Sorry about the delay, a combination of work and family, not to mention the vicious cold I've had for the last week, have conspired to slow my writing. On the other hand, you get nearly 52Kwords out of me this time, so there's that. I wanted to get this out for Christmas, but cold, as I said. So this is Happy New Year instead.

The last chapter has so far the largest number of reviews yet, at 67 to date. Whee!

This concludes the Akane-centric part of the current story. While there will be other similar things in future they will be much shorter. I may well do spin-off stories to examine other parts of that direction at some point.

Thanks very much indeed for all the positive feedback and supportive comments the previous chapter produced. It always makes my day. As always, all reviews are read and appreciated.

Even the grossly negative ones are interesting in a peculiar way I guess, because at least I've managed to affect someone enough to make them react, even if it is in an abusive and totally pointless manner! That said, there is a point past which the amusement value diminishes to zero, which I reached last month...

I'll leave the guest moderation on for now, although I might review that in future. I've been told that there seems to be a lot of it going around at the moment so I suppose someone's bored or something. I will, as I said, accept reviews that aren't positive perfectly happily, as long as they're polite. I might not agree with them but I'm always willing to see another viewpoint. Sometimes they make good points even if I don't agree with them in their entirety. Insane rants get redirected to non-existence.

I don't normally answer specific questions in these little diatribes for a number of reasons, but I need to address one raised by a guest reviewer for the last chapter, as follows:

I have no intention of abandoning this story.

Absent being hit by a bus or falling off a cliff I will complete it. I have an end game in mind, although that's a way off yet, and I will get there. There will be other side stories, there is also a follow-on story I have vague plans for at this point, but the one thing you can be sure of is that I intend to continue the main DSR story until I can tick the box labelled 'complete'. The thing has grown far past any sensible size that I might have originally thought possible but I'm committed now and I like to finish what I've started. Plus it's damn good fun.

I feel the same way about fanfics which are abandoned, even as I understand sometimes there are good reasons for it, as several people have remarked they feel. It's very annoying! Getting invested in a story and then being left hanging is a pain in the arse. It's as bad as a lot of the better US TV, which always gets killed just as it's getting good, while the dreck runs for years :(

The pace of updates has slowed over the last few updates mainly due to a lot of work, which goes in waves. When I started it I didn't have a lot else to do, this year, though, has been very busy. I even have other hobbies that occasionally require feeding. But I'm still pumping out around 30-40k words a month and can probably keep that up for a good while yet before the arthritis sets in from all the typing. I have far more ideas than seems reasonable...

The number of people reading seems to be steadily increasing as I said last time, for whatever reason, which gives me even more incentive than personal pleasure. I wouldn't want to disappoint either of my fans!

It's becoming apparent that I need to do a one-shot featuring Ms Aoyama sooner or later. I have a few other more or less standalone ideas to do when I have time, including at least one more prequel to DSR covering the time between 'The Fugitives' and the main story. The only problem with doing one for the creepy woman in question is that without reading the main, quite long, story, new readers are likely to be more than a little confused. I'll have to think about it. There are also future developments in the character that we need to reach before I can do it justice. I do, I have to admit, have a couple of ideas for a plot though.

Oh yes. While I think about it. I've made my feelings on random cross-overs for their own sake clear in the past, i.e. I'm not really in favour of them. However, that said, a friend prevailed upon me to write a story that was a crossover between DSR and BtVS, a series I find vaguely amusing to a point but have never really gotten into. It's provisionally entitled "Xander meets Ms Aoyama", unimaginative certainly as it basically gives away the entire concept in four words :) It's not at the moment really canon vis-a-vis DSR and is definitely not canon in the BtVS universe, but to make them match up at all this is unavoidable. Not that I'm all that worried about canonical fan fiction of course, it's far too limiting! I'm in two minds as to whether to post it or just give it to my friend for Christmas. It would fulfil the above requirements to a degree, which might be worth considering further.

It's not finished yet, I add to it when I'm at a loose end, and it will probably only be a standalone side story that may or may not ever be referenced in the main DSR line. Even if I roll it in it would be in a couple of years of story time, it relies on a number of things that haven't happened yet.

Hardcore Buffy fans will probably throw a piston as it most likely horribly breaks certain standards they hold dear, this seems to be a regular occurrence in some fandoms. It's a good thing that Ranma fans are in general more mature, isn't it...? But then, as we're all aware, in the Ranmaverse Anything Goes ;)

Any thoughts for or against?

I'm not likely to do many of this nature, although the same friend seems to like Harry Potter. I don't, not really, although the movies were quite good in some ways. The entire world of HP I find somewhat logically inconsistent and rather repulsive for a number of reasons. It's well written certainly but not my cup of tea. I'm not at the moment very interested in any DSR/HP crosses. If I ever did do one I'm afraid that many of the inhabitants of that world would end up having a very bad day.

I quite like Luna though.

In fact, having written this preface, a (non-DSR) story with her in it came to mind and wouldn't leave me alone until I wrote it. You can find it on my page.

Incidentally the British mages in DSR are not, in fact, despite some messages I've received asking about it, based on those books at all, although there is a similarity due to them primarily being wand users. Neither is the Ministry of Magic, the name is merely the logical one for a UK governmental organisation dealing with magical activities.

There are also other mages and magic workers around the place, quite a few of them, as has been mentioned several times, but by and large they stick to their own activities and keep their heads down. Japan is, for reasons not so far adequately explained, the most visible place where the magic users and the rest of the population interact, and the magical girls are the most obvious example of that. Even though technically they're not on the whole mages as such, merely users of what in many cases is preposterously powerful magic in combat situations. Which is why real mages tend to be very, very polite to them :)

Some of them will turn up at various points.

"Good lord," Adrian commented mildly, peering out the windscreen of the car. "That was the loudest obscenity I've ever heard." He was smirking a little. Aiko giggled, following his gaze. Behind them, Shampoo and Akane were laughing quite hard. They all stared at Matt and Aaron who were gaping back wide-eyed at where the Mercedes had abruptly appeared in the middle of the vehicle depot car park, which apparently Aiko had aimed at to give them space for the experimental teleportation.

Between the two other men, Greg was pointing at the car, his mouth moving but no words coming out after his shout of surprised shock. After several seconds, the other two turned to look at each other, then each one took an arm of their colleague and gently carried him back into the vehicle depot, probably aiming for his good whisky. Shaking his head a little, Adrian started the car and drove it over to beside the building where he parked it, then shut it down once more. "It still seems to work," he said to the magical girl beside him.

She looked pleased, nodding. "I told you it would be fine," she replied. "And I'm really happy that I worked out how to do that. It could be useful."

"Certainly beats pushing through the traffic at this time of day," he agreed, opening the door and getting out. The three women did likewise, all of them closing the doors and coming around to his side.

"How large a vehicle do you think you could do that with?" Akane asked curiously when she stopped beside Aiko, who glanced at her, then studied the car thoughtfully.

"I'm not sure," the other woman replied slowly. "It's not actually a matter of mass like you'd sort of expect. I can handle, oh, maybe a dozen people or so at once, before it gets... well, difficult isn't quite the right word but I can't explain it better than that." She shrugged. "The vocabulary isn't there for what I do to allow me to explain it simply, unless you know a lot about magical theory. Anyway, this experiment was very interesting, I modified the magic to allow a larger area to be teleported, which encompassed the car and everyone in it. It took a little more magical energy than teleporting only the four of us but nowhere near as much as I expected. I'm going to have to think about it for a while, and do some more experiments, but based on this one, I think I could probably handle something as big as a medium-sized truck without huge effort. Possibly larger, but I'm not sure without trying."

"Does it tire you out doing that?" Adrian inquired with a fascinated expression as he listened. "I mean, the energy has to come from somewhere, right?"

Aiko smiled at him. "When I first learned to do this it was quite tiring, yes," she said, nodding. "I didn't have very large magical reserves, nothing like as large as I do now, so I needed to sort of recharge between teleports for a little while. And I could only manage myself and maybe two or three people as well at best. But I steadily improved as time went on, both in skill in doing it and power level as well. Yori says that's normal, it's like practising anything, the more you do it the better you tend to get, and also more efficient." She grinned for a moment. "Yori's very keen on efficiency. She's always been a little annoyed at some of the other girls who splash power around like it's going out of fashion but couldn't hit the ground with a brick."

Adrian snickered again. "I sort of got that impression when we met the first time. She struck me as a young woman who is very careful with what she does."

"She has to be," Aiko agreed soberly. "The power level she has is absolutely terrifying. If she wasn't careful, you wouldn't want to be around when she did anything. None of the rest of us are anywhere near her level yet, although Chou is the nearest right now."

"Is there an upper limit to this sort of ability?" he asked as they began heading into the garage through the opened vehicle door, Akane and Shampoo following and listening with interest. She shrugged a little.

"I assume there must be but if so none of us have found it yet. Everyone we know has different inherent power levels, and I do know that some, possibly most, people simply can't progress past various points without risking severe damage to themselves, but what the absolute limit is I have no idea. Neither does Yori and she's the de facto expert on most of the techniques we use. She and Chou between them invented half of them. Neither one is a mage in the traditional sense but they know more about magic itself than any mage I know. And ki, which is what we also use a lot of for various things." She looked over her shoulder at Akane for a moment.

"For example, Akane has a lot more ki ability than probably ninety-nine percent plus of the general population in Japan, but her raw power level will never reach anywhere near what even my friend Azumi has, and Azumi is still the lowest-powered of our little group. Sorry, Akane, I know how that sounds, but I'm not trying to be rude." She smiled at the youngest Tendo, who grinned and shrugged.

"I know you're not. Like I've said, I know my own limitations and I'm not too worried about it any more."

"Good," Aiko replied, looking pleased. She returned her attention to Adrian. "But that said, even without the power, Akane here can still learn to use what she has very efficiently with enough work, which will probably allow some interesting things. She's already using it subconsciously to improve her strength and speed, for example. That's the first thing advanced martial artists who reach this point, which isn't that many, believe me, end up doing. Most of them don't progress past that but the ones who learn conscious control can learn all sorts of techniques. You saw Genma, for example, and Soun knows a number of methods that use ki in various ways."

She nodded at Shampoo. "The Amazons have all sorts of techniques based around ki as well. The hidden weapons technique is an example. That needs a lot of control ability but not too much power, so most ki capable people could learn it to some extent if they were willing to practise enough. From what I know of Mousse, Shampoo's friend from her tribe, he's a master of it, although Cologne has vastly more ki and isn't as good at that particular technique."

"Is true," Shampoo put in. "Mousse best in village at hidden weapons. Even elders impressed. Has true gift for it." She shrugged, sighing. "But still a nuisance sometimes."

With a small laugh, Akane nudged her friend. "You know you'd miss him if he vanished, though."

"Maybe," the Amazon snickered. "Maybe not. Is truth he not so annoying these days and is good sparring partner with weapons."

"It sounds very interesting but very complicated," Adrian remarked as they arrived at Greg's office, peering in to see the man himself sipping a small glass of the whisky he kept in his desk with a trembling hand, Aaron and Matt watching, each with their own tiny measure. All three of them looked up at his voice, Matt grinning, Aaron looking mildly amused yet otherwise unmoved, and poor Greg staring at them like he'd seen something from the pits of hell jump out at him.

"It is," Aiko agreed. Moving past him she stopped in front of Greg. "I'm sorry, Greg," she continued, directing her attention towards him and smiling gently. "I really am. I didn't mean to scare you or upset you, it was the largest space to aim for and I was trying something new because we were late."

He opened his mouth, paused, sighed and tipped the remainder of the spirits in, swallowing hard, then put the glass on his desk with a click. After a few seconds he shrugged. "It's OK, Aiko. I suppose I'll have to get accustomed to all my normal beliefs vanishing into thin air with you girls around." He sighed again, heavily. "But please try not to make cars appear out of nowhere twenty feet in front of me without any warning again, will you? I nearly had a coronary."

With a small laugh she bowed a little, nodding. "I will do my best, I promise."

"Thank you," he replied. Screwing the cap back on his expensive whisky he put it away in his desk. "You don't deserve any," he said darkly to Adrian when the director looked mildly disappointed. Everyone else grinned at his comment while Adrian sighed theatrically. "Where the hell have you all been anyway?" the stunt instructor asked, looking at his watch. "We were expecting you about three hours ago."

"Ah. There's a story there," Adrian chuckled. "I needed to stop in at the bank on the way here, and one thing led to another..." He and the three women took turns explaining the events of the last few hours to all three men, who listened with shock and interest. Finishing fifteen minutes later, he shrugged. "And that's more or less it. Then Aiko had the bright idea to save time and try a new trick. You know the rest."

Matt, Aaron, and Greg exchanged glances. "OK," Matt eventually drawled slowly, shaking his head. "You win, you guys had a more interesting morning than we did." Turning to Akane, he added wonderingly, "Through the face?"

She grinned with a nod. "It seemed appropriate and it certainly worked. You should have seen the look on his face before he fainted." Matt stared at her for a moment then burst out laughing.

"I can imagine," he finally managed, leaning weakly on the desk. "I'm almost sorry for the bastard."

"I'm not," Adrian growled, Shampoo nodding beside him with an annoyed expression. "He and his friends are complete assholes, and murdering ones at that. The cops are going to crucify them, then the FBI is going to burn what's left. That Agent Tinnin guy seemed in a pretty bad mood as far as those people were concerned. I certainly wouldn't like to be in their shoes. He struck me as someone you didn't want to get on the wrong side of." After a moment, he thoughtfully added, "And if the LAPD or the FBI miss anything, that Ms Aoyama woman will do something horrible to them. She was absolutely horrific."

Beside him, Akane and Shampoo both shivered, looking pale. The other three men studied them with curiosity. "Who is she?" the director asked after a moment. "She's obviously met you before, she seems to know a lot about both of you."

""You have no idea," Akane replied in a low voice, shivering again. Looking up, she shook her head slightly. "No one seems to know for sure. Or, at least, I'm sure Yori and the others know, but they're not telling." Everyone's gaze switched to Aiko, who was looking faintly amused.

"Trust me, you don't really want to know," the brunette said lightly. "But there are a few important things you should realise about Ms Aoyama. One, she is a good person but at the same time she's very definitely not someone you should ever get on the wrong side of. Two, she knows more about everything than you'd believe. Three, she never, or at least hardly ever, gives second chances." Aiko smiled unnervingly. "So far no one has pushed her far enough to see what would happen if she got irritated. We're all quite interested to see what happens if that ever occurs, but we'll be watching from a safe distance if it does. Probably the moon."

The petite woman stopped speaking, while Akane and Shampoo had paled even more. "Who the hell does she work for?" Matt asked almost in a whisper. The young woman's words, even delivered in her cheerful voice, or perhaps because of that, somehow made them all feel worried.

Aiko chuckled. "No one is sure and she's not saying. Assume they can reach anyone, anywhere, and you're probably on the right path, though." She looked quite amused by their reactions. "Oh, calm down, guys. She's not going to come and get you in the middle of the night."

"No, Ms Aoyama would take you in middle of day when you thought were safe," Shampoo said darkly, her eyes looking in to the corners of the room with rapid movements. "She most creepy person in world."

"True," Aiko grinned. "She'd probably enjoy you saying that, I think she's amused by the reactions most people have to her. In her own weird way, I mean."

"She sounds pretty scary," Greg commented, looking puzzled when Akane and Shampoo both made frantic shushing noises while looking around again. "Oh, come on, girls, she can't be that..."

The phone on his desk rang.

Everyone looked at it.

Akane went white.

"Oh, god, now you've annoyed her," she said quietly, backing away. Adrian looked at her, then Shampoo who appeared nearly as worried, then Aiko who had a blank expression on her face although he felt she was somehow still amused.

"Perhaps you should answer it, Greg," he suggested as the phone rang again. The driving instructor looked at him, then reached out to the phone. Just before his hand reached it the ringing stopped.

"There, you see, nothing to worry about," he said, even so looking rather relieved. The atmosphere in the room had begun getting to him despite his best efforts, the genuine fear in the eyes of the two martial artists was unnerving.

"Indeed, Mr Crossley," a chillingly cold voice sounded, coming from the phone speaker, which had somehow turned itself on. Everyone but Aiko jumped violently. "I merely wished to suggest that it would be prudent for Ms Pu and Ms Tendo to proceed with their tasks for today as expeditiously as possible since several hours were lost during the unfortunate events of this morning, despite Ms Aiko's investigations into advanced teleportation manipulation. My compliments, by the way, Ms Aiko, your achievement has been noted with interest. May I also suggest that you utilise this new skill in the transportation of Mr Stewart and his colleagues to the secondary site at the appropriate juncture?"

There was dead silence in the room, most of those present almost having stopped breathing. The voice really was that creepy. After a second or two, it continued, "Additionally, Mr Stewart, I wish to inform you that you will find a visual and audio record of Ms Tendo's and Ms Pu's actions today on your computer system in a format that your equipment can utilise. My employers would like me to pass on their expectations for a fruitful demonstration. We await the results with considerable curiosity."

After a long, horrified pause, Akane managed to choke out, "Thank you, Ms Aoyama. We were just getting ready to get to work."

"As you say, Ms Tendo. I have no doubt that your considerable talents will stand you in good stead, as in the case of Ms Pu, during the career opportunity you have been offered. I must return to my own work, but I wish you good fortune. Farewell." The line went dead.

Several thousand kilometres away in a comfortable bed in an apartment in Minato, Nabiki giggled to herself, sent Aiko a quick thank you, then fell asleep feeling content.

"Well, that was weird, wasn't it?" Aiko commented brightly, clapping her hands together and making everyone jump, tearing their fascinated and horrified gazes from the innocent telephone and directing them to her. "Shall we get on with it? She's right, we're wasting time here."

"Holy crap," Matt managed after a moment. He'd edged away from the phone the whole time the woman on the other end, wherever that really was, was speaking, and was now leaning against the wall of the office as far from the device as he could get.

"See? See?!" Akane pointed dramatically at the phone with a trembling finger. "She knows everything we do!"

"Relax, Akane," Aiko reassured her, smiling. "I told you, she seems to like both of you. That was her in an unusually nice mood. I think she was being friendly if anything." The brunette thought for a moment, raising an eyebrow. "Well, for her definition of friendly at any rate." She shrugged. "I'll admit, it takes getting used to but she means well. Trust me, you'd know it if she was annoyed." After more thought, she grinned in a worrying manner. "Or perhaps you wouldn't. It would be quick, though."

"Oh, thanks a hell of a lot, Aiko, that makes me feel so much better," Akane snapped, glaring at the brunette woman, who started giggling.

"Come on, Akane, it's kind of funny in a weird way. Don't let it bother you. Let's get you guys to work and forget about terrifying alien women and bank robberies for the moment. Don't forget, there's one of Richard's barbecues to look forward to later."

It took a little while, but eventually with a deliberate act of will Akane forced her worry down and nodded. "OK." Breathing deeply a few times and closing her eyes for a moment, she nodded again. "OK. Right. How are we going to do this, Adrian?" Opening her eyes she turned to the director who was looking at the phone again, but turned to her when she spoke.

"You know some very scary people," he muttered then seemed to get hold of himself. Looking at his watch he thought for a few seconds. "All right, let's see. We're running, hmm, three hours and twenty minutes or so behind schedule. That's annoying. But..." He turned to Aiko. "Is it possible for you to teleport the vehicles to the airfield? If you could, that would save at least two, maybe three hours of driving, depending on traffic, which would put us more or less back on track. The airfield is the problem, we'll run out of light if we wait too long and that will lose us a day."

Aiko thoughtfully nodded. "I think I might be able to. I can certainly give it a try." She looked at Greg. "Mind if I borrow one of your trucks for a few minutes?" The stunt instructor stared at her, before nodding slowly.

"Why not? If you're going to break the laws of the universe you might as well do it right, I suppose." He stood up, then paused. "You'll bring it back, right? Only I'm responsible for it and those things aren't cheap."

She laughed momentarily, nodding. "Don't worry, I'm not going to steal your truck. I'll just pop it out to the airfield and back to make sure I actually can. I think it's possible but I won't know for sure until I try."

"OK. Use the one parked around the side. It's the one with the bikes in."

The brunette smiled at him. "Thanks." She headed out of the office, the others exchanging looks then following curiously. Going around to the side of the large garage she opened the door of the medium-duty truck and climbed in, sitting in the drivers seat. Rolling down the window, she leaned out. "The flash will probably be pretty intense so I'd suggest looking away."

They all nodded like a row of dolls, then obediently turned around. Several seconds passed, broken only by the young woman muttering to herself, then there was a triumphant, "Got it." The flash that followed was dazzling even reflected off the walls of the buildings. Turning back they all stared at the absence of over ten tons of vehicle.

Aaron whistled. "Impressive," he said in a low voice. "Very impressive."

Moments later the vehicle reappeared soundlessly, making them twitch despite themselves. "And so is that," he added softly. Aiko opened the door and dropped lightly to the ground, a broad smile on her face.

"It's close to the limit of what I can do at the moment, I think, but it's not too hard. It sort of gets... more complex... I guess, the larger the payload, there's all sorts of things to keep track of, but I can handle something this size OK. I'm going to have to practice with big loads. I'm curious to see how large an item I can learn to transport. I have to see if I can work out how to get rid of the flash as well, sooner or later." She looked very pleased with herself.

"That's incredible," Adrian told her, looking a little startled, but also pleased. "And if you don't mind transporting us, it will save a lot of time."

"Sure, I don't mind at all," she assured him. "Although I should probably hop everyone who's going and hasn't teleported before across the yard first so they can get over the initial sickness outside the vehicles. No reason to have the seats covered in vomit." She snickered as he looked faintly disgusted, obviously remembering his own first teleport.

"No, I can certainly go along with that," he agreed. After a few seconds he smiled. "Well, we should try and get back to our schedule, then. With you able to transport us, we're not more than about half an hour behind where I was hoping to be now, so I think we can still get things together and do what we planned to do." He looked at his watch and made a quick mental calculation, nodding to himself. "Yes, it should all work out nicely. Good." He looked up as Jim came around the corner of the garage and headed towards them with a curious expression. "Hi, Jim."

"Hi, guys," the other man replied, nodding to them all. "I was wondering where you all got to. Anton is wandering around asking if you're going to be ready soon. He wants to watch the stunts in Stage One, he's got a look on his face like a ten year old at Christmas." Adrian grinned, as did most of the others.

"We ran into a few snags earlier on but we're back on track now," he explained. "I'll tell you about it later." Turning to the rest of the little group, he addressed Akane and Shampoo. "If you two would like to head over to Stage One with Matt, I'll go and make sure everything's in place, then we can go over the notes for the first scene again. Did you read the paperwork last night?"

Akane nodded, as did Shampoo. "Yes, we went over everything before we went to bed and again at breakfast. It looks like fun."

"It's going to be pretty good," he chuckled. "Aaron will get you outfitted with the weapons, there will be someone from wardrobe with the clothes, and the extras and camera guys should all be set up by now." He glanced at Matt, who made an affirmative gesture.

"My guys are all ready and sitting around drinking coffee waiting," the stunt coordinator replied to the unasked question.

"Great. OK, you guys head over and I'll go and talk to Anton. We'll meet you there in about twenty minutes." Jim followed as he left, both of them talking. Greg watched the two men leave then turned to Matt.

"Mind if I come over later and watch?" he enquired. Matt grinned at him.

"No problem."

"Thanks. I've got some paperwork to finish but that will only take about forty minutes." He nodded to his colleague, then the others, before looking at the truck and Aiko, who smiled at him. Shaking his head a little he also left, going back into the vehicle depot. Matt chuckled at his actions before turning to the women.

"Poor guy. Greg is a very good man and a friend but it always takes him a little while to get comfortable with new ideas. You lot count as very new ideas."

Akane snickered. "I can understand that." Shampoo and Aiko grinned as well. "I like him, though. He's a very good driver and an excellent teacher."

"He is that," Matt agreed. Waving in the direction of the relevant part of the studio, he added, "Shall we?"

"Certainly," she replied politely, before smiling again. The three women and two men headed off across the parking lot.

Looking around at the complex set in the huge building, Akane smiled to herself, before turning to Shampoo, who was also looking excited. Two camera crews were setting up their equipment, the same ones who had filmed the demonstration, one or two of them nodding to the two women as they entered the sound stage. "This is going to be fun," she commented, the Amazon nodding in glee.

"Damn right," the other woman replied with a small giggle of joy. Aiko reappeared next to her as she returned from taking Chou, Tamiko, and Agent Naito back home, looking around with interest but saying nothing.

"OK, this is the set for scene eighteen," Adrian announced, looking around with satisfaction as he entered with Anton next to him. "It was a damn nuisance to shoot for the movie, but it looks really impressive." Everyone gathered around him as he pulled a clipboard from under his arm and flipped through some papers on it, then pulled several sheets off and handed them around. "These are the scene notes for reference." Anton read his handout with interest, looking up at the set as a number of grips made the final adjustments on it.

"I remember what a pain this was. But you're right, it came out very well in the end. How many takes was it?"

Adrian sighed. "Something like sixteen. I'm hoping this will be a little more straightforward." Matt patted him on the shoulder comfortingly while Aaron grinned a little.

"Make sure you've taken a pill first. You know what you get like when you're directing." Pushing the hand off his shoulder Adrian looked mildly annoyed as the others snickered at his expression.

"Yes, thank you, I took a pill. All right, let's go over the plan. Akane, we'll start with you in the role of the spy, and you'll be the bad guy, Shampoo. Once you're sure you've got it, we'll swap roles and do it again. Does that sound OK?" Both young women nodded. "Let's get you in costume."

The group walked over to the side of the cavernous room to where several people, mostly women, were sorting through a pile of clothing. The elderly woman who was clearly in charge smiled at them all. "Hi, Gladys. Doing this yourself?" the director chuckled as he greeted her.

"Of course, that way I can watch," the old woman replied with a smile. She turned to Akane and Shampoo. "It's nice to see you both again," she added. They'd been introduced a couple of days earlier during their tour of the studio.

"Hello, Gladys," Akane smiled. "How are you?"

"I'm fine, thanks, dear. How are you? Based on what you did to my motorcycle suit you must have spent some time sliding around on your back." The wardrobe manager looked concerned. "Are you all right?"

Laughing slightly, the youngest Tendo nodded. "I'm completely fine, don't worry. I bounce."

"Bounced a lot," Shampoo giggled, making Aiko snicker. "Many times."

Shaking her head in amused wonder, Gladys stepped back and looked them both up and down for a moment. "Very impressive. All right, let's get you both in costume." She picked up a shirt, holding it against Akane and studying it closely with an expert eye. "Good, we got your measurements right. Let me see, you'll need this... and this... and one of these..." She piled half a dozen garments in Akane's arms. "The changing room is just over there, dear. Put all that on and we'll see how it looks." As the Tendo sister went off to change, she could hear the costumer start again with Shampoo, who soon joined her in the next room.

Quickly divesting herself of her clothes, she neatly folded them on a chair in the room she was using, then changed into the clothing Gladys had given her. Adjusting the thin but tight top slightly she looked at herself in the mirror. 'Wow,' she thought in mild shock. 'Not exactly my normal look, but it's not bad.' Turning slightly she ran her hands down her sides smoothing out the fabric. She was now wearing a dark blue, nearly skin tight top with a leather jacket over it, black pants, and a pair of boots not unlike the ones Yori and her friends wore, which had velcro straps. They gave very good traction while being flexible and light.

The top exposed her arms from about halfway down her upper arm, clinging tightly but still allowing free movement and apparently breathing well. Taking the jacket off again, she stepped back from the mirror and went through a couple of katas, checking how everything fitted and finding it didn't restrict her at all. "Not bad at all," she mumbled out loud, smiling. She dug a hairbrush out of her bag and quickly sorted out her hair, before putting the jacket back on and the brush away. "Not bad at all. Akane Tendo, Super Spy." Posing, she began giggling at the absurdity of it all. "How the hell did I end up here?" she asked herself, shaking her head in amusement. Turning from the mirror she opened the door, just as Shampoo came out of the next room.

Both young women looked at each other and grinned. The Amazon was dressed in a similar manner, although her top was black and cut differently. She had tied her hair back in a somewhat modified version of her normal ponytail, which exposed her face slightly more than normal, without the bangs she usually had on each side. "That look suits you," Akane noted. Shampoo looked down at herself, then back at her friend.

"I could say the same. Are you going to dress like that at home?" she asked with a grin. "Nodoka might find it a little showy."

Posing, Akane laughed for a moment. "Perhaps the motorcycle suit would be better. That's even tighter." They stood next to each other and studied their reflections in the large mirror the changing area had on the wall. "You know, we make this look good, don't you think?" she asked with a snicker.

"I do. So, Ms Tendo, shall we go and see what happens in our first real stunt scene?"

"I believe we should, Ms Pu." Grinning, they both left the changing area.

"Wow," Matt muttered, making Adrian turn away from where he was going over some notes with Jim and Aaron, Anton listening quietly, to follow his eyes. Both the young women who were the centre of the day's activities approached from the changing rooms, dressed in their costumes for the stunt, talking together in Japanese and laughing about something. "Those two look amazing."

