Shintou Teitou, Japan: "The Hole" Tavern

2009

10:45 PM

The night outside was cold and bleak, with clear skies and a biting wind that traveled through the empty alleys of Shintou Teitou's midtown district. In the shadows of the glowing skyscrapers, representing the highest level of wealth and prestige, there were a number of quiet, broken-down places where the tired and ill-used people of the city could drown their sorrows, and more rarely, themselves, in a mountain of beer and bottles. One such place, The Hole, was particularly full on this night. A few old, sagging tables sat outside of the bar itself, with empty, unattended chairs. The rusted metal door, surrounded by midnight-black walls, was shut tight, opening only to allow a drunken patron out or let a sober one inside.

The interior of the building was poorly lit and poorly kept for the most part, with a few lights dangling from frayed cords attached to the ceiling. The walls were flaking and marked up with scratches or stains where blood or beer had splattered on the walls. Men and women alike were clustered around the cracked, small wooden tables or scrunched into dirty, dusty corners, nursing cans or glasses and not even speaking to each other. A droning, depressed jazz song played through crackling old speakers resting on the old beer rack behind the bartender, who was occupying himself by wiping out mugs with a dirty rag.

In this dingy, depressed atmosphere, one woman by the name of Takami Sahashi stood out—mostly because of her sharp, austere facial features, her neat white turtleneck and spotless jeans, and her hair, which was clearly black at one point but was rapidly turning silver despite the lack of age lines on her face. She sat at the bar, shifting her weight irritably on the unstable stool beneath her bottom, as she downed an entire glass of beer. After taking the last mouthful, she sighed, swallowed the beer with a grimace, and slowly put down her mug, then covered her face with her hands and sighed, rubbing her temples. No matter how hard she tried to stop them, her thoughts drifted back to the last person she wanted to think about, her boss Hiroto Minaka. He'd advanced one more step in his goal to build his company, Mid-Bio Informatics, by buying up a number of smaller companies. His eyes were now turned to the Higa Pharmaceutical company, and it was obvious that he was going to either acquire it or grind it out beneath his heel no matter how long it took him to do so.

When they'd first partnered up—not in the work-related sense, as that had started long before, in college—she'd told herself that his eccentricities were nothing serious. She'd told herself that they would have worked out all of their differences, and that their relationship would have lasted through anything. Instead, he'd taken the technology from the alien ship they'd found so long ago and started using it to build his company. He was genetically tinkering with the embryos and eggs that they'd found on-board for some mad "S Plan" that he'd conceived. And, he was forcing Takami to help by threatening their children, Minato and Yukari, who were staying with her mother in Wakayama. She was certain that he was only threatening their continued safety out of spite, seeing that she'd steadfastly kept him out of Minato and Yukari's lives since they'd been born. Then again, Minaka was just crafty enough to mix business and pleasure (or in this case, personal grudges and and practicality) in whatever ways would suit his needs best. If nothing else, Takami could admit that he was just ruthless enough to make it work.

Deciding that she'd had enough thinking about Minaka for the time being, Takami pulled her hands away from her face and managed to focus her bleary gaze onto the bartender as she extended her glass towards him. "More of the same, if you've got it," she said, managing to keep her voice level enough to hide her tipsiness. "I'm not drunk enough to get over myself yet."

The bartender simply nodded in understanding and put down the glass he'd been working on to pour another bottle of beer into Takami's glass. Once he was finished, Takami pulled the mug back and began to drink again, wishing that the old warm buzz would just hurry up and chase out the cold she felt in her body. Though a slight haze settled over her senses, it did nothing to distract her from the overwhelming guilt she still felt.

By participating in the S Plan, she was helping Minaka ruin the lives of people that were in many ways just like her children. Even if those "people" were more like "humanoid aliens", it hit Takami close enough to home that she got no sleep at night. At this stage, the fetuses that they'd found on board the ship were approaching an age similar to her own children, and the embryos that had begun to mature were slightly younger.

107 little lives, all on the path to being ruined.

She took a breath in through her nostrils and was about to finish draining the mug entirely; the slight tingle in her throat told her that she was close to getting just the buzz she would need to sleep through the night so that she could start the entire process all over again the next night, when her self-loathing brought her to another bar and another bottle. Her liver was going to scream bloody murder at her later down the road, but she really didn't care. Caring was the only reason she'd ever gotten into this mess anyway; she'd cared about Minaka too much to let him go, she cared too much about her children to let them get hurt, and she cared too much about the Sekirei to just let Minaka have them all to himself.

Caring didn't mean a damn thing.

The taste of the beer suddenly soured in her mouth, and she slammed the half-empty mug down on the counter, cracking the cheap wood slightly. The bartender gave her a dirty glare through the glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, but before he said anything, Takami dug into her purse, smacked a few bills down next to her glass, and swiveled the stool away from the counter, getting up briskly despite the slight blur in her vision."Your tip's covered in that. If you'd tried investing in actual wood, maybe this place wouldn't be falling apart so damn badly."

Not even bothering to wait for a response, she turned on her heel and strode out, ignoring the stares that were cast her way—and, in the process, failing to notice that there were three men trailing behind her.


The sharp, cold wind of the night did little to sober Takami up, but it did at least cut away some of the beer-induced haze that had settled around her mind. As she strode down the sidewalk with images of Minaka flooding her brain, the sharp clicks of her short-heeled shoes echoed off the buildings and the alleys surrounding her, which felt suffocating thanks to her warped perception of space around her. As she came to the crosswalk just in front of the train station, she cursed; the light was red, and she would have to wait before she could go.

