perfectly well," she replied.

"Well, no, I mean, okay, I was looking, but I wasn't, you know, leering or anything? Shiho, sweetheart, back me up here, I don't do that sort of thing, right?" She'd always said that he was the exception to the rule when it came to that sort of thing.

Except that he forgot she was crazy! "Please accept our apologies for onionskin's behavior," she said cloyingly. "I'm sure that you didn't do anything to encourage it." And insincerely.

Mai seemed oblivious to the implied insult. "It must be tough having a brother like that. I'm glad my brother's not that kind of perv."

"Nope, I'm not that kind," Takumi muttered, looking embarrassed at his sister's behavior.

"Okay, lemme just clarify this," Yuuichi interrupted, raising his voice to do so. "Shiho isn't my sister, she just calls me oniichan because, um, well, why do you call me that?"

"Because oniichan is oniichan," Shiho "explained", glomping onto his side.

Of course crazy. "Anyway, as it happens, we go to the same school as you two are starting. I'm in first year high school there -"

Mai made a disgusted noise. "Great, same year as me. I have the worst luck ..."

"I think that should be my line!" Yuuichi protested.

"I'm starting to think it should be mine," Takumi murmured, then raised his voice a little. "So you've been attending school in Mahora for a few years now. What's it like there?"

Casting a reproachful glance at Mai, Shiho spoke up. "It can be a little confusing sometimes, especially during the festivals, or when someone invades."

"... invades?" Mai and Takumi chorused.

"Ah hah hah," Yuuichi "laughed" while making shushing gestures at Shiho. "She's kidding. Sometimes the school clubs do these elaborate role plays where they pretend to be fighting off invaders. It can kind of get out of hand."

Takumi nodded. "Yes, I think I remember hearing about one of those. Something about a robot going out of control?"

"Ah, well, yeah, something like that happened," Yuuichi agreed, wishing he could dissolve into nothingness.

Fortunately, before either of the new students could press for details, one of the ship's stewards came up to them and addressed Mai. "Excuse me, are you the girl who helped to save that girl's life earlier today? I think you should know that she's woken up, and seems to be all right, just a little disoriented. You might want to check in on her in the infirmary later, so she can thank you."

"Uh, sure, but -" Mai said. The steward was gone before she could finish saying, "- but I don't know where that is."

This is ridiculous, Mai thought a few moments later. She walked through one of the ship's external corridors, glass windows to one side of her, trailed closely by the molester, his dingbat girlfriend and her brother. I hope Takumi's not too bothered by these idiots. Did I fall into some weird dimension based on lame RPGs, that we can't split the party, now? A simple set of directions would have sufficed, but no! He has to come with, and drag his red-haired limpet with him! Probably angling for a glance at river-girl's boobs. That would be typical. Ah, what a day.

Behind her, Yuuichi was also silently lamenting his fate. All that he'd wanted to do was help the short-tempered girl out a little so that she wouldn't have such a bad opinion of him. He'd been trying so damn hard to rehabilitate his junior high rep as a delinquent, and the last thing he needed was for the new girl on campus to get all the old rumors started again. If only women weren't so crazy! Then he could have just given her a simple set of directions!

Behind him, Shiho was watching Mai like a hawk. This whole situation was an embarrassingly obvious plot! She and river girl were probably in on it together, scheming to drag poor naive oniichan off to some hidden private part of the ship, where they'd jump on him and, and ... well, actually, she wasn't sure what was going to happen after that. Things never got that far in the romance mangas she read. But it was bound to be bad for both oniichan and Shiho, who were the only people who actually mattered.

Bringing up the rear of the group, Takumi was having a pretty good time. Owing to his frequent hospitalizations, he'd never had the chance to really get to know any of his classmates, and making friends had always been a little difficult. People who found out about his heart condition tended to treat him as though he was made of glass. So hanging around with a cool guy like Yuuichi and a nice girl like Shiho was a refreshing change from the way he only ever got to spend time with oneechan. And everything that went along with that.

He did love her, just like he'd said that he did, but -

All of a sudden, the ship's deck tilted quite sharply, unbalancing the members of the quartet. Fortunately, they were all able to grab hold of the railing that ran along the side of the corridor, keeping them from losing their feet completely.

"What the hell was that?" Mai asked when the ship levelled off again.

"I think the ship must've just made a pretty quick course change," Yuuichi explained. "Maybe there was some sort of obstruction that they didn't pick up on because of the -"

"AHEM." Shiho coughed. "Someone just touched Shiho's butt." Slowly, menacingly, she turned to look at Takumi. "Was it you?"

"I apologize for accidentally doing something very inappropriate and hope that you can forgive my clumsiness," Takumi answered very quickly.

Shiho frowned, but spoke in a slightly less icy tone. "Very well. You are forgiven this time."

Mai turned to give Takumi a quick smile to praise him for handling the screwy little girl. As she was doing so, though, she glimpsed a dark form moving across the sky. It was moving too fast and the night was too foggy to make out any details, but she didn't think it was a bird or bat. "What was -" she started to ask.

And then a pair of boots slammed into the window just a bit ahead of Mai, shattering it. The boots' owner, a figure in grey motorcycle leathers and a matching helmet, promptly dropped into the corridor.