"Damn right they do," Anton exclaimed with a smile of glee. "This is going to be incredible to watch."

"It that what spies really wear on a job in the US?" Aiko asked, amusement in her voice. "None of the ones I know do." Everyone looked at her as she grinned at them.

"How many spies do you know?" Aaron asked curiously. She winked at him.

"A few."

Looking intrigued, he stared at her for a moment, then turned to the approaching women, shaking his head. Adrian smiled a little as Aiko chuckled slightly. "You both look very good," he said to Akane and Shampoo, who smiled back.

"It's not the sort of thing I'm used to wearing but it all seems to fit well," she replied. Gladys came over and walked around them studying them intently, nodding to herself, before making a couple of adjustments.

"Good, good, everything fits. All right, Akane, these are yours, and Shampoo, these are for you." She handed them each a pair of mirrored sunglasses, which they took and put on. "They're safety glasses, mainly, disguised as sunglasses."

Aiko laughed for a moment as they looked at each other. "You look like you're going to work for Ms Aoyama," she giggled. Akane paled a little and took the glasses off again, which made the brunette giggle harder.

Shaking his head in amusement, Adrian turned to Aaron. "They're in your hands now," he said. With a nod the armourer waved the two over to a table next to the wardrobe people. On it were several hand-guns and a pair of shoulder holsters.

"Put this on," he said, handing one to Akane, then showing her how to adjust it. When he was satisfied it was correctly set up, he picked up one of the Glock 17's, checked it quickly, then handed it to her butt first, along with a suppressor. He nodded in satisfaction when she repeated the checks. "Good. You remembered."

She smiled at him. "You made it very clear what we had to do and you're a good teacher," she replied. Smiling, he watched as she put the weapon into the holster then practised drawing it a few times.

"OK, that all looks good. Shampoo, you're next." Shortly both women were outfitted with similar rigs. Shampoo put her leather jacket back on and practised whipping her gun out from under it smoothly, making Akane grin at her. Snickering, he watched, then handed them each half a dozen magazines, which they accepted then carefully checked, making him look approving. "Blanks, of course. Remember what we talked about yesterday. They might not hurt you two, even point blank, considering what I saw you do, but don't shoot anyone else in the face close up with them, OK?" Both nodded soberly. "Good. Load your weapons." Once they had inserted the first magazine, then reholstered the guns and put the spare ammunition in their jacket pockets, he turned to Adrian who had been quietly watching from the side. "They're good to go."

"Great." The director looked pleased. "OK, ladies, lets go over the scene. It's pretty short, only about three minutes when edited, but I'd expect around five minutes of action to get to that point." He led them over to the set, the others following but staying out of the way. "The spy comes in this door over here. She goes down this corridor, stops here, the first guard comes around the corner, she shoots him. He goes down, then she heads over to this point. Up the stairs, another two guards, which she avoids by pulling herself into this air vent. Once they're gone, back out of the vent, down that hallway, over the partition wall, and into the server room here." They followed as he walked along the set, which had all the appropriate fittings but one side open to the rest of the building allowing the cameras to film everything.

"She plugs the bug into that socket, then leaves the room. Going back, the bad guy is hiding up here, near the ceiling, and drops down behind her. She hears the bad guy, dives over this desk, then they shoot at each other. Five more guards come running in from there and there. Three of them get shot, one by the bad guy by mistake, then the spy loses her gun. She kicks the weapon out of the hand of the bad guy, they start hand to hand combat. Half the room gets wrecked in the process, the last two guards are taken out with the scenery, before the spy manages to dive out the window. She uses that flagpole there to break her fall, spins around it, lands on that awning, then slides to the ground, before escaping, the bad guy following her." He pointed at the various sections of the set.

"The next scene would have a motorcycle chase, and so on, but we're not going to bother with that part." Turning to the two women, who were studying the set carefully, he asked, "Does that all sound good?"

Both nodded slowly. "Some acting, some action," Shampoo mused. He shrugged.

"The actors would get cut into the action sequences in the appropriate places, like close ups of their faces, but for these purposes it's easier if you do the entire sequence in one go, I think. When we did it for real we had to shoot it in several takes, leaving aside all the reshoots because something went wrong. Don't worry about the acting part, that's not what we're concentrating on at the moment, so it doesn't really matter. The action is what counts. It's a good mix of acrobatics, weapons usage, and combat. Not very realistic but the public seems to like it." The Amazon woman nodded with a grin.

Adrian led them over to a group of six men who were dressed in dark green uniforms with blue logos on, looking like some sort of security personnel, also wearing the mirrored safety glasses. "OK. These guys over here are the guards. Try not to kill them, they're expensive to replace." One or two of the men looked slightly worried as both Akane and Shampoo snickered in a dark fashion.

Matt, who was standing with them, laughed for a moment. "He's kidding, guys." Waving at the stuntmen, he added, "Some of my people. Guys, you've seen the recording of the demonstration, so you know how good Akane and Shampoo are." All the men nodded at once, staring at the two young women, who looked fairly harmless. "Make it look good but don't get carried away," he advised. "Don't worry about hurting them."

"I'm not sure we could if we tried," one of the men, a tall Nordic-looking blond, said with an expression of awe on his face. "I still can't believe what I saw."

"It's all real, Gunnar, believe me," Matt assured him. "OK, normally we'd practice the stunts for days before a scene like this," he carried on, turning back to Akane and Shampoo. "But I have no doubt you can do it on the first try. Go easy on the guys here, they're pretty tough, but not like you are."

"We'll be careful, Matt," Akane assured him. "We both know how to pull a punch and make it look good."

"Great. OK, lets get everyone in position and do a slow run through. Akane, you're over there, Shampoo, you're up here." Adrian quickly got everyone into their places. "We won't bother filming this part." He explained exactly what he wanted, Akane listening carefully, then stepped back to rejoin the others. "Everyone in place?" A chorus of affirmative calls came back. "OK. Scene eighteen, practice run one, take one. Action!"

Pulling her gun out, Akane quickly screwed the suppressor on, before cocking it and easing the door open, slipping inside and creeping along the corridor to the first marked point, sidling along the wall. Adrian called for her to halt at that spot. Freezing, she waited for the guard to come around the corner, which he did seconds later, spotting her and whipping up his own weapon which he was carrying openly. Three muffled shots sounded and he dropped. "Good. Now, over to the next point." They proceeded in this fashion to slowly go over the entire scene, taking about fifteen minutes, until Adrian called out, "Cut."

Approaching the Tendo woman, who was running her hand through her hair to one side of the set, he waited for Shampoo to join them. "That's harder than I thought it would be," Akane told him, looking mildly surprised. Shampoo nodded.

"Is much to remember," she said.

Adrian smiled. "It's a fairly long scene, like I said, normally we'd do it in shorter sections, but that went pretty well. You missed a cue twice, Akane, but for a first attempt I'm very impressed. Shampoo, you need to come in a little earlier next time." Both women nodded, listening. "OK, let's reset and try again. A couple more times and we can run it for real." Everyone went back to their places, various grips putting the scenery and props back to their marks. When they were ready, he restarted the whole thing again.

The female spy eased the door open, peering inside quickly, then slipped into the building, her gun ready. Sliding along the wall she froze at a corner, hearing footsteps. Seconds later a uniformed armed security guard came around the same corner in the other direction, almost walking past her, but sensing something amiss at the last moment, spinning around and raising his weapon. He was too late, as the spy put three rounds into his chest with her silenced handgun. Staggering back against the opposite wall as he dropped his own gun he slid down it into a heap on the floor. Quickly checking him she nodded, then made her way in the direction he'd come from.

Ascending a flight of stairs, gun ready for action, she stopped at the top, crouching and listening carefully. Again, footsteps could be heard, at least two sets. Looking around she spotted an air vent on the wall across from her near the ceiling. Quickly darting across to it she reached up, pulling the hinged cover open and swinging it to the side, then grabbing the edges of the conveniently person-sized hole. Smoothly and silently pulling herself into the exposed vent with no signs of effort she closed the cover behind her, only barely visible in the darkness behind it. Two more guards approached and walked past, talking quietly to each other and looking around alertly.

Ten seconds after they'd disappeared down the stairs, the vent cover eased open, a head of dark blue hair popping out and looking quickly about. Seeing nothing, she slid out of the vent and closed the cover, before heading in the direction she'd been going. Entering a large room at the end of another corridor she paused, listening, before turning left and creeping along the outside of the room. Arriving at a partition that split the room into two sections, she looked around, holstered her weapon under her jacket, before jumping up and grabbing the top of the wall, quickly peering about again, then pulling herself up.

Flipping over the wall in a remarkable display of acrobatics she landed on the other side in a crouch, pulling her weapon in the process. Another pause to listen for guards, then she headed quickly for a door on the other side of the area she was in, next to a large laser printer. Seconds later she was inside, closing the door behind her. She pulled a small device from her pocket and snapped it into a socket on the front of one of the server racks, looking satisfied when a small green light illuminated, then moved a few cables to cover it, before returning to the door and putting her ear to it.

After a couple of seconds she opened the door a crack and looked out. Seeing nothing she slipped out, closing the door behind her, then headed back the way she'd come, once more flipping over the partition without any trouble.

Everything went horribly wrong as she reached the hallway she'd come down when she entered. Despite her caution, she missed the fact that a woman with long purple hair was somehow holding herself near the ceiling against the wall, dropping lightly to the floor behind her as she moved past underneath. Hearing a faint sound, the spy whirled, firing half a dozen shots in the process. The new arrival moved too fast to hit, diving under the path the bullets would take and knocking the spy into a spin with a quick punch on the way past.

Recovering quickly the blue-haired agent darted back into the large room, taking cover behind a desk. The other woman leapt around the corner of the corridor into the same room, firing half a magazine at the spy in a rippling roar of gunfire, the spy returning fire. Diving under another desk the counter-agent fired a few more shots over the top of it blindly, before dropping the magazine from her weapon one-handed and slamming in another one.

The spy took the time to reload as well, removing the suppressor rapidly and pocketing it, before peeking around the side of the desk, only to duck quickly as more gunfire came from several guards who entered the room from two directions. Returning fire she moved from desk to desk trying to stay behind cover as two guards dropped to the floor. A guard she missed jumped her from behind a support column, grabbing her gun hand and slamming it against the column a couple of times, causing her to drop her weapon, before throwing her sideways through a cubicle partition, which exploded into fragments. Rolling to her feet she picked up a monitor and ripped it from its cables, tossing it at him and knocking him down, before diving head first over another partition as the rest of the guards fired at her.

Rolling a couple of times she ended up behind a photocopier, looking around for an exit. Another guard came around the corner behind her, only to scream and fall to his face as several more shots sounded. Looking mildly puzzled the agent shook her head, but took the opportunity to make a run for the door she saw on the other side of the room.

Half-way there she was intercepted by a lilac and black blur, the counter agent slamming into her, then recoiling and aiming her weapon. A sudden high kick and the gun went flying, the agent spinning on her other foot and redirecting the next kick into the midsection of the other woman, who grunted and flew backwards.

As they exchanged blows in a dazzling display of martial arts, the guard who had been hit with a monitor staggered to his feet, blinking, then took aim. Spotting him in the nick of time the spy dived forwards, between the legs of her opponent, rolled to her feet, grabbed a paperweight from the nearest desk, then threw it at the guard, bouncing it off his head and knocking him unconscious. Deflecting a return blow from the lilac-haired woman, she jumped over another desk, looked wildly around, then dashed for the nearest window.

On the way the last guard shot three times at her, missing with each shot, before she kicked a metal wastebasket into the air with one foot then slammed it half-way across the room with the other one in one smooth sequence, barely breaking stride in the process. He went down after taking a wastebasket to the head, she crossed her arms over her face and dove head-first through the glass, which exploded out over the street below.

Falling in an arc, the spy reached out and grabbed a horizontal flag-pole halfway to the ground, spun around it like a gymnast, flipped twice, bounced from the awning of the entrance to the next building on the street, then rolled several times when she met the ground. Jumping to her feet she looked up at the window she'd exited so dramatically, waving to the lilac-haired woman who was looking out of it with an annoyed expression, then darted into an alleyway as the other woman shot at her and missed. The counter-agent dived out of the window after her, taking a similar path to the ground, before following.


"That looks pretty damn good," Aiko commented, looking at the monitor for the high definition playback system which was replaying the video footage shot in parallel with the film cameras. Adrian nodded, studying it critically with an expert eye.

"It's very impressive," he replied happily. "Not perfect, Akane missed one mark there a little, but not enough to matter, and the sequence with the monitor wasn't quite right. But that's fine, it would all get edited down anyway in real life, so little issues like that can be cut out. It certainly went a damn sight better than the actual movie did." He grinned at Akane, who was standing next to the magical girl with Shampoo by her side, both of them watching with interest and the Tendo woman still picking small pieces of fake glass from her hair. "I liked the wave at the end. Not in the script, but it looked good."

She smiled for a moment. "It seemed a good idea at the time."

Looking over at the stunt people, who were talking to each other, one of them holding an ice pack to his head and shrugging while his companions laughed, the director smiled little. "You might need to recalibrate your strength, though. You nearly knocked poor Nunzio over there out for real." She blushed, nodding.

"I said sorry."

"He doesn't seem too upset." Chuckling, Adrian watched as Matt talked to his people, before turning back to the three women. "I think that's the final take for you, Akane. Shampoo, you're up next. Get a couple of sandwiches and some water, then we'll do a dry run. I don't think you'll need more than one, you both already know what to do, but we just need to check your positioning in the opposite roles." Both women nodded, heading to the catering table. Adrian and Aiko watched them go.

"They certainly seem to be enjoying themselves," the petite brunette said, glancing at him. He nodded, smiling.

"Indeed they do. I'm pleased to see that the initial nervousness seems to have gone away. Akane was looking a little unsure of herself at first but by the end of it she was having a lot of fun. Shampoo seemed more confident."

Aiko nodded a little, thoughtfully. "I think Shampoo is quite extroverted from what I've picked up over the years. Some of the stories I've heard make it obvious that she's not concerned what other people think about her. Akane, although she sometimes really stood out, a lot of the time was rather shy." She shrugged slightly. "It's a good thing she's finding something she can do, and do well, that other people admire. Her self-confidence has been helped a lot, I suspect."

"Well, I have to say that based on that, I think in the long run she's got what it takes to act as well as do the stunts," he replied, watching as Akane and Shampoo picked through the food on offer, talking to Jim who was grinning and waving at the set, also with a sandwich in hand. "It'll be interesting to see how it goes with Shampoo."

"What did Anton think?" she asked, glancing over to where the producer was talking to Matt and one of the stunt men, while Greg, who had come in half-way through the last practice run, listened with interest while still wearing a somewhat startled expression.

"He seemed very happy indeed," Adrian chuckled. "He was having trouble keeping quiet during the take, he nearly bust a gut not laughing when Akane did that thing with the wastebasket. It was pretty impressive."

"She's good at improvising," Aiko agreed, also laughing a little. "Like a really hardcore version of Jackie Chan. If she'd put more effort into the kick she could have taken that guy's head off."

"I'm glad she didn't," Adrian replied, "Stuntmen are expensive and the paperwork would be a nightmare." They shared a smile then Aiko went off to get some food for herself. Turning to the VT operator, Adrian had a word with him, before heading towards the coffee. Half-way there he was met by Anton, accompanied by Matt. "So?" he asked the producer as they filled their cups from the machine, looking over it at the other man and raising an eyebrow enquiringly. Anton dropped a sugar-cube into his own cup and stirred it with a pen he pulled from his pocket as he seemed to think about the one word question, making Matt and Adrian exchange an amused glance. Suddenly noticing what he was doing the producer flicked coffee from the pen, grumbling slightly, dried it on his sleeve, and put it away.

"I'll bet that improves the taste a lot," Matt chuckled. Anton shrugged, smiling a little, then sipped.

"Not as such," he commented wryly, pouring himself a fresh cup. "So. Indeed. Overall, I'm very impressed. There were a few minor mistakes, true, but this is essentially the first time in front of a camera for either of them and they've had, what, about forty-five minutes or so of instruction and three dry runs? That's pretty impressive by anyone's standards."

"I'd have to agree," Matt said, nabbing a sandwich from the nearby table and biting off a large part. Chewing and swallowing he waved at the set with the remainder. "Most of the people I've trained over the years wouldn't do anywhere near as well with so little time to learn. We've dropped them in at the deep end but so far they're both swimming very well."

"Very true," Anton nodded. "The actual action is first rate, of course. The martial arts part was very good, as I would have expected based on the first day, the gun-play and other action sequences were pretty damned impressive as well. With some more practice they're both going to be extremely good. And, of course, we can have things like that incredible dive through the window without any safety equipment required, which is just insane. It opens up some amazing possibilities." He turned to look at the set which was in the process of being repaired and restocked for the next run through. "I mean, normally that would have been about six separate stunts, a week's worth of planning, air bags, the whole nine yards. We just showed them what we wanted and they did the entire thing in one take. Which is something I've never seen before, not even close."

Smiling happily, he sipped some coffee. "If we can teach them both to act as well as they do the physical stuff we're going to put everyone else in this sector out of business inside three years."

Adrian started laughing, shaking his head. When he calmed down, he looked at the other man, whose twinkling eyes showed his own amusement. "I doubt we'll be able to quite manage that but I do think we have the beginnings of something truly remarkable here. I doubt that Mitch will have any trouble convincing the board when we show them the final cut of all the sequences. Hell, Akane just did a better job on her first try, in under an hour and a half, than several very famous actors did in a freaking week of shooting!" He shook his head in mixed wonder and irritation, making Matt and Anton smile. "I wish I'd had those two a couple of years ago, that damn movie would have been a lot less trouble to make."

"It still came out pretty well, so I wouldn't worry, Adrian," Anton assured him. "Everyone is very pleased with the result. They'll be more pleased in a year or two when we have something with those girls in it."

"Once we've got them up and running with the stunts, we're going to have to experiment with some speaking parts, and ease them into acting," Matt mused, looking at the other two, Anton nodding thoughtfully while Adrian turned to watch Akane and Shampoo talking to Aiko, who was giggling at something the violet-haired Amazon had just said. "I have a feeling Akane will pick it up quickly once she has some camera time. She can be a little hesitant until she gets into it, I've noticed, although Shampoo doesn't have any self-confidence issues at all from what I can see."

Adrian grinned, watching the young women chat. "No, she's pretty self assured. You're right about Akane, she's always started off nervous but once she's sure she can do what she needs to, seems to just go for it. Probably good, over-confidence is much more of a problem than being a little unsure. Both of them sure learn fast, and actually listen really well. Greg said as much during the driving training, so did Aaron and Karen. Aaron was really impressed, actually, he said he's never taught anyone who learned as well."

"Something to do with the martial arts, I guess?" Anton wondered out loud. "Or just being Japanese? Or Chinese, in Shampoo's case."

"They both seem to recognise experience and have a hell of a lot of respect for it in a teacher," Matt nodded. "That certainly helps. There might be an element of respect for your elders there as well."

"Hey, I'm hardly an elder, I'm only forty-six," Adrian protested, smirking. Matt shrugged at him, finishing his coffee. Snickering a little Anton did the same. "OK. Let's get them set up again and see what Shampoo does in the lead role." Putting his now empty cup down next to the other empties, Adrian led his little group over to the young women in question, joining them, Aaron, who was explaining something esoteric about the gun Shampoo still had in her holster, and Jim, who was listening with interest.

"Back to work, everyone," he stated, clapping his hands. "Let's see how it goes with the roles reversed. Shampoo, we'll go through the same dry run again to get you sure of your marks then we'll run the scene for real, OK?"

"Sure, Adrian," she agreed, following eagerly as he went back to the set, Akane beside him. The others moved off to stand next to the primary camera dolly which was filming most of the action and watched with interest. Soon they were finished, everyone taking their places. Once more, cameras rolling and everyone in their places, the small audience silent, he called, "Action!"

Matt watched quietly as the sequence ran, expertly assessing the two young women as they bounced around the main room in the set exchanging shots, shaking his head a little in respect. 'Incredible,' he thought, wincing as Gunnar caught the monitor to the chest again, rather harder than completely necessary. 'Bet that hurt.' Watching as the 'guard' slumped to the floor groaning in not entirely simulated pain he snickered a bit. Beside him, Aiko did much the same, smiling a little. He noticed a little later as Shampoo dived through the window and did an even more elaborate spin around the flagpole before bouncing around the front of the fake building onto the ground that the brunette was now looking in a different direction, off to the side and up. Puzzled, he followed her eyes. As soon Adrian called "Cut!" loudly he turned to her.

"What's up?" he asked. She glanced at him, then back into the rigging at the side of the studio.

"We appear to have someone not on the guest list," she said quietly. Following her eyes he squinted, finally making out a shape in the shadows above the lights that looked not entirely unlike a person in dark clothing lurking on a catwalk thirty feet up.

"Ah. Yes, I see him. Or her."

"Him. About fifteen." She sounded confident. "Caucasian, brown hair, blue eyes, perhaps a hundred and seventy-five centimetres tall." Matt couldn't make out any of these details but took her at her word. Thinking, he sighed after a moment.

"Damn. I know who that is," he muttered. She grinned.

"So do I. Want me to go get him for you?"

"Please. I'll call Security." He pulled out his phone and dialled.

"We should probably go easy on the kid, he's just overenthusiastic." Aiko looked amused.

"And a damn nuisance. That's the third time in the last month." Matt quickly explained the situation when the phone was answered, then hung up. "I wish I could figure out how the hell he keeps getting back in here. It's driving Security insane."

Laughing for a moment, she looked around, then up, before winking at him and vanishing. Blinking at the flash he stared up again as most of the people in the studio looked over curiously.

"Hello," the amused-sounding female voice said in his ear. The teenager nearly fell out of the rigging he'd climbed into a few minutes ago, startled at the sound, especially since he was sure he was alone. A hand clamped on his shoulder steadying him while another one neatly relieved him of the camcorder he was holding, so quickly he had no chance to prevent it. Turning huge eyes over his shoulder he stared at the young Japanese woman grinning widely from immediately behind him, hanging from the truss directly above him by her ankles and making it look as easy as standing on a level floor. "I'm fairly sure you weren't invited, Mr Goodner."

"Oh, shit," he muttered. More loudly, he asked resignedly, "How do you know my name?"

"I have a very good memory for faces and an interesting way of getting information," she chuckled. "Come on, let's go and face the music before you fall."

Sighing, he wriggled back onto the catwalk he was half hanging off the edge of to get the angle he'd wanted with his camcorder. "Hey, I recognise you, you're not Security, you were with those other stunt women in Australia!" Stunned, he watched as she dropped onto the catwalk, somehow ending up standing on it without either making it wobble or showing any effort. "Are you in this movie? What's it called? How did you vanish like that at Ayer's Rock? What's your name? Are you really from Japan? Are those other women here as well? Who are those people down there? How did they do all those incredible things? Are they martial artists? Where..." He cut off abruptly as she smirked at him then the world jumped, a horrible feeling of incredible nausea going through him. Vaguely realising something weird had happened he dropped to his knees and tried not to throw up, finally succeeding after a minute or two and much effort of will.

"...are we?" he finished weakly, looking around. She helped him to his feet, still smirking. Several people were looking at him in a way that made his head droop, including the two young women who had been doing the stunts, the man who had been calling the commands who he recognised as the director, and two unpleasantly familiar people in studio security department uniforms, the latter pair not looking pleased. He looked around wildly trying to work out how the hell they had come to be standing on the floor of the building rather than the catwalk.

"Hello, Danny," the female security guard on the right said, sighing a little as she accepted his camcorder which the Japanese brunette handed her. "How did you get in this time?"

"There's a hole in the fence at the back of the studio next to the alleyway by the pawn shop, behind the dumpster," he reluctantly admitted. "I figured out I could climb up the fire escape onto the roof and come in through the ventilation system, the second unit from the front has a loose cover."

Shaking her head with a slightly admiring expression, she glanced at her companion, who shrugged. "You should use some of that ingenuity to do something legal, not trespass," she told him, although the corner of her mouth was twitching slightly. The male guard didn't look nearly as amused.

"But I want to know when the movie is coming out!" he protested. Didn't anyone understand? This was much more important than paying attention to 'Keep Out' signs.

The director, Mr Stewart, sighed loudly. "Danny, I've told you, over and over, there is no movie!"

"But..." Danny pointed at the two women who had been doing the stunt, then the elaborate set. "I've just seen you shooting a scene from it. When is it coming out? What's the plot? Who else is in it? What's it called?"

The director massaged his forehead, glancing at the tall man beside him, who he knew was something to do with the stunt department. This person seemed amused, snickering a little, although he was also somewhat irritated.

"Oh, for god's..." The director sighed again. "Look, firstly, this isn't a shoot, it's a job interview. Secondly, even if it was a shoot, you're not supposed to be here. Aside from anything else if Aiko hadn't retrieved you from the catwalk you could well have splattered yourself all over my floor, from what she says. I'd prefer not to have to stop and get some mops." Danny felt somewhat ill at this summation, although the woman, Aiko, seemed to find it funny. So did the other two girls. "Thirdly, this is the fifth time in two months we've caught you where you shouldn't be. To be honest it's getting a little annoying. Enthusiasm for what we do is fine, but breaking and entering to illegally tape it is going a bit too far."

Danny's heart sank at the words. "Breaking and entering?" he sputtered. "I didn't break anything."

"So, Entering, then," the brunette chuckled. "Still not ideal."

"Not to mention criminal trespass," the male security guard put in somewhat sourly. Danny closed his eyes for a moment. That sounded bad, his mom was going to kill him. "Should I call the police, Sir?" he asked after letting his words sink in.

The director was looking thoughtfully at Danny when he opened his eyes again, returning the gaze pleadingly. He waited to find out his fate. After a very long few seconds, and a glance at his colleague who shrugged a little, the director shook his head. "No, not yet. Look, Danny, I'm going to make you a deal. You will stop sneaking in here like this, if nothing else so you don't end up killing yourself and causing me any more headaches. In return, I'll let you come and watch one of the stunts tomorrow, all the way through, assuming your mother allows it, and I'll give you some tickets to the premier of my next movie." Danny's eyes widened, and he opened his mouth, the director holding up a hand before he spoke. "But..." There was a warning tone in his voice, making the young man close his mouth again.

"But?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"But, I'm serious about this. You agree to this, I'll let you go this time, but if we catch you sneaking in again, the police will definitely be involved. You're a good kid, I think, so don't let me down, OK? It would be a shame to let your enthusiasm get you a criminal record." The man looked at him, waiting for an answer. For once in his life, the teenager thought things through carefully.

"OK. I'll stop."

With a small smile the director nodded, turning to the security guards. "Call his mother to come and pick him up. Again. Tell her the deal, get her permission, and let her know I'll call with directions and a time tomorrow morning." The female guard nodded while the male guard kept his eyes on Danny, not looking entirely pleased.

"Yes, Sir. OK, Danny, come on."

As they were about to leave, the director said, "Give him back his camcorder but keep the tape," making her nod, then gesture to the exit, standing aside. Sighing a little the teenager headed in the indicated direction, both security guards accompanying him.

His mom was going to go nuts.

By the time he reached the door he was puzzling once more about how he couldn't remember what the woman who had caught him looked or sounded like. It was very weird.

Akane watched the two guards and the worried-looking teenager leave, the door closing behind them, then glanced at Adrian, who shook his head with a small sigh. "There's such a thing as being too enthusiastic," the director mumbled.

She grinned at him. "That was very nice of you." Adrian shrugged slightly.

"He's not a bad kid really, just doesn't think things through very well. He could have killed himself if he'd fallen off that catwalk, he's not like you guys. He wouldn't have bounced."

"Splashed, perhaps," Aiko chuckled. He gave her a look.

"Thanks for that mental image, Aiko," he said.

She bowed slightly. "You're welcome."

Shaking his head in amusement, the man looked around the room. Most of the people in it were getting on with their jobs now the small drama was over. "Well, hopefully he'll keep to his side of the deal. Let's get on with it. It'll take about half an hour to change the set for the bar fight scene, so grab some coffee and we'll go over the notes while that's going on."

Shortly they were sitting in a side room off the main studio, sounds of heavy objects being moved coming faintly through the wall, reading the paperwork carefully. "It looks quite straightforward," Akane said, putting her coffee cup down on the table and picking up her clipboard again. "Everything is in one room, we just fight for a while with swords, while the other stunt guys are running around breaking things."

"Pretty much," Adrian grinned. "You two are the main action focus, the extras are for background fill in, but you'll interact with them when they go past. Try not to remove any heads." Shampoo giggled, reading her notes intently.

"Stunt swords too blunt to remove heads unless hit very hard," she said, looking up and smiling at him for a moment. "Just break neck."

"Well, try not to do that either," he chuckled. "If you kill or maim too many co-workers you get a bad reputation."

"Then no one wants to work with you," Matt snickered, making Aiko, who was sitting beside him also reading the notes with interest, laugh for a moment.

