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[IC][Arc 1] Halloween in Another World
[IC][Arc 1] Halloween in Another World
#1
Star 
Chapter 1. The Invitation

Prescott, Ontario
October 16, 2016
4:44 pm Eastern


Rob Donaldson tapped the speakerphone button on his cellphone. "Hi Ben! What's up?"

Ben Rhodes' voice filled the parked van. "I've got some big news. We're having a Halloween party in San Antonio."

"Sounds like fun. Why is that big news?"

"Because we're inviting everybody else. Want to come? All of you?"

"We'll need transportation. There's a little matter of it being a school night, and not everybody has a passport yet."

"I've sweet-talked Washuu-chan into setting up some portals."

"Like she did earlier today? In that case, call me Chell."

"But we weren't planning on serving cake."

They both laughed, then Rob thought for a moment. "This isn't going to be a Buffy Halloween party, is it?"

"Oh, I hope not."

After a moment, Rob replied, "Okay, I'll tell the girls about the party, and I expect we'll all be there. But I'm still going to show that episode to the girls before they choose their costumes."



Venice Beach, California
October 16, 2016
1:55 pm Pacific


Ben wasn't expecting the sweet voice who answered, "Brent's phone, Alicia speaking."

"Oh, um, hello. You must be Alicia Florence, right?"

"Right." She glanced at the name on the phone. "Do I know you, Ben?"

"I'm Ben Rhodes, manager of the Westwoods Apartments in San Antonio – same job as Brent."

"Ara, of course!"

"Can I speak to Brent?"

"Well, he's a little bit buried in sand at the moment – let me see if I can get the phone down to him."

Ben explained, "Well, I just wanted to invite you all to a Halloween party here in San Antonio."

"Oh, that sounds lovely. We're having a little party of our own right now, but it would be nice to meet you all. Ara, it looks like he's getting out of the hole."

Tomo's yell made it across the phone line, "IT'S A SAND MONSTER, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!"

Alicia spoke, "Hold on just a minute, please."

A few seconds later, Brent Laabs was on the line. "Hey Ben, what's up?"

"I was just about to ask you if you bring everyone to a Halloween party here in San Antonio. You know, let our tenants get to meet other people like themselves."

"Sounds good, let me ask. Hey everyone, you wanna go to a costume party in two weeks deep in the heart of Texas?"

A few cheers were picked up on the phone's mic.

"Sounds like we're coming."

Ben spoke, "Great, I'll see you there. Washuu's setting up the transportation, I'll email you the details."

"I do have one question though: It's not going to be a Buffy Halloween, is it?"

Ben groused, "Why does everyone ask me that question?"



Ben proceeded to call the other apartment managers – James Bostwick in Pensacola, Terry Chambly in Montreal, and Meg Deckard in Dublin – inviting each of them to the grand celebration for All Hallow's Eve. He reassured each of them, in turn, that it was there would be no Buffy-like shenanigans at the party, which comforted the trope-savvy human managers but puzzled the sexaroid for a moment.

Everyone agreed to organize their residents to attend. While almost everyone was fairly enthusiastic about attending (and meeting other people in the same situation as themselves), a few people saw fit to decline their RSVPs. The first was Accelerator, who simply couldn't be bothered to attend. Touya Kinomoto more regretfully declined to attend, as he had part time work scheduled, bearing silver platters of hors d'oeuvres at a fancy Hollywood party. Yukito Tsukishiro decided to stay behind and hand out candy at Aria House, though pretty much everyone knew that it was just an excuse to get more time alone with Touya.

And at Aria House, Tomoyo Daidouji's sewing machine was worked so hard by its owner making costumes that she nearly worked it to destruction.



San Antonio, Texas, USA
October 30, 2016


When Benjamin runs errands, he does not do things by halves. He is a stone-cold killer when he has a list of objectives and a lot of driving to do.

Of course, with San Antonio being such a sprawling city, you had to be smart about how you run your errands. That was why he already had an itinerary completely plotted out, with each stop allotted in the calendar app in his iPhone, addresses included, so all he had to do was hit the link to navigate to the next "appointment".

And the day before the party, there was a great deal to accomplish.

Food to be purchased. Supplies. Booze. So much booze. Beautiful booze. You're gonna love this booze. Benjamin actually had to make several stops just to get it all, loading up Scrappy's cargo bed with multiple kegs and a great many cases. The orders had all been placed and paid for in advance – Ben only needed to pick it all up.

He left nothing to chance. He wrapped everything in moving pads he picked up at the nearby U-Haul to insulate them, keeping the precious booze cold even as the unrelenting Texas sun turned the cargo bed, covered by the faded-silver camper shell, into an oven.

He went back right away, storing everything in the coolers in the wet bar that had been set up in one of the 3-Bedroom units – of which there were only two, so Ben kept them in reserve for when they really needed it.

Sasami, Noike, Tenchi, Kaname, and even (surprise!) Sousuke had been busy preparing treats, snacks, and entrees for the buffet line. Benjamin remembered a fun trick from a Halloween party from years past. Grape juice in a clean latex glove, tied off and left in the freezer. This, along with a few pucks of dry ice, were left in the punch bowl.

Meanwhile, everyone else helped with the decorations. Sousuke Sagara got called from the kitchen to help Mao, Kurt, and Ryoko put up the sun screens that would provide much-needed shade. Several fans were also set up – no misters though. This was not California. This was Subtropical Texas. Misters did little to abate the humid heat. But the sun screens would be enough – cutting out the worst of the glaring sun’s heat while the fans provided convection cooling.

Even with that, Benjamin had set aside several units for activities in air conditioned environments. One he set up as a theater that would show Halloween-appropriate films. Labyrinth and Spirited Away early on for the younger ones. The Lost Boys and Army of Darkness later for the older crowd.

Another unit he set aside as a sort of "Chill Room". The two bedrooms had several board games and party games for a more low-key and introverted kind of fun. The living room had several comfy couches, coffee tables with interesting picture books, and low-key music playing. The kitchen held a variety of refreshments – most of the non-alcoholic drinks were here.

Outdoor activities had been planned as well. Boccie ball, badminton, and volleyball – with the last two sharing the same space. There was also a jumbo-sized Jenga tower made from two-by-fours. A stage had been set up for 33 Stars to play on. There was also a podium set aside so someone could DJ when the band wasn’t playing.

Indeed, the residents of the Westwoods Apartments had been very busy in the last day, though some preparations had been going on for much longer.

It had taken Ben only a phone call to his mother, and she gladly imparted to him the secret Farmer Family Barbecue Sauce Recipe. This he prepared quietly in his own kitchen en masse two weeks before the party. And then he prepared the meat and tofu (yes, barbecued tofu is a thing!) to marinate. Briskets, pork loins, pork ribs, chicken – wings, legs, and even whole chickens, all marinating in the bright-red sauce for a week.

He requested advice from his uncle – the man who, right after his dearly departed grandfather, had been up to his elbows in making this very same sort of barbecue for the family's eating and drinking establishment. Several large smokers were rented out, and Ben had gone to the old Farmer family homestead for the secret weapon – fallen branches from the many pecan trees on the family plot, carefully kept dry, but not too dry.

A little known secret where the laymen default to mesquite, the pecan wood imparted a smoother, richer, and more buttery flavor that was reminiscent of the delicious nuts they provided. Benjamin made sure he was on his preferred 4am-to-noon sleep cycle in order to be up through the night, tending to the smokers, only going to bed in the early morning once Noike Kamiki-Jyurai came to relieve him.

Everything had a set amount of time they had to spend in the smokers. The briskets went in first. Being a very tough cut of meat, they required a bare minimum of eight hours until they tenderized. Longer was better – the more time they spent in the smokers, the closer they got to that much sought-after melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

The pulled pork and pork ribs needed less time, the fatty meat already having everything it needed to turn into a juicy and tender mass of meat. And then the chicken – four hours being plenty of time to get to the point where the meat simply slid off the bones. The tofu needed the least amount of time, spending only a scant two hours in the smoker, but it would be no-less delicious for that. The Vegetarians would not be disappointed.

He'd brought Sasami along because she'd expressed an interest in learning how to smoke meat properly. That was the only reason she was outside and looking in the right direction when two people walked past the apartment. "Rodesu-san... are they who I think they are?" She gestured where only he could see.

Ben looked at them. The first thing he noticed was the green jacket. Is he a Lupin wannabe – or maybe Lupin himself? No, he has the wrong hairdo. Paying closer attention, he realized both people were Asian, and looked to be related to each other. The male was older than the female, so Ben guessed they were brother-sister or possibly father-daughter. He was tall for an Asian. She had pink hair, and Ben wondered what sort of parents would let somebody that young dye her hair that color. The he noticed the cats that were with them – one black, one white, on either side of a gray kitten. The pieces quickly fell into place. "They might be. Do you have Rob Donaldson's phone number?"

"I didn't bring my phone. And it would look suspicious if I go get it. It looks like they're thinking of coming in," commented Sasami. She was right – after a moment of conversation among themselves, they turned and walked into the courtyard, headed for Ben and Sasami.

Or, at least, the man walked in. The girl took three steps in, looked at Sasami, and stopped in obvious surprise. Then she asked, loudly enough for Ben and Sasami to hear, "Is that girl who I think she is?"

"So many strange things have happened lately that another one wouldn't surprise me at all," the man said to the girl. Then he turned to Ben and Sasami. "Please forgive us for entering unannounced. We're looking for whoever here would be able to rent us a place to live."

"That would be me. Benjamin Rhodes, but my friends call me Ben."

"Mamoru Chiba. Pleased to meet you. This is my daughter."

Sasami grinned. "Yep, they're who I thought they were! And your cats are named Artemis, Luna, and Diana, right?" Before they could respond, she bowed slightly and continued. "I'm Sasami Masaki Jurai. Pleased to meet you."

The girl looked up at Mamoru. "I never thought I'd meet an anime character in the flesh." Then she turned to Sasami. "But how did you know our cats' names?"

"Usa, it's called 'cosplay'."

"Well..." Ben grinned to lighten the mood. "Usually it is, but not this time. Sasami really is from Tenchi Muyo, and I'm one of a group of people whose job it is to help people who've been dropped into this universe – at least to the extent of maintaining places for you to stay. And as for how we know who you are –" May as well dump everything on them all at once, he figured. "– Usagi, Ami, Rei, Makoto, and Minako asked us to keep an eye out for you."

"They're here?" asked all five visitors in excitement – immediately followed by the cats putting their paws over their mouths in the same "I shouldn't have said that" maneuver.

Sasami answered before Ben could. "No, but they'll be visiting us tomorrow."



Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
October 31st, 2016
7:10 am Eastern


Usagi Tsukino was getting tired of her history homework. She'd fallen asleep at her desk last night and slept on it, literally.

When was she going to need to know Canadian history? She was going to become Neo-Queen Serenity and rule the world ... and it might be a good idea to know something about the people she was going to lead, so yeah.

Assuming that she was going to become Neo-Queen Serenity on this Earth. She wasn't in her home universe any more, and it didn't look like she was going home any time soon. "Maybe one month" had already stretched into two.

She missed Mamoru. And her family. And Mamo-chan. And Luna and Artemis. And Mamo-chan.

Usagi sighed deeply, then got up and changed her clothes so she'd be presentable for breakfast. Being sad was not a good enough excuse for missing breakfast. Besides, she had friends here – some from back home, some from another world altogether, and some from this world – and it wouldn't be polite to make them worry about her.

Then she noticed the parcel on her bed – a parcel that hadn't been there the previous evening, she was sure. Had Kuroko teleported it into her room? She left it alone, intending to mention it during breakfast.



Los Angeles, California, USA
October 31st, 2016
6:45 am Pacific


Tomoyo quickly washed her face, then put the towel back on the rack. She didn't have time to get breakfast, though – Sakura's costume wasn't finished yet, and they were leaving for San Antonio right after school. She needed to work as hard as she ever had just to finish the work that she needed to do.

She absolutely refused to let Sakura Kinomoto appear in front of the other displacees looking anything short of her best. Her own costume... was good enough, even if it could use some work. And she had finished Shaoran and Akari's costumes last night. But what was she going to do about Mira's costume? The full effect would be lost if they weren't all costumed according to the theme they had chosen.

Her television switched itself on. "Hello, Daidouji-chan!" Surprised, she gave it her full attention, to see Urd looking out at her, the Yggdrasil system vaguely visible behind her. "Belldandy says you're working yourself to exhaustion. Don't worry about Mira's costume – just leave the TV switched on to this channel when Sakura-chan summons her."

"Oh, of course! Thank you, megami-sama!"

"You're a good girl. Don't hurt yourself over something that we can help you with. And you're welcome."



San Antonio, Texas, USA
October 31st, 2016
10:00 am Central

When Benjamin woke up at 10am, he chugged two Red Bulls and made sure that everything was good to go. The residents were all eager – the leftover energy from putting this all together turning into a pleasant anxiousness as they anticipated the festivities. A quick sampling of the barbecue gave him food in his stomach and a means to inspect the goods.

Everything was ready. All they had left to do was to get into costume.



Pensacola, Florida, USA
October 31st, 2016
3:34 pm Central


Jayne Cobb gave Kensuke Aida a good look. Everybody at Gulfside Rest had decided to dress up as somebody from the other group of displacees... except for James, who wasn't a displacee, and Rei, who had found out about the whole "Rei Ayanami expy" thing. So, if the kid was going to be dressed as him, the kid had better look the part.

"Jayne, are you sure it's supposed to ride like this?"

"Yeah, it's supposed to 'ride like this'. Don't be a wuss. Live with it." He reached over and grabbed the hat Kensuke was wearing, pulling it off his head and handing it to him. "And you have to wear this right. Not so far back on your head." Then he took a look at himself in the mirror – if the kid was going to go dressed like him, he might as well go dressed like the kid, he figured. "Huh, I almost look wholesome like this."



Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
October 31st, 2016
4:46 pm Eastern


"It's ... gorgeous." Usagi held the dress up and looked at herself in the mirror. "And it's my size, too! Who left it here?"

"You can't fight in it, though," Makoto complained. "Look at the size of those shoulders, and how wide the skirt is."

"It's a ballgown," Rei pointed out. "It's supposed to be elegant."

"And impractical."

"I don't care," Usagi declared. "I'm wearing this to tonight's party. If we have to fight at a party, then something's gone terribly wrong. I wonder who I'm supposed to be, though?"

Makoto held up a card. "This says it's a dance gown worn by somebody named Sarah in a movie that I haven't seen."

"Oh. Will you help me with it, please?"

Makoto Kino and Rei Hino did so, sharing a private smile where Usagi couldn't see it. Once they had finished helping Usagi into her dress, they headed off to get into their own costumes.



"You look good in a suit. But why the sunglasses?"

Rob smiled. "I am this building's first, last, and only line of defense against aliens."

"Whatever you say, Agent R."

"You're wearing that?"

Mii smiled back at Rob. "I thought you might like it."

"You thought I might like it." Rob carefully avoided showing his true feelings about that statement. After all, they'd both signed a consent form saying he was her guardian.

"Do you?"

"You certainly have the build for it. You know you're going to draw the eye of every heterosexual male at the party, right? Although I expect some people are going to complain somebody dressed like that shouldn't be wearing glasses."

"Just call me Gloria."

"Oh, so you do know at least that much of the history. Just take a coat along; it wouldn't be good if you caught cold."

As Rob walked over to one of the other groups of girls, Mii Konori wondered whether he was noticing her at all, that way. If her wearing a Playboy Bunny outfit didn't get a compliment from him, what would?



"I feel ridiculous." Mikoto Misaka tried pushing her skirt down. Again.

"The skirt isn't any shorter than our school uniform skirt, onee-sama."

"But I'm not wearing shorts under it."

"I've always thought that you shouldn't be wearing shorts under your skirt."

Just then, Makoto walked into the room. "Oh, there you are! You look good in my Senshi uniform, Mikoto."

"Aren't you a little old to be a Tokiwadai student, Makoto?"

Not for the first time, Kuroko Shirai wondered what had possessed the two electrokinetics to attend the party dressed as each other... and, for that matter, why people were bothering with costumes at all. They'd just been dumped into this universe a month ago, after all – what they usually wore back home should be costume enough.



Rei Hino stepped out of the shower, carefully pat-drying her hair so that the hair colour wouldn't come out. It may have been an "internet special", but it was a good off-the-rack costume. A few minutes later, once she was in the short-skirt-and-blouse-and-jacket-and-very-long-boots outfit and her temporarily-dyed hair was in twin tails (and she'd checked in the mirror that the twin-tails were symmetrical), Rei noticed that Kazari Uiharu had done a more thorough job than she expected – the wireless headset she was about to put on had the heft of having actual electronics in it.

And Rei had found the sheet music for "Ten Thousand Stars", which she had practiced over lunch at school for the last week. She was confident she would get it right this evening.



Los Angeles, California, USA
October 31st, 2016
1:46 pm Pacific


Mira quietly thanked Brent – being in her "The Mirror" card form, she couldn't actually say it – for suggesting that she read that particular Discworld novel, turned her awareness inward, and started looking through the mirrors that were her namesake. She saw flashes of activity – Rei Hino pad-drying her hair, Rei Ayanami putting on a sweater, Ben Rhodes tuning his guitar, Rin Tohsaka carefully closing the clasp of a jeweled bracelet, Makoto Kino walking in on Mikoto Misaka with each wearing the other's uniform, Last Order moping, Akari Mizunashi carefully smoothing a wrinkle out of her leggings, Shinji Ikari putting on an aloha shirt, ... ah, there she was!

"Take a good look!" Of course Urd knew that Mira was looking at her, even without turning her attention away from her work at Yggdrasil. "I told Daidouji-san that I'd help with your costume."

Thank you, thought Mira.

"You're welcome."



San Antonio, Texas, USA
October 31st, 2016
4:14 pm Central


Some people like to say that Ben is about as subtle as a runaway freight train. As Ben would say, though, "They don't know me vewy well, doo theeeyyy?"

When Mamoru donned his Jareth costume (the counterpart to the costume that Washuu-chan had teleported to Ottawa earlier) in preparation of the day's festivities, he noticed that there was a set of keys in the rather snug fitting trousers. Mamoru was no fool. He knew there had to be a very specific reason for this, and wisely chose not to call any kind of attention to it until he could talk to Ben in private.

It wasn't until a bit later when everyone else was occupied with the festivities getting underway that Mamoru could talk to Ben alone.

"Mr. Rhodes?"

"Please, just Ben. Or Benjamin if you feel you gotta be a bit more formal."

"Yes, thank you Benjamin. Do you know if anyone is missing a set of keys?"

Ben smiled a small, knowing grin. "That's for unit number 122. It's an unoccupied single bedroom unit in Japanese style with a very plush futon in the bedroom. You will find condoms under the pillows – the good shit, mind, not the cheapo stuff. There's also a minifridge with a variety of teas, ramune, and even a few energy drinks because I know you're gonna need a pick-me-up afterwards. And, just in case, there's a single day after pill with the condoms – strictly for emergencies only because chances are good that it will give her the period from Hell. And Rob will get curious about why and how she's suddenly sick."

Mamoru was taken aback. Not only by the utter completeness of what Ben was offering to him, and by extension through him, to Usagi as well. But also because of how utterly and completely nonchalant Ben was being about the whole matter.

"... Not that I don't appreciate what you're trying to do here... but why?"

Ben shrugged as though this was an everyday thing for him. "Because I'm not a fan of laws that dictate what kind of lifestyle other people think everyone else should be living. I can understand the intent, but there are quite a few times that I take Malcolm Reynolds' view on these matters: I aim to misbehave. Also, just because my love life is like trying to find water in the middle of the Sahara doesn't mean I wish that on anyone else. Go. Be happy. Make her happy."

"... The world needs more people like you, Ben."

Ben shook his head. "No. If there were more people like me, then it would mean that the world is a much worse place than it is now." Mamoru gave Ben a surprised look. "I somehow survived childhood emotional abuse from my stepfather, and all with me having a laundry list of undiagnosed learning disabilities and a bona fide sleep disorder. If you want to know more, I'll talk to you about it later. Unlike some, I like to make damn sure that people know what it is that's eating me alive. Anyhow, FYI: the walls are very soundproof. Belldandy and Skuld made sure of that. Give me five minutes and you'll have a distraction that will let you go unnoticed. So for the last time, git goin'!"

Mamoru didn't quite know what to say to that little speech; most people don't confess such intimate details of their life when you meet them. So he just decided to take Ben's advice and git. "Thank you for your kindness. Now, I shall bid you adieu."



Dublin, Ireland
October 31st, 2016
11:01 pm Western European Time

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
October 31st, 2016
6:01 pm Eastern

Montreal, Quebec, Canada
October 31st, 2016
6:01 pm Eastern

Pensacola, Florida, USA
October 31st, 2016
5:01 pm Central

Los Angeles, California, USA
October 31st, 2016
3:01 pm Pacific

Washuu Hakubi, the universe's self-proclaimed greatest scientific mind – who, at the moment, looked like she was ready to sing about the Good Ship Lollipop – pushed a button on her screen, and portals simultaneously appeared at all of the displacees' apartments.




Halloween in Another World
or
A Mingling of Misplaced Souls

by
Benjamin Rhodes
Rob Kelk
Brent Laabs

with
James Bostwick
Dartz





San Antonio, Texas, USA
October 31st, 2016
5:03 pm Central

People from five different cities stepped out into Westwood's courtyard, filtering in to make a small crowd. After a couple of minutes, one white van with blue stripes drove through the portal as well.

A man who looked like he was in charge said, "I'm guessing that you're Brent?" Turning to the group from Montreal, he added, "And I take it you're Terry." He then turned to the man walking over from the Florida portal and finished, "And you're James."

One nodded, one replied, "Oui," and the other said, "Yep."

"Ben Rhodes. Nice to finally meet you in person."

The four men shook hands in turn. James Bostwick, from the Florida group, asked, "So how is life treating you?"

Ben sighted theatrically. "Oh, you know how it goes, a broken faucet here, a minor explosion there."

Terry Chambly, Montreal's representative in the group, turned to Brent Laabs from the L.A. group. "What's with the van? Did you get Autobots at your building?"

"Heh, no. The idea is that the Aria Company has about a week before their gondolas arrive and they start their business, so they wanted to take the long way back and do a little tourism of the Southwest."

"Free travel, cool." Ben took a quick look at the group from Ottawa, seeing only girls and young women. "Where's Rob?"

"He stayed behind to hand out the treats. He'll be along when they run out. I'm Mii Konori; pleased to meet you."

"Ben Rhodes." They shook hands.

Then everyone stared at him a minute (except for Jayne Cobb in the Penscacola group, who was more interested in Mii), until Brent finally said, "So, what's the plan?"

"Oh, right." Ben announced to the crowd that was milling around the courtyard, "Welcome to San Antonio, everyone! We have cold drinks and a few snacks out now, and we'll start up the barbeques later." He pointed to a couple rooms, "Over there, we'll have a haunted house, and that's just an open room if you want to chill indoors. But for now, please, everyone, come under the canopy and meet my long-term guests. Oh, and if you need your room now so you can get changed into your costume, talk to Noike."

A tall woman with sea-green hair waved to the crowd, "Hi!"

"And if you think you need some shade but you don't want to go inside, there's always the gazebo," Ben finished.

"A gazebo? Where??" Tomo Takino pulled a wooden sword from the bag she had brought with her and started waving it around. "Have at you, foul fiend!"

"Idiot." Yomi Mizuhara grabbed Tomo's bag with one hand and rapped Tomo on the head from behind with the other.

"But somebody has to defend everybody from the dreaded gazebo!"

"Do you even know what a gazebo is?"

Once under the gazebo and out of the sun, the guests from Ottawa looked around to see more than a few colorfully-costumed people. Usagi smiled politely. "Oh, I love that 'Alice' costume!" she said to the green-haired girl in the L.A. group. Turning to look at who else was at the party, she continued, "And your pirate costume is great, Rhodes-san. You look lovely, Ayanami-san, so much like Nagato-san. And – MAMO-CHAN!!!"

