Life was boring.

That was the problem, she had decided. From what all the movies and manga and rumours said, it should be overflowing with interesting things and heroic deeds and righteous causes and true loves - though she wasn't sure why anyone would want the last one, since boys were… ick, no. But still, there should be things to do.

But there weren't. And that was unfair. All those things like that, they were lying. No, she concluded after extensive observation - twelve whole years of it, because that was how old she was - that real life was… boring. Nothing ever happened. You just went to school, did schoolwork, went home, did homework, ate, slept and started over again. And adults did the same thing! Only their jobs, from what she had heard her parents talking about at the dinner table, were even more boring!

It was a shocking betrayal. Shocking and upsetting, because it felt like there should be so much more to do, to see. She felt as though she had some purpose that she'd never found, something she should be doing that would be interesting, and never leave her as bored as she was now. Or even half as bored as she was now.

Whenever she had tried to explain this to adults, though, they just laughed and said that she was precocious, whatever that meant. Or assured her that jobs would seem much more interesting when she grew up, or that they were sure she'd find something very interesting and world-changing to do with her life. She recognised the tone this last was normally said in as the tone that adults used when they didn't actually mean what they were saying.

It was very aggravating. Still, adults were like that. They never understood. Something probably happened to them when they turned 20 that made them go all slow and strange and boring.

"Ahem. Takamachi-san?"

Ah. Oops. Speaking of adults…

"Sorry, miss?" the young brunette asked. Despite her words, the tone was not at all apologetic for daydreaming in class, and her teacher sighed the weary sigh of one who has had this happen before, and who knows it will undoubtedly happen again.

"The question, Takamachi-san. On the board, if you would be so kind?"

Heaving a world-weary sigh of her own - which came off as more of a cute pout, but it was an admirable attempt - the girl heaved herself up from her desk and advanced up the classroom, feeling the eyes of the other students on her back. Blue eyes scanned over the board as she went, numbers crunching in her head with lightning speed. This was maths. Her best subject. She didn't need to pay attention to it.

Accepting the board pen and standing on tiptoe with her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, she filled in the next line of calculations before carefully concluding with the answer. It was an easy one, a simple algebraic sum. Smiling sunnily at the teacher, who responded with a light glare, she cheerfully skipped back to her seat and sat back down. The woman knew she had been daydreaming, and that she would likely go straight back to doing so, but as long as the inattentive student could answer correctly when called up to the board, there was nothing she could do about it.

The rest of the lesson passed slowly. She knew all of this, anyway. She'd done it months ago, racing ahead of the syllabus - she was already starting to attract words like 'gifted' and 'accelerated program'. For now, though, she had to sit through things she'd already done, which had come as easily to her as everything she'd covered in the subject did. She was up to indices now, and advanced algebra. They were fun, giving her a nice feeling of accomplishment as she ate up the concepts and mastered them. It was one of the few times she felt fulfilled.

Maybe she could work in maths? Some people did that, as far as she knew. Jobs working with numbers, doing…

… well, she wasn't really sure exactly what you did all day if your job was "maths". And while learning about maths was fun, it couldn't be very interesting to do day after day if it was stuff you already knew. Perhaps not, then.

Turning her attention grudgingly back to the lesson, she pouted. The minutes dragged by, and her gaze drifted as she ignored the teacher's droning - the woman wouldn't call on her again, not after she had already answered right the first time. The sky outside the window was a clear blue devoid of clouds, and the sun beat down on the city with a warm radiance.

It was completely unfair that she had to be stuck in school on a day like this. There should be rules in place that said that children didn't have to go to school on nice days, and which let them spend the time out with their friends.

In the lack of sweeping legal changes to the Japanese education system, however, the day dragged on. Thankfully, maths was her second-last class, and so it was only an hour or so of bored daydreaming before the bell rang, signalling the end of classes for the day. Closing her eyes and sighing in relief, the blue-eyed girl pushed her chair back and scooped up her bag, trotting out of the classroom ahead of most of her schoolmates. She really wasn't in the mood to tolerate a light scolding from her more scholarly inclined friends for daydreaming, and a walk might ease her feelings of restlessness.

Idle footsteps beat out a quick rhythm on the pavement as the young Takamachi trotted home. She was taking the scenic route, enjoying the summer weather, and keeping a wary eye on the clouds gathering on the horizon. They looked a long way away at the moment, but tonight promised rain. She would have to make sure she was inside by then. Still, at least for now, the breeze was warm and gentle, the sun was shining and actively moving around was relieving some of the ennui that had built up over the course of the day.

Cutting along the forest path, she smiled happily, breathing in the mingled scents of the flowers in the patch of woodland as they were carried to her on the wind. The trees above rustled gently, green and lush in the height of summer, and she could hear the water of a nearby stream rushing and babbling over its rocky bed.

This was the kind of thing she wanted more of. This feeling of… contentment. And happiness, too. Giggling to herself in a sudden fit of enthusiasm, she skipped a few steps on a whim, revelling in the freedom. The holidays were coming up soon - that would be wonderful, when she had more free time and didn't have to sit in a poky old classroom all day long. Maybe she could-

She blinked. Something had just… no, she couldn't put a name to the feeling. But it was there, in the back of her mind, niggling. Like a word she was struggling to remember, just on the tip of her tongue. She could feel the shape of it, the hole that the whatever-it-was made in her thoughts, but she couldn't quite pin it down. Stranger still, it seemed to have a direction. Like it was pulling her. It was coming from…

Frowning for a moment, she closed her eyes and span in a slow circle, heedless of anyone who might be able to see her. It wasn't likely that anyone else was on the stretch of road, and even if there was, she didn't really care what they might think of her. She concentrated on the feeling, pinning it down, searching for its source.

… that way. Blue eyes opened again, staring away from the road at an angle that plunged into the forest, going off to the side and back the way she had come. Well now. This was… interesting. A strange feeling pulling a restless young maiden towards an unknown anomaly in a… well, a not-quite-deserted-but-still-fairly-quiet forest. It had all the makings of an adventure. Clearly, there was only one thing to do.

Abandoning the route home, she plunged off into the undergrowth in search of excitement.

Long blonde hair tied back in a quick and messy ponytail swayed silently as its owner stalked across the floor, crouching low to avoid the prying eyes of anyone who might be watching. Technically, there was only her and Linith in the whole building, and Linith was three rooms away cleaning up the mess that had resulted from accidentally-on-purpose dropping a loaded dinner tray, but you could never be too careful.

Sneaking past the table - and stopping momentarily to grab a handful of cookies from the bowl resting there and stuff them into one of the pockets of her pale blue dress - the young girl continued on towards her target. She was usually forbidden from going into this part of the house, and had therefore learned how to sneak in without being seen several years ago. This time, though, was the first that she did so with a clear purpose beyond curiosity.

Her studies of magic had been progressing slowly but surely, and they had finally hit the point she had been waiting for since she had learnt of its existence. Dimensional travel! Teleportation to other worlds! It was everything she had been dreaming of, served up and handed to her on a platter. The chance to explore, to experience, to get out of the too-big, too-quiet house and do things.