"If you want to improvise some things, like you did with that wastebasket, go ahead, but keep it fairly simple for the moment," Adrian noted, scribbling something on one of the pages he was reading. "It looks pretty good but we're mainly interested in the sword-fight."

"OK," Akane nodded. Flipping the rest of the pages back into place after finishing going through the notes, she put the clipboard down and rolled her head a few times, producing some clicking sounds from her neck. He winced a little at the sound, making her smile.

After another twenty minutes of discussion they had a decent idea of what they needed to do. Matt brought the other stunt people in for the last half of the discussion so everyone knew what was expected of them. Eventually, Jim opened the door and leaned in, saying, "The set is ready, guys."

"Thanks, Jim," Adrian replied, standing up and stretching for a moment. "Let's go and do a dry run, then." He checked his watch. "If we can get this wrapped up in under an hour we can get a quick late lunch then get out to the airfield and still be pretty much on schedule."

Everyone trooped out into the cavernous main room, looking at the set, which had undergone a remarkable transformation. The open-plan office was now a western saloon bar, all the interior details having changed completely. "Wow," she muttered. "That's impressive."

"Our set guys are very good and have a lot of practice," Adrian smiled. "It's all modular and can be moved around pretty fast. This isn't nearly as detailed as a real set for a movie would be so it doesn't take long to rearrange things." Walking over they inspected the set. "All right, since all the action is in this one room, the camera doesn't need to do any tracking shots. We'll start with you all on your marks. Akane, you're there, Shampoo, that's yours." He pointed. "Gunnar, over there with Bill, Zach and Nunzio over by the piano, Jeff at the top of the stairs, Remy behind the bar." Everyone nodded, heading to their spots. "We won't bother with different costumes for this sequence, we don't have time right now and it's not important." He watched critically as everyone took their spots.

"OK, Nunzio, move a little to the left. Good. Akane, try about two feet back." Stepping back he studied the scene for a moment. "Yes. That looks better."

Matt chuckled. "We don't need to get it perfect, Adrian, this isn't going in a movie."

The director looked insulted. "I take pride in my work, you know that, Matt," he said archly. Matt grinned, as did everyone else. "OK, fine, perhaps I'm getting carried away." Shaking his head in amusement the director's attention went back to the set. "That looks good. Mark those new positions." Several grips moved the tape marks on the floor while the others left the set for the moment. "Aaron, your turn," he added.

Shortly the arms master had everyone outfitted with swords and a couple of clubs. The various stunt people were practising their moves while Aiko and Aaron watched critically, the magical girl commenting in a low voice to the compact man, who was looking interested. Akane watched for a moment then hefted her own sword, a traditional katana, with a very dull edge.

"I'd get in trouble if Mousse ever saw me with a sword like this," Shampoo noted, smiling, as she ran her thumb down the blunt edge. "He'd say it was unworthy of an Amazon."

Akane snickered. "I can imagine. He likes his blades razor sharp." She took a couple of practice swings with the stunt sword, raising her eyebrows a little. "It's pretty well balanced, though." Shampoo nodded, watching, then spun her own sword a few times one-handed.

"Not too bad. For a fake, anyway."

Adrian came over from where he'd been talking to the camera crew, smiling as he watched the Chinese woman go through a few kata moves with the blade. "You guys all ready?"

"Yes, Adrian," Akane replied, smiling.

"Great. OK, let's get back in the set and do a dry run." They both nodded, walking back to the fake bar and resuming their positions. The stunt extras did the same, looking eager to get to work. "All right, you all know what to do." He waited for a few seconds while they all took up their starting stances. "Practice scene two, take one. Action!"

He stopped and started the scene half a dozen times, calling instructions, until he was happy with it. "That looked pretty good. Let's do it again, with those changes." They did the run twice more until he looked satisfied. "Great. OK, take a five minute break then we'll run it for real." Matt handed him a bottle of water and a sandwich. "Thanks."

Once everyone had done anything they needed to do, they retook their positions. He studied the scene, nodded, and made the appropriate calls. Shortly the large room echoed to the sounds of a major fight, swords clashing together and wood and glass shattering. Akane grinned slightly, deflecting a blow from her friend, who ducked as a bottle flew through where her head had been, shattering in a spray of tiny shards as the youngest Tendo woman sliced it out of the air with her weapon. Back-flipping a couple of times as Shampoo followed, swinging at her much more slowly that she was capable of, although a damn sight faster than most people could do, she dived under the piano, then popped up behind it, flicking another bottle that was sitting on top of it into Shampoo's face with the tip of her sword.

The Amazon didn't flinch, jumping up onto the piano and slicing down at her, while Nunzio, who was in the process of hitting Zach with a breakaway chair, threw the remains at her. She kicked them right back at him, then chased Akane, who had seized the opportunity afforded by her momentary inattention to scramble up the wall onto the stairs, across the room when the Japanese woman leaped down over her head.

Gunnar ducked Akane's blade when she swung at him on the way, deflecting it with his own and making sparks fly, then rolled sideways as Remy, still behind the bar, started throwing shot glasses at him. Shampoo intercepted and redirected a couple of them as she passed through the target zone, one of them flying through a window and shattering a pane of glass, the other one catching him squarely between the eyes and bouncing off. He dropped behind the bar as she kept going.

The fight went on for another couple of minutes, ending up with only Akane and Shampoo standing, facing each other more or less where they'd started, swords raised for one last blow, when Adrian called "Cut!" They lowered their weapons then began laughing.

"That was fun," the Tendo woman grinned.

"It looked impressive, definitely," Adrian chuckled as he joined them.

"It hurts, though," Remy groaned as he pulled himself up from behind the bar, rubbing a red mark on his forehead. Shampoo blushed a little.

"Sorry. Hit glass too hard."

"Don't worry about it," he said, smiling a little. "I've had worse. Good shot as well."

"Thanks," she grinned.

"Let's see the playback, but I think that went as well as we could hope for," Adrian told them, waving them over to the VT desk. Everyone gathered around the monitor while the operator prodded a few buttons. When the playback was finished, he smiled. "Very good. A little editing and an audio track and that will look excellent. Well done everyone and thanks."

The Tendo sister smiled, pleased at the way the first two stunts had gone. "That really was a lot of fun," she said happily.

"Very much," Shampoo agreed.

"I'm glad you two enjoyed yourselves," Adrian smiled, waving to Anton as he left the sound stage with Jim and Aaron. "Go and have a quick shower, change, and we'll go over to the cafeteria."

"OK," she replied, heading off with Shampoo, thinking over what they'd done so far and finding it good.

"So far I'm very pleased and impressed," Anton stated as he wiped his mouth, leaning back in his seat. He looked over to the next table where Aiko, Akane, and Shampoo were talking to Matt, the stunt coordinator explaining something with broad gestures and the three women listening intently, looking amused. "Those girls are remarkable. Leaving aside the martial arts they both seem to have a good feel for what works in front of a camera."

"I'd have to agree," Adrian replied, sipping a glass of apple juice. "Do you think Mitch will be pleased?"

"Oh, definitely, yes," the producer grinned. "He's going to love it. Jennifer should be happy as well, or at least stop worrying after all of this. We've got plenty of footage showing those two are practically indestructible under normal circumstances so she shouldn't be worried about signing off on any more stunts."

"She did finally give in on the car chase," Jim snickered. "Although it took a lot of talking even after the demonstration."

"I wish I'd had a camera in the firing range," Aaron noted, watching the three women, who were now all grinning as Matt apparently reached the punchline of whatever anecdote he was telling them about. "Watching them catch bullets was the most incredible thing I've ever seen in my life."

"It might be an idea not to mention that to her until we're done," Adrian giggled, remembering the look on the armourers face after Aiko's little joke. He shook his head a little. "She might blow a fuse and start shouting at you for letting them stand in front of a live weapon."

Aaron shrugged, smiling a little. "Possibly. But yes, you might be right. No need to get her too excited just yet."

"I have to figure out how to use that in a movie," the director mused. "And Shampoo's... special talent."

"The cat thing?" Aaron looked thoughtful while Anton gained a slightly puzzled expression.

"Cat thing?" he asked curiously. Adrian exchanged a glance with the armourer, then explained, making the producer stare at him for some time rather incredulously.

"It's true," he said, spreading his hands. "All four of us saw it, not to mention Richard Harrison, his wife, and his daughter. She turns into a cat."

"Holy crap," Anton breathed. "You didn't mention that in your original interview notes."

"Would you have believed it without seeing all this other stuff?" Adrian asked. After a moment, the other man sighed, shaking his head.

"No, probably not. But I definitely want to see it at some point."

"She's probably up for it, but let's get all the other work out of the way first," Adrian replied. After a moment he grinned broadly. "In fact, we can leave it as a surprise for Mitch and Jennifer."

Anton gave him a look then started snickering. "Oh, yes, please let's do that. I want to see his face."

"You coming to Richard's barbecue tonight?" Adrian asked him. "He told me to invite anyone who wanted to come from the studio."

"I'd like that, thanks," the other man said, nodding. He checked his watch. "Half past two. We're going to have to hustle to get out to the airfield and still have light, we've only got about five hours of light left and it'll take half that to get there."

Adrian grinned. "I know a short cut," he chuckled. He pointed at Aiko, who looked over at him, making him think she had heard everything. The brunette winked. "She figured out an interesting new trick this morning."

"Ah." Anton looked thoughtful. "Even the equipment?"

"Yep. An entire truck in one shot. It's pretty damned impressive."

"I can imagine." The producer looked amused. "I'm looking forward to this."

"So, how do you want to do this?" Adrian asked Aiko, who was standing beside him looking at the three trucks parked outside the vehicle depot, one of which Greg and a couple of his people were just loading the last of the equipment into. All told there were a couple of dozen people to transport. Just as she was about to answer, Karen hurried around the corner of the building, looking apologetic.

"Sorry, guys, got caught up in a last minute meeting which just wouldn't stop," she explained, looking around at the various goings-on. "What's the plan. I got the message to come here rather than head out to the airfield."

"Aiko is helping us make up for lost time by teleporting the trucks to the site," Adrian explained. The stunt woman's eyes widened.

"Good grief. You can do that?" she asked incredulously. Aiko nodded, smiling.

"I worked it out this morning. I'll have to do them one at a time but it's not too hard." She looked at Adrian. "To answer your question, I was thinking about it and to stop anyone throwing up, I think it would be best if I quickly put them out for a moment then do the first jump with them unconscious." She grinned at his expression. "Don't worry, I'm not going to hit anyone on the head or anything like that. I know a neat trick Yori taught us which will let me render someone unconscious very quickly and safely then wake them up in the same way. No side effects at all."

"Hmm. This I have to see," the director mused. As she chuckled he stepped forward, calling for attention. Everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. After explaining the plans, and explaining again for people who didn't believe it which required a demonstration by Aiko who teleported across the yard and back, he quickly sorted everyone out into three groups, one for each vehicle.

"OK." Aiko approached the first group, mostly the camera crew, and looked them over. "I think if everyone sits down it would be best. You won't feel anything, and it will only take a few seconds. Once you've gone through it once you won't feel sick again, but the first time can be pretty unpleasant for most people." She waited as the group of eight people exchanged glances then slowly sat. Adrian watched with interest as she got them to lean forward with their arms on their knees, then quickly prodded each one in the back in a couple of places, a faint blue glow showing where her fingers touched. Each person slumped, clearly out of it. Satisfied, she stood in the middle of the group and they all vanished with a flash, reappearing on the other side of the car park momentarily before blinking out and ending up back where they'd started from.

Going around them all in turn once more the brunette quickly revived everyone, the men and women looking startled, then standing. "Everyone feel OK?" she asked, receiving several nods and affirmative answers. "All right, next group," she called, turning to the small audience, many of whom were staring in shock. Shortly everyone who was going had undergone the quick procedure. "All done," she reported to Adrian with a smile.

"Great." He looked around at the stunt people, grips, camera crew, and various other staff, who were wandering around looking startled. "Let's get on with it and see what happens."

Shortly he was sitting in the wide passenger seat of the camera truck, Aiko next to him, the crew in the back and Greg in the driver's position. "Ready?" the magical girl asked. He nodded. She concentrated momentarily, saying as an aside, "This takes a lot more effort at the moment so I have to think about it," then the world jumped, the buildings vanishing and being replaced instantly by a view of the control tower.

"Amazing," he breathed in wonder. She grinned at him, pleased at the comment. Opening the door he climbed down, the others following.

"I'll go and get the other trucks," she said. "Keep that area over there clear for them, all right?" She indicated a position fifty feet away.

"Got it." With a flash she vanished. Thirty seconds later the second vehicle blinked into existence, Karen leaning out of the window and grinning widely.

"This is unbelievable," the red-head shouted happily, jumping out and looking very impressed. Akane and Shampoo climbed out behind her, followed by Aiko, who immediately disappeared again. Walking over the stunt woman shook her head, looking around in wonder. "Just like that, a two and a half hour trip in less than a second."

"It's damned impressive and very useful," he chuckled. They watched as the last truck appeared next to the second one. "Saved a lot of time and effort."

Shortly everyone was running around setting things up. All three motorcycles were unloaded and prepared, Shampoo and Akane were dressed in their leather suits, which included a brand new one for the latter, and Greg's team were in the process of preparing one of the two stunt cars.

"Let's get the pickup out again and do the same runs as yesterday, with Shampoo on the bike," Adrian suggested having checked with the driving instructor. "Greg says the car will be ready in about forty-five minutes. Once we have you," he nodded to the Amazon, who was listening with her arms folded, her helmet dangling from one hand, "up to speed on your part of the stunt, we can start practising it properly with the right vehicle."

"OK, Adrian," she replied, smiling a little in anticipation.

"Akane, are you all right with jumping out of the pickup again like yesterday?" The Tendo woman nodded.

"Yes, I think I've got that part well in hand now." She looked down at herself, grimacing. "Hopefully. I was getting a little tired of bouncing down the runway last night."

"Yes. I can imagine," he grinned, shaking his head a little, while Karen and Shampoo snickered. "Hopefully you can refrain from such things today."

Giving him a look with a raised eyebrow, she laughed briefly, then headed over to the pickup which Matt was setting up, Karen and Shampoo going over to the bikes. Watching for a moment, he smiled then walked over to Greg. "They're ready to practice Shampoo's part," he said to the other man, who looked up watching one of the mechanics adjust the steering of the car, then over at the pickup which Akane was standing in the back of. "You want to drive, or is Matt going to do it?"

"Let Matt do it," Greg replied. "I want to be sure the car is right. He's a good driver and knows what needs to be done."

"OK. When we're sure Shampoo is ready, I want to practice the run fairly slowly to start with, up to the point the car goes up on two wheels, so everyone knows their cues. Once that part is done, I'd like a few runs just practising the launch manoeuvre. Does that sound reasonable?"

Greg thought, then nodded. "Yes. Akane will get that part fast but it's best to practice. When they're sure they know that part, we go over the bail-out move separately. I also want to make sure both of them know how the car flip and pyro effects will happen so they can be ready for it."

"Sounds good. All right, then, I'll be in the camera truck. See you in a while." The stunt driver waved absently as he went back to inspecting the work on the car, making Adrian smile slightly then head off to the relevant vehicle.

"Eeep!" Shampoo squeaked, the bike wobbling frantically as Akane landed on it, making Matt grin at the sound coming over the radio. He looked in the mirror to see her waver around for a moment then bring things back under control, accelerating past him with a whoop, her long hair flapping in the wind with Akane holding on to her firmly.

"You OK, Shampoo?" Karen's voice said, making him glance at the other woman who was riding about eighty feet to the left in a position that let her keep an eye on proceedings and give advice where necessary, something that had happened a number of times in the last twenty-five minutes.

There was a couple of words of Mandarin that sounded happy, along with a laugh of triumph, then the Chinese girl replied, "Yes, think so. Nearly lost control when Akane landed but was able to get back. Need to try again to perfect move."

"That's fine," he said into the boom mic he had in front of his mouth, pressing the transmit button on the steering wheel. "I'll turn around and head back."

"OK, Matt," she replied, Akane and Karen saying much the same thing. He slowed and did a U-turn, both bikes tilting and doing the same before rocketing away. Watching them with a smile he looked to his right. Jim grinned back.

"They seem to be both enjoying themselves and learning fast," the other man said, pleased.

"Very much so in both cases," he agreed. "Sixty miles an hour is impressive. It's faster than we really need but it seems to be a good mark to aim for."

Jim made some notes on a clipboard, then put it back on the dashboard. "This is going to work out well, I can feel it," he commented. "It's going to look amazing on film."

"That's my thought too." Reaching the start point, Matt turned the truck again to point back down the runway. The camera truck pulled up on the other side of the long tarmac strip and turned around as well, Adrian sitting in the back with Anton and the camera operators, both of them watching with interest and a smile. "He's enjoying this as well," the stunt coordinator added, motioning to the director with his thumb. Jim chuckled.

"He's been a lot happier since all this started, you know," the man mused. "The new pills helped a lot as well, of course, but meeting those girls seems to have given him a whole new outlook on all this work. He was starting to look kind of tired during the last shoot right up to the point that Yori and her friends turned up."

"Adrian is having the time of his life," Matt agreed, laughing for a moment. "Even getting mixed up in a bank robbery of all things only about six hours ago couldn't make him stop smiling." He shook his head in wonder. "Most people would be getting very drunk about now to forget being held hostage, he's basically just shrugged, said he wasn't worried because Akane and Shampoo were there, then got on with life."

"It's pretty impressive," Jim agreed. The vehicle rocked slightly as Akane climbed back into the back of it, having been talking to Karen and Shampoo for a minute or two, then put her helmet back on. She bent down to the open rear window.

"We're ready to go, Matt," the blue-haired woman said. He nodded, stuck his arm out the window and put his thumb up, then waited for the camera truck to start rolling before moving off, accelerating carefully to sixty again. Shampoo brought her bike into position beside the pickup.

"Am ready," her voice crackled over the radio. Keeping an eye on the young woman in the back of the truck via the rear-view mirror, he watched with half his attention as she got into position herself then jumped. Once more the truck rocked a little, and in the wing mirror he could see her make a perfect landing on the back of the bike, which this time didn't waver at all. Shampoo opened the throttle and shot past as soon as her friend was in place, making the whole thing look very simple.

"Damn." He whistled a little. "Not bad at all."

"Perfect, guys," Karen said, sounding pleased. "We should do it again a couple of times to be sure, but I think you're ready for the car."

In fact they made three more runs, but in the end everyone was satisfied that both young women had the basics of the stunt down to an art. The final one was so smooth it was as if Akane merely casually strolled off the bed of the pickup and the bike just collected her on the way past. Finally pulling off the runway back at the end where everyone else who wasn't busy was watching, Matt turned the engine off then got out, Jim following as they joined everyone else.

"Well, I'm impressed," he announced.

"I think we all are," Aaron laughed, having watched the practice runs from a comfortable folding chair on the side of the runway.

"Just that stunt is good enough to make Mitch very happy," Anton remarked, looking very pleased. "You two made it look easy."

"Wait until you see yesterday's runs before you say that," Karen snickered. Akane sighed a little, but was still smiling.

"Not my finest hour, certainly," she said, rubbing one elbow in memory of a certain amount of pain.

"It was very funny, though," Karen giggled, throwing her arm around the somewhat shorter woman's shoulders. "Come on, you know it was."

"All right, it was funny. I'm sure Dad and Nabiki will kill themselves laughing," the Tendo woman grinned. Karen stepped back, grinning widely herself.

"Well, the next part may well take us right back to you bouncing and swearing a lot," she said happily. Akane's smile diminished as she looked at the car Greg was driving towards them.

"Don't say that, please," she pleaded.

When he pulled up in the vehicle the stunt driver hopped out, then looked at her for a moment, before smiling with a nod. "Very good work, Akane." She nodded with an expression of slight pride.

"Thank you, Greg."

"OK, now for the hard part," he added, looking slightly amused when she groaned and glanced at Shampoo for a moment. "This car is one of the two we're going to use for the real stunt, we've got another one as a spare, but hopefully we can do it without needing that one." He waved her over to the open door. "It's outfitted with dual steering and controls, so we can practice with me driving and you climbing out the window. Once we have that part worked out you can drive and climb out, which is going to be a very good trick if you can pull it off." He grinned as she looked worried. "The throttle can be operated from the dash, using this lever, so you can set it and forget about it. In theory, once we're up on two wheels, it should be possible to keep it there by reaching in and just steering, but to be honest I wouldn't want to try it myself."

"That's what you're here for," Adrian put in helpfully, making her look at him with narrowed eyes, resulting in a chuckle.

"Indeed," she replied, sniffing haughtily and flipping her hair, before grinning back.

"Do you think you can do it?" the director asked more seriously. She studied the car, then Greg, who shrugged, before looking at Aiko and Shampoo who were standing to the side watching with the rest. Both the other woman gave encouraging smiles.

"I don't know," she replied with a look of honest mild worry, "but I'm certainly going to try."

"That's all we can ask," he assured her.

"Let's get on with it, then," Karen suggested, looking up at the sun for a second, then blinking. "We've only got about two and a half hours of good light left."

Everyone looked at her, then Akane, who swallowed slightly, then nodded firmly. "Yes. Come on, let's see what happens."

Fifteen minutes later she was slightly regretting her words, her hands flexing on the steering wheel while she waited for the signal that everything was ready. A glance to the right at Greg was met with an encouraging look. "Relax, you'll do it," he said quietly. "It may take a few practice runs but after what I've seen in the last few days I'm sure you can pull it off."

"Thanks, Greg," she replied, smiling a little, then started the engine.

"I'll drive the first run, you pay attention and make a note of your mark. As soon as we're up on two wheels, you go out the window, OK?" She nodded as she listened, watching Shampoo line up to the side, Karen a few metres further away and back, with the camera truck on the other side of the runway. Matt and Jim were in the pickup again, behind the camera truck. Returning her attention to straight ahead she waited for the word.

"OK, everything is a go," Adrian's voice came over the radio. "Cameras rolling. Action." The entire convoy began rolling, accelerating to a steady forty miles an hour then holding there.

"Five seconds," Greg warned, not looking away from the ramp in the distance that would heave the vehicle up onto two wheels. Akane braced herself. As they reached the correct point the left wheels hit the curved metal structure, the entire car jolting up to a forty-five degree angle, then balancing there neatly as Greg expertly moved the wheel in small increments. She looked at him for a moment, then released her harness when he nodded. Grabbing the window frame she slithered easily out, crouching on the side of the tilted car with the wind blowing in her face.

Shampoo moved the bike to a distance of about a metre, glancing up at her occasionally to make sure she was lined up properly. "Hold it there," the Tendo woman said when she was satisfied. The Amazon nodded slightly, keeping her position very well. With a deep breath, Akane stood almost erect, one hand on the window frame, then jumped, hoping everything would go smoothly.

Seconds later she was holding onto her friend as the Chinese girl opened the throttle and roared off, both of them yelling in glee. The actual jump was almost an anticlimax, it was barely harder than stepping off the back of the pickup, although the drop was about a metre further. Everything had lined up perfectly.

"Fantastic, both of you," Adrian's extremely satisfied voice came to them, sounding gleeful. "Absolutely fantastic. OK, let's reset and redo it a couple of times to be sure you've got that part locked in and we can move to the next routine."

"All right," she replied, a wide grin on her face. Shampoo slowed and did a U turn, speeding up when she was headed back. Karen pulled alongside them and gave them an upturned thumb.

"That was incredible, Akane," the biker said, sounding very pleased. "It looked amazing."

"Thanks, Karen." Akane grinned again. "I hope I can do it and drive at the same time. That's the hard part."

"We won't know until we try, will we?" the redhead chuckled.

When they arrived back at the start, the Tendo sister jumped off the bike, then headed for the car. Aaron, who had been watching through binoculars, looked approving as she waved to him. Climbing back into the driver's side, she looked at Greg, who was smirking at her. "That looked easy enough," he commented wryly.

"Would you like to try?" she invited with a smirk. He grinned widely, shaking his head.

"Of course not. I'm not insane."

Giggling, she started the car again, then waited for everyone else to get into position.

"Now she's just showing off," Adrian chuckled, watching the young woman standing casually on the side of the tilted car with her arms crossed, leaning a little into the wind, looking like she was out for a stroll on the deck of a sailing ship or something similar. Beside him, Anton shook his head in wondering respect.

"The reflexes and balance that girl must have are astounding," the producer said with awe in his voice. They watched as Shampoo brought the bike in far closer than strictly necessary, almost directly under the blue-haired woman, who stepped sideways and dropped neatly onto the seat, grabbing her friend's waist as soon as she was in position, the bike hurtling off into the distance as the car fell back onto all four wheels, then slowed and turned. Both the camera operators beside them panned their equipment to follow the bike even as the camera truck began slowing.

"Every time I watch either of them do anything like that I want to pinch myself," Adrian laughed, holding on as the vehicle made a wide turn and headed back. "It was the luckiest day of my life from a professional standpoint when Jim brought his friends to the studio over the holidays. I can hardly believe how well it's all going."

"I know what you mean," the other man replied, nodding soberly. "I've been lying in bed three nights running for hours thinking of all the things those two alone will let us do just with the stunt work. If they really can act as well, the sky's the limit." They exchanged a glance, then grinned. "It's certainly going to be fun seeing what happens, hmm?"

"Damn right," the director snorted with amusement. "Mitch is going to be pleased, I think."

"He won't have any trouble with the board, that much I am sure," Anton nodded. "Once he sees this, he won't have any choice. Anyone gives him trouble they're going to be looking for a new job."

"Good to know." Adrian smiled, then climbed out of the vehicle as it stopped, the producer following moments later. "Very impressive, Akane," he said as he reached the two girls, who had both taken their helmets off and were laughing about something with Karen. "Perhaps a little too... 'Titanic'... for this particular role, but I'll admit it looked good."

She giggled, looking at him. "Sorry, I couldn't resist," the young woman said. "I'll be good now."

"I think we can safely say that you have the jumping from the car onto the bike operation down to an art." He studied her, then looked over at Greg, who was leaning on the car a few feet away listening with a small smile. "You think you're ready to combine it with driving as well?"

"I think so," she replied thoughtfully, glancing at the driving instructor, who nodded slightly.

"Great. OK, then, let's move onto that now. At this rate we should have time left for practising the other parts of the stunt some more before we pack up, they're simple by comparison." He looked around for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction. "Very good indeed. Considering how the day started, it's coming together really well." He watched as she climbed back into the car with Greg, then headed back to the camera truck, a satisfied smile on his lips.

"Gahh!" Akane frantically moved the wheel she was holding in her extended right arm a little, taking a deep breath when the car stabilised again. It had nearly gone over too far, wobbling a little then settling back. She looked down into the vehicle to see Greg with his hands poised over the secondary steering system ready to take over as he'd had to several times so far. "I've got it, I think," she said slightly more comprehensibly.

"OK," he replied, keeping his hands ready but away from the wheel. Returning her attention to the task in hand she risked a quick look in the other direction, to see Shampoo looking up at her from the bike a metre and a half away and down.

"Ready?" she asked.

Shampoo nodded. "I'm set. On five, then."

"Five... Four..." They both counted down, then on 'One' she let go of the wheel, slightly straightened from the crouch that allowed her to reach the wheel, and in one move leapt sideways away from the vehicle. Greg immediately took over, the car weaving slightly, as she landed on the back seat of the bike, moving more sideways than she'd intended and as a result forcing Shampoo to compensate wildly, the bike wobbling around manically for a moment before she got it back under control.

"Holy..." There was some muttering in Mandarin which made the Tendo sister grin a little, she was slowly learning the language and for some reason had ended up with a fairly good knowledge of obscenities in it. Shampoo was quite creative. "That was close," her friend said when she was riding straight again.

"Too much sideways push," she agreed. "Sorry. It's a bit awkward from that position, I probably need to stand up more first then jump."

"Let's try again," Shampoo replied, slowing and heading back once again. "We'll get it. This isn't any harder than roof hopping, really."

Akane snickered. "It's a little harder, there aren't nearly as many cars involved when we're running around Nerima on the roofs."

Shampoo giggled. "It would be a bit weird if there were."

Just over half an hour and five attempts later, the blue-haired Tendo woman raised one fist in triumph as the bike screamed away from the car, the jump finally having gone exactly as planned. "Perfect!" Adrian exulted over the radio link. "Totally perfect. Do that tomorrow and I couldn't ask for anything better."

"We should do it once more to make sure it wasn't a fluke, but I think we're done," Karen added, sounding equally pleased. "That was really amazing, both of you."

"Thanks, Karen," both Akane and Shampoo said simultaneously, then laughed a little, as they turned around yet again and headed back.

Shampoo listened with interest as Greg explained the way the stunt car worked to Akane, Matt and Aiko standing beside her also listening. "The nitrogen cannon here in the back will fire a piston at the ground when it's triggered by the switch in the front fender," he said, indicating a large cylinder where the rear seat should be normally. It was connected to a pair of high pressure gas bottles and some complex pipework and electronics. "It's running at nearly three thousand pounds per square inch, which with the size of the piston gives it about twenty tons of force. The piston comes out fast enough to flip the car end over end without any trouble." He gave the other woman a serious look. "I'd suggest you don't want to be in the car at that point."