Moving faster than anyone present had ever thought people could move, the intruder closed the distance to the quartet and whirled, slamming a spinning heel kick into Yuuichi's lower abdomen. As he crumpled to the deck with a perplexed expression on his face, the intruder continued to twist around until Mai could see her own reflection in the mirrored glass of the helmet's mask.

Shiho let out a shriek as the intruder drove a hand towards Mai's midsection, stopping just short of impact. "If either of you two move, oneesan here is going to grow a hole in her stomach," the intruder said in a low but still feminine voice.

Mai, backed up against the corridor wall and the railing, risked a look down. Sure enough, the intruder was a woman. Also sure enough, there was a tiny little gun in her hand, pointed up at Mai's belly. Where did she get a gun? Mai wondered. This is still Japan, right? Actually, where did that gun come from? She wasn't holding it when she came in through the window, was she? Wow, these are really strange things to be worrying about when I'm going to die.

Aloud, she quietly asked, "What do you want from me?"

"This ship pulled a girl out of the river. Where is she?"

Oh, thought Mai. Of course. It's not a bad RPG. It's a bad action movie. "I'll take you to her, so just, just don't do anything to my brother or anybody else, all right?" By not being sure of the way, she could delay her long enough for Takumi to go and find -

"If ship's security comes after me, I'm going to shoot her before I go after them," the intruder announced, not turning the emotionless mask of her helmet away from Mai, but still clearly addressing Takumi.

Out of the corner, Mai saw her little brother freeze up, panic obvious on his face. This kind of stress was bad for him. "Takumi, it's going to be okay, it's going to be okay," she repeated. "Just don't do anything -"

"Screw you you fucking evil bitch you hurt oniichan you bitch!"

Mai's head snapped to the side to see Shiho, her face contorted with fury, turn and dash down the corridor, shrieking at the top of her lungs as she went.

"So annoying," said the intruder, lifting her other hand, also holding a gun, then turning to aim. It all just took a moment.

And then she shot Shiho.

The red-haired girl let out a short squawk and then dropped limply to the deck.

"Any more delays?" the intruder asked, slowly turning back to meet Mai's face.

Except for the time he'd nearly drowned, Takumi had never been so frightened as he was in that moment, watching the psychopath walk away behind his sister, whom she was holding at gunpoint. Mai had repeated her empty assurance to him that it was going to be all right before she headed off, but the look on her face as she did so, that blank look that she sometimes had when she ... when they were ... it told him that she didn't believe it either.

Takumi felt sick, and as his heart raced far too fast, he wished he'd taken his meds earlier today. If he had, he'd still feel awful right now, but he wouldn't be in danger of joining Shiho, who still lay on her face further down the hall, smoke still rising from where she'd been shot. And the funny thing was, he hadn't taken the pills because on some level he wanted to -

His thoughts were jerked off that course as Yuuichi groaned, starting to come around from having been knocked out. The groan was succeeded by a series of coughs as the high schooler started to push himself up from the deck. "What the hell just happened?" he asked weakly, not yet raising his head and so addressing the question to the floor.

Takumi swallowed. "Tate-san, I'm so, so sorry -"

Now Yuuichi did look up. "Huh? What're you sorry about? You didn't kick me, it was that - wait, where's your crazy sister? Where's -"

And then he saw the body resting a bit further down the corridor, and fell silent for a terrible moment, before whispering a name. "Shiho-chan?"

"She just shot her. Shot her down in cold blood," Takumi said. "There was, there was nothing I could do, and -"

As Takumi stammered out his attempt at apology, Yuuichi got to his feet and half-walked, half stumbled to where the girl lay flat on her face, then dropped to his knees beside her. Trembling, he rolled her over.

Then he broke his silence. "Takumi, you little turd. Are you trying to scare the shit out of me?"


"She's fine. She's asleep, but she's not dead! Oy, Shiho, wake up already." And he started to tap the girl's cheek.

Oh, no. The grief has clearly driven him insane, Takumi thought as he pushed himself up from where he'd been sitting crouched up against the wall. He slowly headed over to confirm the awful truth with his own eyes.

It only took him a moment to realize that Shiho was clearly still breathing, her small chest rising and falling steadily and quietly.

"I don't understand," Takumi said. His head was starting to hurt again. "She shot her. With a gun."

"What kinda gun?" Yuuichi asked, turning to look up at him with a raised eyebrow.

"What? A, a gun kind of gun! Tate-san, I'm twelve years old! What the heck do I know about guns?"

"Eh, fair point." With distressing pragmatism, Yuuichi rolled her body slightly to check her back. "No entry wound. There's a warm spot, here, like she was hit by something hot, but it didn't burn her clothes or anything."

"What kind of gun can do that?" Takumi asked, becoming faintly interested despite how horrible it all was.

"Dunno, but I've seen guns that can do some pretty straaaange things to clothes and people," the high schooler mused. "C'mon Shiho, time to get up."

Shiho continued to sleep.

"Okay, let's drop the bomb. Hey, there, sexy, how'd you like to steal me away from my obnoxious little sister?" he asked nobody in particular.

