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

Disturbing Routines
Chapter Fourteen: Reito

August, 2004

Half an hour later, the rain was still falling on the shrine grounds, but Natsuki was more or less alone.

The sister had been the first to depart, at Natsuki's own urging. She'd guessed (correctly) that various groups would be showing up in the wake of the fight and decided (she thought correctly) that Yukariko would be absolutely useless in dealing with any of them. So the sister had quickly headed back to her cloister. With the HiME alliance effectively dead, Natsuki had the unpleasant feeling that the next time she saw the sister would be on the other side of a confrontation just like this one.

Almost immediately on her departure, a group of almost theatrically black-garbed ninja had shown up to pick up Akira - taking care to have as little contact with her body as possible, and saying absolutely nothing to anyone. Natsuki found herself wondering how they'd known about all of this. Were they monitoring the situation with some sort of magic? Of course, wondering did no good, and it wasn't as though she could ask them or expect them to answer.

Then Shiho's father had shown up, and Natsuki had promptly hidden. The funny little man had not seemed funny at all as he reacted to the sight of his daughter's disfigured form, and she felt vaguely guilty about having done nothing to stop Nao from doing that to her, but that hadn't the reason. She'd hidden because he wasn't alone, rather being accompanied by men she recognized as First District MIBs, and she wanted nothing to do with them. Shiho was put in an ambulance and taken away, her father accompanying her, and Natsuki found herself hoping that the girl wasn't being taken to the same facility she'd visited the previous night.

Although she probably belonged there far more than Akane and Midori had.

Last of all, various school officials had shown up to investigate this latest tragedy to strike the area. In the distance, she could see Suzushiro poking around with as much effectiveness as she ever showed, accompanied by Yukino. Kikukawa didn't even cast a glance in Natsuki's direction, communicating without words that she considered the alliance dead in the water. Her silence was probably the best that she could hope for under the circumstances, since this latest debacle might well be the straw that convinced her to start telling Suzushiro everything.

And some of the school teachers were also present, hanging back and discussing the situation. She'd groaned inwardly when she saw who one of them was. Why did he keep showing up? Nonetheless, Natsuki maintained her quiet pose as a simple bystander who knew nothing that the authorities would have any interest in -

"Very tragic, wouldn't you agree?"

Now she flinched inwardly. She must be off her game quite a bt for people to sneak up on her like this. Slowly she turned to see the hook-nosed westerner who'd just leaned his umbrella over her as he stood behind her.

"Terribly," she agreed. "Who might you be?"

"John Smith," he said.

"Let me guess - Searrs?"

Now he smiled thinly. "In fact, not anymore. The Searrs Foundation no longer exists, as its board of directors have all been taken into custody by various law-enforcement agencies. I'm presently employed by the Japanese-owned corporation that has acquired the Foundation's East Asian assets. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't name my employers at the moment. They prefer to remain anonymous."

She snorted. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?"

"I wouldn't argue the point," Smith said with a shrug. "My employer would like to have a few words with you -"

"Not interested," Natsuki interrupted.

"- concerning your mother."

Now Natsuki grew tense. "It is really not a good idea to play games about her with me," she said warningly. "I've been led around by the nose with promises of information about her enough to recognize when it's happening."

"Not surprising. But we -"

"Sir." A firm voice spoke from a short distance away. "I'm going to have to ask you to step away from that student." Akashi Wataru was standing nearby, hands firmly clenched in fists as he regarded the two of them through rain-clouded glasses.

"I'm simply engaged in coversation," Smith said calmly.

"It's not policy to permit adults to solicit students on school grounds," Akashi said patiently.

"These aren't school grounds."

"They are today."

Smith coughed, then stepped away from Natsuki. "We'll be in touch," he said, and walked away.

"Are you all -"

"Where the hell do you get off interfering in my business like that?" Natsuki snapped as she whirled to face him for the first time in a while.

"I'm a teacher, you're a student, he works for an organization that put our school under siege," Akashi said flatly and without the slightest semblance of an apology in his tone. "It's my job to interfere when people like that get too close to people like you. Even if you weren't my -"

"Oh, so now I'm your daughter," Natsuki sneered. "Only when it's convenient for you, huh? I guess it just wasn't convenient when I was born, or when I was in the -"

"When you were in the hospital, I was paying for your hospitalization," Akashi interrupted, angrily. "And when you were born - I don't know what your mother told you about us, but if she told you that I didn't want to be involved in your life, she fed you a pack of lies. You can't want to be involved with someone's life if you haven't been told that they're alive!"

"What?" Natsuki asked, going pale.

"I didn't know you existed until I got a call from the hospital telling me - can we please talk about this somewhere else, somewhere not so public and wet?"

"No!" Natsuki yelled, backing off. "I'm not, you, just stay the hell away from me!"

"Natsuki -" he started to say.

"Stay away!" she repeated, and turned to run off.

He called at her to wait, but didn't pursue. Given that Natsuki's emotions were presently in the most confused muddle imaginable, she wasn't all that surprised that she didn't know whether to be happy or upset that he hadn't.

Her headlong dash led her past where Suzushiro was talking at Yukino about something. The Executive looked up as she heard Natsuki's approach. "Hold it," she snapped. "You're not going anywhere until I have a few -"

"Bite me," said Natsuki as she passed Suzushiro.

"Don't mind if I do!" Haruka said just as she proceeded to tackle Natsuki from behind, bringing her to the ground with a thud.

For a moment, Natsuki's mind went completely blank. This can't be happening. How did she just -

"You may want to have a representative present during the questioning to follow," Haruka said as she crouched behind Natsuki, one knee pressed firmly into the small of her back.

"She does," said a firm yet delicate voice. "Now get off of her, Suzushiro. That was not a request."

"Shizuru," Natsuki murmured, looking up at the President, standing a short distance away with a large red umbrella overhead. Her mouth, that was usually turned up in a faint smile, was now turned down in an obvious frown.

For a moment, she thought that Suzushiro was going to argue the point, but then she felt the pressure on her back ease. "All right," the Executive said. "In that case -"

Shizuru quickly came over and helped Natsuki get to her feet, speaking quickly and calmly as she did so. "At this time, my associate has nothing to say. Now if you'll excuse me, I need her assistance with another matter."

"What? What other -"

"Please have your person get in touch with my people," Shizuru said. Out of the corner of her eye, Natsuki could see Yukino stiffen at the none-too-subtle insult to both her and Haruka. "Now excuse us."

"You're amazing," Natsuki said shakily as she was firmly steered away from the sputtering executive. "What do you need -"

"I have a pressing need to get my friend dried out and rested," Shizuru said, eying Natsuki. "You look like five miles of bad road. I'd ask what the devil you've been up to, but I'd rather not hear you try and lie to me, so I won't."

"Thank you," Natsuki said, quietly. Shizuru acknowledged the thanks with a regal nod. "But I can't rest quite yet," she continued, thinking of the girl she'd carried out of the asylum last night, to an underground doctor's office in Mahora. She needed to know what Akane knew, and -

"Then I'll come with you."

Natsuki blinked. "I'd really rather keep you out of it if I -"

"You can't," Shizuru interrupted. "I'm already in it, now. Best way to keep you out of mischief, right?" she added with calm finality, looking over Natsuki's head as she did.

Which coincidentally allowed her to see a certain henna-worshipper poking her head out from behind a tree on the path leading out of the shrine.

"Okay," Natsuki said, too weary to argue. "But you realize you're probably going to have trouble with Suzushiro after this."

"My dear, I don't give a damn." She watched the head pop back behind cover, and was well-pleased with the sight.

Akira woke up when the van hit a bump on the road. As he was lying on its floorboard, he felt it quite deeply. The realization that he was tied down, quite securely, further awakened him.

"You should probably go back to sleep," said a familiar voice from nearby. With his head fastened face down, he couldn't turn to see the speaker, though.

"Aniki?" he asked.

"Yes, for a little while longer," his oldest surviving brother replied. "You made a terrible mistake, Akira-chan. Defeat is bad enough, but betrayal?"

"I didn't -" he started to say, then broke off as he considered the facts.

"Good," his brother's voice continued. "Silence will serve you well in the days to come. Father honestly didn't expect to see you defeated. Literally, he didn't expect to see it - he took that piece from your frog thing in expectation that if we found him vanished, we'd check it to see whether he'd left for some other purpose or been disintegrated because of you. When he saw it vanish before his eyes, he was a bit upset. I think the genin who went in to see what the fuss is about will regain mobility one of these days."

