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

Disturbing Routines
Chapter Four: Akane

June, 2004

The sun shining brightly through the window of her bedroom slowly brought Higurashi Akane awake, and, as teenage girls are wont to do, she started to stretch without opening her eyes. Somewhat atypically, however, she froze before she'd really gotten started doing so, and let the eye that wasn't pressed into her pillow slide open to check her surroundings.

A moment later, she let out a sigh of relief. She was alone in bed. As it happened, that was not always the case when she woke up. Which was somewhat troubling, and not really to her liking, but she liked even less what happened when she woke up and stretched her way into hitting the other body in bed with her.

It was not pleasant to contemplate, let alone experience.

But it hadn't happened today, which was a reason to celebrate. So she did. Just ... quietly, and privately, in her own mind.

She got out of bed, then, and reviewed her desktop calendar. There was another reason to celebrate, actually. Today was the first day of this year's MahoraFest, held a couple of weeks earlier than usual in response to various events. (The three instances of dangerous strangeness last year, in other words. Akane had only been witness to two of them, but that had been one too many for her school spirit, thank you.)

And she'd made a decision about this year's MahoraFest a while ago. Today was the day that she was going to tell Kazuya-kun everything. Everything, but most importantly, she was going to tell him that they weren't just good friends who were having good times together.

"I love you, Kazuya-kun," she said, practicing. Maybe just a little too formal? "I love you, Kazuya," she repeated, this time experimenting with yobisute. It would work. She was sure of his feelings for her.

Pleased with herself and confident, she got dressed in her waitress outfit and headed downstairs to have some breakfast before she headed out and -

Her father was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. He looked up at her through his glasses as she froze in the entrance to the doorway. The words "Good morning" went conspicuously unsaid.

"Oh," said Akane. "Uh. I thought you were still at work."

"I have a short break," he said at length. "I probably won't be back again for the next few days, though. This festival nonsense is going to be keeping me fairly busy."

"I see," she said. She didn't really, but that was just the sort of thing that you said to statements like that. She honestly had no idea what her father did for a living, except that it must pay very well, for him to be able to afford this house and the two cars in his garage. Not to mention allowing him the influence to see to it that she lived here, with him, instead of at one of the school's dorms.

"Well," Akane said into the silence that followed. "I should probably get going myself, since I have to work, too, and -"

Her father stood up and began to undo his belt buckle. "Bend over," he said.

"But I have to get to school," she said, conscious of how faint her voice sounded.

"I don't care," he told her. "Bend over."

Eventually, she did just that. Akane kept as silent as he was when she felt her skirt being rolled up, and her panties rolled down. She didn't say anything or react in any way when his hands began rubbing (to call it a gentle caress would be insulting) her rear end. But when she felt him, with very little warning, shove his thumb into the lower hole, she flinched, both from the mild pain and from knowing what was coming next.

"You didn't douche," he said at last. "I told you to douche. And you didn't douche." The pressure in her butt was relieved. "Mouth," he said.

He'd do worse to her if she didn't open her mouth, so she did so. And moments later, she was sucking on his thumb.

And what was on the thumb.

As she did so, he rammed his hard organ into her vagina, pumping into her for a few moments. She could take whatever dubious comfort she wanted in knowing that he wouldn't finish there, and that she would never be at risk for pregnancy. He'd made his complete lack of interest in raising "another brat" very clear when her mother had made noises about wanting more children, shortly before she died.

He was really just lubing himself up, and when he was done doing so, he pulled out of that hole and starting to sodomize her. This was his preference, actually, and he even pulled his thumb out of her mouth as he started - mostly to avoid injury as she clenched her teeth at the penetration.

Ten minutes of vigorous pounding into her later, and he cut loose with a gasp. Akane imagined his organ spewing white wash into her bowels, and controlled the impulse to shudder at the thought. Well, at least it was over, now, and he ...

Why wasn't he pulling out? She could feel him getting softer inside of her, and he was surely going to slip out as the muscles down there relaxed and pushed him and oh no, no, he wasn't going to -

She felt more wetness back there, and barely held back the impulse to retch. This wasn't the first time he'd urinated there, of course, but today, the hypocrisy really got to her. He'd been complaining earlier about her being messy, and yet here he was making her even messier. It was so utterly unfair.

She didn't look up, even when she heard the zipper being pulled up, even when he walked away without saying a word, and even when she heard the door to the garage open and then close. She just stood - well, lay, technically - there for a while.

Idly, she wondered if she'd be late if she took a shower. Well, if that was the case, she was just going to have to be late. She'd been late often enough, over the last four years, that once more really wouldn't make a difference.

Freed from such concerns, Akane let her mind wander a bit, remembering another time that she'd been left lying on the kitchen table like this, and her mother had walked in. For a dizzying few seconds, she'd enjoyed a sensation of hope, that her mother would finally realize what was happening and do something.

And then she'd heard her mother snort and say, "Better you than me."

A year or so later, when her mother had died in what everyone said was a car crash, she'd whispered the same words to her memorial. She'd hoped to feel pleasure in the ironic repetiton. She hadn't. It hadn't been until she met Kazuya that pleasure came back to her.

She couldn't wait to tell him everything.

"Ah, man, I loves me some MahoraFest," Midori commented happily as she watched the festivities get underway from the main window of Chao Bao Zi. "I hope this year is even crazier than last year."

Mai, who was beginning to get just a tad bit weary of hearing about 'last year's MahoraFest', was obscurely pleased when Satsuki politely informed Midori that she didn't think that was too likely.

"Dare to dream, Sacchin!"

Satsuki frowned, indicating once more her dislike of that particular nickname.

"Sorry, sorry."

Mai shook her head in annoyance at the antics of the diner's self-proclaimed "best customer" as she tried to keep her focus on the orders she was supposed to be taking from the enormously expanded dining area set up for the festival.

