I suppose that I ought to invent some sort of disclaimer, but honestly, after eighteen chapters of this, I suspect you probably know it by heart. No claim of ownership is made by the author of this story over the characters depicted within. That won't satisfy anyone, particularly not any lawyers who get involved, but so it goes.

Disturbing Routines
Epilogue

1: Takumi

The first stage of grief was denial, it was said. And indeed, when Takumi was finally brought to the dormitory that Akira and the other 'HiME' had seized for their purposes, and was told what had happened to his sister, he hadn't believed it. It was a lie. It was a trick. The people who were telling him this were misinformed. The people who were telling him this were playing a particularly sick joke. There were lots of explanations that were much more plausible than 'my sister is gone forever'.

He supposed that believing that people were lying to him also covered the anger stage of grief. That was probably for the best. He'd never been terribly good at dealing with anger, and the thought of letting it out at Akira (especially) frightened him.

As for bargaining, he couldn't see the point. He'd been dead, and it had been a total cessation of existence. Whatever power had restored him (and all these other people) to life, it clearly hadn't been in response to anyone else's wishes or deeds. Clearly, they lived in a capricious, goblin universe where things happened with neither rhyme nor reason.
He was honestly surprised how little that idea bothered him, all in all.

Perhaps he was just too bothered by how much he missed his sister.

Right at the moment, he was all cried out, and wishing that Akira would give him just a little less space. He was incredibly lonely. That one girl, Nao, had looked in on him a few minutes ago while he was in the middle of the last crying jag, and looked strangely like someone who wanted to say something to him. But she'd been stopped by that woman, Midori, who'd worked with his sister. She'd guided Nao away from the door with a determined expression on her face, and a last, regretful glance back at him that had confused him enough that the tears had eased a bit.
So confusing, this goblin universe.

He looked up at the sound of someone knocking on the door - which was odd, because it was open. Then he saw who it was and much became clear. "Yotsuba-san," he said, in a hoarse voice, for it was she, his sister's old employer, holding a tray with a bowl on it.

She asked if he was hungry.

"I ..." He was, but he wasn't sure if he had any appetite. Did that make sense? Did it have to make sense? "I'm not sure I really ..." He trailed off again.

She came further into the room, smiling sadly. And then she spoke, in a very sweet but also very firm voice. "Starving the living will not profit the dead," Satsuki said.

He blinked. "Is that ... a classical reference?" he asked.

She shook her head. "A man named Rex Stout wrote it in a book, a long time ago, but it's not classical, as such." She further explained that she didn't really care for the type of books he wrote, but some of them were on a subject - food - that did interest her quite a bit. By now, she was right in front of him, with the tray, and he could smell the soup quite clearly. And his stomach rumbled.

The ramen was delicious.

Just like Mai had made.

He said so.

She nodded in understanding as the tears started again.


2: Midori

"... you're kidding," Nao said, face gone pale. She looked from Midori to Natsuki, who'd taken the news in stony silence while she stood staring out the window into the evening.

"No, I'm not kidding," the teacher said heavily. Ex-teacher, Nao reminded herself for no real reason. "And I'm not jumping to conclusions, either," she continued, looking down at the paper in her hand. "I finally heard back from that person who does genetic testing I told you about, a while ago ... she sent a message back with that Negi-kun's partner, Asuna. It confirms that I share a set of grandparents with both Mai and you," she said to Natsuki's back. "And that I've only got one set to share." She looked like she was about to say something more, but whatever it was never came out. Eventually, she closed her mouth.

"And me?" Nao asked.

"I didn't send any samples from you to be analyzed, but I talked to your mom just now. There's no doubt you're his kid, so -" Midori shrugged. Nao noticed that the older woman was trying to avoid meeting her eyes, but didn't put too much importance to it.

"Wow," Nao said. "This is a whole other level of 'messed up'."

"It makes certain things she said make sense, though," Natsuki said without turning away from the window.

Midori blinked. "Things she said? You mean before she died?"

Natsuki's hand came up to the window frame, and tightened there. "Yes," she said. "Before she died." After a moment, she let go of her grip on the frame and turned to look at Midori with an impassive expression. "So why are you telling us this?"

"Uh, well, I thought you ought to know ... and I want to know what you think about the idea of letting Takumi-kun know -"

"That is a horrible idea," Nao and Natsuki said in near-perfect synchrony. "Stop that," they added after a moment.

After a moment, in which Midori actually found herself on the verge of laughter for the first time that day, Natsuki turned back to her. "I don't know if he even knows about her," she said with a jerk of the head in Nao's direction. "From what she said, I think Mai might have been trying to keep his view of their dad as pristine as possible."

"She did have a thing for lost causes," Nao agreed.

"And this ... would really mess that view up," Natsuki added, looking away. Definitely not thinking about what Mai had confessed. Not thinking about how what went around, came around.

"So not yet, is what you're saying," Midori said.

"Not ever," Nao clarified.

With a sigh, Midori nodded.

"Why's Shizuru giving you the classic 'if looks could kill' look all the time?" Natsuki asked bluntly.


3: Haruka

"And I'm telling you, that quarantine is about to be lifted. In the next twenty-four hours, at manimal," she said to her father over the phone. "There's an enopportunity opormous here that you can get in on the ground floor if you'll -"

"All right, I'll contact the School District and make the offer," he said.

"Thank you."

"Your mother's here. Would you like to talk to her?"

Since an honest answer of, 'no, she terrifies me, and I'm dreading the day that I have to tell her that I'm in love with another girl' wouldn't have been welcomed, Haruka of course answered, "Yes, of course."

"I heard there was a little incident in the house at Sakaimachi," the calm, cool, certain voice said a moment later.

"I would proffer not to discourse it," Haruka said tightly.

"... I'm going to take that as a yes. You shouldn't be so hard on him, you know. He's done very well by us, under the circumstances."

Of course she'd only know only his side of the story, Haruka thought disgustedly.

"And it's really sort of remarkable that we've been able to be on as good terms with the Kikukawas as we have been, considering how mad he was when he found out about the affair."

Haruka blinked. "What affair?"

"Eh? I thought you knew. He said that's what the argument had been about, how you felt loyalty to her because she's your sister, having the same father after I fooled around with Kikukawa."

Haruka found it impossible to blink. "You ... what?" Abruptly, she calmed down. "So if hypothetically Yukino had a different father, she and I wouldn't be related at all?"

"Yes, if that were the case, then -"

"Excuse me, mother, I'm going to go fuck my girlfriend now," she said. And hung up. And turned off the phone.


4. Yukino

And having done so, she went and, just as she'd said, fucked her girlfriend.

When, a few minutes later, Yukino was able to focus her eyes and breathe normally once more, she said - well, gasped, really - "Where, where in the world did you learn all that ... stuff?"