Akira swallowed.

"He's not going to kill you."

And now he flinched, because that meant something worse was in the offing.

"He's decided to stop tolerating your quirks. You're getting married. Congratulatons." The voice was dry even for her brother.

"Nnn." The sound escaped Akira before he could clamp it down.

"... it's your own fault, you know. If you hadn't fallen in love, he'd be dead now, and I'd be in charge and probably executing you as a liability. Or just having you mindwiped and thrown on the street with the clothes on your back and some pocket change. I'm sort of capricious that way. And I'd really like being in charge, you know." Was he imagining a wistful tone in his brother's voice?

"I'm sorry," Akira said at last.

"I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry the old bastard strangled my sister when she gave birth to you instead of a boy. I'm sorry that you're probably facing the same thing in a year or less. I'm sorry that the guy you're marrying is probably going to cut off your arms at the elbow and your feet at the ankle to turn you into a baby factory. I'm sorry about all sorts of things." Long pause. "We are ninja. We endure."

"We are ninja," Akira repeated. "We endure."

Takumi ... abide a while, please ...

Roughly half an hour ago, Kanzaki Reito had awakened from a deep, exhausted sleep as a terrible sense of doom settled on him. Not just an ordinary sense of doom, but a genuinely terrible one, which was of course much worse.

The past few days had been pleasant enough for him. One good thing about having a seizure during a school invasion was that one's doctors were a bit more inclined to take matters seriously. Also fortunately, his family physician hadn't been available when the attending doctors had tried to get in touch with him, and consequently no one had bullied them into accepting the official diagnosis that nothing was wrong with him. They'd kept him overnight while they tried to puzzle the mystery out.

By the next day, his symptoms had eased enough for him to be discharged with a prescription of some exotic anti-inflammatories - much stronger than his regular course of meds - and bed rest, which advice he'd been happy to accept. The pills left him in a dreamy fugue, to the point where he wasn't sure how much of what he remembered of the last few days had actually happened. He was reasonably sure that Shizuru had paid him a visit at some point. She'd been upset, but hiding it fairly well ... which probably meant that it wasn't because of anything he'd done or his situation, because she'd have hidden it better if that were the case.

If that had been real, and not a vague dream born of some hidden wish for Shizuru to view him as not merely a friend and helper but a confidant, then he thought that he might have been helpful to her. She'd seemed in a better mood when she left. Which could mean that he'd given her good advice, or that she realized that her distress was showing and taken better care to hide it.

What an insincere pack of hypocrites ... just like our parents ...

He shouldn't think that way.

The headache hadn't gone away completely, of course. It was just muffled by the effects of the pills, and when it surged up again, there was nothing to be done except to endure the faint traces of agony that cut through them.

At least, that was how it had been until just now. Because in addition to the strange sense of doom that he felt, the pain was utterly absent, despite the fact that his latest round of meds had been taken the previous night and he was due for a new one. So by rights he should be feeling the hints of the headache, but there wasn't anything. Not even the memory of pain. Perhaps that was the reason for the morbid imaginings, the possibility that this was the calm before the worst strorm yet.

Or perhaps that was only the weather influencing his moods. He looked out through his bedroom window, which looked down at the street outside his rented house. It looked awful out there, with the rain coming down in torrents, and Mai standing by his gate looking like a wet cat, and no sign of letting wait wait wait Mai?

Yes, there she was. What, how - he quickly headed down to the front door, grabbing up an umbrella as he opened it and ran out to open the gate to her. "Mai?" he asked.

"'Sup," she said dully. "Didn't know if you were home so I didn't want to ring the bell."

"How did you know where I lived?"

"... you're in the student directory," she said with the air of one repeating herself, which was a little odd.

"Oh, right. Come in, come in," he said, leading her in without bothering to shut the gate, though he did get the door closed behind them. "Um, you should probably get out of those clothes," he said as he walked past her while she took off her shoes. "I'll go get a spare shirt or something, and maybe a towel -"

Something soft and wet hit the side of his head and dropped down to his shoulder. For a moment, he stood utterly paralyzed in confusion, before he reached out to pick whatever it was off of there. Then he blinked in a little more confusion at the panties he was holding.

Slowly he turned back to look at Mai, just as she reached up to yank her vest open, with the sound of buttons snapping as she did so. "Fuck the towel," she said.


"Actually don't fuck the towel," she continued as she let the vest slide back and down her left shoulder while on the right hand side it caught on her elbow, which was bent to allow her to slowly undo the clasp of the bra beneath it. Again, the fastener released with an audible pop once her full breasts swung free, leaving her dressed only in her socks and skirt, which was pulled up to her hips. "You're not going to need any onatoys for a while," she explained, her face unchanged through all of this. Her tone level and dull.

It was moderately terrifying. Which was of course worse than the real thing. "Mai, I think maybe you should calm down -"

"I don't want to calm down," Mai said. Same dull emotionless tone. "I want to fuck." And then she was upon him.

She slammed their lips together as she forced him back against the foyer's wall, sucking his tongue into her mouth with a terrible force as she pushed up against him and ran her hands down his chest to his pants. As it happened, Reito was only wearing his sweatpants and t-shirt, rather than his usual smart-yet-somber black ensemble, and so it was easy to get the pants part of his attire pulled down. That accomplished, Mai pulled back and, without a word, began to bob her head on the semi-erect phallus thus exposed.

Reito groaned shortly, reached for her head as though to guide it. She jerked back just a bit out of reach, now just teasing the very head of his dick with her tongue and teeth as she glared up at his eyes. Though nothing she did hurt, the threat was there. He pulled back his hands and reached for bracing points on the wall and doorway instead.

Mai let go of him with her mouth but lifted up her own hand to wrap around him and began pumping him furiously, pausing just long enough to drizzle spit down the length of the erection. Holding it nearly parallel to his stomach while still pumping, she went further down to nuzzle one then the other of his testicles, licking and actually sucking them into her mouth. "Mmm, yeah, you like that, don't you?" she asked. Despite the words, her voice was just as dead and toneless as it had been before.

He groaned again in what he hoped she would take for affirmation, then gasped as she went further down and back between his legs to lick at the point where his scrotum was attached. With her free hand, she pushed back even further, sodomizing him with what felt like a thumb for a few moments, before pulling back to, before his very eyes, shove that thumb into her own mouth before he could see whether -

"Yum," she said. Without a trace of a smile on her face.

He blinked back tears as the strange sensation of pleasure and pain eased a bit while Mai began sucking him once more. Her thumb was fairly small by comparison to the things that had gone up there in the past, but still - he was distracted from these musings as something that he'd never had done to him at all began to happen. She was forcing him down into her throat, sucking him in and pulling herself forward, until his pubic hair was tickling around her lips and she looked to be about to explode.

The pressure was rather keen on his own side of things as well, and so he opened his mouth to telll her to stop. Just as he did so, she pulled back to let him out, coughing and choking, before sptting harshly on his penis head once again.

"That oughta be enough," she rasped. "Oh, didja think I was gonna let you cum down my throat? Or spew it all over my face? Later, maybe, maybe after you mark your territory the other way first. Right now this is going straight up my fucking wet cunt."

She pushed herself up to a standing position in front of him. "Grab my skirt," she said. "Both sides."

It seemed rude to refuse her request, so he did so. With him holding onto her sides in that way, she was able to hop up onto him so that his erect penis was brushing up against her rear end. With one arm wrapped around his neck to support herself, she reached back to push the dick so that it was brushing up against the right hole, and then eased herself down to slowly slide him up into her.

"Now, fuck me," she said, actual emotion finally starting to animate her face. "Turn us around and fuck me right into the fucking wall!"

Again, not to do so seemed rude. So with his hands still holding to the waistband of her skirt while she wrapped both arms around his neck and brought up her knees to his own waist to grab hold of him that way, he twisted around so that her back was right up against the wall and began to pump forward.

"Harder," she snapped. "Fucking fuck me fucking harder! Make me feel it when you slam that cockhead up against my fucking womb! Push it in! Push it up and in there so you spray your baby juice right up me!"

"Is it a safe day?" he gasped in response.


He obliged. Apparently, though, his efforts fell short.

"HARDER! Can't you go HARDER! I want fo feel it! I want it to be like you're raping me, dammit!"