As Usagi raced over to Mamoru, Ben chuckled and Minako turned to Ami. "Okay, who had 'As soon as she saw him' in the pool?"

Ami pulled out the Mercury Computer. "All four of us, Ruiko-san, Tomoyo-chan, Tomo-san, Sakaki-san, –"

"Really?"

"I suppose she's a romantic at heart. Chiyo-chan, Sasami-chan, Mihoshi-san, Noike-san, Kaname-san, Chihiro-san, and of course Washuu-chan. Oh, and Rob-san."

"So we get favors from everybody else?" Minako grinned. "I know what I want from Tenchi-san ..." Ayeka and Ryoko both glared at Minako. "... but I think I'll think of something else instead," she finished hurriedly.

"Tenchi-san didn't play."

"Oh. I guess that's a good thing."

Yomi grumbled, "The one time he doesn't make a dramatic entrance, and it had to be today."

Minako Aino plucked up Artemis into her arms and gave him a big hug. "There you are, you tomcat you! I missed you. What have you been up to all this time?"

"All this time? It's only been a day for me."

"So that's your excuse, huh?" She relented, "Oh well, that Setsuna-san, never around to explain when you want her, right?"

Kazari Uiharu quickly made her way from the Ottawa group to the Montreal group. "It's good to see you again, Rin-san," she said loudly to Rin Tohsaka with a smile that rivaled Akari Mizunashi's best. That broke the ice; the displacees started mingling.

Except for two of the youngest visitors from L.A., who were standing still, rapt in wonder. "Hooeeeeeeeee..."

"I know what you mean," Shaoran Li said to Sakura Kinomoto while they both looked at... no, stared at Usagi.

"She has such happy eyes," added Sakura dreamily.

Ben wondered why Sakura said that. It was an echo of a line that had caught his attention in a different anime, but with a decidedly different emotion. After a brief moment, he thought it had to be a coincidence... but then he remembered what Sakura's closest family and friends thought of that idea. Maybe one of the megami was trying to tell him something through this girl.

"Is that Sailor Jupiter? Oh my God!" Kaorin came to a sudden stop behind Sakura and Shaoran, which caused Osaka to bump right into her.

Osaka emoted, "Oopsie."

In fact, all of the Inner Senshi were in the crowd. The rest of the California group walked forward to meet everyone else, but Kaorin remained a wallflower to the extent that you could almost see her roots growing into to the wall supporting the L.A. spacewarp.

Tomoyo went up to Kaori and started in a secret conversation; the only audible part was the point where Kaori declared, "No, it's too much!"

Brent was star-struck by the lunar guardian, too. He'd quickly gotten over the idea of meeting fictional characters, but meeting one who was a bona fide messiah was a different idea entirely. But he'd somehow made it through meeting Belldandy in one piece.

Usagi had already noticed that she was the centre of attention and had (reluctantly) let go of Mamoru, so he went up and offered his greetings anyway. "Nice to meet you. I'm Brent Laabs, manager of the apartments in Venice Beach."

"Hi, I'm Usaki Tsukino, age 16, tenth grade. Nice to meet you too," the odangoed one returned. It was the exact same speech she gave at the beginning of the first season of Sailor Moon, plus a couple years. She omitted the "I'm a clumsy crybaby" part, which was probably an improvement.

"So uh, nice moon you got up there. Very useful at night," Brent said, moonily.

Minako raised an eyebrow, but Usagi laughed graciously anyway. "It's still hard to get used to everyone knowing my secret identity."

"Yeah. Try to live like a normal person for as long as possible. It's what Serenity would have wanted."

Behind him, Tomoyo approached; Kaorin's hand was in her grasp, the child pulling the shy adult along with her.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Tsukino-dono. I humbly introduce myself, Tomoyo Daidouji. If it pleases you, may I introduce my honored friend Kaori Aida." Tomoyo proved it was possible to speak keigo in English.

Kaorin blurted, "H-h-h-hello M-miss Tsukino."

"A pleasure to meet you both. But my friends can call me Usagi."

"Friends?" Kaorin looked like steam was about to come out her ears.

"Please, feel free to call me Tomoyo." She and Usagi made polite conversation over the next two minutes, discussing popular topics like the weather and travel.

Kaorin finally piped up, "Um, um... Are Haruka and Michiru here? I want to meet them." Tomoyo's face lit up a little, while Usagi's grew a little sadder.

"Sorry, we don't know where they are right now. We're trying to find them, if they made it to this world."

"Oh, well. If you see them, tell them that they mean a lot to me. Michiru is so beautiful and graceful, and Haruka – Haruka is just the coolest!"

Off to the side, Yomi noted, "Sounds like you have competition, Sakaki-san."

Sakaki opened her mouth, but didn't know what to say.

Kaorin filled the gap in the conversation, babbling, "Uh no, I mean, it's just a figure of speech!"

"I'll be sure to tell them, Kaori," Usagi said.

Tomo took this opportunity to push her way to the center of attention with her usual aplomb. Yomi mumbled, "Oh, here we go again."

"Yo, I'm Tomo Takino. Nice to meetcha, Usagi-chan!"

"It's nice to meet you, too, Tomo-chan. And thank you for defending us from the gazebo."

"So I hear that you're going to be a queen in the future, right?"

"Maybe, but I'm not really worried about that now. I'm just trying to get through Canadian History right now!" Usagi laughed.

With a grand gesture, Tomo went down on one knee. "Neo Queen Serenity, I hereby pledge fealty to you as my sovereign from this day forward, and swear to work towards love and justice. Also, can you make me a daimyou? A duchess would be fine, too."

This earned Tomo a quick karate chop to the head from Yomi which set Benjamin off on a high, wicked cackle.

"Nice form," Jayne commented. "But too weak in the delivery."

"I believe that's the ancient Japanese practice of tsukkomi," Shepherd Book replied.

"Who are you calling ancient?" Hikari Horaki and Ruiko Saten asked indignantly. Then they looked at each other... and giggled.

"Actually, aren't we technically the daimyou in the future?" Ami asked, rhetorically. "I don't think she's another Sailor Senshi, but I've been wrong before."

Tomo withdrew an elaborate pink pen with wings from her pocket and raised it above her her head. Posing dramatically, she yelled, "Eris Power MAKE UP!"

Everyone stood silent for ten seconds (except for Ben – had he been drinking anything just then, that would have been a spit-take), and nothing proceeded to happen.

"Meh, guess not."

At which point the entire group under the large white canopy broke out laughing.

"Did that just happen?" asked Ruiko.

Brent confessed, "I'm actually disappointed that didn't work."

Ryoko materialized right behind him. "I bet you're disappointed. A transformation can be so ... revealing."

As Tomo realized what Ryoko meant, and oh-so-slightly blushed, Usagi decided her answer. "I'm sorry, I don't think we can do that. We don't even have a country, we're just high school girls."

"Awwww," Tomo whined.

Comments continued to circulate throughout the room. "Eris is the tenth planet in the system", Washuu explained. "Most humans don't even know how many planets they have in their home system."

"Oh, I see!" said Chiyo Mihama. "It's a planet named after the goddess of chaos and discord, then."

Tomo pressed her case with Rei Hino, "Can I just be like Earl of the Sacra Mensa, then? I'll be like totally helpful to you."

"May I ask why?" Rei pressed back.

"Mainly, I want these Martians to call me Tomo-dono!"

"Not happening."

"Aw c'mon, Rei-chan!" Venus teased. "Sounds like fun to me."

"Noble titles are prohibited!" concluded Aika Granzchesta.

"Too late. We already have Actual Princesses here," snarked Ben with a sharp, sidelong grin, to Aika.


Chapter 2. Trick-or-Treating

After the night was over, all of the various encounters felt like fate. But in fact, it all began with a simple question, when Brent asked Chibi-Usa, "What are you going to wear for trick-or-treating?"

The pink-haired small lady was perplexed. "What's tricker treaty?"

"It's when you walk around to all of the houses in the neighborhood to get a bunch of some candy."

Chiyo clarified, "It's an American custom where kids go from house to house in costume on Halloween night. They say 'Trick or treat' to ask for candy, like an oni demanding tribute. I've always wanted to try it; it sounds like a lot of fun."

Kagura started thinking about oni holidays. "Not if they throw beans at you!"

"That's Setsubun — not Halloween," Yomi corrected.

Brent reassured, "It's just candy here. Really."

Osaka looked worried. "Won't that hurt if they throw konpeito at me?"

"No, no. That's why it's soft candy, like marshmallows." Osaka relaxed after hearing Brent's "explanation."

Tomo said, "Going to houses demanding candy? Let's do this!"

"It's kinda for kids, Tomo."

Yomi said, "Don't worry, she's often confused for a child." Tomo's half-lidded eyes darted over to Yomi. "You know what, let's go. Someone needs to watch the kids, and make sure they get in the correct amount of trouble. You want to come with us, Chibi-Usa?"

"Yeah!"

Brent noted, "Well, make sure you ask your um... ask Tsukino-san and Chiba-san first."

"Okay!" She ran across the courtyard to talk to the younger versions of her parents. "Mamo-chan, Usagi-chan, can I go tricker treating with Chiyo-chan and get some candy?"

"Well," Mamoru began, and shared a meaningful glance with the older Usagi.

Minako Aino interjected, "Trick-or-treating sounds lovely! I haven't done it in years, since I was in England. May I come along?"

"Sure!" Chibi-Usa said.

"Okay, have fun," Mamoru assented.

Minako winked, "Same for you."

Meanwhile, Tomo and Yomi went around asking all of the people who had already arrived in San Antonio if they wanted to join a group for pre-party trick-or-treating.

Yomi had to explain the concept of trick-or-treating to the younger undines, who weren't really familiar with it. The holiday had never really made its way to Aqua along with the Italians and Japanese who built Neo Venezia. After she finished, she offered, "So, want to come along?"

"That sounds like something for little kids," Alice Carroll balked. "Pass."

On the other hand, Akari Mizunashi was immediately and predictably enthralled. "Really? It sounds amazing to me! Goblins and ghosts and all sorts of costumes, like a children's Carnevale!"

Aika said, "We won't get a chance to experience this as children again. I'll come with you, Akari."

Akari stared at Alice with expectation. Aika stared at Alice with amusement. "I guess I can keep you two company," Alice conceded.

By the time they had invited everyone interested, the sky had already darkened to the point that you could make out Minako's demesne in the western sky if you squinted. They climbed up the balcony to their assigned room for the night, where Tomoyo was already waiting for them, bearing a folded travel bag for dress clothing. "Ah good, you're here!"

Yomi unlocked the door, and Tomoyo unzipped the luggage atop the apartment's bed. She held two hangers up above her head, saying, "It's not much, but I hope you like them."

"Wow, these are the costumes?" Tomo's eyes were set on 'extra-wide'. "Super-cool!"

Yomi said, "Does mine have to be so frilly?"

"Of course," Tomoyo said.

"Come on, try it on! You'll look like a proper Rose Bride in no time." Tomo continued on to her own gear, "I've always wanted a real bokken!" She lifted the wooden sword by the handle and ran her hand down the white oak.

"Why? So you could use it to defend us from rampaging gazebos?" Yomi asked, apparently rhetorically. Tomo, of course, started flailing it through the air. "Put that down before you hurt someone and get dressed already."

A few minutes later, Tomo emerged in her garment, a strange combination of a black school jacket edged in red, with large ruby epaulettes, a golden cord, and a layer of white flounce on the bottom. Below this were bright red bicycle shorts, red socks, and shiny black and white spectator shoes.

Yomi showed off her garment, a long crimson dress spread across the floor. She wore a matching waistcoat piped in white with celadon frills and its own set of golden ball epaulettes. It was sleeveless, but managed to include detached cuffs. Beneath her dress, she wore red flats – there was no need to make her prince for the night look even shorter.

In short, they looked like a pretty good image of the anime characters Utena Tenjou and Anthy Himemiya.

"Ah good, no need for adjustments." Tomoyo had every inch of Sakura's measurements memorized, but she wasn't quite so confident making clothes for others.

"Of course not, not from Daidouji-sensei!"

"I guess the diet is working, then." Yomi mumbled.

"I think you two look very cute together! Well, I had better hurry and don my own costume now. Luckily it's fairly simple. Please excuse me."

"I'll come help with the makeup when we're done," replied Yomi.

Tomo drew a bindi on Yomi's forehead using a red eyeliner pencil, and crowned her with a five-peaked gold-foil tiara, made from half of a Christmas cracker's paper hat.

"I still can't believe you convinced her to make these costumes for us. They're exquisite," Yomi declared, looking at her own reflection in the mirror. She turned around, and let the dress flow through the air. It made Koyomi feel pretty – an unusual, almost uncomfortable feeling for her. The feeling like she was only waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I don't know what I did. Usually when I ask people for free stuff, they don't just agree right away. She's weird."

Yomi concurred, "Yeah, weird."

By the time they got back downstairs, most everyone was ready, milling around the Westwoods parking lot in their costumes.

Tomo bluntly assessed, "Your neighborhood seems kinda poor. Anywhere rich out there we can get good candy?"

Ben, all dressed up in his pirate garb, couldn't object to that blunt assessment. "Well, it's a little bit far, but Olmos Park has some nice houses. And there's a few millionaires on Contour Drive..."

"Let's go!"

"Let's see, how many do we have?" He counted heads: Tomo Takino, Koyomi Mizuhara, Chiyo Mihama, Sailor Mercury, Sailor V, manager Brent Laabs, crazy River Tam, three younger undines, and one kitten who could share a seat. Then there were Sakura Kinomoto, her dad, her boyfriend, and her talking stuffed animal lookalike who (like the kitten) could share a seat.

"It will be a tight fit, but I think I can get everyone in the van."

Brent volunteered, "Why don't I just follow behind in the Aria van?"

"Well, if you really want to."

"We should save space to fit all the candy we're going to get," Yomi reasoned.

"Wait for me!" Chibi-Usa came running down the stairs, her pink hair flowing loose and a headband in her hand. "And can somebody help me with this, please?

"I'd be happy to help," Brent replied. "You look charming in red, Chiba-chan. Is that Hikaru's outfit?"

Chibi-Usa nodded once. "Uh-huh! From Angelic Layer, not Rayearth." The only ones not puzzled by her aside were Ben, Brent and Tomo. "I know I need some help when I fight, so I thought I'd dress up like somebody who always gets help when she fights."

"Okay everyone, be careful out there," Yomi instructed the assembly of trick-or-treaters. "We'll be meeting a lot of different people out there, so don't talk about yourself too much. The last thing we want is to be recognized from some TV show and have to answer a lot of questions."

Tomo countered, "Come on, no one would ever think that we look like anime characters here."

Yomi lifted her dress on each side, showing the white frills underneath. "Then why did you make me dress in this getup?"

"Have I ever steered you wrong on Halloween?"

"You took us to the Yamaguchi-gumi when we were ten!"

"Exactly!"

"They're yakuza, Tomo. Ya-ku-za!"

"And they have the best candy, too. I remember you wouldn't stop talking about the Belgian chocolate."

"Just promise me that you're not going to get us into trouble."

"Pinky swear!" Tomo held out her smallest finger, offering it in the ancient Japanese custom of yubikiri.

And then the Rose Bride karate chopped her prince on the head.

Brent reminded Yomi, "Elegance, Lady Anthy, elegance!"

"They sure are close friends, aren't they Sakura-chan?" Tomoyo opined.

"Un," she affirmed.

"Come on everybody! Let's get these shoes on the road!"

Yomi sighed at the malapropism. "Minako-san... you know what? Never mind."

As the crowd was marching out to the cars, Sakaki asked, "Where's everyone going?"

"Oh, we're just going trick-or-treating." Yomi clarified, "You know, kids knocking on doors, asking strangers for candy, showing off costumes."

"Ah," she said, stoically.

"We're just going along to keep track of the kids. So don't worry, you don't have to come along."

"Well..."

"Yomi! C'mon!!" Tomo hurried, leaning out the van's window.

"Coming!" Yomi rushed out to keep up with the rest of her party, which now numbered sixteen costumed revelers. The engines roared to life, and a pair of vans rolled out of the lot towards the interstate.

Left behind, Sakaki muttered, "But I..."

She sighed.

Sakaki moved aimlessly around the complex a bit, until she came across a tall blonde woman carrying a 20kg sack of carrots. One misstep later, and the tall blonde woman crashed into Sakaki, falling to the ground, carrots and all.

"Owies!" She picked herself off of Sakaki, in such a way that all of the carrots tumbled out of the bag and onto Sakaki's chest. "Oops, sorry!" She stood up, and pushed her mop of wavy blonde hair from her face. She was a skinny young woman with the longest legs, her mocha skin hugged by a sleeveless blouse and tight jeans. With a look like that, Sakaki thought she must be some kind of fashion model.

Sakaki pushed a few carrots back into the bag as she stood up, at just the right level for her own silver eyes to stare at the blue eyes, while she remained silent.

On the other hand, Mihoshi's high-pitched words just tumbled out, "Oh sorry, that sack is so heavy. Would you help me carry it? I need to feed Ryo-Ohki."

"Feed? Okay, sure." Sakaki gracefully hoisted the sack onto her back, and followed Mihoshi into the back yard of the apartment complex.

"Thanks so much. I was sure lucky to run into you, I mean, it wasn't, but I was. Oh hey Ryo-Ohki, dinner time!"

A small furry animal, ran forth, and chomped on the first long orange vegetable she could find.

Ryo-Ohki looked something like a small house cat, in size and build, furry and gray, with white paws. But on second glance, she looked something like a rabbit, with a short, bushy tail and oversized, if pointy ears. And then, there was the red gem set in her brow, probably her only feature reminiscent of an apapa. "What kind of animal are you?"

"Nya~"

"She's a cabbit. You know, part cat and rabbit."

Ryo-Ohki downed a carrot, and started begging for another one.

"I guess she's not a carnivore, then." Sakaki reached down to pet the cabbit.

"Well, no, but she's still dangerous."

And Sakaki's hand came to a stop. But it was no matter, as the cabbit jumped into her hand and nuzzled against her arms. "So cute!" she whispered while her cheeks blushed.

Sakaki fed yet another carrot to the critter. She realized she hadn't introduced herself all this time, "Ah! I'm Sakaki. Pleased to meet you." She bowed to the animal and again to the woman.

"Meow!"

"Nice to meet you, Sakaki-san. I'm Mihoshi Kuramitsu, at your service."

"Thank you for introducing me to this splendid creature, Kuramitsu-san."

"Call me Mihoshi. I have a really big family, and it all gets really confusing after a while," she understated.

"You know, when we met, didn't I look angry?"

"Did you? You didn't remind me that much of Ayeka-san. Or Ryoko-san. Oooor Noike-san. Were you angry?"

"No. Just surprised." Sakaki opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. No need to ruin it. She did have one question though, "How does she keep eating the carrots?"

"Oh, well, she's a spaceship, you know. Bigger on the inside."

In comparison to everything else that had happened in the past few weeks, it didn't seem too weird. Sakaki started thinking about cute furry animals traveling the stars, a reverie that was only stopped by some insistent begging. She offered up another carrot. "Here you are, Ryo-Ohki."

She purred, then chomped down the carrot as if it was a stick of Pocky.

"I'm studying to be a veterinarian. Can you tell me more about her anatomy?"

"Huh, where to start. Well, she's actually holding a whole spaceship wrapped in an 8th dimensional quantum loop. It works pretty good to hide her, that's why she was the galaxy's most feared pirate ship. And she has big floppy ears with a transdimensional gate to her sensor array. And cute little white feet, they're my favorite part."

"Mine too."

"Oh, yes, I definitely had to mention the feet in my Galaxy Police report. Her favorite food is carrots, which might explain why her phaser beams are orange. Or are they red?" Mihoshi continued on this way, omitting no details over the next half hour. But with Sakaki sated on knowledge and cuteness, and Ryo-Ohki sated on carrots, it was quite a happy way to pass the time.



Olmos Park, San Antonio
6:30 PM


Chiyo-chan declared, "These are some nice houses," as she ran up the street alongside her friends, golden pompoms glittering in her hands.

This was quite a nice area of town, with narrow streets, no sidewalks, with all sorts of mature trees sheltering the wide open front lawns of some larger houses. The houses were a mishmash of styles, but they were just about all two-story affairs, with the occasional single-story ranch or Spanish-style home thrown in for local flavor.

"Does it make you homesick a little, seeing nice places like this?" Yomi asked.

Chiyo squinted, "Um, not really."

"What about Tomoyo? We haven't been keeping you in a manner to which you're accustomed?"

"Oh, me? Wherever my family is, that's home for me."

Tomo remarked, "You're not going to get anywhere with these goody-two shoeses."

"Where's a bratty rich girl when you need one?" Yomi complained, unaware that she should be careful what she wished for.

"Do you have a problem with your accommodation, Miss Mizuhara?" Brent observed, weaving out of the way of a short sheet-wearing ghost and a Freddy Kruger passing the other direction.

"Oh, nothing. It's just not exactly the beach resort we were promised."

"I think wearing a princess dress has gone to your head."

Tomo interjected, "I think she's just cranky because her blood sugar is low. So let's go get some candy!" She paused to consider, "But wait! Which house has the best candy? We need to make a strategic plan to amass the greatest hoard!"

"Any old house with a light on will do. Let's go," Yomi said, and the scarlet princess clapsed her prince in black by the hand and dragged her towards the door.

They were met by an older man with graying hair under a three-sided black hat and an eyepatch. Staying back on the street with Fujitaka, Brent remarked to Ben, "Hey, another pirate."

Ben reminded him, "We all have to do our part to fight global warming."

The man at the door had no problem giving out some candy to the girls, even if they were a little bit too old – with the one dressed in a ballgown and the other for some reason paired a sword with bicycle shorts. They had obviously dressed as something, but he couldn't really keep up with what kids were doing these days. Though in this case, even his teenaged son sitting on the couch inside couldn't figure it out either.

The next wave of displacees made it up the brick walkway to the door, crying, "Trick or Treat!"

"What are you all?"

"We're gods and goddesses," replied Sakura.

Shaoran brandished his cardboard hammer and said, "I'm Thor, and these are the Norns."

"With costumes like that, I can just about believe it."

The three undines came up next, and the owner of the house could easily guess which classic characters they represented.

Their buckets filled, they made way for the stragglers of the group to beg their turn for candy. There was a skinny girl in a form-fitting white suit with two large clips in her chestnut brown hair, a short Japanese girl in a pink cheerleader getup, and a girl's head poking out of a papier-mache tree.

When the tree returned to her friends, she commented, "They didn't throw the candy at us. That's surprising!"

"Why is that surprising?" Aika asked. She would have been much more surprised if someone had thrown candy at her.

Osaka tried to clarify, "You know, like the beans."

"What?"

"Maybe they'd throw it real hard if we were dressed in tiger skins."

Aika gave up, "Why do I even talk to her? Every time, she says something insane."

Alice noted, "The definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results."

After Yomi got back from her fifth house visit, all decorated with glowing carved pumpkins on the doorstep, Brent asked her, "Aren't you a little old for this? What happened to watching the kids?"

"The way I think of it, it would simply be wasteful to not show off Tomoyo's costumes," Yomi explained, before unwrapping a piece of candy and popping it in her mouth.

"And the candy?" Tomo asked.

"Because we're walking, we're burning more calories, so it's all good," Yomi justified. "The candy is very valuable form of cultural exchange."

Tomo countered, "I'll culturally exchange you these Smarties for your Snickers bar."

"No deal."

Minako looked at what was in Tomo's hand and frowned. "When we get back, remind me to give you some Canadian Smarties." Then she grabbed her phone and texted Rob back in Ottawa, asking him to save a pack of Smarties for Tomo.

"I got a lot of candy at that house. See!" Osaka found another person to show off her treats to, causing everybody to look at their own goodies.

"I got a box of choco-mints!"

"I got a pack of Twinkies!"

"I got some licorice whips!"

"I got a roll of smarties!"

Ben moved to look in his bag, remembered he wasn't carrying one, and looked inside his guitar instead. "I got a rock."

Brent rolled his eyes and turned back to Osaka. "I bet you're glad you decided to come."

"Oh, well, I didn't really decide to come. I just saw a bunch of y'all walkin' off, and then I followed, and then the next thing I knew we were all here!"

Brent shrugged. "Yes, of course you did."

The crew traveled through street after street, amassing supplies of phat loot, enough sugar to last the winter. Or at least for the next week. The neighborhood was indeed good for candy. A few generous souls had provided full-size candy bars, but for the most part they received the so-called "fun" size treats. Quite a few houses were hosting their own Halloween parties, even on a Monday – such is the life of the rich.

Over time, the party of displacees stretched out into little groups – this made their visits a little more fun to each house than a giant group all at once. And after all, the community seemed pretty safe, even if it was a little dark.

The lead party of the group rounded a corner onto yet another street, where they came upon a scuffle was just about to break out.

A ten year old boy wearing a icy blue dress with a sheer snowflake-patterned cape was being pushed into a corner, surrounded by older boys. "Look at this little faggot, thinks he's a little princess." The tallest boy pushed the princess to the ground. He fell on his butt into the middle of a mud puddle, caking the bottom of his dress in dirt.

"He doesn't look so pretty now, does he?"

Shaoran reacted first, his muscles tensing up for a fight. He looked at the scene for a moment, gathering situational awareness. There were three high school boys surrounding a boy in the dirt dressed in a princess costume. The houses behind them were completely dark, which keeping track of the combatants a bit harder.

Minako reached her hand into her purse, and felt the cool metal of her transformation pen against her skin, as she contemplated dispensing punishment.

Sakura's mouth was agape in horror, and her arm drifted towards the magical key on her necklace.

But none of them could match the speed of Tomo charging into the middle of the fray at full tilt, her wooden sword lunging forward.

"Maybe he really is a girl, he's crying?"

"Oh wow, what a freak."

Tomo stumbled in to the conflict, "Stop this right now!"

"Who the hell are you?"

"I'm Prince Tomo. And as a prince, if I see anyone hurting Elsa, I'm not gonna let it go." Her epaulettes gleamed in the light of the street lamps.

"Another queer, huh? Step out of the way."

"No."

He raised his fist to strike at her. Shaoran started to move to intervene, but Tomoyo put a hand on his shoulder, simply saying, "Watch."

Tomo raised her sword to counter the strike, and her assailant's hand barely missed being sliced by wild slash of the bokuto. He tried to wrest the wooden stick from her grasp, but Tomo spun away to the right.

The third high schooler, who wasn't participating in the fight, warned, "C'mon, she's Chinese, she probably knows kung fu."

"I'm Japanese, and it's sword fu!" Tomo said defiantly, assuming a kendo starting pose she had learned from anime.

"Fine, let's just leave these freaks alone." The apparent leader started walking away, in an imitation of nonchalantness.

"Yeah, walk away now, but your backs will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes!" Tomo taunted.

Yomi rushed out to meet up with Tomo, but Shaoran made it to the scene first. He asked the boy sitting in the mud, "Is everything okay?"

He looked back, started to frown. He said, "No," and started crying.

Tomo sighed, and said to Shaoran, "I'll handle this. Tell Sakura get The Bubble ready." She took a couple steps, then knelt down beside the boy in a princess costume. She held out her hand and grinned, "Everything will be alright now, I promise."

The boy slowly laid his blue gloved hand in hers, and she yanked him up into her arms. Tomo declared, "If girls like me can be princes, then boys can be princesses, too. Right?"

He stopped crying and looked up to Tomo. He said weakly, "Right."

"What's your name?"

"M-Mason."

"I'm pleased to meet your acquaintance, Princess Mason. I am Prince Tomo of Venice." She kissed him on the forehead. "Would you do me the honor of accompanying me on this night of trick-or-treating?"

He was so shocked by this turn of events, he didn't even notice the magical bubbles working at the back of his dress, quickly dissolving the ruddy dirt. In a few seconds, the dress was back to its original sky blue color.

"Yeah, but my friends..." Two other kids came out from the bushes they were hiding behind. Aiden was wearing a Ninja Turtle costume, which was surprisingly still a thing in 2016, and Isabel was a witch, or maybe a bruja. Both of them were the same age as Mason, and wouldn't have made much of a match for the teenagers either.

"That's okay, they can come too," Sakura piped up. "We'd be happy to have you along!"

"If that's okay with you, Princess Koyomi? I wouldn't want to leave you feeling left out."

Her answer was a simple plea, "Please, come with us, Mason."

"Sure!"

And as they walked down the streets of Olmos Park, Tomo took it upon herself to entertain and lead a pack of ten year olds she had never met before. Indeed, she took it as her privilege to serve as their escort and entertainment in the most gracious way possible. House after house, she stayed with them. Even when Aiden showed off his less-than-impressive "ninja moves", she cheered it on joyfully. It was, to the casual observer, the height of chivalry.

But to an observer who actually knew Tomo, it was downright bizarre. Brent asked Yomi, "Did Tomo get a brain transplant while I wasn't looking?"

"It's like she's too selfless," she concurred. "It's kinda freaking me out."

Tomo must have heard this, as she turned around and offered Yomi a chocolate from her bucket. "Here, you can have this. I don't really like sweet things." Yomi held out her hand, grabbed the candy, letting Tomo turn her attention back to Mason.

"See what I mean?" Yomi stuffed the candy into her mouth.

"Are you a real prince?" Isabel asked.

"I'm just as much a prince as Mason is a princess," Tomo answered. "Which is a lot, principally. And I'm a very principled prince. Tell your school principal."

"Hehe, you're funny."

Brent stage-whispered to Yomi, "Nah, she's still in there, fighting to get out."

The group of magical kids was now following behind, where Shaoran could keep watch. That one time he wore a dress in public had been terribly embarassing for him, but he just couldn't stand to see another person bullied for it.

But watching from behind, Sakura just got more confused. It was going well enough, but there were still people who had a funny reaction to Mason appearing at their door. Sure, they were polite enough, but something still felt off for some of them. When the confusion got too much, Sakura asked, "Papa, I don't understand. Why were they attacking Mason?"

"That's a hard question," Fujitaka began patiently. "I've studied all kinds of cultures from around the world. One thing that a lot of them have in common are gender morés, rules of how men and women should behave. Quite a few cultures think boys and girls always should dress differently. It can be very important to them. And if you break the rules, people may start to bully you. It's just how they choose to live."

"Oh, okay. I guess not everywhere is like Japan. But it's still wrong!"

"Of course. Mason can't be himself, even on a costume holiday. It's hurtful. But Sakura, do you think the bullies know they're wrong?"

She was about to blurt out "How can they not know?" but was stopped by a stray thought. A stray thought which eventually grew into a whole theory. "Maybe not... Not if everyone their whole life told them the bad rules. They just think they're stopping the rule breaker."

"Smart girl! You answered your own question."

"Ah! I did!" The answer didn't exactly make her happy, but at least the night made a little more sense. And her world made a little less sense. Silently, she wondered what it would take to get people like that to understand each other.

As the night got late — for kids anyway — Prince Tomo insisted on walking her new friends home. It was just as well, as half of the crowd would have followed anyway. They walked a bit off to the south, were the houses were a little less nice, escorting the kids back to their home street.

"Will I ever see you again?" Mason asked.

"If you can make it to Venice Beach, my kingdom by the sea will welcome you with open arms. I'll make sure of it."

"I bet you will!" he laughed.

"If you never lose your courage and nobility, you will make a fine princess one day. Farewell!"

"Thanks for everything," Mason called back, stepping into his house.

Tomo sighed, letting her shoulders slump, "...And scene."

"Hoe?" asked Sakura.

"Oh man, I think I did that great, huh Yomi? I totally nailed it, right?"

Yomi just started laughing, hard. "Sometimes you are just too much!" Yomi said, then continued laughing.

And Brent stopped holding in his chuckles too. "Unbelievable!"

"Was that pretty good, Brent? Huh? Huh?"

Brent pitched his voice high, "Kyaaan~ Utena-sama!"

"Sweet!" Tomo had the biggest grin ever plastered on her face for at least the next two hours.

Everyone else started laughing too – Fujitaka, Minako, and Tomoyo out of understanding, and everyone else because Tomo was acting weird and laughter is just infectious.

Shaoran went up to Brent and asked, "What was that all about?"

"That's called a long walk. And an anticlimax, too."

"So..."

Tomoyo chipped in, "Doing your best to give joy to the people you like is the greatest happiness in the world. That's what Tomo did."

Most of the group was all smiles. But when Minako heard Tomo's comment, her mien turned pensive.

The group started backtracking towards the vans, and the houses with more candy.

"My feet hurt," complained Osaka. "Trees aren't made to walk like this."

"Trees aren't made to walk at all," observed Alice.

Yomi cheered her on, "Come on Treebeard, we're almost to Isengard!"

"That was some decent loot," commented Tomo as the group made its way down the laneway. "Hey, is that a cafe?"

Everybody slowed down and took a look. Sure enough, there was a building with a classic Art Deco façade with a few people inside enjoying tea and cake. "Technically, it isn't a cafe, it's a tea house."

"That's really pedantic, Aika-sempai," muttered Alice.

Tomoyo looked at the building, then said, "I believe it might be a Japanese-style cake shop. It has a Japanese style name: Midoriya."

Brent and Ben abruptly stopped walking. A moment later, so did everyone else. Chiyo was the first to ask, "What's wrong?"

"Did you know they were in your home city?"

"Never had a clue until now."

"Could it be a coincidence?"

Sakura repeated something her favorite teacher sometimes said: "There is no such thing as coincidence. There is only necessity."

Ben nodded. "I have to agree with you. Of late, I don't do 'Coincidences'. Brent, can you see who's inside from here?"

Yomi growled impatiently. "Are you two going to tell us what's going on, or are you going to continue keeping us in the dark?"

"Sorry," both landlords said in unison. Ben continued, "If they're who we think they are, then we need to introduce ourselves very carefully."

"So who gets to go inside and reconnoiter these folks?" asked Tomo eagerly.

"Not you. You don't know what to look for." As Tomo pouted, Brent turned back to Ben and suggested, "We could draw straws."

Ben groaned, "Let's just skip the part where I lose. Brent, call Belldandy, let her know we may have an issue here, then let everybody know who we think they are. I'll go take a closer look."

"Do I have to?" Brent whined, starting to think he drew the short straw. Ben gave him a confused glare. Brent relented, "Okay, fine, I'm calling."

"What if you need help?" asked Minako. "How will we know?"

"... Good question," Ben finally replied. "Here, let me call your phone. Don't hang up on me. You'll be listening in. Put your phone on mute so they won't hear anything on my phone from here."

"Oooh! Good idea!" said Minako as she got her cell phone out. Ben could trust Venus to know when his bit of social engineering has failed and he'd need extraction.

Ben nodded as he dialed Minako's phone. "If things do get dicey, I want you and Ami to come in. If it's a hot situation, transform first. But if it can still be managed without resorting to violence, come in as you are and help me get out of that situation. Are we clear?"

"Absolutely," said Ami.

"Like glass," chirped Minako.

"You mean 'like crystal'." Yomi clarified.

Minako shook her head. "I've seen Crystal Tokyo. This isn't like that."

Tomo leaned into Ben's cell poking out of his pocket, "Breaker breaker one niner, got your ears on?"

"Sounds good," Mina replied.

Ben took a deep breath. "Okay, I'm heading inside. Most of you should make yourself scarce, just in case things go pear-shaped."

"Understood," Brent agreed.

"Copy ten-four, Bravo is heading into the Taco Town bear den, best skedaddle!"

"I should never have let you watch Smokey and the Bandit last night."

"But it's so cultural!"

Yomi called out, "Come on everyone, I see a few more houses over there that we missed." The group of kids made for the neighborhood for a last haul of candy, while Brent, Ami, and Minako strolled across the street to take cover – just two sailor senshi and a guy in a tuxedo hiding behind some convenient bushes. The senshi were pros at this kind of surveillance, but Brent idly wondered if it would be more comfortable to hide behind Osaka's verdant branches.

Brent was about to give the stakeout team a summary of the Lyrical Nanoha plot, until he remembered his task. "I had better get this over with." Taking the phone out of his pocket jacket he dialed the number for the Goddess Assistance Agency.

Ben strolled inside the tea shop, as casually as he could under the circumstances. He moved over to the counter of baked goods, trying to look around without being too obvious about it.

"Hello! Welcome to the Midoriya!" chirped a teenaged Japanese girl with her hair in braids and large, round eyeglasses over her eyes. "Are you ready to order or do you need a moment?"

Ben smiled and reminded himself that he was very likely dealing with ninja, and they'd be able to see right through him if he half-assed this. Fortunately, he knew that the best way to lie was to tell the truth while omitting details.

"Howdy. Just wanted to check this place out. I was in Japan for three years while I was in the US Navy and I loved every minute of it."

"Oh! Then our store must be very nostalgic for you."

"Very much so," replied Ben with a smile. "So I'll probably be a regular customer from here on out. My name's Benjamin. What's yours?"

"Takamachi Miyuki," replied the girl, confirming Ben's suspicions. He resisted the urge to geek out, and successfully as Miyuki was none the wiser. "Or... Just Miyuki. It's still kind of strange getting used to how Americans address each other so informally."

"No worries," replied Ben easily. "If it makes you more comfortable, I'm more than happy to call you Takamachi-san instead."

Miyuki shook her head. "No, there's no need. If you are going to be a regular customer, then it'd get confusing having several of us answer to you all at once."

"Ah, I see then. Miyuki-san, then?"

"Just Miyuki is fine. So, do you see anything you want?"

"Not just yet. I have a group that I need to get back to outside – I'm helping to chaperon some youngsters while they go trick-or-treating."

"Oh, so that explains your costume. Who are you supposed to be though?"

"A young version of Edward Teague, the father of Captain Jack Sparrow. I didn't want to do the old and grizzled version because that might scare some of the kids. And I don't like doing that even if it is Halloween."

"Ane wa," came a girls voice from behind the counter, "atashi wa jibun no shigoto o oete imasu. Feito-chan to soto de asonde mo iidesu ka?"

Ben turned to the source and froze dead-still.

There, wearing the uniform for the Midoriya, was a small Japanese girl, with brightly shining red hair and brilliant and deep blue eyes.

Oh my God... That's really Nanoha!? She's such a beautiful little girl! came the unbidden thought.

Nanoha herself wasn't unaffected. She looked up at the strange American and was transfixed by his gaze, never minding the fact that he was dressed up in the most elaborate pirate captain costume she'd ever seen. Rather than feel crushed by his intensity, the girl felt compelled by it. There was something in those eyes of his that some part of her recognized, but her conscious mind couldn't describe it.

ALERT! came Raising Heart's voice in her head. ANTI-MAGIC REACTION DETECTED!

What? thought Nanoha back at her device. What is that supposed to mean?

MY MASTER, THE MAN EMITS MAGIC DISRUPTION FIELD. IT IS WEAK, BUT DANGER STILL.

But... I don't think he is dangerous. To us at least.

DESIGNATE FRIENDLY, MY MASTER?

After a moment, she thought, ...Yes.

"Is something wrong?" said Miyuki, a bit confused.

Ben snapped out of it. "Oh, sorry. Just had an Aspie moment." Not entirely a lie.

"Aspie moment?" parroted Miyuki.

"I have Asperger's Syndrome. It's a very high-functioning form of autism, and every now and then I can get lost in a moment, so to speak."

"But... you seem all right?" said Miyuki in confusion.

"Autism is rarely something so cut-and-dry. I'm an outlier known as an Extroverted Aspie. All the social awkwardness with none of the tendency towards being a wallflower. Anyhow, the reason why I spaced out was because during my time in Japan, I never saw any girls as young as you, little miss, with such hair and eyes."

"It's real!" cried out Nanoha defiantly.

Miyuki inwardly winced. It looks like he wasn't kidding about the socially awkward part, she thought to herself.

Ben, meanwhile, berated himself harshly. Smooth move Ben – way to open mouth, insert foot there.

"I apologize," said Ben quickly, knowing for sure he was turning pink with embarrassment. "I didn't mean to offend."

"Mou," replied Nanoha grumpily.

"How about I play a song to make it up to you?" he asked.

Nanoha blinked as Ben swung the guitar around from his back. "You mean that's not just part of your costume?" she asked in awe.

"Well, it kinda is," said Ben as he checked the tuning on each string and made a few little adjustments. "The person I'm dressed as spends a lot of time playing when he isn't busy. Right, here we go then."

And with that, Ben began to pick the strings of the guitar, playing the unmistakable opening bars of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and weaving rhythm, melody, and baseline together, flawlessly capturing the emotional pull of the song.

And then he began to sing, eyes closed as the emotion, pure and raw, flowed through his voice. It wasn't the same as the original performance, but instead, this was Ben's own feelings as he made the song his for the moment.

So,
So you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell?
Blue skies from pain?

Can you tell a green field
from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade
your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?

Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?


Nanoha could only watch in wonder as she could almost taste the bittersweet angst in the air. And then, just when she thought she couldn't have been moved any more, the final verse started.

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.


The words and the emotion hit her squarely in the heartstrings, making her imagine a life estranged from the friends that she cared so much about. It took every ounce of her self control to not start crying there on the spot.

There was a smattering of enthusiastic applause from the other customers. "More!" cried out one.

Ben smiled wistfully. "Sorry folks, I have places to be. But if the staff doesn't mind, I can come back another time."

"We would greatly appreciate that," said a new voice from behind the counter. Ben turned as saw a man in his prime, just starting to creep up on middle-age, and wearing a black apron over a button-down shirt and khaki slacks. "Hello, my name is Shiro Takamachi. What's yours?"

"Benjamin Rhodes," he replied with a bow.

"It's nice to meet you, Benjamin," said Shiro with a smile. "Would you really like to come back and play for us? We're pretty new here, and if you can help us draw in more customers, it'd be helpful for us. We're doing okay so far, but okay isn't the same thing as 'Great'."

Ben smiled back. "It'd be no problem. Here, let me give you my card. I'm actually an apartment manager on the west side of town."

"You came all this way for trick-or-treating?" asked Shiro.

Ben nodded as he handed over his business card. "This is one of the nicest neighborhoods in town, and there's a lot of youngsters visiting at my complex right now. I just thought it'd be nice for them to see this place and get the most out of their experience while they're here."

"Well, then you're certainly more than welcome to come back, Benjamin. I'll go ahead and email you some possible dates you can come and play for us. By the way, have you lived here long?"

"Not really, but I am a native – my heritage here goes all the way back to the original Native Americans and Spanish Explorers that came here and established this city. I'll tell you guys about it later, though. It's a heck of a history lesson."

Shiro smiled broadly at that. "We'll look forward to it."

"Well, I need to get back to my people outside; I've kept them waiting long enough."

"Anything before you go?" asked Shiro.

"Hmmm..." said Ben thoughtfully. "I'll take one of those C.C. Lemon sodas – I haven't had one in a while!"

Miyuki chuckled at that as she rung him up. "You definitely lived in Japan for a while!"



"He's out," Minako said. "Looks fine."

"It's a good thing we didn't go in when he mentioned his Asperger's syndrome," Ami replied. "We would have ruined everything." She glanced down at the Mercury Computer, "It looks like no one followed him. Let's go."

After Ben crossed the street to rejoin them, Brent asked, "Well?"

"Definitely them," said Ben as he cracked open the soda and then took a long pull from it. He cleared his throat after swallowing and then went on, "Nanoha had Raising Heart with her. What did Belldandy say?"

"We don't have to worry right away – it's something for her and the Powers that Be to handle – the reason why they showed up with no warning, that is. But you're still going to be stuck with dealing with them. Can't say I envy you."

"Never thought otherwise," said Ben as he rolled his eyes. "C'mon, let's round up the kiddies and head on back before something else happens."

Ami noted, "Minako, you can hang up now."

"Oh. Right."

Meanwhile, in the Midoriya's back office, Shiro and Momoko spoke quietly together.

"I could tell even on the camera," said Momoko. "He was nervous about something. And him claiming to have Asperger's syndrome is a little too convenient – especially that he's an extrovert despite that."

Shiro nodded. "I think so too, but I didn't sense anything dangerous about him."

"How is that?" asked Momoko.

"I can't put my finger on it," said Shiro. "But... It felt like he wanted to help us."

"He might know about us. I did an Internet search using our names. You're not going to believe this."

Shiro put on his glasses and looked at the computer screen. Bit by bit, his expression fell lower and lower as his face slowly turned pale.

"... This changes things for us."

"The sooner we get him back here," said Momoko, "the better. But first, we'll need to talk to Nanoha."



The gang of displacee trick-or-treaters had worked their way up one side of the closest cross-street to the Midoriya, and were working their way back down the other side.

"We only have until 8:30! Why aren't we going on to the next street?"

"Do you really want free candy that badly?"

Shaoran interrupted before Tomo could answer Brent's question. "Am I the only one who thinks we're being watched?"

"That's why we're not going on to the next street," replied Minako. "No, don't look! And keep walking. I spotted two. One's a girl Aika-neesan's age, with braided twin tails and big glasses."

"Miyuki. She followed us." Ben sighed deeply. "I wonder what I did to tip them off."

"They didn't follow us; they're watching from the corner. The other one's a girl about Diana and Chibi-Usa's age. She's carrying a bag." Minako giggled. "I wonder where she found that outfit."

"What's she wearing?"

"A Juuban Municipal Junior High School uniform. She almost looks like Usagi, except her hair's tied with ribbons, and she's wearing a pin where Usagi wears her brooch."

"A pin? Not a pendant necklace? What color is her hair?"

"The same as mine. Why?"

"I didn't see her in the Midoriya," Ben commented.

"You probably wouldn't have been allowed to see everybody." Brent continued completely deadpan, "Oh, well. I suppose it has to be Fate."

"What, like Destiny?" Ami asked. "Sakura-chan said there's no such thing as coincidence, so ... Oh! Fate."

The adults (most of them) waited at the foot of the driveway that they had just reached while the youngsters (and a few of the adults) went trick-or-treating. Ami continued, "How do we make contact with them without it turning into a fight?"

"I think I can manage that," said Ben. "After all, I got Sousuke Sagara to come quietly. Granted, that was probably because Teletha and Kaname there as well. Kaname was actually the harder sell. And they do want me to come back. If nothing else, then that will be the time for me to lower the boom."

"But since she knows who Sailor Moon is, then you could go introduce yourselves," Akia suggested.

"Hang on," interrupted Minako. "She's coming this way. No, she's headed for the kids!" Minako and Ami both got their transformation brooches out, and Ami waved at Chibi-Usa.

"Stay frosty everyone," said Ben. "This might be nothing."

The youngsters picked up their pace and rejoined the others just before Fate arrived. She looked straight at Diana. "Hayate! You're here! We've been so ... Oh. I'm sorry. I thought you were somebody else. Where did you get that costume?"

Diana smiled. "I made it."

"Your costume is pretty good, too, but there's a couple of things wrong," Chibi-Usa said before Diana could continue. "The pin on your bow isn't right, and Usagi-mama doesn't wear ribbons in her hair."

"Usagi-mama?"

Ben slapped a hand over his face, but otherwise said nothing. The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley.

Chibi-Usa looked around to make sure nobody was watching (except for the other trick-or-treaters), grinned and grabbed her locket from her pocket. "Moon Prism Power, Make Up!" A moment later, Sailor Chibi Moon was standing where Chibi-Usa had been a moment earlier. Diana transformed into her cat form and jumped onto Chibi-Moon's shoulder.