"I told you," said Haruka, who wasn't even slightly winded. "Back when we dragged Yuuki into an interview, remember? I've had to listen to all sorts of things. And I remember everything. I'm honestly a little surprised that some of it works. The thing with the feather duster in particular shouldn't ... well. Ready for round two?"

"Aahhhhhhhhhh ..."

"That's not a no."

Later, much later, Yukino would dearly hope that Haruka had gotten it out of her system after this. She was wrong, incidentally.

But they went on to a long and mostly happy life together, regardless. Haruka became a police officer, of course, and her organizational skills and sheer stubbornness ensured that she rose to a position of high authority in the Advanced Division Police. How much of that organization's reputation for brutal competence can be ascribed to her influence is an open question. She died in 2041 of lung cancer, most likely caused by toxic gases inhaled during her career in enforcement, and having refused to accept cyborg replacement surgery.

Yukino herself also went to work in the field of law enforcement, though to avoid the appearance of impropriety she obtained employment in Osaka, rather than Greater Tokyo, where Haruka was stationed. They adopted a number of children, some of whom, as with their daughter Naoko, also went on to work for the police in one form or another. Following Haruka's death, she began using life extension methods, and so was alive in 2126 ... when she was one of the billions who died in the Crash.

While they had each other, they were happy. Can you really ask for more? Both of them contributed to the Genome project, and people very like them lived hundreds of years later on a different world entirely. So it goes.


5. Shizuru.

She went up the stairs in hopes that she could get away from the noise that was coming from the room she'd seen Suzushiro entering a few minutes earlier. The noise disturbed her on a moral and emotional level. The fact that that repressed wretch was able to enjoy such things, while even the thought of them turned her stomach ... it truly wasn't fair.

And yet she was seeking Natsuki out. Knowing that their relationship would probably only bring one or both of them pain, she was seeking her out. Had she really regained her sanity, or just exchanged the old madness for a different one? At least she wasn't reflexively thinking of the girl as 'her Natsuki' anymore.

Well, be that as it may, she found Natsuki sitting on the roof, staring out at the night sky, in total silence. Respecting that, she made as little noise as possible as she came over to sit down beside her.

Not too successfully, it seemed, for Natsuki spoke up just as she was doing so. "I had a little talk with Midori."

"Did you?" Shizuru asked, trying to sound careless. Trying to sound like the old Shizuru. It didn't work, not for her and not for Natsuki, either, clearly.

"If you'd like her dead, I can do that," Natsuki said flatly.

Shizuru blinked. Then, somewhat astonishingly even to herself, she actually laughed a bit. "No. Bless you for offering. But no. I don't have any room to judge -"

"Crap."

"Eh?"

"That's crap. Judge not lest ye be judged? Crap. Judge and prepare to be judged. That makes much more sense. We've all been judged. We get to judge each other, now." She finally turned to look back at her. "I don't really want to do it, because there's something of Mai in her, but if you want me to -"

"I don't," Shizuru answered quickly. "I really, really don't."

"Okay," Natsuki said, looking away again.

For a few moments they sat in silence.

"I didn't like her," Shizuru said then. "Not even a little bit. And I hate that you love her more than me. But ... I'm sorry for how much it's hurting you, Natsuki."

All Natsuki could do was nod.

They sat there, together, until morning.


6. Yuna

As was depressingly common these days, Yuna woke up with the strong suspicion that she'd done something she probably shouldn't have. As her vision resolved and she realized that she was looking up at the pinched face of Souzoteki Denai, who was lying above - and, she realized, within - her, that suspicion became a dead certainty, with no probably about it. "Oh, shit," she said aloud.

"Shhh!" Denai hissed. "You'll wake her!"

Yuna blinked. Wake who?

As if to answer her question, she saw a familiar looking hand with gold-painted fingernails come up to start rubbing a finger against Denai's cheek. "Mmmm, but the situation is even worse than that, Bateleur, for I am not simply your aunt and cousin in one person, no no, for your mother was so desperate to have a child to bind your supposed father to her that she went to his father and offered herself to him, all unknowing that she herself was the product of an idle affair he'd had before the Pacific War, so you see I am your aunt, cousin, sister and niece all in one person, isn't that terrible Batellllllleuuurrrrr?" Faint laughter sounded, dying down after a moment.

Ah. Her.

Atfter another moment, Kageyama sat up from where she was lying on the far side of Denai from Yuna, stretching in a way that emphasized the breasts with which Yuna had become very familiar last night. She smiled warmly as she looked up at the ceilling. "Ma, what a wonderful dream," she sighed. "Such a pity I won't remember any of it in a few moments." Still smiling, she turned to look down at the other occupants of her bed. "Good morning, Constance," she said to Yuna. "Good morning, Milady," she said to Denai.

"Milady?!" he yelped. "What the hell? I thought I was Rochefort!"

"I never agreed to that," she said calmly.

"Well, anyway, why are you comparing me to that bitch!"

"Mostly because of the ease with which I made you my bitch," she said, before poking him with a finger in a still rather sensitive area of his anatomy. Ignoring his yelp of pain, Yamiko stood up and stretched some more, giving everyone present a nice long look of the strap-on that was still attached to her waist. "Anyway," she continued, with the air of someone giving a well-rehearsed speech. "I'm gonna go have a shower. If you wanna peek, go ahead and peek. But no joining in, 'kay? And if you're still here when I get done in the bathroom, I'll probably kill you. A good guest knows when to leave."

Humming 'the Hey Song', she headed for her bathroom, pausing beside a poster of American wrestler-turned-mixed-martial artist Tina Armstrong, dressed in black lingerie and standing in front of a poster of her father, Bass. "Daddy's Girl", it proclaimed her. Kageyama pressed her fingers to her lips and then her fingers to the picture of Tina's lips, followed by a murmured blessing. That accomplished, she walked into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.

"This never happened," Denai proclaimed, pulling away (and out of) Yuna quickly.

"I kinda think it did," the girl said casually, not moving from where she was lying.

"Fuck you!"

"You did."

"No, that's a - look, I don't want any part of your drama. I've got too much already."

"Yeah, well, guess what, the drama comes with the package," Yuna said, sitting up with an irritable expression. "And I don't remember you complaining about the rest of the package last night. So unless you're planning to move to the Magical World, get used to having my drama in your life, just like pretty much everybody else who's had a ride on the Yuna-train."

He slammed his hands to his face. "God, you're sixteen and using language like that! Look, I don't want any of this! All I wanted when I came to school here was to get a good degree so I could get a steady job where I could make people's lives as miserable as mine! All this action and adventure and really wild things is doing a number on my digestion! I want peace! I want quiet! I want order!"

"It's good to want things," Yuna told him.

"Not if crazy chicks are keeping you from having them!"

