A/N: I didn't include this in my "Duran and Kiyohime's Omake Theater" stories because all of those, despite their cracky-ness, actually do take place in a single, coherent narrative continuity. This...does not. ^_^

~X X X~

The sky was a dull, leaden gray; though the storm had passed, the sun had yet to break through and scatter the gloom. The colors of everything seemed faded, washed out, the green of the trees, the black of the pavement, the gray stone of the retaining wall above the curve, the brown of the dirt, all were dim to Natsuki's eyes like the design on a T-shirt run through the laundry too many times.

Yet somehow the crimson naginata in Shizuru's hands glinted, as if its blade was keen enough to splinter the dull afternoon sky and scatter the light within along its edge. No normal weapon could be so sharp; this was something beyond human make. An Element. Highly-advanced Materializing Equipment.

She could only stare in disbelief at her friend, the one person she'd thought that she knew and trusted.

"Shizuru," Natsuki murmured.

Why didn't she tell me she was a HiME?

"I'll never allow anyone to hurt her and get away with it." Shizuru didn't so much as raise her voice. Her tone was plain, conversational; she was merely stating facts. "Whatever the reason."

Nao chortled at the declaration.

"I get it. The rumors are true. If anyone needs counseling, it's you!"

From the clawed gauntlets covering the red-haired delinquent's hands came a cloud of crimson threads, as strong as steel cables and yet so thin that they could split metal or stone in two.

"You're annoying!" Nao shouted, and lashed out with the threads. They coiled around the naginata's blade and Nao pulled, trying to control the weapon like a puppeteer playing a marionette's strings.

Neither the accusation nor the attack had any apparent impact on Shizuru. Her serene expression did not change, and the one word she spoke gave away no more emotion than she had before.

"Kiyohime."

Nao braced herself, expecting something to happen. The word wasn't a battle cry or an accusation, she was sure.

But nothing occurred.

Shizuru arched an eyebrow.

"Kiyohime," she repeated, more firmly.

The waves crashed against the cliff down below.

"Kiyohime!" Shizuru shouted.

Nao cracked up laughing.

"Oh, this is rich!" she cackled. "Our famous Student Council President, the girl who's supposed to be such a great leader that she negotiates major endowment deals with bigwig politicians and company presidents, can't even get her CHILD to come when she calls!"

~X X X~

The keen eyes of a circling buzzard raked the desert floor, taking in everything, alert for the slightest hint of a meal. There hadn't been anything promising for an hour, but at last it had caught sight of something. A mounded trail of dirt moved across the rocky sand, marking the path of a burrowing animal beneath the surface, perhaps a prairie dog or some other small, digging mammal. Banking, the bird turned in flight and began to descend, anticipating the juicy taste of fresh meat in its beak.

Until it began to get closer and realized as the trail passed a cactus that its sense of perspective had been off. Way off. Way, way off. "The thing making that trail is at least the size of a small building" off.

The buzzard turned and flapped away as fast as its wings could carry it. And after all, it rationalized, I could never eat anything that big by myself. It would be ecologically wasteful to just leave the extra.

The bird, therefore, was not there when the trail of earth stopped advancing and six massive, purple-scaled snake-heads popped up through the earth. Kiyohime looked around, blinking in surprise at the desert scenery. Her second and fifth heads dipped back underground, then came back up again with a map unrolled between two sets of jaws. The other heads clustered around, getting a good look. After a few minutes spent comparing what they could see with what was printed on the page, six long sighs rose through the desert air.

She knew she should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque!