When people ask my why I found myself in Tokyo (en route to Fuyuki) at exactly the wrong time, I usually let them off with a quick explanation like "bad luck" and leave it at that.
Not that I blame them for their curiosity. The El-Melloi family is not known for its love of travel. Even Japan, with its exotic magic and equally exotic bloodlines, only tempted my father and mother into its clutches once. Once was enough. The seven-way ritualistic bloodbath known as Heaven's Feel consumed most of its participants. If my father hadn't been an incredibly talented magus...
I stared out the window. Mountainous cottonball clouds rose below us. The sun glared in my eyes, refracted through the drops of ice that stuck to the window's exterior. A stewardess pushed her aluminum trolley down the aisle, stopping at my seat.
"Sir, can I interest you in-"
"Tea," I said.
While I probably could have asked for alcohol, I wasn't sure about the drinking age on the flight. All things considered, I preferred not to go through the annoyance of pulling out an ID only to be second-guessed by hired help in a skirt.
"I'm sorry, but we don't-"
I rolled my eyes.
"Iced tea, then."
She forced a brainless smile onto her face and put a clear plastic cup on my tray. The can opened with a metallic pop. She poured it - badly.
"Oh, dear. I'm so sorry, sir..."
Naturally. Not that she'd spilled the tea on just any suit, mind. No, this was a family heirloom: the suit-robe combination that my father had worn as a young man. And...
I looked down.
Yes. She'd gotten some iced tea on my shoes as well. I could see a stain on their otherwise-shiny black surface. A stain. On my shoes.
Oh, sure, I could get most of it out with a simple spell, but that would be difficult in the confines of a plane with so many witnesses. I'd have to wait hours. Multiple hours. In a stained suit.
"You're not getting a tip."
"Um...stewardesses don't get tips."
I glared at her. She shrugged and moved on to the next person. In retrospect, it probably would have helped if I'd known about airline tipping etiquette ahead of time.
My education as the scion of the El-Melloi line had left a few gaps, apparently.
Please fasten your seatbelts. We will be descending soon...
Ultimately, I suppose I'd come to Japan because I was curious. My parents hadn't spoken much about the Heaven's Feel. It had changed them, though. That much I'd gleaned from others. The Lord Kayneth Archibald El-Melloi who'd stepped off the plane from Japan had seemed humbler, somehow. Chastened. He no longer ripped into students with hour-long question-and-answer sessions during his lectures at the Clock Tower. Admittedly, he still showed the same frightening abilities as a magus that he'd always possessed from time to time...But.
My stomach churned a bit as I felt the plane take a slight dip. Orange-yellow light shined in my eyes as it reflected off the wing. The iced tea (the portion that wasn't on my clothing, anyway) swished to the far end of the cup.
I did a quick fluid manipulation. My tea stayed in place.
Strangest of all, my mother and father had shared occasional touches after they'd returned from Japan. Simple enough gestures, you might think; a light brush on the shoulder, a holding of hands. Most people wouldn't have found anything amiss about it. They'd been fiancees, after all.
Granted. But Sola-Ui Nuada-Re Sophia-Ri had never been a warm person. And neither had my father. The way that they'd clung to each other after their experience begged for explanation.
"Mellowed" had been the general consensus.
I don't like one-word answers.
And so, on my first vacation from the Clock Tower's classes, I found myself bound for Japan. Several notebooks in my bag awaited my research in Fuyuki City. The authorities had covered up most of the traces of Heaven's Feel, but I doubted they'd gotten everything. And the El-Mellois are nothing if not thorough antiquarians. I'd find whatever existed.
The plane touched down half an hour later.
Soon after I landed, I made the questionable decision to take a former roommate's advice and headed for the shopping district.
I arrived at some mall or other a short time later. The mega-corporation known as MBI had made a lot of changes to the place in the last few years.
Every gadget imaginable lined the windows: electronic maids, walking umbrellas, and even a prototype backscratcher with artificial intelligence (I lost interest when one of them shouted lewd comments as I passed. The backscratcher, not the maid). Businessmen in monochrome black suits rubbed shoulders with blue-haired girls in miniskirts. All jabbered their irritating language, usually into small plastic-and-glass boxes that I assumed were some cross between a phone and a computer.
Amid the bustle of the "New" Tokyo, I didn't initially notice the creature ordering ice cream from a vendor. She soon remedied this, however.
"What do you mean you don't have strawberry-mint-oreo-toffee flavor?"
I felt a flare of power, and turned.