Abruptly, they heard the sound of the shower stopping. "I can still hear voices from in there," came a musical voice from behind the doorway. "I have some straight razors in here that I'm going to use on anyone I find in there when I get done brushing my teeth."

"Is she bluffing?" Yuna asked.

"These are my friennnnnnds/See how glistennnn!" the voice started singing.

"I don't think she's bluffing," Denai said, and began grabbing his clothes up from the floor. Yuna did the same, but neither of them was fully dressed by the time that the sound of running water ominously stopped running.

"Window!" Yuna said, opening it quickly.

"Are you kidding me!" Denai snapped. "We're on the fifth floor!"

"Get used to it!" she said, and pulled him out with her.

He never did get used to it. They fought, and occasionally made up, until, as someone once said, it occurred to them that they could make the process much simpler by getting married, which they did, in 2008. He died as a result of an automobile accident three years later, in which he was entirely at fault. She and her son disappeared in the 2025 earthquake that wrecked Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Yamiko came out of her bathroom with a straight razor in her hand, sighed to see that the room was empty, and closed the window. Before she could settle down for some honest self-appreciation, the phone rang.

"Yellow," she said. "Ah, really? Okay, I'll be there in a bit."


7. Akane

She woke up slowly, as though sleep were trying to hold tightly onto her. For the first time in what felt like forever, she'd had a sleep with no nightmares. And she was spooning with Kazuya. The noises coming from Suzushiro's room might have disturbed some people, but to the two of them, it had been inspiring. But he was still asleep, so she tried to avoid disturbing him as she got out of bed and pulled on a nightgown, pausing only to kiss him, once more, before she went out to get something to eat.

The building was quiet this morning. At least, that was her impression until she was close to the kitchen where they'd had dinner that Satsuki-keibu had brought in last night. As she drew closer, she could hear voices raised - though only a little - in an argument. Akane's first impulse was to turn and go somewhere else, but something drew her closer.

"I know, I know. You don't care that I'm sorry," Midori was saying, sitting in a chair at the table, facing away from where Akane's view point when she arrived. "You don't care that I'd take it back if I could. But I am sorry, sorrier about this than I am about practically anything, and I'd -"

"No, I don't care about your sorrow," the President - Shizuru-san - interrupted, as she stood on the opposite side of the table from Midori. "You ... you've wrecked my life, you know that? I never be able to get past this. I can't even touch the person I love, the only person that I love, without remembering what you did to me, and when I do that it's hard not to throw up and -" She broke off when she realized that they were being watched, lips pinched in a way that would have startled her legion of fangirls.

Midori turned to see Akane standing there, and gulped. "Akane-chan -"

"What did you do to her, Midori-chan?" Akane asked, very quietly, very still.

Midori's mouth worked silently for a few moments. She glanced at Shizuru, who said nothing. Then she closed her eyes. "I ... assaulted her. Sexually. I wasn't thinking straight, and I'm sorry, and -"

Akane interrupted her with a forceful slap across the face. After a moment to let that sink in, she spoke in a quiet, even tone. "Are you going to make amends?"

"Yes," Midori whimpered.

"Okay. When you've done that, you can talk to me again. Not until." Completely dismissing Midori from her thoughts, she turned and walked around the table to stand in front of Shizuru. "You're wrong," she said.

"What?" Shizuru asked, blinking in befuddlement at being contradicted like that.

"You will get over this. I know." A deep breath. "Every day, almost, for years, my father ... I understand exactly how you feel, all right? But you will get over this. It wasn't easy for Kazuya-kun to get past the walls I put up around me, but we managed ... and every time he touches me, that is the moment when I don't think about what my father did to me. Because the joy is too great."

Shizuru could only stare in mixed horror and amazement.

"You will get over this." Akane repeated one more time. "If you ever want to talk about it, I'll be happy to listen." She turned to look at the fridge. "Is there any juice in there? I don't really like tea or coffee."

"I think so," Shizuru finally stammered out.

"Oh, thank goodness," Akane sighed. She opened the door and found that, yes, there was some juice. She poured herself a glass, offered some to Shizuru (and pointedly none to Midori) and put it back when the offer was declined. Then she walked out of the room, drinking her juice.

"... her father worked for the First District, you know," Midori said.

"No," said Shizuru. "I didn't know." She's better off without you.

Akane eventually married Kazuya. They lived a long and happy life together, with chldren and grandchildren and even one or two great-grandchildren, before they finally died when they were both in their late eighties. They donated to the Genome project, and they, too, will live again on another world, far from this.

The darker shades are not the sum of reality. All of the other colors are equally real.


8. Ryouko

A few hours later, she was standing with the doctor in the basement of her home, watching the machine from which she'd only recently emerged as it slowly spun down. "This is an astoundingly boring process to watch," Yamiko declared out of nowhere. "I should perhaps apologize to those who watched over me while I was enduring it."

"That would be very -"

"But I won't."

The doctor looked away as she rolled her eyes.

And then the machine stopped, and all of its lights went out. After a moment of hesitation, in which neither of them heard any noises coming from inside of it, Mikado walked up to the door and put a hand on its handle. "I suspect that I'm not going to like what I find."

"I'm ready for the worst case scenario, Doctor," Yamiko said formally, holding her cane aloft and waving it so that it exposed its axe blades.

With a deep breath, the doctor opened the machine's door, and peered in.

"Help, help!" said a tiny, high pitched voice from inside. "I can't reach the top of this thing!

A few moments later, a rather short, dark-skinned, fair-haired person was being pulled out of the machine. "It woooorked!" the reformed Kaede proclaimed. "You didn't think it would work, but it woooorked! And now I'm pretty! Oh so pretty! I feel pretty and witty and -"

Then Kaede looked down. "AGGGGH I'm still a guy!"

Yamiko reached down to pull aside what he was looking at. "Nope," she said after a moment. "Only a phallus, no testicles. There's something else back there though ... uh-huh. You're a futa. Apparently, you have some kinks even you didn't know about."

"Nooooooo!"

"I'll go get him ... her ... anyway, I'll go get a dress from upstairs," Mikado offered, heading out of the room before she started to laugh, because she wasn't sure whether or not she was going to be able to stop once she started.

Kaede struggled to crawl back into machine as an evilly smiling Yamiko held hir back. "Turn this thing back on again!" s/he cried. "I intend to be one way or another, not both!"

"Come on, now, don't you want to know if everything functions, first?"

"Nooooooo!"

"Well, tough shit, I do."


9. Iridia

"I knew it," came the world-weary sigh. "Of COURSE this would all end like a half-assed National Lampoon."

Ala Iridia, all just newly returned from their recent beach trip and carrying various backpacks and similar beach-esque luggage, stared at the mound of rubble where the building that had housed their dormitory once stood. They all shared some variation of a world-weary look, some more weary or world than others. A few, like Tsukiyomi, not to be confused with Tsukuyomi, were crying about their stuff- or in her case, corpses- being buried under all that crap. The necro was frantically digging through the rubble with her lace-gloved hands, frantically calling out to her 'babies'.