While she stood there, hands jammed in her pockets, the leader of the group that followed Takami out of the bar caught up to her and put a massive hand on her shoulder. Reflexively, Takami flinched away, pulling her shoulder loose, but her impaired coordination caused her to stumble a bit before she straightened up and turned toward the intruder with a harsh frown. "Can I help you?" she asked sharply.

The man grinned, revealing a set of gleaming white teeth hidden behind a monstrous, rough black beard. "Yes, you can. The name's Honda. How about you swing by my place with me and my boys for awhile? You looked pretty lonesome in there just now, and I think a little company might cheer you up."

Takami folded her arms and shook her head, gently as to avoid making the world spin around her. They didn't reek of alcohol but they'd clearly had enough for them to have trouble taking a hint. "Well, thank you for your concern, but the only company I need right now is another bottle of Sapporo and my own bed." She looked over her shoulder, saw that she had the walk sign for the crosswalk, and turned away. "So if you'll excuse me, I..."

The man's smile became distinctly less friendly, and his two cronies stepped forward from behind him, grabbing Takami by one wrist each. She tried to pull free, but their hands were clenched too tightly, and they began to pull her to the right, to wherever they planned to take her. "Now see, you hurt our feelings," the one on her left said. "Why don't you just come along and see how it turns out? You might enjoy it, you know."

Takami's eyes narrowed in annoyance, but internally, she was trying not to panic. Her arms being caught wasn't the problem, it was the fact that she'd drained three and a half mugs of beer and was much more tipsy than she was letting on. If she weren't buzzed, she could find a way to break free and then spray the bastards with pepper spray before running off, but her vision was still a bit spotty and she was as likely to point the can at herself as she was them. The best she could do was run, but even with the adrenaline pumping through her system, she felt like she'd be wading through chest-deep water.

While her muddled mind tried to make sense of her options, a male voice cut the night air, tinged with the slight slur and drawl of the western Japanese countryside. "Where I come from, when a lady asks a fella for a favor, the fella usually listens. Now I advise that you all let her go and walk off quietly."

Takami twisted her head around to see who had interceded on her behalf, and was surprised to see a slim man, dressed in a pair of jeans and a simple long-sleeved shirt that glowed in the light of the streetlight above him. His black hair was somewhat short, but grew wildly in all directions, giving the impression that it was longer than it was. His skin was bronzed from exposure to the sun, and his overall body language was extremely relaxed.

The leader of the group sneered at the stranger and folded his arms, turning away from Takami and his friends. "Who do you think you're talking to like that, you stupid country hayseed? How about you try minding your own damn business?"

"You all threatening this lady pretty much makes this my business," replied the newcomer. "And my name ain't 'country hayseed'. It's Masaru. Masaru Takada.'' He then walked forward, calm as he pleased, until he stood in front of the man. "Now, I'll say it once more since you seem to be deaf—or just plain dumb. Let her go and get out of here."

Laughing, Honda turned away from Masaru to speak to his friends, unaware that Masaru's stance had shifted the moment he'd done so. "All right, boys, let's play a game. How long will it take me to have this bumpkin flat on his ass—"

In that single moment of inattention, Masaru pushed himself forward without a word. Honda heard a footstep hit the ground behind him, and when he turned to see what happened, he was greeted with Masaru's fist smashing into his face. As Honda fell over, Masaru stepped back and glowered at the two men holding Takami; there was a vein pulsing on his forehead and his clenched fists. Fearfully, one of them stepped back, loosening his grip on Takami's wrist, and she quickly pulled her right hand free. She sloppily kicked the man in the crotch, then yanked her other arm free before his companion could react and clumsily turned to run away. The man Takami hadn't attacked rushed to catch up with her, and Masaru advanced with the same blinding speed, moving around Takami like a river around a rock. With a punch to the gut on the left side and a sharp roundhouse kick on the right, he floored the two men without even blinking.

Takami gaped like a fish, then hid her shock behind a shaky scowl. She could feel the sweat beading on her forehead and silently hoped that Masaru wouldn't notice how unsteady she was feeling. "I appreciate the help, but I would have been fine in a minute," she said, folding her arms and glaring at her savior. "I'm not a helpless child."

"Considerin' what you did to one a those fellas just now I don't doubt that," Masaru said, easing back into a casual slouch. "Still, it's like I told 'em; threatening you made it my business to help you out." He kicked Honda with the back of his heel and snorted, then shrugged. "I'd offer to walk you back to your place but that would be a bit forward, I figure. Less you don't really mind a little company?"

Takami continued to regard Masaru with her most hostile glare, but behind that facade her brain was working in overdrive. He was polite enough, and sincere in his behavior, that much she could tell from looking at him. He was attentive, too, looking around to be sure everything was all right.

"Actually, company would be nice," she said, softening her scowl. He'd helped her, after all. There was no reason to be rude to him.

Masaru broke into a smile, putting his hands into his pockets and falling into step beside Takami as she began to walk down the sidewalk. "Didn't get your name, miss...?"

"Sahashi," she answered, without looking over at him. "Takami Sahashi."

Silence passed as they moved down the street, and then Takami broke it with another question."So, those moves of yours. They look like karate but not any kind I've seen. Where did you learn how to fight like that?"

Masaru scratched his cheek and rubbed the side of his chin with his thumb, with a thoughtful frown on his face. Eventually, he smiled slightly, and said, "My great-grandpa once studied Shotokan Karate, and eventually went off on his own to develop his own style based on what he learned from it. He taught that to my grandpa, who taught it to my pa, who taught it to me. It's called Rindoukan-style Karate."