"Betrayal!" Shiho shrieked as she sat straight up.

"Oh, thank goodness, you're awake," Yuuichi said quickly. "I was so worried about the horrible nightmare you were clearly having.

"Nightmare?" Shiho asked, confused. She looked from Yuuichi's sincere face to Takumi, who was rubbing his forehead with his eyes closed. "Yes," she said at length. "A terrible nightmare that must never be allowed to come true."

"Right, now let's go find -"

And then there was the sound of an explosion, not terribly far away.

"So what exactly are you going to do to this girl when you get to her?" Mai asked her masked escort as she led her down the hall to where (she assumed) the infirmary could be found.

"We're going to continue a conversation," the intruder replied. "I don't feel the need to have one before then. So shut up."

"Continue a conversation," Mai repeated, ignoring the polite suggestion she'd just been given. "You're the reason that she was in the river in the first place."

"Shut up," the intruder repeated.

Up until now, Mai hadn't really thought much about the girl that she'd helped to save. She had just been someone who was in trouble, and that Mai was in a position to help. It hadn't meant anything. But now, seeing the person who was responsible for that trouble, Mai wanted to protect the girl. It could just be empathy, for she could easily envision someone trying to hurt Takumi like this. It could just be a way of looking out for the underdog, which that girl clearly was.

And yet she also remembered the feeling of touching the girl's lips with her own, and that confused her.

"Infirmary," the intruder abruptly announced.

Mai looked up to see the word written on the doorway just in front of them. A moment later, she was seeing that placard at a considerably closer distance, as she was shoved into the door. Half turning, she could see that the intruder was pointing both of those guns at her, now.

Okay. I'm dead. No matter what I say, she's going to shoot me. So what do I do?

Mai clenched one of her hands into a fist ... then opened it, grabbed the door handle and turned it, flinging herself against the door to force it open as she fell forward into the room, shouting, "Run!" at the top of her lungs.

She heard the intruder curse and charge in after her, only to stop as she no doubt stared at the same empty bed that was captivating Mai's own attention.

"What the hell is this?" the intruder asked, and Mai slowly turned to look back at her, and saw the puddle on the infirmary floor. Then saw a drop of water falling toward the puddle.

Then looked up, just in time to see the helpless girl she'd been trying to protect drop from the ceiling towards the intruder, with a huge black sword in her hands.

Mikoto heard a thump on the door and immediately came to full wakefulness. Having done so, she immediately moved herself to a location where she had the high ground. The wisdom of her actions was demonstrated when the door opened and someone unfamiliar to her came in shouting. Then someone who did seem familiar followed.

That one. The one who'd told her to give up her quest.

She released her grip on the exposed pipe and dropped down toward her. That person somehow guessed what was about to happen and stepped clear, such that Miroku struck the floor rather than the person. As it crumbled beneath all of them, she silently apologized to Miroku for employing him to cut a worthless object. And then she was falling again.

She landed, and rolled, but by the time she regained some measure of her poise, that person had also done so and was pointing a weapon at her head while blathering about how she was causing troubles. Mikoto ignored her, but was restrained from a more appropriate response by the fact that person dared to rest a foot on Miroku's blade. Mikoto could almost hear her constant companion snarling at the insult. Patience, patience, she silently assured him.

Abruptly, that person reached up to pull off helmet-thing and toss it to one side, allowing her blue black hair to flow down her shoulders. "Are you even listening to me?" that person snapped.

Of course Mikoto was listening, she simply didn't find anything that was being said to be of interest.

"I am trying to save your life! Nothing good is going to come of you travelling to where they want you to go! So just go back where you came from, dammit! You don't want to be a HiME!"

All right, some of it was of interest, but only as further justification as if any were needed. There was nowhere for her to go back to, now that grandfather was dead, and she had to fulfil his last command, to find her older brother. And from what had happened two years ago, she knew that he would be travelling to this province. And so this was where she was going to go.

And this person was trying to stop her.

So this person had to die.

With a bare foot, Mikoto lashed out her enemy's leading leg. Reflexively, that person dodged back, without realizing that she would thus shift her weight just enough for Mikoto to pull Miroku out from under her foot. That done, Mikoto tumbled back before starting to swing her blade around in an arc, preparatory to that arc intersecting the enemy's head.

A part of her mind, the part of her that still remembered innocent days catching fireflies with her brother, admired the beauty of the sparks cast up as Miroku's edge trailed along the metal floor. But, as ever, most of her attention focused on the task at hand, and she pulled the blade up to swing through her target.

The enemy dodged. Mikoto was reminded again of just how obnoxiously fast that person could be as she passed over Mikoto's head and tumbled to the ground some distance away from her.

"Hime?" someone whispered, a short distance away.

Mikoto was keenly aware of her surroundings. However, since the third person present didn't seem to fall into the categories of enemy or ally, she elected to ignore that other person until something made the situation more clear.

"All right," her enemy snarled. "We'll do this the hard way, then. Duran!" And, with an icy howl, her enemy's Child made its presence known at last as it emerged from wherever such things went when they weren't needed.