Whatever it was, it had taken the shape of a girl. She was a few inches shorter than I, lithe and teenage-looking except for slightly more mature hips. Her pink hair was drawn up in an elaborate mess of hair clips, a pony tail, and who knows what else. Not that it looked bad necessarily. In fact, it looked somewhat fetching in a barbaric sort of way. Especially when combined with her short-shorts and loose, black gi-top. Complete with a giant red bow, no less...
...In any event, the creature's reddish-pink hair should have tipped off at least some of the bystanders to her identity. Whatever it was. The group of black-suited, sunglasses-wearing men around her, at least, seemed to know what was what. Their muscles tensed when she raised her voice.
And right now, the creature was definitely raising her voice.
I learned later that this particular conversation had been going on for a while by the time I'd happened across it. I suppose this partially explains her frustration.
"Look, buddy...it's not hard. You've got strawberry, right?"
The vendor whose collar she'd grabbed wisely nodded.
"And you've got mint?"
"And I can see toffee and oreos in your toppings drawer. So why don't you just mix 'em all together like a good boy and make me my strawberry-mint-oreo-toffee ice cream?"
"B-but there's only one topping allowed! And if I mix the mint and the strawberry, I won't know whether to charge you for mint, or strawberry, or-"
The creature gave a rather disturbing smile.
"How much would you charge for your cart's wheels?" she said.
"I'm not sure I ever considered it, but..."
I like to think that I kept watching this scene purely out of academic curiosity. After all, you don't run into a new Type of supernatural creature every day. The alternative - that I watched purely to see a suicidally oblivious commoner get his Darwinian just deserts - seems in poor taste.
Not that I didn't smirk when the creature ripped off the cart's front wheels and crumpled them into a ball. Which, looking back on it now, was not my brightest decision.
"And what are you smiling about, gaijin?" the thing growled.
Saying "nothing" would have been a good move. Running away at full speed would have been better.
"Nice ball," I said. "I can't help but notice that you still don't have your mint-strawberry-toffee-whatever cone, though."
I am told on good authority that I can be obnoxious. Not endearingly or charmingly obnoxious, mind you. Just obnoxious. I blame that for what happened next.
The creature's lips curled up in a snarl. Her gloves - which looked like tiny pink boxing gloves, of all things - squeaked as she curled them. She smacked her right fist against her palm so fast I nearly missed it. The resulting pop sounded like a gunshot.
I made what was probably my first well-advised decision of the day and reinforced my legs. The creature must have felt something when I did, because she seemed to hesitate for a second. She shook her head as if to clear it.
And then, she turned to one of her escorts, who flinched.
"Pay the man for his cart," she said. "I have other business to - ah - uh...Oh."
The creature's eyes glazed over. She was breathing far more quickly now, and seemed to be having trouble with her chest, since she was clutching it with both hands. Her face had become beet red. A wave of shudders passed through her body.
I took the opportunity to dash for the nearest escalator. While I didn't know what the increased body heat, shaking, and reddening face presaged, I didn't want to take any chances.
I took a flying leap down an escalator. The reinforcement held out well - my legs got enough spring to almost reach the bottom. My aim, however, was off. A toddler in a green jumpsuit and a baseball hat stepped onto my intended landing point. I avoided him, but hit the railing in the process. Consequently, I pinwheeled off the escalator to the accompaniment of his laughter.
And fell about a floor.
Cursing fate for my less-than-expert reinforcement skills, I scrambled up and hobbled toward the exit. I heard a loud clap behind me. The creature's boots had landed on the linoleum floor. If I'd been looking, I'm sure I could describe her graceful, swallow-like landing in excruciating detail. As it was, I wheezed and tried to replace the air I'd knocked out of my lungs.
"Stop!" the creature shouted.
I considered complying for perhaps a tenth of a second, and then ducked into a lingerie store. Women in designer clothes stared at me curiously as I ran, clutching their leather purses to their chests.
They had a lot more to worry about a few seconds later. A certain pink-haired female plowed through the mannikins at the front of the store, incidentally decapitating a particularly well-endowed statue. I probably imagined the look of grim satisfaction on her face afterwards; I wasn't thinking clearly at the time.
The exit beckoned. It was only a few dozen yards away. As I vaulted over metal clothing racks, I chanced a look over my shoulder. My pursuer kicked a rack aside. It crashed into the wall, bent inward.
Almost there. Just a few more steps...
"Ha!" I said. "Better luck next ti-OOOF!"