Takami's nose wrinkled as she stopped in front of the train station's main doors. The large glass building had a domed roof and glowed with soft light, shining like a beacon in the dark night. "Bellflower? Why would you name a fighting style something like that?"

Though he knew she couldn't see it because she wasn't looking at him Masaru shrugged. "Great-grandpa's favorite flower. Pa said he liked its color."

"I guess that's as good a reason to name something as anything," Takami said after a moment. "How long have you been practicing?"

The memory came almost unbidden to Masaru's mind once she asked. For him, the hard concrete that they walked on and the towering buildings around them were replaced by the rural countryside of Tosa. The dojo that his great-grandfather built stood behind him, with autumn leaves falling to the ground from tall, twisting trees planted on the swept dirt beneath his bare feet.

"Started young...probably 'round six years old."

And from there, the conversation continued well into the night as they entered the station and headed for the platform where Takami's train home was awaiting them.


Bellflowers and Wagtails

A Sekirei fan-fiction

Written by Zero-Sennin


~Petal 1: A Wagtail Alights Next to a Bellflower ~


Shintou Teitou, Japan

2020

Wednesday, 4:30 PM

It was the time of year that high school graduates and aspiring college students of all ages anticipated and dreaded in the imperial capital of Japan.

The results for college entrance exams were going to be published today.

At this time last year, Minato Sahashi had been firmly on the side of "dreading"; he'd spent much of his time before the exams in training with his father in the mountains. Instead of hitting the books, he'd been hitting tree trunks and breaking rocks for two months, with occasional meditations under a pounding waterfall on top of that. When he'd crawled back to his apartment in Shintou Teitou 48 hours before the entrance exams, he was exhausted and in just enough shape to change the bandages swathed around his waist and arms before passing out on his apartment floor for a day and a half.

Now, at age 19, the slim, dark-haired young man had spent the majority of his time not in training, but study. In cram school and preparation courses, he did nothing more than continuously push himself farther than he ever had before, seeking to overcome his test-taking nervousness by knowing and feeling that he was prepared down to the bitter end. When the test itself came, his pencil had flown across the paper like an angry hornet, scratching the answers onto the page as fast as he could think of them.

He was confident that he'd done well, but the only way to know for sure was to see the results.

As he jogged up the steps that led him out of the subway station, Minato straightened his brown, fur-necked jacket and looked to his left, toward the center of the city where Teitou Tower, the headquarters of the mega-company Mid Bio Informatics, stood over every other building. The company itself was far less established than others of its kind in terms of age, but had become a domineering business force in the capital within the last couple of years, thanks in no small part to its CEO, Hiroto Minaka. Minato had just heard on the train that the company had bought up enough stock in other corporations and some other things to gain almost total control over the city, at least in practice. Rumors abounded about how the man had managed to build his company so quickly, from Yakuza involvement to blackmail, but one thing that no one contested was his vast intellect and his knack for business; those two traits alone had made him the biggest success story in Shintou Teitou.

Of course, mentioning that around his mother, even though she worked for the man himself, was likely to get you a black eye in the space of a blink.

Minato sighed, rubbing his head as he turned from the tower and began to walk to the northeast. The university, commonly called Shinteidai by most locals, was only a ten or fifteen minute walk away from the business sector of the city, so it was much more likely that he would see her more often now than he had in the last several years. She'd been in Shintou Teitou almost constantly since he was young, and though she never said a word about her job aside from cursing her boss in the most violent way possible, Minato understood that whatever she did was important enough to keep her away for months at a time.

"Well, with any luck, the results today will put her in a good mood, for once," Minato said to himself, shoving his hands in his pockets as he continued down the sidewalk. A cool breeze blew, and he was privately grateful that he'd decided to wear his jacket today. "I've got a good feeling that this time is gonna be different."


A few minutes later, Minato was walking through the twin pillars that marked the entrance to Shinteidai. As he passed beneath a grove of cherry blossom trees, which shed their petals on him and the growing stream of students walking along the paved path, Minato idly took notice of the sea of people that began to surround him. He recognized a few faces from his study sessions in cram school, and unconsciously began to chart and categorize their movement patterns. Some people were pushing ahead in the crowd, while others were simply going with the flow; strangely, the ones most eager to see their scores weren't always the most nervous ones, as their steps were purposeful and they weren't outright shoving away people that moved too slowly for their liking. The people who weren't actively trying to move ahead were much more guarded, huddling in on themselves or trying not to be pushed along—to him, that indicated definite fear of what they were about to see.

Eventually, the crowd came to the boards with the examinees' numbers, set up at the middle of campus; Minato had received his by phone earlier that day and since committed it to memory, so he immediately began scanning for it on the appropriate board. Despite the rising tide of moans and groans around him, occasionally broken by the sound of a joyful sob or a loud cheer, Minato kept his eyes forward and his focus stayed unchanged. His eyes locked onto the numbers he was looking for in the first place, and after blinking once or twice to make sure he was focused on the right line, he cracked a small smile, which eventually spread into a full-on grin. "That's more like it," he whispered to himself, gently pushing his way back to the street with his phone palmed in his hand. "Wait 'till she hears this one. She'll flip."

And, as luck would have it, Takami wasn't in the middle of an apoplectic fit when she picked up the phone, just as Minato passed through the main Shinteidai gates.

"Minato, what is it?" she asked. In the background, Minato could hear something making a whining or a screeching sound; some kind of demented dentist's drill, he thought, but he wasn't totally sure what it could have actually been, and wasn't keen on asking. "I'm kind of busy right now..."