Most of her time, before now, had been spent at home. Mama was kind and loving, but while she lavished genuine attention on her daughter in an attempt to make up for her busy work schedule when she had the time to spare, such occurrences were few and far between. The rest of the time, the young girl was left alone, with Linith to look after her and the sprawling rooms and grounds of the mansion to occupy her when she wasn't in lessons with a rotation of hired tutors.

Every inch of those grounds, she knew. Every room, every corridor, every passageway… her curiosity was insatiable, and her home was sadly lacking in new material. Books only fed her wanderlust, painting far-off places and strange new worlds in vivid, vibrant prose. She wanted to go to places like that! But her mother wouldn't let her, not like she wanted to. The few times she had been away from home on holidays or visits to people Mama knew, the older woman always insisted that she stayed close and kept hold of either her or Linith's hand. She wasn't allowed to wander off, or explore, or do anything active without one of them watching.

The first few times, it had been believable, if a bit strange. But adults were all a bit weird and confusing, so she had accepted it with only minor pouting. By the fourth, though, it was beginning to get suspicious, and on the sixth, she had developed a theory.

Mama loved her. She knew that absolutely, like she knew the sky was up and the ground was down and the moons hung in the heavens like they were floating. But, she had concluded, it might be that Mama loved her too much, in this case. Because the look on her Mama's face every time she described the bustling worlds she wanted to visit was unmistakable worry and fear. It reminded her most of that time, years ago, when she had woken up staring up at a white ceiling, her mother's face staring down at her with a desperate expression in her eyes. She had been hurt, Mama had told her; very badly hurt, and she had been asleep for a while as Mama made her better, which was why the date was different. She was still hazy on exactly what had happened or how she had been injured, and questions about what had happened only got evasive answers or hugs, but the consequences were clear. Mama was afraid of her getting hurt again - so afraid, she was overprotective to the point of being stifling.

This was, in her opinion, highly unfair.

Thus, her plan. If she could go to another world with her newly-learnt teleportation spell, and have fun there, and do things without supervision, and come back again without anything bad happening, it would prove to Mama that she could go and explore new places safely. The logic was flawless.

And up ahead was the teleport room. It wasn't, as far as she knew, a room that actually teleported you, but whenever Mama had to teleport across dimensions, she did it from there. From the books on magical theory she had read, she was reasonably sure that there was some sort of permanent array set up there to make it easier to teleport from and easier to lock onto when coming back. Or something. The explanations had been very technical, and a lot of it had gone over her head. Regardless, it was enough that Mama always did it. She didn't want to risk doing anything wrong, so she was going to follow the procedure as she knew it as closely as she could.

The door was locked, of course, but that was little obstacle. There was nothing particularly valuable in the room, so the lock was merely a mundane one, as opposed to the potent wards on her mother's office, which she had yet to find a way of even scratching. For this, however, twenty seconds and a hairpin sufficed. She had decided to learn how to pick locks two years ago, a spur-of-the-moment decision prompted by her favourite character doing the same to escape the evil villain's dungeons. It had taken six months, and she had given up in frustration twice along the way, but eventually she had mastered it. Granted, it only worked on pin-and-tumbler locks, but it was still an invaluable skill that allowed her to get into many of the less secure rooms around the house. Linith was unaware of the unusual talent that had been learnt surreptitiously under her watchful eye, and her charge had gone to some considerable lengths to keep it that way.

Now, she thanked her past self fervently both for sticking at the problem long enough to overcome it and for having the presence of mind to keep it a secret from her mother's familiar. Had the cat-woman known that her errant charge was capable of getting past a locked door, she would likely have been considerably less lax about letting her out of sight. As it was, the door to the teleport room clicked open with a soft snick, and she overbalanced from her position leaning against it to tumble in with a thump.

"… ow," she informed the world in general as she picked herself up off the floor. Shutting the door behind her, she looked around at the bare, plain-looking room. It wasn't as impressive as she had expected - there were no rings of golden runic script set into the floor and ceiling, or statues of mythical gods of travel pointing to the centre of the room where the mage should stand. Just a plain room, painted in the same neutral cream as the rest of the house, with the soft red carpet of the hall continuing on, uninterrupted, to the wall. It wasn't a large room, perhaps the size of a small office, and save for a single picture of a vase of flowers hanging on the far wall it was totally unornamented and utilitarian.

"Okay…" she breathed, butterflies fluttering in her stomach. "Coordinates… coordinates…" Patting down her pockets and absently stuffing a cookie in her mouth to munch on, she eventually found and retrieved the slip of paper with the scribbled coordinates of her destination. It was a little Unadministered World relatively nearby - not too close, but not too far - and which, from all the documentation she had been able to find on it, had no magic.

No magic! The thought was alien, and indeed had been what had caught her attention in the first place. A world with no magic - no spells, no mana, no mages - it was a foreign concept, and one that she was eager to explore. And best of all, with no TSAB presence there, it was impossible for Mama to find out about it if she messed up! Not that failure was likely, but she was intending to do this to prove to her mother that she could cope on her own. Messing up and getting found by a TSAB official would be a pretty poor way of doing that. Taking another deep breath to calm her nerves, she drew Baton. The wand-shaped Device wasn't the most high-tech or powerful in the world, but she had had it for years, and loved it with the fond affection of an old, slightly scuffed and much-loved companion.

"Dimensional Transfer," she stated, reading off her notes and allowing Baton to handle the structure of the spell. Next up was the specification of her destination - a crucial component, and the product of hours of painstaking calculations to work out which string of coordinates lined up with where she wanted to go. "Dimensional Coordinates - 332T 0848 6323 H7534 4771 B1859 917 J3761." A ring of light formed around her feet, edges brushing against the walls of the room. Absorbed in the spell, she failed to notice the glyphs on the wall light up, causing elements of her circle to pulse in response as they were boosted and aided in targeting the teleportation spell.

Flinging her arms out dramatically, she incanted the password that had taken considerable effort to discover, opening up the house wards and allowing her spell to reach beyond them and latch onto her destination. "Open!" she intoned in as dramatic a voice as she could produce, "Open, O' Door of Passage from the Testarossa Retreat! Allow me safe travel!"

Baton pulsed, and the light from the casting circle on the floor grew, creeping upwards in a dome that surrounded the slender figure within. Closing off completely, it paused for a brief second as a complex chain of relays around the room accelerated the transfer and projected a dimensional tunnel to the stated destination. The room was briefly and blindingly illuminated in a burst of light as the dome blasted upwards in a pillar of light that projected through the ceiling and into the Dimensional Sea.

And with that, the room was empty once more.