She hadn't been terribly impressed by Midori when she'd found out that the older woman was a 'hime', since she viewed her as possibly the most un-princess-like out of all of the ones that she'd met so far - which was astounding when one considered Mikoto and Nao! And the low opinion had gotten lower in the weeks since she'd shown up as their new history teacher. Okay, so she clearly knew the subject backwards and forwards, but the way that she dressed! The way that she acted! What kind of weird teacher dressed and acted like that!

"Satsuki-saaaan!" called a short boy in glasses and a green suit walking past the diner and waving frantically, accompanied by a little girl in a frilly dress, doing her best to conceal anxiety behind a facade of boredom, and a pair of teenagers, one in nekomimi and glasses and the other clearly a robo-cosplayer. "Keep up the good work!"

Okay, so Midori clearly didn't have the market covered on being a weird teacher, but still. All that would have been bad enough, but then she added to it by acting like she wanted to be Mai's best friend-slash-aunt agony. Admittedly, as a former coworker, she supposed that she should be friendly with Midori, but not to the point where she told her everything that was wrong with her life. Or took advice from her on how to be a magical warrior of justice or whatever.

Mai also felt pretty sure that Midori, or the people who employed her, had some sort of agenda. Natsuki had explicitly told her that when they'd met up the day after their introduction, adding that Mai shouldn't trust Midori even a little bit.

"But you have an agenda, too," Mai had pointed out, she thought quite reasonably.

"Yes, and you shouldn't trust me, either," Natsuki had replied.

"... you don't trust me, do you." It hadn't been a question.

"Not even a little bit."

"Who do you trust?"

There'd been such a bizarre expression on Natsuki's face as she answered. "No one."

"How can you live like that?"

"By reflecting on the fact that if I try to live any other way, I won't live very long."

"Well, I can't."

"Eh? Why not? It seems like a pretty simple order," Aoi asked.

Mai blinked, came back to herself, and then laughed nervously. "Sorry, sorry. Got lost in thought for a moment there." Agggggh. I suck so much! "I'll get that order right to our cook."

"Um ... aren't you going to ask me what I want?" Chie asked, sitting on the other side of the table.

"I want Mai's ramen," Mikoto supplied.

Well, at least she could take comfort in the fact that, since that episode, Mikoto had started to warily socialize with Mai's other friends, to the point where she was now comfortable with the idea that they were going to be taking her around the festival while Mai worked and then reunited with her father. She set aside her discomfort about that latter part as she turned to look at her roommate and shook her head. "Sorry, Mikoto, but I haven't graduated to chef here. But the one we have is probably better than me."

Mikoto stared at her. She could almost see the words Mai says weird things sometimes in a thought baloon over her head.

"Trust me," she said, got Chie's order and headed back to counter. Things were so busy today, and it really didn't help matters that Akane had called in to say that she was going to be late for her shift. Fortunately, they did have two temps hired for just today.

"Uniform suits you," she told one of them as they met each other heading up to the counter.

"Shaddap," suggested Yuuichi.

"Maybe I should put in a suggestion about having the student council institute a special uniform for their lackey."


Mai hadn't been genuinely surprised when Satsuki-kancho had announced that they'd be having some extra staff for the festival, since it had been made clear that the festival was going to see a lot of business, even if it wasn't supposed to be as exciting as last year's festival. (She was actually getting a little sick of hearing all those comments about how things compared to last year's festival. Why couldn't anyone around here look forward instead of back?)

And she supposed that, given the way that they kept stumbling into each other, she shouldn't really be surprised that the extra staff included Yuuichi and Shiho. She suspected that Shiho was probably following the crowd and trying to earn extra money for a gift for "oniichan", and that Yuuichi was, ignorant of her plans, following her to make sure that she was okay. Typical romcom behavior. Fortunately, hijinx had not yet ensued.

Despite her needling, which was practically reflex, now, Mai was actually glad that Yuuichi and Shiho were there. With Akane held up by whatever was holding her up, it would have been just her, Kazuya, and Fei-sempai to handle the festival crowds. And while Fei-sempai appeared unacquainted with fatigue, both she and Kazuya were only mortals.

She took a breather once she delivered the orders to Satsuki-kancho, conscious of Midori's eyes on her but determined to ignore them. Kazuya was leaning back against the streetcar beside her. He was an okay guy, too. Akane was lucky. Mai found herself enjoying the silence.

Of course, that couldn't be permitted. "So, you heard about the traditonal confession?" Midori asked.

"No, but let me guess," Mai said. "If you confess to your crush on the last day of the festival, in front of the World Tree, you'll be together forever."

"Wow, you are a really good guesser!" Midori proclaimed. "Very close! There's actually debate about which of the days is best, but you got everything else right."

"Of course there is. It's nonsense, anyway."

"Oh! So cynical at such a young age." Midori shook her head in dismay.

"I'm not cynical, I've got a perfectly normal amount of romance in my soul, thank you very much," Mai objected. "But I think that if you like someone, really like someone, you should tell them, right away, rather than waiting for the perfect moment that might not come, or get screwed up, or not be anywhere nearly as perfect as you imagined it would be."

"Interesting thesis," Midori said, nodding. "What do you think, Kazuya-kun?"

He blew out a breath. "Ah, to go unnoticed," he murmured, before raising his voice. "Well, I think that it can be hard to do what Mai-san says, and that having a plan can make it easier. And picking a specific date and time to do something is a good step in a plan. But that's just my opinion."

"Hm," Midori hmmed, continuing to nod, playing the sage. "A well-thought out opinion. But tell me, is this how Akane-chan confessed to you?"

To Mai's amazement, Kazuya blushed and stammered. "What, what are you saying, Midori-sensei! We are, we are just good friends, having a good time!"

"Riiiight," Midori snickered. "And Yuiichi-kun is just Shiho-chan's older brother figure."

Mai chuckled a bit at Kazuya's obvious distress, but was pulled out of it by a moderately shrill voice demanding, "What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, hey, Shiho-chan," Midori said, ignoring the tone. "We were just talking about -"

"I heard what you were just talking about," Shiho snarled. "Oniichan is oniichan! That's it. That's all! I don't like it when people talk about me behind my back!"