Minato stopped for a moment and carefully checked the crossing sign before stepping off the curb and into the crosswalk along with a crowd of students (or repeaters) that were leaving campus alongside him. The crowd was in no particular rush, so though they pushed on him, it was gentle and easy, enabling him to walk without really thinking about where he was going. "Mom, I'm just leaving Shinteidai. I checked my exam results, and...well..." Try as he might to keep the surprise, the happiness was pretty much dripping off every word he said, and his mother, sharp as she was, picked up on it immediately.

"You passed the entrance exam?"

Minato felt his smile grow at the surprise in her voice. "Yep. They didn't post scores of course, but I passed. When I get my schedule together I'll ask about them."

For the first time that he could remember in the last year, Minato heard his mother laugh. Not her normal, semi-scornful laugh, but a happy one, the kind that he remembered hearing when he was younger and his mother got time off to visit him, his sister, his father, and his grandmother in Wakayama.

Thinking about that made him think about his father again, and he felt his body tremble as the old feelings rushed up to meet him. Instinctively, he took a breath, and the shaking stopped. He now stood at the opposite curb, and stepped back up onto the sidewalk with the rest of the crowd, breaking away so that he could get back to the subway entrance.

"Minato, you've made a very shitty day extremely excellent," Takami said over the phone, managing to curb the over-abundant happiness in her voice."I'm proud of you, son. Great job."

Though she didn't say it, Minato could hear the unspoken part of that sentence: "Your father would be proud of you too". "Thanks, mom."

"Now, I've got to go, but we'll talk later, OK? Your sister is probably coming to Shintou Teitou pretty soon herself, and I need you to help her out once she's there, so we need to make plans."

Minato had to suppress a sigh at that. Yukari showing up in Shintou Teitou was not exactly his idea of a good time, much as he loved his sister. She was impetuous and reckless, and with the skills she had, a simple flight of fancy (which she was prone to often) could become a hell of a lot more serious. However, she wasn't a fool when it came to studies and schoolwork; just like him, she'd been a rising star in the classroom and stayed that way up through high school, so there was no way that she'd fail her entrance exams. To be honest, his father hadn't helped matters by encouraging her to live like a "hero of justice", either, but his intentions had been pure at the time, and so Minato couldn't quite hold a grudge.

"All right then, Mom. I'm almost at the train station, so I'll be home in about fifteen minutes or so. I might get lunch, but I'm going to train outside for a bit when I get back to the apartment. Don't be surprised if you call me and I don't pick up."

"Don't go barefoot," Takami replied, her voice stern once more as she slipped out of "enthusiastic parent mode". "I don't care what your father taught you about practicing Rindoukan—those rules don't apply in a cityscape. There are all sorts of germs and nasty things on the ground and I'll not let you get sick because a needle or some other disgusting thing cut your foot open."

"Yes, ma'am," Minato replied, smiling. "Talk to you later."

"Mm-hmm."

With that, Takami hung up, and Minato pocketed his phone, straightened out his jacket, and broke into a light jog, breathing in the cool air with a smile on his face.


4:45 PM

After a short train ride, Minato found himself descending another flight of stairs, this time from the elevated train platform that was only ten minutes from his apartment building. The station itself was placed near a tall apartment building, which had a courtyard paved with square, red-and-gray bricks. As he took the stairs down, three steps at a time, his mind was consumed by pleasure at his success in entering Shinteidai and the thought of what he'd make for dinner that day. Therefore, Minato completely failed to notice the concerned murmurings of the people around him, until he stepped off the stairs, when a sudden rumble broke the relative quiet and shook the stones beneath his feet.

"An earthquake?" he said aloud, pulling himself from his reverie to concentrate on his surroundings.

But aside from other passerby looking around as owlishly as he was, he noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

Then, at that moment, a nice surprise dropped into his lap.

Or rather, on top of his head.

"I'm sorry! Look out below!" a female voice cried from overhead.

Minato's head immediately snapped up to see who was speaking to him; despite the feminine tone of the voice, he was surprised when he made eye contact with a striking young woman, falling down from just in front of him at a ridiculous height and speed—from the looks of things, she'd just jumped form the railing on the train platform that he'd just left. She was wearing a white-colored shrine maiden's top, complete with red thread stitching at the shoulders and wide, drooping sleeves; a purple sash was tied around her waist with a big ribbon tied in the back. Her red, knee-length skirt was blowing back in the wind, revealing a white pair of stockings and her brown, ankle-high boots.

What got Minato's attention, though, was her eyes. They were a pure, chestnut brown, and her matching hair, blown back by the wind rushing into her face, was tied into a low ponytail by a pink ribbon, giving him a clear view of them.

Then, he remembered that she was about to fall on him and probably crush him unless he caught her. Shaking his head, he took a deep breath and extended his arms towards her. With that breath, a pleasant warmth—the power of his ki—flowed through his body and strengthened him as she landed right in his arms. She was too heavy for him to stop entirely, but with his body properly set for the impact, and strengthened by the energy of his ki, he didn't fall over, and instead absorbed the shock by bending his legs, bringing himself into a near-crouch.

"Oof," he grunted, wincing at the sting in his arms. "That was close."

For her part, the young woman looked pleasantly surprised at first, not expecting to be caught so readily. She soon recovered herself, and smiled at Minato as he set her down on the flagstones, then brushed back a strand of her hair that had fallen above her eyes—unusual, since the bangs framing her face were in a sharp cut that didn't leave very many of them loose.