On another world, a small clearing in a forest rustled gently in the breeze. It was peaceful. Quiet. Deserted. A rabbit hopped nonchalantly across the soft grass, nosing around for anything that resembled food. And keeping a wary eye out for anything that might see it as food in turn, of course. Abruptly, it looked up. No sound resonated through the clearing, and there were no other animals in sight save a few small birds on the trees around. Yet its fur was prickling uncomfortably, and something in its hindbrain was screaming at it. Having survived for as long as it had by always being elsewhere when anything of note happened, it listened to the gut instinct and bolted, quivering, to find somewhere to hide.

It did so just in time. Light exploded in the air, about a foot above the ground. Starting as a pinprick, it rapidly expanded into a pillar, which faded to reveal a young blonde-haired human girl, red-eyed and wearing a pale blue dress and holding a thin, metallic-looking wand in one hand. Her arms were raised as if imploring some nameless god, and she was breathing heavily. Standing very still and trying to keep her balance, she took in her new location while the dizziness settled somewhat and everything stopped spinning. It was a little hard to see detail, what with the way her vision was out of focus slightly from the exertion, but it was fairly clear that she was not in the room she had started in.

Which meant… she had done it! She was on another world! She was free, free to explore and play! She could…

… could…

… could fall over, very slowly, and moan incoherently. That… had taken far, far more power that she had expected it to. Orders of magnitude more. And that had been a short jump, to boot. Her respect for her mother's frequent long-range teleports would have increased considerably, had she not been too busy groaning to think.

Rolling over with some effort, she stared at the sky as her energy started to trickle back, taking stock of her condition. Physically, she was fine - a little dizzy, and feeling rather unwell, but both were fading fast and she guessed that she'd be back on her feet within a few minutes.

Her magical reserves, however, were not in such good shape. Barely guttering embers remained of them - she had been almost totally drained by the spell - and it would probably take hours for her to recover enough magic to even attempt the return trip.

Which meant that… until then…

… she was stuck.

Well, that wasn't too bad. She had been intending to spend a while here anyway. And Baton could translate the language for her, and if things got really bad she could probably send a message to Mama for help. This really just meant that the plans she had already been intending to follow were being enforced. It wasn't like anything had really changed, and her magic would come back eventually and let her go back. It was fine. Absolutely fine.

She managed to keep herself convinced herself of this for almost a minute and a half before starting to panic. But before she could get hysterical, the building terror of being stranded in a strange place far away from Mama and Linith was interrupted by a sound from behind her. Someone was approaching through the brush and scrub of the forest - rather inexpertly, judging from the snapping and cracking that accompanied their every movement. Craning her neck up, she still wasn't able to get a good look in the direction the sounds originated from, and she hadn't recovered enough yet to roll over again or get up to see who or what it was. All she could do was lie there as the sounds approached, getting closer and closer and…

… stopping. A moment of silence passed, as whatever had been moving stood still. And then a voice - young, female and somewhat disappointed - spoke from the edge of the clearing in the odd-sounding tongue of this part of the little Unadministered World.

"Huh," it said. "This is… not what I expected."

Despite her prone position on the ground, despite the simmering panic and despite the stumbling block that her plan had run into within seconds of its execution, the blonde still spared the mental space to feel somewhat offended at this. "What…" she coughed out, tongue feeling bloated and hard to talk with, "What did you expect, then?"

"I dunno," replied the voice - the girl, presumably. From the sound of it, she was moving closer. "Something weird, mysterious, ominous… not a little girl lying on the ground in the middle of nowhere." Coming into view, she was revealed to indeed be a young girl, with shoulder-length brown hair done up in two bunches and blue eyes. She was wearing a white dress with some sort of crest on it, and carrying a bag slung over one shoulder. Considering for a moment, she shifted it to her other shoulder and offered a hand. "Need any help getting up?" she asked. "My name's Takamachi, by the way."

"Testarossa," replied the blonde, accepting it. Takamachi heaved, pulling her up, and she supported herself on the other girl's shoulder. The brunette was taller than her - possibly a little older, or in the middle of a growth spurt.

The brown-haired girl smiled at her find in a friendly sort of way and tilted her head inquisitively. "So," she asked, "Testarossa-san." She tried the name out experimentally, playing with the syllables as if to judge something of great import from how they sounded. Whatever she was looking for, she appeared to find it, because she nodded in satisfaction and continued. "Now that we've introduced ourselves… mind me asking what a…" blue eyes glanced up and down the smaller girl, and she hazarded a guess, "nine-year old is doing on her back in the middle of a forest?"

She received a mild glare in response. "I'm ten," Testarossa corrected her emphatically. "And four months and three weeks and two days." She paused for a moment, evaluating the rest of the question. "And I meant to do that," she insisted. "Fall over, that is. I was… recovering."

Takamachi gave her a dubious look at that, along with a quirked eyebrow at the odd accent, but refrained from expressing any doubts. "Well then," she asked, "while you're… recovering, can I ask what you were recovering from? I mean… um… if it wouldn't be impolite. Only you seem kind of in a bad way, so if there's any way I can help…"

An instinctive objection was cut short by common sense. This girl was offering help. And she was stranded here, and still not feeling well. And… well, she was intending to explore, wasn't she? Inside the blonde-haired head, cogs began to whir as the young Testarossa came up with a story that sounded convincing.

"Um… I got lost." Thinking fast, she elaborated, starting to get into the story she had come up with. "I'm not from around here, see, and I don't usually get to go places. So while I was visiting here with my mama, I decided to have a look around the place. Only I got lost in the woods and slipped and fell. And hurt my head, but it's feeling better now. You live here, right? Could you show me around?" She finished animatedly with a winning smile and a hopeful look, proud of herself for the rapid improvisation.

Takamachi seemed to give some thought to the idea, mulling it over as she relaxed the arm holding the younger girl up, allowing her to take her own weight. After a few seconds of consideration, she nodded thoughtfully, a slow smile spreading across her face.

"… yeah," she said, beginning to grin. "Yeah, why not? Let me stop off home to dump my bag, and… heh," her eyes flashed in anticipatory excitement and her grin was infectious - Testarossa realised she was smiling as well, "I'll show you the most awesome places and most fun things to do in the city while you're here. It'll be the best trip you've ever had. I promise."

"You've really never heard of it?" asked Takamachi in surprise, half an hour later. "Huh. Weird. Well, basically, it's called Pachinko."

The two of them stood in a crowded arcade. Children ran shrieking in laughter between the rows of games, or leaned over the blocky machines with scowls of concentration as they stabbed at buttons or wrenched at joysticks. Electronic bleeps, bangs and whirs echoed from the peeling plaster walls as a dozen strains of tinny music competed to draw eager gamers to challenge them.

It was, in short, completely unlike anything that Testarossa had ever seen in her life. She was fascinated, delighted with the amazing spread of strange sights and sounds on offer. Deep red eyes flickered around, trying to focus on a dozen different things at once. Here, two youths with brightly-dyed hair sat astride plastic motorcycles, leaning left and right as the pixelated screens in front of them showed a flickering race track which their virtual avatar blurred along. There, a mechanical claw descended into a mass of soft toys behind clear plexiglass walls and emerged bearing something that looked like the offspring of a plush lizard and a plastic squid, much to the apparent delight of the group of boys clustered around the controls. Over there, an older boy's hands made a joystick dance as a blocky shape onscreen dodged left and right, firing glowing darts at an armada of descending shapes above.