The pin on Fate's bow chose that moment to say "MAGICAL REACTION DETECTED" – because the girl was standing there with her mouth half-open in amazement.

Chibi-Moon looked straight at Fate's pin. "Hello, I'm Chiba Usagi, or Sailor Chibi-Moon."

"BARDICHE."

"Happy to meet you!"

The blonde finally regained her wits. "Er... and I'm Fate Testarossa. Pleased to meet you."

"And I'm Diana!"

"Hello, Diana. I'm pleased to meet you. Are you her familiar?"

"No, I'm her friend. Can we be friends, too?"

Miyuki chose that moment to make plain to the others that she was there. "I think we should be friends. Are you all... well, magical girls?"

River grinned. "Don't we look the part?" she asked, pirouetting to show off her plugsuit.

Ben rolled his eyes. "Well, some of us have the wrong chromosomes for it, though that's discounting the Sailor Starlights."

Miyuki spluttered at that, causing the others to giggle. Ben then sighed. "Well, that blows our cover. I'm pretty sure your folks would dearly love to know what's going on – especially if Fate wants to come to our Halloween party. And if Fate is coming, I'm pretty sure Nanoha wants to come, too."

Miyuki sobered quickly and gave Ben a very hard look, one that completely annihilated her nadeshiko yoroshiku façade.

"Benjamin comes with me. And only one other."

"Minako," said Ben right away.

"Why me?" asked the Senshi.

"Because you're perfect," Brent muttered, followed closely by an "Ow!" when Tomo stepped on his foot.

"Because you were originally Princess Serenity's body double so you know the bodyguard job to a T."

Minako blanched at that. "You know, sometimes I forget about how much you guys know about us."

Ben shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry."

"It's okay, Ben. I'll go with you."

"What about the rest of us?" asked Brent.

"Take everyone else to the streets you haven't hit up yet, then meet me back here."



Benjamin and Minako followed Miyuki and Fate to the back door of the Midoriya. Miyuki knocked twice. Within a few seconds, the door opened and Shiro appeared with a concerned look on his face.

"Inside everyone. Quickly please."

They all filed in and found themselves in the Midoriya's stock room. Momoko and Kyouya were already there, and it was not lost on Ben that they had their ninjato sheathed at their sides.

"I apologize, everyone," said Ben, starting with no preamble. "It wasn't my intention to mislead or frighten anyone."

"All right," said Shiro. "Do you know what is happening?"

Ben nodded. "I understand this is going to sound crazy, but you're in a parallel universe. Something happened to the whole of creation, and while the higher powers have been working to fix it, people like you have been arriving here, like driftwood washing ashore."

Shiro nodded thoughtfully. "I thought it might be something like that. How do you figure into this, though?"

"Well, everyone that's been showing up so far are people who, in our world, are characters in works of fiction. For example, Aino-san here is actually Sailor Venus from Sailor Moon."

"If that's true," said Momoko, "then I'd like to see you transform."

"Of course," said Minako. She raised her henshin stick into the air and said, "Venus Star Power, Make Up!"

Ben kept his eyes averted while, in a flash of rainbow light, Aino Minako became Sailor Venus.

"MAGIC REACTION CONFIRMED," stated Bardiche for everyone to hear. "SEARCHING INTERNET. VERIFIED: 99.99% CERTAINTY IT IS SAILOR VENUS."

"Oh my gosh," said Momoko quietly from behind her hand. Suddenly she had to take out her handkerchief because her eyes had suddenly overflowed with tears. "Oh, please forgive me. When I was a little girl, Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon was my favorite manga."

The other Takamachis and Fate gave Momoko mildly surprised looks, then looked to Sailor Venus again – who looked slightly disconcerted at Momoko's reminder that she was a relatively old character, but quickly regained her composure.

"Well," said Shiro, "since it seems you're the real thing, I guess you're safe enough. Nanoha, it's okay. You can come out now."

With that, Nanoha came in from the back office, clad in her barrier jacket and carrying Raising Heart in its staff mode. "I knew he couldn't be a bad person," said Nanoha happily. "Rodes'-san felt too nice to me."

Ben was glad she felt that way. He'd hate to be on the business end of one of her 'befriendings'.

"We understand, Nanoha," said Kyouya kindly. "But sometimes you have to check to make sure."

"It's all right," said Ben. "I kinda have that effect on people for some reason. Probably why I'm stuck with this job."

"What job is that?" asked Shiro.

"Basically, I've been brought in to help people like you – to make sure that you're happy, safe, and do not attract any undue attention."

"We seem to be doing okay," said Shiro, arching an eyebrow.

"You guys were lucky," said Ben. "Sailor Venus and her friends showed up in Canada with just the clothing on their back and little else."

At everyone's shocked looks, Minako nodded. "He's right. We were worried about how we were going to get by, let alone get back home again. I was busking for spare change just so we could get something to eat, before Donaldson-san found us and took us in."

"Who is Donaldson-san?" asked Miyuki.

"Another person like me," said Ben. "He manages an apartment complex up in Ottawa. Anyhow... The girls outside, I know they're gonna want to invite Fate and Nanoha to this party of ours. And really, I don't mind, even though I imagine you'd like to come with us. It's not a bad idea, I think, because most of the displacees are there right now, so you'd have a chance to meet everyone and get a better handle on the situation."

"Benjamin," said Shiro, all business, "do you know why this is happening?"

"I do," said Ben reticently. "It's just embarrassing for the person responsible. They're a good person and usually mean well, so I won't name any names. Instead, I'll just say that someone broke the computer that helps manage the multiverse, and until it gets fixed, this is the situation we're in."

"A computer?" asked Shiro, raising an eyebrow.

"You know about Ah! Megami-sama?"

"That's REAL!?" cried out Miyuki.

"Very real. In fact, Belldandy will be taking some time off from working on the Yggdrasil so she can enjoy the party with Keiichi. She promised that she would, and we all know Belldandy's promises are backed up by the Ultimate Force. You folks can meet her and get the word from the horse's mouth if you want."

Shiro looked to Momoko and a silent conversation took place between the two. Ben knew that what appeared to be very slight bits of fidgeting was actually a very subtle form of sign language.

"Alright," said Shiro at last. "I would like to accompany you to this party. And if Fate and Nanoha wish to, they can come as well."

"Really? We can!?" said Nanoha excitedly.

"I don't see why you can't," said Momoko. "In fact, Kyouya, Miyuki?"

"Yes mother?" the two choroused.

"Do you think you two will be fine with closing the shop by yourselves tonight?"

"It will be no problem," said Kyouya, and Miyuki nodded as well.

"Thank you," said Momoko, who turned back to Ben and Sailor Venus. "In that case, I'll be coming with you..." She suddenly turned a little pink and said, "Do you think you can introduce me to Tsukino-sama?"

Sailor Venus smiled broadly. "Of course I can. Usagi will be happy to meet a fan."

"I'm gonna go get into my costume real fast," said Nanoha quickly. "Fate-chan, can you come upstairs and help me?"

"Sure," agreed Fate, with understated enthusiasm.

"Do you guys have your own car," asked Ben, "or are you going to need a ride?"

"We'll be able to drive," said Shiro. "We'll just follow you. The traffic here is a little hectic, but it's nothing I can't handle."



Ben and Minako finally returned outside. She told everyone, "We're cool! And the Takamachis want to come meet everyone!"

The tension in the trick-or-treaters' group dissolved as if it had never existed. "Okay folks, let's get to this party!" Tomo cheered.

"Fashionably late!" Brent enthused. "Actually, if we're going to be fashionably late, we might as well make an entrance. Sakura?"

"Hai?"

"I have an idea."


Chapter 3. The Party

Back at Westwoods Apartments, a Halloween party had been slowly taking shape. As these things often go, the party's official start time of 5pm meant that nothing really got started until about 6 o'clock. For the most part, people were taking the chance to check out their room for the night, get into costume, and maybe a quick chance to grab a cold one with a friend.

When the food finally started coming together, with big trays of barbecue and tamales and salad with a few Japanese dishes from Sasami-chan's kitchen to provide some variety, that's when most of the people made their way out under the setting sun to start mingling with others. Crowds slowly filled the U-shaped courtyard and sprawled out amongst the trees, tables, and folding chairs on the lawn.

Usagi and Mamoru were inseparable, a Jareth and Sarah in their own little world. Kaorin followed Sakaki around like a distant shadow. And Ayeka and Ryoko managed to get into a tiff over whose cooking was better. In other words, God's in his heaven, all's right in the world.

The evening finally hit its stride at around when the 33-Stars took to the stage. For the first venue on the American tour, it probably could have been a nicer location. It certainly wasn't going to lead to bigger gigs. But it had one big upside – the band members didn't have to hide their history, or the fact that they were all sexaroids.

The quintet of Meg Deckard, Sylvie Stratton, Lou Collins, Anri Astoria, and Nam River hadn't formed after school like so many bands. All five of them had memories of life in a space habitat, and of their dramatic escape. And of themselves shutting down, one by one. When they found themselves awake and aware twenty years in the past, well, there was only one thing to do: form a rock band, in tribute of Priss Asagiri.

They weren't in special costume, just their normal stage outfits – perhaps a little more appropriate for a 1980s band than for 2019, but it was part of their charm. And, like a lot of girl bands, their charm was the ticket to their limited success so far. Plus, being not quite human, they could play a pretty long set.

But they didn't start until a minor disagreement in the Ottawa crowd was cleared up.

"No, Ruiko, you are not recording 33-Stars's entire set ... on that cellphone. Plug a good-quality recorder into their soundboard, like I did."

"I didn't bring one, Mii-sempai. Why do you have one?"

"Rob-san asked me to record what he's missing."

Once the recorder was plugged into their soundboard - with the band's permission - 33-Stars lead with a frantic, mathematically-precise cover of "I Don't Give a Damn About My Bad Reputation" with Nam on vocals, followed by Meg belting out "I was Made for Loving You", then Sylvie singing "Konya Wa Hurricane".

Before they could begin their fourth song, a group of motorcycles pulled into the parking lot — a BMW with a sidecar being the most obvious, but a few custom rides drew the attention of those in the know. The BMW's driver helped his passenger out of the sidecar while the others parked their bikes where they wouldn't fall over... and then, as if they had practiced, they all took off their helmets at the same time.

They were, in a word, beautiful.

Three of the women were divinely beautiful. The man who had arrived on the BMW was ... not handsome, but at least not plain. And the other two women were attractive enough to draw appreciative glances.

There was no question who four of them were. Almost everyone had at least heard of ReBoot by now.

"I look ridiculous in tights," Keiichi Morisato muttered.

"You are my beloved Guardian, and you look wonderful," Belldandy Morisato replied at the same volume, getting him to smile just before the Norns were mobbed by almost everyone else at the party.

A few minutes later, the portal from Ottawa opened once again, and Rob stepped though. "Hello? Sorry I'm late; I didn't run out of candy until a few minutes ago. Did I miss anything interesting?"

"Oh, hello! I don't think we've met. Megumi Morisato." One of the other two newcomers, she was wearing a black leather jacket over a white t-shirt and blue jeans.

"Rob Donaldson. Pleased to meet you." They shook hands. "I've heard your name before, and I must say your mangaka didn't do you justice."

"Why, thank you! Which story are you from?"

"I'm one of the apartment managers. If I'm a character in a story, I don't know which one it is."

"Ah. As for interesting, you just missed my sister-in-law's entrance; we just got here, but she stole the show." Megumi nodded toward the crowd that was still surrounding her family.

"I'm sure that they made an impression. Unlike me."

"Maybe if you went and got a drink from the table over there, you might bump into somebody you know."

Rob could tell Megumi wasn't particularly interested in speaking with him. "That's a good idea; I'll do that. It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Morisato." As Rob headed for the refreshments, he wondered what he'd missed. Then he got a text message from Brent... and looked around for somebody, anybody, to warn that the trick-or-treaters had found more displacees.



Halfway across the courtyard, a girl wearing a long coat over a frumpy suit and pulling a lawyer's briefcase was introducing herself to a boy just a few years older than her, who was wearing an aloha shirt and casual slacks. "Hi, I'm Ruiko Saten. Happy to meet you."

"Er... I'm Shinji Ikari. Hello."

"Who are you supposed to be?"

"My next-door neighbor, Hoban Washburne."

"Who?"

"Wash."

"Who?"

"One of the crew of the Serenity. Who are you supposed to be?"

"Yomiko Readman."

"Who?"

"The lead character from Read or Die."

"From what?"

It took them five minutes to explain to each other who they were dressed as.



Rob finally got the chance to speak with the Megami. He bowed deeply to the goddesses and their escort. "Milady Urd, Milady Skuld, Milady Belldandy, Milord Morisato, it is an honour to finally make your acquaintance."

"Please, Mr. Donaldson, call me Mrs. Morisato, or just Belldandy."

"Of course, just Belldandy."

"Hey! Treat my sister with..." Skuld finally realized that Rob had made a small joke. "Oh. I guess that's funny. What's with 'milady' and 'milord'?"

"He's using terms from Dumas." Urd turned from Skuld to Rob. "Aren't you?"

"Exactly. You are all worthy of my respect, but you are not Powers that I honour."

Keiichi put his hand behind his head. "I'm nothing special, really. You don't have to call me 'milord'."

"But you are special, Mr. Morisato. You've earned and won the love of a Goddess."

"That just means she's special." Belldandy smiled at Keiichi's answer.

Meanwhile, the group of trick-or-treaters gathered in the parking lot, out of sight of the courtyard where the party was already taking place. Brent asked, "Are we all ready to make our entrance?"

"Sure!" Sakura Kinomoto held out three pink cards in her hand, "Flower, Windy, Light!" Her power had grown to the point where supporting these cards simultaneously, in addition to Mirror, wasn't even a strain.

Yomi asked, "Where's Tomoyo?"

Just in time, Tomoyo dashed back around the corner of the building. She panted, "Here. Tripod's set up. Let's make a wonderful record of Sakura-chan's big debut entrance!"

Brent and Sakura said "Hoee" simultaneously, but Sakura said it with a good deal more force.

Out in the party, 33-Stars had just wrapped up a song, leaving a lull that was just beginning to fill up with conversation. Makoto tried to pour herself a drink from the punchbowl but stopped suddenly when shiver of excitement raced up her spine.

At the opposite end of the courtyard, an arch of living rosebushes grew up from the ground in a few seconds, backlit in a orange glow. A few seconds more, and every single branch burst forth with a pale pink blossom.

A cloud of ruby rose petals burst through the arch. Once the petals had settled, they revealed Tomo and Koyomi, arm in arm. They looked at each other, smiled, and walked calmly out into the party, towards the pool.

Just off to the side, a man in the tuxedo announced, "Presenting Prince Utena Tenjou, and her Rose Bride Anthy Himemiya!"

Tuxedo Brent announced the next blue-haired beauty, "Gunnery Sergeant 'M’ami' Tomoe, with her Unison Device, Reinforce." Ami walked through with a bit of trepidation – she was used to making dramatic entrances, but it felt strange without an enemy present.

The next guest had no such compunctions. "Arriving fashionably late is our brightest starlet, Miss Marilyn Monroe with her persocom, Hikaru."

Minako giggled and waved to the crowd, while Chibi-Usa skipped back to her mother, still bearing an orange jack-o-bucket full of candy. Still in the magical spotlight, Mina looked back to Sakura in the wings, and mouthed, "Now."

Sakura just started deepening her blush. Mira pushed an ofuda into Shaoran's hand, "You do it."

Sakura's eyes darted over to Shaoran, her pout telling him not to even dare. She said, "Windy," and averted her eyes. Air converged on the ground, forcing Minako's long white dress to flip up. She was expecting it, of course, and posed with fake modesty, hands holding her dress down over her important parts.

Jayne whooped, and yelled out "All right!"

Once that was out of the way, Brent continued, "Fresh from her familiarization exercise, Pilot Ayanami!"

River walked in on her own, her face deadpan and her gait like a weary soldier's.

Brent smiled and went on, "And introducing Princess Cinderella of Anaheim, Miss Alice Liddell of Wonderland, and Sultana Scheherazade of Palmyra."

Sultana Akari gave a cheerful wave, tossing her costume's layers of colorful gauze. "Wow, it feels like magic!"

"It is magic," Alice noted.

In the spotlight, a whole crowd looking a her, Aika just thought to herself that tonight, she feels like a Prima.

Right behind them entered a tall man in a deep red chef's outfit, posed as if contemplating an asian pear in his hand. Fujitaka was introduced, "Straight from Kitchen Stadium, it's Iron Chef France: Hiroyuki Sakai."

"And finally, presenting everyone's three favorite goddesses, Belldandy, Skuld, and Urd, escorted by their champion, Thor!"

After they were through, the last member of the parade walked through the arch unannounced: Pirate Ben with a push-broom, sweeping up the rose-petals scattered by the Flower card.

"Now that the maidens have been introduced, my work here is done. Farewell!" Brent declared, throwing his mantle in front of his face and running off into the night.

"What? I'm nothing like that," Mamoru complained.

Usagi countered, "Um, honey? You were kinda strange back in the day. But way cooler," she reassured.

Rob turned back to the megami. "Now that's an entrance." He continued sotto voice, "Did anybody even notice that I'd arrived?"

Belldandy smiled. "Oh, yes. And I wasn't the only one."

Urd called out, "Oh now, aren't you all the cutest! Come on over here Sakura — I've gotta get a picture of Ma Bell with Baby Bell."

Sakura Matou wondered why shew was being called as Sakura Kinomoto raced over. "Hai!"

Having put the broom away, Ben looked around to see most people were still paying attention to the members of the procession. "Now that we're all here — we are all here, aren't we?"

"I'm not here!" Yomi karate-chopped Tomo for that remark.

"I just got here. Hi, Ben!"

Ben turned to the group around the megami. "Hi, Rob! Good to see you in person. And hello, Belldandy, Urd, Skuld, and Keiichi! Are Megumi and Sora here?" Two voices in the crowd replied in the affirmative. "Welcome, ladies! Now that we're all here, I have some news: We're expecting a few more people in a few minutes! I'm not going to say who, but I think they'll be our friends. While we're waiting, let's decide who has the best costumes! When you';re ready to vote, grab a ballot at the bar, make your choices and drop your ballot in the box beside the bar. We'll count them later."

While everyone was pondering who would get their votes in the costume contest, a late-model Subaru pulled into the parking lot.

Ayeka turned to Ben. "I was under the impression that everyone had already arrived."

"We met some special friends while we were trick-or-treating. and I invited the youngsters to the party."

"By 'special', do you mean people like us?" Ayeka's gesture encompassed everyone already at the party.

Ben simply nodded as he watched two schoolgirls get out of the car. At first glance, it looked like they had come straight from Tomoeda Elementary and Juuban Middle School, and people who hadn't been paying attention took a quick look around the courtyard for Sakura Kinomoto and Usagi Tsukino... then realized (some more quickly than others) that these were the two new guests from across town.

"Rodesu-san!" The girl dressed as Sakura waved to the party's host.

"Nanoha! And Fate!" Ben added, looking at the girl dressed as Usagi. "Welcome to our party!" He walked over to the car, stopping just short so that Nanoha's father didn't door him as he got out. "And I welcome you as well, Takamachi-san."

While the newcomers were introducing themselves, two friends... well, acquaintances... were looking at the buffet.

"They've got some good sweets at this party!"

"Pyuunyu."

They both reached for the same dorayaki.

Kero-chan glared at Aria. "You're a nice guy and all, but I saw that first."

"Nyuu!" Aria wasn't about to back down. Besides, he knew that he'd seen it first.

"This is your last chance — Hey!" Kero-chan exclaimed when Sakura picked him up by the scruff of his neck.

"Kero! We're guests here! Be polite!"

"Yes, Sakura-san." When he'd been released, he turned back to the table... to see that the dorayaki was still there, President Aria guarding it (and looking contrite – apparently, Sakura's words had reached him as well).

"Pyuu!" He pushed the sweet over to Kero-chan.

"You're sure?"

"Pyu-nyuu."

"Let's split it."



"How was trick-or-treating?" Sakaki asked.

Yomi gestured at Tomo across the crowd, "There was a problem, but Doña Quixote took care of it."

At the time, Tomo was looking at the Smarties that she's been given during trick-or-treating.

Then she looked at the Smarties that Rob had handed Minako to give to her.

"Hey, Brent, when are we going to go visit Canada?"

"What brought this on?"

She showed him the Canadian Smarties, and in all seriousness answered, "Chocolate."



After Ben had made his rounds, he politely excused himself so he could get a few minutes to himself. After closing his door behind him and locking it, he went and plunked himself down in his sectional sofa and let a long and tired sigh.

Discovering the Takamachis had been... Intense.

No, get it right, stupid, thought Ben ruefully to himself. Seeing Nanoha... Holy crap, what was that!? He thought back to that one moment where his and her eyes had met the first time and how they simply stared at each other for the longest moment.

Ben was no stranger to these things. It'd happen a at least one other time in his life – he knew that's what it was for certain because he'd started dating that girl several months after that incident.

But little Nanoha?

WHAT. THE. FUCK.

He knew that he'd love the girl. She was kind, brave, passionate, intelligent, inquisitive, and bold. But most of all, just so very kind and loving. She wore her heart on her sleeve and never gave two shits about it. She was a girl that he knew he could spend hours just talking about whatever happened to come to mind. But Ben never imagined that there would have been that sudden lightning-strike impression between the two of them. It was just so far out there. Why him? Why her?

He sighed to himself. Fucking Murphy. Not only did she have Fate already, but she was still a child.

It was always something like that. Too young, too old, or already taken. Benjamin's match was a young woman with a wickedly sharp mind and a kind and caring demeanor, but not afraid of cracking jokes. Or to stand up for herself and call others – especially him – out on their bullshit.

That type never stayed on the market for long – they were in short supply, and most men were well aware of what kind of treasures such women were.

"Quite a dilemma you seem to have on your hands," said a smooth, cultured, and accented voice. Ben nearly started, moving upright as soon as he heard the voice. Sitting across from him in the easy chair with his legs crossed was David Bowie wearing Mamoru's costume. "The Takamachi girl is quite young. Too young, really. But events in the past have caused her to mature to a startling degree despite her young age. And I don't just mean her recent adventures. I will say this much about you: you at least have her best interests in mind."

Ben blinked as a beat passed.

"You're the Goblin King," said Ben.

Jareth inclined his head. "Of course, my reputation precedes me." He then got up and began to pace around as one of his crystal balls appeared in a and he began to roll it smoothly up, down, over, and around his fingers with his unnatural-seeming deftness. "I can understand what you're thinking now – What does this person want from me?" Jareth then smiled at Ben. "For one thing, you needn't worry. I have no designs for any of the young ones here. Nor do I have any designs for you."

Ben rolled his eyes. "Well that's a relief," he said sarcastically, then sighed. "Okay. I'm gonna need some sugar in my system if I'm going to cope. May I offer you a drink?"

"Something cold would be appreciated," said Jareth. "It is quite warm here – particularly for the time of year."

"It's not all that unseasonable for this place," said Ben as he opened the refrigerator and retrieved a pair of Big Red sodas in their retro-style bottles, then opened both using a bottle opener. "Sometimes it stays warm all through winter. I often tell people that their summer wardrobe never really gets put away around here."

"Quite," said Jareth with a smile as he accepted the offered soda and then took a pull at the bottle. "Hmm. Very sweet. Children must adore this."

"It's a summertime favorite in these parts," said Ben lackadaisically. "If you ever want to make a native Texan happy when they're away from home, hand them one of these and watch their eyes bug out."

Jareth smiled. "Indeed. Well then, to business, Mr. Rhodes. I have been informed that you are very much aware of a problem I have."

"A problem that happens to have the name of Sarah," said Ben, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes. I understand your reticence, but I do not intend to ask anything so uncouth as to do anything to trick or deceive her."