Mikoto hated dogs. She wasn't particularly keen on machines, either. A mechanical dog was a bad combination of two things she didn't like, and it was racing towards her. She attempted to strike it down, but it managed to wrap its metal jaw around Miroku's blade (Oh the insult! How would she apologize for this!) and throw her some distance. But she didn't let go of the Miroku's hilt, and she landed on her feet.

Perhaps the dog hated her as much as she hated it, for it began to fling things from its haunches at her. She was too fast for it to hit, but one of them struck one of the machines in the room, and there was another explosion behind her, flinging her forward into darkness.

A moment later, she pushed debris off of herself, and realized that water was falling down on her. Mikoto hated being wet. But through the "rain", which she knew was no such thing, she could see her enemy and the enemy's Child running off. She hated it when her enemies turned their backs on her even more, and set off in pursuit.

Ah, what a day, Mai thought vaguely as she slowly regained her senses. She'd been hiding from the two crazy people who were fighting, and doing ... no, wait, that sort of thing didn't happen, did it? Maybe she'd imagined it. That would be pleasant to believe.

She decided that she didn't want to be here right now, and so started walking towards the most obvious exit, the ramp that led up and out of the ferry's parking garage.

Within a few moments of the explosion, the loudspeaker spoke up. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. At this time I'm going to ask that you begin following the emergency evacuation procedures that we demonstrated for you at the start of our voyage. I regret to say that this is not a drill. Please make your way to your assigned emergency locations, and our helpful staff will assist you in departing this vessel safely and quickly."

Yuuichi happened to be looking right at Takumi when the announcement was made. He saw the look of raw panic on the kid's face. In and of itself, that wouldn't have affected him so much. He was fighting off the heady mix of fear and confusion himself. But he also saw the boy reach up towards his heart with a clutching gesture, almost bending over.

Ah hell, Yuuichi thought. I'm gonna have to do something.

"Okay," he said aloud. "Here's what we're gonna do. Takumi-kun, I'm gonna trust you to get Shiho-chan to the muster point for the evacuation -"

"What," interjected Shiho.

"- and I'm gonna go find your big sister and do the same thing for her. Okay?"

"Uh?" Takumi asked, looking confused. "Why -"

"Objection!" Shiho shouted. "Oniichan, why are you going to -"

"Gonna answer all your questions, one at a time," Yuuichi said cheerfully as he started to draw Shiho off to the side of the corridor, hoping to get out of earshot from Takumi. "Okay, here's the deal," he said quietly. "Takumi is sick. He's not getting you to the muster point, you're getting him there."

"But why should I have to -"

"You like him, right?" Yuuichi pressed on. "You don't want to see him fall down dead of worry, right?"

Shiho didn't respond, just staring at him.

"Right?" he repeated, a little more loudly.

"I don't want to see that," Shiho agreed in a sulky tone. "But why do you have to go rescue his mean sister! You don't even like her! Right?" There was a real edge in her voice in that last bit.

"No," Yuuichi agreed easily, because he didn't. "But she got taken away on my watch. I gotta take care of things, Shiho. Besides, there's a good chance that I'm gonna get even with whoever shot you, right?"

Shiho reflected briefly on that. "Okay," she said at last. "But if you get hurt helping her, I'm going to kill her."

It really disturbed him when she made those kind of threats, even though he knew she'd never follow through. "Okay, then, over to your question, Takumi. What was it again?"

"Why do we have to split up like this?" Takumi asked, looking a little less peaked than he had a minute or so earlier. "There's safety in -"

"Hey, what the hell are you kids doing!" shouted a steward, rushing down the hallway towards them. "Didn't you hear that announcement? We're evacuating the ship!"

"That's why," Yuuichi said, pitching the words for Takumi's ears only. "Sorry, on our way now! Need a distraction, Shiho," he added, sotto voce as the steward approached.

"Noooooooo! Shiho won't do it!" she shrieked. "Shiho doesn't want to go out in the cold dark night! It's cold! And dark! And night! Shiho is scaaaaared!" She fell to the deck and began kicking and screaming in a remarkably realistic simulation of a four year old's temper tantrum.

"Hey, hey, we don't have time for -" the steward started to say as he got close up to them. That was the moment that Yuuichi picked to dash off down the hallway, away from the three of them. "Aggh!" he heard the steward yelling behind him, sounding much like the last guy Shiho had bitten.

He quickly arrived at the ship's infirmary, and saw the thick black smoke coming from the open door. "Aw, man, what happened here," he asked out loud as he looked in the door and gaped at the huge hole that had opened up the lower deck to his view.

Just as he did so, he also saw Mai walk slowly into view on that deck. "Yo!" he called up. "Mai-san! Up here!"

Slowly she turned to look up at him. For a second, he wondered whether the smoke was too thick to let her recognize him. Then she said, "Oh. It's you." In a dull, disinterested tone.

"Yeah, it's me," Yuuichi replied. "Gimme your hand and I'll get you up and out of there."

"All right," she said, still sounding as though all this wasn't really a matter of concern.

He pulled her up, and did a quiet check for injuries as he did. She didn't have any surface trauma, but maybe she had a concussion or something? Dammit, they didn't really have time for this. They had to get a -

That's when she punched him. Right in the bread basket. And fairly hard.