"Calm down, Shiho-chan," Midori said, switching gears rapidly. "We weren't saying anything -"

"Bite me."

Before things could escalate any further, Satsuki arrived to hand an order to Shiho and send her off to deliver it. The red-haired middle schooler looked inclined to argue, but set her jaw and marched off with the food.

Once she was gone, Satsuki quietly reminded Midori that valued customers should know not to bother the staff.

"Sorry, sorry," Midori replied, looking genuinely contrite. "That could have gone better, I'll admit."

At that moment, Akane arrived on the run, looking just a bit panicked. "I'm sorry, my father, and then class, I'm sorry!" she babbled in the general direction of Satsuki-kachou.

And then something transpired that left Mai almost floored. "Don't spend so much time being sorry that you end up even sorrier," Satsuki said, and handed Akane a tray of food, pointing out where it was supposed to go.

"Right, yes, thank you," Akane agreed as she pulled off her overcoat, revealing that she was wearing her waitress uniform underneath it. Then she headed off with her tray.

That was the first time she'd ever heard her boss talk using actual words instead of - well, she wasn't really sure how Satsuki-kancho talked most of the time.

The fact that she couldn't tell was driven home a moment later when Satsuki turned her moderate glower on her and asked whether she was done with her breather. Mai had no idea how she knew what the boss was saying, but she understood both thought and tone.

"Right, yes," she agreed, and headed out beside Kazuya.

Fortunately, there was only another hour or so remaining in her abbreviated shift today. Abbreviated, but drawing overtime pay, and making her work for every cent of it. The boss clearly knew what she was doing, bringing on extra help for this festival.

When it was finally over, Mai went to get a canned iced tea from a dispenser not far from the diner car. She let out a long sigh as she pressed it to her forehead before opening.

"So what's the rest of the day's agenda?" asked Midori, whom she hadn't realized was standing right behind her.

Controlling the urge to jump and scream, Mai slowly turned to look at her. "Well," she said, all sweetness and light. "First, I'm going to go check in on my little brother, who apparently isn't feeling all that well. Then, assuming he's malingering, we're going to take advantage of the fact that our dad has deigned to grace us with his presence and visit with him. I'm really looking forward to that," she said, with sarcasm that could compete in the Olympics.

"Not a big fan of the old man, eh?" Midori probed.

"No, I'm not. But, well, he is my dad." It didn't explain anything, but it was all that she had.

"I get it," Midori said. "Actually, I was the same way with my folks ... eh, but you don't want to hear about that."

"Nope," agreed Mai cheerfully.

Midori coughed. "Your honesty is such an admirable quality, Mai-chan. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know some stuff that came up in my convo with Natsuki-chan last night -"

"Waitwaitwaitwait," interrupted Mai. "You had a conversation with Natsuki last night? She hates you!"

"Oh, no," Midori said, shaking her head. "Natsuki-chan reserves her hatred for the amorphous 'they' who - well, that's her story to tell. She just completely distrusts and disdains me. But she still wanted to know what I know, and she knew some stuff that I didn't know but wanted to know, and so we worked out some arrangements. She's much easier to deal with than a corrupt border guard, believe me."

The out-thereness of that metaphor had Mai staring at her for a long moment. "Oooo-kay, she said at last. "What is it that you wanted me to know?" Please be something sane.

"Well, basically, we each had a list of people we suspect are fellow royalty, as it were, and we compared them. A few matches, and a lot of guesses that neither of us suspected." Midori fell silent, and when she spoke again, she sounded far more serious than she normally did. "Akane-chan's name was on her list."

Mai blinked. "What."

"Akane -"

"No, that wasn't, 'I didn't hear you,' that was, 'are you crazy?'" Mai interrupted. "Actually, that wasn't 'are you crazy,' because I know that you're crazy, that was more, 'do you think I'm crazy?' Because there's no way that Akane is some sort of magical warrior or whatever you think we are."

"Why not?" Midori asked, honestly taken aback by Mai's vehemence.

"Because, because I don't know why not, she just isn't. Leave her alone, dammit!"

"I'm trying to be helpful, you know -"

"Then help her by leaving her alone and not pulling her into all this crap!" Mai said. "That would be helpful!" And she stormed off, muttering.

Midori was honestly starting to get a little annoyed with herself. Yohko had always good-heartedly teased her about her tendencies to meddle and how they occasionally - okay, frequently - blew up in her face. But lately it seemed like all that she did went astray.

But why had Mai gotten so mad about the notion that Akane was also a HiME? She was fairly good at picking up on other people's infatuations, and she didn't think that Mai was crushing on Akane. Watching the slightly older girl - almost seventeen, much like Midori herself - she was fairly sure that she wasn't Mai's type. Not nearly boyish enough.

And then she had a spark of intuition. "Oh," she said, nodding as things fell into place.

Akane wasn't someone that Mai wanted; Mai wanted to be more like her. Hard-working, but sweet and even gentle, and clearly and openly in love with someone who clearly and openly loved her back. A softer version of Mai's own self.

If someone like that was a HiME, then Mai's whole perspective would have to shift.

Alas, understanding did not bring empathy to Midori. Since she wanted, arguably needed, Mai's perspective to shift, it'd be a good thing if Akane ''did'' turn out to be one of them. ''Now, how do I go about proving it?''

Her train of thoughts on the subject, only some of which did not involve wacky hijinx, was interrupted when Yuuichi slumped down beside her and let out a huge sigh of exhaustion. "Manohmanohman. Tokiha does this every day? How the hell does she do it?"

"Most days aren't this busy," Midori supplied. "And her shift is normally in the late afternoon and evening, so that she can go home and sleep right after."

The boy grunted in acknowledgement.

"Y'know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you sounded almost admiring of Mai-chan, just now," she poked.

"Eh, well, I guess she's got her good points," he allowed. "Still a jerk."

"Hmm," Midori said. "So, what's the deal, here? Why'd you go get a part-time job, in addition to all the work you've been doing for the Student Council. Your teacher is curious."

"My teacher is nosy."