"Hey. Hey, Testarossa-san!" The sound of her name being called jerked her back to a mock-annoyed Takamachi, who held her playful scowl for a second before grinning again. "Hey, I know this place is cool, but don't you want to play something yourself?" Eyes widening eagerly, the blonde nodded. Takamachi nodded sagely. "Right then. Pay attention. See that tunnel-thing at the side? That's your firing chamber. You load the ball in there and pull the lever back. Then when you let go, it shoots it up," she traced the path up the side of the tilted board with her finger, "and into the main chamber," tapping the glass to show where it exited. "Then it falls down and bounces off these pegs, and if you've done it right, it falls into one of these holes. The ones with the higher numbers get you more points, and if you get a high enough number, you can get more balls to play with or turn back into store credit. Got it?"

"Um… maybe?" she said hesitantly, biting on her lip. Takamachi wasn't having any hesitation, though, and manoeuvred her hands onto the pull-lever. "Awesome," she said happily, "let's see you try!"

Testarossa studied the vertical board studded with pins carefully. She could see how pulling the lever harder would send the ball up faster, altering its course through the pins. That meant that the game was as easy as finding the highest-scoring hole, and then pulling the lever just hard enough to send the ball over that spot. Experimentally pulling it back, she felt the resistance of the spring for a moment, and released.

The ball rose in a sad little climb about halfway up the firing chamber before dropping back down to the bottom with a quiet 'clink'.

"… … …" said Takamachi. "Um. I think you're meant to fire it a bit harder than that."

Flushing pink, the blonde gave the lever a sharp yank and sent the ball ricocheting up the firing chamber and into the rows of pins. It glanced off the opposite wall before hitting them, and danced a jagged dance down through the forest of metal, veering close to one of the high-scoring holes for a moment before continuing on, down towards the zero-payout holes at the bottom. It sunk into one near the centre with a 'clunk', and a slightly off-key tune played a sad, electronic dirge to announce her failure. Takamachi shrugged.

"Ah well," she said, unbothered. "Try again?" She slipped another ball into the firing chamber, and Testarossa turned her full attention to the task. Everyone else was making it look fairly easy. She could hear the bings and triumphant chords from elsewhere in the arcade as people got payouts. This was just a simple game; it should be easy to do once she had got the hang of it.

A couple of minutes and most of the balls they had bought later, it was becoming apparent that the 'simple game' was in fact considerably harder than it looked. The brunette beside her didn't seem bothered by the waste of her pocket money though, and chuckled as Testarossa growled at the stubborn, stupid machine of ball-eating-ness.

"Here," she offered. "I'm good at these - it takes loads of practice to get it right. Want me to have a go?" Testarossa relinquished the controls to her, and watched as first one, and then another ball arced up gracefully and plopped down to the bottom row. Takamachi gave a rueful chuckle at both, then surveyed the last one left thoughtfully.

"Eh," she shrugged. "I think I've gotten the feel of it. Let's see if the third time is the charm!" Throwing a wink at her new friend, she pulled the lever back carefully, tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth in concentration. The ball shot up into the body of the machine and bounced down, pinging from pin to pin unpredictably. Testarossa held her breath, watching in alarm as it veered past most of the higher pins… and then surprised even herself by letting out a triumphant cheer as it finally landed in a payout hole. Congratulatory music blared from the speakers, and a rush of balls clattered into the opening beneath the board. Takamachi grinned at her exultation, scooping the balls into the basket their initial purchase had come in. They'd lost a few, overall, but the win had restored most of what they had started with.

"Looks like you're my lucky charm," she grinned. "C'mon. This is boring now, let's go change these back to tokens and play something else."

Still a little bewildered at just how much she was enjoying this, Testarossa followed as she was dragged away and sat in front of a black screen with a green line - a snake, Takamachi explained - twisting and turning over it in search of the dots that appeared here and there. After that came a crane-game, and then ping-pong, and then…

… the native girl had been right, she decided, somewhere around the point she was introduced to chocolate. It was nothing like the cocoa drinks she knew from home - this was sweet, not bitter, and solid. And delicious. Takamachi had certainly lived up to her promise.

This was already the best trip she'd ever had. And only half of it was because of the games and sights and food.

Flushed and giggling, the girls tumbled out of the movie theatre ahead of the other patrons. They had been hard pressed to keep their laughter and comments down during the showing, and had they been much louder, Takamachi had warned, they might have been asked to leave. Fortunately, not many other people had been watching the cheesy martial arts movie, and so they'd had the place mostly to themselves.

Testarossa had loved it. It wasn't a patch on the quality of the movies back at home, of course - the screen was low resolution, the file they were showing must have been a bit corrupted or something because there had been lines and flickering on the display, the special effects were laughable and the sound was terrible. But the things had combined, along with the cheesy plot and the hilarious acting and stumbles of the characters, to make the film spark giggles every few minutes. Takamachi's whispered comments and jokes during the quieter bits hadn't helped, and even if she hadn't understood many of them, the ones she did had her stuffing her fist in her mouth to try and muffle the laughter.

Grabbing the blonde and pulling her back before she stumbled onto the road by accident, Takamachi spun her around and grinned at her, arms still slung half around the smaller girl from her intervention. "So," she said, appearing not to mind or notice, "where do you want to go next?" She was breathing a little harder than she had been before the movie - laughing was surprisingly hard work if a person did enough of it - but she still looked eager to do more, even after having spent almost half the day showing Testarossa around and spending money to show her a good time.

The blonde bit her lip, looking down. Takamachi had given her so much… it felt wrong, somehow, not to give something back. But she didn't get pocket money of her own, restricted to her home as she was. There was no need for it. And even if she had any, it wouldn't be recognised here. There was nothing she could pay her new friend - her best friend - back with.

… or was there?

"I… need a bit of a break, and a sit-down," she said, mind working fast as she considered courses of action. Was this a good idea? Firming her resolve, she decided to go for it. "Um…" she added, "and to tell you something, too. Something secret."

"Oh?" The taller girl quirked an eyebrow. "Good secret, or bad secret? Is your mum gonna send bodyguard ninjas after me for kidnapping you, or something?"

Testarossa's lips twitched. "No, silly," she retorted, amused. "But… remember how you said you were expecting to find something mysterious? Well… you did. But I can't tell you here. So we need a secret place."

Takamachi stared at her for a long moment, evaluating and assessing. The wind ruffled her hair, drawing a light shiver at the cold. Glancing up, she frowned in annoyance at the clouds that had drawn in, masking the formally-bright skies. A few drops of rain began to fall, and she wrinkled her nose as a cold droplet of water landed on her forehead, rolling its way down her cheek en route to the ground.