"It was a reflex," she explained a few moments later as he led her down another hallway.

"You reflexively punch people who help you," Yuuichi snarled without looking back at her.

"No, but, you see, I was in a panic."

"Oh, I should have guessed that from the blank expression and complete lack of fearful shouting before you punched me."

"It was a delayed reaction!"

This was easily one of the stupidest conversations he'd ever had. "Sorry for getting in the way of your delayed reaction, then."

"Okay, let's call us even, then," Mai proposed.

Yuuichi stopped dead in his tracks then whirled around to face her. "Are you out of your fucking mind?" he yelled. "You punched me! For no reason!"

"Well, yes, but you were -"

"I looked at your tits! That's it! Maybe, just maybe, you have the right to be seriously upset over that! Hell, go ahead, call me whatever names you want over it! But you punched me when I didn't lay a finger on you! So, no, we are not even, and because of what a swell guy I am, we're never gonna be even!"

"Look, I'm making allowances here, because I know that you're probably upset about what happened to your quote-unquote little sister, but -"

"Shiho's fine, not that you asked," he sneered.

"She's, she's not dead?" she asked, startled. "But ... well, good. I'm glad to hear that."

"Don't exert yourself."

Mai wanted to scream. This wasn't fair - didn't this idiot realize that it was all his fault? It had to be his fault, right? That was practically an unwritten rule, that it was always the guy's fault.

But it wasn't as though she could explain how that damned nonsense about him and his sister-who-was-really-his-girlfriend made her so uneasy and apprehensive. She herself didn't even really understand why it upset her so much. That sort of relationship was exactly the opposite of the love that existed between her and Takumi. It was sick and wrong! People shouldn't behave like family if they weren't! And it didn't help that this doorknob reminded her of him, while being nowhere nearly as sweet.

When it became clear that she wasn't going to fire back a snappy answer to his last remark - an actual apology, of course, was too much to expect - he let out a long sigh. "Man, I feel sorry for Takumi, having to put up with this on top of being sick."

Her head snapped up. "What? How do you know about that?" she yelled. Takumi almost never talked about his health problems with anyone.

"It's kind of obvious, with the way he's acting. Heart condition, right?"

"Obvious? What do you mean - no, don't tell me ... oh, why didn't I make him take his meds as soon as I saw him instead of wasting time with you!" She pulled the pillbox out of her jacket pocket and glared at it. "I even brought it with me to do -"

Just a bit before that, the two combatants had found each other on the upper deck of the ship, and resumed their altercation. After a few inconclusive passes between Mikoto and the Child called Duran, she had found herself once again on her back, staring up into the hollow barrel of her enemy's weapon as the girl once again repeated her ludicrous demand that she turn back.

It was tiresome, so Mikoto elected to interrupt it by reaching up to grab one of the other girl's dangling locks of hair, pulling her off-balance, so that she could tumble up and regain the sword which had once more fallen from her hands.

What Mikoto didn't know ... actually, what Mikoto did know could fill a notebook. But specifically, she didn't know that Kuga Natsuki (for that was her opponent's name) was quite sensitive about her hair. She had once woken up to discover that it was cut much shorter than she cared for, and from that day to this, she had not cut it once.

So having a chunk of it yanked out somewhat upset Natsuki, such that an artillery barrage seemed an appropriate response.

Mikoto realized what was about to happen, and took steps to defend herself, driving Miroku's blade deep into the ship's hull as the first step of her blocking maneuver.

Explosion ensued.

Mai's sentence was cut short by what felt like an wave of terribly hot air and bright light striking her full in the face, knocking her back and off her feet. When she could see again and stand, she was treated to the sight of Yuuichi standing quite a bit further away from her than he had been, and moving further away with every moment.

The ship had inexplicably been cut in two.

"Jump!" the boy shouted after a moment. "They're still close enough that you can -"

"Catch!" Mai called in response, rearing back and throwing the pillbox at him with reflexes trained in years of softball games.

"Are you -" he yelped as he reached out to catch the box with both hands. "Why am I even asking that question? What are you -"

"Get that to Takumi - it's more important than I am!" she yelled. "If you blow this, I'm gonna kick your ass!" Mai added as she turned and started to run down the hallway.

"You gotta live to do that, you frickin' lunatic!" Yuuichi yelled, before he reluctantly turned and started running as well.

"I refuse to die like this," Mai muttered to herself. "I refuse to die like this." The mantra comforted her, a little.

The emergency escape routes were all located, somewhat inexplicably, in the forward part of the boat - the one that she wasn't in. However, she was well aware that there was a rescue boat, the very one that had been used to pull that girl, that helpless girl who was clearly far indeed from helpless, out of the river. It looked fairly easy to use, so she was going to get to it and use it. Because she refused to die like this.

She had to move quickly through stairwells and up ladders, but none of that mattered, because she refused to die like this. And finally she emerged through a hatch to the top deck, exulting in her cleverness and toughness.

She was just in time for the limp body of the aforementioned not-so-helpless girl to be fall through the air and land in front of her once more.