"Same diff. Spill, Yuuichi-kun."

He didn't look at her as he answered. "It's no big deal. Shiho wanted to make some more money for something, and I figured she should have someone to watch out for her while she was doing it. It's just a couple days, right? No big deal." The repetiton was faint.

"Nope, I guess it's not. It's funny, though, that she gave me the exact same explanation when I asked her, only with who's watching over who and who needs some money switched around," Midori said blandly.

Yuuichi collapsed to the ground in a heap, then got up again. "My teacher is incredibly nosy!" Now it was a complaint, not a correction.

"Hey, I was just catching up with a distant relative," she protested. "She volunteered the information."

"Distant -"

"My mom and her mom are cousins, and I've actually met her dad a few times," the teacher explained. "Nice guy. Really helpful with some of my research."

"Since when do seventeen year-olds do research that requires consulting with members of the clergy?" Tate snarked.

"Since they found out they're geniuses? And have I ever mentioned that you're good at dodging the issue?"

Yuuichi groaned as he rubbed both his cheeks. "Okay, fine. I'm the one who wanted to get the money. She thinks it's to pay for some kinda medicine for my arm, and I'd like it if it stayed that way. Since the present that I'm getting her for her birthday is supposed to be pretty good, and -"

"That's so sweet!" Midori interjected. "Fear not, citizen! I will take your secret to my grave!"


"It's really good that you're starting to take some initative in your relationship with the girl," she continued as though the interruption had never happened.

"Relat- No! Dammit, I'm just trying to be nice, not any of that stuff!"

"Oh, and right back we go to being slow," Midori said, shaking her head in despair that wasn't entirely mock. "Yuuichi-kun, I see your test scores before you do. So I know you're not stupid. So how come you haven't figured out that Shiho's crazy about you?"

"You're crazy," he said dismissively.

"Why are so many people - anyway, I don't have time for this," she said, changing directions in a hurry as she saw Akane and Kazuya, changed out of uniforms and into civvies, heading off in the direction of the festival. Their shift was clearly over, and she had to continue surveillance. But she really ought to leave him with some teacherly advice. "Man up, kid. She's a teenager, not a little girl." That was clever-sounding. It should work.

And then she was off on a dash.

"Takumi," Mai whispered, staring deep into her brother's eyes.

"Oneechan," he murmured back.

Slowly she brought her face to his ... and pressed her forehead to his. A moment later, she pulled back and nodded. "I'd say you're about normal temperature."

"Well, then, you should get going so that you can meet up with Dad, and maybe bring him back here," Takumi said to the girl who was seated on his bed in front of him. "I'm really sorry, but I'm still feeling too weak to go with you today."

Mai grunted. "Well, our appointment isn't for an hour or so -"

"Then you should go and have fun with Mikoto-san."

"- and I told Chie and Aoi to look after Mikoto -"

"You could go meet up with the three of them," he protested feebly.

"So right now," she said, smiling, coming very close to him, "right now, I'm all yours, my cute little brother." And now she really did press her lips to his, easily holding his mouth open and sliding her tongue in to rub against his own.

"Come on, Takumi," she said once she pulled back from the kiss. "It's been months since we were last together. I've missed it, haven't you? Let's have some fun, today."

"But, you're going to -"

"We have time," she interrupted his protest. She drew in a deep breath through her nose. "You're all sweaty and delicious right now, Takumi. Let's get you out of those pyjamas." She suited her actions to her words.

"Wait, no, I don't think this is such a -"

"Come on, sweety, you know that you want this as much as I do. Maybe more. Now let's -"

And then the door flew open, and Takumi's room-mate, Akira, darted in with a ruler in one hand and a brush in the other, holding them like weapons with which he was intimately familiar. "Who dares intrude upon these premises!" he cried out, eyes blazing.

"- get you changed," Mai said as she held the placket of Takumi's pyjama tops open.

As he often was, Takumi found himself utterly amazed at his older sister's sang froid. After all, he himself wanted to cry out in shock and surprise at Akira's surprising entry, and he was far too embarassed by the situation to even think of coming up with a reasonable explanation for what was going on. Yet there she was, calmly attempting to act like nothing strange had been going on, and that it was all just a big misunderstanding.

How had she gotten this sneaky, anyway?

A moment later, Mai was seated on a chair beside the bed while Akira had taken up her former position on the bed, carefully arranging matters so that he was between her and Takumi. "Good grief," Akira said, shaking his head in dismay. "This is a men's dormitory. How on Earth did such as you even manage to enter unto these halls?"

Mai felt a bit annoyed by that 'such as you', but she tried to hide it. "I went up to the dorm manager and explained that I'm Takumi's sister and that he's sick, and since someone had already told him that, yes, their roomate was sick, he didn't see a problem."

"And he credited such a story?"

"I have a student ID," Mai bit out.

"In any event," Akira continued as if there'd been no interruption in his harangue. "This is most unusual behavior for siblings, you must agree."

"No," Mai said.

"What? Do you pretend then that it is normal for an older sister to denude her younger brother?"

"Under these circumstances, it's completely understandable. I have been caring for Takumi for years, now, and so helping him change his clothes is nothing all that out of the ordinary."

"Can you truly claim that such is nothing out of the ordinary?"

"Indeed, it is an hour since I did anything else," Mai answered, somewhat cheekily imitating Akira's slightly old-fashioned manner of speech. "Look, do you have a sister?" she added somehwhat more normally.

Akira blinked, coughed. "No. My family has no sisters. Only brothers."

She wondered momentarily why he seemed so shifty all of a sudden, but it wasn't important. "Well, then, how can you pretend to know what it's like to be part of a family like ours? How can you say what is normal?"

"I watch television."

Mai suppressed a scream. Well, there went her plans for a pleasant afternoon before she went out to see the old man. This little twerp was not going to leave her alone with Takumi long enough for even a quicky. It was so annoying! The universe kept throwing up obstacles for the two of them, and now there was this last one ...