If I'd been a normal human, the high-speed mannikin might have caused rather serious damage when it collided with my legs. As it was, I found myself staring at the ceiling with a few more bruises and ringing in my ears. Above my head, a cardboard Playtex cut-out grinned vapidly downward.
The view was cut off seconds later when a vision of pink-haired fury blocked it out. The creature took her hands off her hips long enough to gesture at the devastation. She huffed.
"Just look what you made me do!" she said.
"Maybe if you...ouch."
I winced and rubbed my head. Oddly enough, her eyes widened at that. Her hand covered her mouth.
"Did I...um...you're OK, right?"
I croaked something vaguely hostile. She bit the knuckle of her glove. Her breaths had quickened again, and her face was red. I started to worry that she might be hyperventilating.
Her odd inquiry after my welfare notwithstanding, it occurred to me that this creature could easily end my life right now if she wanted. I felt a sudden coldness in my stomach that normally came before one of my father's exams. I'd face death like an El-Melloi, of course. Perhaps I should have been a little more polite...
The creature leaned in at blinding speed. She was too fast for me to shield my face. I tried, though, and ended up wrapping my arms around her shoulders instead.
Her lips met mine. More than that, her tongue started excavating my throat. The whole affair was very warm, sloppy, and distracting enough that it almost took my attention away from the pair of luminescent wings that had sprouted from her back.
Her apparent desire to suck my soul out through my mouth silenced further questions.
The unsolicited dental exam continued until the creature's handlers arrived and gently pulled her off. The explanation that followed strained my credulity ever so slightly.
The creature's name, it seemed, was Benitsubasa. She was a Sekirei - a species of alien under MBI Corp.'s protection. When a Sekirei met a compatible human, she "reacted", a process that included the odd symptoms I'd noticed earlier.
As for the mating ritual itself, it apparently consisted of orally violating the target (called an "Ashikabi") and then clinging to the poor fellow for the rest of his life.
Oh, and all 108 Sekirei were involved in a super-secret battle royale for a vague-but-important prize. Their Ashikabi would participate too, naturally.
"Say again?" I said.
The creature sighed. She'd calmed down from a few moments ago, although her blush hadn't dimmed. She seemed to be avoiding eye contact for some reason.
"There are 108 Sekirei, and-"
"No, I mean about the super-secret battle royale," I said. "And the bit about your Ashikabi participating."
Still taking care not to meet my eyes, she twiddled her thumbs across the pink gloves.
"Well, I know it's sudden, but I'm perfectly capable of protecting..."
I tuned the creature - Benitsubasa - out for a while. A tournament! A cheap knock-off of Heaven's Feel, complete with Masters and their superhuman Servants. I considered the risks and rewards, thusly:
RISKS: If I wasn't discreet, these MBI people might find out about magic. I was pretty sure that I could fiddle with a couple memories here and there, but the organization might be a problem collectively. I would have to be careful.
REWARDS: Whatever vaguely defined prize waited at the end of the tunnel just might be worth it. Even if I only ended up with a single Sekirei at the end, that would give me an entirely new species to bring back to the Clock Tower for research. Who knew how useful these "Sekirei" might be? And if we could make them familiars...
If I'd been honest with myself, I would have added another "Reward" to the list. This was what my father had done. A secret tournament. Danger. Excitement. And best of all, a chance to prove myself to the only two people who'd never given me their respect on a silver platter, even though they'd given me their names and bloodlines. To prove that I wasn't a let-down to the El-Melloi lineage. That I wasn't a failure.
...Not that I was particularly honest with myself at twenty.
Benitsubasa was staring at me. Probably because she was expecting a response of some sort. Well, if this was going to be a Master and Servant relationship like Heaven's Feel, I'd best start acting the part. I cleared my throat.
"So what are your talents, again?"
Her eyes narrowed, and the expectant look collapsed into a frown.
"Fighting," she said. "I told you that already. Three times."
"I figured I'd just let you drone on for a while and ask again later. Think of it as a rehearsal."
This very sensible point did not seem to mollify her.
"I just had to go shopping today, didn't I?" she muttered. "Couldn't have stayed with the rest of the Disciplinary Squad, could I? Oh, no...We had good benefits, too. Catered meals! A nice, caring, handsome Ashikabi ready to wing us...I mean, sure he was a little sexually confused, but with time..."
"If you're finished, I'd like to discuss our strategy for the upcoming tournament," I said.
The creature looked down her nose at me despite the height difference, and sniffed. Her eyes drifted to my chest.
"Is that a tea stain on your suit?" she said.