Ben nodded at that. "I see then. In that case, your Majesty, please go on."

"Thank you. What I seek, Mr. Rhodes, is advice. While I have indeed watched Sarah quite closely, I am afraid that even now she is still a mystery to me."

Ben raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me that you want me to be your own personal Cyrano de Bergerac."

Jareth scoffed merrily. "Of course not, dear man! I have no intention of being shot – ever – just as surely as you don't intend to die of something as ignominious as a log being felled upon your head! No, what I desire is insight into her character, and advice as to how I should pursue her."

Ben scoffed as well. "Evidently you haven't seen how my life has been – ignominious fortune is a fair description. As to Sara, though..." Ben thought for a moment why Jareth patiently waited.

"She's a firebrand," said Ben. "And I'm sure you've noticed that."

"It is one of the things I appreciate about her," replied Jareth matter-of-factly.

Ben nodded and continued. "Well, in your dealings with her, you need to keep that in mind. She has pride enough to sit at your side, for certain. But there's the thing – she has that pride. And it's not going to let her just simply acquiesce to being your bride. If she is going to be yours, then you need to be hers – she absolutely must have equality. What is yours is hers as well, and with all the implications that goes with it."

"I see," said Jareth thoughtfully. "The thought had occurred to me, though perhaps I had been somewhat too vague about what I was offering her."

Ben nodded again. "Maybe. But another thing to consider is that Sarah is young, even by human standards. And while it is one thing to read and fantasize about romance, when it actually happens it's not exactly what one expects. The simple fact of the matter is that you tried too hard too fast, and her being as young as she is, it frightened her. If, instead, you had appeared to her as a normal person and, over time, won her heart, then you perhaps would have been able to reveal your true self to her.

Ben sighed and went on, "Instead, you must now perform damage control. The upshot here is that later on in life, she will be able to thank you for the experience she had in running your Labyrinth. It not only helped her grow as a person, but she also gained many wonderful friends along the way. And while there was some negative experiences, it was exactly that which helped her grow.

"For now, I suggest you write her a letter and apologize profusely. She's not so prideful that she won't read it. And as long as you are heartfelt and honest in your apology... Well, she may not forgive you right away, but she will eventually. And make sure you describe yourself and your actions using words that Hoggle would say about you when he thinks you can't hear him." Ben grinned and winked at this. "Trust me. It'll get a laugh out of her."

Jareth barked a laugh himself. "Of course she would. And what then?"

Ben smiled. "Then? The slow and easy approach. Don't crowd her or pressure her. But instead, give her a token – something that she will tell her that you are serious when you say the following: that no matter what, where, why, how, and when, if she ever needs help with anything at all, then she only needs to call on you. And as an aside, if she is ever feeling heartbroken, make sure that one of her friends from the Labyrinth goes to her with your blessings."

Jareth nodded as he took that all in with a thoughtful expression. "And you're certain this will have a better effect?"

Ben shrugged. "Beats sitting outside her bedroom window and leering at her," he stated glibly.

Jareth took the shot at his pride with a laugh. "Quite true, that." He then got up, saying, "I know that to you, it may seem out of character of me, but believe it or not I do appreciate your advice, Benjamin. And as such, I would like to extend to you a token of my gratitude." He then made one of his crystal balls appear in his hand and offered it to Ben. "Ask me for a favor, and I shall give it honest consideration."

Ben frowned thoughtfully at that. "There may come a time when I need to protect a young one. If such a time comes and I'm unable to protect them myself, my I wish that child away to you until the danger is past? I'll even run the Labyrinth to get them back."

Jareth smiled warmly at Benjamin. "Good sir, if your utmost concern is the safety and wellbeing of a child, I will gladly keep them safe for you. You won't even need to run the Labyrinth. However, if you wish to do it solely for sport, Me and Mine Own will certainly not mind."

Ben smiled and accepted the crystal ball. "Thank you, your Majesty," said Ben with a courtly bow.

"Though are you certain you do not need help of another nature?" said Jareth with a coy grin. "The Takamachi girl seems to be quite taken with you."

Ben groaned and Jareth laughed merrily.

"It could be nothing," said the Goblin King. "These young ones usually grow out of these infatuations." His expression then turned sober, but not unkind. "But make no mitake, Benjamin. You've made quite the impression on her, and unless I missed my guess, she on you as well. Take it from someone who knows what it is to be smitten with a younger lady."

"She's still just a child, though," said Benjamin.

"Very true," replied Jareth with a sage nod of his head. "But that is the beauty of it. If this isn't just a passing infatuation, then she will change herself to suit you. Normally, this could be very dangerous, but I know that you being the man you are, you will strive to keep her mind free and open, and remind her that she must put herself first."

"And Fate?" asked Ben.

Jareth smiled knowingly and put a hand on Ben's shoulder. "You and miss Testarossa are already far closer than you imagine. But that's enough from me. And you have a party you need to attend to."

Ben sighed and rolled his yes. "Yeah, yeah. I can only imagine how it's got to be for you, dealing with Goblin Nobility."

"You night be surprised," said Jareth with a grin. "Even if they're nobility, they're still Goblins. And Goblins know how to have fun if nothing else."

"Dance magic, dance, baby?" said Ben with a grin.

"That is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Now, go on. Your guests are waiting for you."

Back on the outside, a girl in a jet black racing jumpsuit approached the youngest tenants of Aria House. Theoretically Chihiro Fujimi was The Stig, the mysterious mute man in black who could race any vehicle without blinking even once. But in practice, it was kind of hard to be at a party and not talk to anyone, so she had given up and doffed the shiny black helmet. When Yomi had asked if she was Daft Punk, well, that was the last straw.

She conceded to herself that she had chosen kind of a lazy costume, but when it came down to choosing between spending her time fixing a bike or making a costume, well that was really no contest.

However, the Stig's current challenge was quite simple – tempting the kids to visit the Haunted House room that Benjamin had set up for them. Not that adults couldn't enjoy a few scares provided by the crew of the Tuatha de Dannan, but these sorts of things were really about the children. "Hey kids, are you interested in a test of courage?"

"Well..." Sakura demurred.

Shaoran was confident though, "I think we can pass any test, right, Sakura-chan?"

"You see, long ago, there lived a lonely woman in one of the apartments right over there." But just from this one line, Sakura already began to frown.

Tomoyo, on the other hand, picked up her camera immediately to begin recording this important memory.

Chihiro continued, "And one day, she was so lonely that she decided to leave this world... except she never made it to the other side." Sakura was shivering at this point. "They say that her spirit haunts the room to this day. But you'll never know unless you go see it for yourself, right?"

Despite the warm gulf air that night, Sakura's teeth were chattering. "I don't want to find out!"

A green haired woman in a long white robe and white hat materialized right behind Sakura. She groaned, "Come in little girl, my room is simply to *die* for!" before vanishing away.

A shrill scream cut across even the amps of 33-Stars, followed by a cry of "Ghost!"

Most people just stopped and stared, but one imitation Hatsune Miku hopped over a table and rushed towards her. She drew an ofuda from inside her bra, and threw it at the nearly immaterial woman, shouting, "AKU RYOU TAI SAN!"

The paper card exploded into a burst of fire against her face, drawing shocks of plasma from the woman as it disintegrated. Ryoko rematerialized and shouted, "Hey! That hurt, missy!"

"Oh, it's you."

"Yeah, it's me, be careful with those things!"

"Well sorry, how was I supposed to know you were only a slightly malevolent spirit?" Rei countered, and stuck out her tongue. The spell to dispel evil had worked, after all.

Ayeka marched up, held her hands against her waist and scolded, "How dare you threaten a defenseless girl like that, you insensitive clod."

"Scares are the whole point of the holiday! Stuck up princesses like you don't know how to have any fun!"

As the bickering continued, Sgt. Sagara returned his sidearm he had drawn to its holster, determining that the combatants were non-hostiles who had simply been engaged in combat readiness exercises.

Rei bent down to ask, "Are you okay, Sakura-chan?"

Still clinging to Shaoran's hand like a vise, Sakura pouted, "No."

Moments like these, Tomoyo was glad she could hide her face behind the lens. She felt truly sorry for Sakura, of course, but at the same time, she couldn't help but have the overwhelming feeling that Sakura was so moe.

After the disruption, it didn't take long for conversation to resume. Continuing on her previous topic amongst a set of science enthusiasts, Ami asked, "It should work, right? Wouldn't the chimney megastructure enable laminar flow all of the way to the mid-troposphere?"

"No, you're adding a new boundary layer with the chimney. But okay, fine, let's ignore the friction from the chimney," Brent assumed. "Even then, I still don't understand how a giant tube helps push air up."

"Why not?" Ami retorted. "If you can prevent mixing, then the air will buoyantly rise all the way to the top."

Tessa added, "And because the air is moist, it will keep rising where it couldn't before."

"You're right about the moist lapse rate keeping the air warmer than it would with the dry lapse rate, but it could do that anyway. We assume that air comes in parcels, because in practice very little entrainment happens as air moves vertically. A thermal can rise all the way to the tropopause in a thunderstorm."

"But that's an environment with similar rising motion, like you'd have in the chimney," Tessa noted.

Brent grew exasperated. "But what actually makes the air rise in the chimney? It's not like there's any magic physics going on there. Ami, it's not water, where flow is usually incompressible. The atmosphere is not isobaric. You're still relying on adiabatic processes, and the pressure in the middle of the chimney is still the weight of the column of air above it."

"But it is the physics that's important!" Ami said. "The chimney can allow you bypass an inversion layer, which is what stops most convective motion. Once you get air past that, cloud formation will release enough heat to lower the pressure and keep the air flowing upward."

"If you somehow keep the inside thermally isolated, maybe, but I'm still skeptical even before all of the material science challenges."

Kuroko kept her distance. "Be careful, we have a collection of nerds," she muttered to Mao before walking in the other direction.

Mao reacted in a way Kuroko didn't expect: she tapped Usagi's shoulder, and the two of them walked straight over to the group. "Okay, you three, break it up! Go talk with other people, Captain!"

Tessa glared at Mao, then sighed and turned back to Ami. "She's right. We can't simply discuss scientific theories with each other all night."

"Shall we continue this discussion later?"

Usagi grabbed Ami's arm. "Ami, you're being rude to everyone else. C'mon and meet Simon; he's a doctor!"

"Send me your email address – I'm ami at blossom dot displacees dot yggdrasil, all lower case..."

"Come on, Ami! Simon, this is Ami; I told you about her!" Usagi practically threw Ami at Dr. Tam.

"Really," Ben complained from his own doorway, "did you have to split them up like that? I mean, I get it, but look at it from their perspective: it's like being a kid at a boring grown up party, and then suddenly you find another kid..."

"I get what you're saying, but they can't talk with only each other!"

"But you gotta admit, those two girls are completely adorkable together!" Ben grinned and winked.

"And they get too involved in their theories," pointed out Mao from not too far away. "Tessa, at least, needs to learn how to act normally around civilians. This is the perfect place for her to learn some people skills. Isn't it, Captain?"

"Yes, Mao," Tessa sighed.

"Don't give me that attitude. Now, there's a perfectly nice person over there that's been propping up the wall for the last ten minutes. Go say hello to her."

"But I've already said hello to -"

"Go!"

Tessa raced off, almost bumping into Kaori in her haste to talk with her.

Ben chuckled. "Sometimes I forget you used to be a drill sergeant."

"Who, me? Never," Mao replied with a straight face.



Ami wandered around, looking for a conversation that show could take part in. Perhaps the one that her apartment-mate was having with Belldandy's husband?

Mii's eyes were wide. "You didn't seriously put working engines on one-sixth scale motorcycles?"

Keiichi nodded. "Not only did we really do that, we had a race around the campus on a pair of them."

"That's a decidedly different way to meet your boss. How'd it handle?"

"Like a dream."

No, she didn't know enough about mechanical engineering to be able to contribute. Ami kept wandering until she overheard something at least vaugely scientific.

"Well, I don't really know," Noike said. "This isn't my world, and I wouldn't know how to read the climate data even if I saw it. I can only trust the scientists when they tell me what patterns they see in the data."

Ritsuko nodded. "You wouldn't happen to know where to find the data, would you?"

"Sorry, no. It must be on the Internet somewhere."

"Misato's already calling it nonsense."

"I didn't know Misato was a scientist."

Ami decided that she wasn't going to get involved with that conversation. Even though she had already read the studies, she knew she wouldn't change anybody's mind at a party. The she spotted Washuu-chan, and slowly walked toward her group.

Ruiko grinned. "Oh, yes – back before the fall term started, I had to pilot a giant mecha in order to defend Academy City from an evil organization!"

"I helped..." Kazari muttered.

"Do tell," Washuu said half-distractedly.

Ami didn't interrupt; she'd heard that story before. Twice. Then she noticed that the pool was empty.

Six minutes later, she was swimming. Five minutes after that, Tessa Testarossa was doing laps beside her. After a few minutes of that, they switched to recreational swimming – much to the delight of Kurz Weber and Jayne Cobb.



Time passed, as time tends to do. People became thirsty.

Makoto looked at the bar, then turned to Mii. "What are the rules here?"

"The legal age is 21, not 19. And unlike back in Ottawa, our legal guardian can't just give us a six-pack of beer in our own apartments and let us drink it at our leisure. He has to be in our 'visible presence'."

"Rob-san has to watch us drink?"

"I think he just has to be close enough to be able to watch us."

From behind them, Rob said, "And I'm right here. Tell you what: I'll have a Bat Outta Helles. What are you two having? Nobody can complain if I'm the one who hands it to you."

Makoto grinned. "I'll try one of those Green Apple ciders."

"Good choice; Ben and I both drink Angry Orchard some times when we're at Callahan's. Mii-san...?"

"Nothing for me, thanks."

Rob grabbed a cider, poured a beer (with the glass on an angle for the first two-thirds of the pour so the head wouldn't be too high – a trick that a professional bartender had taught him), and left the ladies to their own devices while he found a chair at poolside. He spent a few moments watching Ami and Tessa swimming and playing chess at the same time, until a shadow fell across him. "Hello, Sergeant."

"Mr. Donaldson," Sousuke Sagara replied. "You have been keeping the Captain under observation for over five minutes. What is your intention?"

"I've been watching Ami-san and Ms. Testarossa to make sure they don't have a mishap in the pool."

"Are you a trained lifeguard?"

"No, but even I can raise an alarm. And I am a trained first-aid emergency responder."

Sousuke thought for a moment. "That is acceptable." And he walked away.

As Rob took a moment to watch him leave, he thought, that kid really needs to learn some social graces.



Sakaki was alone for the moment, so she decided to take a break from the crowd. She saw a lone girl in an aqua on gray sailor uniform, leaning against a white-painted brick wall reading a book, so she decided to join her against the wall.

The girl was startlingly pretty, with her short blue hair and red eyes, but she must have had some reason for being a wallflower. Eventually, Sakaki asked, "What are you reading?"

The blue haired girl replied in monotone, "An overview of Gnostic philosophy and cosmic syzygy."

"Oh." Sakaki let it hang there for a moment. What a strange thing to bring to a party, she thought. "Is it interesting?"

"About as much as can be expected," she said, elaborating no further.

A tanned girl in a gold bikini and boots stepped up, a costume matching Sakaki's silver one. "Sakaki, that's where you went off to! We should stick together tonight to give them the full Dirty Pair experience." She turned to the other person, "Oh hi, nice to meet you, I'm Kagura!"

"I am Rei Ayanami," she said, then returned immediately to her book.

"Why do you have a book?"

"For the same reason you have a weapon attached to your swimsuit."

Kagura explained, "It's not a swimsuit – well, not just a swimsuit. We're the Lovely Angels."

Rei closed the book. "It seems this female pairing definitively disproves angelic syzygy."

Kagura didn't know how to take that, so her mind wandered back to the last thing she understood. "Well, a swim would be great right about now."

"Agreed. It would be good to keep my stroke in form." It took a couple more minutes to convince Rei removing the Yuki Nagato costume wasn't enough – she definitely needed to put on a swimsuit.



"Have you seen some of the stories that people here have written about us?"

"Donaldson-san doesn't like it when we go looking for such things," replied Kuroko as she shook her head.

"Not that sort of story." Tessa frowned while towelling off her hair. "Well, I suppose that sort of story as well," she continued, "but that wasn't what I meant. Apparently, some of us have much more adventurous lives in this 'fan fiction' than we do back in our home worlds."

"Did somebody say 'fan fiction'?" Yomi joined the conversation instead of heading back to her apartment-mates and friends. Putting a plate of chile rellenos down on a nearby table — seeing whether she could get Osaka to try one would have to wait — she continued, "What's with some of those? I can understand the ones where one of us falls in love with somebody she just met —"

"You can?" While her tone was polite, Kuroko's expression was clear; she didn't believe a word of it.

"It's wish fulfillment. Who wouldn't want one of us as a girlfriend?"

And Kuroko was enlightened. "Ah. Of course. Please continue."

"The ones I can't understand are where we get into adventures of some sort."

"For some of us, it's understandable," Tessa interjected.

"If you're in charge of a mercenary unit, or you're a powerful esper, sure, it's understandable. But I'm talking about stories where somebody like me or Tomo ends up saving everybody's lives while causing millions of yen of property damage –" (Halfway across the quad, Brent sneezed.) "– or somebody like the Sailor Senshi get into fights with some super-martial artists –" (At poolside, Rob sneezed.) "– or somebody puts together a harem that's also a strike force." (Near the buffet, Ben sneezed.) "Who'd even write things like that? And why is everybody suddenly sneezing?"

They all realized who just sneezed. They looked at each other for a moment.

"No, they couldn't have."




"Miss Misaka. May I speak with you?"

Mikoto turned to see Sousuke Sagara. "I have some time. I don't give autographs, though."

"That was not my intention. It is my understanding that you have experience with using paranormal abilities in an urban combat environment."

She took a moment to parse his sentence. "Yeah, I've used my powers to fight other people, and not just in sparring."

"I am interested in testing counter-paranormal tactics in controlled conditions."

"You mean like the tactics Antiskill uses to take down an esper?"

This time, it was Sousuke who took a moment to understand the question. "Affirmative."

"Sure, that sounds like fun. When do you want to give it a try?"

"You indicated that you have some time now."

"What, during a party? Then again, it's getting boring just talking with other people. Sure, I can't think of any reason not to."

"I can," Tessa interrupted from behind them.

"Ma'am!" Soskue snapped to attention (which caught Rob and Ben's attention).

"At ease, Sergeant. This is a party. As for your idea, this is a party. A combat exercise here would likely lead to civilian casualties."

"Knowing you two," Ben added as he joined the conversation, "you'd insist on this being a live-fire exercise. While Belldandy put a set of Somebody Else's Problem filters on the entire apartment complex when we moved in, I seriously doubt that it would keep people from caring about explosions."

"What's this about a live-fire exercise?" Rob asked as he walked over. "Mikoto-kun, we're guests here. No trying to kill or maim one of our hosts."

"That was my phrase, not hers," replied Ben before the youngsters could say anything.

"Ah. Sorry, Mikoto."

"It's all right. But if we don't go all-out, how will Sgt. Sagara learn what he wants to know?"

"I'm almost afraid to ask. What do you want to know?"

"I want to test some possible counter-paranormal tactics that I've devised, in controlled conditions."

Rob raised an eyebrow. "What, now?"

"I've got time," Mikoto replied.

Rob shook his head in bemusement. "Whatever floats your boat." Everyone looked at him in puzzlement. "Have fun. Just don't inconvenience anybody else, and don't try to kill each other, okay?"

Sousuke nodded. "Understood. Non-lethal rounds only."

"And I'll pull my punches," Mikoto added. "But where are we going to fight?"

"Leave that to me!" Washuu-chan popped up between the two teens, causing Mikoto to jump and Soskue to fast-draw his pistol. "Oh, put that away. Remember that sparring area you have in Ottawa? I have a few more ready, stored in my lab."

"Really?"

Washuu stared at Rob for a moment. Completely deadpan, she asked him, "Did you really think yours was the only building that needed one?"

"Good point. Where are we going to anchor the access point?"

Ben gestured toward the building that held the access point to the onsen. "Could you put it in there?"

Washuu shook her head. "Too close to the other dimensional warp."

"How about one of the breezeways?"

"That'll work." She typed at her computer terminal (which had just manifested) for a long moment, and a doorway appeared close to the courtyard end of the closest breezeway. "It's just like the one at your place," she added, addressing her comment to Mikoto.

"Thanks."

Tessa cleared her throat. "Would it be possible to see what is taking place inside that pocket dimension? Since this is an exercise, I would like to monitor and review it."

Washuu grinned. "Sure!" She tapped a few more keys and a portal opened in front of her, lasting just long enough for a big-screen TV on a wheeled stand and a few smaller screens on a cart to roll through it. "They're tied into the video pickups in the sparring chamber."

Mikoto thought for a moment. "Does that mean there are cameras in the sparring room back home?"

"The Juraiian equivalent, yes. I don't share all of my technology; you'll have to settle for the galactic cutting-edge. Rob, don't you have a monitor attached to your pocket dimension's video feed yet?"

"I was giving the girls some privacy," he replied. "So, no."

"I can see why you'd do that." Washuu turned to Sousuke. "Your standard loadout for the beach is just inside the doorway."

"Understood." He turned and made his way to the new portal, followed by Mikoto.

They walked into a large empty room with high ceilings and a crab motif decoriating the walls. "Oh, it's still in the default setting," Mikoto half-commented, half-complained. "Is there someplace else you'd rather fight?"

"I was hoping to test my strategies in an urban environment," Soskue replied.

Mikoto thought she wasn't hiding her glee at being offered the chance to fight on her home ground. "Computer, connect to the system in the subspace pocket at Blossom Apartment and copy and load setting 'Tokyo-1'."

The air around the two shimmered, then an environment similar to side streets in Shibuya came into existence. Actual water flowed into the
riverbed at the bottom of the nearby embankment.

Mikoto stood and watched the process, trying yet again to figure out how it worked. At the end, she asked "Is this acceptable?" – only to discover that Soskue had taken the opportuntity to put some distance and cover between him and her. "Fine. Be like that." She fired off a lightning bolt in the direction she would have gone to avoid somebody like her, connecting with only empty air and a holobuilding across the road. "What, are you afraid to face someone like me face-to-face?"

Behind cover, Sousuke raised an eyebrow at the question. He wasn't afraid, just sensible – his opponent's capabilities were still unknown to him.

"Get out here and fight me, you coward!"

He didn't bother responding, except to fire three shots in her direction. Two missed, the other was deflected by her electrostatic forcefield.

Puzzled, Mikoto asked, "What was that supposed to do?"

(Outside the arena, Rob asked the same question. Mao replied, "Urzu 7 is seeing how cool she is under fire."

Kurz added, "She dodged but she didn't flinch. Supression fire isn't effective against her. Sousuke's a professional; watch and you'll see him adjust his tactics accordingly." They turned their full attention back to the fight.)

Mikoto was zapping the bench that Sousuke had taken cover behind. He loaded and launched a grenade, cracking the concrete sidewalk under her feet and making her stumble. The cloud of smoke made her cough – when it cleared, she saw he had abandoned his position. She zapped the bench again anyway. "Why did you move!?"

("Because Urzu 7 isn't stupid," Mao answered outside the arena.)

Soskue shot another grenade, taking out the ground below Mikoto's feet and exposing the soil under the pavement. Not giving her time to react, he immediately launched another round, bringing down the building that used to be behind her.

Mikoto ducked and moved her arm as if she was throwing a baseball. But the rubble from the wall buried her anyway.

Soskue waited for a moment, then waited another moment, then cautiously walked toward where he had buried Mikoto. Just as he got close enough to touch the debris, it exploded outward – making him duck and cover. Soskue got back to his feet at the same time as Mikoto, who was standing in a bubble of clear ground inside the rubble.