And yet, she thought, there's a way to turn an obstacle into a pathway, isn't there? She considered Akira for a moment. He was much more bishonen than she liked, almost efeminate in some ways, and his attitude towards women in general was something of a turn-off, but ...

A blowjob was a blowjob, right, no matter who was giving it. So she could take the two of them on like that, get Akira used to the idea, and eventually work him around to taking her up the ass while she rode on Takumi, and -

No, no, no, that wasn't right. If she was going to give up her anal virginity, she should give it to someone she loved. So she'd take Takumi there, while Akira went up her yoni, and -

No, no, that wasn't right either. She couldn't let someone she barely knew up her like that. She didn't have any condoms, and this twerp probably viewed them as immoral, so he wouldn't either. It was too risky. So maybe he'd have to settle for the blowjob, and -

No, it was just a bad idea, and would have been even if Takumi hadn't picked up on what she was thinking from the look on her face, and was regarding her with a horrified look and waving his hands in the air in a universal gesture for 'stop'. He paused only when Akira took note of his actions and turned to look at him, whereon he started yawning broadly.

"Well, anyway, I suppose that I shouldn't contaminate your oasis of manly virtue any more than I have to," Mai said at last, standing up. "Takumi, I'll try to bring Dad around to see you, but you know how he is."

"Yes, oneechan," Takumi said. "Thank you."

And then she was gone.

Akira waited a moment, before turning his eyes on Takumi. "Okay. What was that, seriously?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Takumi replied, wearily, as he lay down and tried to pull up the covers. "I'm sick, and I'm tired, and I don't want to talk about how messed up my life is."

Akira, whose own life was somewhat messed up, showed rare sensitivity and did not press the issue.

Mahora's main chapel served many purposes. It was the secret headquarters of the Mahora Mage Order. It was a training hall for young mages which was almost (or so its graduates believed) as rigorous in its methods as that of the legendary Disciple of Darkness. It was the place where Sister Misato and her two daughters had their private celebrations of their family bond. But it was still a church, first and foremost, and at the moment, it was serving that purpose.

Standing outside the front door, like a trio of sentinels, were a pair of nuns - well, technically, a nun and an acolyte, but the distinction would be lost on most people - and another young woman in a school uniform. Their faces, from left to right, could be described as taciturn, miserable, and blissful. The acolyte was in the middle.

This blows, thought Kasuga Misora, the acolyte in question. This is worse than last year. At least last year was fun in retrospect; this isn't fun at all, and will never no matter what be fun looking back at it. Her gloomy mood wasn't helped by the fact that her partner and fiancee had been roped into assisting with the performance of the girl's choir, and so she was stuck here, with these two.

Sister Yukariko was all right, she supposed. A little naive and unworldly, but Misora suspected that might be just her own extreme worldliness talking. (She'd been to fricking Mars, after all.) Maybe a bit too sweet to be believable. And the fact that she was strictly a nun, rather than a dual classed nun-wizard or nun-fighter, didn't help matters. Prayer, her usual response to any situation, was nice, but not as likely to resolve things as direct action. (Or avoidance, y'know, like Misora preferred, really.)

But the other one? The other one creeped Misora right the hell out.

Miyu Greer, the adopted daughter of Father Joseph (who was inside preaching) was perfectly pleasant, perfectly calm, and perfectly polite. She was perfect, in other words. And Misora, who was quite reconciled to the notion that she was not now and never would be perfect, found that more than just a bit disturbing.

She'd actually met someone who reminded her quite a bit of Miyu. But once one actually got to know Chachamaru, one couldn't help but realize that for all her mechanical perfection and flawless grace, there was a lot of warmth and - for lack of a better term - humanity beneath the surface.

Miyu didn't have that. And it was strange that a real girl should compare so unfavorably to a gynoid.

And that creeped Misora right the hell out, as might already have been mentioned.

"Miyu-san," Yukariko abruptly said. "We're always very grateful for the help you give us, but since we are having a festival, you should go explore it."

"How about me?" Misora asked hopefully.

"Don't be ridiculous, Misora-chan," Yukariko replied without taking her eyes off Miyu. "You need not wait for permission, Miyu-san, I will tell Father Joseph where you went."

Misora spent a moment imitating Yukariko's manner of speech behind her back while Miyu replied, "Yes ma'am."

"Well, then. Permit me to offer my humble assistance," said a smooth masculine voice from off to the side. Misora and Yukariko both turned in time to see the bespectacled man walking up with his hands in his pants pockets.

"Ishigami-sensei," said Yukariko, sounding a bit surprised.

It took Misora a bit to recognize him. There'd been so many new teachers brought in over the last year! So many of the old ones had quit or, ahem, been asked to leave. But then she knew this one; he was the one who had finally been brought on as an art instructor to replace Takahata-sensei.

Since Misora had really respected (okay, feared but in a nice way) Takahata-sensei, that fact didn't endear this guy to her. He continued to lower his opinion by delivering the unbelievable line, "Isn't it a lovely day? And yet its loveliness cannot compare to your own."

"Goodness," said Yukariko, obviously flustered.

Oh, God, she's falling for it, Misora thought, fighting the urge to start gagging.

"Have you given any thought to the matter we discussed earlier?" Ishigami asked, pressing much too close to the older sister.

"No, no, I still d-don't think it would, it would be appropriate for me to pose for a painting, no matter how innocent, and, and -"

"Well, perhaps, when these young ladies depart, we can discuss the matter further," Ishigami-sensei said airily. "I'm sure that we can come to an agreement."

"Um, well," Yukariko replied.

"Good day," said Miyu, and promptly left without another word or glance in their direction.

It occured to Misora that she could probably go too. And there was a lot of stuff going on at this year's festival that she wanted to see. The martial arts exhibitions wouldn't be as cool as last years' had been, but there were rides and games and all sorts of things out of the ordinary. And she could meet up with Cocone, and sneak off together to do all sorts of things together.

"Well, I think I actually want to stay," Misora said, a little bit louder than was strictly necessary. "This years' festival doesn't really sound all that appealing. So I'm sticking around here. That's what I want to do. Yup," she concluded. I am such a freaking moron.