"I wonder if we can have a discount rate?" the ever sexually-ambiguous Arisugawa Setsuna said thoughtfully. "Though the hotels are probably all booked or abandoned. I hope my bar is okay..."

"It was Springfield again," Chimaka Itoshi said with tired conviction. "I wonder what he pissed off this time. Can't be Cthulhu, she was at the beach." He still wasn't sure what had happened, but after the battle the Lovecraftian horror had somehow been cursed to run a takoyaki stand as a busty MILF. He'd never look at the octopus balls the same way again.

"Oh, you're back!"

Some people turned, the rest couldn't really be bothered as they joined in the digging, hoping against hope that their stuff had survived. "Who are you?" Kazemaru Arashi asked a bit suspiciously at the dark-skinned, silver-haired loli walking up to them as Shashuno Kuroro froze at the site of the RL image of his waifu. "And why do you have SCM's staff?"

"Well, I made it after all, why wouldn't I have it?" the loli said by way of introduction.

Some people paused and stared.

"Oh crap, it's finally happened," Arashi said, sounding too tired to be properly indignant. "You body-jacked a loli to molest her, didn't you."

"No, I own this bod, for my sins," Senou Kaede said cheerfully in a manner implying they were very enjoyable sins. "A mad scientist machine was involved," she added by way of explanation.

There were comprehending ahs and nods of understanding.

"What the heck happened around here?" Asagiri Asagimaru asked.

Kaede shrugged. "The usual. Springfield's girls. Inadvisably applied magic. Ninja. Sex that happened to other people. Eldritch Abominations. Oh, and Suzushiro finally got laid." About time, more than one person thought.

"So," Kaede ventured dryly, "how was the beach?"

Itoshi gave hir a flat look. "The usual. Crazy girls. Inadvisably applied pactios. Deep Ones. Rapist balls of fire. Moe Eldritch Abominations. Oh, and Immi is now being stalked by the loli incarnation of Nyarlotep. We were hoping you could help with that."

They all smiled wearily, and in that sublime moment, all shared the same thought.

Somehow, this was ALL Springfield's fault.

"By the way," Kaede added. "I should warn you that Yamiko's got changed too. Doesn't look like her old self anymore."

THAT got everyone's attention, causing heads to snap toward the loli. "What does she look like?" Arashi asked suspiciously.

Kaede smiled, turned and began to walk away.

"Senou? SCM? What does she look like now, damn it! Hey!"

Evil laughter drifted after them.

Masuto lifted his head. "I could've sworn I just heard evil laughter ..."

"No you didn't," Kokonon said brusquely, and shoved his head back down. "Get back to work."

With a shrug, he did so.

"Mmmmmmm," she sighed in release a moment later. "You give the best foot massages ..."

You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't tell you much of the fate of these children. I'm not sure you'd believe it if I did. Suffice it to say that Senou did return to his original form, and that Chizuno was only slightly injured in the knife fight he had with a person named Asakura Ryouko a year later. They're very strange, these people. But I probably don't have any room to talk.


9. Yukariko

Days passed. Reconstruction began. The new Headmaster, in his formal installation, gave a moderately moving speech to the assembled faculty and returning student body, in which he expressed his sorrow at the destruction and his deep regret at the injury to and loss of so many cute girls. For whatever reason, most of those listening mentally subbed in the expression 'people'. He had that effect.

Mahora's enrollment dropped slightly, though not as much as it had in the wake of the previous year's disaster. And, as Mikado-sensei predicted, many new students from off-world had begun to explore the possibilities of education on Earth, and chose Mahora as their entry point.

Initially, the prospect of using excavating the collapsed tunnels, using ground-penetrating radar to search for the bodies, was discussed by the school administration. It was ultimately rejected as too expensive and too risky. Instead, on the site of the destroyed Crystal Shrine, a memorial plaque was erected about a week after it had all happened.

In Memory,
it read. Then, in both Roman and Japanese characters, a list of names. Sanada Yukariko. Munakata Shiho. Tate Yuuichi. Miinagi Mikoto. Kanzaki Reito. Tokiha Mai.

On the day it went up, a prisoner taken into custody by the Student Council Executive on the day of the final battle was, by his own request, escorted to it for a private viewing. In silence, Ishigami-sensei ran his fingers over the raised characters of the first name on the list.

"Stupid cow," he said, unaware of the tears flowing down his face. He would, perhaps, not have understood them even if he had known they were there.

I don't imagine that anyone really cares what happened to him. Suffice to say that he was eventually released from his imprisonment and demonstrated that he had learned absolutely nothing from any of this by becoming involved in several other schemes to gain ultimate power. Eventually, he died in one of them. So it goes.


10. Natsuki

A few hours after that, when night had fallen, another figure walked up to the plaque and ran her fingers over the characters of the last name on the list.

"I wish ..." Natsuki murmured, but then fell silent. Of all people, she knew that wishing was for children and innocents, neither of which she had been for a very long time. And there was no one, now, to hear her wish, anyway.

Almost no one.

"You might want to talk to them about adding Alyssa-chan's name to that. They're probably wondering what the heck happened to her," said a familiar voice from behind her.

Natsuki blinked. Slowly, she turned. Disbelieving, she stared.

"Hi," said Mai. "How are you? I missed you tons and tons," she added with a tiny smile.

Natsuki nearly knocked her over as she ran over to combine a hug with a series of punches to Mai's upper shoulders.


11. Mai

"Ow," said Mai, somewhat blandly, as she was repeatedly punched in her shoulder blades.

"You git!" Natsuki finally snarled as she pulled back to look Mai in the face. "I thought you were dead, you git! What happened?"

Mai blew out a long breath before answering. "Well," she said at last. "It all started when I killed the Obsidian Prince -"

"Okay, you can't just lead in with that!" Natsuki protested.

"Who's telling this story, huh?" Nevertheless, Mai complied, narrating, to the best of her ability, all that had happened from the time that she'd parted company with Natsuki. Natsuki herself listened in silence, only blinking in confusion when Mai described how Mikoto had shattered the crystal that contained me. But she didn't interrupt, and soon enough, Mai was describing the moment when, as she'd already said, she - or rather Kagu-Tsuchi - killed the Obsidian Prince.

"At the last possible second, I realized something. With what Mikoto had done, she'd made it so that I was the last of the HiME," Mai explained, as she sat beside Natsuki near the memorial plaque.

"Except for all of us."

"I didn't know about all of you until later," Mai admitted. "But I think that whatever Mashiro did made you ... not count, for those purposes. I don't know whether that makes any sense, but it's the only way that I have to explain what did happen. I was, I thought, the last of us - so I'd won, and so I got a wish. And in the second before Kagu-Tsuchi blasted the Prince into atoms, I made that wish - and used it save Reito from disintegrating, which he would have since Mikoto had cut down Miroku. He was already starting to do so, but I fixed it so he didn't."

She fell silent for a moment, then continued. "It worked. Sort of. Anyway, we were all three of us alive when Kagu-Tsuchi turned to green sparks in front of me, but the collapse had already started. I don't really remember a lot of what happened next - I think I dragged the two of them with me out of the cave, and we met up with Alyssa and her dad -"

"What was he -" Natsuki started to interrupt, then abruptly realized what a dumb question that was. "Of course, he was Alyssa's most important person, so naturally he returned to her when all of the rest of us did."

"I didn't know about that until later," Mai admitted. "Anyway, the five of us didn't have time to talk, but we all managed to get far enough down some sort of secret passageway leading out of the cave system before the whole thing collapsed. I think maybe the Prince was supporting it, somehow, and once he was ... gone ... it couldn't sustain itself. It was really very close."

"So why didn't you come forward before now?" Natsuki asked. "I'm not even thinking about me, here, your brother, Nao, Midori, Akane, even - they were all ..." She trailed off, unable to find words for how upset nearly everyone had been at Mai's apparent death.

Mai looked away. "That's ... another long story." Another long breath blown out. "Remember how I said my wish sort of worked?"

"You wished to save Reito-san, and -" Natsuki started to say, and then felt her jaw go loose. "No," she said. "No, tell me that you didn't -"

"I blew it, Natsuki," Mai said, looking right at her. "I didn't save Reito at all. Maybe there wasn't anything left of him to save. So instead I saved the Obsidian Prince."


12. Reito

Natsuki stared at her in utter horror. "Then ... then it was all for nothing?"

"No, not exactly. It's ... okay, I'm still not sure if I understand it myself," Mai admitted. "When we first got out of there, I didn't realize anything was wrong. I really did think we'd won, and once everything had calmed down, I'd be able to get in touch with all of you and let you know that I was all right, and everything was going to be sunshine and lollypops.

"And then I noticed that Reito ... wasn't acting quite right. I'd say things to him and there'd be ... a few moments where he didn't understand what I was saying, as though he was searching through his memories for how he was supposed to react. At first, I told myself that he was just suffering from some sort of trauma from what had happened to him, or, well, something like that. He'd certainly have cause -

"But that wasn't it."

Mai fell silent for a moment before continuing. "Two days ago, Mashiro found us - and that was a hell of a shock, because I thought she was dead, and - y'know, from the look on your face, you don't seem surprised by that."

"We met her right after - that," Natsuki explained, gesturing vaguely in the distance, as though at the now-vanished HiME star. "She was the one who told us that your were probably down there." This, with a gesture towards the ground beneath the plaque.

"Maybe she did think that," Mai said with a shrug. "But she learned better, and she found us where we were hiding out with Alyssa's dad -"

"With who?"

"Alyssa's dad. He's actually a pretty nice guy, for being a billionaire with a god complex," Mai said dryly. "I guess encountering real evil scared him straight. Well, a little straight. He's helping out with ... ah, we'll get to that eventually. Anyway. Mashiro found us - well, she found me, and she told me what had really happened. Some of the Prince's mind had managed to squirrel itself away inside Reito before he blew up. Reitos own mind ... didn't survive this.

"But the thing is, it's only the Prince's mind. Nothing of his power remains. Which means that he can't ever escape from Reito's body using the same method. Whch means that eventually, when Reito dies ... so will he."

"Then why didn't you -" Natsuki started to demand, then fell silent as she realized what she was saying.

"Because I'm not a murderer, either, Natsuki." Mai's voice was quiet, but very firm. "I'm going to let him live out the rest of Reito's life, however long or short that is. I'm going to be watching over him all that time, with Mikoto's help. We're not going to let him get his power back. If it looks like he might - then we'll give him a warning. And if he doesn't take it, then ..." She trailed off, looking away.

"Does he know ... that you know?" Natsuki asked.

"I don't think so. I hope not. Who knows?" She shrugged, in the end. "That's part of the reason that I don't want Takumi or any of the others to know that I'm alive. Because this, this is going to take the rest of my life. I screwed up, and I'm going to pay for it ... every day, for the rest of my life."

"So why are you telling me?"

Now Mai smiled, just a bit. "You looked so sad. I thought, 'that Natsuki, she'll feel bad forever about not having been able to save me'. So I decided to be a little selfish and let you know that I was okay ... and why I can't ever see you, or any of the people I knew, ever again."

"Where are you going to go?" Natsuki finally asked, trying not to sound as grief-stricken as she felt.

"America, probably. There are these people there, working for something called 'Shiildo', who might be able to help us. Searrs-san is going to turn himself in to them in exchange for protection, and also so they'll rebuild Miyu for Alyssa."

"I'm never going to see you again, am I?" Natsuki asked, unable to hide the grief.

"Never say never," Mai said.

Abruptly, they were kissing, rather sloppily, for several moments, and hands were coming up to carress one another's curves, before Natsuki, oddly enough, pulled away. "I can't keep this a secret," she gasped. "I - it's too much, Mai."

Mai made a face. "Don't tell Takumi. He's ... he's better off without me," she said. "But Nao ... she'll appreciate knowing that I screwed up, again. And I guess you can tell Shizuru, if you really need to. But not Takumi. Let him think I went out a hero."

"You are a hero."

"I'm a screw-up. I'm an oversexed, child molesting screw-up, Natsuki. Don't make me more than I am." She stood up, then. "I gotta go. Be happy, Natsuki." A brief pause. "I loved you, a little bit."

And then, as quickly as she'd come, she was gone into the night.

Did Natsuki ever see Mai again?

I have to say that I don't know. I'm not, unlike the previous instances, keeping quiet for some private amusement - I
really don't know. What I can tell you is that after 2020, Natsuki and Shizuru both disappear into the same strange distortion in my awareness of reality that keeps me from knowing much about Mai and Mikoto - in the latter case, until she emerges again in the twenty-third century as the cat goddess of the same name, having become something I don't understand by methods I don't understand. But regardless, I think it's entirely possible that the fact that it is the same distortion suggests that, yes, she did see her again. But someone is keeping me from knowing the details, and while that irritates me, I accept it.

Before that, though, I know quite a bit about Shizuru and Natsuki. Their efforts to build a relationship were hampered by issues on both sides, and they honestly spent as much time fighting with each other - verbally, if not physically - as they did making up, much like another couple I've discussed. Matters weren't helped by the fact that Natsuki began to embrace parts of her mother's heritage, developing an interest in the sciences that led her to study under Dr. Katsuhito Stengovitch, a young but brilliant roboticist who has already featured briefly in this tale. Their mutual interests blossomed into a relationship, and they were married in 2009, with a daughter, Celia, being born to the couple the next year.