"I don't want to -"

"I don't want to be your fucking lover, I'm your fucking whore! Fuck me like one! Fuck me like the fucking whore that I am! Ruh, ruh, rape me - rape me like I RAPED MY LITTLE BROTHER!" she screamed, then bellowed incoherently as something inside of her finally exploded into what seemed like an orgasm.

His own, a moment later, was a bit more sedate. He hardly even noticed, considering how much she was crying.

"Are you feeling better now?" Reito asked hesitantly, a few minutes later.

"Guess," Mai said hollowly as she sat, legs wrapped under her as she wore Reito's sweatshirt over her otherwise naked body, in front of the fireplace in the living room.

For his part, Reito, now in a bathrobe, thought that she might actually be a bit better if she'd started using sarcasm instead of the affectless voice she'd mostly used to this point, but decided it was probably better not to suggest such an opinion.

"Okay, then," he said aloud. "If you'd like to talk about ... that ... then I think I'm a fairly good listener, and -"

"I hadn't even turned fifteen," she said, and told him the whole story, sparing nothing. She told him about caring for her brother after their mother died and their father basically abandoned them, about baths and erections, and about what she'd done to supposedly ease his pain. "But I was lying to myself," she added. "It wasn't for him, it was for me. I was horny, and lonely, because I didn't have any friends because I had to work to take care of us both, and I was angry that I had to do that, and ... no, there wasn't one bit of it that came out of caring for him. Especially not when I took his virginity."

"And gave him yours, right?" Reito asked. "Mai -"

"No, that's not how it was," she interrupted. "I knew it was going to hurt the first time, and I didn't want him to freak out because of the blood, so I taught myself to fuck so I could fuck him. I was a waitress even back then, you see, and there was this guy in the restaurant, just a little bit older than me. He was training to be a chef, I think, but he did a lot of odd jobs so he was in really good shape. Looking back at it, he sort of looked like Tate ... maybe that's why -"

Reito coughed.

"Um. Right. Well, I figured he probably had tons of girlfriends, so a week or so before Takumi's twelfth birthday, I cornered him after work, just like I just now cornered you, and, well, we did a bunch of stuff in the kitchen that the health inspector would really not approve. Funny thing was, Shirou-sempai was actually just as dumb about this stuff as I was. Maybe more. But anyway, that was my virginity, and then a week later ... you get the idea. So what were you going to say?"

He looked at her for a long moment, before he finally spoke up. "Well, if you were hoping for me to disagree with you about what you did, you're in for a grave disappointment. Yes, you molested your brother, and I think he would be perfectly within his rights to hate you forever for doing so. Just like I will forever hate the one who molested me."

"Oh," she said, looking down. "I didn't -"

"It's not important right now," he interrupted. "But there's another side to it, that you're not considering. Mai - however much you might have had adult responsibilities and adult choices thrust upon you, you were not an adult when you did these things. Any more than you are an adult now. So I think you should consider forgiving yourself for these things, rather than dwelling on them, so that you can start thinking about how to make amends."

"But I can't,"she said.

"Yes, you can -"

"No, I can't ever make amends," Mai cried. "He's dead, he's dead! And I killed him, too. I killed him by bringing him to this place, as surely as if I put a gun to his head." Her voice caught, and she choked back sobs. "And the sick part is, I was glad that he was dead, when I realized it."

"And are you glad now?" Reito asked, drawing closer to her.

"Nooo," she groaned.

"You miss him. You mourn for him. You're glad to be able to put down the burden, but you miss him all the same. You're human, Mai. It's okay to be feeling all these things at once. But I'm telling you, at the bottom of whatever it was you felt for Takumi, there was love."

"I can't believe that," she said, looking away. "I don't, I don't know what love is. I understand lust, and I understand duty and obligation, and I understand obsession ... but I don't think I have love. I think ... I missed the boat when it came to learning what it meant."

"There's always another chance, Mai," he assured her.

"I don't love you," she said.

"I'm okay with that."

"But I'm sorry that you went through what you did, and had to listen to all that, too," she added, quietly. "I can't imagine ..." She trailed off, shaking her head.

"It's not surprising that you didn't know," he said, with a shrug. "I wasn't going to tell you, and I doubt that Mikoto really understood what our grandfather was doing."

"Yeah, but still wait what?"

"She's pretty much lucid," the 'doctor' told them as he went over his notes. "Suffering from malnutrition and some fairly mild harsh treatment -"

"Excuse me," interrupted Shizuru. "What in the world constitutes mild harsh treatment?"

He looked up with a bored expression. "Signs of brusing on points of restraint, evidence of muzzling. No evidence of bruising to other areas of the body, burns, recently developed scars, or intravenous drug administration." He paused, looking down the page of notes. "Subject was sexually active within the last twenty-four hours," he added in a clinical tone. "Given her condition, it's likely that the sex was non-consensual."

"And you consider this mild?" Shizuru asked in what she judged to be a rather mild tone.

"Lady, when I was a real doctor, I saw a single mom who'd been gang-raped by six bastards brought into the ER," he said, sounding just a bit annoyed. "Compared to that, your girl got off easily. Anyway, like I said, she's awake and responsive, so you want to talk to her, be my guest."

"Thank you," Natsuki said quickly, before Shizuru could make any more comments. "We'll go do that now."

"Is this person going to charge for his alleged services?" Shizuru asked as Natsuki headed down the hall to the room where Akane was resting.

"Not for a while, at least. He still owes me from when I persuaded his black market connection to stop mixing in sugar pills with the meds he was buying, back in May."

"Is that what you were doing for those two weeks you disappeared?"

"... that and some other stuff," Natsuki evaded.

She opened the door to find Akane lying on a bed in a room that would have made a fairly nice closet, staring up at the ceilling.

"Higurashi-san?" she said.

That got a motion from the other girl, even if it was only a slight tilt of the head to look at Natsuki for a moment, before her head lolled back to its previous positioning.

"I'm Kuga Natsuki and -"

"I know who you are," said a dry voice from Akane's mouth. "You're a campus celebrity. And you're with the president. Of course I know who you are."

"Okay," Natsuki stumbled, acutely conscious of Shizuru's presence and very much not wanting to bring up HiME business in front of her. "I need to ask you about -"

"You're a HiME, too, aren't you?" Akane asked in that same bone dry voice. "I can sort of remember seeing you do things while you were breaking me out. And the president, too?"

"Ahhhh," Natsuki temporized.

"Yes," Shizuru interjected. "I'm a hime. I suppose every girl dreams of being one, and I was fortunate enough to have more of a chance than most."

"Fortunate," Akane said. "Huh. Not what I'd say ... but then I didn't really want to be a princess. And I knew that Kazuya wasn't much of a prince. But he could be so sweet ... I'm so sorry, Kazuya." She seemed to be drifting.

"Tell me about Kazuya," Shizuru prompted. "What happened to him?"

"He's gone," she said after a moment. "Gone in green light, gone forever. Maybe if I just die, I'll be able to see him -"

"No." Shizuru's voice was cold. "If he's dead, then you will never see him again, regardless of whether you live or die. So you must not die, but live, so that the memories of him you carry with you will live with you."

Akane was silent, then let out a long sigh of obvious regret.

Natsuki, a little bewildered at the way that this was going, spoke up. "Higurashi, I can get in touch with your family if you want -"

"No." Just a single syllable, neither angry nor sad.

"All right," Natsuki said after a moment. "But I am going to tell your friend Mai - you remember her? - where you are, so she can come and see you." Assuming that she takes my calls.

"Okay," Akane breathed.

"We're gonna let you rest, now, and, uh, yeah, that's -"

"Did it hurt?" Shizuru asked Akane


"When Kazuya went away in green light," Shizuru continued. "Do you think that he was in pain while it was happening?"

"Yes," Akane answered. "Very much so."

"I see. Thank you." And with that, Shizuru stepped back to let Natsuki slide the door closed, which she proceeded to do.

"Um ... wow, that was confusing and cryptic, wasn't it?" Natsuki asked after a moment. "I'm not sure what she was talking about with all that princess stuff, and -"

"Natsuki," Shizuru interrupted. She held a hand out to her side, and wrapped her fingers firmly around the shaft of the naginata that appeared from thin air. "Please, do not lie to me. I hate it when you do that."

Natsuki just stared.

"Shall we remove to somewhere more suited for the discussion that you and I should probably have?" Shizuru asked.

"... yeah."

"You bring me to the nicest places," Shizuru mused as they arrived at the watering hole.