After she'd blocked the shells fired at her by throwing up her defensive barrier (which had incidentally cut another worthless object) the battle had not gone too well for Mikoto. That barrier required a lot of effort from her, and once it had been spent, Natsuki had pressed her momentary advantage to the point where Mikoto had momentarily been knocked senseless and thrown forward by a crushing impact from Duran.

Mai blinked, then hesitantly asked, "Uh, are you all right?" She wasn't really expecting an answer, but she had no idea what else to do. This is strange, she thought. I know better know. This girl is not helpless, but still ... I feel like I want to help her. As though there's something missing from her.

Or is it something missing from me?

And then a mechanical grinding noise reached her ears, and she jerked up to see that strange robotic dog, like something out of a crazy story she'd read once, looming above them as it stood on the edge of a rooftop. Just as she saw it, it was leaping through the air towards them.

Mai felt herself, or maybe someone else using her body, flinging up her arms before her, as though they could stop the creature's furious charge. And her eyes clamped shut.

What would you give to protect what matters most to you?

I would give anything.

You might end up risking that which matters most to you.

I would give anything.

All right then.

Mai felt her hands grow very warm. Her eyes flashed open just as the dog creature slammed into them and then fell back, looking much the worse for the impact.

Wait, what? she thought, then saw a bright light hanging before her hands. The robot had struck it, rather than her palms.

"Hey," someone shouted.

Mai looked up to see the other crazy girl shooting at her. The, the force field, for lack of a better term, that she was creating in front of her blocked the shots.

"Dammit!" the girl with the long blue hair shouted. "Another one? Nobody told me there'd be another one coming at the same time. Look, I'll tell you the same thing I told that one - go back!"

"Huh?" Mai finally asked, finding her voice at last.

But the girl with the gun didn't bother to answer her. "Duran - return!" she called, The robotic dog, unsteadily returning to its feet, nodded, then seemed to dissolve into thin air.

"I've gone completely crazy, haven't I?" Mai asked. She didn't know who she was asking. The girl who'd tried to shoot her had already disappeared from her sight. The other one, however, was coming around. Her bright yellow eyes blinked open, and, incredibly, she yawned for a moment before they focused dully on Mai.

"Uh, hi!" Mai said nervously. After all, the other girl had tried to shoot her when she'd realized that Mai could apparently do stuff, and this one had a really big sword and was a lot closer. She let her hands fall, hoping that the force field would go away, and it did. But two bright sparks kept orbiting her body, firmly announcing to the world that Mai was some sort of freak.

"Uhh?" the short haired girl said. As the first words they'd ever exchanged, they probably lacked something.

"I think that girl, the one you were fighting, is gone now, so we're safe," Mai said. "Uh, well, as safe as we can be with the whole ship sinking thing, I mean! We'd better get going, the boat is -" She broke off, as she saw that the boat she'd been planning on taking was gone.

"Did you help me?" the girl lying on the deck asked her, sounding very young and very confused.

"Well, sort of, I guess, uh, but -"

"Why did you do that?" she asked as she started to come to her feet.

"I don't know," Mai answered honestly.

The answer didn't seem to satisfy the other girl, and she opened her mouth to say something. Before she could do so, though, the deck where they were both crouched started to tip forward, as the lower portions of the ship filled with water and it proceeded to capsize.

"Agh!" Mai shrieked as she began to slide forward, towards what she could see was a cruel and unforgiving sea. The other girl, just as startled, grabbed a hold of her with one hand as the other clenched firmly onto her huge sword. "No! I refuse to die like -"

"She said to give you these," Yuuichi said to Takumi, handing him the pill box as they crouched together in the inflatable life raft.

Takumi didn't take them, staring instead in horror at the ship as its two severed halves began to tip over and sink. "No," he said. "No, this can't be - oneechan! We've got to go back for -"

"Sit on it, kid," the skipper of the raft told him flatly.

"Oneechan!" Incredibly, Takumi found himself weeping.

Yuuichi just shook his head. And she'd thought the pills were more important. Crazy people had no grasp of priorities. "I'm sorry, kid. I really am."

"So am I," Shiho said softly.

She wasn't sorry that the bitch was dead, of course. One fewer bitch who might steal oniichan away from her was a good thing. But, as one who understood exactly what it was like to love someone you shouldn't, she recognized the signs of another in Takumi, and so she felt a bit more sympathy than she otherwise would.

And then there was a huge explosion from the side of the ship, a pillar of flame streaking towards the sky.

"What the hell! Diesel fuel doesn't go up like that!" Yuuichi shouted.

"Oneechan," Takumi whispered, staring at the tower of fire as though he could see his sister there. As though she were dancing in the flames.

When next Mai was aware of herself, she was flying.

She dreamed of flying, quite a bit. The idea of moving through the air like a bird, a plane or Superman was immensely appealing to her. She wasn't blind to the idea that these dreams meant that she wanted to run away from her responsibilities. But as long as she never did, it was okay, right?

Anyway, this particular dream - for it had to be a dream, since it was one thing to be able to create force fields for no reason and another to be suddenly flying - was very strange. She was up in the starlit sky, quite high as she looked down at the clouds, and yet she wasn't cold at all. Rather warm, actually.