"I should've expected that maneuver," Sousuke admitted while retreating, not taking his eyes off her.

"Yeah, you should have. Rob-san showed me the anime where I used it." She used an electrical burst to launch herself over the pile of wreckage, landing on both feet beside him. "He also showed me the episode where I used this trick against Kamijo." Iron particles from the debris levitated, forming a flexible sword in her hand – which she immediately swung at Sousuke.

He dodged and ran, but not fast enough to get his pistol out of the way. The sword sliced it in two.

("Did she manifest a monomolecular cutter?"

"I don't think so, Mao-neesan. The edge of the cut isn't that clean."

"Don't call me that. And you're right. Oh, good; Sousuke's getting some distance from her.")

Once he was far enough from Mikoto that he could load his grenade launcher without being attacked, Soskue did so, firing a flashbang directly at her.

"Aargh! That's the second time this year that I've fallen for that trick." She couldn't hear herself say that. Realizing she was also blind, she concentrated on her electromagnetic sense, finally locating Sousuke's high-tech gear. "I should've thought of doing this earlier." She started seeing a blur and hearing a ringing in her ear. "Don't think that I'm helpless just because I'm deaf and blind, Sagara!" She advanced on Sousuke's radio... which he'd already abandoned.

Outside the chanber, Washuu noticed how Mikoro was favouring one ear. She tapped a few keys on the keyboard that was suddenly in front of her, and a microphone popped out of a subspace pocket. "That's enough, you two. Mikoto's hurt. She'll be deaf in one ear permanently if she isn't treated immediately."

Neither of the combatants reacted, being too intent on each other.

Washuu tossed the microphone to Tessa and continued to type. Tessa immediately barked out an order: "Urzu 7! Abort the exercise!"

Sousuke's head jerked up, as if he'd just noticed someone other than his opponent. "Yes ma'am!" He dropped behind cover and stayed there, hands off his weapons.

Having discovered the radio was a feint, Mikoto searched for Sousuke and advanced on his cellphone. Suddenly, she was surrounded by some very obvious forcefields, all of which were sparking electricity and disrupting her ability to maintain her weapon's form. She stopped, startled.

"That's all for now, Misaka-san," Washuu said into the microphone. (Tessa looked at her own empty hand in puzzlement; she didn't remember letting go of the microphone.) "You need medical attention if you're going to keep two working ears."

After a moment, Misaka nodded. "All right. I'll come out as soon as you let me go." Washuu tapped a few more keys on her virtual keyboard, and the computer-generated terrain in the sparring chamber disappeared (as did Sousuke's weaponry). Sousuke and Mikoto stepped out of the pocket dimension, and Washuu gave Mikoto's ear a quick dose of nanomachines.

While her hearing came back, Mikoto said, "That was fun. Anybody else want to try?"

Kurz leaned over to Mao. "I think Miss Misaka thinks she won that match."

"I'm surprised you're not on her side."

"Against Sousuke? Never. Although it looks like she'll be cute in a few yea- Ow!" Mao pulled her elbow out of Kurz's side. "Assuming she lives that long. She's a common street brawler with a gimmick."

"It's a powerful gimmick, though. We should offer to train her."

"That's up to Tessa-dono."

"'Dono'?"

"Ayeka's speech patterns are rubbing off on me. Too bad Ayeka herself isn't ru- OW!!"

Everyone turned to look at Mithril's AS pilots. "Are you all right, Mr. Weber?" Rob asked.

"I'm fine. I just have this nagging pain in my side."

Washuu grinned. "I can do something to fix you, if you want!"

"No, that's all right," he replied quickly.

Rob nodded. "You should do something about controlling the cause of that nagging pain, Mr. Weber." He turned to Mikoto. "How about letting other people play while you catch your breath, Mikoto-chan?"

"Sure. I could use a water or a juice, too."

Washuu turned to thew crowd and asked, "Who's next?" After a moment, Shirou Emiya and Artemis whispered to each other, then stepped forward. "We wouldn't mind, but we won't be as good at it as they were," Shirou said somewhat nervously.

"Oh, we'll be fine," Artemis reassured him. "But... blunt swords, please."

Washuu typed at her computer for a moment. "Bokken it is! Go right in, theyre waiting just inside the door."

They walked in and started their match. After a moment, most people stopped watching.

Most people.

"How could they think that what they're doing is swordplay?"

Rob turned and looked at the person who had made that complaint, and saw a woman wearing a costume that was no less effective for being understated. The tawny cape with the fringe reminiscent of a mane, the tights and top of the same colour that revealed her athletic build, the hint of whiskers drawn on her face with makeup – everything about Saber's outfit suggested the iconic British royal lion without actually coming out and saying it.

He raised an eyebrow. "It certainly looks like play to me. Sure, tactics like those would get them killed in a real fight, but that isn't a real fight. They're putting on a show."

"Ah. So this is like the minstrel plays, or your movies?"

"Exactly." They took another look at the monitor, to see Artemis and Shirou busy Flynning in Washuu's sparring chamber. "And it looks like they're having fun. Isn't it the point of a party to have fun?"

Saber thought for a moment. "This sort of party, yes. That doesn't mean I have to enjoy watching it."

"You, too?" They both turned to see Tenchi. "I know they're enjoying themselves, but seeing all of their mistakes -" He interrupted himself. "No, don't turn your back on your opponent!"

Rob nodded. "Yeah, even I know that that was a foolish move. And he's down."

"Mr. Masaki, would you care to show everyone what real swordplay is like?"

"I would be honored, Saber-san."

They waited until Shirou had helped Artemis out of the chamber, then (since Washuu didn't indicate anyone else was waiting to use it) walked in themselves.

A minute later, everyone who had been walking by a monitor was watching in amazement. The play of bokken against bokken, English style against Japanese/Juraian style, slash versus parry, thrust versus dodge, held everyone's attention.

Well, almost everyone's. "Give me a decent gun over a sword any day," Jayne muttered.

"Hush." Mal didn't turn to him. "I'm seeing some good techniques here. Might be worth learning 'em."



Time passed.

Small talk was made.

Some things were left unsaid.

Maya dropped herself into a chair, careful not to crease River's dress, a bottle of Freetail Bourbon Barrel Aged Local Coffee Stout in her hand. She looked at Ritsuko, sighed, and took a long drink.

Beside her, Kaorin dropped herself into a chair, careful not to put her weight on the tassels on her Roaring Twenties era dress, a bottle of C. C. Lemon in her hand. She looked at Sakaki, sighed, and took a long drink.

"You, too?"

"Yeah. I just can't tell her."

"I know the feeling."



Rob was sitting quietly, listening to Kaname, Tessa, River, Minako, and Rei Hino singing live karaoke with 33-Stars providing the instrumentals. It was ... something in Japanese. Minako and River were dancing while they were singing; the others were concentrating on the lyrics.

"Enjoying the party?"

Rob looked up to see a Japanese man wearing a old and comfortable jacket and a day's worth of stubble. "It's been fun finally meeting everyone." He stood and offered his hand. "Rob Donaldson, from Ottawa."

"Kaji Ryogi." He shook Rob's hand, then sat down beside him. "I'm with the Florida group."

"Oh, yes – Mr. Bostwick mentioned that you were one of his boarders."

"Do you always dress for the office, even at parties?"

"No, I'm dressed up as one of the Men in Black. And is that your usual outfit?"

"No, I've borrowed Mal's best outfit. It's only fair; he's borrowed mine."

"Ah, of course." Rob gestured toward the girls on stage. "Do you know what they're singing?"

"How can you not know? That's 'Memory Seishun no Hikari', one of Morning Musume's biggest hits. I'm surprised they tried it with only five people, though."

"Thanks. And I'm not Japanese, remember?"

"Oh, right. And maybe I should say it was one of Morning Musume's biggest hits before Second Impact. I understand they released more songs in this world after the disaster didn't happen."

"So I've been told. It must be difficult for you to adjust to this world."

"With your resources, abundant luxury time, and scientific advances in the last decade and a half?" Kaji grinned. "I think I can cope."

Without waiting for a break in their conversation, Ryoko teleported over and cornered Rob with all the subtlety of an Apache airstrike. "You're the one responsible for Misaka, right?"

Rob grinned sheepishly to Kaji in apology; the other man took the hint and wandered off where he could still hear the conversation. Rob took a quick look around, saw that Makoto and Ami were carefully not listening in on his conversation, and relaxed. "If by 'responsible' you mean 'is her landlord', then yes. Rob Donaldson. Pleased to meet you."

"Ah, right. I'm Ryoko. Hi. Is she always like this?"

"Looking to test herself? Unfortunately, yes. She's been subtly encouraged to think of herself as the best, and this is one way she feeds that self-image."

"Do you want her taken down a notch?"

"If I understand you correctly, that's a tempting offer, but she has school tomorrow."

"Nothing permanent or that Washuu can't fix." Halfway across the room, a petite redhead cleared her throat. "Washuu-chan. I hear you." Ryoko walked over to Mikoto. "You still looking for a challenger?"

Mikoto grinned. "Sure!"

"That pocket dimension can stand up to my powers, right?" Washuu nodded at Ryoko's question. "Let's do this."

Ben looked over. "That really isn't a good idea -"

Mikoto grinned as she interrupted him. "Hey, I beat Sagara! How hard can this be?" And the two girls headed into the sparring room.

As Ben stood there, he muttered, "Sousuke fought you to a goddamn standstill... Every goddamn fucking time I tell someone that something isn't a good idea or they should really do a certain thing to avert certain bad things I get fucking blown off like I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about..."

Rob headed for the buffet. Ruiko joined him. "Rhodes-san is right. Why are you letting Mikoto do this?"

"I can't stop them. And Ryoko-san knows that Mikoto has school tomorrow."

They both turned away from the monitor that showed what was happening in the sparring room. "I can't watch this."

"I don't want to see it, either."

There was a flash of actinic light from the monitor, followed by a collective gasp. Kuroko, Ami, Simon, and Sakura all ran toward the sparring room's door – but Washuu got there first, with an antigrav stretcher. "All of you, stay out here. I'll take care of Misaka-san." As she headed into the sparring room, the door to her lab appeared immediately across the hall. Half a minute later, Washuu took Mikoto out of one pocket dimension and into the other, closing the doors before Kuroko could follow.

Six minutes later, the door to Washuu's lab opened again. Kuroko raced in, the door closed and disappeared behind her, and Ryoko finally stepped out of the sparring room. "She's going to be okay. I made sure I didn't hit her anywhere vital, and I pulled my punch."

"You punched her into the wall! And your hand was glowing!"

"Dr. Tam!" Everyone turned to look at Rob. "That's enough. Let Washuu-chan take care of Mikoto, and trust Ryoko to know what she's doing."

"Miss Misaka's probably suffering from internal injuries ..."

"That Washuu-chan knows how to treat. And Washuu-chan is Mikoto's on-call physician. You are not the only doctor here, Simon. If Washuu-chan needs your help, she'll ask."

In the lab, Kuroko was pacing back and forth. She'd already tried teleporting to Mikoto's side, only to be confounded by Washuu's teleport blocks. She knocked on the door – again.

Finally, it opened. As soon as Washuu let her in, Kuroko raced to Mikoto's side. "Oneesama!"

"Kuroko! I'm okay!"

"You're laying in what appears to be a hospital bed. You are not all right. Oneesama, you really need to learn when you're outmatched. Nobody likes seeing their friends hurt... oh, that's what Kazari meant, that time when I fought Musujime."

"Is that who put you in a wheelchair for a while?" At Kuroko's nod, Misaka continued, "We're both a little slow that way, aren't we?"

"Just a bit, yes. But we aren't talking about me, we're talking about you. Oneesama, please, stop trying to defeat the whole world on your own. Or perhaps I should say 'all the worlds,' given what we've learned here."

"I'm not –"

"Yes you are! You never ask for help! Even Kamijo had to nearly die before you would accept his help in saving your sisters' lives!"

"How do you know about that!?" Mikoto tried to sit up, then collapsed onto the bed. "Ow ow ow ow ow."

As Washuu walked over and helped Mikoto settle back into the bed, Kuroko answered, "The library up the road from our apartment building has free uncensored wi-fi. Kazari found our story – your story, I should say – on the web."

"You don't mind that it's my story and not our story in those books and shows?"

"Oneesama, if it is my fate to be a supporting character in somebody else's story, it pleases me be a supporting character in your story. But I have to be a supporting character. Let me help. Don't be like Atlas, carrying the vault of heaven on your own shoulders." (Off to the side, Washuu nodded, impressed that Kuroko got the reference right.) "I know that you don't love me the way that I love you, but we're still close friends, aren't we? Let me be there for you. Let me stand beside you when you face your foes, or your fears. Let me watch your back. Don't share just the good times with me. Let me help. Please. Onegai."

"Kuroko, I can't let you jeopardize your position in Judgment for me."

"We're not in Academy City right now. Judgment isn't going to know what I do here, unless Kazari or Mii-sempai tells them."

After a moment, Mikoto said, "I'll think about it."

"You'll think about it as in you'll think about it, or you'll think about it as in you aren't going to embarrass me in front of Washuu-chan by saying 'no' where she can hear you?"

Mikoro reached over and took Kuroko's hand. "You're my dear friend, Kuroko. You deserve an honest answer, but I don't have one for you yet. I'll think about it. Really."

"Thank you, oneesama. Mikoto. Now, where are your sisters?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Washuu-chan kept me out of the room for longer than it would take you to preserve your modesty. There had to be something or someone in here that you didn't want me to see."

The door at the side of the room opened, and four girls who looked like Mikoto walked in. "You are correct, Misaka 10032 says, confirming your assumption," the first girl through the door said.

Washuu cleared her throat. "Girls..."

"I thought that she would know who I am if I used my serial number, Niiko Misaka explains. We did not have these names in Academy City, Niiko Misaka clarifies."

"I am Misaka 10339, Kokono Misaka says in self-identification," the second girl through the door added.

"I am Misaka 19090, Rei Misaka says in echo of her clone-sister," said the third girl through the door.

"And saving the best for last, I am Misaka 13577, says Nana Misaka."

"You are not the best; there is no discernible difference between us, Kokono Misaka complains."

"Oh, but there is," Washuu interrupted. "Nana has a sense of humour."

"I hope that was a joke, Niiko Misaka whispers."

Kuroko shook her head. "I see differences between you. Niiko, wasn't it? You walk with slightly more self-assurance than the others, although none of you carry yourselves the way that oneesama does. But of course you would be more self-assured, since you know firsthand instead of through your link that somebody cares about you. While you are all wearing copies of the Tokiwadai school uniform, Rei's uniform is tailored just slightly more neatly than the others'; you have obviously customized it as much as you could. Kokono's hair is slightly longer than anyone else's. And Nana is carrying..." At this point, Kuroko's voice flattened in disgust. "... a Gekota telephone."

The clones looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, Niiko said, "She is a member of Judgment, after all, Niiko Misaka comments."

"She is also a close friend of the Original, Kokono Misaka adds. She would be in a position to notice these things."

"We appreciate the comments from an expert, and will endeavor to eliminate the differences that have started to appear between us, Nana Misaka says in appreciation."

"No." Everyone turned to look at Mikoto. "I don't want cookie-cutter sisters. I want you to be individuals. Listen to your Original; develop your own strengths instead of being all the same."

"We will consider your words, Nana Misaka promises ... adding 'oneesama' after a brief pause."

"The joke loses something when it is narrated, Niiko Misaka complains."

Mikoto grinned. "Then you'll have to work on expressing your emotions the same way that the rest of us do."

"Shirai-san, what do you think of us now that you've met us, Kokono Misaka asks."

"I've barely had a chance to get to know any of you, but I think we could be friends."

"The same way that you are friends with the Original, Niiko Misaka asks with some trepidation."

"I take objection to the trepidation. Only Oneesama is Oneesama."

"I'm flattered. I think." Mikoto yawned.

"Okay, everybody out! Let your neesan rest." Washuu herded everyone through the door that the Sisters had entered the room by.

As the door closed behind them, Kuroko said, "As I was saying, only Oneesama is Oneesama, but you're all so much like her!" She grinned and reached for the closest Misaka with both hands.

Niiko – the subject of Kuroko's attention – summoned up an electrical charge and zapped Kuroko. "While it is possible that one or more of our clone-sisters might return your interest, I am not that clone-sister, Niiko Masaka states with conviction while realizing the trepidation was justified."

"You are like her!"

Washuu cleared her throat. "No fighting right beside Mikoto's hospital room, girls."

Niiko nodded. Kuroko looked contrite for a short moment, then said, "Changing subjects, the four of you should meet everyone else. Please come and join the party."

"Our existence is supposed to be secret, Niiko Misaka states without very much conviction."

"We already know you exist," Kuroko pointed out.

"This is a costume party. We do not have costumes, Rei Misaka points out."

"Leave that to me!" Washuu conjured her terminal and began typing. "Keiichi told me about a television series about a group of siblings who went around the world rescuing people in trouble, and I can make their uniforms for you. Can we go with that?"

"That would be acceptable, Kokono Misaka agrees for everyone."

Rob looked over Washuu's shoulder at what was displayed on the screen. "FAB."

"When did you get here?"

"When Washuu-chan let me in, of course. Shouldn't I be concerned about my foster daughter's health, and want to pay her a visit?"



Benjamin sighed as he watched the party from one of the unoccupied tables in the courtyard. It weighed on him, but in a good way. There was just his monumental feeling that comes of one seeing his actions come to fruition in such a huge way – that despite the efforts everyone else put into is, he was responsible for all this.

And really, it was a resounding success. Everyone was mingling outside of their usual circles. Granted, he and Rob had to get the ball rolling, introducing people to each other and encouraging them all to socialize.

And now, everyone had someone else to talk to.

Everyone but him.

He didn't like it, but he knew that it only stood to reason: he was no super genius, had no fantastical powers, didn't pilot any sort of mecha or space ship. And sure, he had some time in the US Navy, it was nothing compared the the experiences of everyone else. He had just been a maintenance technician. No more. No less.

He had nothing of any real value to contribute except empty small talk.

"Hello Rodes'-san!" came Nanoha Takamachi's voice out of the blue, mildly surprising him and immediately drawing his attention to the girl. With her was Fate, and they were holding hands – together already just like the couple they would be in the future.

"Ah, Takamachi-san, Miss Testarossa," said Ben amiably. "I hope that you two are enjoying the party."

"Unh!" replied Nanoha happily as Fade nodded with a smile. "We've been having a great time! I never ever thought I'd get to meet these people. I've been having a lot of fun telling Fate about the things they've done. But the only person I haven't had a chance to talk to yet is you, Rodes'-san."

"Pfah," replied Ben. "I ain't anyone special. The only thing that makes me special at all is that I've seen some anime that happen to have you people in them."

"Well," said Nanoha a bit slowly. "What do you think of me?"

Ben smiled mildly. How adorable, he thought to himself. Why would she want to know that from me, though?

"Hmmm," said Ben thoughtfully. "I think you're a wonderful person. You're brave and courageous. You have a strong heart. You're not afraid to stand up for what you believe in, and standing against someone, even if you might get hurt. Everything about you is beautiful, Na-" Ben stopped himself short of using her given name, as that was being too forward in Nanoha's culture. So, instead he corrected himself. "...Takamachi-san."

"Please," said the girl. "I want you to be my friend. So call me Nanoha instead."

"Alright then," said Ben, his smile broadening but still seemingly wistful. "Then you can call me Ben or Benjamin."

"I like the sound of Benjamin," said Nanoha. "It has a nice sound to it. So, why are you by yourself over here?"

Ben shrugged. "Well, like I said, I'm no one special. And to be honest, with as much as I know about the people here, I think that it's best if I just let them be. It'd feel so weird for someone that already knows them all so well to interfere."

"But that's not your fault, Benjamin," said Nanoha. "And I think you are special. Someone who's willing to help people like us... You're a very good and wonderful person for wanting to help."

"I try to be," said Ben. "But in my experience... that's not always enough. The world wants a lot more from me than I can give sometimes."

"What do you mean?" asked Nanoha.

Ben sighed and then looked at the two, and then looked right into Fate's eyes.

There was something there in those eyes of hers. Oh, they were beautiful, alright. Not at all like the strange pinkish-blue of an albino's eyes. But instead, her irises were a vivid ruby-red, through and through, glimmering like a ruby reflecting light.

But beyond the sheer beauty of her eyes... there was something there. Some sort of longing and... hope? But hope for what, Ben wondered. But even so, Ben knew a kindred spirit when he saw one. While Nanoha's eyes were filled with love and joy, Fate's were filled with the somber repose that only the abused could have.

"Go ahead and have a seat, you two," said Ben. "This is gonna take a bit to explain."

Nanoha and Fate both eagerly went to the other side of the table, still hand-in-hand as they sat together and looked to Ben with suspenseful gazes.

He sighed before he went on, "Miss Testarossa?"

"You can call me Fate," she said quietly, but clearly enough for Ben to understand her, even as she shyly looked down. "If you're Nanoha's friend... then you're my friend, too."

"Okay then Fate," said Ben, causing her to look up with a hopeful smile. "But only as long as you call me by my name, too," he said small wink.

"Of course!" replied the girl as Nanoha beamed happily.

Ben sighed again. He hated to kill the mood, but he felt that the two needed to understand...

"Fate, the thing is that you and I are alike in the sense that we've both been abused by our parents."

Nanoha's face fell instantly and Fate gasped as she covered her mouth.

"Don't worry," said Ben. "I wasn't beaten like you were by Precia. Though some might say that what I had was just as bad."

"What do you mean?" asked Fate with a worried tone.

"Psychological abuse," said Ben. "My scars are all up in here," he said, pointing up at his head. "And down here, too," he said, this time pointing down at his heart. "You see, when we're children, we take in everything we see and hear. It's very hard to override the things we learn when we're young. And that is what makes child abuse so terrible. It programs a child to think exactly what the abuser tells them."

Ben saw the tears brimming in Fate's eyes, and he knew for sure that she was remembering every horrible thing Precia had ever told her. So he reached out and took her hands in his own in an effort to show his solidarity with her.

He went on, "My father... He called me an idiot. A moron. A dumb shit. When I could not complete jobs to his perfectionist standards, he started calling me 'Half-a-Job'. But then after that, he took it back, said, 'No, you're not even a half-a-job, you're a Tenth-of-a-Job.'

"And what was worse was that my younger brothers would see this, and they took it to mean that they were better than me. They'd come inside my room, destroy my treasured possessions, and even kill my pet fish. And my father absolutely refused to let me have a lock on my door, because he didn't want me to be able to hide anything from him, never minding the fact that he'd have a key of his own.

"That was my childhood. When I was in my second year of high school I dropped out because I couldn't do it anymore. I was bullied everywhere I went and nothing anyone did ever helped. And when I was twenty, I was so dysfunctional that I couldn't live on my own without support.

"The only thing that kept me from actively planning my own suicide was that I knew it would have destroyed my mother. She will never say it to anyone, but I know: I am her favorite, and only because I am so much like her that it hurts her to see me hurt. She sees herself in me – her little gender-flipped carbon copy. And I did not want to be so selfish as to inflict the sort of pain that my end would have brought her.

"I have been there, Fate. I have been so miserable, lonely, and crushed that I wanted my life to end."

He hadn't meant for it to come out, but it had anyhow. Nanoha looked on in dumb-founded horrification. And Fate...

Fate charged around the table and wrapped her arms tightly around Benjamin, burying her face against his chest, quietly sobbing as her tears soaked through his shirt.

Ben put an arm around her, slowly rubbing her back in an effort to quietly comfort her.

"I'm still here, though," he said quietly. "Just like you. I'm still here."

Nanoha suddenly appeared at his other side, putting her arms around both Ben and Fate as tears slowly fell from her eyes. She knew she liked Benjamin the moment she saw him. There was just something about him that called to her – exotic, enticing, and powerful.

But what he revealed... and what he was doing for Fate in doing so...