"Thank you," she said. "You're really fast, though! I don't know how you managed to catch me like that, I was literally almost on top of you."

"I just have good reflexes," he replied, returning her smile with a grin. "But, if you don't me asking, why exactly were you...?"

The girl's body suddenly tensed up, and Minato could see her eyes darting to the side as he heard what sounded like someone landing from a jump. He followed her gaze, and saw two very similar-looking girls—twins, perhaps, with long, wild black hair that parted rather sharply in the back and sharply-cut bangs—walking over to him and the girl he'd caught. Their hands were entwined, and they wore little more than sleeveless tops, a pair of long gloves, and a matching set of stockings attached to a pair of "panties". The only difference between them was that one of the girls wore a violet suit while her companion's was a lighter purple.

The one in the violet suit also had a much bigger bust; however, Minato was too distracted by the fact that each of their free hands were raised, and crackling with lightning, to really register that.

"Hey now, that was a pretty impressive jump," the girl in the dark suit said. "But running straight into someone that's got nothing to do with us? How unlucky for him."

The brown-haired girl Minato had caught clenched her fists, causing the fabric of her red sparring gloves to creak ominously. "I already told you that I am not ready to fight! Not until I find my Ashikabi! If you insist on chasing me, leave this man out of it!"

"Oh, we don't care anything about him," the other girl replied, smirking. "But that doesn't mean we're going to leave you alone!" She let her eyes flicker over to her partner. "Hikari, let's finish this."

"Never thought you'd ask, Hibiki," Hikari replied, pulling back her electrically-charged hand. "Get ready, girl. You're about to take a nice nap!"

The world slowed down for Minato as he appraised the situation. Despite the relative impossibility of it, he had somehow run into people who could control electricity, and were chasing after a girl that had apparently made a spectacularly high jump and collided with him without any visible signs of soreness. Ignoring the absolute insanity of the first observation, he could tell just by looking at the girl he caught that she wasn't even rattled by the catch he'd pulled off, or her own jump.

As he began to consider what he could do to resolve the situation, the brown-haired girl intervened by grabbing his arm and running off with him, just as Hikari and Hibiki thrust their hands at the spot where he had been standing—and struck it with a burst of purplish-colored lightning. What took Minato by surprise wasn't the ease with which she pulled him along, but rather, the speed of her gait and stride. The sidewalk and the buildings around them were rapidly blurring away, and he was already breaking into a full on sprint just to keep pace with her.

Despite the sudden stress, he focused for a split second and got his breathing back in order, filling his body once more with ki. Though he had little time to orient himself better for running, at the very least his steps were less faltering and unsteady, meaning that he was less likely to pratfall and pull her down with him. But this speed. It's not human, nowhere close. I wouldn't be able to move at this speed for more than a few seconds even if I used...

He shook his head, briefly looking over his shoulder to see that the two spandex girls were making no moves to follow them.

And those two. That strike of lightning wasn't natural, but...did they really control that? What's going on here?


4:55 PM

Eventually, Minato and the brown-haired girl made it to a road that lead to one of Shintou Teitou's bridges over the river. Down by the bank of the water, there were two or three empty sport courts, one for basketball and the other two for tennis. Minato immediately tumbled onto the grass by the side of the road, panting quite a bit. Eventually he had simply been unable to maintain his breathing, and just let himself be dragged along; even that wore him out past a certain threshold, so he was too happy to get a break. The girl, for her part, was somewhat exhausted as well, but unlike him, she had enough composure to actually sit down beside him instead of falling over in a heap. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that," she said, bowing her head. "First, mistaking that jump, and now dragging you along so suddenly..."

Minato eventually rolled onto his back and sat up, shaking his head before looking at her and managing a grin. "It's fine. Actually, this is a pretty good reminder for me to actually keep up with my training. A year ago I probably would've been able to keep pace with you for a while longer." The smile faded as his mind began to wander. "Still, school was a lot more important, and..."

And Dad was still off on his training trip. Just like he "is" now.

The girl seemed to miss the melancholy expression on his face, and stood up, bowing shortly. It was at this point that Minato finally noticed that her bust was rather large, mostly because her hands were clasped in front of at about waist level, bringing her arms in slightly and squeezing her breasts...rather closely to each other as a result. "I'm so rude, I haven't introduced myself yet. My name is Musubi. Thank you for the help back there."

Quickly, Minato forced his eyes up to her head level and kept them there as she came out of her bow. "U-um...Minato Sahashi. It's a pleasure. Though, if you don't mind me asking, what exactly was that all about?"

Musubi opened her mouth to reply, but was cut off by a loud, cavernous grumbling that came from her stomach. Minato blinked for a few moments, and then he stood up, brushing the grass off of his pants. "You know what, how about you explain over lunch, back at my place. Something tells me that whatever you have to say probably shouldn't be said in public."

Musubi brightened up at the prospect of food, and nodded so eagerly that Minato couldn't help but smile a bit again. Oddly enough, just seeing her happy made him feel unusually warm, and he couldn't help but notice that she had a certain charm about her movements; smooth and feminine, but assured, confident, and upbeat. It's kind of attractive, actually, he thought to himself, turning towards the city proper to lead the way. I've never seen a girl like her before...and the more I see her the more I want to get to know her.


5:14 PM

Within twenty minutes or so, Minato and Musubi were sitting on the ground in Minato's small, one-person apartment, splitting a large bag of burgers in the living room/kitchen. Mid-afternoon light streamed in from the window above the sink, warming the room up slightly as Musubi continuously wolfed her way through the food that Minato had gotten for them. Minato sat on the other side of the low dining table, his body slightly slouched where he sat.