Akane smiled, nodding. "I think we'll have parted company by then."

"Hopefully," he responded with amusement. "You sure would in a hurry when it fires, trust me." Pointing at a pair of covered switches on the dashboard surrounded in black and yellow tape, with 'DANGER' written in large, unfriendly letters next to them, he added, "The one on the left arms the cannon, the one on the right arms the pyro effects. It's all sequenced so that as soon as the car hits the parked truck the piston will fire, one charge will go off underneath at the same time producing a nice big fireball, and a smaller one will blow the trunk lid about half a second later and push out all the fake money. It should look pretty impressive."

"So, the end result is that the car looks like it hits the truck, explodes, flips over it in a ball of fire, and sprays burning cash all over the road," Matt summed up. "Not very realistic, of course, in real life there would just be a loud crunch and a wrecked car, with perhaps a small fire eventually, but that's not as photogenic." He grinned as they looked at him, Aiko snickering a little.

"The public has certain expectations," Greg sighed, shaking his head. Akane smiled at his expression.

"What safety interlocks do you have?" Aiko asked curiously, making him glance at her. "To make sure it doesn't go off at the wrong time, I mean. I have to admit I was half expecting some sort of remote trigger."

"We have a remote abort, of course, so we can shut it down in case of an accident, but we tend to work on the basis that the person in the car is in the best place to know if it's safe to fire," Matt said, turning to her, while Shampoo and Akane listened with interest. "There are switches in the seats to stop it firing if someone is in the car, it will only fully arm if it's on four wheels, so it can't go while it's up on its side, and you have to manually arm it in the first place. It should be fairly fool-proof." He shrugged as Akane and Shampoo exchanged glances. "We haven't blown anybody up by accident yet," he finished, smiling slightly. "Our pyro guys know what they're doing."

"OK," the brunette replied, nodding. "That sounds pretty reasonable."

"The charges are fairly small," Greg put in. "And outside the vehicle. If they went off accidentally you'd probably be OK, more or less, assuming you got out of the thing fast enough. The fire effects are the dangerous part but they burn out in a few seconds. And the nitrogen cannon, of course, you'd pull about ten G when it fired."

"So, basically, don't arm it until you're ready," Akane suggested. He nodded slowly.

"Best not to."

"I'll try to remember that," she assured him seriously, before smiling a little.

"Good idea."

Exchanging small grins, they looked over with the others when Adrian called to them, waving them over to the camera truck. Joining him they watched the replay of the last run on the high def monitor with interest. When it was finished he turned around smiling widely. "That was amazingly good, everyone. The last three were damn near perfect even without the special effects. We can probably cut some of this footage in to the final sequence for the close-ups, which will make it look even better." He stepped back, looking around at the gathered people. "I for one am very pleased. Anyone got any issues or questions about anything?"

"I'd like to go over the other driving sequences again tomorrow just to be sure everything is correct," Greg said, looking at Akane for a moment, who nodded silently, "but on the whole I think we're about as ready as we'll ever be."

"Shampoo is very good and I don't have anything else to teach her at the moment," Karen added proudly. "As far as I'm concerned it should all work out well."

The Amazon felt pleased, smiling at the tall red-head, who grinned at her in response. Adrian looked at them both, a satisfied look on his face. "Great. Anton and I are extremely happy and I'm certain Mitch will be as well when he sees the end result. Thanks for all the hard work. Let's pack up and get back to LA in that case."

Shampoo and Akane helped Karen park the bikes in one of the garages while Greg and Matt did the same with the cars, then everyone pitched in to pack up the rest of the equipment, most of it going back into the trucks. Half an hour later, as the sun was beginning to set, everyone was in the three vehicles they'd arrived in. Aiko teleported the first one back, then reappeared and hopped into the truck Shampoo and Akane were in, smiling at them.

"Looking forward to the barbecue?" she asked, casually making the entire vehicle blink out of existence and reappear fifty miles away instantly, which made the Chinese woman smile to herself.

"Yes, I am," she replied, nodding. Akane also nodded, as they disembarked, watching the people from the first truck begin unloading the film and video tapes. "I'm really pretty hungry, actually. It's been a lot of work but a lot of fun."

"I had a wonderful time," Akane grinned. "I can hardly wait for tomorrow."

"You looked very good standing on that car," Aiko snickered. "See you in a minute." She disappeared as they turned away and walked over to Adrian, who was talking to the lead cameraman, waiting until he'd finished and the other man was heading off with a stack of media.

"That went really well," the director said in satisfaction, looking at them. "Much better than even I was expecting and I had high hopes. You two are amazing."

"Thanks, Adrian," Shampoo replied, laughing slightly for a second or two. "Like to hear that." Akane giggled, glancing at her friend.

"You'll give us an inflated sense of self-importance talking like that," the Tendo sister grinned. He smiled back.

"That's pretty normal in Hollywood, trust me." Chuckling, he turned to watch as the final vehicle appeared next to their one, Aiko hopping out followed by Matt. The stunt coordinator joined them along with the brunette, both of them smiling a little at something Aiko had said. Glancing at his watch, he said, "We've got about an hour and a half before we need to be at Richard's house. I'm going to go home and shower and change. I'll meet you guys there."

Matt nodded. "Sounds good. Aaron and his wife are coming with me, I'll drop him off and do the same thing, then pick them up again on the way." Jim joined them just in time to hear the last few words.

"I'll take Anton," he stated indicating the producer who was talking to Karen next to one of the trucks. "Karen is going to make her own way over, she said."

"What about Greg?" Akane asked.

"He's going to be a little late, he needs to meet a friend first for some reason, but he's coming around nine or so, he told me." Adrian waved to the stunt driver, who waved back as he went into the garage block and disappeared.

"I think that's everyone, then," Matt mused. "Sounds good. OK, then, I'll see you all later." He walked off, nodding to Anton and Karen, before collecting Aaron and heading back to the car park.

"In that case, I'll take these two to their hotel then go home and change," Aiko put in, smiling. "I need to check in and make sure nothing weird is going on, or at least nothing unusually weird." The remaining people looked amused. "See you later, guys." Shampoo and Akane joined her, waved to Karen, then stepped a couple of metres away before the magical girl did her thing.

"Thanks for all the help, Aiko," Akane said sincerely, smiling at her friend. "This morning as well as all the stunt stuff. I can't say strongly enough how grateful we both are for everything you've done for us." Shampoo, beside her, nodded vigorously.

"It's no problem, Akane, as I've said before. It's been a lot of fun," the brunette smiled back. "I'll be back in about an hour or so, OK?"

"All right," she responded, turning her head a little as Aiko teleported out. "Well, I for one definitely need a shower," she laughed, plucking at her clothes, which were dusty and limp.

"Me too," Shampoo agreed, sniffing herself and making a face. They headed for the elevators, nodding to the reception desk person who was someone they hadn't seen before, the woman smiling at them in return. Once the youngest Tendo sister was in her room, she undressed and jumped in the shower, turning it up as hot as she could stand, leaning against the wall and letting the water run over her back for a couple of minutes while she went over the day's excitement in her mind with a small smile on her face. 'I still can't believe all this,' she thought to herself, shaking her head a little, then picking up a bottle of shampoo and squirting some into her hand.

'Considering how weird everything went this morning, I'm amazed how well it turned out in the end.' Quickly washing her hair, she shook it out, then rinsed it, before washing everything else. A few minutes later she was wrapped in a towel brushing her hair in front of the mirror and wondering how well everything would work out tomorrow. Deciding that the only sensible thing to do was wait and see, she quickly brushed her teeth, then dried herself and got dressed. Sitting on the bed, she thought for a moment, did a quick time conversion, then pulled out her phone and hit the appropriate speed dial.

"Hi, Auntie," she said when the older woman answered.

"Hello, Akane," the voice of the Saotome matriarch came to her, sounding pleased. "How nice to hear from you. How is everything going? Soun told me you called the other day and seemed to be enjoying yourself."

"It's going really well," she replied with a slight laugh. "A little weirdly in places but overall it's a huge amount of fun, Shampoo and I have met some really nice people, learned a lot of interesting things, and so far everyone seems extremely pleased with us."

"I'm very glad to hear that," the distant voice said. "We were concerned you two might run into difficulties but also fairly sure you'd overcome them. I'm proud of you, what you're doing can't be easy."

"It's a bit strange in some cases, although I have to say that it's helping my English a lot speaking it all the time. I'm slightly surprised how well that part is going, actually, I didn't realise how fluent I really am in it. At home I don't get a lot of practice." Akane smiled a little to herself.

Nodoka chuckled. "I'm sure you're very good, Akane. I know Nabiki is remarkably fluent but she's always been good with languages from what your father has told me. He also said you were slower to learn at first but had ended up with very good marks in school for English, so I'm certain you'll have no problems there. Poor Shampoo, on the other hand..."

Akane giggled a little. "She's getting a lot better, but no, she's not gifted with languages. It took her years to learn Japanese properly. Mind you, she's very good now. She just learns languages slowly. She understands English pretty well, though, just can't speak it as well as she'd like."

"Has that caused any problems?" Nodoka sounded concerned.

"No, everyone here is fine with it," the Tendo sister replied. "She'll get better with time. Aiko is sure of that, so is Shampoo."

"Good." The older woman seemed pleased. "Elder Cologne stopped by last night for tea and we were discussing you girls. She was very pleased with what Soun told her about your conversation. I think she's proud of you both. The Elder has developed a considerable liking for you, you know."

"I sort of worked it out," Akane admitted, lying back on the bed and smiling at the ceiling. "After our past history it surprised me a little but I'm glad it's worked out the way it has. They're good friends now, even Mousse, and Shampoo is probably one of my best friends."

"The young lady is a good person despite her recent past," Nodoka agreed, giggling slightly. "Oh, hold on, Nabiki just came in. Would you like to talk to her?"

"Yes, please, Auntie," Akane said. There was a pause, a muffled conversation, then her older sister's voice came on the line.

"Hi, Akane. How's it going?"

"Pretty well, 'Biki," she laughed. "Some weird parts, of course, but on the whole, better than either of us expected."

"I didn't doubt it, sis," Nabiki replied with a grin in her voice. "You're not bad when you concentrate and you clean up well."

"Oh, thanks a lot," the younger sister replied archly. "I love you too."

"I know you do." Nabiki sounded confidently sure, making her sister snicker. "So, what's happened today? You were going to be doing some sort of fight scene, weren't you?"

"Yes, two of them, actually. And some driving practice." Akane grinned to herself. "The bank robbery was a bonus."

There was a pause, then her sister requested, "I think that part might need explanation, sis." She sounded intrigued. Akane laughed, then gave a fairly brief explanation, at the end of which Nabiki snickered. The youngest sister could picture the older one's face, making her smile.

"Only you two, Akane. Have breakfast, get mixed up in a violent bank robbery, foil it without even trying very hard, then go to work." She snickered again. "You're taking Nerima-level strangeness with you. I pity LA."

"It should have known what it was getting into when it invited us over," Akane said mildly, sitting up again. Nabiki laughed for a moment.

"So, you're going to get interviewed by this FBI guy at a barbecue later?" she asked curiously. "That sounds a little different."

"Richard seemed to think it was a good idea and the agent went along with it. I think it was due to Ms Aoyama more than anything else," Akane replied. She shivered for a moment. "I'm grateful, but that woman still scares the crap out of me." Momentarily pausing and looking around nervously, she was rather relieved when nothing happened, aside from her sister laughing again.

"The tone of your voice when you say her name is amazing," Nabiki told her, making her frown slightly. "It's worse than Dad or Genma talking about Happosai."

"If you ever meet her you'll understand," Akane growled, making her sister break down in giggles.

"Probably not going to happen, but I look forward to it," the other young woman replied after a few seconds. "Anyway, I'm going to have to go, I need to help Auntie with something. You're going to be back for the party?"

"Of course, I wouldn't miss it," Akane assured her. "We'll have a full day tomorrow but I think we'll come home as soon as we're finished, so we should be back sometime on Friday afternoon, Tokyo time."

"Good. You'll need an early night to recover from the time zone difference, I would expect, then you can help set things up on Saturday morning." There was a muffled voice in the background and a few noises that made her think Nabiki was talking to at least two people. "Sorry, I'm really going to have to go now, Ukyo just turned up and wants a word. Give my best to Shampoo and Aiko, OK? And good luck with everything tomorrow."

"Thanks, 'Biki. See you soon, say hi to Dad and Ukyo."

"I'll make sure to," her sister replied. "Bye."

Smiling, she disconnected, then put the phone in her pocket and stood up. Checking her watch she saw it was about ten minutes before the point Aiko had said she'd be back, so she made sure she had all her things in her pockets then left the room. Tapping on the door to Shampoo's room, she smiled when the other woman opened it, towelling her long hair at the same time. "Not ready yet?" she teased as she entered. "I've been ready for half an hour."

"Hair this long takes a while to dry, you know," Shampoo grinned. "You modern girls with boy's haircuts have it easy."

Shaking her head in amusement Akane watched while her friend finished up, then they both left and headed for the elevators, finding Aiko standing in the lobby reading a brochure. The brunette looked up as the doors to the elevator opened, turning around as if she'd known they were there, which she undoubtedly had, Akane thought. "Hi, guys. All ready to go?" the other woman asked, putting the brochure back into the holder on the desk it had come from.

"Yes," Shampoo replied, nodding. "I'm looking forward to it."

They walked outside and disappeared, the reflected flash making the receptionist look up, slightly puzzled, before shrugging and going back to tapping on the computer keyboard she was sitting in front of.

"Hello, Sophie, Joan, how are you both?" Harrison asked as he opened the door to admit the latest arrivals. Both women entered, a tall dark-haired man behind them who was looking around with interest.

"We're both fine, Richard, thanks for asking," the elder Simpson woman replied, smiling. "This is my husband David."

"Hi," David added, holding out his hand, which Harrison shook with a smile. "I've heard a lot about you from Sophie, it's nice to finally meet you. Call me Dave."

"Richard. Nice to meet you, Dave. Come on in, we're all out in the back yard." He led the way through the house and out the back, smiling at his wife who came over with their daughter, Serena quickly greeting her friend then the pair of them wandering off immediately. "This is my wife Emily, and that was our own daughter Serena. Dear, this is Dave, Sophie's father."

Emily shook hands with the man, then smiled at Joan, the two women exchanging greetings. "It's very nice to meet you finally, Dave," she said, leading them over to the table which was covered with food. "Please, help yourselves. There are plenty of burgers and hot dogs, some chicken is nearly ready, and there's salad and vegetarian things as well. Would either of you like a beer or a soft drink?"

"I'll have a beer, thanks," Dave smiled. His wife accepted one as well, both of them taking a drink, then looking around. "This is a very nice place, Richard," he added after a moment. Harrison followed his eyes then smiled a little.

"We like it. We've been here about ten years so far, it's a nice place to live." They watched as Serena picked up her compound bow and showed something on it to Sophie, who seemed fascinated.

"Ah, the famous bow." The Simpson husband grinned. "We've heard a lot about it from Sophie. And about various arrows being found all over the neighbourhood."

Harrison half snickered, half groaned, while Emily giggled a bit. "Don't remind me. It doesn't happen very often now, but our dear daughter did go through a period of losing the things all over the place. You wouldn't believe how far they go if she misses."

"I think I may be glad that Sophie is sticking to beating people up with martial arts for the moment," the other man laughed. "It causes less long range damage."

The sound of the doorbell going off again made Harrison put his own beer down and answer it, finding Akane, Shampoo, and Aiko waiting outside. As he admitted them, two cars drew up and parked on the street, Aaron, Naomi, and Matt getting out of one of them, Agent Tinnin climbing out of the other. All of them headed towards him. "Hi, girls," Harrison said, smiling at the first arrivals. "Go on through, you know the way."

"OK, Richard," Akane nodded, leading her friends into the house. He waited for the FBI man, who was in the lead, to reach him, shaking hands as soon as he was in range.

"Hello, Agent, it's nice to see you again. Come on in, if you want to wait in the living room just there on the left I'll be with you in a second."

"Hello, Lieutenant. Thank you." The FBI agent moved past him, following the directions, as Harrison greeted the other three, then closed the door.

"Go on through and help yourselves to beer," he told them, "I'll be out in a few minutes."

"OK, Richard," Matt replied, he and the other pair disappearing into the back of the house. Harrison headed into the living room to find the FBI man looking at a few pictures on the wall.

"How are your investigations coming along so far?" he asked, waving the other man to a seat. Tinnin sat, sighing slightly.

"Slowly," he admitted. "Very slowly. There are some extremely weird things going on with this case which are making me kind of worried. It's going to take a lot of effort to dig it all out, and I have a nasty feeling that I'm not going to like what I find, but..." He shrugged. "It needs to be done."

"Are you any further forward in working out who they're working for?"

Tinnin shook his head. "No, we've had no luck on that point at all yet. There are a lot of people asking a lot of questions, it's going up the chain of command pretty fast, but so far we don't have any actual answers, just more questions. I assume you haven't got anywhere with questioning Captain Mitchells and his friends?"

"Nope. They've clammed up completely. Bouchard broke immediately but he doesn't have any information we didn't already have from Ms Aoyama. It was all arranged online, he never met any of them before today, and he's basically just a greedy idiot." Harrison waved a hand dismissively, leaning back in his seat and sighing. "We won't get anything useful from him I'm afraid."

"Damn. Not surprising, but it would have been useful." The other man looked thoughtful for a few seconds. "I'd still like to interview him."

"Help yourself. He's not going anywhere for the moment."

"I'll make arrangements to come over tomorrow afternoon." Tinnin looked satisfied. "We'll want to interview the others as well. We might have more luck than you." He grinned at Harrison's narrow look. "We're more badass than the LAPD."

"You think?" the other man replied, smiling after a moment. "I'll be interested to see that, then. I'll take notes." They both looked amused, then Harrison stood. "I'll go and get our interview subjects. Who do you want to start with?"

"Akane Tendo, I think, then her friend," Tinnin replied, pulling a small tape recorder out of his pocket. "We can leave Mr Stewart for last."

"OK. Back in a minute. Oh, do you want a coffee or something as well?"

The FBI man nodded. "Coffee would be great, thanks. Black, two sugars."

"OK." Harrison headed out to the back yard, looking around for a moment, then walking over to where Akane was talking to his wife, both of them smiling. "Hi, Akane. If you're ready, Agent Tinnin and I would like to debrief you about today. It shouldn't take long."

She looked slightly nervous, but nodded. "All right, Richard." Attracting Shampoo's attention from where she was listening to Jim explain something about his hot sauce, judging by the bottle of it he was waving around, she motioned to Harrison then the house. The Amazon nodded, waving back. Following him inside, she took a seat in the living room across from the FBI agent, Harrison quickly retrieving a tray with three coffee cups, sugar, and a pot of the brown liquid. Shortly he was sitting down as well, his own recorder running, listening to the young woman go over the abortive robbery from her own point of view.

"Then, at the end, he just fainted," she finally summed up, smiling a little. "I'm not sure why." Tinnin and Harrison exchanged glances, both of them amused and impressed.

"I have some idea," the FBI man noted. She grinned at the tone of his voice. "Thank you, Akane. That clears up a few questions." He sipped his second cup of coffee, looking over the notes he'd made during her short recitation. "What was your impression of the suspects, overall?"

"Well, Captain Mitchells stuck me as a rather unpleasant man who didn't have any real interest in other people's lives," she replied, frowning a little in thought. "But he also seemed to be in most respects very competent in his own way. He seemed to be the brains behind the whole thing and definitely the leader. The Russian, Yefremov, he was a very cold and deliberate man, again not someone who would care if he had to kill anyone who got in the way. That Harris guy was different, still dangerous but not with the military training that the other two obviously had. I'd say both of them had some fairly serious martial arts training as well as the firearms experience, where he was more of a gun and knife man. A killer, definitely, but not a soldier." Harrison exchanged a glance with Tinnin, impressed by her summation, which was spot on.

"The younger man, Soria, he was just a murderer, an amateur, really. Some sort of assassin I'd guess but not very competent past that." She shrugged. "That's all I could get from watching them and listening to them talk. Soria was in over his head, he didn't have the discipline that the others had, if he didn't have that shotgun he'd have been no real threat. But he wasn't worried about using it."

"I see. Interesting, and well observed." Tinnin nodded slowly, making some notes. "It fits with what we know about them very well. If the hostages hadn't been present, only you and Miss Pu, what would you have done?" He looked up with a curious expression.

She laughed a little, shaking her head. "We'd probably have jumped them as soon as they came in, to be honest, we worked out pretty fast what was going on. But we couldn't risk it because of all the people. A stray shot could have killed one of the customers. We were basically trying to keep them concentrating on us until the police did something that would either end it or give us the opportunity to do so, but Ms Aoyama turning up was the critical thing."

"Ah. Yes, I understand. Well, Miss Tendo, I must say both I and the FBI are grateful for all the help you provided during this whole event, especially as you were the one to raise the alarm in the first place. I suspect that without you and your friend we would currently be investigating a successful robbery and multiple murder case, quite possibly without any real clues. These people seem to be annoyingly competent and could quite likely have escaped if they hadn't been detected so fast." Tinnin looked satisfied, closing his notebook. "That's all the questions I have for you at the moment. If we need more testimony I assume you're OK with providing it?"

"Of course," the young woman said, smiling. "Just let me know. Richard has my contact details and Aiko has already said she'd happy to bring me back, or bring you over to meet us at home, if that needs to be done. I hope you manage to prosecute these people, they need to be punished for what they did." She looked irritated and sad. "Those poor guards didn't deserve what happened to them."

"No, they didn't," he agreed, turning off his recorder. "Lieutenant, do you have any more questions?"

"I think I have everything I need for the moment," Harrison replied. He turned his own equipment off, smiling at the Tendo woman. "Thanks, Akane. I'll let you know if we need anything more but I don't think we will. Well done, and I hope your job interview wasn't too badly affected by this morning."

She grinned for a moment. "No, it all turned out to be fine, actually. The delay was annoying but one way or another everything worked out and Adrian is very pleased."

"Good. Could you ask Shampoo to come in, then, please?" She stood, nodding.

"Of course." Leaving the room both men watched her go.

"Wow. I have to admit, Lieutenant, I wouldn't want that girl pissed at me," Tinnin commented in a low voice when he was sure she was out of earshot. "I understand now why you weren't worried this morning. She's absolutely lethal."

"Oh, yes, that she is," he snickered. "Luckily she's no killer, she could have wiped all four of them out by herself but I don't think she would without incredible provocation. Shampoo, on the other hand, she'd snap your neck without a second thought if it was the only way." He shook his head slowly. "I've read up on these Chinese Amazons, they are not people to take lightly, believe me. They tend to keep to themselves but if you ever managed to get them angry enough to take action, it would be... well, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near, definitely."

"That fits with my own research," Tinnin nodded, looking slightly worried. "Hopefully, Miss Pu can reserve her more bloodthirsty urges for movie work rather than dealing with bank robbers."

Harrison chuckled, then looked up as the Amazon in question came into the living room, looking around with interest. "You want speak about bank?" she asked, sitting at his inviting wave.

"Indeed we do," he replied, smiling and turning his recorder back on.

Sophie watched and listened as Shampoo and Akane took turns explaining what they'd been doing for their practice stunt-work earlier today, sitting beside Serena, who was gaping at them open-mouthed, laughing with wonder occasionally. Glancing at her friend she grinned, then turned to look at her parents, who were also listening. That director guy, Adrian, was chuckling at Shampoo's wild gestures, looking contented and happy.

Biting into her burger she chewed thoughtfully, very glad she'd met Serena months back. It had turned into a deep friendship unlike anything she'd ever had before, making her wish she'd encountered the other girl years earlier. Her father reached past her for the ketchup, smiling at her as he picked the bottle up. "They seem interesting people," he muttered in a low voice to her as he put a little on his own burger then returned the bottle to its place.

"They are, and very nice as well," she replied, equally softly. "Shampoo is amazing with a bow. Both of them are unbelievably good with martial arts as well." She looked over at Aiko, who was chatting to Matt, both of them holding bottles of beer. The brunette flipped the cap off hers with her thumb then exchanged bottles with the stunt man and did the same thing to the new one, catching each cap with her other hand and grinning. Sophie giggled, it was impressive to watch. "Aiko is even better and she can do all sorts of other things as well, magical things," she added.

Her father followed her gaze thoughtfully. "I'm still not sure I believe in magic," he replied with an amused tone in his voice. She gave him a stern look.

"She's a magical girl, she does magic."

"Of course she does, dear," he said, smiling a little and patting her on the head with his free hand as he bit into his burger.

"Dad!" she snapped, smoothing her hair down and making him chuckle. "Stop it."

"You liked it when you were little," he laughed.

"I'm grown up now, it's undignified," the teenager haughtily sniffed, then ruined it by giggling.

"Of course it is." He gave her an affectionate look, then ruffled her hair again.


Serena turned at her subdued yelp, grinning at her friend. She got up and came over, sitting beside the other girl, then pulled a handful of small rocks out of her pocket. "Hey, look at these," she said, displaying them proudly.

"They're rocks," Sophie said doubtfully after closely inspecting them, not sure why her friend was so pleased about the things. "I mean, some of them are pretty, but they're still rocks."

"This one is from Australia, near Uluru," Serena stated, picking up a bright red one with her other hand. "This is from a beach in Tasmania." That one was a zebra-striped black and white pebble. "This came from a nickel mine in Canada, this one is from somewhere in the middle of Antarctica, this is from a volcano in Hawaii, and this one is from near a big lake in Africa."

Sophie and her father exchanged glances. "So they're from all over the world?" she asked doubtfully.

"Yep. Guess how I got them?" Serena had a smug look on her face.

"Mail order?" Sophie guessed. Her friend shook her head, grinning.

"Nope. I picked all of them up from the ground," she giggled. Pointing at Aiko, she added, "A couple of days ago when they all came over, Aiko teleported me to all those places. I've got some more inside as well." She laughed again as Sophie looked suitably impressed.

"Wow," the other girl replied slowly, looking at the collection with renewed respect. Her father studied the pile of unassuming stones as well, one eyebrow up a little and a tolerant smile on his face. He reached out and removed a small grey one, looking at it with interest.

"Where did this one come from?" he asked in a voice that suggested he didn't actually believe the story but was willing to play along.

"That one Aiko gave me, she said it was a piece of moon rock," Serena replied, frowning slightly. "It's not very interesting compared to most of these other ones, it's just a dull boring grey rock. I guess the moon isn't an interesting colour." She and Sophie looked up to where the nearly full moon was visible through a high level haze in the dark. "I mean, it just looks grey from here."

"It is mainly shades of grey," he replied absently, holding the pebble more in the illumination provided by one of the dozen or so garden lights on poles around the back yard, inspecting it closely. "There are a few colourful parts, the Apollo missions showed that, but it's mostly covered in pretty dark material, it only looks as bright as it is because of direct sunlight and no atmosphere to diffuse it." Rubbing the stone with his thumb, he sniffed it, both eyebrows going up thoughtfully. "That's... odd."

"What is, Dad?" Sophie asked curiously.

"I could swear this really is a piece of lunar breccia," he muttered, turning it in his hand for a moment, then handing it back to Serena. "It can't be, not fresh like that... Perhaps a lunar meteorite...?" His voice dropped to a mumble, making Sophie look at her friend and shrug. After a moment when he seemed lost in thought, something she was used to, she sighed slightly, smiled tolerantly, then went off with the other teenager to get Shampoo to show them something dangerous you could do with a fork.

"What on earth are you doing, Jim?" Emily asked curiously as she watched the man in question pull on some disposable gloves before removing a glass jar from a bag and putting it on the table with the rest of the food. He looked up at her and smiled.

"Taking precautions," he replied, carefully opening the lid while pointing the jar away from his face. When nothing happened he relaxed slightly, tilting the jar a little to look inside, then nodding. "Hey, Aiko!" he called, causing the magical girl who was currently talking to Tinnin the FBI agent to look over, then approach them with an expression of interest. "Try this," Jim said when she was close enough, holding out the jar with a dangerous smirk on his face.

She studied him, then inspected the jar. After a moment she stuck one finger in it, pulled it out, sniffed the orange goop on the end, then put it in her mouth. He winced a little and stepped back.

Emily watched with mild worry. Nothing much happened at first, the brunette licking her lips thoughtfully, until her eyes abruptly widened a few seconds later. "Wow," she whispered hoarsely as tears came to those eyes. She coughed a few times, then smiled. "That's great, Jim." Looking around the young woman found a burger, snagged the jar, then added a generous helping of the sauce to the food, replacing the top of the bun and biting in with a grin. Jim stared in shock as she chewed, her face going slightly red, then nodded happily. "Misaki and Yori will love it. Do you have any more?"