Looking back to Testarossa, who was shivering in the light dress she wore and looking rather more worried at the oncoming rain, she nodded. "Sure, okay," she agreed, tilting her head to one side as she thought. "I… hmm. Ah, I know a park along this way, c'mon. There's a little forest in it where we'll be sheltered from the rain, we can talk there."

There was indeed a little forest, though it was more of a grove in terms of size. Still, the boughs and verdant leaves of the sprawling trees covered a decent area from the worst of the rain, and the two girls slipped between the trunks like ghosts. The only sound was of soft crunching as they trod on the leaves and twigs that scattered the dirt trail they were following, and the patter of rain falling on the ground outside the trees. Within it, though, the canopy was thick enough to keep the floor dry, and the girls were protected from the shower. Setting a determined pace, Takamachi didn't stop until they were deep within the small wood - probably as deep as they could get without passing the middle and getting closer to the edge again.

Testarossa was just beginning to get tired of the walking when they emerged in a clearing that was enough to draw a startled gasp from her. It wasn't large, but the trunks that surrounded it must have been some of the oldest and largest in the little grove, and their branches threaded together as they stretched out over the little stone-paved circle to form a thick ceiling of foliage that was enough to keep off the light rain almost completely. Two stone benches sat on opposite sides of the circle of paving slabs and a little bowl-fountain burbled in the middle, a stone statue of a fat, smiling man sitting cross-legged at its centre. She could only imagine what the place looked like in sunlight - the sun shining through the leaves would turn the entire clearing a verdant green.

There were gardens at home, but this was beyond the carefully ordered and tended plant life there. This was wild, and secret, and…

"It's beautiful," she whispered, a brilliant smile spreading across her face. "This is just…" Turning to address Takamachi, she found the brunette sitting on one of the benches, watching her reaction in satisfaction.

"Heh," she grinned. "I thought you'd like it." She looked around contemplatively, expression fading into thoughtful reflection. "I found this place about three years ago. Never seen anyone else here. I don't think most people even know it's here. I come here whenever I want to be alone, or when I'm annoyed or upset." She nodded at the statue of the fat man in the fountain. "Buddha's a good listener. I talk to him for a bit, and… feel better, I guess." She shrugged, quirking her lips up in a crooked half-smile.

"So, this secret." She swung round on the bench as Testarossa tentatively sat down on the other end of it, straddling the stone and leaning back to stare up at the leafy-vaulted ceiling of the clearing. "I think I believe you," she admitted, giving Testarossa an intent look that made the younger girl squirm slightly. "I have kind of noticed a few things about you that are a little… odd. Stuff you don't know. Simple stuff, stuff that you wouldn't not know just cause you're not from around here. Or shouldn't. Like the arcade games. Either you're really, really sheltered, or…" She leaned forwards again, tucking a few errant wisps of hair behind her ear, and shrugged. "Games like that aren't exactly restricted to Japan. It seemed a bit weird that you'd never seen any before. I might not have thought anything of it, but… well, you say you've got a secret, and the little oddities back you up on that. Your accent is strange; even if your Japanese is perfect, your word choices are a bit… odd, occasionally. And sometimes… just sometimes, your lips don't quite match up with your voice. Like… like you're being dubbed in an imported film from the US or something. So… shoot, I guess."

Deep breath. A very deep breath. Testarossa was fairly sure that what she was considering was against more or less all the rules in the book. That didn't mean she wasn't going to do it, of course. Her friend deserved this gift - the most valuable that she could offer, and the widest in scope.

But that didn't mean she couldn't be a little nervous about it. She didn't think that Takamachi would react badly, but the girl had already set a marked precedent of surprising her. She couldn't predict her at all, she was like a whirlwind of activity and enthusiasm that was as likely to blow one way as another. Clear, curious blue eyes rested on her, and she swallowed hard. There wasn't really an easy or subtle way to lead into her secret, and she couldn't predict the other girl and pick her words accordingly anyway. So she decided to throw caution to the wind and be blunt about it.

"I'm from another world," she said, as plainly and honestly as she could. Despite her resolve, she wasn't able to meet the other girl's eyes, instead opting to stare at her feet as she spoke. "I got here with a teleportation spell - a draining one. That's why I had collapsed." She paused, trying to think of anything else she could say. "… I can do magic," she added belatedly. "That was part of the reason I chose to come here. A world without magic seemed really interesting. And… um… it was. Is. Are. You are, I mean. I'm… um… glad I met you. I had a really good time, and… I wanted to pay you back, but I haven't got any money or anything. And it wouldn't be useful to you anyway. So I wanted to tell you about me so that you knew and… uh…"

Nothing more came to mind to say, and she trailed off. Silence reigned in the small clearing for a long, tense moment.

"… seriously?" came Takamachi's response. She sounded suspicious and disbelieving, but… she hadn't thrown accusations of lying. Testarossa looked up, tense with anticipation. The brown-haired girl's expression was dubious, clearly showing her incredulity, but she didn't react further. Just watched her, raised eyebrows arching in scepticism.

"Prove it, then," she demanded. The words were flat and level, her eyes glinting as she stared at the blonde. "I could accept something like… I dunno, you're a secret deposed princess or something. You look a bit European, like you're from some place in Eastern Europe where the royalty got kicked out by the Soviets years ago or something like that. But magic? Magic isn't real. I mean, I used to really want to be a witch and ride around casting spells on people, but that doesn't mean that I… could… ah…"

She trailed off, staring. Staring, wide-eyed, at the soft ball of glowing light resting above the blonde's cupped hands. For another long moment, silence fell between the two girls, one cupping a double-handful of ethereal light, the other staring bug-eyed at it. Her jaw worked soundlessly, but no words came to her throat. Shakily, almost fearfully, she reached forward gingerly and jerked her hand through the light, as if scared it would burn her.

"… ah…" she repeated dazedly, reeling as she tried to take in the impact to her worldview. "Um…"

Closing her eyes, she took a couple of deep, calming breaths, before reopening them. Her gaze automatically focused back on the soft radiance, as if drawn there by a magnet.

She let off a quiet giggle. "Well, that's the first time that 'prove you have magic' has actually worked," she said, with a soft edge of hysteria in her voice. She touched the light again, smile spreading hesitantly as she regarded it in a turbulent mixture of shock, reverence, delight and awe.

Testarossa smiled shyly, privately amused at the complex interplay of emotions that skittered and shifted across her friend's face and inwardly relieved at the positive nature of her reaction. "You know…" she murmured, watching Takamachi's fingers stir up chaotic patterns of brighter and dimmer illumination on the surface of the light-ball as she disturbed the magic in its structure, "I could… um… try to teach you some. If you want."

The brown-haired girl's head shot up to meet her gaze, surprise and excitement warring with hope and a desperate fear that the offer might be retracted. Testarossa was a little startled by the vehemence of the reaction, but nodded assertively in reply. "Yeah! It can be my repayment to you," she decided. "I just hope you have enough magic to learn… you probably won't be able to do anything really big. Just little stuff. Your world doesn't really have much magic."