"Minato-san!" she said, smiling broadly between bites of food. "Thank you so much, I really, really appreciate it."

"It's fine, really," Minato replied, retuning the smile with a slightly nervous grin. Despite his exterior calm, though, he was internally a bit freaked out, primarily because of how fast she was eating. She wasn't even close to choking, either. After a few more moments of this, Musubi put away the last hamburger and daintily wiped her mouth with a napkin.

"So, Minato-san, you wanted me to explain what was going on with those two twins from before," she said, placing her hands on her calves. "Well, um..." She looked from side to side, rather nervously, and then sighed. "I'm part of a competition. I'm supposed to find my Ashikabi, my destined partner, in order to participate in the next stage. My Ashikabi...he or she is somewhere here, in Shintou Teitou. Those two wanted me out of the way before I found my Ashikabi, so they attacked me."

Minato frowned, both at mention of a competition that would allow such things and at the fact that Musubi even had to fight in the first place—she was definitely more fit than she looked, but she didn't seem suited to a battlefield. "Cowardly."

Musubi's face twisted into a frown of distaste as well, shocking Minato due to how starkly it stood against her normally cheerful countenance. "I agree, but...Well, it's not against the rules to attack Sekirei that don't have an Ashikabi. I still want to fight, but not until I find my Ashikabi. However, I can't go back to where I came from and I don't have any money."

Minato's response was immediate as he pounded the bottom of his fist into his left hand. "Then you can stay here until you find him. Or her. For as long as you need. I don't mind at all."

Though Ootori-san will have my head for it if I can't talk him into it, Minato thought to himself, grimacing mentally at the thought. His landlord had been extremely adamant about enforcing his "male single student resident" policies from the word "go". Trying to convince him to make an exception would likely fail miserably, but Minato didn't have the heart to tell Musubi that, or turn her out of doors. If it came down to it, he'd find a new place and lie to his mother about why he had to move so that he could get her to act as his guarantor at a new place. Or, he would at least try to half-explain Musubi's situation to her if he couldn't think of a good enough fib. He had no intention of leaving Musubi to fend on her own.

Two sharp raps sounded at his door, and Minato turned towards it, groaning as he left behind his train of thought. He could immediately tell that it was Ootori by the style of knocking, and wondered if he had called the landlord to his door by speaking about him. "Come with me, Musubi-san," he said, failing to keep the sullenness out of his voice as he stood up. "We've got some explaining to do."

Blinking owlishly, Musubi followed Minato as he rolled to his feet and walked toward the door, folding her hands over each other as she stood behind him. Without preamble, Minato opened it, looked downward, and was unsurprised to see Ootori's short, fat frame blocking the doorway. "Evening, Sahashi," the older man said, focusing on him with small, squinted eyes before shifting his gaze over to Musubi. "I see you're up to no good here. Forget the terms of your contract?"

"Well, I wanted to talk to you about that," Minato replied, scratching his head as the story he meant to tell came together in his mind. "This girl is a friend of my sister's and she's got nowhere else to go until my sister moves into Shintou Teitou. I know it's bending the rules, but it's only temporary and I swear I'm not doing anything untoward with her. Just a week is all I ask."

Ootori simply folded his arms and closed his eyes, pressing his chunky lips together. His body shifted from side to side slightly, and Minato knew that he was legitimately considering the thought instead of pretending. "Well, you've at least been decent about paying your rent...and you're not the kind to lie." He finally looked at Minato again. "One week. That's all you get. She's not out by next Wednesday, I'm coming to get rid of either her or both of you."

Minato bowed. "Thanks, Ootori-san. You're really considerate."

Ootori snorted, and turned away. "Also—you tell anyone I did you this favor, don't be surprised if your electricity goes out for a month."

Minato fought back a wry grin at the landlord's feeble attempt to hide his embarrassment about being complimented. "My lips are sealed."

Without further preamble, Ootori left, but held up one finger, as if to emphasize his point, as he descended the metal stairs that led up to Minato's room. Minato sighed once the old man was out of range, and turned back towards Musubi. "Well, that went over better than I was expecting. Though, if Ootori-san ever finds out the truth..."

Musubi's lip was quivering so much that Minato thought it was going to fall off. "You're going to lose your house because of me. I didn't mean to—"

He shook his head and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. He felt her twitch slightly, but when she relaxed under his grip, he smiled and kept speaking. "Musubi-san. It'll be fine. Shintou Teitou is a big city, but you're a fast girl. I'm positive you can canvas it in an entire week and find your Ashikabi with no problem. And, if not, then...I'll figure something out. My father always tells me that a man finds a way to work his problems out no matter how long it takes."

Musubi flushed a bright red, and Minato realized that she felt comfortably warm to the touch. He pulled his mind out of the clouds and let her go, then looked up at the sky, leaning against the railing of the stairs. "Well, the sun's still out. I'll cook dinner and then I'll head down to the park to start training again. Do you want to come along?"

Musubi blinked. "Training? What kind of training?"

"You'll see when we get there," Minato said, pulling his gaze down from the sky. "I think you might enjoy watching, so I don't want to spoil the surprise." He smiled at her again, and Musubi felt heat start to blossom across her face and in her chest.

This sensation...what is this sensation? she asked herself.