Ishigami-sensei looked a little disconcerted. "Ah. Well. In that case, I suppose that we'll have to talk another time. Good day, sister."

Do I not merit a goodbye, creep? Misora thought. Ah what the heck. She stuck out her tongue at his retreating back.

"You shouldn't be so rude, Misora-chan," Yukariko chided absently.

"And you shouldn't put up with crap like that!" Misora chided right back. "If he's making you uncomfortable, you don't have to endure it."

"It's not, not uncomfortable, it's just ... I don't know how to make it clear to him that I'm not interested in that sort of thing," she concluded at last.

"It'd probably help if you actually weren't," Misora muttered.

"What was that?" the older woman said sharply.

"Nothing," Misora said. Damn, that particular bit is really getting old. I need new material.

She approached her master, and spoke quietly. "I have located one of the targets. She is isolated from the others, and will be easily dispatched. Shall I proceed?"

"Yes," said the tiny blonde. "I don't need to know the details. Help me with this thing, will you? It's surprisingly complicated."

"Yes, Master." She moved to help the little girl with her black gown.

A tiny blonde master and her slightly mechanical servant. Nothing novel about that in Mahora, though it had been a while ... and this was a new and different pairing of master and servant.

And the master was nowhere nearly as kind and gentle as the one whose role she had replaced. Neither was her servant.

Wow, these kids are boring, Midori thought as she continued to follow Akane and Kazuya. When she'd been their age - which, of course, she still was, she reminded herself - she'd have been looking for a quiet, private place to be alone with whoever she was seeing at that time. But these two? They went to all sorts of cute places, but always in public, never sneaking off for some private alone time.

It was almost sickeningly wholesome.

No, no, Midori reminded herself. All true warriors strive for such peace! I should be cheering them on from the sides, not hoping that there's a sinister undercurrent beneath their happiness. What is wrong with me?

Ah, well, can't be helped.

One thing did make it a bit easier to justify continuing her, well, let's be honest and call it 'stalking' of the two of them. She wasn't the only one doing so. She'd noticed the other one following them, just a bit less surreptiously than she was, but didn't think she'd been noticed.

Why was Miyu Greer following those two?

She didn't know much about the girl. Adopted daughter of the new priest at the church, kept quiet in class, got good grades, yadda yadda yadda, not terribly interesting. And yet she was now applying that quiet intelligence to the task of following a pair of older students.

Midori knew why she was following Akane and Kazuya. Why was Miyu doing it?

Could the girl be a HiME as well? It didn't seem likely. She believed that the girl was Chinese. Midori's research strongly suggested that the genes involved in the mutation (if that's what it was) were more or less restricted to Japanese people, hence its recurrence in their folklore. On the other hand, as a historian, she was well aware that, to put it delicately, it was not impossible for those genes to have been spread to Chinese people. Generally without a lot of consent being involved.

Neither she nor Natsuki had a complete list of the HiME who were supposed to be present on campus. Between them, they'd come up with eight names, including their own - and Midori had held back two other names on her suspected list. Doubtless Natsuki had done the same, though there was no way of telling how much the girl was holding back.

Considering one of the names that Midori suspected -

Ack, almost lost them, she realized, abandoning that line of thought for the moment, trying to keep her focus on following the two of them, and Miyu as well. That had always been Noriyasu-sensei's biggest complaint about her work, the way she could get so easily distracted by a shiny new theory, and she never wanted to disappoint her most important person by doing that again, or - hey, was that Mai, over there?

Since her plans for afternoon delight were ruined, Mai might as well head over to where she was supposed to meet her father earlier than their appointment and wait for him to show up. Maybe he'd think she was eager to meet him and feel guilty. That would be nice.

She ordered a coffee from Searrbucks, wincing at the price, and sat down at one of the open tables. Just how well this place was doing could be seen by the fact that, during the height of the festival, they had tables that weren't occupied. And their coffee still sucked, but she needed a pick-me-up, and there were no machines anywhere in sight.

Nice to be able to sit down and rest, though.

"Get lost!"

Her eyes flashed open as an unpleasantly familiar voice cut through the sound of the crowd. Nao? Great. Just what she didn't need. She looked around until she picked the henna worshipper out of the crowd, which had cleared around her as she stood arguing with -

- with -

- with -

"I told you, I didn't want to see you!" Nao was shouting. "So if we run into each other, you should just pretend you didn't see me, got it!"

"But that man, he was -" said the older man she was hectoring.

"It's none of your business, you shitty father!" Nao roared. "You picked now to start caring about what I - oh, great, you too?"

Mai blinked. When, when had she gotten up and come over to them, how had she moved without -

"What do you want?" Nao sneered at her. "I got enough on my plate without -"

"Mai," the older man gasped.

"Why?" asked Mai quietly, in the politest way she could manage. "Why is that girl calling you a shitty father ... father?"

"I think we lost her," Kazuya said as he glanced over his shoulder.

Akane let out a sigh of relief. "Are you sure? Maybe she's just hiding."

"Pretty sure," he replied. "I don't see her doing the hiding behind a telephone post bit that she tried the last couple of times I spotted her, so it really does seem like she's been left behind."

"What was she thinking, following us like that?"

"Well, knowing Midori-chan, she was probably just trying to make sure nothing bad happened on our, um, well, our stroll together," he said, realizing at the last moment that using the word 'date' might be going a little too far. Or would it have been going just far enough? Agggggh! Now I'm standing here engaged in contemplation instead of action and she's going to think I'm all talk! But if I do anything, she might get mad at whatever it is that I do! Agggggh!

"That does sound like the sort of thing Midori-chan would do." Akane said, being completely oblivious to Kazuya's inner turmoil. "Either that, or she's just being nosy." And she laughed a bit at the notion.

Kazuya, nobody's fool, joined in on the laughter, and was savvy enough to stop when she did, too.

"So, where to now?" he asked after a moment spent smiling like an idiot as he went over the festival schedule that he'd carefully memorized. "The 'Arrivederci Dekopin Rocket' concert is starting in just a few minutes."