Shizuru was, as one might expect, less than happy with this development, and after several years of living in a funk, she took steps to 'improve' upon it. In early 2012, taking advantage of a temporary separation between the Stengovitches, she seduced Natsuki's husband in an attempt to break up his marriage. Not only did this not work, she found herself pregnant as a result. Unwilling to terminate the pregnancy but just as unwilling to be a single mother, she abandoned her daughter to the care of some of her acquaintances, the Asagiri family. They named their adopted daughter Priscilla.

Although, as far as I can tell, Natsuki was not aware of her husband's infidelity, other strains were beginning to show in their marriage. Despite the birth of their second child, Michael, in 2015, by 2018 it was clear that the relationship was over. Ironically, what Shizuru's best efforts failed to accomplish, simple time did ... and when the divorce finally came through, in 2020, Natsuki finally turned to her long-time friend in a romantic way, shortly before they both disappear from my knowledge.

Their respective children, under names slightly different from their birth names, acquired a certain notoriety.


13. Akira

There is no such ambiguity, no such uncertainty, when it comes to the question of whether Takumi ever saw his sister again. As far as he ever knew, she died that day, and if he agreed with her self-assessment, he never said as much to anyone. So perhaps at least one of Mai's wishes came true.

If she wished for him to have a peaceful life, sadly, that wish did not come true. By becoming involved with Akira, such a peaceful life was put forever out of his reach. For the way of the shinobi is a way of death. And that death found them both in 2016, after they became involved in the one of the interminable wars in the shadows of that period. Their deaths were avenged. Unfortunately, vengeance wasalso successfully sought on those who did the avenging. But they too were avenged, and around and around it goes, in a truly vicious circle.

So it goes.


14. Nao

Natsuki did in fact tell Nao the truth about Mai's actual fate, and Nao was in fact somewhat pleased to learn that Mai had screwed up at the last moment. But she also mourned the fact that she'd never see her again, or have the chance to express whatever she felt about Mai to her. Natsuki decided to leave the decision of what, if anything Nao should tell Takumi about any of this up to her - just as she left the decision of what Nao should learn about Mai and Takumi's 'relationship' up to him.

In the end, Nao was too busy with the rehabilitation of her mother following her long coma to ever become too involved in the affairs of the other side of her family. She was also somewhat distracted by her mother's surprisingly quick return to relationships, as when, over the next year, she became involved with one of her doctors, one Sawagoe Tomaru, whom Nao couldn't stand ... nor, unfortunately, resist. Fortunately, the relationship didn't last long, and its fallout introduced Nao to some of her distant cousins, who soon became friends of hers as well.

The Sawagoe affair did nothing to improve Nao's opinion of men in general, nor did the fact that her mother, on the rebound, married an office worker named Sugimoto, who had a son and daughter from his first marriage. Thus began a somewhat awkward cohabitation, to say the least. Nao was quite happy to escape that cohabitation when she finally went away to university.

There, she met a relatively non-threatening man who claimed, in private, to be the last living descendant of the Tsar of all the Russias. (He was lying. There were others.) While not interested in a relationship with a woman for the typical reasons, he was looking for a socially adept wife to serve as a personal assistant. Nao had grown far more adept at social maneuvering over the years, and it seemed like a cushy gig. (Her words, not mine.) So she married him.

A year or so into the marriage, she went back to her family home to find her mother involved in a torrid affair with her stepson and stepdaughter, let out a sigh and joined the three of them, in the process becoming pregnant with her stepbrother's baby. She named her daughter, when she was born, Nene.

Sheer coincidence. She could never have known what my real name was, nor could I have told her or affected her decisions in any way. But it makes me happy.


15. Midori

Ah, Midori. Sad, scared, terribly broken Midori, unfortunately more sinning than sinned against.

The way it's supposed to work is that you confess your love, and, since this is a happy story, the subject of your confession admits that they've always had feelings for you as well. But what if the subject has already tried to confess to you and been ignored? What if you can never quite break out of the disturbing routines you've followed until this point?

So it was with Midori and Yohko. They tried, oh, they tried. But the burden of Midori's guilts and regrets was too great for even Yohko's strength to bear. Still, the eventual failure of their relationship proved to be the impetus that forced Midori to finally take charge of her life again, after having drifted aimlessly for so long. She went back to school and became a teacher in truth. (Perhaps the words of Asakura Kazumi affected her more than she was willing to admit.)

And so she became a colleague of her archaeology professor, and joined him in his expeditions. I know what you are expecting to have happened. It did not. Rather than falling into another doomed relationship with him as his marriage dissolved, she put her energies to the task of fighting that dissolution. Ultimately, she succeeded in making both the professor and his wife aware that the strains in their marriage were not, in fact, more important than the happiness they'd managed to find together.

Those who can't ... teach. At least, sometimes.

You may be aware that I haven't told you how either Nao or Midori died. This is more of the selfish secretiveness, for they did in fact meet their ends. But with my own end drawing closer, ever closer, I don't feel any particular need to tell you everything. Wonder. Imagine. Decide for yourself.


16. Mashiro

(Not me, her. I'm Nene, remember.)

On a bright, shining day a little while after Mai and Natsuki's last conversation, Nagi, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit with the characters for "Prisoner" on it, was in the middle of a rock quarry, half-heartedly tapping at a rather large chunk of granite with a small pick. Needless to say, he was not smiling in his typical amused manner. Rather, he was frowning in the fashion of one who finds nothing about this situation even remotely funny.

He paused when he felt and saw a shadow fall on him. "Unbelievable," he said. "Un. Freaking. Believable. You have actually come to gloat."

"I'm not gloating," Mashiro protested mildly. She turned to look at Fumi, who was both pushing her mistress' wheelchair and holding a parasol above her head. "Do you think I'm gloating, Fumi?"

"Gloating being defined as watching the hardship of others, particularly that inflicted by oneself, while one smiles ... Fumi must confess that Fumi observes a faint smile on your face, Mistress."

"Eh?" Mashiro said, feigning startlement. She quickly opened up the purse in her lap and pulled out a tiny compact, then checked her face with the mirror. "Oh my!" she gasped. "I am smiling. How horrid of me."

"Oh ha ha," Nagi 'laughed', shaking his head. "I didn't even know twenty-first century Japan had rock quarries."

"Consider yourself educated."

"And I'm pretty darn sure that it doesn't employ convict labor for this sort of thing."

"Golden rule - she who has the gold makes the rules. In any event, I didn't actually come here just to gloat at you." She sighed. "I came to say goodbye."

"... I'm not going to ask, you know," Nagi said, resuming his work with, if possible, even less diligence than he'd been showing before.

"That's all right, it's not necessary," she assured him. "Fumi?"