5:45 PM

The park near Minato's apartment was relatively large but often unvisited during the evening. With the cramped space of his apartment and the occasionally-dirty ground on the complex proper, it was the only place he had to train, and the only place he felt comfortable training in regardless. The grass didn't impede his movement very much, and in fact reminded him of home whenever he got into his routines—there was a thicket of grass near his house that his father would use for training, and the soft sounds that his feet made as he moved through the grass was comforting and familiar.

As always, he started by sitting down, cross-legged, and breathing in and out in a regular rhythm. With every inhalation, he let his stomach swell, and with every exhalation, he pushed out the air he'd gathered. Every repetition made his ki swell and fall comfortably along with his stomach, expanding just a little further every time. Musubi was standing over him, watching with interest, despite the fact that he wasn't doing much aside from sitting and breathing. His deep concentration was stopping her from asking what exactly was going on, but she got her chance when he let out one more breath and stood up.

"Minato-san, what were you doing just now? I haven't seen exercising like that before."

"It's called meditating," Minato replied, beginning a slow set of stretches to loosen his muscles. "In order to practice properly, I have to start and stop each training session like that. It's so that I can remember how to breathe when I'm practicing." He bent down to touch his toes, grunting in satisfaction as he felt several tense muscles in his back slacken slightly. It had been a lot longer than he'd liked since he'd done this, no thanks to studying for the entrance exams; he wasn't as limber as he had been a year ago, even if his body remembered how to move.

Musubi tilted her head to the side. "'How' to breathe?" she asked, scratching her head. "Is the training so hard that you forget things like that when you practice?"

"I didn't mean it quite so literally," Minato said. He straightened up and started another set of stretches, knitting his fingers together and pushing his hands out in front of him; another set of muscles loosened in his arms, creating a pleasant burn. "My style of martial arts believes that in order to fight efficiently, you have to control two things—your breathing, and your movement. When you synchronize the two, your body will build its power—its ki—as you inhale, and let it out as you exhale. It's called 'breathing and walking', and when you use it, it can make your body do all sorts of things it couldn't do before."

After a few moments of thought, Musubi nodded and smiled broadly, crossing her arms. "I sort of don't get it, but it sounds like it makes sense!"

Minato untangled his fingers and shook his head; her enthusiasm was surprisingly infectious, and he was smiling despite his slight exasperation. "All right, then I'll show you, and you'll try it yourself." He flexed his fingers a few times, then closed his eyes to appraise his condition. His body felt warm thanks to his stretches, and his kiwas circulating throughout his body, adding to the sensation of warmth; he opened his eyes and took his basic stance, extending his right hand downward and outward while clenching his left into a fist and bringing it to the side of his body at waist level.

Then, he moved.

His rear foot slid through the grass, practically floating even as it ripped up a few blades. When he brought the heel down on the ground, his left fist straightened and snapped out, punching an invisible opponent in the face. As soon as the motion was finished, he pulled back his hand and struck with his right hand in the same way, then punched out with his left hand, landing three "blows" in total. The routine finished, he pulled back into a neutral stance, exhaling calmly as he did. The ki that had been pulsing through his limbs with each blow settled down as the breath left him, and he turned to Musubi, curious to see how she would react.

Musubi's eyes were almost popping out of her head, and her body was trembling. Her shoulders seemed to bounce up and down in place as she walked closer to Minato, looking up at him with a broad smile. "Minato-san! Those punches just now...they were strong! I could feel them shaking the air!" she said, clasping her hands together in excitement. "Is that really what happens when you do that breathing thing right?"

"Pretty much," he replied. Strangely, her proximity was less awkward than it was when she'd first rushed up to him; in fact, he was actively fighting the urge to step closer, afraid that it would creep her out a bit due to the fact that he was just a bit taller than her. "I'm guessing you want to try it out now, don't you?"

Musubi nodded so vigorously that her head practically turned into a blur. He tapped her on the shoulder a few times to catch her attention; she looked at him in a daze, with a warm blush spreading across her face for a moment or two, and Minato's eyebrow rose slightly. The look on her face was so contrary to the rapt excitement she'd shown moments before; Yukari's moods were mercurial, too, but not quite as extreme as Musubi's. He wasn't used to seeing it or dealing with it, but it wasn't really uncomfortable; it just seemed to suit her.

Then, the moment passed, and she blinked back to attention and put her focus directly on him. Once he saw her eyes focus, Minato stepped back from her a bit. "Right. So, the first thing about this exercise is that you have to be calm. If you're moving all over the place, you're not going to be able to do it properly."

Musubi nodded much more slowly, and lowered her hands to her sides. Minato then sat down on the grass, patting the ground next to him. Musubi followed suit, and once she was sitting next to him, he sat straight up and let his hands rest on his thighs.

"Now, in and out," Minato said, after taking a moment to demonstrate. "It's that simple. Just let your stomach swell out as you take in air, and then slowly push it out by pulling your stomach in. The key is to go slowly though. Too fast, and you're missing the whole point of the exercise."

Musubi didn't even nod in acknowledgment of Minato's words; she'd already started inhaling and exhaling, and was sitting stiller than a stone. Minato knew his own rhythm of breathing well enough that he could tell that Musubi was outright copying him—what was uncanny about it was how perfectly she was had synchronized herself with him. If he closed his eyes and listened, he could imagine thinking that he was listening to himself exercise.

Meanwhile, Musubi had fallen into a sort of trance; at first she'd had to consciously attempt to keep her breathing going, but she managed to get the hang of it just quickly enough that she didn't have to concentrate anymore. Aside from her own breathing and her heartbeat, everything else had dropped away from her hearing. As she continued to breathe, warmth flooded out from her stomach, then drew back into it. It was soothing, and her muscles slowly began to loosen as the exercise went on.