Mutely he indicated the bag which was next to the table, half a dozen jars of the same substance visible in it. He looked like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. She gave him a thumbs up before wandering off with her burger, still eating it happily. Emily watched her go then turned to the man who was still staring in shock. "Is it really that hot?" she asked, reaching for the jar which Aiko had put down on the table. He grabbed her wrist before it made contact.

"I really wouldn't, Emily," he warned. "It's unbelievably hot, I tried some and couldn't taste anything for six hours once the pain faded." Glancing at Aiko who was finishing off the burger with every sign of enjoyment, he shook his head in wondering respect. "Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Those girls must have cast titanium stomachs."

Giggling at his mildly disappointed expression, Emily asked, "You thought you'd made something she couldn't handle, didn't you?" He nodded, grinning.

"I had hopes. Oh well." His grin widened. "I'll just have to try harder. I wonder if I can get some pure capsaicin from somewhere...?" She left him mumbling to himself and taking notes, going into the house to look for a card and a marker so she could label the jar as "For Magical Girls Only".

The scream of pain from Greg about five minutes later showed the warning needed to be written in larger letters.

Wandering slowly around the brightly lit back yard, Adrian sipped his second beer, smiling to himself and nodding at various people. He stopped beside Emily and Richard, who were talking to Joan, Sophie's mother, next to the barbecue grill, the three people greeting him with their own smiles. "It sounds from what Akane was saying as if the day went very well after that unpleasant start," Emily said, offering him a plate of snacks, which he took a few of with a murmur of thanks.

"It did, actually," he replied, popping one of the little sausage rolls into his mouth and chewing appreciatively. Swallowing, he added, "Even better than we hoped for. Everyone involved had fun, did their jobs very effectively, and we got some amazing footage. Mitch, the executive we're dealing with at the studio, will be extremely pleased."

"So you think those girls will get the job?" she asked, glancing at Akane and Shampoo, who were showing a few simple Judo throws to Serena and Sophie, with the latter's father watching while wearing the same slightly puzzled expression he'd had on for the last forty minutes or so. He followed her eyes, nodding.

"Oh, yes, definitely. I think it's in the bag. It's been a very likely thing since we saw that first demonstration, but the recent events sealed it as far as I'm concerned. It will probably take the board a few days to come to a final decision from what Anton has been saying but I don't think the outcome is in any doubt by this point." He grinned. "I'm really looking forward to working with them both. We'll probably be using them for real shoots sometime after Christmas, I'd think around February or so. There are a couple of movies in the pipeline that they'll be a good fit for."

"That's nice," she smiled. "I like them both and it sounds like they'd enjoy the job. Serena is very interested in seeing a stunt as well."

"Well, you're more than welcome to come along with her tomorrow," he told her. "I would have invited you today, but what with minor little irritations like idiots robbing banks and so forth it got sort of complicated." She laughed again, shaking her head, as Harrison rolled his eyes in annoyance.

"Tell me about it," the police officer muttered with a tone of disgust in his voice. "It's going to take weeks to sort all that out at the least." He sighed when his wife giggled yet again, looking at him with amusement.

"How are you doing after that ordeal, Adrian?" Joan asked, listening with interest and sounding sympathetic. "It must have been terrifying." He turned to her, thinking for a moment.

"Honestly, not too bad, really." He was almost surprised himself by his own words. "At the time, yes, it was scary, but..." He shrugged slightly, looking for the right words. "If Akane and Shampoo hadn't been there, I'd be getting very drunk by now, even assuming it had ended. But, oddly enough, knowing both those young women were in the bank made me sure everything was going to work out OK. I wasn't quite expecting the way it actually ended, I'll admit, but I was pretty certain nothing too serious would happen." He finished the last of the beer and tossed the empty bottle into a bin next to the grill with a clink. "They inspire confidence, once you've seen them at work. Their friends are even better at it, so all in all I wasn't too worried."

"Still, two people died, that must have been a shock," she said with a sad expression. He frowned, nodding.

"Yes, that part is terrible. There was nothing anyone could really do, though, it happened so quickly. By the time even those girls could have acted it was too late. I think they did the right thing, they could certainly have taken out those four robbers, but the collateral damage could have been very nasty. Keeping their heads, calling Richard, then attracting the attention of those idiots and keeping it away from the rest of us, that was all a clever and successful tactic that definitely saved lives." He glanced at Harrison for backup, the lieutenant nodding soberly.

"Adrian is right, Joan. Akane really did save the day. If it hadn't been for her quick thinking, and Shampoo's, we'd probably be looking for the suspects right now, and there could well have been more deaths. Those bastards weren't at all worried about shooting anyone who got in the way without a second thought. The girls are due a lot of thanks from everyone. I wouldn't be surprised if the bank gave them a reward as well."

"It's pretty amazing," Emily mused, watching as Shampoo balanced on her hands on Akane's head for some reason, both Sophie and Serena rolling around giggling at the sight. Agent Tinnin had joined the small group and was staring in shock. "They're so young, to be so good at what they do. Most people would have fallen to pieces in those circumstances."

"They're not most people," Adrian snickered. "Luckily."

He looked at Joan. "Do you want to come along tomorrow with Sophie as well?" he asked. "You're both welcome as well. It's a bit of a drive but I think you'd enjoy watching."

"I know Sophie is very interested," she smiled, "and I think I'd like to see it as well. Can I bring David?"

"Of course," he told her, poking through his pockets for a moment, then coming up with a couple of business cards and a pen. He wrote the address of the airfield on the back of them, then gave Joan and Emily one each. "Show that to the guard on the gate, he'll let you in. Just head towards the control tower and someone will meet you."

"There's no need for that, Adrian," Aiko's voice suddenly came from beside him, making him twitch violently, then sigh as she snickered. He cast the petite brunette an evil look, making the others all smile. She grinned at him unrepentantly. "I can pick them up and take them out to the airfield, it will save a lot of time."

"I wish you wouldn't do that," he growled. The magical girl smiled serenely back.

"I know," she giggled. Harrison made a noise that suggested he was suppressing a laugh of his own, making Emily poke him and frown lightly.

"Be nice, dear," she warned, as he nodded obediently.

"But seriously, I'm happy to do the transportation for you both," Aiko went on, turning her attention to Joan and Emily. "The first time is a bit rough, Joan, but I can do the same thing I did for Serena and Emily, just hop you around your yard a couple of times first. You'll feel a little unwell but it passes quickly." The elder Simpson woman looked slightly unsure, glancing at Emily, who nodded with a wry smile.

"'A little unwell' is something of an understatement, but Aiko is right, it doesn't last long." Emily looked both amused and like she was remembering something unpleasant, an interesting combination. "It's worth it, the experience is remarkable."

After a moment's thought, Joan nodded, smiling. "Thank you, then, Aiko, that's very generous of you."

"No problem," the brunette replied happily. "I like helping out and that's something I'm good at." She eyed up the grill, making Harrison grin and toss a few more burger patties on it.

"As is disposing of food in large quantities," he joked, causing her to grin.

"Indeed," she agreed. "Magical girls are generally like a plague of locusts, we eat a lot. But we're cute, which makes up for it." They all laughed as she smiled.

"How are Yori, Misaki, and Fumiko?" Harrison asked curiously. "The others all seemed in good spirits when we talked after the robbery."

Aiko picked up another bottle of beer and popped off the cap one-handed. "They're fine, Richard," she replied. "So is Azumi, you haven't met her yet, but I expect you will sooner or later. Things at home are fairly quiet at the moment, there have been quite a lot of little things going on but nothing major for a while, so we've all been taking the chance to relax a little. The last big problem worked out OK in the end and we're hoping that there won't be another one for some time." She sipped her beer as she exchanged a look with the policeman which suggested he had some idea of what she was talking about, Adrian noticed. Harrison nodded a little.

"I see." He busied himself making some more burgers for a moment, handing them out when he was done.

"I'm still amazed that you have so many strange things going on in Japan," Emily commented, accepting a burger with a smile to her husband, then turning back to the magical girl. "It all sounds very odd. Are there really demons of all things wandering around the place?" She looked both interested and worried.

Aiko giggled a little at her expression. "That's what they tend to get called, yes, Emily," she replied. "It's sort of traditional even though in many cases it's not particularly accurate. Visitors from other places do turn up a lot, though. Some of them are hostile, some are friendly, most of them are basically just tourists or traders these days." She took a seat on a nearby chair, the others moving to do the same and listening with interest.

"There's a lot of trade going back and forth between Minato and a number of other places at the moment, and it's steadily picking up. So much so that there are regular services bringing visitors in and taking them back, which took us by surprise when we first found out about it a while ago, but it's something we should have expected." The brunette smiled at their expressions. "We've been quite successful on bringing some of the more... excessive... girls around to being a little more thoughtful and selective about what they do and who they go after, which has had an interesting knock-on effect. It's mainly Yori's fault to be honest, she's always preferred to talk to the 'demons' rather than fight them wherever possible, which has recently really started to spread as an approach for various reasons."

She took a sip of her beer, looking around at the fascinated expressions of her small audience. "Word gets around, hostile visitors tend to stay away because they get stomped on hard, while the friendlies turn up more both because of exactly that, and because they themselves don't get shot at. There are still pretty regular problems, but overall it's getting a lot more interesting and safer at the same time." She shrugged, gesturing with the beer bottle. "It's going to be fun to see what happens over the next few years but I suspect it's also going to take a lot of people by surprise."

Adrian listened with a certain amount of incredulity, which was mirrored on the faces of most of the others. "So you're telling me that you have real aliens wandering around in Minato? Just walking around on the street buying things?"

She nodded with a grin. "Yep. A lot of them are disguised in various ways, especially outside our own area which is by far the most open to them, but they're around. Hundreds, probably, on a day to day basis." The girl smirked at his expression. "To be honest there have always been a fair number coming and going, mainly trading with various mages and other magic workers, but until recently it was a very hush-hush sort of thing mostly for self-defence. It's opened up a lot over the last couple of years."

"Why on earth doesn't that make the news in every country on the planet?" Emily wondered out loud, looking flabbergasted. "With all the people who come up with the most insane conspiracy stories and alien encounters on the flimsiest of evidence I'd have expected that this sort of thing would be front page news every day."

Aiko shrugged again, looking mildly puzzled. "I don't know. People in Japan are pretty well aware of it to one level or another, at least as a possibility, and have been so for a long time. In Tokyo specifically it's not that unusual even though most people outside Minato and possibly Nerima would tell you they're not entirely convinced, since most of them have never personally encountered someone from another world. But even then you probably wouldn't find many people who would say it was impossible. Other places in Japan don't run into it as much although it still happens sometimes. Minato is the hotbed of activity of course, that's where most of the girls are and a lot of the mages. Magic users are spread all over the world but you'd find them a lot more easily in Japan."

She thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I don't know why it isn't something people from other places really pay much attention to. We don't keep it a secret, not on purpose at any rate, and there certainly are other countries that are very well aware of it, and magic in general. The UK, for example, has a lot of mages, although they're mostly of a rather different type than ours. There are a lot in China as well, a number in Australia, a fair few in many European countries, things like that. They all have different systems and techniques, for various cultural reasons, but by and large they get on perfectly happily with the rest of the population even if they don't mix all that much. The weird part is how in the US specifically there aren't that many and the general population simply doesn't believe in magic for the most part." Taking another sip, she waved a hand at the people standing or sitting around in the back yard, talking to each other. "Most of the people I've met accept it even so, if you give them enough proof, but it still doesn't seem to get out into the wider world."

"It's actually really strange," Harrison put in thoughtfully. "I have to admit the first time I met Yori and Chou in Tokyo I didn't believe any of it, it sounded completely ridiculous." Everyone turned to listen to him, as Aiko fell silent. "Laura, my Canadian colleague, accepted it more or less immediately, in fact she had been mumbling something about magic being possible right back at the beginning of that particular case, which I just ignored." He smiled wryly as Aiko chuckled. "I owed her an apology, believe me. But, in the end, I was forced to agree that magic does exist, it can do incredible things, and that there are visitors from other places that could give you nightmares for life." He shivered slightly, as Adrian thought back to the story the police officer had told him some months ago, which had sounded horrific. "The government clearly knows about it as well, at least in part, because the whole thing about the other girls coming over during the holidays to help with the problem we had was backed by the State Department."

"But you certainly don't come across any stories about magic or aliens or whatever except in the made-up sections of the lower end tabloids or novels no one takes seriously," Emily said, looking intrigued.

Her husband nodded. "Very true. That's the part I find weird. I could almost believe some sort of cover-up except that I don't believe that it could be done so well. Never mind the fact that no one has ever told me not to talk about it, or any of the other people I know have run into this sort of thing recently. For example the FBI knows about Yori and the others, and to be honest are terrified of them, but it's not like they've gone around trying to hide it." Finishing his own burger, he swallowed the last bite as everyone thought about his words. "It's very odd but seems to be par for the course where magical things are concerned in this country. I've decided not to worry about it."

"It's something of a mystery," Aiko agreed, smiling a little but still looking mildly puzzled. "Magic is very peculiar even when you use it regularly and some of the side effects can make your brain ache. It's not impossible it's down to some weird spell, or it might just be a natural phenomenon. It might even be related to something specific about the general American mindset that causes them to dismiss it unless faced with absolute proof." She grinned as the others exchanged glances. "A cultural difference, again. But I don't know for sure one way or another. We may never know."

"Odd," Adrian summed up. She nodded.

"Quite." They exchanged an amused look.

"So, can you just hire a mage to do magic for you in the places they're known about?" Joan asked curiously.

Aiko smiled for a moment. "Pretty much, yes. I know a few at home who do a lot of commissioned work, while others are more in the research area for various reasons. They don't generally advertise, it's mostly word of mouth, but they tend to do pretty well for themselves. As far as I know it's much the same most places although they might be hard to track down in some cases. I suppose you could say they mainly deal with each other and visitors from more magically orientated worlds, but a lot of them are perfectly happy to accept commissions from anyone who's willing to pay them."

"How very strange," the elder Simpson woman mused. "I wonder if there are any in LA?"

"Definitely," Aiko replied, grinning at her when she looked surprised. "A couple of security mages, several warding experts, and at least one general purpose non-specialist, from what I know, although I've never met most of them. Yori knows one of the warding specialists, she used to live in Minato, but moved to LA about a year ago to do some work here for a couple of major clients. She's planning on going back to Japan when she's finished, apparently, she prefers it there even though she was born in Canada. Yori thinks very highly of her." Flipping her empty bottle into the bin she leaned back in her chair.

"What about magical criminals? Does that happen?" Joan looked somewhat worried.

"It's been known to but it's not that common," Aiko replied, frowning for a moment. "Interestingly enough, the magical world as a whole tends to come down on mages who get involved in serious crime like a ton of bricks. Mostly because they don't like the attention it would draw, which would be of the wrong type. In most places there isn't much regulation of magic workers, it tends to be a type of self-regulated system, although there are exceptions, and they like it that way. If you're a mage who, for example, started helping criminals to kidnap people or something serious like that, you would end up having a number of very powerful and extremely annoyed mages wanting a word. That would be... unpleasant." She grinned nastily. "By and large it works fairly well."

"What happens if it doesn't work?" Harrison asked curiously. She looked at him, then smirked in a way that made his blood run cold for a moment.

"Well, in the last few years, at least in Japan, Yori happens." She snickered. "There's never been a repeat offence after she's talked to them."

"Ah." He smiled at her in a way that made Adrian chuckle. "I can understand that, I think."

"Does she have any official power, then? I mean, as far as your government is concerned." Emily looked curious.

Aiko glanced at her, apparently thinking for a few seconds. Eventually she shrugged slightly. "I'm afraid I can't either confirm or deny that, Emily," she said quietly. Everyone thought about that for a few seconds.

"I see. Thank you, Aiko," the other woman said with a faint smile. The brunette returned it.

"You mentioned back after the last time Akane and Shampoo came over that you were going on holiday through a portal with the others," Harrison said, making Adrian stare at him, then Aiko. The two women were doing the same. "Did that happen?"

"Oh, yes, it was a hell of a lot of fun," Aiko smiled widely as she looked at him. "We visited some very interesting places and met all sorts of people. I'd love to do it again at some point but we can't take too much time away from home at the moment."

"Did you get your trip into space?" he chuckled, obviously half-joking. Adrian and the other two stared even harder, then transferred their gapes to the brunette woman, who was grinning.

"Yep. That part was one of the highlights of the whole thing. It was enormous fun, everyone loved it."

"You... went into space?" the director choked, shocked more at that one statement than almost anything he'd heard so far. She nodded, looking very pleased.

"Yes, it was wonderful. We got a lift with a friend of Yori's, he's got quite a fleet of spacecraft. Nice guy, he owns an asteroid mining company on a world called K'nn Four. He took us out to an asteroid they're extracting minerals from for a few hours. Yori, Chou, and Azumi had been there before but still seemed to find it as much fun as the first time."

There was complete silence for some while as they all stared. She looked around, then added idly, "Fumiko is really wanting to get a small spacecraft but there are some practical issues with where to keep it," making Adrian's jaw drop.

"I..." He shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment, then tried again. "I find that probably one of the hardest things to believe so far," he managed to say after a little while. Aiko shrugged, looking amused, as he continued to stare at her.

"If you go to the right places there are all sorts of extremely high tech toys you can get hold of. K'nn Four is the centre of a network of very high tech, generally low magic worlds that are something like two centuries to perhaps a few centuries ahead of where we are in most fields. Very nice people, on the whole, lots of worlds trade with them and they have an enormous influence in technological and financial spheres all over the place. There are higher tech worlds, certainly, but they're way up there." She grinned as they exchanged glances.

"They have a very active space-based economy and some amazing antigravity drive systems which means that their spaceports are incredible. There are probably thousands of ships all around their main system at any one time, possibly tens of thousands. I haven't really looked into that yet. S'th'kx, Yori's friend, is a nice guy and has quite a few ships, he took us out in his personal mining scout. It's not enormous by comparison to a lot of them but it's not exactly small either. Around fifty metres across and maybe twenty-five metres tall, sort of conical. It looks a little like a much bigger version of the Apollo capsule but flatter. His species uses that overall design a lot." The brunette reached for another beer, popping it open and watching his face. "They're nothing like the ones you see in movies, mostly. Much more prosaic. But damn cool."

"Christ," he finally managed to whisper. "That's... that's just unbelievable."

"You should see their space suits," she giggled. "That's the most amazing part, it's completely SF novel territory and then some. Even in one of your movies people would probably consider it unrealistic."

"Why, are they some sort of high tech fabric or something like that?" Joan asked curiously, glancing at Adrian, who was in something of a trance by this point, with mild concern.

Aiko shook her head. "No, much better than that. It's all done with force fields." She looked around, seemed to consider the issue, then shrugged. "Look." Holding out her hand she showed them something she'd pulled out of nowhere. Adrian studied the curved piece of odd-looking black material which glinted in the subdued lighting as if it was some sort of ceramic. After a moment he transferred his curious gaze to her face, which was wearing a look of sly amusement.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I told you. A spacesuit." He stared at her, then glanced at Harrison, who was watching with interest, as were Joan and Emily.

"A spacesuit?"


"That little thing?"

"Oh, yes." She grinned at him, handing it to him when he held out his hand. He studied it for a while, running his fingers over the odd material, which actually felt more like polished metal and was much lighter than seemed plausible. "A genuine piece of alien technology, if you want to look at it from that viewpoint." The young woman smirked at his expression. "Mind you, from our point of view, we just went into a shop and bought a few of them, they're nothing special on K'nn Four. Not too pricey either although these are fairly basic models. You can get some really high end ones which cost an arm and a leg, but unless you're planning on spending a lot of time outside a ship or in a seriously hazardous environment there's not too much point in the extra money."

Not entirely sure he wasn't the butt of some weird magical girl practical joke, the director turned the thing over in his fingers again, then asked, "How does it work?"

Putting her beer down, she got up. "Stand up," she said, motioning him to hand it back. When he, somewhat nervously, did as requested, she moved around to a position where she could hold the device against his upper left arm. "You press here and slide like this to turn it on." Her finger made the appropriate motion and there was a weird visual effect that made him look around suspiciously and Joan raise a hand to her mouth with a slight gasp.

"So I'm wearing a spacesuit now, am I?" he asked sceptically.

She chuckled, nodding. "Indeed you are. Good for about three weeks of life support assuming you had enough water, down to absolute zero and up to a few hundred degrees centigrade, heavy radiation, most of the sorts of things you'd encounter in near space at a reasonable distance from a star. These ones are light duty, everyone wears something at least this good on a ship just in case something goes wrong, and of course you can wander around on the surface of an asteroid with one on for ages. It's good fun."

Experimentally poking one hand with the other he raised an eyebrow. "I can't feel anything and I can still touch myself."

"The force field is selective. It keeps air in, vacuum or toxic gasses out, and reflects dangerous radiation while staying at a sensible temperature, but a lot of other things will pass through it. That's convenient, it lets you keep things in your pockets." She was looking extremely amused by his expression and that of the other three who were watching and listening.

After a moment, she grinned. "You don't look like you believe me. Let me demonstrate." Somewhat worried by her enthusiasm he stepped back a pace as she looked around, then picked up an aerosol can of grill cleaner that Harrison had under the barbecue, quickly reading the label. "This should work," she said, looking pleased.

"That stuff is pretty nasty," Harrison warned while looking a little worried.

"I know, that's the point," she replied, levelling the can at the director, who nervously waited. "Don't worry, you won't feel a thing," the girl smirked, before depressing the nozzle. With a hiss the can disgorged a cloud of caustic solvents, which to everyone's surprise but hers simply stopped about four or five inches from his face, running down something invisible onto the ground, as if it had hit glass.

Adrian stared in disbelief. "Holy shit," he mumbled. He looked down at the puddle near his feet which was slightly bubbling as it etched the concrete patio tiles, making Harrison sigh slightly. Aiko glanced at the police officer with a guilty look.

"Oops. Sorry."

"Every time you lot turn up I need to do some sort of minor repair to my yard," Harrison commented, shaking his head but smiling a little. He returned to watching Adrian, who was still looking at the puddle.

"The suit processor knows that's toxic so it tunes the field to keep it out," she explained, putting the can down. "It does the same thing for anything that would injure you if it penetrated. It's no good against anything seriously quick like a bullet, it's not armour, but it would withstand quite a depth of water if necessary, smoke, fire if it's not too hot, poisonous gasses, all sorts of things other than a vacuum, which is the main use. They get used a lot on some worlds for fire fighters as well. On K'nn Four, not so much, they have better methods, and practically nothing there will burn in the first place."

"That's unbelievable," Emily commented wide-eyed.

"It's pretty good," Aiko agreed with a nod. "One of the more useful toys we picked up. We got one each and some spares plus the charging equipment. You never know when you might find yourself in space." She sat down again, looking amused.

"What else does it do?" Adrian asked in a wondering tone.

"Feel the outside surface of the generator," she instructed, which he did. "You feel several little bumps on it?"


"The top one is the power control. The next one down is the control to put it into standby. Just press it once to activate that function." He followed instructions, noticing the same slight ripple across his face. "It will automatically reactivate if conditions demand it, or you can turn it on manually with the same control," she told him. When he prodded the device he found it was sticking to his arm firmly, showing no signs of wanting to fall off. "It'll stay put under more or less any normal circumstances." She watched as he played with it, turning it on and off a few times.

"What does the last switch do?" he asked curiously.

"Try it," the brunette invited with a look that suggested something interesting would happen. After a moment he did so, then yelped.

"Fuck me," he breathed, staring at the translucent display that was now floating in front of him. Everyone else was staring in shock.

"Good, isn't it?" Aiko sounded very amused. He nodded dumbly, working out that the thing was tracking what he was looking at as various icons became highlighted when his gaze stopped on them for a second or so. Weirdly, it somehow worked out when he was looking at the icon as distinct from past it, so he could look at Harrison's face and the part of the display that was in front of it did nothing. "It's voice activated, you can tell it what to do and you can get help from the bottom right icon if you say 'instructions'. 'Pause' and 'resume' will do the obvious. There are quite a few other instructions it understands as well."

Adrian played with the device for a few minutes, lost in his own world of wonder, feeling like he'd stepped into one of his own movies. When he finally turned it off and looked up he found his audience had swelled to include pretty much everyone at the party, most of whom were watching in astonishment. The expression on the face of Joan's husband David was particularly funny, he looked like someone who had seen heaven then been told he could look but not touch.

"This thing is... unbelievable," he said quietly, deactivating it, then as Aiko gestured, performing the push and slide manoeuvre that turned it off completely. It dropped into his hand obediently and he handed it back.

"As I said, cool toys. No magic required, just incredibly high tech that we're a long way behind at the moment." She flipped the suit generator in her hand, staring at it thoughtfully for a few seconds, before looking around at the others. "Eventually I expect some of this sort of thing will be imported to our world. There are trade treaties and regulations that prevent a lot of high tech past a certain point being sold to an 'unaligned world' which we're classified as except to specific authorised individuals for various reasons, but friends of mine are working on it right now."

"I assume you and your friends fall under the specific individual category?" Harrison asked knowingly. She gave him a small, wry smile.

"You could put it like that, yes."

Adrian looked sideways at David, who was standing beside him, staring at the device Aiko was holding. He could almost feel the questions the scientist had, making him smile internally. The director suddenly wondered why the young woman was being so open about things that seemed so strange even in her terms, developing a small suspicion that it might be a deliberate ploy to begin acclimating people to the changes that were certainly going to come sooner or later based on what she'd been saying. He looked at her for a moment, meeting her eyes, and was rewarded with a very faint smile of a type which suggested that she was quite aware of the direction of his thoughts and that those thoughts weren't entirely wrong. He nodded a little, making her smile widen, before she turned to answer a question from Sophie, who looked fascinated. Leaning back in his seat he began thinking of possibilities such technology could open up in his industry.

It seemed as if knowing various magical girls and incredible martial artists might bring opportunities far past those he'd already seen.

"I'm going to have to leave now, Richard, but thank you for the food and drink," Agent Tinnin said, shaking Harrison's hand with a smile. "I'll be in touch as soon as we have anything more to share and I'll make sure you're kept in the loop on the case."

"Thanks, I'll do the same, Mark," Harrison replied with a nod. "Hopefully we can get some useful information out of those idiots with some more questioning. They're staying quiet at the moment but we can probably break them eventually."

"If you run into difficulties, call me, we have some very good interrogators," Tinnin chuckled. "To be honest I'd like a crack at them myself but we're happy to allow you to try first. We're gathering background information right now, Ms Aoyama's info is leading us down all sorts of odd rabbit holes." He sighed slightly. "This is going to go on for months, I can feel it."

Harrison led the way back through the house to the front door, opening it and allowing the FBI agent to step out onto the front walkway. Tinnin looked around, then turned back. "I'm still very interested to find out what their exit strategy was," he said seriously. "The former Lieutenant Webb was much too confident that they could escape even in the face of a combined LAPD and FBI force of that size, which worries me. A lot. It implies either some serious high-up help, a lot of reinforcements, or most worrying, something we haven't thought of. I don't like any of those options one little bit."

"No, it's certainly something that we need to get to the bottom of," the police officer replied slowly, thinking. "I'd agree, up to the point Ms Aoyama popped his balloon he was looking very smug. Much too smug even with the machine gun in the truck to make me happy." He shrugged, sighing. "I'll make that part of the investigation a top priority."

"As will we. If you need anything, any help we can provide, let me know." Tinnin shook hands with him, then turned away and made his way to his car, while Harrison watched. As the FBI agent drove off he closed the door, returning to the back yard while pondering the conversation.

David Simpson was a very puzzled man at the moment. His daughter had told him on a number of occasions by phone call, email, and face to face on the unfortunately rare times he had been at home in the last few months about the 'magical girls' her new friend Serena knew, and she herself had met a couple of times although not under that description at the time. He'd put most of what she said down as well-meant hyperbole, as it was blatantly obvious magic didn't exist. He was more willing to believe that these young women were exceptionally gifted martial artists as he was well aware that Japan tended to produce people with significant skills in such matters, as did many Far East cultures, but even there some of the things he'd been told seemed somewhat far-fetched.

The fact that his own wife had backed up some of the stories was a bit peculiar, but she swore blind that she'd seen some remarkable things the first time she'd visited the Harrison house for a barbecue, things that seemed... magical. He wasn't sure quite how to explain all that as Joan was an intelligent and generally clear-thinking woman who was most unlikely to make up stories of that nature.

All in all it was rather odd.

He'd decided in the end to reserve judgement until he actually saw some of these phenomena for himself, assuming such a day ever rolled around. Now, much to his surprise, it looked very much like today was that day. The sight of the director Adrian Stewart, who seemed like a decent and interesting person, walking around with a number of translucent displays hanging in space in front of him and with the weirdest expression he'd ever seen on his face had made him stare, then think very hard. He'd only caught some of the explanation that the petite brunette had given, having come in half way through the experience, but it sounded very much as if she'd said it was all the result of an 'alien spacesuit' which on the face of it was absurd.

That said, he couldn't think how the effect could have been produced using any technology he was currently aware of, which was making him very curious and slightly worried. Coupled with the small rock which Serena Harrison had shown him and his daughter, which was still bothering him, he was beginning to suspect he'd need to adjust his world view to one degree or another fairly soon.

"It hits everyone like that to begin with," an amused voice came from beside him, making him twitch and look to the side, to see the same petite brunette grinning at him. She'd approached without any warning she was there while he was sitting and thinking, staring off into the middle distance, a half-drunk beer in his hand.

"I'm sorry?" he said when he'd recovered from his momentary startlement. The young woman, Aiko, he remembered from what Sophie had said, smiled again.

"We tend to have that effect on people in general and Americans in particular," she replied, holding out her hand, which he shook after a second or two. "I'm Aiko, as Sophie has mentioned, I think. Professional Magical Girl and unofficial studio transportation expert." She looked amused as he stared, then slowly took a drink from his beer bottle. "Sophie mentioned you're a scientist? On the Lunar Prospector probe team, I heard."

He nodded, still inspecting her. "Yes, I've been involved with that project since its beginning. The last few months were kind of complicated so I was running around all over the place because of it. West coast, East coast, Australia, you name it. But the mission was a wild success so it was all worth it."

"That was the mapping of the moon, right?" she asked. "Looking for water, measuring the magnetic fields, that sort of thing."

"Yes." Dave inspected her curiously. "An interest of yours, then, space exploration?"

Aiko grinned again. "You might say that, yes. I find the whole concept fascinating. Recently I've been reading up on the state of the art for space travel and things like that, it's very interesting."

"I see." He finished his beer, putting the bottle down and deciding not to have another, three over the course of the evening was enough. "So what does being a magical girl entail, then? And how does it involve, um, 'alien spacesuits'?" He made the little finger quotes at the description, making her snicker.

"Ah, you heard my explanation."

"Some of it. I'm not sure I heard it right, though." He looked at her while she studied him thoughtfully in turn. After a few seconds she produced the small device that Adrian had been toying with earlier, showing it to him. He stared at her for a long moment, trying to work out where she'd pulled it from, then turned his attention to the thing in her hand.

"It's real, trust me. They work very well indeed." She handed it to him, watching with mild amusement as he examined it closely, rubbing it with his thumb, then experimentally scraping his nail over it.

"What's it made of?" he wondered out loud, holding it up to the light coming from the house behind them. The thing was matt black, too light for most metals even if it was hollow, and too heavy for many plastics. "Not titanium or aluminum, although it looks a bit like anodised aluminum." He tapped it against his beer bottle and listened to the sound, which was reminiscent of a ceramic of some sort.

"A type of cerametal alloy," she said, smiling when he looked up for a moment, frowning. "Sort of a hybrid metallic ceramic. Very tough and strong, light, and apparently quite cheap. It lasts almost forever from what I'm told. The stuff is harder than diamond as well."

"I've never heard of anything like that," he admitted slowly, intrigued.

"That doesn't surprise me," the brunette laughed. "It's not local."

"Alien, you claim?" He was still sceptical. She nodded, grinning.

"Back home people would mainly say it was made by demons, but that's just what most people call the inhabitants of other worlds. Sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn't. The people who made that," she indicated the device with one finger, "are more accurately called aliens, I think, and they're actually very nice people as well. Very high tech indeed. All sorts of cool toys are pretty much commonplace where that comes from."

Dave stared, listening as the young woman matter-of-factly destroyed much of what he'd believed for most of his professional life, complete with proof, then decided he needed another beer after all. Or two.

"Thanks for the food, Richard," Akane smiled, looking around the back garden and seeing most of the guests had either left or were heading out. Harrison smiled back, his arm around his wife, both of them looking pleased and somewhat sleepy. It was nearly midnight and everyone left was definitely beginning to flag, except for Aiko who looked like she could go on all night. The brunette was near the barbecue talking quietly to Shampoo and Serena, with Karen listening from a couple of metres away and snacking on the last of the potato chips.

"You're welcome, Akane, as always. It was nice having you guys over. A good way to unwind after a long day."

"It was a bit excessive in parts," she giggled, nodding. "It certainly started off slightly oddly."

"That's one way to put it," he replied wryly. Glancing over to the side, he looked at Sophie, who was half asleep leaning on her father, who in turn was staring up at the moon with a somewhat peculiar expression on his face. "I think poor Dave might have had a weirder day than most of us, though," he added. "He's been looking kind of shocked since Aiko had a long talk with him."

"He'll get used to it," Akane commented, then grinned as the policeman began chuckling manically. Emily poked him hard in the ribs, sighing.

"Probably," Harrison mumbled, still snickering. They all turned as Matt, Aaron, and Naomi approached, the arms master looking slightly inebriated and in a very good mood, leaning slightly on his wife who appeared mildly amused and simultaneously exasperated.

"We're going now," Matt stated, holding out his hand and shaking Harrison's. "Great party. We'll have to do one at my place sometime, OK?"

"That would be nice, thanks, Matt," Harrison replied, smiling a little. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. Good luck tomorrow with your work."

"Thanks, Richard," the other man replied. Aaron nodded to them all without saying anything then followed his colleague into the house, Naomi propping him up and waving at them having also said goodbye, the front door opening and closing moments later. The sound of a car starting then driving off followed.

"I'm going to get Serena and head inside," Emily told her husband, yawning widely in the process. "It was very nice to see you again, Akane. I'm looking forward to tomorrow and I know Serena is as well."

"We'll see you there, Emily," the youngest Tendo smiled. She watched as the woman collected her daughter, who looked almost ready to drop but forcing herself to stay awake, talking quietly to the girl for a moment then both of them going into the house. Serena smiled at Akane on the way past and waved a little but didn't say anything, looking instead very tired suddenly.

"Do you want a hand tidying up before we leave?" Akane asked, turning back to Harrison, who looked around, then shrugged slightly.

"You could help me find all the beer bottles and get rid of them, and stack up the plates, but I'll leave everything else to the morning. Thanks." The two of them moved around the garden retrieving wayward bottles, Shampoo and Aiko helping when they saw what was going on. Soon everything obvious was either piled up next to the barbecue or in the bin. Eventually, the few remaining people congregated near the back door.

"Thank you for a wonderful evening, Richard," Joan said, kissing the police officer on the cheek briefly, then stepping back and smiling. Sophie was standing next to her looking dead on her feet, with her father's arm around her shoulders, the man in question still apparently deep in thought.

"You're welcome, all of you. Have fun at the stunt shoot tomorrow."

"I suspect we will," she replied, smiling tiredly. "Come on, dear, we still have to get home." She led her family through the house, Dave bringing up the rear after a final somewhat worried glance at Aiko, who waved with a grin.

With only Karen, Adrian, the three from Japan, and Harrison left in the garden, it suddenly looked much emptier after the number of people who had been present earlier. Adrian glanced around for a moment. "Did Anton and the others leave already?" he asked.

"About half an hour ago," Harrison nodded. "Jim said he was going to take Anton back to his house as it was too much effort to drive him home and they were both drunk anyway. Greg left just after that." He chuckled wryly. "He still can't taste anything properly."

"Ah. All right, in that case I'm heading home myself. Thanks for all the food and drink, Richard, it was a good evening." The director turned to the remaining people. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, hopefully without any side projects involving banks and criminals," he continued with a small smile, making Akane chuckle, while Shampoo looked amused. Glancing at Aiko, he asked, "Any chance you could bring them to the studio? I think I'm going to need an extra hour in bed."

The brunette smiled with a nod. "Sure, no problem, Adrian."

"Great. OK, then, see you all tomorrow." He looked at his watch, raising an eyebrow. "Well, later today, in fact. Anyway, later." Waving he wandered off looking tired and happy.

"Are you all right to get home, Karen, or do you want me to pop you over?" Aiko asked the red-headed biker who was putting her leather jacket on having retrieved it from a nearby chair.

"I'm fine, thanks, Aiko," the other woman replied. "I didn't drink much and my last beer was a couple of hours ago. Thanks for the offer, though."

"No problem."

Karen smiled at them all, then left, the sound of her bike starting coming over the fence a moment later. As engine sounds disappeared into the distance, Akane yawned. "I'm looking forward to bed, that's for sure," she commented, making the others nod in agreement.

"Also very tired but happy," Shampoo noted.

"Right, then, I guess we'll be on our way." Aiko smiled at Harrison. "See you later, Richard. Good luck with your case, if you need any help for anything just let me know."

"Thanks, Aiko. Have fun, you guys." He watched as they grouped together, then vanished, blinking a little at the flash, before going indoors with a contented look on his face.

Accepting the paper cup of coffee with a New York address on it, Akane cautiously tested it, finding it hot but not too hot to drink. Gulping down a few mouthfuls she sighed in relief, smiling at Aiko who was sipping her own, looking amused. "Thanks," she said. "Nabiki is the one who needs coffee to get going normally, but after yesterday I definitely needed some caffeine."

"I'm not surprised," the brunette smiled back. "It was a long day. All worked out well in the end though."

"It did, which is nice." They shared a look then turned to watch as the various crews from the same three trucks as yesterday ran around setting things up. The disused airfield was a suddenly very busy place since they'd arrived ten minutes earlier, just after nine in the morning thanks to Aiko and heavy goods teleportation. "You could probably earn a fortune popping trucks full of equipment around the place for the studio," Akane laughed, watching as the camera truck was opened out into its operational format and the cameras set up.

Aiko snickered. "Quite likely. But I don't think I have time to do this as a full time job although I'm happy to help out." They turned at a call from Adrian, walking over to where he was standing with Karen and Shampoo next to the primary stunt car.

"I'd like to get the rooftop scene done first," the director said when they were all grouped together. He pointed at the fake buildings lining the first part of the runway. "Those eight ones there have real roofs, the rest are just shells, so the plan is to run around on top of them for a while and just more or less do what you did at the demo in the sound stage. There's no real set plan for it, just some basic guidelines. Is that OK?"

Shampoo exchanged a look with her then they both inspected the buildings in question, which ranged from one to three stories high. "Is simple enough," the Amazon replied after a few seconds of thought. "Can go up there over porch at front, run to left over that one, then jump up to one next to it. Straight run for next four, drop onto last one, then to ground. Easy."

Akane nodded thoughtfully. "I agree," she put in, studying the target buildings. "It's not too hard at all. We can do pretty much what we did before. Does it matter if the buildings get slightly damaged?"

Shaking his head, Adrian smiled. "No, not really. If you can avoid destroying them completely until after the driving stunt that would be ideal, but after today they're going to get torn down anyway. We only kept them up because of you guys coming over and since we didn't have any shoots out here recently."

"OK. We should be able to make it look good, then," the Tendo woman grinned.

"Great. We'll be ready to roll the cameras in about half an hour, so why don't you head over to Gladys and get your clothing sorted out? We were thinking a sort of ninja theme this time, just to make it look interesting." Adrian chuckled when Akane raised an eyebrow, glancing at Shampoo, then Aiko, both of whom were smiling.

"That could be fun. OK, we'll be waiting." She looked around, spotted the costumer, then headed in the right direction, Shampoo beside her and Aiko trailing along behind watching with interest, still sipping her coffee.


At the call, Akane ran towards the first building, leaping four metres up and landing on the roof of the first story of the smaller building they were starting with, then scrambling up the side of it rapidly with Shampoo close behind, both of them reaching the roof at the same time a couple of metres apart. The Amazon took a swing at the other woman with one of the chĂși she was wielding, which Akane avoided by back-flipping a couple of times, then ducking under another blow. Matt watched with a grin from beside Adrian, picturing the look the young woman was probably wearing under the mask covering her head, the black cloth flapping slightly as she moved.

The 'ninja' with the long violet ponytail coming out from her own hooded head chased the other one over the roof of the building, the girl in front leaping into space then rolling when she landed on the slightly lower next roof along, bouncing to her feet, before shooting up the side of the third building like it was a ladder. A club shot past her head and vanished through the wall just above her as she reached the roof, making him wince, the sound of the impact coming a fraction of a second later. Akane disappeared over the edge then reappeared holding the chĂși, which she returned to Shampoo at high speed.

Catching it without really straining herself the Amazon vanished both clubs then hurled herself up the side of the building, only to fly back when she took a hard blow to the chin as soon as she cleared the roof line, flipping a couple of times on her way back down. By the time she was heading up again Akane was leaping off the other side of the roof, landing lightly along the peak of the next one and charging across at a dead run.

"They seem to be enjoying themselves," he commented in a low voice to Aiko, who was watching with amused concentration from next to him. She nodded, saying nothing for the moment. The fight progressed along the next two roofs until the Tendo woman suddenly popped up holding a staff, which she used to turn the action around, quickly ending up pursuing Shampoo in turn, slicing at her with the staff and yelling.

"Ah. She found it." Aiko sounded pleased. Matt glanced at her with a raised eyebrow, provoking a slight chuckle. "I popped up there just before they started and left a few weapons around the place to give them something to work with," she explained quietly. He snickered, returning his attention to the fight. Shampoo was now wielding a bokken she'd found, the pair standing on the fifth building along and swiping at each other, wooden clacking sounds coming down to them on the other side of the runway. Every now and then shingles flew from a missed blow, and at least one balcony was soon lying on the ground in pieces.

By the time Akane finally led her friend down the side of the last building they'd found, used, and discarded three more staffs, two bokken, a sword, and a huge mallet, which for some reason made Aiko mutter in Japanese then laugh. "I didn't leave that one there," she said, giggling. Matt stared at her, then at Akane, who was looking at the thing she was holding in one hand with a slightly puzzled air, before shrugging and flipping it over her shoulder as she walked back to the camera vehicle beside Shampoo. He didn't see where it landed.

"Cut!" Adrian sounded pleased. "Very good. I think that's all we need for that sequence. Well done, both of you, it looked fantastic."

"Thanks, Adrian," Shampoo replied, Akane smiling as well as she pulled off her hood. "Was good warm up."

"I find the way you two consider something that most people would have to practice for weeks just a warm up for the main effort more than a little intimidating," Matt joked as the two women reached them. Akane glanced at Shampoo, both of them grinning.

"Thanks, I think," the Tendo woman said, shaking her head a little. With a smile he moved to watch the playback over Adrian's shoulder, the director muttering to himself and making notes as he inspected the footage critically. When it was finished, he nodded absently a few times while scribbling on his clipboard, then turned around to them all.

"That was excellent. We should be able to use the entire thing as is, it shows off a number of important skills very neatly. Great. We're ahead of schedule today, which is a relief. Let's get set up for the car stunt." He waved Greg over from where the driving instructor had been standing beside Anton, chatting to him, near the cars off to one side. Both men looked up then headed over. "We'll do the bank exit, the police chase, and the main action as three separate sequences," he continued as they reached the small group near the camera truck. "Greg, is everything ready from your end?"

"Yes, we're all set. Both the main and backup cars are good to go, the nitrogen cannon and pyro charges are set in the main vehicle, and we only need to arm them for the stunt. If we need the backup we can have it armed in about twenty minutes."

"Good. Hopefully we won't need it, but..." Adrian shrugged, Greg nodding his understanding.

"All right. I'd like to do a couple of dry runs first, just going over what we covered yesterday but in sequence, then we can break for coffee and a snack." He checked his watch. "That should let us start it for real about eleven. Wonderful." The director smiled happily. "We should have time for the helicopter if this goes well."

"I'll call Rob and let him know it's likely to happen," Matt commented. "He said last night he was still up for it so there shouldn't be any trouble."

"OK. Thanks, Matt." Adrian looked pleased.

"I'll go and pick up the Harrisons and Simpsons," Aiko stated. "I should be back in about twenty minutes or less, I'll just have to hop Joan and the others around a little to get them over the first jump."

"OK, Aiko. That should all work out well." Adrian looked around at the various people, before turning back to them. "Danny Goodner and his mother should be here before eleven as well. She called me last night to make sure I was serious about my offer." He grinned when Matt chuckled. "She wasn't happy about Danny sneaking in again. I think she probably gave him a pretty hard time."

"That kid has some impressive skills in covert entry," the stunt coordinator snickered. "Pity about the movie fixation and the lack of thinking things through from end to end, though."

"Hopefully he'll learn before he kills himself," Adrian nodded, sighing a little. "Well, let's get on with it." Aiko flashed out of existence as the others headed towards the cars and bikes, where Karen was waiting for them and making some adjustments to Shampoo's machine.

Dropping her Playstation controller to the carpet and jumping to her feet at the sound of the doorbell, Sophie yelled, "I'll get it," then headed into the hall. Opening the door she grinned at Serena, then at Aiko and Serena's mother, who were standing behind her. "Hi. Come in, Mom's in the kitchen and Dad's outside in the yard." She stepped aside as the three entered, then led them through the house into the kitchen at the back.

"Hello, Emily," her mother said, smiling widely, as she dried her hands on a cloth before dropping it next to the sink. "It's nice to see you again. And both of you as well, of course," she added, looking at Serena and Aiko. "Does anyone want something to drink?"

"Can I have some orange juice?" Serena asked politely. Joan nodded, glancing at her daughter who was already heading for the refrigerator. When she'd poured a glass of juice for her friend, and herself, she sat at the kitchen table with Serena while listening to Aiko who was explaining what she was going to do.

"The first time through a teleport makes most people pretty sick for a few seconds," the magical girl noted, Serena nodding vigorously and her mother sighing a bit. "It passes quickly and doesn't come back, at worst you might feel a little disorientated the second time, then you're fine. So I was planning on jumping you three from one side of the garden to the other and back to get it over with." She smiled a little. "Probably better to get sick at home where no one else can see rather than turn up in the middle of a lot of strangers in the process of vomiting violently. It makes a weird impression."

Sophie giggled at the expression on her mother's face, making the older woman glance at her and smile wryly. "I can see where that might stick in their memories," she admitted. Aiko chuckled.

"It tends to, yes," she agreed. "Let's go outside and get it over with, then we can head off if you're all ready."

"Dave was looking for a tripod for his camera the last I heard," Joan explained, leading them to the back door and opening it. "He buried it in the garage somewhere." Outside, she called for Sophie's father, the man in question coming out of the side door of the garage a few seconds later, covered in dust, but triumphantly holding a tripod in a nylon case and smiling.

"I found it. It was under the skis for some reason," he exclaimed, brushing dust from the bag, before looking up and noticing the visitors. "Oh, hello, ladies. I didn't know you'd arrived."

"Recovered from last night?" Aiko asked with a grin. He studied her narrowly, but nodded slowly.

"I have a lot of questions still but I think I can hold them for the moment," he replied after a second or two, making her snicker.

"You'll have more soon, I expect," she said, glancing at Serena, who was also smiling. Emily looked amused but said nothing.

"Put the tripod down and come over here, dear," Joan told him. He did as requested, putting the bag on the rear porch then joining them as Aiko stepped a few feet away from Serena and Emily, who stood and watched with interest. The brunette got them positioned to her satisfaction then looked around at them all, Sophie feeling excited, her mother looking slightly worried, and her father with an expression that made the teenager think that he wasn't entirely certain this wasn't all some huge joke at his expense.

Aiko winked at Sophie. "Everyone ready?"

There were three nods, one of them much more certain than the other two. "So, what do you have to do?" Dave said curiously, looking at Aiko, who was standing with her arms folded. She grinned at him. The world flickered, and Sophie bent over as a huge rush of nausea swept through her instantly, trying desperately not to throw up.

"That," she heard Aiko comment, before she felt someone hold her still just before she was about to fall over. The sickness roiled in her stomach for ten or fifteen seconds then she suddenly felt it begin to subside as fast as it had occurred. Straightening up she swallowed a couple of times then looked around, seeing Aiko had been supporting her and was doing the same for her father who still looked green. Her mother seemed less affected although her expression suggested she'd not found the experience pleasant.

"That was horrible," she managed to say.

The Japanese woman smiled sympathetically at her. "It varies, some people are really sick afterwards, a few don't seem to notice. You guys had a fairly mild reaction all things considered."

"Urg," Dave remarked, shaking his head. "I can't say I enjoyed that," he added more comprehensively a few seconds later, blinking wildly and shaking his head. Looking around his eyes widened when he saw they were standing a hundred feet from the house. "Holy..." He stared at Aiko, who looked amused and slightly smug. "You actually did it."

"Of course. I'm pretty good at teleportation." She grinned at his expression.

"But..." Sophie giggled at her father's expression. She knew that one, it was the one he got when he ran into something he couldn't immediately work out. She suspected he was going to be wearing it for a while. It had been pretty common for much of the party last night as well.

"Don't worry about it," Aiko snickered. "Put it down to magic, which is true, and just enjoy it. Trust me, without a lot more background knowledge you'll just end up thinking in circles if you try to work it out based on normal scientific principles. Teleportation theory is pretty weird even to me."

"And we won't get sick again?" Joan asked slightly apprehensively, her husband not appearing to have anything sensible to say for the moment. The petite woman shook her head.

"No, like I said, at worst it will make you a bit dizzy for a couple of seconds, then you won't notice at all. I'll jump us back to where we started if you're ready." Sophie's mother nodded after a second or two.

"All right," she said.

Holding up her hand, Aiko grinned and snapped her fingers theatrically. The world jumped again and they were standing a few feet from Serena and Emily who were watching with interest. Sophie felt a slight wobble then everything went back to normal. "That's it. You're officially rated for teleportation via magical girl now." Sophie laughed while her mother and father looked amused, her father also still looking thoughtful and a little stunned. "Grab your stuff and we can head to the airfield," Aiko said, looking around at them all. "They'll be doing some test runs now, the main stunt shoot will be in about an hour, but we can get some food and a drink if you want and you can look around."

Shortly, her father having reclaimed his tripod, found his camera, loaded it with film, and her mother coming back with her purse after locking up, they all congregated in the middle of the back yard. With a bright flash the yard was empty seconds later.

Danny was almost vibrating in his seat with excitement. His mother glanced sideways at him for a moment before turning her attention back to the dirt road they'd just turned off the highway onto. "Make sure you're very polite, thank Mr Stewart for the huge favour he's doing for you, and stay out of trouble, OK, Danny?" she requested, her tone of voice making it clear she wasn't entirely pleased with how this favour had come about. She'd made that blatantly clear the previous day when he'd been collected from the studio security office. He winced a little at the memory.

"Yes, Mom," he replied quietly, stilling himself with a deliberate act of will.

"And for heaven's sake, please stick to your promise," she added after a few seconds. "I really don't want to have to pick you up from a police station next time."

"I'll be good," he said in a small voice. She smiled slightly, looking at him again, then peered forward into the distance.

"That must be the gate up ahead," she commented. He nodded. There was a fence a quarter of a mile ahead on the bumpy road, a pickup truck visible next to it. When they reached it a man wearing the by-now rather too familiar studio security uniform walked over to the car and bent down to look in the window.

"Theresa and Danny Goodner, to see Adrian Stewart," his mother said after rolling the window down. The guard nodded, keying up his radio and having a quiet conversation over it.

"They're expecting you, Ma'am," he said politely when he put it away. "Just follow the road. You'll see the old control tower and a number of vehicles, park next to them then head for the buildings. Someone will meet you there."

"Thank you," she replied, waiting as he walked back to the gate, swinging it open and waving them through. Driving past him she headed slowly down the track while Danny looked back to see the guard closing the gate behind them. Returning his attention to the front he watched with growing excitement as they neared the control tower the guard had mentioned, which had a cluster of buildings near it, along with half a dozen vehicles, several of them quite large trucks. He could see what looked like part of a city street on the far side of the runway, which he decided must be some sort of prop scenery for a movie. There were a surprising number of people moving around doing various things.

"Try to keep your question rate down to less than a dozen a minute, will you, dear?" his mother requesting only half-jokingly as she moved the vehicle towards the right side of one of the trucks. He grimaced when she snickered, but nodded.

As they parked the car next to one of the trucks he could see a car racing down the runway past the buildings with two police cars, lights flashing and sirens going, following behind, another truck pacing them from one side. There were at least two complicated camera rigs in the back of the truck aimed out through the folded down side with several people strapped in behind them. Opening the door and hopping out he stared as the cavalcade shot past at fifty miles an hour, all the vehicles braking a few hundred yards away. After a moment or so they began turning around and coming back much more slowly.

"Wow," he mumbled to himself, a huge smile on his face, then looked over at his mother, who was also watching.

"Come on, Danny, let's see what's going on," she smiled at him, shaking her head fondly. She locked the car and they began walking over to the nearest group of people. "Remember, be good," she whispered as the tall man he recognised from the studio yesterday headed in their direction. He nodded quickly.

"Hi. I'm Matt Jordan, the stunt coordinator," the man announced as he arrived next to them, holding out his hand, which Danny's mother shook with a smile.

"Hello. Theresa Goodner, and you probably know my son Danny," she replied with a slightly wry smile and a glance at Danny, who blushed. Matt glanced at him with a similar look.

"Oh, believe me, I'm familiar with him," the tall man chuckled. "We're hoping that he might not visit us quite so much after today. At least without calling ahead." Danny ducked his head, going red, as his mother giggled.

"I'm very sorry about the trouble he's caused," she remarked.

"Don't worry about it," the man replied, shrugging a little. "No real harm done and as long as he sticks to his part of the deal we're good."

"He will." Theresa looked hard at her son, who sighed but nodded. "Won't you?"

"Yes, Mom," he said quietly.

"Fair enough. OK, follow me and I'll explain what we're doing," Matt told them, turning and waving them towards a set of temporary shelters with tables and chairs under them, which had a number of people gathered nearby watching as the cars and trucks pulled up a few dozen feet away. "This is a demonstration and training shoot, not something that's going into a movie at the moment. We're working with two incredibly gifted young women, one from Japan and one from China, who are amazingly good martial artists. We've been giving them training in driving, firearms use, things like that, and setting up a number of fairly common stunt scenarios so that both they and we can see how it works out in front of a camera."

He indicated the two women standing next to the vehicles, having exited the lead car while they were approaching. "The one with the short hair is Akane Tendo, from Tokyo. The other one is her friend Xian Pu, or Shampoo, from China, but also living in Tokyo these days." Matt glanced at Danny, who was staring at the two young women with interest and not a little physical admiration. "Be polite to them, either one could pull your arms off and beat you to death with them," he added, chuckling. Danny felt himself pale and looked away quickly. "They probably won't though, they're nice girls."

His mother laughed slightly again, looking at him, then went back to inspecting everything around them. As they arrived at the shelters, Danny could see that there were a number of other people who seemed to be spectators mixed in with the obvious studio workers, two teenaged girls about his age, and what seemed to be their parents, one woman on her own and a couple. One of the girls looked over, smiled at Matt with a look that suggested she knew him, then glanced at Danny and his mother, before nudging the other girl and saying something. Her friend also looked over with interest.

Leading them over to these people, Matt made the introductions. "This is Serena Harrison and her mother Emily, and Sophie Simpson with her parents Dave and Joan. Everyone, this is Danny Goodner and his mother Theresa."

Serena inspected him closely for a moment. "Oh. It's you. Dad mentioned you." Danny looked curiously at her while her friend Sophie giggled.

"Do I know your dad?" he asked dubiously. She laughed briefly.

"You've met. In Hollywood? Just before the New Year?" He still couldn't place the occasion. "He's a cop?"

Danny paled, stepping back and putting his mother between the girl and himself. "He threatened to shoot me in the foot," he squeaked, suddenly realising who she was talking about. Serena broke down in laughter with Sophie quickly joining in, his own mother doing much the same. "Mom!" he said with exasperation. "He really did!"

"He probably wouldn't actually have done it, dear," she replied, glancing at Serena, who shrugged and made a 'maybe yes/maybe no' gesture with her hand, which had Sophie giggling again. Danny didn't feel much happier about the situation but decided that it was probably best not to make too much of it.

"He's not... here... is he?" he asked nervously, looking around. "Your dad?"

"Nope. He wanted to come but there's a big case on at the moment so he's tied up with it," Serena explained, looking mildly disappointed. She brightened up after a second or two. "Come on, I'll introduce you to Akane and Shampoo before they do the next test run." She waved both him and his mother forward to where the two young women were discussing something with the director, who was making notes and nodding as they spoke. All three looked up as the girl stopped a few feet away.

"Hello, Serena," the director said, then transferred his attention to Danny and his mother. "Ah. Mr Goodner, you made it. And your mother. Excellent." He tucked his clipboard under his arm and shook hands with Danny's mother, smiling a little. "I hope you didn't have any trouble finding us, Mrs Goodner?"

"Not at all," she replied with her own smile. "Your directions were very clear. Thank you again for allowing this and not taking more serious steps after what Danny has been doing, Mr Stewart."

"Call me Adrian, please." Adrian looked at Danny speculatively for a moment, making the young man shuffle his feet slightly in embarrassment. "I would prefer not to let a young man gain a criminal record, especially one who is so... interested... in the field I work in," he continued after a moment, transferring his attention back to Theresa, who nodded slowly while also glancing at her son. "But at the same time it was beginning to be more than a nuisance, you understand. His ability to gain entry into places he shouldn't is only exceeded by a certain lack of common sense in actually doing it." Danny sweated lightly under the looks both Adrian and his mother were now giving him. "I'm hoping that satisfying his curiosity like this will make future occurrences rarer. Ideally, non-existent."