Nanoha Takamachi swore to herself that day that she would make Benjamin as much a part of her life as Fate was.

No matter what obstacles stood in her way.



Meanwhile, from the mezzanine of the second floor, Momoko and Shiro watched.

"Dammit," cursed Shiro softly. "Even in a different Earth, why the hell does there have to be such horrible stories."

"I'm surprised," said Momoko, comforting her husband with a touch. "Normally that's not what a man is concerned with when his youngest daughter is hugging a man that age."

Shiro scoffed. "As if I could bring myself to feel anger towards a man like him. I can't even imagine what that was like. My father was tough on me, but he never did anything or said anything to make me feel like I had no value." He then sighed. "Though you're right about our little girl. This is going to be an issue."

"You think so?" asked Momoko.

"You told me she never left my side when I was in the hospital. She did that because she didn't know what she could do to help. We might as well have just gift wrapped her and Fate for that man."

Momoko sighed. "Aren't you being a little melodramatic?"

"Maybe," admitted Shiro. "But that still leaves us in a very awkward position. And him as well. I know that he won't do anything inappropriate with them. But..."

"No, I understand. She won't either. But she will want to spend a lot of time here. It was bad enough with Fate. You know that they share the same futon every time?"

Shiro nodded. "Even if I had the heart to separate them, I doubt that I could with their bodies being that tangled together. I couldn't even tell whose limbs were whose."

"Well, we should probably start planning for the worst," said Momoko.

"I'll talk to them, make sure they know they can't go gallivanting off. All girls have to have their first case of heartbreak."

"Shiro. Let's take him with us."

He shot his wife a shocked look. "Back to the Midoriya!?"

Momoko shook her head. "Back to Uminari City."

"Why?"

"Belldandy said that everyone gets a wish. One wish only." She then said and said, "If our little girl really has fallen for him... then I'll wish for him to go back with us."

"But he's already middle-aged. He's going to be almost fifty by the time Nanoha can marry him."

"I'll ask Washu-chan if she can do something about his age. I'd be surprised if she can't."

Shiro sighed. "I'm not trying to fight you on this. As her mother, this is your prerogative... but, why?"

"If he was just a child, would you have adopted him?"

Shiro blinked. "If I had even seen a little bit of what he said? Anything to get him away from that... person."

Momoko nodded. "There are so many people in the world that deserve another chance. Fate is lucky that Nanoha came into her life. Our little girl isn't the type to just give up on someone. And she's not going to give up on Benjamin now."

"Can we actually do this?" he asked.

Momoko nodded. "Nanoha can take care of herself. She's shown recently that she is a lot more capable than we ever gave her credit for. She's a good girl that way. And him? He's the type to fall all over himself to pull his weight. We might actually have to get him to hold back a bit."

"That won't be all," said Shiro with a sigh. "I hope that Washu-chan really can make him a kid again, because otherwise that is something that never really heals. As he is now, he's cursed for life. But if we can give him another childhood... then he might have a bit of a chance."

Momoko nodded. "I once read something on the internet. How people would come to this person, on the brink of losing to depression, begging for any help. He said that he admired these people. They weren't weak at all. After all, they'd made it to his door despite the odds. To him, they were like soldiers trapped for years behind enemy lines, lost in a jungle, no weapon, no ammunition, starving and so sick that they're starting to hallucinate monsters in the shadows. And they're crying out, 'I'm not dying out here! Give me anything, even if it's just a stick!'"

Shiro looked into his wife's eyes at that, and saw that they were glistening with tears threatening to spill over. But there was no real sadness there – only a heartfelt empathy.

"Benjamin wants a stick," she said. "Let's give him a set of kodachi instead and teach him how to use them."

In that moment, Shiro was reminded how beautiful and magnificent his wife is, and exactly where Nanoha got it from. As he held his wife close, his only hope was that Benjamin understood the precious treasure that seemed to have fallen in his lap.



The door to Washuu's lab appeared again, and Washuu and Kuroko helped Mikoto walk back out to the party.

Kaname was the first to notice. "Welcome back!" she smiled as she stood up.

"Thanks," Mikoto replied as she settled into the chair that Kaname had just vacated. "Oh, but I'm neglecting my responsibilities. Everybody, I'd like you to meet my Sisters."

The five clones who had been holed up in Washuu's lab for the last two weeks stepped out into the party. The four who looked to be Misaka's age were dressed as International Rescue pilots, while the youngest one was wearing a Pichu outfit. "Hiiii, Misaka Misaka cries in happiness!"

"You're so cuuuute!"

"Myaah!"

Everybody else got out of the way of Sasami and Ryo-Ohki... and Sakaki. Rob wondered for a moment why Akari wasn't rushing over as well, then he realized he hadn't seen her or President Aria for a while. He wondered where they'd wandered off to. Turning his attention back to the people in front of him, he said, "It's good to see you again, Misaka Misaka. And it's good to see the rest of you, as well. And I apologize again for not introducing myself to you when we met. Hello, I'm Rob Donaldson."

"Hello, Donaldson-san, Misaka Niiko replies."

As the clones introduced themselves to the party-goers, Osaka wondered, "Why are there so many Misakas?"

"They're cheaper by the dozen," Brent quipped.

Osaka just frowned, but Yomi smiled, and explained further "Actually, they made 20000 Misaka clones. Buy in bulk and save!"

"If they made that many, how did they pick the next one?"

Aika elaborated, "I think they were all in the same cloning tank, and they all just had to hope that the crane would pick her." She held out her palm face down, lowered it, and then drew her fingers together.

"Exactly," Yomi deadpanned, "It was all set up like a giant crane game."

"Oh, I get it," Osaka was enlightened. "I guess you'd get real good at the crane if you had 20000 plays."

"Yeah, he was a crane master," Aika said, her smile a little too wide.

Yomi kept a straight face, "Actually, he was an esper. I believe the ability is called Golden Claw." The capital letters were clearly pronounced.

"Oooooh claaaaw!" Tomo nasalized.

Osaka excused herself, "I gotta ask 'em about it." As soon as her back was turned, Yomi, Tomo and Brent's smiles came out in full force. She walked up to a couple of Misakas, and asked, "So how long was it until y'all were saved by the Golden Claw?"

"Misaka Kokono does not comprehend, Misaka Kokono says, hoping that she can evade this attempt at proselytizing."

As Osaka did her own thing, Brent began educating the youngsters, "You know, crane games were actually invented in ancient Babylon."

"Really?" Sakura asked.

"Of course. When they designed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the people who lived near the garden wanted to eat fruits from the trees in the hanging baskets, but it was really hard to get there with ladders to harvest them. So they invented the crane to pick the fruit."

"Oh, that makes sense," Shaoran nodded.

"But it was really hard back then. They didn't have a joystick or electricity, so you had to have a horse and a donkey, one for each direction, to move the claw. So they walked in a giant hamster wheel, back and forth."

"Whoa," Sakura was impressed.

A hand formed into the shape of a crane above my head, and began lowering. The hand grabbed onto a tuft of Brent's auburn hair and began pulling him backwards. "Alright, that's enough," Yomi warned.

"And then if you had a mule, that's when things got really confusing!"

"Yeah, yeah," Yomi dismissed.



Brent pulled a tissue out of his tux jacket pocket, and blew his nose. "Dammit, every time I come to East Texas my allergies get terrible. Must be some plant that hates me." He sneezed again, and once again attempted to clear his nose. "Wish I could get rid of these allergies."

He saw a spike of red hair swiftly weave its way through the crowd like a shark about to capture its prey. When Washuu finally approached, her teeth gleamed through her wide smile. "I couldn't help but overhearing, but I have the most fascinating immunological theories I've been wanting to test out in humans. Interested in being my guinea pig?"

"Um, well... yes?"

As she guided him toward her lab, Washuu wondered why she was worried earlier about whether she'd have fun at the party.



"I'm Sakura Matou. Pleased to meet you."

"Hi! I'm Sakura Kinomoto. Pleased to meet you."

"What a coincidence, us having the same given name."

"And I can feel that we both have magic ability. Didn't your magic tell you already? There is no such thing as coincidence."

Ms. Matou thought back to her appearance in Montreal, along with Rin Tohsaka and the other Grail War participants. "You're right. There isn't such a thing as coincidence. Are we supposed to get to know each other?"

"Maybe! So... Where do you live?"



"But you'd be a great undine! You have a family name related to water and a given name that begins with 'A'!"

Aika looked cross. "It takes more than that to be an undine, Tomo."

"And I would much rather be a doctor," Ami added as she moved her knight to put Tessa in check.

Tessa took the knight with her bishop and announced, "Mate in three. And you shouldn't have let our new friends distract you like that."

Ami turned her full attention to the board for a moment... then tipped her king. "I agree, on both counts. Who was next?"

She didn't get an answer, because Tomo Takino chose that moment to state quite loudly, "No, I'm going to marry Tenchi!"

Benjamin headed for Tomo, quickly. "Excuse us for a second..." he said as he pulled Tomo aside. "I really do hope you're just funning us, Tomo. Because he's not marrying just one of them. He's eventually going to marry all of them."

"Wait a minute – there are places where a man can have more than one wife?" Rei Hino almost broke the sound barrier running over to Mamoru and Usagi.

Benjamin, however, was a little quicker on the uptake. The moment he saw the look in Rei's eyes he knew what was going to happen. So, to the casual observer, what Ben did next was utterly uncanny.

He quickly interposed himself between Rei and her intended targets, stopping Rei cold in her tracks with a laser-precise Itachi Uchiah style finger-poke to her forehead.

"Gyah!" cried out Rei. "What are you doing!?"

Benjamin's tone was calm, but still managed to convey a sense of urgency. "We need to talk. Now. Before you do something you might regret later."

"Why? What do you know that could possibly make a difference."

Benjamin raised an eyebrow and decided to go for broke. "You hate your father. Your first kiss was your father's assistant who turned you down flat. You have a cousin who is something of a tortured artist that you care for deeply. You want to be an idol, but you're torn between your dreams and the sense of responsibility you have towards your family. You... you love Usagi-chan like a sister, and you two even fight like sisters sometimes, but you can never stay angry at her for very long because you love her so much."

Rei might have gotten scared. She might have gotten angry. But for a brief moment she saw something in Benjamin's eyes. It was just for the briefest moment... but for that moment, Rei could have sworn that he looked like he was about to start crying.

Right at the same time that he said that she loved Usagi like a sister, and that she could never stay angry at her.

That made Rei actually think about him: for the very first time she began to wonder who this man really was under the cool, yet affable façade he wore.

"All right. We'll talk. Upstairs, your apartment."

"Woah. Mood killer," Tomo groused as Ben and Rei left.



Rob looked around. "Where did Brent and Ben go?" he muttered.

"Who knows?" Terry replied.



"Chidori, I think we're being watched."

"We're at a party, of course people are watching us."

"Something's wrong. I swear I've seen that same tree somewhere else." Sousuke pointed in the direction of Osaka in costume, who was surrounded by Sailor Senshi.

"I'm Ayumu Kasuga, but everybody calls me Osaka. Pleased to meet'cha."

Usagi's eyebrows headed for her forehead. "Kasuga? Like in Kimagure Orange Road?"

Osaka nodded. "Uh-huh! Same kanji and everything!"

"Does that mean you're an esper?"

"She couldn't be," Ruiko complained. "Dual Skill, like the Kasuga family had, is a myth."

"Er..." Everyone turned to Kazari. "You were in a coma when Kiyama-sensei demonstrated Multiskill."

Osaka looked hopeful. "That being the case... how do you become an esper?"

"With assistance from scientific research, each potential ability user is induced to create their own Personal Reality. It's like you live in a universe where being able to use your powers is its own natural law."

"Oh, that sounds right easy!"

Kazari continued, "I'm afraid it's a complex process, taking years to fully develop." She continued to explain, but Osaka's mind was elsewhere.

She mumbled to herself, "I'm in mah own world. I'm in mah own world. I'm in mah own world."

"What are you doing?" Ruiko asked.

"I'm becoming an esper. Watch!" She called out, "Accio cake!" and stared over at the buffet table. After a few seconds, she began squinting, then chanting, "I'm in mah own world."

"I wouldn't expect—"

A plate with a wedge of chocolate cake hovered up to about six inches above the buffet table, then began to slowly drift towards Osaka. And then as quickly as it began, the plate fell swiftly to the ground, landing icing-first.

"Aw, dang! I guess I'm no good at esperin' after all."

Kazari's jaw went slack. Ruiko yelped, "What? How?" with just a tinge of jealousy.

"Is she a Gemstone?"

Rin's ears perked up, and she turned around right away, "What are we talking about, girls?"



Washuu finally stepped out of her lab, a quarter-hour after Brent had left with clear sinuses. "I guess I'd better let everybody know I'm still okay." She almost immediately bumped into Kazari, cracking the paper-maché "rigging" of the costume she was wearing.

"Oh! I'm sorry, I wasn't watching where I was going."

"I'm sorry, Uiharu-san. Or should I say Hatsuharu-san? I just stepped out of my lab without looking. And I broke your costume."

Kazari looked to her side, and saw the fake turret hanging loosely. "And I spent so long on that, too."

"I wouldn't have thought of you as the type to carry around a weapon system."

"Well... Donaldson-san showed us an episode of a television show where people at a Halloween party got the abilities of the people they were dressed like, and I thought if that was to happen here, somebody should be ready for an attack."

"What are the odds of something like that happening, though?"

"What are the odds of all of us being in the same universe?"

Washuu grimaced. "Sorry about that. But I take your point. Here, let me make a replacement for that for you."

"Oh, you don't need to do that. I was thinking of taking it off anyway, it was getting heavy."

"I'll fix that, too. Come with me."

"Just let me tell somebody that I'll be with you for a while."

Washuu grinned. Back into the lab!



Brent strolled up to the person who possessed the original regalia that his costume was only imitating. "Wow. You like totally smell like roses."

Mamoru agreed, "I always carry a few, for self-defense. Can't be too careful. So I take it Washuu's surgery worked?"

"Yeah, like, there are smells everywhere." He switched gears, "Say, how do you throw the roses?"

"It's all in the wrists," he replied with a coy smile.

"Oh, come on! You can't buy long-stemmed attack darts in the store."

Fujitaka walked by and asked the pair, "Have you seen the kids? It's getting close to their bedtime."

"I couldn't agree more," Mamoru concurred.

"Oh! There they are!"

And sure enough both Shaoran and Sakura were doting on Usagi, he with a crimson face, and she emitting a hearty, "Hanyan~."

As Fujitaka walked off, Brent told Mamoru, "Jealous of twelve year-olds much?"

"I have to admit that it's much more enjoyable on the receiving end of that kind of attention. Even if it got... awkward at times."

"You don't have to worry about them. It's the moon magic. They're so sensitive to the pull of the moon that they have a tendency to crush on whoever has some," Brent elaborated. "It was pretty much inevitable that they'd fall in love at first sight with her."

"Ah!"

"But it will wear off soon enough. Those kids are so in love with each other, they'll get over it fast. Nothing to worry about."

"I'm not really worried about it—I trust Usako enough to be over here talking to you. Just... jealous."

"Yeah," Brent nodded. "Though, Usagi will probably appreciate the sentiment."

He laughed, "Probably so."

In the next few minutes, the Halloween party's remaining children were all rounded up just as they were coming down from their sugar highs, and placed snugly inside the guest room beds.


Chapter 4. The After-Party

Chiyo Mihama had managed to convince Sakaki that she was old enough to stay out with the adults – no easy argument when her pouting was so damned cute. But she was a centimeter taller than when she arrived in this Universe, barely a month ago. She was the same age as Misaka Mikoto, and her senior in education – pretty soon she was going to look the part.

But as the night wore on and the drinking intensified around her, Chiyo regretted to note that perhaps the children are sent to bed so that the adults get their own chance to act silly.

Of course, there were some adults among her friends who were always silly. Case in point: Seeing Usagi standing at Mamoru's side, Brent pointed her out to Sousuke Sagara, remarking, "She reminds me of the babe."

Tomo queried, "What babe?"

"The babe with the power."

"What power?"

"The power of Moon-dew."

"Who do?"

"She do."

"Do what?"

"Reminds me of the babe."

"What babe?"

"No, What's on second."

Tomo argued, "I'm not asking you who's on second!"

"Who's on first."

"That's what I'm asking you!" she was exasperated. "Who's on first?"

Yomi got the attention of the confused soldier and gestured he should turn away. "They'll stop if you ignore them."

Nearby, James facepalmed and muttered, "Abbot and Costello do not Magic Dance."



"What's the old phrase? Poke the bunny? I wouldn't mind poking that bunny." Jayne grinned.

"It's 'poodle', not 'bunny', and the phrase doesn't mean what you think it does," replied Kurz. "But I know what you mean."

Where neither they nor Mii could see, Rob glared at both men for a quick moment.



The door to Washuu's lab appeared on the wall, and Washuu and Kazari stepped out.

Kazari's costume was more true-to-source than it had been before she arrived. The shipgirl rigging was made of metal, the V-shaped device above her head was hovering there instead of being held up by a wire, and the turrets were hovering nearby instead of being docked to the rigging's robotic arms. "You really didn't need to do all this for me, Washuu-chan."

"Nonsense! If I'm going to do a job, I'm going to do it properly!"

"But I don't like the idea of getting into a fight."

"You don't need to. But I know you can use that sensor array..." Washuu pointed at the V-shaped device. "...in your usual work. That's why I set it up so you could summon it separately from the rest of your rigging."

"Summon?"

"The bracelet that you're now wearing under your right glove. Channel your esper ability through it." Kazari did so, and the rigging disappeared. So did her gloves, to show a bracelet with two gems. "Focus your power on either gem and the sensor array will manifest. Focus your power on both and you'll summon your entire rigging, and switch your clothes if you aren't wearing a middy dress."

Kazari did so, and the gloves and rigging returned. "I don't know if I can accept this, Washuu-chan."

"This was just something I whipped up on short notice. It's no big deal."

"In that case, thank you. How do I read the data from the array?"

"It has a boosted-range but otherwise standard Bluetooth connection. Here's the software for your laptop." Washuu handed Kazari a USB memory stick. "Oh, and don't tell anyone, okay? If it gets out that I can make these, everybody will want one!"

They heard a chuckle from behind them. "Not everybody."

"Hi, Rob-san! What do you think of the upgrade?"

"Do the weapons work?"

Washuu nodded. "They're functionally equivalent to 12.7cm guns and 61cm torpedo launchers, just like in the game."

"What about recoil?"

"They're on antigrav mounts. What recoil?"

"I see." He turned to Kazari. "You could get into some deep legal trouble if you use those in Canada. I want you to promise you won't even show them off unless you're in a situation where you need that kind of firepower."

Kazari nodded. "Yes, sir." Then she smiled. "Or should I say 'Yes, Admiral'?"

All three of them laughed. "Thank you, Kazari. Oh, and I think I didn't say this yet: you look cute in a dress."

She smiled. "Thank you, Rob-oji." Then she yawned.

"You'd better get some sleep. Do you remember where your apartment is?" She nodded, turned, and waved as she headed for bed. Rob watched her for a moment, then turned back to Washuu. "I overheard Rui-chan boasting to you earlier about the one time she was allowed to operate an airfield loading mech."

"That's the giant mecha she piloted to defend Academy City?" Washuu asked.

"To be fair, Judgment didn't have a lot of time to gather the people and hardware that they needed. They were lucky to have the one mecha that they did."

"Only one? How did Saten-san get to pilot it, then?"

"Everybody else involved in the defense of the scientific symposium had esper abilities."

"Ah." Washuu thought for a moment. "She's still young. I'll let her keep a happy memory of her moment of glory."

"About that... well... what kind of favours will it cost me to get a Patlabor style mech for Ruiko by Christmas?"

Washu-chan raised an eyebrow. "I could do it. The question is, are you prepared to deal with the potential property damage?"

"I'll find someplace for her to practice. The federal government actually has a big swath of open space ringing the core city; there must be someplace in that 'Greenbelt' where she can practice. And better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it, right?"



Shirou was in front of Kurz, blocking his path. "In the name of all that's holy, Weber-san, don't do this!"

Jayne was physically holding Kurz back. "What he said. Even I know it's just wrong. It's a whole other thing if she wants it, but they was sex slaves. They don't know any better. Don't fuck 'em around by fucking 'em."

Kurz stopped trying to get out of Jayne's grip. "They were slaves? I... I didn't know." After a moment, he added, "I'm sorry."

Jayne almost let go, but he kept one hand on Kurz's shoulder. "Let's go get a couple of beers. Away from the 33-Stars."

"Yeah." After a moment, Kurz added, "I didn't know you had a moral compass, Jayne."

"I got nothin' against whores now mind, but that's a whore that wannabe a whore. A whore that don't wannabe a whore is a whole different bunch a somethin'."



"So what's it like?"

The question had lingered on his lips.

Meg inhaled, seeming to inflate her chest, threatening to burst free of her outfit. Hazelnut eyes fixed him with a sultry stare. For an instant, a glint of energy shone inside them. "Give me a few moments and I can show you."

A soft trill in her voice sent a thrill rushing through his body. Blood rushed through his his body, heart racing with desire. For one instant, nothing else in the world existed. Nothing beyond the rust-haired beauty in front of him.

Her posture relaxed, the pressure on his mind easing in an instant. In a moment, it ended, leaving his head clear and his body echoing with the remnants of a hollow desire.

"That was intense," he caught his breath. Anger flashed through him. "And that wasn't what I meant."

Meg gave him a mollifying smirk for a moment, before her expression softened into a genuine smile.

"I ride Deliveroo most days and we're still trying to get more than change as a band, Sylvie still hates me," she took a breath. She looked to Sylvie, trying to tune her guitar, then at Nam giggling at the PlayStation while explosions rippled across the screen. "But I'm happy. The girls are happy"

"Well, that's good."

The sense of discomfort still lingered in his body.

"We're free."



Rob caught Benjamin' eye, and made an almost imperceptible motion. A moment later, the two of them were in a quiet corner.

"Ben, did I ever mention to you the legal measures we needed to take to keep the Sailor Senshi together?"

"I don't think so..."

"Long story short, I'm their legal guardian. So I have to know: exactly what did you say to Rei when the two of you were alone?"

Of all the things Benjamin was expecting, a concerned father-figure wasn't one of them... but from the expression on Rob's face, he could tell that the concern was for Rei's well-being, not for some personal honor.

"More or less? I laid out the implications and consequences of what could result of her pursuing the Jyuraian method. You know, what options she has available to her, and what she could possibly expect as a result of those choices. Besides, I've made similar mistakes in the past and they have a nasty tendency of haunting me."

Rob thought for a moment. "I see. Thank you for helping Rei avoid making a fool of herself, or worse." Then he smiled. "I can't thank you for making my job as her guardian more difficult, but that's my cross to bear."

"Though... Refresh my memory, isn't Rei supposed to be mildly telepathic, even in her non-empowered state?

"I think so. Why?"

"Fuck. I must have been radiating like a nuclear reactor."

"Ben... How bad?"

Ben sighed. "It brought back some painful stuff. Missed chances, could-have-beens, should-have-beens. And on top of that... well, I was having to smother my own affection for her. I can't hide it, man. I'm very emotional by just about any measure. It's hard for me to keep shit bottled up. And the maraschino cherry on top is that there's a lot that goes on up in the attic. It's like that thing about swans and how they might seem graceful on the surface, but underneath they're paddling like crazy."

Rob had a pained look on his face. He wanted to be angry, but knowing the truth of the matter he couldn't find it in himself. "Let me know when you can spare an evening, and I'll meet you at Callahan's with a roll of dollars. But I can't do that for Rei. Well, at the very least Belldandy should be able to help her."

"I'd be shocked if she couldn't. But anyhow, back to the... legalities..." Ben shrugged helplessly at that. "Look at it this way: she's only a few years from becoming a legal adult. After that point, all bets are off and she can do as she damn well pleases."