"Any is good," said Takamachi fervently. "I don't mind. Just as long as I can do something. I've always wanted to…" she stopped, gathering her thoughts for a moment, before looking gratefully at Testarossa. "You'll really teach me?"

"Well, as much as I can," smiled the shorter girl shyly, ducking her head in embarrassment. "You were really nice to me, and I've had so much fun here… I'm just glad I can pay you back, even a little bit."

"A little bit?" Takamachi let out a short breath of laughter. "This is a lot more than a little bit, Testarossa-san."

The blonde grinned, her sense of humour rising to the surface after the exhausting emotional athletics she'd been through over the past few minutes. "I guess we'll just agree to disagree, and keep thinking we both owe the other, then." She shared a giggle with the other girl, before sitting up straighter and flicking her ponytail back, a serious expression forming. "Now, there's a bit of sort of basic level stuff you need first, and then I'll teach you one of the really easy exercises, and we can see how you do with that. The first part goes like… hmm. Are you any good at maths?"

A smirk. "Very."

"Hey, cool. Good, that means this'll be easier. Right, now look here." Tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth, she drew a rough circle in the dirt with a stick, jotting in symbols around the circumference with light, quick lines. "This is the basic Midchildan circle system for casting. It goes like this…"

Deeply absorbed in their lesson, neither girl noticed the rain picking up, or the drips that began to make their way through the canopy overhead.

With a low hum, the glowing sphere zipped along the edge of the clearing, bathing the ground it passed over in a soft, pale red glow. It rose smoothly to pass above a gnarled tree limb that stuck out from its host trunk before going into an almost vertical dive to disturb a pile of fallen leaves, scattering them to the four winds. Emerging from what was left of the heap without faltering in its forward progress; it zigzagged up and down, then left and right, before going into a set of spirals.

At the centre of the clearing, Testarossa's eyebrows were seeking refuge in her hairline as she watched this girl - this untrained, unacknowledged girl from a backwater planet that was supposed to have no magic - pull off…

… well, it was a fairly simple control exercise, that much was true. Most mages on Midchilda could probably exert this much control over the training shot's path, even civilians who never really trained their magic. But that wasn't the point. They had grown up with magic, known it since they were babies! They might not specifically devote time to training their magical talents, but they soaked up lessons and practice in using them just by living in the society of a TSAB-administered world.

This girl? This… Takamachi, who had never seen or known about real magic before in her life? She had somehow achieved that level of skill and ease of control with her very first try. She had to be B-rank at least. Probably higher, and that on pure, natural talent to boot. Testarossa might have been jealous, but the sheer delight and enjoyment her friend was feeling made it impossible to be anything but happy for her.

As if sensing the blonde's thoughts, Takamachi chose that moment to speak up. "How am I doing?" she asked with an excited grin. "I'm still a bit wobbly on the fine control, I know, and I can't manage two at the same time. But I'm sure I'll get better with practice! Can you give me any tips for improving? What am I doing wrong?"

"Ah…" Testarossa started, wondering how to inform the girl that she was the kind of prodigy that most teachers dreamed of getting. "You're doing… very well, actually."

"Really?" The girl was only half-paying attention to the conversation, still focused on the ball that was darting around the clearing. "I really do think it could be faster, and wobble less. I'm having trouble laying out the path it's taking… maybe I should learn more about vector arithmetic. I've seen it mentioned in a few books, and it looked interesting, but… I just feel like it would have to help with this, right?" Raising an arm above her head, she called the projectile to her, sending it into a whirling orbit around her hand. She giggled; admiring the blurring ring as she slowly lowered her arm down to point in front of her, its magical halo following it.

"This is wonderful," she smiled, finally allowing the spell to disperse into a small cloud of motes that drifted down towards the ground. Testarossa experimentally waved a hand through them, sending the tiny pinpoints of light scattering in every direction, and whistled in admiration.

"Yeah," she breathed in belated answer to the girl's question. "Really. You're… good. Really good." She looked Takamachi up and down appraisingly, before speaking frankly. "It took me months to get that level of control. You did it in half an hour." She paused, absorbing the ramifications of her new friend's prodigious talent. "… I think you're going to be very, very powerful. Especially if Mama teaches you."

The brown-haired girl looked over at her sharply, eyebrows climbing higher up her face. "You think she might?" she asked hopefully. "I wouldn't want to-"

The rest of her sentence was lost as a crack of thunder so loud that it made their ears ring split the air, drawing screams from both of the girls in response. Another one followed it almost immediately, and for the first time they noticed the sound of the rain outside their sheltered clearing, now hammering down with force. It had increased gradually, and the slow shift in the distant sound had disguised its increasing severity from their notice. Safe under the protection of the trees, focusing on the magic that they had been sharing, they had missed the warning signs entirely. But the booming thunder seemed to have heralded the rainstorm's full efforts being brought to bear, and with a soft but inexorable patter of drops, the rain began to make its way through the foliage above them.

Covering her ears and trying to shelter her head with her arms, Takamachi turned to her friend. "It's too strong to try and get home!" she called over the beating of the rain. "We need to stay under cover until it blows over!"

Testarossa wasn't listening. Her eyes, wide and fearful, were fixed on the skies above the green canopy through which more and more water was starting to make its way through. She had gone very pale, very still, and very scared.

Takamachi began to get a sinking feeling. If the girl was scared of storms… she could hear faint whimpers of fear, and see her lips moving soundlessly. "Testarossa-san?" she urged, taking a few steps towards the blonde. "Come on, it's alright, we just need to-"

Another actinic bolt of lightning flashed, closer than the last, and the crash of thunder hammered into them both like a solid thing. Testarossa's whimpering became a high-pitched scream of terror, tears of fright streaming from her eyes.

And then, in a jerky movement too fast for Takamachi to stop her, she turned and fled into the woods.

"No!" Takamachi yelled after her, "Come back here! We need to stay in the clearing, it's safe- Testarossa-san! Come back!"

It was no use. The blonde had vanished. Cursing to herself, covering her head as well as she could with her arms, Takamachi took the only course of action open to her, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the younger girl.

It was like a nightmare. Gouts of water poured from every branch and tree limb, turning the space between the trees into a crazed network of miniature waterfalls that somehow made it worse than if it was just uniform pouring rain. The combination of dark clouds, thick canopy and the sheer amount of water in the atmosphere made it nigh-impossible to see more than a few metres in any direction, and the vast, vague forms of trees loomed out of the blur of water and murk as Takamachi stumbled through the woods after Testarossa as fast as she could. Roots and uneven footing came perilously close to sending her sprawling in the mixture of leaf mulch and mud that the ground had become, and the stinging, pounding jets of water from on high drummed against her body like hammers. She was soaked within seconds, sodden to the bone, and the waterlogged dress she wore only slowed her further as it clung to her legs and pulled her downwards with its weight.

But none of that mattered. Because her friend was out there somewhere, scared and alone, and she refused to let anything stop her until she caught up with the terrified girl.