"I'm sure you won't have any more problems with my son, Adrian," his mother said after a few seconds of staring meaningfully at Danny, who nodded frantically. "And we're both very grateful indeed for how lenient you've been."

Adrian smiled. "Good, then in that case I doubt we have any reason to be worried." He turned to the two young women who had been listening with small grins and considerable interest. "Allow me to introduce Akane Tendo and Xian Pu, two of the most remarkable young people it's ever been my pleasure to work with. They're undoubtedly be a couple of people to watch in the stunt business and quite likely the acting business as well." Akane, the girl with the short blue hair, blushed slightly, while the other one smiled widely.

"Theresa Goodner," his mother said politely, shaking hands with them both in turn.

"I'm Akane," the Japanese woman smiled back. "My friend here usually goes by Shampoo, most people find it easier to say."

Shampoo grinned. "Still learning English, difficult language with many rules. Sorry about speaking badly. But nice to meet you." She looked at Danny as she shook his hand as well. "Better like this, not like in studio where might fall out of ceiling." He went slightly red again as Akane giggled and his mother sighed faintly.

"Sorry about that," he muttered.

"Don't worry, did many stupid things when your age too," she assured him. Akane snickered, making Shampoo nudge her hard. "Don't laugh, you worse."

"Possibly," Akane agreed placidly. "Possibly not." They had a brief argument in Japanese which ended with both of them giggling for a moment.

The director looked at his watch. "OK, we're going to have to get on with it now. Why don't you two help yourselves to some sandwiches and something to drink, over there, there's coffee and cold drinks as well, while we get the next test run set up. This is going to take another half hour or so then we're running the main stunt for real, which you'll probably find interesting." He indicated one of the temporary buildings which had a number of tables under it, people standing around and helping themselves to food. "Serena, you can show them where to sit, all right?"

The girl who had been standing and listening with an amused look on her face nodded. "Sure, Adrian. Come with me," she added, looking at Danny and his mother. Both of them followed her to the food tent and helped themselves, shortly finding their way to another covered area with a few folding chairs in it. Serena and Sophie were both sitting waiting for them while their parents were chatting a few feet away. "I saved you a couple of chairs," the girl smiled.

"Thanks," Danny replied, taking a seat and putting his can of soda down on the ground before biting into a chicken salad sandwich. "You seem to know a lot of people here," he went on after swallowing his mouthful, glancing at the teenager beside him who was watching the people working on the cars with interest. She glanced at him and nodded, her friend Sophie who was sitting on her other side also listening but still keeping an eye on the proceedings.

"Yep. My dad is friends with Jim, the studio safety coordinator, he's a neighbour of ours. That's him over there." She pointed at a tall slender Afro-Caribbean man who was in the middle of a cluster of half a dozen people including Matt, the man that had met them, who were apparently discussing something complicated judging by the number of pieces of paper that were being passed around. "Jim took us all on a studio tour back around Christmas when some friends of Dad's from Japan were over here on a case, including Aiko over there." She indicated the petite brunette he'd been caught by who was currently talking to a sandy-haired guy who seemed to be something to do with the cars judging by the way he was observing a couple of technicians working on one of them with an air of proprietary interest.

"Her friends are all magical girls from Tokyo who were chasing some weird magical terrorists," Serena explained, making him look at her with surprise. "They're also incredibly good at martial arts. I mean, you just wouldn't believe how good. Yori, and her partner Chou, are so far past anything I've ever seen..." She shook her head with an amazed expression, while Danny exchanged a look with his mother who was listening quietly. "They trained Aiko and her team, who aren't quite that good but are still unbelievable. They all came to a barbecue at my house after the case. There was an accident on the tour and they saved several people from horrible injuries which got Adrian interested. Yori invited him to the barbecue, he came and saw them do a short demonstration, then he wanted them to work for him." She giggled for a moment.

"They all said they were kind of busy already but he gave them a card anyway. In the end Yori gave it to Akane who she knows, Akane is an amazing martial artist as well. She's not a magical girl but even so I don't think you'd be able to find many people who are as good as either her or Shampoo. Some of the things I've seen them do..." She laughed to herself. "They came over a while ago and did a longer demonstration in our back yard. Even dad was just staring in shock. Adrian and his friends looked like they were going to fall over." She giggled again. "You wouldn't believe how good Shampoo is with a bow. I'm learning and I think I'm pretty reasonable but I don't think I'll ever be even close to what she can do."

"How old are they, Serena?" his mother asked curiously. The girl looked at her past Danny.

"Akane is twenty three, Shampoo is a little older I think."

"That's very young to be that talented at anything," Theresa noted. Serena shrugged.

"As far as I know they've been doing it since they were little and some of the things Shampoo has told me about how she was trained are horrifying. But it seems to work." She glanced at Sophie who looked both amused and slightly worried. "Yori said she was trained in martial arts from when she was about two years old. I don't know how long she's been learning the magical things but it must have been quite a while as well."

"Magical things?" Theresa asked with a peculiar expression on her face.

Serena nodded vigorously. "Oh, yes. She can throw fireballs! And pull things out of thin air. She showed us some of the things she has stashed away on her and it completely covered the kitchen table. It was amazing." The girl frowned slightly. "Although she did say that part was actually some weird sort of martial arts skill, not magic." Glancing at Sophie she smiled. "Hey, if you get good enough maybe you can learn to do it!"

Sophie sighed slightly. "I don't know if I can ever get that good," she said slightly sadly.

Danny noticed his mother had a bemused expression, but seemed to be content to hold her questions. "What martial art are you learning?" he asked the blonde girl.

"Aikido right now," she told him. "Yori suggested to Mom it was a good one to start with. You don't need to be really strong to be quite good at it and it's more aimed for self defence than anything. Sensei is very pleased with my progress so far although I've only been doing it since the middle of January. He said I have a gift for it." She looked pleased.

"What made you want to learn it?" Theresa asked. Sophie looked at the ground for a moment.

"I kind of got mugged over the holidays," she mumbled. "They stole my backpack and... some other things." Looking up rather defiantly, though, she added, "I got them pretty good even so. One of them was walking funny for days, even when Yori caught him." She grinned momentarily. "She said I did a good job." Serena chuckled at the look on her friend's face. "Mom was a little worried about me after that so when Yori suggested I learned self defence she was OK with the idea. It's been a lot of fun so far but I haven't had to use it yet." Danny wasn't completely certain but he sort of got the idea she was a little disappointed by this fact. Serena was smirking in a way that suggested she'd help if her friend needed it.

"I... see," his mother slowly replied.

"Oh, look, they're ready to go again," Serena suddenly said, pointing to where the cars were lining up, Akane and Shampoo getting into the lead one again after a quick conversation with Matt and Adrian. The girl explained the whole idea behind the stunt and where they were at the moment. Shortly afterwards the front vehicle roared off with a squeal of tortured tires and a cloud of smoke, followed by two police cars, as they wove around all over the runway in a rather dramatic manner. Danny watched, completely engrossed, and with a huge smile on his face, the two girls next to him doing much the same. His mother was watching him nearly as much as the action going on nearby with a thoughtful look, which was replaced by a smile after a little while.

"I think that went perfectly," Adrian stated with satisfaction as he looked over the playback, then turned to Akane who was standing behind him with her helmet in one hand and the other one on her hip. "That only leaves the final part. The big one. The one in which everything can go wrong or everything can go right, thereby cementing your reputation in studio lore one way or another." He grinned as Akane giggled, Shampoo next to her shaking her head in amusement.

"You in good mood, Adrian," the Amazon noted. He shrugged with a smile.

"Of course I am. I'm having fun, doing the job I love, with people I like and trust. What's not to put me in a good mood?" He inspected them both as the lilac-haired woman nodded agreement. "You both ready for it?"

"Yes," Akane smiled. She glanced at Shampoo who said the same thing at the same time. "Let's see what happens while I still have the nerve for it," she added wryly.

"Great." He patted her on the shoulder. "I have no doubt you'll pull it off and make it look easy." Smiling at her grateful expression he looked around and raised his voice.

"We're ready for the final sequence, everyone. We go in five minutes."

A number of people headed off in different directions as he walked over to the car which Greg was making some final checks on with a couple of his people, next to which Karen was leaning on the motorcycle Shampoo would use while watching the stunt driver closely. The red-head looked at them as they approached, smiling. "This is going to be amazing," she commented brightly. "Make us proud, both of you."

"Will certainly try," Shampoo laughed. She put her helmet back on and sat astride the bike, waiting patiently. Akane nodded to her, and Karen, then went to talk to Greg who had just pulled himself out of the back of the car.

"The cannon is pressurised and the charges are set," he announced as Adrian joined her. "Remember, arm it as soon as you're up on two wheels, and if you have to abort, hit the switches before you do so or you'll have the ride of a lifetime." He snickered as she gave him a hard look before putting her own helmet on and doing up the chin strap.

"Thanks for that, Greg," she muttered. "It makes me so much less nervous."

He slapped her on the back. "You'll do fine, Akane. Good luck." With a quick grin he stepped back while she slid into the driver's seat, closing the door.

Adrian checked with everyone else who was critical for the stunt, then ticked the last item off his check-list. Heading for the camera truck he climbed on board, then waited for everyone to take their places, which only took a few more seconds. Akane and Shampoo both started their relevant vehicles, looking at him for the cue.

"Car flip stunt, take one. Action!" he called, the radio mike he was wearing making sure everyone heard him clearly. The cameras panned to focus on the two women, as the car began moving, quickly followed by the motorcycle, Shampoo's long hair rippling behind her.

He crossed his fingers, waiting to see what happened.

'Don't fuck it up. Don't fuck it up.' The youngest Tendo sister tried to stop the refrain her thoughts kept playing in the back of her mind but had little success. Concentrating on the ramp ahead of her, she glanced quickly in the rear view mirror, seeing her friend following exactly in the position they'd established was correct for this stunt. 'It's just like yesterday, you've done this half a dozen times,' she told herself firmly.

'Yes, but now the car is basically a bomb,' she couldn't help adding mentally, not entirely willingly.

"You're right on track, Akane," Shampoo commented.

"Thanks. Five seconds," she replied quickly, aiming the car carefully. A few seconds later she felt the jolt as she hit the ramp, the driver's side flipping up hard until she reached a forty-five degree. Gently moving the wheel a little until she found the stable point she reached out with her right hand and carefully adjusted the throttle lever to keep the speed constant. "I'm up. Arming the car." She flipped up the protective cover then toggled both switches under it, seeing in her peripheral vision two red lights come on as the corresponding green ones went out. "I'm armed. Exiting now." Keeping one hand on the wheel she carefully pulled herself out the window to crouch on the side of the vehicle, the wind across her helmet making a dull woosh, then aimed slightly more accurately at the truck parked a few hundred metres in front of her. She could hear Shampoo's bike clearly from just behind and to one side, risking a quick look back to check, then trusting the Amazon to be in the right place.

"You look good," Shampoo reported. "We're nearly at the first mark." She nodded, seeing a spray-painted line on the runway go past seconds later. Standing up from her crouch as far as she could without letting go of the wheel she waited.

"Second mark in three... two... one." The next line passed under them, marking the point of no return. The truck was now only about ninety metres away.

"I'm jumping... Now!" She let go of the wheel, stood to her full height, then stepped sideways, laying her trust in the other woman completely. There was a brief moment of weightlessness before she hit the seat behind Shampoo perfectly, grabbing her friend's waist as soon as she was settled. The car was already beginning to drop back onto all four wheels as they approached the parked truck at forty-five miles an hour. Shampoo peeled off to the left, accelerating past the truck less than two seconds before the car hit it squarely. Akane looked back over her shoulder to see a large fireball which sprouted a flaming car flipping end over end, barely clearing the top of the truck to land on its roof on the other side with a huge crash and a cloud of dust, vapour streaming from a large hole in the bottom where the piston of the nitrogen cannon had exited. Fluttering swarms of burning fake money rained down around it.

"FANTASTIC!" Adrian's voice screamed in her ear over the radio link, making her grin in triumph, just before Shampoo yelled her own feelings. They looked over to see the director waving his clipboard like a five year old in the camera truck on the other side of the runway. "Are you both OK?" he asked slightly more calmly.

"We're fine, Adrian," Akane replied, the words belied by the way she was shaking from the adrenaline rush which hit at that moment. "It all worked out exactly like it was supposed to."

"That was unbelievable to watch. Incredible work, both of you. Come on back and have a drink, you've more than earned it." They slowed and turned, roaring past the camera truck as it did the same, heading back to the other end of the runway. Shampoo was laughing with relief and pleasure while Akane just held on, waiting for the trembling to stop.

When they pulled up at the tents and got off the bike, a crowd of people surrounded them. Karen leapt forward and hugged Akane hard, grinning like an idiot. "Amazing. Just amazing. You wouldn't believe how good that looked. You made it seem easy." Releasing her the red-head turned and did the same to Shampoo who was laughing. "And you. Great riding. I'm proud of both of you."

"Thank you, Karen. Couldn't have done it without you to teach, though," the Chinese woman grinned. Karen released her, stepped back, then bowed with a wide grin. Akane laughed, glancing at Shampoo with a smile.

The camera truck stopped next to them and Adrian jumped out, followed by Matt and Jim. A huge smile on his face the director came over to them. "I'm fucking impressed," he stated, chuckling. "I knew you could do it but even so that looked unbelievable. First take as well." He shook his head in respect. "Just amazing to watch." Matt and Jim added their feelings, both men looking pleased and relieved. A few seconds later the VT operator called to Adrian, who turned and led them all over to the truck where they watched the playback.

"Holy shit," Akane muttered to herself as she watched what she'd just done from several viewpoints, including from a camera on the truck which had been transmitting video to the camera vehicle, and a couple of fixed position cameras nearby as well. It looked, as Karen had said, absolutely amazing, even though she'd actually done it. The fireball was impressive and it really did look from that side as if the car had exploded and flipped into the air as a result. Even knowing how it was done didn't detract from the effect.

"With a little clean up to get rid of the vapour cloud, and a decent sound track, that would go right into any movie I've ever done with no problems at all," Adrian stated firmly when they'd watched the replay for the third time. "It's one of the best stunts I've ever seen." He turned to them. "If that doesn't get you the job nothing will, and if that's the case I'll start my own studio around you both." He stuck out his hand, shaking both of theirs. "I'm serious about that. One way or another we're going to be working with each other very soon."

Laughing a little, Akane grinned at him, then at the others who had become friends over the last few days. As she went back to the food tent for a well deserved cup of coffee she peered down the runway at the distant wreckage which was still smoking slightly, a small smile on her face and a sense of satisfaction in her heart.

"Oh my god!" The cry from Serena made Sophie jump a little, but she could understand why. The spectacle of Akane riding the outside of a car on two wheels was insane enough, but to see her apparently casually step off the side and get picked up on the way by Shampoo on a motorcycle, seconds before the car smashed into a huge truck and exploded, was just beyond belief. She shared a glance with her best friend then looked past her at Danny, who was staring open-mouthed at the burning wreckage a few hundred yards away. His mother looked at least as shocked.

"That was incredible!" Serena mumbled in shock. She grinned at her friend. "I can't believe she actually did it."

"I know, it was amazing," Sophie laughed. "I can't wait to see what it looks like on film."

"And this is a job interview?" Danny's mother asked in a faint voice. Sophie nodded.

"Yep. This is the last of the four stunts Adrian arranged to show off what they could do for his own bosses and also to train them in things they'll need. He seems very pleased so far."

"I see." Theresa looked at her, then back at the motorcycle with the two young women on which had just stopped on the start line and been mobbed by the crew. "I suspect they'll get the job."

"I think so too," Serena giggled. "That was unbelievable." She looked at Sophie. "Dad said that Adrian told him he'd let us have a copy of the DVD when it was done."

"I really want to see that," she replied honestly. After a moment, she asked, "I wonder if they'll do that bonus stunt Matt was talking about?"

"What is it?" Danny asked, sounding almost breathless with anticipation and nearly bouncing in his seat. Sophie grinned at him, the young man was extremely excited from what she could see.

"Some sort of helicopter assault on that tower," she said, pointing at the old control tower to the side at the end of the runway past the buildings, real and fake. "They mentioned it was a possibility because Matt knows a guy with a helicopter who's in LA on other business but has some free time."

Serena nudged her, pointing in the other direction. "They're going into the food tent. Come on, let's go and see what's up." The other girl jumped to her feet. "And I'm hungry again."

"You're always hungry, Ser," Sophie giggled, also standing. She waited politely for Danny and his mother to do the same, then headed after her friend, collecting their own parents on the way, all of whom were looking impressed by what they'd seen.

"That was amazing, wasn't it, Dad?" she asked her father who was taking a photo of the smouldering wreckage with a telephoto lens. He nodded, snapping a couple more shots, then lowered the camera.

"That it was. I'm amazed she could control the car from the outside like that. I wonder if it was some sort of remote control instead?" he mused.

"As far as I know it was all real," she told him. "That's what Akane told me last night. They were practising it for hours."

"Well, I have to say it looked remarkably impressive," he chuckled as he followed her and Joan to the food area. "If not kind of dangerous. I hope you're not planning on doing anything like that."

She shook her head, giggling. "No, I know I'm not that good and probably never will be. I'm happy doing what I'm doing. But I'm really glad to know them all." They started picking up plates and acquiring food, before heading off to talk to Akane and Shampoo who were looking exceptionally pleased with themselves, something she felt was fully justified all things considered.

"Are you both still up for the helicopter stunt?" Adrian asked over a cup of coffee. Akane nodded, glancing at Shampoo who did the same.

"I think so," she replied. "I can't see any reason not to do it, anyway, and we've got time, haven't we?" She checked her watch. "It's only just after one now."

The director smiled. "Great. Matt is really interested in it and he's got Anton all fired up as well now." He turned and waved to Matt, who waved back with a nod and pulled out his phone, obviously having been waiting for the go ahead. "OK, let's go over to costume and sort out some decent military gear for everyone. Matt, Greg, Aaron, and Aiko all want to play and so do a couple of Matt's people. That should be enough for a decent show against the two of you." He chuckled as she grinned.

Shortly they were standing next to the vehicle Gladys was in charge of, getting dressed in black military fatigues with various belts and harnesses to which props were being attached, to make them look like some form of soldier. Akane tucked her hair up under a beret while Shampoo pulled hers into a tight ponytail, pulling it over her shoulder when she was done and looking thoughtfully at it. "Maybe I should braid it like Yori does?" she wondered out loud.

"It would suit you and it's long enough," the Tendo sister commented, smiling. "But she might think you're stealing her look. All in black with a braid like that."

Shampoo flipped the hair back over her shoulder and giggled. "I wouldn't want to annoy her, that's for sure," she replied, amused.

"She wouldn't mind," Aiko put in from a couple of metres away, grinning a little. "She'd probably take it as a compliment if anything."

"The ponytail will do," the Amazon stated, kneeling down to tighten the laces on her boots. When she stood up Aaron came over with an armful of weaponry.

"M-16s, blank firing only," he told them, carefully putting the guns on a nearby table then handing Akane one having given it a quick safety check. He nodded appreciatively when she repeated it, then slung the rifle over her shoulder. Handing her a pair of magazines loaded with blanks he watched in satisfaction as she checked them then put them into the pouches on the belt she was wearing. Repeating the operation with Shampoo and Aiko, he then headed off to arm Matt and the others.

Akane unslung the rifle she had and held it across her body, posing a little, while Shampoo and Aiko studied her. "Very worrying," the magical girl snickered after a moment. "But stylish. You both look pretty good."

"Thanks," Akane grinned, slinging the weapon again. The petite brunette turned her head and looked off into the western distance, then gave them her attention again.

"That must be the helicopter that belongs to Matt's friend," she commented, pointing. Both the others squinted along the line she was indicating but it was several seconds before either of them could see anything. A small black dot rapidly resolved into a distant aircraft, the sound of the rotors coming to them shortly afterwards. Soon it was hovering overhead, the noise incredible and the downwash making everything blow around as the rotors throbbed, before it moved sideways and gently set down in the skid pan area to the side. The turbine wound down as the blades slowed, a medium height man with skin as dark as their uniforms jumping out and looking around, before acknowledging Matt's wave with a broad smile and hurrying over.

He talked to his friend for a moment, then Matt approached, the new arrival and Adrian coming with him.

"Ladies, this is my old friend and comrade in arms Robert Lefaure, we were in the service together for years. He flew my team in and out of danger quite a few times." Indicating the three women who were studying the visitor with as much interest as he was studying them, he continued, "Rob, this is Akane, Shampoo, and Aiko. Akane and Shampoo are the prospective stunt women we've been working with this week."

Rob stepped forwards and bowed to them slightly, saying in surprisingly good Japanese, "It's an honour to meet you all. Matt has told me quite a lot about you and your work."

Rather surprised, Akane exchanged a glance with Shampoo, who was looking impressed, and Aiko, who seemed pleased, then returned the bow. "I'm glad to meet you as well, Rob. We've learned a lot from Matt and his friends and we're always ready to meet more of them."

"You speak Japanese very well," Aiko added, smiling a little. "That's a little unusual for an American if you don't mind me saying so."

Rob shrugged, looking slightly amused, and replied, "I know, it's not an easy language for us and in general the English speaking world isn't good at it. But I have a gift for languages and spent a few years in Kyoto when I got out of the Army. I'm a little rusty but I hope I'm OK?"

"You're much better at Japanese than I am at English," Shampoo assured him with a smile. "What other languages do you speak?"

"English, obviously, German, Spanish, French, Russian, and some Portuguese," he responded. Akane stared in shock. That was impressive by anyone's standards.

Aiko asked him a question in what she realised was Russian, grinning when he immediately replied in the same language. The pair of them went through several other languages, until she nodded in satisfaction. "Very good indeed," the magical girl chuckled.

"You're not bad yourself," he said with an amazed expression. "I couldn't hear an accent on any of those. How many languages do you speak?"

Aiko waved a hand airily. "Lots. I get around and it helps." He studied her for a moment then turned to Matt who was listening with a small smile.

"You were right, they seem to know some interesting things," he told his friend, who snickered.

"More than you'd believe. I'll have to show you the recordings from the last couple of days later." The stunt coordinator looked pleased. "OK, then, why don't we get this last one set up and see what happens? It should be pretty good."

"All right." Rob leaned against the table that Aaron had been using earlier. "As I understand it, you want me to fly these two young ladies over the tower there and drop them off, they shoot all you guys, and everyone goes home happy. Something along those lines anyway."

"That's basically it, yes," Adrian snickered. "Slightly pared down to its basics but more or less accurate."

"I can do that. How are they going to assault the tower, though?" The pilot looked up at the old structure. "There are too many obstructions up there to allow me to safely hover right over it, so they're either going to have to rappel down or jump."

"We can jump easily enough," Akane suggested, also looking up at the tower. "If you can get us to about, oh, maybe ten or fifteen metres over it, that should clear all the antenna things sticking out of the roof."

Rob looked surprised and a little worried. "A fifteen metre drop? That's not exactly a short distance." Matt tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the buildings on the other side of the runway.

"See that three story one?" Rob followed his finger and nodded. "They jumped off the top of it half a dozen times a few hours ago and didn't think too much of if. Trust me, fifteen metres is fine."

"If you say so, Matt," his friend replied slightly dubiously. Akane and Shampoo nodded, as did the stunt coordinator.

"Is easy," Shampoo added firmly. "You fly, we jump, no problem."

"We could run it a few times if we have time, and try the rappel approach as well," Adrian suggested thoughtfully, looking up at the tower and rubbing his chin slowly. "It might look good with the ropes. Matt, we have all the equipment for that, right?"

"Oh, yes, there's everything we need in the truck," the other man said, nodding. "It shouldn't take long to teach them how, either."

"Already know," Shampoo commented, making everyone look at her curiously. "Was part of childhood training, climbing ropes, sliding back down them. Not used your type equipment though."

"OK, that's easy enough to fix." Matt nodded, then looked at Akane. "I doubt you'll have any trouble. Why don't we do a couple of practice runs from the tower then try one from the chopper afterwards. Rob, when do you have to get back?"

"I'm free all afternoon," the pilot told him. "I've got enough fuel for an hour or so max if I want to get back to Universal, so that's the real limiting factor."

"Good. That should be more than enough, I think. Let's get you two set up with the appropriate harnesses and we can go and practice for a while, then Rob can let us jump out of his helicopter a few times." Matt looked pleased with his summation. Adrian pulled his every-present clipboard from under his arm and made some notes, nodding to himself.

"That fits in nicely. You go and do that while Aaron, Anton, and I work out exactly how we're going to run the stunt itself. It's going to be mostly improvised but I need to figure out where to put the cameras." He looked up at the pilot, obviously thinking. "Rob, is it OK if I have one of the camera guys fly with you and shoot it from the air as well?"

"Sure. We do that all the time. I even have some camera mounts on the machine that your equipment should slot right in to."

"Wonderful. That will save time and add some useful viewpoints." Pleased, he ticked a couple of things off then turned to the others. "Go and practice, let me know when you're ready. There's no huge hurry but if we can get everything sorted out by five or so that would be useful."

Matt checked his watch, nodded, then motioned to Akane and Shampoo, both of whom followed as he headed for the stunt equipment truck.

"What are they doing now?" Serena asked, looking up at the battered appearing control tower with a small frown. Her mother followed her gaze as did Serena and Danny, who had been talking about the afternoon's action. She pointed at one of the large angled windows which was being opened, rather creakily swinging out of the way at the top of the tower, nearly sixty feet off the ground. Behind it she could see what looked like Matt and Akane with a shadow behind them that was probably Shampoo, all three of them wearing black military clothing.

"I'm not sure," Emily remarked, before lifting the small pair of binoculars she'd brought to her eyes. "They seem to be tying ropes to something inside for some reason." A few seconds later three coils of rope were tossed out the window, unspooling down the side of the tower and just reaching the ground, hanging a couple of feet away from the buildings. "I think they're going to slide down them as far as I can see, they're attaching them to some sort of harness they're each wearing. Matt seems to be teaching them something."

"Can I look?" Serena said. Her mother handed her the binoculars through which she carefully inspected the distant scene. Seconds later, Shampoo was straddling the window frame, making her suck in a breath despite herself. It was a long way down even for the Amazon.

Shampoo looked down, shook the rope a few times, then turned to face the interior of the building and said something to Matt, who looked like he was laughing a little at whatever it was. With a quick motion the young woman exited the window and competently slid down the rope at fairly high speed, controlling her descent expertly, to land gently on the ground with a smile evident when she looked in their direction. "Wow," Serena said in a low voice. "She made that look really easy."

"I have a feeling she's done it before," her mother agreed, sounding impressed. They watched as Shampoo detached herself from the rope then stepped back and called something up to the other pair remaining in the tower. Soon afterwards, Matt did the same with at least as much aplomb. The teenager got the definite impression he was more than used to this sort of thing.

Once they were both on the ground, the pair stepped away and looked up, Matt waving to Akane, who was peering down with a slightly dubious expression as far as Serena could see through the binoculars, but she nodded and carefully moved through the window. After a short pause she was also descending, noticeably less smoothly but still fairly quickly. Landing on the dusty ground in a crouch she straightened up as Shampoo clapped her on the back. Moments after she detached her own rope, Aiko appeared next to her, then a few seconds later all four people popped out of view with a bright rainbow flash. Serena blinked a few times having not looked away fast enough, then panned up to see all of them back in the tower again.

The sequence repeated itself half a dozen times by the end of which Akane was sliding down the rope as easily as her two companions. On the last run they all descended at the same time which looked quite impressive. The three ropes came down after them, Aiko having apparently untied them in the control tower, then the magical girl simply jumped out the window making Serena and her mother, not to mention the others watching, gasp in shock.

She landed in an easy crouch next to Shampoo who was grinning, then they walked over to the man who'd arrived in the dark grey helicopter that was parked a hundred feet away and who was wearing an expression of shocked amazement which took some time to disappear. Adrian joined them a little later. The small group had a discussion for a couple of minutes then headed for the helicopter which was being worked on by a number of technicians who seemed to be attaching at least one camera to it.

Five minutes later, the turbine roared into life, the blades slowly beginning to spin. Serena handed her mother's binoculars back and put her hands over her ears, wondering what would happen next.

"Nice helicopter," Shampoo commented as they arrived at the aircraft. Rob grinned.

"Thanks. It's a Bell 205A-1 from 1985, the civilian version of the UH-1H which you've probably seen in any number of Vietnam movies and that sort of thing. Very reliable, decent range, and it will carry up to fourteen people or about five tons of cargo. We painted it up like this for the Universal movie which is a military one. It was bright red two weeks ago." Rob patted the fuselage of his aircraft. "It changes colour quite often."

"We've got the cameras mounted," the lead technician said to Adrian as he pulled himself out from under the machine next to Akane. "One under the belly looking down with a wide angle lens and the other one on the pan/tilt mount in the left door. Monitors for both are in the cabin as well."

"Thanks, Enzo," the director replied. He leaned into the open side door and checked the setup, looking pleased when he emerged. "That should do it."