It wasn't too far from the street doctor's building, so they didn't have far to walk. And Natsuki had managed to talk Shizuru into putting her weapon back into whatever pocket dimension or other notional region it came out of, so the president was only attracting the attention that a gorgeous girl in a school uniform - if you could call it that, when she was the only one to wear this particular style - and with a clearly aristocratic manner would attract. Looking back on it, maybe letting her carry the naginata around wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all.

But the worst part was that Natsuki had no idea what to say in response to what Shizuru had just said. If Mai had said it, or Midori or Nao or - okay, no one else would have said anything - she'd have fired back with a 'it's not like I wanted to bring you here', fighting snark with snark. But even though that statement was true - she'd never wanted to expose this side of her life to Shizuru, for fear of disgusting the sophisticated girl - she didn't want to say it.

If Mai had said it ...

No, no, focus, Natsuki reminded herself. She couldn't do anything for her right now, so she needed to focus on what she could do. In particular, focus on giving Shizuru a response. "It's a good place to meet people who'll do stuff without asking too many questions," she said.

"I can imagine," Shizuru said as she sat down across the booth from Natsuki.

Before Natsuki could say anything, the waiter came over to get their order, and she had to sit through watching Shizuru describe how she took her tea to the taciturn fellow, who took it all in without a word before turning to look at Natsuki.

"Just bring the kettle, and two cups," Natsuki said, flushing.

"Is something the matter?"

"No, no, just. Okay. So. How long've you been a you-know-what?"

Shizuru stared. "I believe that I was born this way. The odious little man who persuaded me to take up this power and responsibility certainly indicated as much when I confronted him -"

"That's not what I meant, I'm sorry, but ... I'm sorry, this is not a conversation I ever envisioned having. How long have you known about this?"

"Since the invasion." Shizuru looked away. "I imagine that it was much the same for me as it was with you. Threatened with the loss of what I cared about, I chose to risk that person's life in order to have a chance to protect them."

It hadn't, actually, been like that for Natsuki, but right now maybe wasn't the time to address that. "So does that person know about this? Some things have happened -"

"I think it's best that they don't know," Shizuru answered, meeting Natsuki's eyes evenly. "That person has a great number of burdens already. There's no need to add to them."

Her father, Natsuki guessed. She must admire him more than she's ever admitted. "Well, I won't tell you what to do about that," she said. "What are you going to do besides that?"

"I hate violence, you know," Shizuru answered. "Not because I'm afraid of hurting or being hurt, but because it's so ... strenuous," she said at last, having searched for the mot juste for a while. "And even if that wasn't the case, I think that I'd think that it's best not to play the game that other people have chosen for one. Regardless, I don't have the personality to go out and hunt down prospective enemies, the way that you do."

"So then -"

"I will do nothing until enemies come for me, and then I will defend myself. It seems the most moral course of action." She paused, made a moue. "It occurs to me that there might be one that's a bit more likely to be successful, but the variables involved make it rather unlikely. And too risky."

"I'd still like to hear it," Natsuki said, feeling her pulse quicken. Shizuru was much smarter than she was, she knew, and if she could see a way out of this -

Before Shizuru could say anything, the waiter arrived with a pair of tea cups, each with a bag of tea inside, and a steaming kettle. "Enjoy," he snarled, and then stomped off.

Shizuru stared at the cup. "This ... is not what I ordered," she declared in confusion. "Where's the sugar and cream?" Sniff sniff at the bag. "What strange brand of tea is this?"

Then again, maybe not, Natsuki decided, and started to demonstate.

"What do you mean?" Mai said a moment later, when Reito had said absolutely nothing in response to her first confused query. "Your grandfather? But ... you told -" She broke off just as she was about to say a certain name, then continued. "You said that you weren't her brother."

"I don't believe that I ever did say that," Reito said, reflecting on his brief conversation with Mikoto, months earlier. "But then, she didn't ask me if I were her brother. She showed me her pendant, and asked me if I knew what it was. And I told her that I didn't - for I don't remember ever giving it to her, as she said that I did. But then I've tried, deliberately, to forget as much as possible from those days."

"Because your grandfather was -" Mai broke off. Reito simply nodded once in answer. "Why?" she asked. "Why did that happen to you? Where were your parents? Why -"

"It's a long story, Mai," he interrupted. "But I'll try to tell it, all the same. Let me just warn you - it won't make you happy."

"I don't deserve to be happy, so lay it on me. I need to understand this." Maybe if she did, she'd also understand why - but now she broke off her thought as it came too close to a certain person.

"All right. Let me just get you some cocoa first," Reito offered. He headed into the kitchenette to prepare it, while she sat in the living room, trying not to think about someone who, until very recently, had consumed so much of her thoughts. It wasn't easy.

"Here, with my compliments," Reito said when he came back a few moments later, handing her the steaming mug.

"Thank you."

"Let me start at the very beginning," he continued as he sat down beside her.

"A very good place to start," Mai said, raising the mug to her lips.

"You're familiar with the legend of the twelve princesses and the Obsidian Prince, of course."

Mai stopped before she could even sip the cocoa. "Yyyeah," she stammered. "I'm realllly familiar, at this point."

"Indeed. But what you don't realize, I think, is that this legend isn't just a story -"

"No, I get that."

"I mean that it's a religion. It's something that some people are perfectly willing to shape their lives around, and also shape those of others, as well. My grandfather was one such true believer." Reito paused. "I think I would have hated him for that, even if he hadn't been a monster in other ways.

"Be that as it may, some forty years ago, the old bastard began preparing for the Carnival, because ... well. There are actually a number of these worshippers of the Obsidian Prince around, and their belief system ... it's a bit like a cargo cult, actually."

"What's a kago cult?" Mai asked, too fascinated by all this to drink her cocoa.

"Well, that's another long story, but it's basically the belief that there are specific magical things that people can do that will cause other people to bring them goods that they couldn't otherwise obtain. Like that, belief in the Obsidian Prince is basically belief in a being who will grant your wishes."

"Like how the First District wants to turn Japan back into an isolationist country."

"That's a good example. Anyway, my grandfather had a very different goal in mind for the Obsidian Prince, and everything that he did was supposedly directed towards creating the conditions that would compel the Obsidian Prince to grant his wish. He married the daughter of an old family that had ties to the last iteration of this cycle -"

"The Kuga family?" Mai guessed.

"Correct. You're more informed than you knew, I think."

"I just had a bunch of pieces," Mai said modestly. "I didn't even really try to fit them all together." She sipped the cocoa to hide her embarassment at being praised like that.

"So, he and his wife had three children - a son, a daughter, and a much younger daughter who came along fairly late in the game. She's not really all that important to the story I was telling, though."

"And you and - and y-your sister are the children of his son," Mai said, stammering again as she barely avoided a certain name.

"No," Reito said after a moment. "Mikoto and I are the children of his son and his older daughter."

Mai almost dropped the cup. "As in -"

"Yes. As in. He was trying to maximize the amount of the old blood, through inbreeding."

"And your grandmother -"

"I don't know what happened to her, whether she approved of all this or just obeyed her husband like the petty tyrant he was," Reito said, shaking his head. "She was gone before I was born. I think she died giving birth to my aunt, who was born just a few years before I was. I hope that's what it was. I can't do that for my parents - I don't really remember them all that well, but I remember that one day, shortly after Mikoto was born, they just ... weren't there anymore."

"He killed them?" Mai asked numbly.

"He didn't need them anymore. They'd given him a grandson who was the ideal vessel for the Obsidian Prince, and a granddaughter who could be turned into the ideal warrior princess."

"B-but that doesn't make any sense," Mai said, head feeling fuzzy with these revelations. "If you were going to be the vessel for his god, then why would he -"

"To make me hate the world and everything in it," Reito interrupted again. "That was his goal, you see. To have him wipe the slate clean. To see that only the strongest survive, to create a new and better world. Also because he was a lustful pederast. Regardless, it's disgusting, don't you think? Even the First District's ambitions seem wholesome by comparison."

"You don't want that, do you?" Mai asked, faintly. Her fingers were becoming weak. What was the matter with her? Why was the cup falling out of her hand ...

"No, I don't. That's why I ran away, just as my aunt had before me. Not that it made any difference," he admitted with a bitter laugh. "I ended up being taken in by a family that worshipped the Prince in a more orthodox manner, and raised to be their pet prince. But I don't want their goals either. So you understand, then? You understand why I have to do what I have to do? The only thing I can do to end my own role in all of this?"