"Are you going somewhere, Mistress?" the maid said, with the air of one giving a rehearsed response.

"You suck, you know that?" Nagi said over his shoulder to her.

"Annnny second now," Mashiro murmured, checking her watch.

Just as she predicted, a bright square appeared on the ground near the three of them, and from it appeared a certain pair of girls who had disappeared into a similar square a few days ago. The redhead with the hair antennae looked around bewilderedly, her antennae twitching, until her eyes settled on Mashiro in her chair.

She blinked.

Her eyes watered.

And without any warning, she leapt right across the distance between the two of them, squealing, "Mashiro-chaaaaaaaaannnnnn!" as she pulled the little girl out of the wheelchair and rolled onto the ground with her in her arms. "Mashiro-chan, Mashiro-chan, Ma-shi-ro-chaaaaan!" she called out again, rubbing her cheeks against Mashiro's as tears rolled down her face.

"Hello. How are you. I've missed you tons and tons," Mashiro said fondly.

Nina, the other dark-haired girl, watched this with an expression of restrained amusement, before turning to regard Nagi with a cold expression. "Hello," she said.

"Hi, Nina," Nagi said cheerfully. "How's your dad doing?"

"Are you sure we can't kill this son-of-a-bitch?" Nina asked Mashiro, who was coming to her feet - yes, she could walk - with her the antennaed-hair girl wrapped around her.

"Quite sure."

"Ummm, Mashiro-chan," said the other girl. "You know I love you no matter what you look like, but ... it's a little creepy hugging you like this. Not to mention the other stuff I want to do as soon as we're in private."

With the sigh of the greatly put upon, Mashiro concentrated, glowed, and expanded until she was the height and roughly the same build as her two new companions. "Better?" she asked.

"Mm-hm!" the girl nodded, her antennae bouncing.

"I like her the other way, ant," Nagi said.

"I'm not an ant, I'm ARIKA!" Arika Yumemiya protested, almost reflexively.


17. Fumi

"So you're just going to shuffle on off to the future and leave me here to rot," Nagi said, affecting not to have heard Arika's interjection. (My, but this would become confusing if the putative parents of Negi Springfield were present.) "Words can't describe how much you suck, and I suspect that Fumi-chan here will probably take action if I demonstrate physically."

"Your suspicions are correct," Fumi said coolly.

"Believe it or not, Nagi, I'm actually trying to do you a favor," Mashiro said, while she (and Arika, of course) walked over to where Nina was standing, looking standoffish, and wrapped her up in the embrace as well. She struggled, but more out of habit than anything else.

"Oh, really," Nagi said sourly, leaning back against the rock he was supposed to be cutting. "Let me guess - you're doing me a favor by exposing me to the consequences of my actions, and so causing me to become a better person though a greater awareness of them. I should thank you for this."

He was about to say more, which would probably not have been thanks, when Mashiro interrupted. "No, that's not it. I don't think you will ever change, Nagi. And I'm genuinely sorry that is the case. I have other intentions than that."

"Like what?"

Mashiro smiled and shook her head. "Maybe when you see me again, you can make another guess at them." Her smile faded as she turned to Fumi. "Fumi, all I can offer you for your tireless service on my behalf is thanks ... well, thanks and material things that don't matter to you."

"Neither are necessary, Master," Fumi said. "I derived satisfaction from the fulfillment of my duty to you, and I am very satisfied to have served a master such as yourself."

"Become your own master, Fumi," Mashiro said, after a brief interval.

"... I will try to do so," Fumi replied, with obvious reluctance.

"You'll do fine, then." And then she looked up, into the sky, as though she was gazing up at an invisible barrier of some sort. "And thank you, too," she said. "Thank you for giving me this opportunity to walk among giants, and keep their pace. We created the world we think you would have wished for us ... and now it is time to go back there. But thank you for letting me see this, the cradle of all we are or ever will be."

"... Mashiro-chan, who are you talking to?" Arika asked hesitantly.

"Only a fairy tale," she answered, then said the sweetest words in any language. "Let's go home."

The glowing box appeared at their feet again, and they vanished, but not without one last wave from Mashiro to Fumi.
Nagi became aware that there were tears trickling down Fumi's cheeks as she stood there staring at the spot where they'd been. Showing rare sensitivity, he neither commented on them nor looked directly at her until they had ceased.

When they did, though, she murmured, "I will see you again. I will."

"I'd be happy to help you with that if you'd let me go," Nagi said in a helpful tone.

She glared at him. "You offered me help once before."

"And do you regret saying yes?"

She stood a while, thinking on that. "No," she said at last. "I will do it on my own. But I think she would have wanted me to tell you that she has left you here out of compassion. What you have done, what both of you have done, has changed the future in ways that she can't -"

"That can't be," Nagi interrupted, blinking, genuinely shocked. "We're far enough back in time that any ripple effects should cancel out before they reach our era."

"And yet not. For all she knows, she has gone back to a future that no longer exists. But I do not believe that," Fumi admitted, turning again to look at the place where her Master, her beloved Master, had been. "Because I will see her again."

... that was nice of Mashiro, don't you think? Thanking me. She ddn't have to do that. Thanking me ...


18. Nene

(By which I mean me, not Nao's eventual daughter.)

And so we've come to the end of the story, for there really is no more to tell. Well, I could tell you about the fates of various secondary characters who featured in this last and strangest Carnival, but even I grow tired of the grim accounting of "and then they suffered, but things did get a little better, and then they died" that such stories would be.

Still, I could go on. I have seen such things. I have seen how humanity will grow, and make mistakes, and learn from ... some of them. I have seen how Earth will die, more than a century from now, and yet how Earth's children will survive her and spread throughout the galaxy. I have seen heights beyond my ability to describe, and horrors beyond reckoning.

And in all of that, I have not seen any method by which I can escape the fate which I have made for myself.

Every story provides a window by which you can see another world, perhaps like yours, perhaps unlike. That window is the narrative voice. I made myself into the narrative voice of this story. The story is ending. And so am I. It is a fate that I sought, and one that I deserve.

And yet I want more.

I have lived and done far too much, and yet I want more. Is that the moral of the story, then? That no matter how much people are given, they will always want more? Well, I suppose that is a wise thing to consider for anyone with an optimistic view of humanity. But -

Wait, what's this?

There shouldn't be anything in this place except me. This place is little more than a concept, really, and there's nothing here except me, and now ... him. And I can't even imagine how ... he's waking up.

"Mrhmm?"

He blinks, as one might who has wakened from a long sleep, and I finally recognize him. It has been so long since I last saw him that it took me a while.

"Hello, Tate Yuuichi-san," I say to him.

"Urghuh?" he says, polysyllabically. "Where'm'I? Who're you?"

"That doesn't matter," I tell him. "You're dreaming."