As if to emphasise her point, a bolt of vivid lightning briefly lit up her surroundings even through the canopy above her, followed almost immediately by an explosion of thunder. A blunt hammer of wind accompanied the sound, smashing into the trees like a physical force and shaking loose a wave of water from the leaves that spattered hard against the ground for a few seconds before the normal hammering of the rain resumed. The wind was picking up as well, a chill bite that swept through the trees and turned the streams of water into vicious near-horizontal jets that forced Takamachi to screw her eyes shut to avoid being blinded by the spray. But she kept her ears as intent as she could, and was rewarded by the sound of a faint scream from somewhere in front of her – not close, but not too distant either. It had to be Testarossa.

Well, either that or there were two lost screaming girls in this section of the forest, in which case she was really obliged to rescue both of them.

She pushed forward again, tripping on a root and catching herself on her hands as she fell. The sting of pain as she scraped her palms on something rough and harsh under the mud barely registered, and she forced herself back to her feet and towards the area the scream had come from. Branches whipped at her arms and face, but she kept going stubbornly, heedless of the snags and scrapes she was receiving. Driven by a mixture of terror and determination, she plunged through a last cluster of bushes.

And into the open.

It was a mistake. It was a horrible mistake. Until stumbling out past the treeline, Takamachi hadn't understood just how violent the storm was, how fast and strong it had come on. But now, without the trees to shield her from the fury of the elements, she experienced it unprotected and in full. The lashing horizontal rain and the sheer force behind the wind drew a scream from her as she stumbled again, barely retaining her footing in the face of the powerful gusts that snatched and pulled at her with vicious hands. Preoccupied with keeping her balance, she didn't register the change in tone of the sound of the rainfall until it was too late.

The sheets of water falling from the sky stopped. Or rather, changed. And the first volley of hail descended. It drilled into her with far more force than the raindrops, raising stinging welts where the hailstones struck, and Takamachi involuntarily cried out, the distraction proving enough for a strong gust of wind to take her off-balance. She hit the ground again, scraped palms burning as they took the force of her landing, and couldn't suppress another cry at how much it hurt.

But in falling, she had seen what she had been looking for. The white crust of hailstones built up on the ground, and scattered off a huddled lump a dozen or so metres away from her. Grimly pushing herself to her feet again, shielding her eyes from the hail and the wind, she picked her way over to the shivering form. The ice crunched beneath her feet as she stopped, kneeling down by the curled-up ball of limbs and blonde hair.

"Testarossa!" she shouted hoarsely over the howling of the elements. "We can't get home in this! It's too fierce! We need to take cover in the woods!"

The huddled shape whimpered something inaudible.

"Testarossa!" she tried again. "Come on! We have to go!" Prying an arm loose from where Testarossa had clamped it over her head, she pulled upwards savagely, dragging the girl to her feet by brute force. The sobbing from the drenched form was just barely audible over the pounding of the rain, but Takamachi didn't have time to worry about that. She was already pulling the blonde back towards the trees, angling for another point in the woods she knew well – an old, fat, hollow tree that had a space within it large enough, she estimated, for them both to curl up in. It would be a tight fit, but better than staying out under the open sky, and somewhat protected from the wind and rain and hail.

Testarossa was moving now, not just hanging limply. She wasn't entirely self-sufficient yet, and Takamachi was still supporting about half her weight, carrying her as much as leading her. But her feet feebly pushed at the ground as she made the attempt to follow, and it wasn't long before they were under the cover of the trees again. And that made things easier, without the cruel bite of the hail and rain assailing them and the wind blocked by the solid trunks.

Another flash of light and crash of thunder sounded, almost simultaneously. This one had come from directly overhead, the jagged bolt zigzagging down to somewhere nearby in the forest and striking a tall tree somewhere off to the girls' right. The rumble of thunder was followed less than half a second later by the sound of the stricken tree exploding, the superheated sap expanding violently as it boiled in an instant. Both of them flinched at the sound, and the sobs from Testarossa increased fractionally.

"It's okay," Takamachi tried to soothe, though the calm tone she attempted was rather defeated by the fact that she still had to shout to be heard over the weather. "We can get to a safe place I know! Hollow tree, too short to be hit! We can hide in there until this blows over!"

She couldn't make out the response, but the nod conveyed the gist of it, and Testarossa took the rest of her weight and began to follow at a jog as Takamachi set off. The trek was still miserable. Rain and hail filtered down from the trees, and the uneven muddy ground sent both of them sprawling more than once. But bit by bit, slowly but surely, they were making progress towards their goal.

And finally, it came within sight, the dark gap in the wide trunk just visible from the angle they were approaching from. It was a huge tree, which must once have stood head and shoulders above those around it, but some cataclysm years past – perhaps the same one that had splintered its insides and reduced it to a hollow shell – had ripped off almost half of its height, and now its charred and broken peak rose barely two thirds of the way to the crests of the trees around it.

To Takamachi, however, it still looked like a small heaven, and she looked back at Testarossa with a relieved smile. The girl was looking at her as she did so, and her tear-streaked, rain-drenched face twitched slightly, red eyes crinkling slightly in a smile of her own.

The distraction was ill-timed, however. Not looking where she was going, Takamachi's foot slipped down into a hole. Whatever it was, it sent her to the ground yet again, and her grip on Testarossa's hand pulled the younger girl down with her. Testarossa slid down the muddied slope they were on as Takamachi was held in place by her trapped leg. She winced hard, pulling the limb out and examining it. From the feel of things, she thought she might have sprained her ankle.

She had turned halfway to Testarossa to ask for her help getting up when a crack split the air. But not one of lightning and thunder. This was the sound of splintering wood, strained past its limit and beginning to break.

As pale as a ghost, sodden locks of hair plastered to her face by the rain, Testarossa looked up just as a tree limb thicker than her head began to fall towards her. Frozen in terror, she couldn't move, couldn't even breathe as the huge mass of wood descended. She closed her eyes…

Red-pink light flared like a setting sun, visible even through her eyelids. A brief staccato of sledgehammer impacts was audible through the rain, bare metres above her head. And an enormous crash echoed off the trees as the tree limb smashed into the ground with a terrible force.

After a pause of ten or twelve frantic, hammering heartbeats, Testarossa carefully cracked an eye open to see why she wasn't dead.

Takamachi stood there, her weight mostly on one leg, framed by a corona of light that refracted crazily through the curtains of rain. Magic flowed from her, and two of the training shots she had learnt only that morning still orbited her hand with deadly intent. Testarossa stared, not quite comprehending what had just happened. The tree limb must have weighed more than she did, and the training shots were an inefficient way of transferring momentum. The girl couldn't really have deflected the massive branch with just that, could she?

It was only as Takamachi started towards her, limping heavily, that Testarossa's gaze turned away from the brightness and the palpable aura of power. This brought the tree limb in sight, lying next to her and revealing two things.