He turned to look at Mai, seeing that the drugs he'd slipped into her cocoa had finally taken effect, and that she was crumpled up in sleep. He hoped that he hadn't miscalculated the dosage. Well, too late for that now.

"Good night, Mai," he said. "I hope you forgive yourself. I hope you forgive me."

He got up, got dressed, picked up his sword, and went out the front door of his house, locking the door behind him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was still raining. For a moment, he considered going back in to get his umbrella, since he didn't want to catch a cold from walking in the rain. Then the absurdity of what he had just considered struck him, and he shook his head wearily while holding back laughter that might turn dangerously towards hysteria. When he mastered himself once more, he turned to walk towards the gate, and paused when he saw that it wasn't empty.

Mashiro was seated in her wheelchair just past the gate, with Fumi standing just behind her holding an umbrella above them both. The lavender-haired girl was staring at him expressionlessly.

Reito decided to break the silence. "Would I be correct in guessing that my home is wired for sound, and that you know all that has lately transpired there?"

"Wires and bugs are obsolete," Mashiro answered flatly. "But yes, we know all."

"Including -"


"Ah. Well. Once we are done here, one way or another, could I ask you to check on Mai? She doesn't deserve -"

"She'll be fine," Mashiro predicted calmly. "What are you planning to do?"

His hand tightened on the hilt of the short sword he was carrying. "What must be done," he answered.

"I see," she said. A sigh, and then, "You do understand that will make no real difference in the long run. If it is not you, then it will be one of the other potential vessels."

"I disagree."

"Then we are at an impasse. However, I will not stop you from following the path that you have chosen. And so there's nothing more for me to say. However, I believe someone else might choose to say something."

Without a word, Fumi bent down to hand Mashiro the umbrella, then stepped around the wheelchair to walk up to Reito. The rain beat down on both of them for a long moment before either of them spoke.

"Fu- I am sorry," she said at last. "I was selfish, and foolish, and very young. But ... if I had known what father was going to do to you ... I would have taken you and Mikoto-chan with me when I left. I am more sorry than I can say for what he did to you."

"I accept your apology in the spirit it was given, obaasan. But if you'd taken us with you, you would surely have been caught," he said, just a bit gently.

"Perhaps," she said. "We'll never know, will we?"

They stood awhile in silence.

"About my parents - do you know -" he asked, haltingly.

"I do not think he killed them," she said. "It was a car crash. An accident. He was ... upset." She swallowed. "In retrospect, I think he may have been planning to, ah, breed me with niichan, once I was grown. To have a backup in place. So he would not have killed both of them ... and they died together."

"I see. It really doesn't matter, I suppose."


"If you would wish to make amends," Reito said at last, "then might I ask whether you would be willing to act as my second?"

Water was running down Fumi's cheeks, doubtless from the rain. "As my master does not approve, I do not think it would be correct for me to do so."

"Very well. Farewell, Fumi-obaasan. May your service bring you joy." A final bow, and then he was walking away, past Mashiro without a glance at her and then out the gate and down the street. All the while, Fumi stood there, looking at something only she could see, roughly a thousand yards away.

"Master," she said softly after a moment. "Was I right to refuse?" Slowly she turned to look at Mashiro, who did not meet her eyes, being deep in thought.

"We shall see," the little girl said at last. From her long service to her, Fumi knew that tone meant that there was to be no more discussion of the matter. With a nod, she started towards the door.

"But he was wrong to ask it of you," Mashiro added.

That was a rare concession, and Fumi treasured it. "Thank you," she whispered, and went in to make sure of the health of a silly girl.

"But you won, right?" Ai asked, laying down on the bed beside her.

"We kinda won," Nao allowed. And they had, really. They'd accomplished their objective, and actually taken down a second HiME who was outside of the alliance in the process. She shouldn't be upset. She should be mocking those who were upset.

It didn't make any sense at all to her. She'd never even met the kid. (Why hadn't she? When she and Mai had started to mend fences, why hadn't she asked to be introduced to the little brother who'd featured so prominently in Mikoto's stories about her?) So why was she missing what she never really had?

"So why are you sad when you won?" Ai asked, oblivious as always to what was going on in Nao's head.

She'd come over to tell her that it was all done and that her boyfriend was probably okay. (Probably. She thought that surely someone would pick him up off the ground before he drowned in a rain puddle.) Ai had invited her in to have milk and cookies, and Nao, having nothing better to do, had agreed. Thankfully, Ai's piece-of-shit big brother was off violating the moral event horizon somewhere else, and wasn't there to bother either of them.

It was kind of strange, the way Nao kept seeking out this girl with whom she had absolutely nothing in common. Their relationship made no real sense, but then, what did? Sometimes it sort of reminded her of what she'd conned Mikoto into thinking that the two of them had, only genuine. She thought it was genuine anyway.

"I guess even when you win, it can be sad," Nao said at last.

"Ah," replied Ai, as though great wisdom had just been imparted to her.

But thinking of Mai and Mikoto like that inevitably brought to mind the way that they'd broken up - she thought it was fair to call it that - right in front of her. So it seemed that girl-girl relationships could be just as fragile as the usually lie-ridden relationships between guys and girls. That left her feeling very unconfident.

And yet, here she was, with a girl best described as readily available. She hadn't had any luck so far - though watching Kuga strolling off with that rich bitch had hurt a little - so why not try it?

"Y'mind if we talk about something else?" Nao asked, rolling over so that she was looking right at Ai.

"No, not at all. What would you like -"

"Would you mind if I kissed you?"

Ai paused, blinked. "Well ... okay. I guess that would be all right. But please don't -"

Nao's fragmentary conscience predicted what the don't was going to be, so she slammed her lips to Ai's before she could say it, yielding a "HMMMMM!" sound from Ai as she did so. Then, as Ai had doubtless expected her to do, she brought up her hands up to start grabbing at the girl's boobs. An even higher pitched "HMMMMM!" ensued as Ai collapsed on the bed beneath Nao.

It was surprisingly sweet, much nicer than Kuga had been. And those breasts! Huge, vast tracts of moth- of busty breastiness! Particularly after the button-up blouse that Ai had been wearing came open to reveal the biggest bra she'd ever seen, which came down easily and let her get her mouth on them while her hands could do other things.

Holy shit, this girl wore a pair of string panties under these shorts! Nao didn't want to believe that anyone was asking for it, but this girl sure seemed to be asking for it.

"Ahhhh! No, Magical Girl, we can't -!"

"It's Nao!" Nao said irritably, and began fingering her rather viciously, to soothe her battered feelings. She wasn't too versed in masturbation, since she'd usually derived sexual pleasure from harming men in the past, but she was aware that it probably shouldn't be so easy to slip four fingers of one hand up this particular hole. She had a hunch that she could probably have worked the thumb in with some effort, but she needed something to take care of Ai's clit.

Several orgasms - all on Ai's side, since Nao didn't trust her to do anything back to her just yet - and roughly twenty minutes later, the girl was asleep, while Nao was getting dressed and trying to convince herself that she wasn't some sort of monster. After all, it wasn't rape if you enjoyed it, right? That was what Mai had told her, and ... well, she was fairly sure Ai had enjoyed that, whatever denials she'd uttered.

At the very least, Nao had decided that she definitely liked girls. But there was a certain amount of doubt in her - maybe she only liked girls because she hated men? Maybe she should try and find someone who wasn't so -

Such were her thoughts when she opened the door to Ai's room and found the man who'd been introduced to her as Ai's father standing there masturbating furiously.

Without hesitating a moment, she kicked him in between the legs and left the building.

No, she definitely hated men. No doubt there.

When the academy had been rebuilt after last year's incident, whatever it had been - Reito still wasn't too clear about that, beyond not really wanting to think about what had happened to him personally in the immediate aftermath - the Crystal Shrine had been one of the first buildings put up. It was supposedly meant to symbolize the fragility and the beauty of life, so recently threatened. Somehow it had gotten tied in to the world tree festival mythology, with tying a ribbon with one's loved one's name on it serving as a safer alternative to actually confessing one's love.

Reito was well aware that its true purpose was something entirely different from its stated purpose and the one it had acquired. The fact that he knew these things without ever having learned them was a clear sign that he didn't have much time left to do what must be done.