He seems to consider this. "... I was falling ..." he says.

"That too was a dream."

"... okay," he says, still clearly weary. "I'm goin' back to sleep, then."

"Sleep, and when you awake, it will be to yet another dream."

"... uh-huh," he responds, not really listening. Within moments, he is gently sleeping once more.

So that is what happened. The Obsidian Prince, or perhaps what was left of Reito, truly did not want to kill him, and so as he saw him falling, he reached out with his power and shoved him ... here. To where I am. Without even realizing what he was doing. Putting him into the safest place his atrophied imagination could conceive. Putting him outside the story, so it treated him as though he was dead.

It occurs to me that I can use this. Part of the reason that I am stuck in this place is that there is nothing here to work against - nothing I can use to move myself out of here. At least, there was nothing until he arrived. I could push against him, leaving him here to suffer my fate while I escape out into the universe. And I want to do that. I very very very much want to do that.

But I don't. Instead, I use myself to push him. He will emerge in our world in a different time and place than that from which he escaped. The far future, the world from which Mashiro and her friends came. What will their saga become, with an active Tate Yuuichi, I wonder?

It is a shame that I will never know. But my last act was not a selfish one. And I can take some small comfort in that.
This, then, is the moral, and I wish that Mai were here so I could tell her. Oversexed child-molesting screw-ups can be heroes, and selfish immortal bitches can do the right thing at some cost to themselves. We all want more, but we can learn to take less.

It's not as bad a story as you thought it was going to be, is it?

But now the story is ending, and so am I. The window closes, and though the world goes on, and another window might open, it will not be me.

My name was Nene. And I am done.

THE END
Of Disturbing Routines

Author's Note

"This tale grew in the telling." I honestly thought I'd be done with this story long before now, but various interruptions - some pleasant, some rather less-than-pleasant, resulted in delay and delay. (It's still not as delayed as my Nanoha story.) I honestly think this shows in the somewhat overly quick pace of the later chapters, but I included almost every episode that I wanted to include.

What was the point, you may be asking, particularly after the revelation that, no, our heroines will not necessarily end up together and one of them will be guarding a monster pretending to be a man for the rest of that monster's life? Basically, I had some problems with the Mai-Hime storyline, whether the anime, the original manga, the remake manga ... if I'd ever seen more than a few scenes from the visual novel, I'd probably have had issues with it, too. So I told this story, not so much to fix those issues, as to at least explore them.

I won't describe what those issues were. If I've done my job, you've already guessed; if you can't guess, I haven't done my job and telling you what they were won't help. Suffice to say that if Mai-Hime is the precursor, in some respects, of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, it is the follower of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, in that quite a bit about its narrative remains open to question by the time the last episode airs.

Before you ask, I'm not entirely sure that I'll ever be opening the window "Nene" talked about on the future setting of Mai-Otome. It's a far more remote possibility than the next storyline in this series, teased at in various places herein far more blatantly than this was teased at in Decadent Habits. Look for it around August, maybe.

Alert readers will have already noticed that I said "almost every episode" above. There was one more that I wanted but couldn't fit in. I liked (with reservations) both the manga and the anime's use of St. Vlas' dream machine powers, and while the manga's ending - with Haruka breaking out because she realizes that she could never be so happy as she's being right now - inspired the scene I eventually wrote, I did want to give Mai the chance to show what would happen if she went in as well.

And so ...

This was perfect. Everything was perfect. The hardest choice she had to make was which of two handsome guys she wanted to date. She didn't have to work. Her mother was alive. Her little brother was healthy. She had a sweet little sister. She had real friends, not allies whose motives she wasn't sure about. She could karaoke every night if that was what she wanted to do.

It was all perfect, she thought blissfully as she swept in to her house's living room to find Takumi with his pants off and pumping away between their mother's spread legs as she sat on the couch, while Mikoto was riding their father as he lay flat on his back on the floor, hands coming up to rub against her small breasts.

Wait, what?

Mai blinked as her mother looked fondly at her while Takumi rutted with her. "Ah, welcome home, Mai-chan. I hope you don't mind if we started without you."

"What?" Mai peeped. "What ... what are you doing?"

"What we do every chance we get, Mai," her father said. "Family bonding!"

"Mmmm! It's great, papa!" Mikoto agreed. "But Mai is better at it than you."

"Ah, to be overshadowed by my own daughter," her father sighed.

"Don't pout, dear. Natsuki-chan liked what you and Saeko-chan did to her last time they came over for a visit, remember," her mother said consolingly.

"No," Mai said, shaking her head as she started to slowly back away.

Takumi paused in his labors to look at her oddly, as did Mikoto. "Mai?" they chorused. "Is something wrong?"

"Nooooo!" Mai screamed as she ran out of the house.

She ran and ran and ran and finally she could run no more. The day was still bright and shiny, and everyone else that she saw looked happy and/or bewildered that anyone could be unhappy. Eventually, when she reached the point where she couldn't run any further, she slumped against a conveniently placed tree, breathing heavily.

"Something the matter, Mai-chan?" asked a voice from above.

She looked up, and was only half-surprised to see Nagi standing on a thick branch just above her head. "You're here, too?" she asked, despairingly.

"Nope," he answered honestly. "Just like everyone else here in your little lotus eater fantasy, I'm a product of your imagination. Specifically, the part that realizes it's all just a dream. Think of me as the cute and helpful sysadmin."

"All of this comes from me? Even ... that?" she asked, gesturing vaguely behind her.

"Yep," Nagi answered firmly. "You see, Mai-chan, your ideal fantasy world has two key components - one, your mother's still alive, and two, you can go on doing what you've been doing with your little brother. But you know, perfectly well, that if your mother was alive, there's only one way that you'd be doing that sort of thing. So you take the good, you take the bad, and there you have the facts of -"

"I don't want to do it, I just -" Mai started to protest.

"Mai. Stop lying to yourself," Nagi said firmly.

Mai bent her head and wept. "Okay," she said eventually. "I do it ... not because of any benefit it brings to him, but because I want to do it. Because I like doing it to him. And I know ... that's wrong. And I do it anyway."

"It feels good to be free of illusions, doesn't it?" Nagi's voice asked her. She looked up to see that he was fading from view, as was everything else.

"No," Mai answered. "It does not."

"That realization is the last illusion," another voice said. And then she was back in the chapel, staring at Yukariko who was staring at her in confusion.

Anyway. Mai comes to that realization under other circumstances.

Some thanks are in order. I'd like to thank Shadow Crystal Mage and OverMaster for once again adding notes of whimsy and mirth to what might have been a rather grim narrative, and IANCE for letting me make him Yamiko's bitch without complaint.

Just like my narrative voice, now that it's actually over, I find myself wanting to drag it out. But I won't. Nearly all characters in this story are the property of other entities. Nobody sue me, okay?