"How do you want to do this?" Rob asked.

Matt studied the helicopter for a moment, then shrugged. "Pretty much the same way we used to do it when we were being paid to jump out of choppers under fire," he remarked, smiling to himself. "Tie the ropes off above the door there on the rail, then go out the sides. One on either side I think."

"Fine by me," his friend replied. He looked at Akane and Shampoo, who were listening with interest. "Have either of you been in a helicopter before?" They both shook their heads. "It's very loud, especially with the doors open. You won't be able to hear each other without these noise-cancelling headphones on." He reached in and produced a heavily padded set of headphones on a long coiled cable with a microphone on a boom sticking out the front. "Obviously you can't wear them when you go down the rope, though. So once we're ready, I'll signal you by hand what to do." He went through a number of simple hand signals with them until he was satisfied they could remember then properly.

"That should be enough for the job in hand. I'll take it up to the same sort of height as the tower right here and you can practice a few times, but from watching you over there you won't have any problems. The rotor wash can make you swing around but if you go down fast it shouldn't be a problem. Any questions?" They glanced at each other then shook their heads.

"It sounds pretty straightforward," Akane admitted. The pilot chuckled.

"It always does until you actually do it, that's when it all goes to crap." Both young women nodded soberly, as did Matt, all of them able to think of a situation of that nature. "OK, every who's going get in. Adrian, do you want to take the seat up front? You'll get a better view from there."

"Thanks, Rob, I'd like that," the director said with a broad smile. "I love flying."

"You and me both, brother. I prefer it when I'm not being shot at though," Rob grinned.

Soon Akane, Shampoo, Matt, and the cameraman were sitting in the rear of the aircraft, the latter strapped firmly in position while the other three were attached via their harnesses to the ropes tied to the rail mounted outside the fuselage above the side doors. Akane and Matt were on the right while Shampoo was on the left next to the camera. Wiping slightly sweaty hands on her shirt, the Tendo sister adjusted the headset she was wearing.

"Can everyone hear me?" the pilot's voice said over the intercom. There were a number of replies in the affirmative. "Good. OK, hang on." The turbine hummed into life, a rising whine quickly joined by a roar as it reached operating speed, then the rotors began turning. A few seconds later the machine jolted a little and lifted off, going straight up twenty metres or so, then hovering. The noise was incredible, even through the headset and the earplugs they were all wearing under them. Peering out the opened door Akane saw the entire site laid out beneath them, a cloud of dust spreading outwards from where they'd taken off and settling out across the ground.

"Just like out the window, except for there not being anything to hit except the ground," Matt remarked as he leaned over and looked straight down. When he turned back to them he was smiling. "I always forget how much I enjoyed doing this." Standing as erect as he could in the slightly cramped confines of the aircraft cabin he moved out onto the step below the door, then dropped the rope he was holding in one hand. Akane followed, with Shampoo duplicating the actions on the other side. All three of them took off their headsets and dropped them onto their seats, holding on to hand grips inside the doors with their other hands.

Looking down again, Akane could see Aiko's upturned face from where she'd joined the other spectators and crew, briefly waving, then glanced at Matt. He gave her an 'OK' sign, checked with Shampoo who did the same, then counted down on his fingers from five. Rob was concentrating on flying the helicopter with Adrian watching over his shoulder and apparently reporting to him what was going on. When Matt reached zero, all three of them dropped out of the aircraft, the rotor wash buffeting them around a little as they slid down through the worst of it, then seconds later landed on the ground. The ropes followed them down when they each tugged on the free end, having been rigged slightly differently than in the tower as Rob didn't want to risk landing with them flapping around in the breeze.

Quickly moving off to the side they waved up at the aircraft, an arm coming out the pilot's side and giving a thumb's up, before it settled back onto the same spot it had taken off from. Quickly coiling up the ropes in the way Matt had demonstrated both young women followed him as he re-entered the helicopter, reflexively ducking a little even thought there was plenty of clearance.

They repeated the operation three more times by which time everyone was happy they had it down pat. Landing and shutting the machine down, Rob unclipped his harness and turned around in his seat, peering back at them as the rotors spun down. "That seemed to go well," he said, smiling. "It looked very convincing from here. You learned a lot faster than we did in basic, I can say that much."

"They learn incredibly fast," Matt chuckled. "You should see Shampoo shoot. I've never seen anything like it before and three days ago she'd never held a firearm."

"Impressive," his friend chuckled. "Very impressive indeed. If Matt of all people says you can shoot well you're very good."

"Thank you," the Amazon smiled. "Was fun learning. So was this."

"I think we're ready, then," Adrian put in looking pleased. "We've got a basic plan set up. Matt, Aaron, Aiko, Remy, and Gunnar are the guards. Matt and Aaron will be on the roof, the others will come up the stairs as you two begin the assault. Aiko says she's going to be dramatic and fall off the tower so it looks good." He chuckled, shaking his head in wonder. "What I could do with a few more of her along with you guys." Akane and Shampoo exchanged an amused gaze. "Anyway, it's pretty free form. You have to get past the guards inside the control room, they'll be shooting at you to stop you. Make it look good, have fun, avoid actually killing anyone, and we should have some decent footage at the end of it."

"It sounds pretty easy," Akane mused, thinking over his words. "Why don't we try the rappelling run first, then the drop? The second one is a bit harder."

"Fine by me," Adrian nodded.

"Let's get everything set up in that case." Matt checked the time then turned to Rob, who was listening with interest from his seat. "It'll take about half an hour to get everyone in position for the first run and all the cameras set up, so why don't you go and grab a coffee and a sandwich?" He indicated the food tent which was still being regularly visited.

"OK. Come and get me when you want to go." The pilot hung his headset up on the overhead console then opened the door and climbed out, followed by the others, everyone heading off in different directions.

The two guards patrolling the top of the facility control tower made their way through the thicket of communications gear as they walked in opposite directions, their rifles held loosely but alertly, each of them checking the surroundings carefully as they walked. Staying a careful distance from the edge of the tower, which had a low railing around it, they paced around and around. Suddenly one of them stopped, looking around with an expression of puzzlement, before spinning around and raising his weapon to his shoulder. His cry of warning alerted his colleague who did the same, then both took cover behind some air conditioning ductwork as a large grey military helicopter swooped towards them, tracking quickly across the desert at low altitude then rising rapidly to a hover over the top of the tower. A pair of lines spun down from the open doors, two black-clad figures sliding down even as the lines unrolled, opening fire from the hip on the descent.

One of the guards went down instantly, the other firing back while shouting for backup. Several more guards boiled out of a hatch on the roof as the boots of the attackers touched down, a number of guns firing at the same time, the gunfire crackling over the throbbing of the rotors above them. One guard fired at the helicopter which rapidly rose then banked away, dropping back onto a low pass over the ground.

The attacking figures dropped behind a large antenna, shooting intermittently, then one of them leaped over the structure and took a swing at the shortest of the guards. The defender emptied her magazine at the oncoming attacker to no apparent effect, then dropped her rifle and whipped out a pistol as the other woman reached her. The gun was kicked from her hand even as she raised it to a firing position, the attacking intruder shooting her directly in the chest with her own weapon seconds later. Staggering back the brave defending guard backed into the railing which caught her just above the knees, tipping her over it into a flip as she disappeared from view with a scream.

The remaining defenders briefly stopped in shock, then renewed their firing, slapping new magazines into their weapons. The other attacker who had somehow snuck around to the side suddenly popped up, her long lilac hair blowing in the wind, taking two of them down instantly. The remaining guard looked wildly around, charged the second woman while firing from the hip, then fell to a final bullet from the first attacker, who rose from her crouch and checked him. Satisfied she motioned to her colleague, both of them disappearing into the hatch the guards had come from.


"Holy shit that was amazing!"

"Sophie! Language!"

Sophie flushed a little but kept grinning. She looked at Serena who was watching the top of the tower with her mouth open, then to the other side to see Danny, eyes sparkling with joy, grinning like an idiot. Even from this distance the spectacle had been dramatic. Aiko's death dive was the icing on the cake, it had looked very real, even though she'd actually landed on her feet and just walked away calmly. The scream was pretty damn good, though.

"You see, Dad?" she asked, pointing at the brunette who was standing next to Anton, the producer they'd been introduced to at the barbecue the previous night, both of them looking up and talking to each other, Aiko miming the dive she'd taken with her hand. "Magic. How else could she do that, never mind the teleporting?"

"I'm beginning to believe you, dear," her father said thoughtfully. He'd been watching Aiko every time he spotted her with a look like he was trying to work out some puzzle the answer to which would give him something he could hardly believe existed, which rather amused Sophie. She herself merely took it as something she was unlikely to ever completely understand but could easily see was true. They stood next to each other watching as the helicopter returned and landed, Akane and Shampoo heading back towards it having exited the tower and stopped for a brief chat with Adrian who was supervising from the camera truck. This now had a complex camera rig mounted on top which was using what looked like a serious telephoto lens to capture the action on the tower.

Once both young women were aboard, the helicopter took off again, swinging far out across the desert, then turning and heading back at a considerable speed, low enough that she could see a large dust cloud trailing behind it. The thumping sound of the rotor was exactly as she'd heard in many movies, making her grin with excitement and a shiver go down her back. She watched carefully as the aircraft made another run at the tower.

Matt paced around the tower roof, settling his rifle more firmly, as he waited. Shortly he heard the distinctive sound of Rob's helicopter rapidly approaching, turning and pointing his weapon at it while calling to Aaron, who filled his role as a guard well, shouting down the trapdoor while firing a few blank shots at the aircraft as it pulled up sharply, Akane and Shampoo visible holding on just inside the doors on each side.

He was startled when, rather than going into a hover twenty feet up as they'd discussed, instead the machine kept going up, both girls detaching from it as it cleared the roof line, then flipping into a couple of somersaults that ended up with them landing almost next to him and Aaron, who looked as shocked as he was. Neither man had time to react when the two attackers instantly pulled their pistols out with their off-hands and fired rapidly at them, only barely having the presence of mind to 'die' on cue. 'They changed the plan the sneaky bastards,' he mused as he dropped in fake agony, watching through half-closed eyes as the pair went through the rest of the guards like a lawnmower through a watermelon. Shampoo took on Aiko this time, assassinating her with ruthless efficiency then actually kicking her off the tower.

The brunette obligingly screamed again, winking as she dropped out of sight. Matt giggled internally, the whole situation was pretty surreal when you sat and thought about it. He heard the helicopter return and hover next to the tower, eight or nine feet higher than the roof to ensure the rotor blades cleared all the obstructions, then watched as Shampoo and Akane, instead of entering the tower, jumped back into the machine from the roof, clearing the twenty feet between them and it easily. Rob wheeled the chopper around, then rolled sideways and roared off. Matt could picture his old friend grinning like a lunatic at the manoeuvre, he'd always liked the more spectacular low level stuff at which he was extremely talented.

'I wonder how they talked him into doing that?' he thought, waiting for the call from Adrian, which came moments later from his megaphone. Sitting up he glanced over at Aaron, who was watching the helicopter circle around to land with a small grin visible. "Ever get the feeling that you've created a monster?" he asked his colleague.

"I'm certainly beginning to," Aaron chuckled. "Those two were bad enough to start with. But in less than a week we've taught them firearms usage, which they took to with frightening efficiency, advanced driving skills, motorcycle riding to a level most people could never manage, and now we've got them trained in airborne assault tactics. Which they seem to be improvising new methods of faster than I can really believe." He stood then offered Matt a hand up, which he took. Both of them looked down at the skid pan where the aircraft had just landed, the rotors spinning down. "Even if the stunt stuff doesn't work out Adrian is going to have a neat little tactical assault group of his very own."

Matt grinned, shaking his head with a slight laugh. "That's one way to look at it. I'm not sure Jennifer or Mitch would approve, though, so we should probably keep quiet about it."

"Good idea," Aaron smiled. They headed for the trap door through which Remy and Gunnar were already exiting, slapping dust off their clothes.

"Hey, Matt?" Gunnar called as they went down the tower stairs.

"Yes?" he replied.

"No offence, but I want to be on their team," his co-worker commented wryly, making them all laugh as they descended the tower.

Adrian watched the replay, giggling to himself. It was almost better than the car stunt. "How did you persuade Rob to pull that?" he asked curiously. Akane grinned.

"It didn't take too much effort once he saw Aiko walk away from falling off the tower like that. I know we're nowhere near as tough as she is but a fall like that wouldn't kill either of us if we'd missed, although it would sure sting a lot. Once we persuaded him that was true, he was all for it. He thought it was a hysterical joke to play on Matt as well, I think. He was laughing the whole time we were heading towards the tower."

Shaking his head in respect Adrian replied, "Well, all I can say is well done. That looks amazing and I wish I'd thought of it first. The expression on Matt's face is really funny, the camera caught it perfectly." The Tendo woman giggled as she watched the replay.

"It's pretty good."

"That it is." Turning away from the monitor he studied Akane and Shampoo, who looked mildly tired but pleased. "I think that's a damn good day's work all things considered. We got everything done we needed to and the bonus stuff as well, there's easily enough for the most impressive demo reel I've ever seen, as well as some amusing out-takes. We can get back to the studio and have it all edited together and a sound track put on, it should be ready by the end of tomorrow. I'll get it to Mitch and make sure he watches it immediately, then he'll be ready to take it to the board on Monday for the normal start of week meeting."

"So they should have a decision soon?" Akane asked hopefully.

He grinned. "Don't worry, I can pretty much guarantee by this point it's just a formality. Anton agrees with me, there's no real chance of them not offering you guys the job. The only thing they'll be arguing about will be specific terms and conditions which will take a couple of days, and some work with legal. I would be very surprised if you don't have contracts in your hands by next weekend."

Both girls slumped a little as a certain amount of tension went out of them. He put a hand on a shoulder each. "We're going to be working together for a long time, don't worry. One way or another. It's something I've been looking forward to since that first demonstration."

"Thanks, Adrian," Shampoo said quietly. "Has been worrying us."

"We've done our best but we were both wondering if it was enough," Akane added.

Adrian stared at them with some disbelief. "I honestly fail to see how you could possibly have done better," he told them. "I've never seen anything like it before and neither has anyone else here. You've learned everything we tried teaching you practically instantly, you can follow instructions, and everyone likes you, which is very important in working together. Not to mention you probably saved my life yesterday, as well as all those other people." He glanced at the clock on the monitor. "It's half past four. Let's pack up, get back to the studio, then go and find somewhere nice to eat and wind down. You two need to be back in Tokyo tonight, right?"

"Yes, that's ideal, we'll be there in the morning which gives time for some sleep then there's Auntie Nodoka's party to look forward to on the weekend." Akane smiled at the thought.

"Good, you need to relax after this. You've both worked you asses off for days, you deserve some relaxation." The director led the way back to the trucks, where some equipment had already been packed up. Rob was talking to Matt, the pilot looking over as they approached.

"That was a lot of fun," he said, waving at the tower. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it but I'm glad I did."

"Thank you for helping us, Rob," Akane told him. He smiled at her.

"It was no problem, believe me, Akane. I enjoyed it and meeting you two as well. I expect if you end up working for these lunatics we'll probably meet again."

"Quite likely," she replied, glancing at Adrian, who nodded.

Stepping forward the director shook Rob's hand. "Thanks, Rob. It was nice to see you again."

"You too, Adrian." The pilot looked at the sun, then turned to his friend. "I'd better get back, I need to refuel then park her up for the night. There's several beers with my name on them waiting as well."

"OK, Rob. See you soon," Matt responded, then they watched as the man walked over to his aircraft, hopping in and quickly going through his preflight check-list. A couple of minutes later the machine lifted off, turning and heading west while gaining altitude rapidly. As the thumping sound of the rotor faded away Matt turned back to them. "Good trick with the tower, by the way," he said somewhat sarcastically. "Scared the crap out of me for a second."

"Good. Worked properly," Shampoo giggled, making him look hard at her.

"I'll bet it was your idea as well, wasn't it?" he asked. She looked innocent, making him sigh faintly.

"Crazy martial artists and Amazon warriors. This is going to be weird," he muttered, which made Adrian start snickering.

"I hope you enjoyed yourselves," the director asked. Danny glanced at his mother, nodding so fast he could feel his neck twinging. Theresa also nodded although with somewhat less vigour.

"It was wonderful to watch, thank you, Adrian," she replied politely. "Danny enjoyed it a lot as well, and he seems to have made a couple of new friends in the process." She looked over to Serena and Sophie who were talking to their parents and Akane, with Matt listening in. "Those young ladies seem very talented. I think they'll do very well in your business," she added after a moment.

Adrian smiled. "I have no doubt about that at all. Well, it was nice to meet you, Theresa. And Danny? Please remember our deal."

"I will, Mr Stewart," the teenager said.

"Great. I'll get some tickets out to you for the next movie as soon as it's released, I promise. And if you want to see the studio again, please use one of the normal tours, OK? For my own peace of mind if nothing else."

"I will," he repeated, smiling with slight embarrassment. His mother put her arm around his shoulders.

"He's a good kid but he does get over-enthusiastic," she told the director, "although I think he really will stick to his promise."

"I'm pleased to hear it," Adrian chuckled. A call from one of the other studio people made him look over, then wave an acknowledgement. "I'm going to have to go. Have a safe drive back to LA, both of you." He nodded to them then headed away, being intercepted half-way to the camera truck by the red-head in the leather jacket who seemed to be something to do with motorcycles, both of them walking off chatting.

"He's a nice man," Danny's mother said, watching him leave, then turning her attention to her son. "You will stick to your promise, I hope?"

"Yes, Mom," he replied, sighing slightly. He was getting tired of answering the same question over and over in different ways. She smiled at him and ruffled his short hair which made him sigh more loudly then run his fingers through it. As they began walking back to the car a shout from behind made him look. Serena and Sophie were both trotting towards them.

"We wanted to say goodbye," Serena said when they caught up. "It was cool meeting you. And putting a name and face to one of Dad's stories." She giggled when he gave her a slightly apprehensive look.

"Don't tell him I was here," he asked plaintively, making both girls and his mother giggle.

"He'll be fine now. He doesn't usually hold a grudge. You just managed to catch him at a bad time," she assured him. He hoped she was right.

Stopping at the car, Theresa unlocked it, then waited while he said goodbye to the two girls. Both of them smiled at him then headed back to their own families. "You should keep in touch, they seem like nice girls with some interesting hobbies," his mother said as they got in to the car. Danny thought about it for a moment. They were both certainly very good looking and obviously pretty smart as well.

"Maybe," he prevaricated. His mother smiled to herself, starting the car, then doing a U turn and heading for the exit.

"I have their numbers if you want to call them some time," she told him after a minute or so, "I asked both their mothers for them. They seemed to think that both young ladies needed more friends. I could say the same for you." He studied her for a few seconds, then settled back in the seat, thinking about things as they headed home.

Arriving in their back yard with nothing except a flicker of scenery and lighting to show how, Sophie smiled to herself. It had been a very interesting day indeed. She looked at her father who was still wearing a slightly odd expression, one arm around her mother's shoulders. Aiko, Serena, and her mother were standing to one side watching.

"That was fun," she finally commented brightly. Aiko grinned while Serena started giggling. Her father gave her a long look then eventually nodded.

"That's certainly one way to put it," he said. Looking at Aiko, he added, "I have many, many questions."

"That doesn't surprise me at all," the brunette chuckled. "I can sympathise. At some point I'll probably try to answer some of them. Right now, though, I need to get Serena and Emily home, then go and find Akane and Shampoo. They need a lift back to Tokyo in a couple of hours."

"Can you really just casually jump half way around the planet like that?" Sophie's father asked curiously.

Aiko nodded, grinning in a weird way. "Yep. It's actually pretty easy now."

After a long moment, her father asked slowly, "Can you go further than that?" The magical girl looked at him for a few seconds, then turned her head to look at the almost full moon which was just rising in the early evening sky for a little longer. She looked back to him, then smiled.

"Probably," she said. Raising a hand she waved. "Remember the flash." They all shut their eyes, the bright light came and went, then the Simpson family was alone in their yard again.

When Sophie went inside, her father was still staring at the slowly rising moon.

"I'll make sure you get several copies of the DVD as soon as it's ready," Adrian said, putting his fork down for a moment. "It should be tomorrow night sometime."

"I can come and get it, Adrian," Aiko suggested. He glanced at her and nodded.

"OK, I'll text you when it's finished." He looked back to the two martial artists. "I'm honestly extremely pleased with the last few days. It was more than I could have ever expected in more ways that one."

Anton grinned, raising a glass of wine in their direction. "That it was. I haven't had so much fun for years. I can hardly wait for what we can do once you two are officially on board."

"The one thing we didn't have time to do was look into agents and legal representation," Akane noted with mild irritation. "That damn bank robbery took the time we needed."

Adrian sighed, then shrugged. "True. But it's not too much of a problem. I think the way to proceed is to get you both the contract, you look it over, get it checked in Japan, then when you're broadly happy with it, come back her to double check with a US lawyer and sign it. I should be able to get it to you by probably Saturday, I think." He looked at Aiko who nodded, smiling, as she cut a piece of her steak. "We can look into agents when that part is done. It's a minor nuisance at worst."

"OK, that sounds reasonable," Akane replied, glancing at Shampoo who seemed agreeable.

"Good." They finished their meal half an hour later, talking about various things that came to mind, then the entire group left the restaurant, which was one close to their hotel. Karen came over and gave each of them a quick hug.

"It was a hell of a lot of fun working with you both," the red-head said. "I'm looking forward to having you back here. I can probably help you find somewhere to live as well if you want, my cousin is a realtor in this area who has lots of apartments on his books."

"Thanks, Karen, we may well take you up on that," Akane assured her. The biker grinned, then pulled her helmet on, hopping on her bike and starting it, quickly disappearing down the street.

"Ladies, I expect great things," Anton said jovially, smiling at them both. "I'll make sure Mitch does right by you both, trust me." Shaking hands with them, he also left, leaving only Matt, Adrian, Aaron, and the three from Tokyo.

"It's been an experience, certainly," the arms-master said wryly. "I'm very curious to see what happens next."

"So are we," Akane assured him with a smile.

"See you around," he remarked, waving a little then heading for his car. They watched him leave.

Matt grinned at them. "I'll be off as well. It's been huge fun. I expect I'll be seeing you both pretty soon." Giving them a small salute he followed Aaron, leaving only Adrian with the three women.

"Come on, I'll give you a lift to your hotel, to save Aiko the effort," he snickered, glancing at the brunette, who shrugged a little and followed the others as they headed for his mercedes. Pulling up outside the hotel ten minutes later he turned the engine off then twisted in his seat to look at them all in turn.

"It really has been a privilege working with you all," he said quietly. "You're very professional, very talented, and genuinely nice people. I'm looking forward to a very interesting and hopefully long career out of you two."

Akane flushed slightly at the praise. "That's very nice of you to say, Adrian," she replied after a moment. "I feel the same about all you guys. We've met some really interesting and skilled people over the last few days and even if it never went any further I'd count it as a week well spent."

"Same here," Shampoo agreed happily. "Huge fun and very interesting."

"It'll go further, believe me," he assured them with a small laugh. They all exited the car, the director shaking hands with each of them. "Have a good party and give Soun, Genma, and Nodoka my best. Elder Cologne as well, she seemed an interesting person when we met," he added, glancing at Shampoo, who smiled a little.

"We will." Akane waved to him then led the way inside the hotel. As they watched the director get back into his car and drive off, she relaxed.

"Still a little tense there, Akane?" Aiko joked. She nodded with a sigh.

"Yes. I couldn't help it, I still feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop," the Tendo woman giggled. "How the hell did we end up here for god's sake?"

"By dint of a lot of hard work and sacrifice with a bit of good luck thrown in," Aiko replied, grinning. "I know it's a lot to take in and has gone incredibly fast but that's the way things go sometimes. You got a once in a lifetime opportunity and to your credit grabbed it and ran with it. I think you'll go a long way."

"Thanks. It would be a lot more difficult without all your help as well," Akane said as they headed towards the elevator.

Aiko waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it. I've had as much fun as you guys, it makes a nice change from combat scenarios and potentially world ending problems. It's practically a vacation for me. Now, you guys pack up, then we can try this hot tub on the roof for half an hour before I take you home."

"Good advice," Shampoo laughed. "Do you have a swimsuit?" Aiko produced one from nowhere as she spoke.

"Never leave home without it," she grinned. "I even know where my towel is."

"You're back," Nodoka exclaimed, jumping to her feet with a broad smile as Akane and Shampoo came into the living room carrying their bags. Both young women looked tired but happy. "How did it all go?"

"Really well, I think, Auntie," Akane said, dropping her bag on the floor then sinking down onto a chair with a sigh of relief. "It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work as well. All the people we met were really nice and friendly, we both learned all sorts of things, and they seemed very pleased with the results. But I for one need about twelve hours of sleep before I fall over." She ran her hands over her face as Shampoo sat next to her. Nodoka studied them both, then disappeared into the kitchen, coming back with a pot of tea and a tray full of cups. Handing them each a cup she poured some tea in, then prepared her own, sitting down with it in her hand.

"Drink that, it will help, then go to bed," she advised. "No one will mind."

"Thanks, Auntie," Akane said quietly, sipping her tea. A few minutes later Nabiki came in, smiling at them all.

"You made it back without being kicked out of the US?" her older sister said with a grin. Akane looked up at her and shrugged a little, but smiled back.


"No more robberies to foil?"


"No demons?"

Akane gave her a hard look. "No. We're martial artists, not magical girls." Nabiki snickered, sitting down and pouring some tea for herself.

"Fair enough."

"How are the preparations for the party going?" Shampoo asked, yawning widely half-way through the question. Nodoka smiled at her.

"Very well, thank you. If either of you are awake enough tomorrow afternoon you can help but we've got most of it ready. Elder Cologne is bringing a huge pot of ramen, I've been making food for two days, the fridge is full, and even Nabiki has been cooking." They both looked at the brunette Tendo sister, who grinned at them.

"I can cook. Not as well as Auntie, of course, but I know my way around a kitchen enough to help."

"Is your friend Miki coming to the party?" Akane asked. "I think you mentioned something about that."

"Yes, she and her sisters are coming, and so is her boyfriend John. You'll like him, he's a nice guy and very smart." Nabiki smiled, watching her sister yawn as well, which set Shampoo off again. "Go to bed, both of you. You look exhausted."

Finishing her tea, Akane nodded, standing up and heading for the door. "I'll see you tomorrow, Shampoo," she mumbled as she left the room, everything catching up at once. The Amazon waved briefly then staggered to her feet.

"I'm going home," she said, yawning for the third time. Nabiki picked up her bag and handed it to her. "Thanks, Nabiki." Heading to the front door the tired lilac-haired woman left the Tendo residence on her way home. Nodoka and Nabiki watched her go, then exchanged amused glances, before going back into the kitchen.

Harrison, who was just in the process of putting on his coat, turned when a voice from behind urgently said, "Lieutenant?" He looked at the officer who was standing there glancing nervously around. "We have a problem in holding."

"What sort of problem?" he asked suspiciously.

"You need to see it," the officer replied, sighing. Putting his coat back over his chair Harrison followed his colleague out of the office and down the stairs, finding the cell area had several more people in it than he expected. A growing feeling of worry was working its way through his gut. Opening the last door to the high security area, the officer led him to a series of cells at the end. Harrison looked in, then froze, before swearing under his breath.

"How the hell did this happen?" he growled.

"We don't know," the officer replied. "We're checking the CCTV recordings but there's nothing so far out of place. No one came in who shouldn't have, no one left who shouldn't have."

"Just these two?" Harrison asked.

"And Soria." Harrison watched as the station medic checked the two bodies, the men that had played at being soldiers in the truck, in the adjacent cells, then looked up.

"They've been dead about two hours," he reported. "As far as I can see it's probably some sort of poison. We'll need to run a toxicological study to be sure and to identify it."

"How was it administered?" Harrison sighed.

"No idea at this point. I can't see any puncture marks, so it probably wasn't injected, it might have been given orally, but..." The medic shrugged. "There are a number of possibilities and it's not my field of expertise."

"Fair enough." Harrison looked into the other cells, which were empty. "How the fuck did they pull this off?" he wondered out loud.

"I have no idea," the officer beside him replied with resignation in his voice. "We're fingerprinting everything, looking for any evidence, but so far all we have is a broken light bulb or something like that."

Harrison froze again, then slowly turned to look at the officer. "A broken bulb?" he asked slowly. The officer nodded. "Let me see it," he demanded. Leading him to the holding office the officer picked a transparent evidence bag off a desk and handed it to him. Harrison held it up to the light, fingering the shards of glass or crystal that had clearly formed a spherical shape at some point, then groaned.

"You're going to find a diagram of some sort drawn in there," he told the man. "Check very carefully, use UV light, anything you can think of. Take photos and DO NOT mess it up if it's still intact, got it?" The officer nodded, looking puzzled.

"Got it, Lieutenant."

"I need to talk to the Captain," Harrison mumbled, heading out of the office with the bag still in his hand. The other cop watched him go then went to do as instructed.