The door would be locked, but he had a key. Convenient, being the vice president. Ironic, too, since he only had that role because of money his family had spread around to raise him up so that when the time came he'd be in a position of influence. "When the time came" being "now", and "now" being when he meant to foil the plans and -

Hm? The door wasn't locked after all. Had someone been lax in their duties, or was -

"Looks like my hunch was right," said a male voice that he vaguely recognized. "Come in, please. There's no sense in you getting all wet."

Reito eased open the door and walked in slowly. There, standing in the shadows - Ishigami-sensei, breathing heavily and holding a knife in his hand.

"I had a hunch that you would come here to complete your apotheosis," the teacher said, voice unsteady.

"Yes, so you said," Reito replied. "You're mistaken about my intentions, however."

"Don't, don't bother -" Ishigami stuttered, then took a moment to calm himself. "This is not a conversation," he snapped. "I tried to be reasonable with one of the vessels before you, and it got me nowhere. Admittedly, everything worked out the way I wanted it, but it wasn't because of anything I did, so it's worthless, and - no. I'm not going to try and talk you into letting me kill you."

"I have no objection to you killing me," said Reito, who'd come there to die anyway. "I wouldn't mind knowing why you want to do so, though."

"Ah hah, hah hah, very funny," Ishigami 'laughed'. "I'm not going to fall for that kind of trick. I'm going to kill you, and then the Prince will choose me as his vessel, as cousin to several of these silly girls, and the closest blood-related candidate. And then I'll -"

"Don't some of them have living fathers, though?" Reito heard himself asking.

"What?" Ishigami asked. Before Reito could reply, he was 'laughing' again. "Hah, no, nice try, you're not going to trick me like that, that wouldn't c-count, no, no, nononono, that's not fffair!" he finally shrieked. "I've earned this! It shouldn't go to -"

Abruptly, there was a rattling at the door on the opposite side of the hall from the one Reito had entered, which was apparently still locked. "Aniue!" a faint voice could be heard on the other side of the door. "You're there, right?"

"Her again?" Ishigami hissed. And then, before Reito could say anything - and even if he could've, he found his lips strangely heavy for some reason - the maniacal teacher was dashing over to that side of the building, to stand in the shadows beside the door.

A moment later, there was the sound of metal being strained well past its breaking point, and the door was pulled outward so that Mikoto, sword out before her, could run in. "Aniue!" she repeated, then sighted Reito across the hall. "Huh? Why're you here?" she asked as Ishigami stepped into her blind spot and drove the knife down towards her back.

He wanted to shriek a warning, but his lips wouldn't move. Why? he cried inwardly as time seemed to slow to a standstill. Why can't I help her?

A good and reasonable question, answered a voice in his mind that was not his own.


Yes. The voice sounded amused more than anything. The joining of us is almost complete. I can already control much of what you do.

Please let me save her! The knife gleamed in the air as it swam toward her. The hand that held it didn't seem very steady or skilled but it didn't need to be.

... I wouldn't mind doing that, actually. You and I are very much alike. Neither of us care much for the purposes we were created.

What? I-I-I don't under- I thought you were a mindless thing -

Yes, I know. Once, I may have been that, but after millions of these rituals, becoming part of so many of you ... well, it would be strange if I hadn't picked up some of the habits of humanity. So let me offer you a deal.

I can destroy your mind and take full possession of your body, but it will take time - time that the sister you abandoned doesn't have. Surrender to me, and you and I will become a partnership, and we'll save your sister together. And then we can discuss what to do with my power.

It would strike her in the back any second now, and sweet stupid little Mikoto would be no more.

Have we an agreement?

Despite what he'd said, he had cursed his parents and his aunt for abandoning him to his grandfather. And despite that, he'd done the same thing to Mikoto.

We do.


"Look out!" the boy who looked like aniue but wasn't shouted.

Mikoto wondered why he did that, since she was already in the process of turning to block the thrust of the person who brought a silly little knife to a sword fight, but she supposed it didn't matter.

"Nooo!" he cried, and she recognized him from the frustration in his tone. Him again? She hoped he didn't have one of those sutras handy as she advanced.

"That will do, Miko-chan," said a familiar voice from behind her. "He still has his uses."

She turned and saw that the boy who looked like aniue but wasn't was now smiling at her just like aniue, making him look even more like - "Aniue?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yes," he answered. "Now."

"Aniue!" Mikoto cried out and bounded over to wrap her arms around his midsection, tears flowing freely from her eyes. "So happy! Everything, everything has gone all wrong, but I finally found you, aniue, and now -"

"Now everything will be fiiine!" he enthused. "But Miko-chan, my darling little sister, there's a thing that you must do for me now."

"What do I need to do, aniue?" she asked, taking a step back to look up at him eagerly.

"I need you to stand completely still, do nothing, say nothing, hear nothing, see nothing, until I touch you," he told her in a perfectly calm and pleasant tone.

Mikoto became a frozen statue in that very instant, with her eyes glowing ominously in the same way as the pendant hanging around her neck, hidden beneath her uniform's shirt.

"Excellent," he said, though, as Mikoto couldn't hear him, it didn't seem to be a compliment directed her way. And then he slowly swiveled to look, with that same broad and satisfied smile on his face, over at Ishigami, still laying on the floor from where he had been struck down earlier. "Now, for the man who would be me ..."

"I-I-I-I-I," the art teacher stammered.

"You're actually very fortunate, you know," said that which now employed Kanzaki Reito's body. "My current vessel had been prepared to receive me since birth. His consciousness is now discovering exactly what it means to be the decidedly junior partner in an association with me. I don't think he likes it very much," he added, as one confiding a secret to another.

"Please don't kill me," Ishigami wept. "I, I am a faithful worshipper -"

"Oh, I don't think you get to claim that. But rejoice, Ishigami Wataru, for as I told my priestess, I do in fact still have need of you!" He leaned down so that his eyes, far colder than Reito's had ever been, gazed deeply into Ishigami's eyes. "You will go unto Sister Yukariko and with her devise a method of bringing low the one called Kikukawa Yukino. Her power is very inconvenient for what I am planning."

Having said that, he paused, reflected momentarily, then continued. "And if you could also deal with as many of the so-called western magi who dwell in the Sister's cloister, that would also be most pleasant. They are a factor in all of this that I hadn't really expected, and have already sent awry a number of useful schemes."

"Yes, yes, master, of course," Ishigami said, as servile as any mad scientist's deformed assistant.

"And then you will destroy Yukariko's Child," he added as an afterthought.

"Eh?" Ishigami said.

"I hate repeating myself," the Prince said warningly.

"But master!" Ishigami gasped. "I am, I have made myself into her most important person, so, so, so if I should do that -"

"Then you will die in my service as my faithful worshipper should be happy to do!" The Prince tilted Reito's head to one side. "Or would you rather serve me in some other fashion? I could sever the tie between you and her easily, if that were the case. Tell me, are you good at fellatio?"

"I will serve you as you command, master," Ishigami said quickly, backing up a little. "I will go now to Yukariko and ... I will do as you have commanded me to do."

"Well, good. Be about it, then." He waved in an 'off with you' type of gesture, and Ishigami backed further up, then dashed through the open door.

"Now," he said, clapping his hands. "Back to my sweet little sister. I hope that she has become good at fellatio." Absentmindedly unbuckling the belt around his vessel's waist, he walked over to Mikoto and tapped the back of her neck."

"Aniue?"she asked confusedly as she regained animation once more.

"All done," he told her. "Now, I would really appreciate it if you would kneel down before me to kiss and suckle my manhood." He pulled down the pants to expose said manhood to her eyes.

"Eeehh?" Mikoto asked, confused. "But ... but aniue, this place is -"

"I don't think anyone will show up to interrupt or observe us," he suggested.

"Uhh ... okay," she said, just a bit hesitantly as she knelt down.

"Have you done this before? With Mai and Takumi-kun?" he asked curiously.

"N-no," she stammered as she reached out to take his stiffening manhood in her hand. "I thought about it, but, but, I wanted to wait for aniue." And with that observation, she bent to take him in her mouth.

"Ah, what a good little sister you are," said the Prince, holding her tightly around her ears to push even more of his vessel's length into her mouth and down her throat, enjoying her gasps and the screams only he could hear. What a wonderful awakening this was turning out to be.

"I am so very disappointed in you," her mother was saying, as she stared down high above Mai.

"'m sorry," Mai mumbled.

"Do you really think an apology is enough to make up for what you did? I told you to look after your little brother, and what did you do?"