"Oh, geez, I dunno," Akane said, face twisting in indecision. "I sort of want to see it, because I love their music, but on the other hand, it's so sad that they're breaking up like this. So I don't want to see it, because it's going to be so hard to watch."

"Well, then, how about the concert that the girls' choir is going to be having? There's supposedly this one transfer student who's really -"

"Actually," Akane interrupted. "Actually, there's a place I kind of want you to see."

Kazuya blinked. She wanted to relieve him of the burden of making decisions about where they were going to go and what they were going to do? Wow, what a great girlfriend! Friend, rather, friend, they were just friends! Ahem, serious face, serious face. "Well, all right."

"Amazing," he said a few moments later. "I had no idea that there was a bamboo grove hidden away in these foothills. It's so tranquil."

"Yes," Akane agreed. "I used to come here a lot, when I needed to think or be alone." Her voice went quiet and distant as she remembered time spent curled up in a ball, wondering why she'd ever been born.

But she'd finally gotten an answer to that question, hadn't she? She was born to love this boy.

She drew in a deep breath. "Kazu-kun," she said. "You remember how we promised that we'd never keep secrets from each other?"

He turned to look at her. "Yes," he answered, apprehension back in spades. "Why?"

"There are, there are some things that I haven't been telling you." So many things, really. But let's start with something ... relatively easy. "You remember, back in Feburary, when we had that silly fight, and I ran off?"

"Uh, yes," he lied. It must have been a really silly fight, because he didn't remember anything about this. But something told him that this admission would not go over all that well.

"Well, I came here, to think, like I used to, and that's when I saw it," she continued, closing her eyes and remembering the weird furry insect-thing looming in front of her, and the strange pale boy asking her -

"Wait - you saw one of the monsters that people have been talking about?" Kazuya asked abruptly, with a sudden flash of inspiration. "That's - what happened? Who saved you?"

"No one saved me," Akane said sharply. "No one has ever saved me, except you. But that day ..."

It had terrified her, but then, after listening to the strange boy's words, she'd realized that it wasn't really interested in her. It was looking beyond her. She wondered why. And then she heard Kazu-kun calling for her, looking for her, and she knew what this thing was going to do.

"... that day, I saved you," she concluded.


"If it's for you, I can do anything, Kazu-kun. I love you. And I would do anything for you," she told him, looking squarely into his eyes as she made this pledge.

"I, I'd do anything for you, too," he said, feeling a bit faint.

Will you help me murder my father, then? She was opening her mouth to ask just that question when they were interrupted by a girlish scream from nearby.

"Monster!" shrieked the pale girl as she came running up the path, who looked a little younger than the two of them.

Akane whirled, and then nearly froze. It was back. That same Orphan from all those months ago. How, how could it be back, she'd - no. It didn't matter. "All right, then," she said softly, and held her hands open at her sides.. There was a sudden swirl of wind, and within those hands appeared a pair of golden clubs. It also snapped the tie that held back her hair.

"For Kazu-kun, I can do anything," she repeated, and then roared as she charged the Orphan. Just like before, it couldn't be hurt by these blows, but it could be driven back, and she pushed it before her to buy herself some fighting space so that she could call upon her Child.

"Hari!" she cried at last, falling back, and the wind swirled once more. Her golden lion appeared at her side, then charged at the Orphan just as she had done moments earlier. Unlike her, though, his roar actually accomplished something, as the burst of sound slammed into the Orphan like the shot of a cannon.

In just a few seconds, it was all over, and she whirled to look back at Kazuya, who'd been watching all this in mute shock. "Please don't hate me," she said.

"... are you nuts?" he said at last, finally starting to grin. "That, that was unbelievably badass! Oh, wow, you are so cool, Akane-chan!"

Fighting to control the urge to squee, Akane turned to look at the underclassman. "Um, listen, it's important that you not tell anyone about -"

"No one will know," the girl said calmly. Then she shaped her arm into a sword, crossed the distance between herself and Hari in under a second, and brought it down towards Akane's Child.

Of course Akane wasn't about to let that happen, so she moved just as fast and parried the sword thrust with her tonfa before Hari could even be scratched. "What in the world do you think you're doing!" she cried. "I just saved your life!"

The younger girl regarded her across their crossed weapons for a moment, then stepped back. Akane blinked as she realized that her eyes must have deceived her, since the girl - Miyu, she suddenly remembered - was actually holding a sword in her hand rather than having somehow transformed her arm into a sword. But where had it come from? Some hidden sheath?

Her speculations were interrupted when Miyu finally spoke. "My apologies, Akane-hime. I was ordered to test your abilities if I had the opportunity, and that seemed the ideal way to do so. Rest assured that I bear you no malice, but it may come to pass that, when next we meet, we shall be enemies once again. Until then, farewell."

And then she leaped away in a series of ninja-like bounds.

"What, what just happened?" Akane asked.

"She probably works for one of the other factions," Kazuya explained.

"Huh? Kazu-kun, what are you -"

"Well, you see, Akane-hime - you're not the only one who's been keeping secrets." He reached up to his shoulder, and, with a sudden gesture, pulled his uniform's blazer away to reveal a dark, short-sleeved uniform. Kazuya promptly raised his wristwatch to his mouth and spoke into it. "Two to beam up."


The world dissolved in a blur of multicolored light. When it reformed, they were standing in the middle of somewhere that looked like the bridge of the starship Enterprise, complete with a huge monitor, displaying the Earth from orbit, in front of two occupied crew stations. Further back, there were a pair of unoccupied chairs.

All around the bridge, if that's what it was, men and women dressed in the same uniform as Kazuya (though it wasn't nearly as good-looking on them as it was on him) stood up from what they were doing and snapped a sharp salute in the direction of the two new arrivals. "Welcome back, Captain," one of the oldest people present said.

"Thank you," said Kazuya, then returned his attention to Akane. "Welcome aboard the Space-Time Defense Agency's heavy cruiser Deeva, Akane-hime."