After what might have been a moment, a minute, or an hour, a different warmth flooded to her face as she somehow became aware of Minato joining her in the exercise; she couldn't hear him shifting on the grass, but instead felt something else warm up beside her.

It was all so strange, Musubi realized. Whenever he touched her or looked at her, her body would become inexplicably warm, and it only seemed to be getting more and more noticeable as time went on. He was a nice person, yes, and really strong besides that, but this pervasive warmth wouldn't leave her alone. It was almost unbearable, but at the same time it felt...natural. As if the feeling Minato gave her was always supposed to be with her, but was only just now coming to her.

While she sat there, trying to puzzle those feelings out, a female voice spoke to her. It was gentle and soft, but it didn't seem to come from anywhere. The words simply flowed into her head as if they were her own thoughts."Musubi-chan..." it whispered. "Musubi-chan...he's here. Don't let him get away from you, Musubi-chan. Your Ashikabi..."

Reflexively, her eyes blinked open thanks to the disturbance, and her breathing halted as she stopped meditating. Minato looked over at her with concern in his eyes. "Something wrong, Musubi-san?"

The warmth spread through her again, and she realized that she was blushing furiously as she looked at the expression on Minato's face. "I thought I heard someone say my name."

Minato's pensive frown only deepened. "You seem flushed," he said, putting a hand on her forehead. "Are you feeling lightheaded?"

The moment he made contact with her again, Musubi did feel a bit faint, and her heartbeat sped up. However, she knew that she couldn't be sick. She'd been told by her adjuster, a long time ago, that she was probably never going to catch anything worse than the common cold, and even that would be difficult given her physiology. The only time she would feel anything like what she felt now was if she were reacting to her Ashikabi. So the voice just now was right, she thought. Someone so strong...is my Ashikabi. She smiled to herself despite the feverish warmth. They were well-suited to each other, it seemed. The gods were truly smiling on her if they saw fit to give her such a person as an Ashikabi.

She gently grasped Minato's broad, callused hand with her two smaller ones, and pulled it down from her forehead, placing it on the center of her chest. Though Minato was uncomfortably aware of how close his hand was to her cleavage, he soon lost sight of that when he realized that he could feel Musubi's heartbeat like a jackhammer. "You're really not well," he said, shifting to stand up and pull her with him. "Your heart's racing and you're flushed. We need to get you to a doctor as soon as we can."

When Musubi replied, her voice was breathy and barely above a whisper in volume; regardless, it was so assured that he stopped trying to move. "No, Minato-san. I...I'm all right." She drew closer to him, and he was suddenly aware of a warm heat between them that hadn't been there before. It was strange and comforting all at the same time; it felt familiar now that it was there, but he objectively knew that he had never felt this before. "Do you feel it? This warmth, this pulse...if my Ashikabi weren't here in front of my eyes, I wouldn't have this feeling. I'm certain of it. Minato-san...no, Minato-sama, you are my Ashikabi."

And with that, she closed the distance between them, gently pushing him down a bit, and kissed him full on the lips. For his part, Minato was too taken aback by her sudden forwardness to complain about being taken by surprise. And the kiss itself felt wonderful; her lips were warm and smooth, while she held him down with just the right amount of strength and gentleness.

What did not escape his notice was the sudden glow at her back. Six—or eight?—thin ovals of pink light spread outward from between her shoulder blades, appearing for all the world like a dragonfly's wings but with sharper, tapered edges. Simply looking at them made him feel as if he were feeling his own ki flowing through his body. Could that be what they were made of? he wondered. Pure ki? Or am I just imagining things?

Then, the lights faded, and Musubi, no longer flushed or short of breath, broke the kiss, gently pulling Minato up and embracing him tightly. "And now, my Ashikabi, we are bound together now and forever."

Minato finally managed to get a hold of his tongue again. "Ashikabi? Forever...?" He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, but he was too bewildered by the kiss and the lights to articulate himself. "Musubi-san...?"

Musubi smiled gently, pulled away from him, and caressed his face briefly. She was still warm, and Minato felt his skin tingle where her fingertips trailed along his cheeks. "Those lights, Minato-sama, were my wings. I am a Sekirei, and you are my Ashikabi, my destined partner." She closed her eyes and bowed her head, clasping her hands together again as if she were in prayer. "I will fight for you now, and together, we'll ascend into the higher sky."

After a few more moments of staring at her, taking in her earnest smile and the overflowing joy from her body language, Minato finally managed to ask the question that summed up all of his feelings about what had just happened.

"Wait, what?"


Author's Notes

I'm back, everyone. Good to be back, too.

I've been tossing around this story idea for a while, mostly because I wanted to avoid jumping into Bleach again. I know people are hungry for Substitute School, but as much fun as I have writing that series, I nearly had a total burnout near the end of First Semester. So I started this to try something a little new and a little familiar at the same time, and right now I'm sitting on five finished chapters. Releases will be bi-weekly to start with so that I can keep on top of my buffer in case something goes wrong, but at the minimum I intend to put out a chapter a month; if possible, I want to step up to weekly chapters so that I don't take another year to finish this, even though it's going to stop where the first anime season does. Chapter length will likely be a bit more variable as a result.

Unlike Substitute School, I'll be making a concerted effort to avoid using extraneous Japanese, so there won't really need to be a Cultural Notes section. I will still respond to reviews like I did in Substitute School, though.

Anyway, I'll see you all in two weeks with the next chapter. I may release it early if I can get one or two more done in the intervening time.

~ZS