"Wha'd you do," Mai mumbled, a bit of her resentment coming out.

"What was that?" her mother asked sharply, and then, incredibly, reached down to slap Mai repeatedly on her cheek.

Well, it was more of a pat, really, but the gesture was enough to bring all of Mai's resentment out. "You left!" she shouted up at her mother. "You left, an' everything went straight to h-hell ..." Mai trailed off, then, as she realized that the aghast face into which she was presently shouting was not that of her late mother, nor even a woman who resembled her.

"So you have figured it out, then," Fumi said. "All that Fumi can say is that Fumi has apologized to him before he left, and -"

"Huh?" Mai asked as she became more aware of her surroundings. She was flat on her back on the floor, the cup she'd been drinking out of was tipped over beside her, its former contents staining the carpet. Fumi was crouched beside her, looking down at her face. "What happ-"

"Reito-kun put drugs in your cocoa to knock you unconscious so that you wouldn't be able to interfere with his intended goals. To his credit, he did ask Fumi to make sure that he had not given you an overdose of the drug."

"What -" Mai broke off her question to start coughing violently. Her mouth and throat were burning. The drugs? Had to be. It took her a few moments to recover enough to continue speaking, and when she did, she grabbed Fumi by the shoulder. "What do you mean, his intended goals?" she rasped. "What's he going to do?"

Glancing towards the hand on her shoulder with a rather displeased expression on her face, Fumi nonetheless spoke in a calm and reasonable tone. "Reito-kun has gone to kill himself so that the Obsidian Prince will not be able to use him as a vessel."

Mai stared.

"You could perhaps have put that more delicately, Fumi," Mashiro declared as she wheeled into Mai's line of sight, rubbing a dustbrush - or something that looked like it - along the wall as she did so.

"Mistress is doubtless correct," Fumi agreed.

"He went off to kill himself?" Mai nearly shrieked. "And you, you just let him do that?"

Fumi looked away, and spoke softly. "Fumi attempted to persuade Reito-kun to follow another course of action but -"

And then, with a click that she could almost hear, everything fell into place for Mai. "You're his aunt!" she gasped. "You're the one who - and you - and -"

Fumi looked back, confused now. "Fumi thought you already knew that?"

"I only had suspicions but you just confirmed them!" Mai shouted, backing up and pushing herself to her feet. Dizziness assailed her, nearly knocking her down again, but she was able to remain standing and point angrily at Fumi. "You abandoned him then, you're abandoning him now! And you, it's not even just him that you do this to! It's everyone! You just stand back and let whatever happens to the rest of us happen, never trying to help or even get involved! It was the same in the invasion! All you did was protect her!" This accompanied by a finger pointed furiously in Mashiro's direction. "Whatever I am, I at least try to care about people other than my most important person! I -"

"- have been molesting your little brother for more than a year, out of a combination of suppressed resentment for him, abandonment issues, and adolescent sexual curiousity, so I really don't think you have any room to try and claim moral high ground with anyone, ever," said Mashiro without even glancing in Mai's direction.

Mai dropped her hand, clenched it in a fist at her side, and said, slowly and with great patience, "Fuck. You. BOTH." And with that utterance she was running again.

"I wonder where she thinks she's going to go?" Mashiro asked.

Fumi hadn't moved a muscle from where she was crouched since Mai began her accusations. "Master," she said. "She was right about some things, I think."

"Being right is not an excuse for being mean, Fumi."

"Perhaps," Fumi allowed. "But perhaps we should have told her where -"

"It would not matter. It is too late, Fumi. His plan has not succeeded, and the Obsidian Prince walks the Earth," Mashiro explained, not looking at her maid. Instead checking an digital display, oddly placed on the handle of her dustbroom. "... only seventy per cent," she muttered. "More must be out of my reach."

"Then has our plan failed as well, Master?"

"Not yet." Now she did look at her, before glancing at the door through which Mai had just departed. "And isn't it interesting that someone who can predict trouble coming didn't see this turn of events?"

"Well, I'm sorry, Natsuki, and I know that it sounds a bit callous, but I really do find it difficult to muster much sympathy for Tokiha-san. It's probably dreadful, losing one's brother that way and being put in a position where she had no choice but to kill a friend or die herself. But honestly, she's been a fairly dreadful person to me, and I don't think she's a particularly good influence on you."

"Bad influence?" Natsuki asked incredulously as they walked into the dormitory together. "She's barely any influence on me at all!"

"Would you have been where I found you this morning if not for her?" Shizuru asked patiently.

"... well, no, but -"

"Bad. Influence!"

On reflection, Natsuki decided that this whole thing was her own fault. (It hadn't been easy, accepting that. She was naturally inclined to blame anything that went wrong in her life on unknown forces aligned against her.) But she had been the one who'd decided to take the time to bring Shizuru fully up to speed on everything that had happened in the Carnival so far, clearing up a few major misconceptions along the way.

Understandably, Shizuru was most interested in the details of the weapons and tactics used by the various HiME, especially those still active. But as she was describing what she'd seen Kagu-Tsuchi do, Natsuki abruptly realized that Shizuru wasn't alone in the audience for her words. Far from respecting her privacy as she had respected theirs, it seemed that everyone in the bar had crowded around their booth and were listening in on her recitation. That Nodoka girl whom she'd seen here several times before learning that she was one of Negi Springfield's comely comrades looked particularly intrigued, to the point where she had a little book out, probably to take notes.

A death glare hadn't notably improved matters, so Natsuki had grabbed Shizuru by the hand and dashed out of there. Later, much later, she'd go back and give the proprietor holy hell for letting things get that far while also paying for their drinks. (She did, after all, want to keep going there.)

After their escape, Shizuru had observed that Natsuki was back to looking like death warmed over. Since she hadn't gotten any sleep last night, that was probably understandable. So Shizuru suggested that they go back to Natsuki's dorm room so that she could rest a bit. That sounded like a good idea to Natsuki's increasingly wearied mind, as she felt certain that she'd have noticed that people were starting to listen in on their conversation if she'd been more alert.

She was starting to wonder vaguely what Shizuru was going to do while she took her nap, but the question was delayed by Shizuru's conversation about the other HiME and what bad influences they were on Natsuki. It was honestly a little cute. But just as she opened her mouth to try and refute her point about Mai being a bad influence, both her mouth and her body stopped dead.

"Natsuki?" Shizuru asked.

"My door," she said quietly. "The door to my room. It's open."

Shizuru looked. "Oh dear."

Slowly, Natsuki crept forward to the edge of the doorway, fatigue momentarily banished by fear, then looked around to confirm that the hallway was empty except for herself and Shizuru. It was, so her guns came out - and then she went around the doorway as quick as she could, hoping that if someone was there they'd be surprised enough to -

No one was there. But signs of their passage were obvious. Her mattress had been hacked to pieces along with her bedding. Her dresser drawers were thrown open and their contents - her rebuilt collection of underwear - were tossed all over the place, many of them cut up as well. Slowly, ever so slowly, Natsuki turned to look at where she kept her most precious possession, her only photograph of her mother - and let out a sigh of relief when she saw that it hadn't been damaged in any way.

"Someone must have broken in," Shizuru said from the doorway.

"Yeah, I think so," Natsuki said, anger and grief making her just a bit irritable when it came to obvious statements.

"Your window is open," Shizuru said, again pointing out the obvious - though as Natsuki hadn't actually noticed that, it was possibly a bit more helpful than the other one had been. "I'm guessing that you don't normally leave it like that?"

"No, of course not. I don't lock it, since we're several stories up, but ..."

As Natsuki spoke, Shizuru walked further into the room and looked around for a moment. "Natsuki," she said, hesitantly. "That Nao girl you were telling me about, the one who uses some manner of claws on her hands and has a spider as a Child. Has she ever done anything that might make you think that she was, well ... more interested in you than is appropriate?"

Natsuki flushed as she remembered the sensation of Nao's lips on her own. "Um," she answered.

"Ah. I will take that as an affirmative. I was reluctant to mention it earlier, but this morning just after we met, I happened to see that girl watching us from the forest with an expression of jealousy on her face." She looked around. "It occurs to me that she might have crawled up the side of the building, opened the window from the outside, done what she did here, and then gone out through the door, unlocking it from the inside."

"Jealousy?" Natsuki asked. "That crazy little - agh!"

"I think it would be a mistake for you to sleep here," Shizuru continued. "Might I offer you the hospitality of the spare room at my abode in the hills?"