Lazily, she looked to her left, and saw that the girl with the sword was still clinging to her hand, quite tightly, even though her eyes were closed and she seemed to be asleep. Huh. It was odd that the girl was in her dreams already, despite everything.

And then she looked to her right.

Her right hand was wrapped around a hard metallic protrusion from the skull-like head of a draconic robot monster, and she was looking into one of its four gleaming green eyes - the four that were on this side of its head - as the solid black pupil in one of them swivelled around to focus on her.

It proceeded to make whale noises at her.

"Ah," Mai said calmly. "What a horrible nightmare. I hope that I will soon wake up."

And then she passed out.

Sitting on the roof of a building, a rather pale and androgynous-looking yet stunningly handsome fellow looked up into the sky. "Well, now. That's not a bad start to your dance at all," he murmured as he watched a certain bright light moving across the sky. "You can probably do better, though, Mai-hime. I look forward to watching ..."

Then he went back to reading his book.

It wasn't The Tail of the Snake, incidentally. I do read other stuff from time to time.

He does, I mean.


When next Mai was aware of herself, she was looking up into the bright blue sky. The sun was bright but not unbearably hot. The wind was steady but not too strong.

She was surrounded by people who were staring at her.

Mai blinked, and lifted her head. Sure enough, she was lying on the ground just outside a building that looked much like the school she'd seen in the photographs that had been sent to her when she got her scholarship. And sure enough, a huge crowd of people were standing around, looking somewhat surprised at her.

Of course, the small circle of fire that surrounded her (and, she saw now, the other girl, who was wearing nothing more than a long shirt) might have had something to do with that. Briefly considering the worth of screaming a protest, she instead chose to murmur, "Ah, what a day," and then lay down to try and get back to that nightmare from earlier.

Of course, she couldn't possibly be that lucky, and just a little while later, Mai found herself seated at a table, bathed in a bright light from above her that kept her from seeing very much in the otherwise darkened classroom, being hectored at by a woman she suspected of being dangerously unbalanced.

"Trespassing onto our sacred campus after hours," recited Suzushiro Haruka as she stood across the table, tapping her foot in the universal symbol for impatience. "Compounding the aftermentioned crime by bringing an unauthorized person with you in the process."

"Aftermentioned?" Mai asked weakly.

"Aforementioned," said a quiet voice from outside Mai's immediate field of view, which Suzushiro was dominating.

"Eyes front!" the girl in the green blazer snapped when Mai tried to turn and see who'd spoken. "As I was saying. Compounding the aforementioned crime by bringing an unauthorized person with you in the process. Vandalism committed against the beautiful grounds of our beloved academy. Arson committed against the beautiful grounds of our beloved academy. Indecent exposure to the otherwise pure students of the school."

"Oh, come on," Mai protested. "I was lying on the ground! If anyone got a look at my panties, they must have been trying, which means they weren't very -"

"Do! Not! Interrupt! Me!" Suzushiro yelled, punctuating each word by slamming a shoe onto the table in front of Mai. She hadn't even seen the girl take it off. Maybe she carried it around with her. Be that as it may, it accomplished the senior girl's goal of quieting Mai's protests.

"And finally, least but not last, being in possession of lethal weaponry and bringing said lethal weaponry to school!" she continued with a dramatic gesture to her left. Another light came up, revealing that the huge black sword which was resting in the corner of the room. "Can you offer any possible explanation for these heinous acts? Speak now or forever hold your peace!"

"Um. Well, that's not mine?" Mai suggested hesitantly.

"The prisoner claims that the lethal weaponry is not hers," Suzushiro repeated. "Then whose might it be?"

"It belongs to that girl, the one they took to the infirmary," Mai explained. "Again." This seemed very familiar for some reason. It had only been a few hours ago that -

"And the rest?" Suzushiro snapped, interrupting Mai's flashback before it really got going. "What can you offer in excavation of the rest?"

"Do you mean exculpation?" Mai asked.

"Yes, that is what I said," Suzushiro growled out between clenched teeth.

"... no, I don't think you did."

"I am the one who does the thinking around here!"

"Now, now," said a male voice said. "I th-, er, suspect that it might be time to take a brief intermission in this questioning, Suzushiro-san."

He came up out of the darkness, dressed in a jet black gakuran that didn't look much like the standard boy's attire for the school that Mai had glimpsed before she was hauled off to be interrogated. It looked really good, and so did the person who wore it. And he was smiling in a warm manner, and holding a cup of tea on a dish in his hands, which he gently set down in front of Mai. "Please, have some. It's an old family recipe."

"Thank you very much, senpai," she said, as she picked it up.

Before she could even sip, the cup was yanked out of her hands. "Vice President Kanzaki-san, I would politely request that you refrain from coddling the prisoner!" Suzushiro snapped. And then, as though to compound the insult, she drank the tea herself. "This is very good. Could I have the recipe later?" she asked in a much calmer tone.