One was the large dent it lay in, half-sunk into the muddy ground by the force of the impact. If the thing had hit her, she would almost certainly have died. Eyes widening, she felt herself begin to shake even as she took in the second detail. The impossible, unbelievable detail that showed why the thing had missed her.

Lined up along the length of the branch were half a dozen visible dents in the wood. The same size and shape as a training shot, they spoke starkly and clearly as to the sheer force behind the impacts that had pushed the huge branch off-course, just far enough to miss her by inches as it fell.

It didn't occur to her until Takamachi was pulling her up and guiding her towards the hollow in the tree, half-leaning on her for support, that the girl had fired the shots almost instantly, with no time spent on charging up or aiming.

But by then, she was already crying again, her tears a mixture of shock, delayed terror and relief.

It took about an hour or so for the skies to clear. Takamachi wasn't sure, huddled into the cramped, damp hollow of the tree. It was wet, but both of them were already soaked to the bone, so that didn't really matter. At least it kept the rain and hail from hitting them directly, and the gap in the bark was small enough that the wind almost never entered. Squeezed close together, shaking like leaves and occasionally crying when the storm became too violent, it wasn't a comfortable experience by any measurement, but it was better than being outside.

And slowly but surely, the storm receded. The long minutes ticked by, and the pounding of the rain lessened. Thunder still rolled, but fainter and fainter, from longer distances. The wind died down and beams of evening sunlight broke through the clouds, like spotlights from on high.

Throughout the gradual process, Testarossa and Takamachi stayed in their sanctuary. By the time the weather had cleared up completely, the girls had calmed down, their tears and terror fading away over the course of their wait. The sun was dipping below the horizon; a red disk that turned the evening sky into a highlight of orange and scarlet, as they finally emerged from their hiding place.

Gingerly, wary of splinters, Takamachi uncoiled herself from within the hollow. The adrenaline had worn off as well, and she winced as she curled her hands into fists, looking with mild surprise at the dirt, scrapes and lacerations on them. Moving at all hurt, in fact. Her body was sore from the exertion of her frantic flight through the woods, and the beating she had taken from branches, falls and hail. Looking at Testarossa as the smaller girl crawled out and stood blinking in the light of the setting sun, it appeared that she was in no better condition.

"… um…" Testarossa said; her voice hoarse from screams and sobs. She stopped at the sound of it, blinked in surprise, and tried again. "Th-thank you for… saving me. You saved my life there."

Takamachi didn't really know how to react to that. It was true, of that there was no question. But there had been no thought, no brave heroics in what she had done. She had just… reacted, instinctively flinging out the only spell in her arsenal in an act of desperation.

Being thanked for it was… strange. And somewhat embarrassing. And for the life of her, she had no idea how to respond. She had saved Testarossa's life, just like in the stories –which, she noted, had not mentioned the fear or the pain or the confusion of adventures like that. And now it was… afterwards.

What came afterwards? She had read a lot about adventures and saving lives and being heroic, but wasn't sure anything had actually said what you were supposed to do next.

She was vaguely aware that perhaps some kind of witty comment was expected of her, but she really think of anything, and come to mention it… that wasn't really appropriate, was it?

"Uh…" she began, intelligently. "You're… welcome?"

It had been meant as a reply, but it came out as a question. Testarossa stared at her for a moment, apparently confused by the puzzlement in her saviour's reply. She took in the honest expression of mystification on Takamachi's face, and couldn't help herself. Her lips twitched upwards. A giggle slipped out. And then another. And another.

Within a few seconds, Testarossa was laughing almost hysterically in a mixture of relief and absurd humour. Takamachi wasn't sure whether to be offended or not at first, but the gales of laughter were infectious and soon she was joining in, tears streaming down her face as she laughed in sheer relief at still being alive, letting go of the stress and fear that had dominated the past few hours.

Finally, the hysterics trickled away, and Testarossa wiped the tears from her eyes wearily. "Oh… wow," she said. "It's been ages since I laughed that hard. And the last time I had a day this exciting and fun was…" she paused for a moment, thinking, "… uh… never, I think." She beamed. "Thank you so much for today. It's been really, really good. I have enough magic to get home now, and… uh…"

She looked down at her dress, taking in the rips, the water that still dripped from the hem, the mudstains and leaves and frayed twigs caught in it, and the scrapes, welts and shallow cuts she had received from whip-like branches, hailstones and falls.

"…" she said, and seemed to shrink slightly. "Um. Linith is going to kill me. And then hug me. Or maybe the other way round." She paused. "Actually, if I tell her about the tree branch, she might just hug me to death out of worry."

"Wait, you have a maid?" asked Takamachi, surprised.

"… not exactly." The younger girl tilted her head, trying to decide how best to explain it. "Linith is a… she's… hmm. Um. Well, basically…" A further pause for thought, before she finally shrugged. "She's like a babysitter for me, I guess. She mostly raised me, because Mama is away from the house a lot doing work. Technically she's a Familiar, though. A really good one, too. Mama studies Familiars."

"Ah," said Takamachi, nodding sagely in an attempt to look like she understood. "Well then… don't tell her?" Testarossa shook her head at the suggestion.

"Nah. She'd find out anyway. Linith is really good at knowing when you're lying. And if I don't tell her right away, she won't be able to back me up when I…" she gulped "… when I… uh… tell Mama."

Takamachi winced sympathetically, before her eyes widened and she glanced at the sky. "Argh," she moaned. "I'm way past when my parents will be expecting me back." She sighed. "Looks like I'm gonna get yelled at, too."

Testarossa moved closer, patting her hand with a smile. "Well," she grinned, "assuming we both survive? I'll try to meet you again, okay? Even if I have to beg and plead with Mama until she brings me here herself. This isn't goodbye."

"Yeah!" grinned the older girl. "This is just for a little while. Besides, you've still got to teach me more about magic!"

"I will," agreed the blonde, red eyes crinkling in amusement before she pulled on a serious expression for a moment. "Just don't tell anyone else, okay? Magic's supposed to be a secret here. We're not meant to interfere with Unadministrated Worlds."

"I promise," vowed Takamachi solemnly, and caught the other girl's hands, squeezing them as she met her eyes confidently. "Until next time." It was a statement, not a question.

"Until next time," Testarossa confirmed, and squeezed back. Letting go, she backed away to get some space and drew Baton, mentally nudging it to begin the spell that would send her home, to inevitable punishment and, perhaps, an eventual increase in freedom. She remembered the coordinates for home, chanting them with careful attention to detail. And as the light built around her in preparation for the teleport, something occurred to her.

"One more thing!" she called at the figure silhouetted by the glow from the magic circle at her feet. "Don't call me Testarossa! It's Alicia!"

The figure saluted jauntily, her features impossible to make out in the face of the glow. But the smile was audible in her voice as she replied.

"I will, Alicia-chan! And the same goes for you!" She waved as the circle expanded upwards into a dome that obscured them from one another, but her last call still penetrated the light.

"It's Momoko!"

And with a final blaze of light, she was gone.