Natsuki's hand was over her face. "Thank you. Just, just let me see if she left me some pyjamas ..." She reached into the drawer, pulled out the pyjama top and watched it fall to pieces in her hand. "Evidently she did not. Agggggh."

"Never mind, I'll provide, it's not a big deal. Why don't you head down to the curb and I'll call my car over," Shizuru suggested.

Almost on autopilot now, Natsuki nodded and slumped out of the room. Shizuru made the call, and, as she did so, took the copy of Natsuki's room key that she'd made months earlier and dropped it into one of the drawers, before locking the room from the inside and heading out the door.

"He will be coming for us very soon," Mashiro said to Fumi as her maid pushed her through the rain, which showed no signs of clearing any time soon.

"Fumi is ready for him, Master."

"And by now he will have placed Mikoto-san under his control. Among other things," she added, with a moue of distaste.

"Fumi is ready for her as well."

"You are ready for a battle in which you might have to kill your neice?" Mashiro asked calmly.

Fumi stopped in her tracks. "I swore to obey my Master's commands," she said, in a dull, even tone. "My master commands me to defend her, so I shall do so, regardless of who should attack her. Regardless."

"And yet, you are not happy."

"I derive satisfaction from the fulfillment of my duty."

"And yet -"

"When it transpires, I will grieve for her. I will regret the sorrow of her life that ended too soon. I will hope that she knew some joy in that brief span. And I will know satisfaction in the fulfillment of my duty," Fumi reiterated.

"... I'm just saying, I do have other resources that I could call on," Mashiro said after a moment.

"Master!" Fumi gasped. "Do not dishonor me in that manner! Fumi is your sword!"

"True, but I also have a lance and some daggers, so -"

"That isn't funny."

Mashiro sighed. "Very well then." Try to do something nice for some people for a change, and see what it gets you ... she thought a bit grumpily. I'll have to make arrangements -

"Mistress. One approaches."

Mashiro looked up from her considerations to see that, indeed, a woman was walking briskly through the rain towards the two of them, dressed in a white blouse open to show a rather unseemly amount of cleavage and a rather short skirt and hose combination. Her bright red hair was presently framing a rather angry scowl on a face which seemed more suited to a nervous smile. Nothing terribly noteworthy - except for the way that the rain politely avoided her on the way down, despite the complete absence of a visible umbrella.

"Okay," she said abruptly once she was within shouting distance of the two of them. "What's the deal here? You said this wasn't going to happen this way!"

"I said that I hoped that it wouldn't happen this way, but my hopes didn't pan out," Mashiro replied easily. "Also, you're forgetting your polite phrasing."

In a language that only two of the three people present spoke, the woman indicated what Mashiro could do with polite phrasing. Continuing in standard Japanese, "Why not?"

"Because of classified information, of course," Mashiro answered.

The woman stared at her for a moment, before laughing hollowly. "Oh. Oh, very amusing. Yes, making fun of the limitations of people to whom you are obligated is awesome and fun-neee too. Don't you think so?" she added abruptly, to Fumi.

"Who are you again?" Fumi asked, tilting her head to the side.

"Classified information," she snarled, before turning back to Mashiro. "We agreed to help you with your little problem so that we'd be able to insert our specifically selected and trained operative into this era without worrying about classified information or classified information because you'd have dealt with them. I'm not seeing any signs of that so far!"

"'Things sometimes have to get worse before they can get better,' Mashiro replied, with the air of someone quoting someone else, though Fumi didn't get the reference.

The woman stared at her for a moment, then let out a snarl. "Fine. You have one week, then I'm going to be retroactively withdrawing our support and resolving this mess through classified information."

"Very well. Can I rely on you to take care of -"


"Thank you."

"Up yours." And with that, the strange woman stomped past, muttering under her breath. "... ought to quit this lousy gig and join a freaking motorcycle club, is what I ought to ..." was the only fragment of what she was saying that Fumi managed to get.

"... what just happened?" Fumi asked a moment later.

"The Carnival has many facets," Mashiro answered.

"Ah," said Fumi, for indeed this explained everything to her.

She supposed that she shouldn't be surprised that, despite fatigue that grew more pronounced every minute, despite the comforting environs of the very car in which she'd been picked up from the side of the road not so long ago - well, perhaps that wasn't all that comforting a memory after all - and despite protestations of security and safety, Natsuki was paranoid enough to try to desperately hold onto consciousness the whole way to Shizuru's private house. She failed, of course, but it was a glorious struggle to be witnessed. But by the time they pulled into the driveway, Natsuki was out like a light.

The driver carried her in to the house and the housemaid put her to bed in the spare room while Shizuru changed out of her school uniform and into a kimono. Thanking them, she gave them the rest of the night off, before silently gliding over to the room where her Natsuki lay slumbering.

She stood a while at the doorway, regarding her in the gloom of the rainy afternoon. Willful, passionate, angry, strong, determined, fragile, lonely ... all these were words that could describe Kuga Natsuki to a T.

But more than anything else ...

"You are so beautiful," Shizuru whispered.

She stepped into the room and slid the door closed behind her, slowly, ever so slowly drawing closer to where her Natsuki slept. And then, far more quickly, she knelt down at her Natsuki's side and drank in the aroma of her Natsuki, before lowering her face down towards Natsuki's own and ...

And then, alas, she barely controlled the urge to throw up all over her Natsuki.

A return to a more upright position seemed in order.

Before Sugiura, Shizuru had never really thought much about her own sexuality. She found girls aesthetically appealing, and had no interest in men - did that make her a lesbian? Her answer would have been, no, of course not. Whatever anyone else thought did not concern her, but she was not one of those unappealing sounding creatures.

And then Sugiura had done what she had done - and suddenly the truth became clear. Yes, she was one of those unappealing sounding creatures, and what they did to one another was even more abhorrent than she had imagined. Disgusting and filthy and vile, and she was one of them.

But she could at least be proud of having some vague amount of self-control. Even if she indulged every manipulative impulse imaginable towards her Natsuki, she would spare her all of that. And so she bent down once more, to press a single kiss on her Natsuki's forehead. "Sweet dreams, my princess," she whispered, as she stood up once more, and walked out of the room.

She stood a while again looking out at the small lake behind her house, contemplating drowning herself in it. It seemed a classy way to go. Of course, she had to live, now, until Natsuki could find a way to sever their bond, as she certainly would ...

"Well, what a pleasant surprise to find you here," said a familiar voice from the side.

Shizuru turned sharply. "Reito?" she asked of the man standing in the rain, smiling brightly. "What - why is this a surprise? This is my house, as you are well aware ..."

"Yes, I know, but it seemed the sort of thing that someone ought to say in these circumstances."

She stared at him. "Are you feeling well?"

"I've never felt better," the Obsidian Prince assured her. "And you feel good too, don't you?" he added as he began to walk towards her.

Shizuru blinked as a strange sensation, a bit like the one time she'd broken into her father's wine collection to get quite seriously drunk off one of the bottles he bought as an investment, settled onto her brain. "What -" she asked, finding it hard to speak.

The Prince paused, looking at her in fascination. "You feel very sexually excited right now," he said. "You desire to have sex with me."

Shizuru gasped. "N-no," she said, shaking her head. "No, this is - no -"

"Fascinating," he breathed. "I can't do that to you. Not without completely destroying your mind. It's a shame, as this vessel has always felt a moderately strong desire for you that he suppressed for some reason. But I need you for other things, so instead, I'll have you forget the last minute or so."

"Eh?" Shizuru said, sounding much less confused. "Reito? What are you doing here -"

"I have come to give you wonderful news. The people responsible for the murder of Kuga Natsuki's mother are to be found in the town at this very moment. Wouldn't you like to kill the people who hurt your Natsuki?"

"Yes," Shizuru said, eyes now glowing golden.

"Excellent!" the Prince enthused. "My man here will lead you right to them." He turned to Nagi, who'd come up out of the shadows to stand beside him.

"Here we go again," Nagi muttered. No, not even cutely. Nothing about this was cute. "This way, Shizuru-hime," he said, as Shizuru called up her naginata and bounded off the porch to follow him.

The Obsidian Prince stood watching them go with a proud smile on his face. Then he paused, and looked towards the door from which Shizuru had lately emerged.

"Hm. Why not go three for three?" he asked himself. And whistling cheerfully, he walked towards the door, unbuckling his belt as he did.

NEXT: Haruka