"We've been monitoring the situation on your world for quite some time now, and believe that you are the best candidate to prevent that situation, the Orphans and the HiME, from becoming a danger not only to your world but to countless others. Only you have the right qualities to do so?"

"What, what qualities?" Akane gasped.

"Your purity of heart," he said, without a hint of a smile. "A purity undamaged by any of the horrible things that have happened to you. Such purity is rarer than diamonds. Only you, out of all the HiME, possess it. Will you not join your strength to our much lesser strength, and so become even stronger?"

She blinked. "But, but I'm not - I've -"

"Akane," he said, dropping the honorifics as he spoke softly, just loud enough for the two of them to hear. "We've been monitoring the situation for some time. And we saw what your father was going to do to you. It was not something we could permit, so we deceived him. And you, too, unfortunately. Whenever he's tried, we used our technology to put him in a virtual reality that made him think that he was violating you, and fed that delusion into your senses as well. But he has never touched you, not really."

"... you did that for me?" she asked, just as quiet, on the verge of tears.

"If it's for you, I can do anything," he said.

"Then, then me too. For you, Kazu-kun, I can do anything too. So yes, yes I will -"

"Oookay, hold the phone."

Akane blinked, and turned rapidly. There he was, the strange young boy who called himself Nagi, who'd told her about her power, and there he was, standing there with a bag of popcorn in his hand, looking at her with an amused expression. "How, how did you get here?" she asked, startled

"That's a good question. Here's a better one - if her dad hasn't been schtupping her, then what exactly are these horrible things that have been happening to her that prove she has such incomparably pure pureness? This story really doesn't make any sense. I mean, if they could do all that, why not just pull the girl out of the bad situation, rather than tricking her dad that way? It's needlessly baroque, don't you think? I mean, yeah, if she needed to be there for some reason, like to learn something, that would make sense, but she's just been going through misery for no good reason."

"No," she said. "No, no, stop -"

"Eh, I'm actually kinda-sorta sorry, Akane-chan, but this little fantasy that you've descended into just doesn't work for me. So I think you're going to have to face what happened -"


- the blade had came down, and she couldn't run that fast, and so Hari had disintegrated into bright green light. And then, crumbling over in agony, so had Kazuya. Along with her clubs. Along with every single dream and hope that she'd ever allowed herself to nurse.

Miyu hadn't leapt away. She hadn't even bothered to run. She'd just turned and walked away from the ruins of Akane's life, without sparing her a backwards glance. And here she was, now, bereft even of the illusion that things could be other than they were.

Eventually, Akane started screaming. She kept right on screaming when they found her, and it wasn't until they shot her full of sedatives in the ambulance that she finally stopped.

And even then, she couldn't recapture the beautiful dream she'd been having.

Ain't I a stinker?

Elsewhere, Mai was slowly nodding as she considered her father, who had been regarding her silently but with shame exuding from every pore of his face. "She's fifteen," she said, glancing at Nao, who just looked stunned. "Mom only died eight years ago, so you'd have to have been ... while she was ... while we were all ..." She trailed off.

"I'm sorry," he said at last. "I didn't want you to know -"

"No shit you didn't want me to know!" Mai exploded, starting to tear up. "Is there anything else you didn't want me to know? Do I have any more jerkass half-siblings out there?"

"Not on my side," Nao said faintly.

"Shut up!" Mai roared at her.

Nao blinked, and then, slowly and unpleasantly, she started to laugh. "Oh," she said. "Oh, this is priceless! Finally, the cute mask comes off, and we see what's underneath, and it's every bit the bitch I always knew you were!"

"You don't know anything about me!" Mai retorted.

"Please, please, don't fight -" their father interjected. No one paid him even the least bit of attention.

"I know you like I know myself," Nao sneered. "I'm just the honest one, while you play act at being good. And now you're pretending to be hurt by the shit this asshole has pulled, when deep down, you knew all along that he was just like any other piece of shit. You gonna cry, now? Please cry! It's so hilarious!"

Mai flinched as Nao's words struck home. She had known, or at least suspected, that her father was no good. He'd been away so often, never talking about what he did while he was gone, leaving so many blanks that her worst imaginings could fill. And it turned out that things were even worse than she'd imagined. "I'm not going to cry," she bit out.

"Come on, cry!"

"I'm not going to cry, because you want me to cry. And the very last thing I ever want to do is anything you want me to do!"

Nao laughed some more. "Dance, puppet, dance. I can see your strings -"

"And I can see yours," Mai snapped. "You don't hate men. You want to be the sort of mean bastard you think all men are. That's not hatred, that's idolization. Love, to put it in simple terms."

That made Nao take a step back, face gone pale. "Shut up!"

"Dance, puppet, dance," Mai sneered right back.

"Both of you, please, stop this -"

"Shut up!" they yelled at him in chorus. One last look of unfathomable hatred between the two sisters, and they turned and marched away in opposite directions, leaving their mutual father alone.

"Well, that was something you don't see every day," Midori mused, having watched the entire confrontation from cover.

Then she blinked, and cursed herself for completely forgetting about Akane and Kazuya, who were nowhere in sight. Nor were they anywhere that she went looking for them over the next half hour.

Midori had had better days than this.

Mai managed to get quite some distance from where she'd abandoned her - him, and she was quite proud of herself for doing so before it finally became too much for her. That was when she collapsed on a conveniently placed bench and began sobbing.

She'd always remembered the time before her mother died as shining days, filled with innocence and joy. They'd been gone, but she could remember them and draw strength from those memories. Now they were ruined. They'd been founded on deceit and treachery.

So was what came after they were gone really any surprise?

"Mai-san?" someone asked. "Are you all right?"

Eventually, she found the strength to lift her head. "No," she told Kanzaki Reito. "No, I'm not."

Slowly, gently, he sat down beside her. "If I can, I would like to help you."

"I don't think you can," she said. "But it's good to know someone cares, I guess ..."

They sat together in silence for a while.

NEXT: Takumi.