"I would be happy to -"

"See! This is what I'm talking about!" Suzushiro started shouting again. "We don't want her calm, and that's just what will happen if we start giving her tea and being all nice and junk! If she's calm, she'll have time to make up some sort of some sort of ridiculous story out of whole cloth that will bamboozle us into thinking that she's almost an innocent bystander while she's actually the mastermind behind this whole disturbing sequence of events!"

Kanzaki considered this, then looked off into the darkness. "Did you two watch The Usual Suspects when it was on last night? You did, didn't you. Don't look so embarrassed, Kikukawa-san, it's a very good movie."

Abruptly, there was the sound of a door sliding open. A voice that was disturbingly familiar to Mai spoke up. "What's with the lights in here?" And then they all came on, revealing that an embarrassed looking girl with glasses was standing near the switches, but that the one who'd turned them on was none other than -

"Tate?" Mai exclaimed.

"Yeah, yeah," Yuuichi said. "Someone here to see you."

And then Takumi entered at a run. "Oneechan!" he cried out at the sight of her.

Mai promptly came to her feet, just as he ran into her arms. It was hard to suppress the urge to kiss him, knowing that she wouldn't be able to keep it sisterly if she did, so she quietly gloried in the contact of their bodies and hearts. "Pretty scary, wasn't it?" she asked as she held him.

"Too scary!"

"Ahem." At the head of the classroom, a rather pale young woman with bright red eyes was standing up. "Suzushiro-san, while I can only salute your diligence in investigating these strange circumstances, the facts appear to be fairly clear. Tokiha-san was involved in a disaster, and can't really recall much of what happened to take her from the scene of that disaster to our school. However, since she is a student transferring here, I think we should be pleased that she's alive, rather than critical and interrogatory. Wouldn't you agree?"

It sounded like a question, but even Mai could tell that it wasn't intended as one.

"Ahem," Suzushiro said in response, clearly looking put out. "If the Student Council President is of that opinion, Fujino-san, then of course the Student Executive must agree and suspend the investigation. For now," she added, shooting a glare in Mai's direction.

Mai didn't even bother to look at her. She'd made it to the school and her little brother was okay. Everything was going to be fine from now on.

"Eh? We can't room together?" Mai asked the teacher.

"I'm afraid not," the old man confirmed. "Mahora's policy is pretty liberal, and this particular school is given a great deal of latitude, but the rules are pretty explicit. Male students over the age of eleven are not permitted to room with female students."

"But, sensei, I don't think you really understand, there are some unique circumstances here," she protested, trying to stay calm and not show the hysterical panic that she wanted to turn into. "My brother is in poor health, and needs constant and experienced medical attention -"

"And he can receive it from the school's experienced medical staff," the teacher interrupted. "His roommate is going to be given a briefing on Takumi-kun's condition. If anything happens, he'll know to get him to the hospital immediately."

That's if this person whom I don't know and have never even met doesn't turn out to be a flake! Mai raged inwardly. He's my brother, I'm supposed to take care of him! This isn't how they said it would be when they told me about this damned scholarship. She was sure that she wasn't letting any of the outrage show.

"Oneechan," Takumi said from where he was standing a step behind her.

"I'm sure that we can work this out," Mai said patiently. "Maybe we can have an adult living with us to serve as a chaperone?" It wouldn't be hard to trick the chaperone into giving them plenty of alone time, and then -

"Oneechan," Takumi repeated, slightly louder to get her attention. "It's okay."

"What?" she asked blankly.

"It's okay. This set up, I'm okay with it. I think that it's for the best."

What. "But, but your heart -"

"I'll be careful, more careful, I mean, with the meds after this," he assured her. "And, and I'll see you every day, oneechan, so you'll be able to keep an eye on me. I'll still be in your care, I'm just going to be helped by other people, too."

But I'm supposed to look out for you! You're mine!

"Well, if that's all - oh, I suppose I should tell you, Mai-kun, that you haven't been assigned a roommate yet. Unless there's another transfer in, you probably won't have one until the start of the next school year."

So I have plenty of room for my little brother, but you just won't let me sleep with him? Where's the sense in that? "I see," she said aloud. "Thank you for keeping me informed of that."

He missed the chilly subtext of her remarks, nodded in response, and then continued. "Well, then, you two should head to class, since homeroom is going to be starting shortly."

"Yes, sir," the siblings chorused, and bowed politely as they headed out the door.

"It's going to be okay, oneechan," Takumi assured her, then quickly headed off towards his class before she could say anything in response.

For a moment, she stood stock still, watching him dash off and wanting to do nothing more than race after him. But she mastered the impulse, painted on a smile, and headed to her own homeroom.

The smile stayed fixed on her face even as she entered it, saw who was sitting in the desk immediately to the right of the only unoccupied seat, and stifled a scream of purest frustration. That same sense of outrage at the universe's basic unfairness could be plainly seen on Yuuichi's face as well.

Mai was right on the brink of thinking that things couldn't get worse, when she realized what had happened every time she'd thought something like that. So she decided to think absolutely nothing for a while. Or at least not think about anything strange or weird or uncomfortable or upsetting. Surprisingly, that didn't work out very well for her.

Oh well, she mused as she sat with her chin on her hand, looking out the window with a pencil in her mouth. It looked like the start of another beautiful day.

NEXT: Mikoto