"That's if they stay here that long."

Ben had a thoughtful look at that. "I don't know, Rob. Something about this seems off to me."

"What gave you that idea," snarked Rob in good humor.

Ben snorted, but sallied forth. "I mean, you might think things would be getting better, right? Instead, more characters are showing up, and not just stuff out of Japanese media franchises." He nodded slightly toward Simon and Kaylee sharing a couple of beers. "I have a very strong feeling things are going to get worse before they get better. And I am not often wrong about these things when they have a direct impact on my life."



"I don't recognize your costume," Zoe said.

"No, I don't suppose anybody would. It's my dress uniform from the Silver Millennium." Luna turned in place once to give Zoe a good look at what she was wearing. "I recognize your uniform, though. I'm surprised you'd wear it."

Zoe grinned. "You don't think somebody my age could pull off wearing a plugsuit?"

"It isn't that. I thought red wasn't your color."

"There's nothing wrong with red. Although I wouldn't want to wear just this on the battlefield."

Luna nodded. "I can see why. You'd need more protection than that in the engagements that Donaldson-san told me that you fought. May I propose a toast?" She held her glass up. "To past nations and lost glories. May we never forget them."

"I'll drink to that." Zoe raised her glass alongside Luna's, and they drained their drinks.



"I learned how to run a business the old-fashioned way: I apprenticed to a master. Ametsuchi-san – 'Grandma' – taught me everything I know about running Aria Company."

"Oh. I don't think that would help me. My business plans are land-locked."

"Have you decided what sort of business you want to run, Kino-san?"

"Call me Mako-chan; everybody else does. I'm thinking either a bakery or a flower shop."

"Please call me Alicia, then. No matter what sort of business you decide to open, you'll need to know how to run a business. Are there any small-business administration courses at the college in Ottawa?"

"I don't know. But I know who to ask. Thanks, Alicia-san!"

Across the quad, Kurz noticed Sailor Jupiter walking away from Alicia. The senshi was his type, but too young. The Undine... he raised an eyebrow in appraisal and appreciation. Blonde, blue-eyed, slim with an athletic set of arm muscles, and her giggle was adorable. Why not?, he decided. He walked over.

The other Undines saw Kurz approaching Alicia, but they knew she was a grown woman and could make her own choices. Athena went back to talking with the 33-Stars about the next song she was going to sing. Akira, though, downed the entire glass of wine that she held and continued to watch her friend, moving to the bar in order to get a refill and a better look.

Kurz wasn't oblivious to Akira's movements – his situational awareness had been honed on the battlefield, after all – but he didn't think that she was a threat, either in combat or in his current pursuit. He concentrated on Alicia. "I understand that you used to live on your own when you were on Mar- Aqua."

"I did, yes," Alicia replied, with a giggle. She had obviously been drinking, but in Kurz's estimation she was still sober enough to be able to give consent. She'd just been giving advice to someone else, after all. He smiled as she continued, "Each apprentice took a turn at living alone in the Aria Company headquarters, and then I had a room of my own in Neo-Venezia when Akari joined the company."

"You must have been lonely sometimes, all alone in your bedroom."

While Alicia kept smiling, she wondered how Kurz had gained his reputation if that was the best line he could come up with. "Oh, not at all! I like spending time alone. I think I'll do that tonight, too." She giggled again, carefully not noticing Kurz's momentary dejected look.

"Oh, but that would be such a shame!"

Her smile became a bit forced. "I'd be happy to give you a tour of the canals if you ever visit Venice, Mr. Weber, but I've had a long day today and I think I'd like to spend my night alone. Thank you."

Kurz knew better than to continue pushing his luck. "Perhaps we could spend some time seeing San Antonio together in the morning, then. Ciao!" Alicia giggled at his accent as he walked away.

Akira wasn't as forgiving. Making a pass at an Undine was one thing, but that... man had made a clumsy pass at Alicia! She downed her refilled glass in one gulp, put the glass down, and marched over to Kurz. "So, you think you're all that, don't you!"

"What?" While Kurz was surprised by the raven-haired Undine, his instincts kicked in nonetheless. Tall, long hair, the same athletic build as Alicia, but with a classically-beautiful face in contrast to her co-worker's nearly-elfin beauty – she reminded him of Mao, but with longer hair.

"Don't 'what' me! You were making movez on my friend. Trying to get into her pants."

Kurz didn't remember seeing any panty lines. "Is she even wearing –"

"No! No, she isn't. And you know what? Neither am I. What's'a matter? Am I not good enough for you?"

Kurz smiled. "You're good enough."

"Yeah, sure I am. Alicia gets all the attention. I've got the good body! What's she got? She's... she's..." Akira waved her hands around, finally stopping when she thought of the right word. "She's cute. And you're a guy who likes 'cute', aren't you? You all are."

Kurz thought for a quick moment. Yes, the woman talking to him was sexy... and she was also drunk, but not so drunk that she couldn't give consent. "I like both of you, Akira."

"Good. Good. Prove it."

"Er..."

"Now. You've... you've got a room somewhere here, right?"

Where did Akira's sudden shyness come from? Wherever it came from, Kurz thought it was... cute. He also thought she'd remember it the next morning if he took her back to his place. "Sure, I've got a room. Let's go." He certainly hoped she'd remember in the morning. As for what she'd remember... well, he'd never heard any complaints, and he really hoped her shyness was just a phase.

As they left the party, they walked right past Jayne – who nodded and grinned.



Noike took a quick look around the room, hoping to spot an unoccupied comfortable chair. Luck was not with her – the available chairs weren't to her liking. She did notice one of the guests was in a bit of a funk; although she was hiding it well, Noike was both a Galaxy Police detective and the adopted daughter of Seto Kamiki Jurai – she noticed things.

She grabbed a couple of bottles of ginger ale from the buffet table, walked over, sat down beside Mii, and offered her one of the bottles.

"No, thanks; I usually only drink milk or tea."

"Ah. I'll put this one back later, then." Noike sipped from the other ginger ale, then put it on the floor beside her chair. "You look like you aren't enjoying yourself. Is there anything I can do to help you relax?"

Mii blushed slightly. "I didn't realize I was that obvious."

"You aren't. I'm a trained observer."

"Oh! Like Kaji-san?"

Noike shook her head. "Not like Kaji. He's an amateur compared to any Galaxy Police detective with even a few years' experience."

"I'd like to have your skills."

"Oh?"

"I want to become a police officer."

"And?"

Mii looked confused. "And what?"

"You gave me a reasonable answer, but you gave it to me a bit slower than somebody usually answers a question. You had to think about it. That isn't the only reason you want those skills, is it?"

"You're good at that. And you're right. I'd really like to know whether ..."

Noike took a guess. "Whether Donaldson-san likes you?"

Mii's blush returned. "Sometimes I wonder whether he sees me as anything other than a tenant that he's responsible for."

"That's an interesting statement, Konori-san. I've noticed that when he looks at other people who share your apartment, he's open, friendly, and a bit paternal."

"He is our guardian – our foster father."

"That's the puzzle piece that I didn't have. He treats Shirai-san, Misaka-san, and Aino-san as if they're daughters. You, though... he's friendly, and he's happy to be with you, but he's keeping a slight distance from you at the same time. I suspect some of his feelings toward you aren't paternal."

Mii's blush deepened. "What can I do to draw those feelings out?"

"While he's your guardian? Probably nothing."

"Oh."

"If you went through some sort of trauma, he might make his true feelings known – but then you run the risk that I'm wrong and he's keeping his distance from you for some reason other than protecting your virtue."

"I see." After a short moment, Mii added, "I don't think I'd want to go through some traumatic event just to find out how Donaldson-san really feels about me."

Noike nodded. "Yes, nobody should hurt themselves physically just to give somebody else the opportunity to hurt them emotionally. If you're going to be a police officer, you might encounter people who don't know that simple truth – especially if you're assigned to a suicide prevention team."

"Could you tell me more about being a detective? Oh, and are there any dorayaki left? I suddenly have an appetite." Mii smiled, slightly.



He had noticed earlier that one of the girls from Ottawa had been looking his way more often than chance would allow for, and now he had a opportunity to find out why. "Hello. I don't believe we've met yet. I'm Fujitaka Kinomoto. Nice to meet you."

"Rei Hino. Nice to meet you." They bowed to each other. "Er..."

"Is there something wrong?"

"Possibly. Were you aware that you've been followed by a spirit all evening?" After Ryoko's stunt earlier, she couldn't stop herself from checking, just to make sure it was okay.

He smiled. "I had a suspicion, although I wasn't aware that anyone could sense her. If I'm correct, she is my late wife, Nadeshiko. Touya tells me that she sometimes visits to see whether our children and I are doing well. He's always had the third eye, you see."

Rei could sense the spirit bowing to her. "Hello, Mrs. Kinomoto. Please forgive me; I was worried that your husband might have been the subject of attention from a hostile spirit."

"Oh, I have faith that Nadeshiko would never harm me. Can you hear her, or merely see her?"

"Neither, I'm afraid; I can sense that she's here, but that's about all."

"Ah. Would you care to visit us in Los Angeles for a while? I'm sure that with Touya's assistance, we could help both you and Sakura to actually see Nadeshiko."

"As much as I would like to do that, I have obligations in Ottawa that I must attend to. Thank you for the offer, though."

Fujitaka nodded once. "I understand. The offer doesn't have an expiry date, though. Perhaps later?"

Rei smiled. "I'd like that."



Three of the apartment managers were headed for the bar when they were waved off by Wash. They wondered why for a moment, then noticed who was at the bar: Melissa Mao had piled around her at least three empty cans of every kind of beer available at the party, Ryoko was chugging directly from one of the kegs, and Urd was belting out "I Want You to Want Me" while hovering a half-inch above the bar. Then they saw what the other blonde at the bar was doing.

They just turned and walked away, Rob muttering, "Whose bright idea was it to let Mihoshi get drunk?"

"Not mine," James replied.

"This is a party," Terry pointed out.

Urd heard the complaints, looked out into the crowd, and saw a guy suddenly change course away from the dinner buffet tables where Belldandy was cleaning up. He snuck around behind Bell's back, poorly, but it's not like he needed all that much stealth to avoid a person at a loud party humming to herself.

Urd decided she had to figure out what the hell that was all about. So while he was on the back side of the bar, she called out to him, "Hey you! The guy sneaking around!"

"I'm not sneaking around," Brent replied.

"So why'd you answer me, smart guy?"

"So maybe I was sneaking around. A little."

"So what makes you want to hide from my sister?"

"It's just that... Belldandy hates me."

Urd's cheeks puffed up to stifle a laugh, but failed only a couple seconds later in a full blown guffaw. "Bell hates you? Hahaha!"

"No, really!"

"That's like the dumbest thing I've ever heard!" she forced out between the chuckles.

"Yeah, but when we met, she got really upset at me."

"What did you do, try to tempt her Keiichi into a homoerotic tryst? 'Oh Kei, now aren't you a big strong man, Sweetling'," she said in that sultry tone of hers.

"What? No!"

A couple seats over at the bar, Ryoko piped up, "Hey, if you want a hot man, you just gotta take him!"

"No," Brent explained, "It's just that when we first met that Tomo triggered the security system, and then we said some really mean things to each other. Belldandy was really annoyed to respond to an emergency only to find a stupid quarrel."

"She's the most forgiving person I know, silly. I'm sure it's fine."

Brent said quietly, "But when she spoke, it made me feel so bad about myself."

"Oh, she did that. I bet it made quite an impression."

"Yeah," he confirmed. "Yeah, it's just I don't want to risk it yet."

"Belldandy must have been anxious at the time. I'm sure she's over it by now. Or just man up and apologize to her."

"I already did."

"And yet you remain unsmitten."

"Well..."

With a diffuse red glow at her hands, Ryoko yelled, "Does shomeone need smiting?"

Urd asked the barkeep, "Can you get her a water?"

"Make it a double!"

From behind the bar, Wash said, "No problem."

"Yeah, I should get over it."

"You should forgive yourself. Come on, it's not like I've never disappointed Bell before. We goddesses are a lot more like humans than you think. We make mistakes."

"Well, I don't think talking to me was a mistake. Thanks."

"I don't think so either." Urd thought he was a little chubby, but cute. Nice Nordic looks, tall and built strong. "But just to be sure, maybe you had better stay here at the bar where it's safe."

"Thank you for your sanctuary, Lady Urd."

They started talking a bit over the makeshift bar, black painted plywood all done up with fairy lights hanging on top. He was pretty funny, even when he wasn't tiptoeing past Belldandy. Funny and shy, she corrected. He had a tendency not to look her in the eyes when she talked,

She knew just how to deal with the shy type. When his gaze drifted down to her chest, she teased, "Like what you see?"

Embarrassed, Brent lifted his eyes right away, "What is that costume you're wearing? Valkyrie armor or something?"

"Wrong Norn." She explained, "I'm Mouse from ReBoot."

"Oh, okay," Brent said, none the wiser. "Well, it does look pretty good on you."

"I'm especially proud of the breastplate. Don't you think it looks good on me?"

Brent took advantage of the permission to ogle. "That's quite the full plate you got there. And looks like solid bronze, too! Are they real?"

"Of course! Don't you know it's always better to wear protection?"

"Can't argue with that," Brent chuckled. He couldn't think of a comeback to that, so he went with the old standby, "Say, can I buy you a drink?"

She grinned at that suggestion. "Hey barkeep! Can you get me one of those you were talking about earlier, what was it... A Crazy Ivan!"

"That's not a..." Wash began to protest, until he realized that she was buzzed enough she didn't really care. "Coming right up." He grabbed a lemon and began to mix a Tom Collins. He knew from experience there was no point in getting a bunch of scary drunk ladies riled up. Well, not riled up that way.

When he finished the drink, Brent ordered, "I'll just have a Coke."

"Come on, you gotta have something better than that!"

"Yeah but, I don't like alcohol."

"Come on, just a little." She pushed her glass towards him.

"Does this count as a sacrament?"

The goddess replied, "If you want it to."

"Sorry, it will be just cola for me and Belldandy."

"Phtttb!" A fine mist of her gin went flying over the bar. "I thought you were trying to avoid her terrible wrath!"

"I guess I like playing with fire."

She looked him straight in the eyes, "So do I."

A voice behind them muttered, "Why is the bar sideways?"

"It's because you're laying down on it, Ryoko."

"Ah, because of me? Thank you!"

Brent and Urd laughed. She said, "These girls are total lightweights, got drunk after the only second keg of beer!"



Jayne was trying desperately to look nonchalant while getting close enough to hear what Inara Serra and Sylvie Stratton were talking about. Whatever it was, it had to be good.

"Emotionally, that can lead to insecurity and dependance, something that could be dangerous."

Nah. They were talking shop, but it was ethics, not techniques. Jayne wandered away.


Chapter 5. Samhain

Some time earlier:

Akari ducked inside the apartment complex and found the toilet in short order. She relieved herself, and then took the opportunity to wash her face and brush her hair. Even tonight, she eschewed makeup to rely on her plentiful natural beauty. After one last check in the mirror, she was ready for more Halloween. Tonight had she had met so many amazing people and amazing costumes, it reminded her of nothing less than Carnivale in Neo Venezia.

Outside the bathroom door, a white cat was waiting for her. "Hi President Aria. Oh, what do you have there?"

President Aria showed Akari two paper cards made of fine linen paper, embossed with a gold border. And right in the middle of each card was a single large pawprint. It wasn't quite a cat print, since the claws' impression were continuous from the end of each digit. A cat would retract his claws, or otherwise make shredded paper.

"We've been invited... to another party?"

"Nyuu!" he confirmed.

Her heart started to race at the excitement. "Well then, what are we waiting for? Let's go!" The pink-haired girl jumped out of her seat, making her sheer arabesque costume billow and wave.

Her excitement began to wane as Aria led her through blocks of the dark neighborhood surrounding Westwinds apartments. A Martian cat was perhaps not the safest escort for a woman walking alone in a strange town, but Akari was never one to trade adventure for safety. Eventually he led her to the edge of the Leon Creek, a small patch of wooded land inside the rings of suburbia.

They climbed down to the creek bed, and began walking alongside the trickle of water. Akari hopped from rock to rock, while Aria laboriously climbed over the stones he couldn't squeeze past. Under the shade of the great trees, the city seemed less and less present, and the light of the stars came into focus.

Halloween was once known as Samhain, a night when fey, fairies, and monsters could cross between the worlds, to cause mischief and occasionally terror on our side. It is a day when the boundary is weak, and all manner of creatures could cross to another realm.

And so it was that Akari and Aria passed through a crack between the worlds, walking downstream into the land of the Sidhe. The trees became thicker around her, as the stream meandered its way through the hardwood forest. And even as the path grew more windy and overgrown, actually traversing it felt easier, as if the clean air were giving them strength. The creek straightened out, and the trees parted, revealing a field of tall grass on the edge of a still, deep blue lake.

Aside from the silver moon and stars of the Milky Way, the only light in the vicinity came from a bonfire on the lakeshore.

"Oh, that must be it!" Akari said. "Let's go see."

It didn't seem like much of a party to Akari, as she could only make out a couple of people in the area: one sitting by the fire, and another a little ways away playing a flute. There were a few cats moving about, and maybe some other animals.

But somehow, Akari felt like she was being watched. As they were about to crest a small rise, a beast jumped out of the grass and blocked their path, his chest puffed out to look even more imposing. "Kyaa!"

However, Aria was nonplussed by the brown-coated animal with the white-tipped tail. He walked towards the canine who towered over him, and presented the invitations.

The coyote sniffed them for a second, then relaxed, and began to wag his tail a tiny bit.

"Puunyu," noted the cat.

"I guess he's going to let us in, Aria."

"Of course he is, because he invited you!" said Coyote.

"He talks!"

"Of course I talk! I've been talking since before the People came into this world!"

"It's just that... Cat Sìth never spoke to me."

Coyote chuckled, "Oh, that guy. He's not much of a talker. And speaking of the devil–" He called out to the figure walking up through the grove. "Well well, look at what drag the cat is in?"

It was black cat the size of a male human, ambling towards the gathering on two legs. Coyote had a point about his dress; Akari thought that Tomoyo would really like the frilly cravat bursting out of his red velvet jacket.

"Cat Sìth old buddy old pal, how's it going? It's been a long time since I saw you at one of my Samhain parties. You know I always throw the best party."

Cat Sìth remained aloof, playing the cool cat. The façade didn't last long, as Akari ran halfway across the field to embrace Cat Sìth.

"I've wanted to see you again so much!" She nuzzled her face in his fur for a while, then said, "I don't know why you brought me back to this time, but everything is working out okay. I'm staying with other people from different universes, and they're some of the sweetest girls."

Coyote trotted up behind them. "Oh, so you're from another World? So that's what you've been up to, Cat."

Cat Sìth stuck out his tongue. Coyote opened his mouth wide, curled his tongue into a roll, and held one paw to his face to stretch open his eye. And pudgy President Aria finally caught up to the rest of the group.

"Oh right, this guy has been keeping me company. What was your name again?"

"I am Coyote, my dear Water Sprite Girl."

"You're Coyote? The Coyote?" Akari asked.

"In the fur!" He shook his whole body, as if drying himself, just for emphasis.

"Wow, that's so amazing."

"Come now, let's join the party. You should really show off that costume to all of the dancers!"

Akari was confused, "All of what dancers?"

"Over–hmmm... Let me take a look." Coyote slunk around her, pacing as he looked Akari over up and down. Akari started to wonder if this was a predator looking over his prey. And then he stopped to sniff her butt, "Oh, I see, very interesting. I bet those tacos tasted really good."

"Puuunyu!"

"C'mon, really?"

Coyote's yips sounded an awful lot like laughter. "Humans never follow their noses, but there's a whole world of smell out there. Just ask Pan about the smell of beet blossoms!" He laughed at his own private joke. The canine with mottled brown fur stood up on his hind legs, and focused his big ears directly at Akari. "But your nose isn't the issue, it's your sight. Your third eye is almost closed, Water Sprite Girl!"

"Hahi?" Akari stood agape.

"What a calamity!" Coyote cried. "Hey, now your other eyes are almost closed too."

A tall, rail-thin woman sitting by the fire set down a scarf she was knitting, and scurried over to investigate the pink-haired girl. The woman was dressed in the finest black embroidered dress Akari had ever seen.

"Oh, you poor dear, let me take a look." She bent down to look at Akari's forehead, and Akari got a good look in return. The woman looked old, but kindly, with almost invisible strands of white amongst her long black hair. "I can see the threads across her forehead. It looks like someone has woven a curse across her third eye, and the strands get tighter and tighter as she grows into the bindings. It's a wonder she can even see us. Such an ingenious curse! Do you know who cursed you, undine-child?"

"No? Cat Sìth, is this true?"

The huge black cat's ears dropped back, and his golden eyes looked down at her feet.

"No, it's not your fault. So how long before this curse takes hold?" Akari looked at the sadness in his face, "We can't meet again?"

He patted her head with his left paw.

"Hold up just a minute! There is no curse in the world so tricky that Coyote is not even trickier!"

"You can cure me?"

"You have but to ask."

"You would do that for me?"

"You are one of us, Water Sprite Girl! All I ask is to hear an excellent tale in return. Preferably a tale with me in it."

Akari laughed, "I don't know any of those. But I think I can come up with something."

He asked the woman in black, "Grandmother Spider, do you happen to have some fairy ointment on you?"

She searched her beautiful handwoven purse, and removed a small shell. "I do indeed."

"Then all we need is a little medicine: for vision, for healing, and for strength. Set a pot on the fire, and I'll go fetch the ingredients."

Coyote wandered off into the grove for a few minutes, sniffing at the ground in the moonlight. Which for some reason seemed a little too bright—should she really be able to keep track of him so easily? She took the opportunity to listen to the hunchbacked flautist by the fire, whose repetoire crossed from soothing to lively to haunting. She sat on a log, petting Aria, and leaning into Cat Sìth's warm fur as if she were his date to a concert. She swore she could make out a heartbeat drum, playing along with him.

There was always something about her that could just go with the flow. Perhaps it was just the craft of the Undine, something she had learned from Alicia. But even after the past few minutes, she could lose her self and live in the smooth melody and the crackling bonfire and the sweet smell of the wood smoke.

She lost track of Coyote, who had finally tracked a small round cactus, and dug the it out of the soil with his front feet. He took the peyote, and added it to Grandmother Spider's pot. After that, he trotted up to a willow tree and tore off a hunk of its bark. This too, he put into Grandmother Spider's pot.

Then Coyote gave a giant leap, and plucked a scaly fruit right off an Osage orange tree! But accidentally he bit it open with his powerful claws, so he spit it out right away. "Yuck!" he cried. "These things taste so terrible on the outside!" After he spit out the latex, he cracked the fruit, took the edible green flesh from inside, and added it to the pot. And then, after it had stewed on the fire for just the right amount of time, Coyote declared it done.

They all regathered a small distance from the bonfire, where a small stream flowed into the placid lake.

Grandmother Spider said, "I think we're ready to begin."

Coyote explained, "You should be able handle to this part, Claws. You need to cut the edge of the eyelid, without scratching the third eye itself."

Cat Sìth stared back a bit disturbed at the idea of cutting into his friend's face.

"Or is that too hard for a cat?"

He lifted up his paw, and a single claw emerged.

Akari's face turned blank, and her jaw opened automatically. "Uhm, is this gonna hurt?"

The old woman said, "Yes, at first, but the medicine will make it all better."

It was hard for Akari to trust all of these animal spirits, but Cat Sìth, she trusted him. Even if he couldn't entirely put aside the eternal Feline-Canine struggle, he trusted Coyote enough now. Akari smiled, "Okay, you can begin," and laid back in the thick green grass.

First, the old woman took the Fairy Ointment from the shell, and rubbed it in the middle of Akari's forehead. It tingled a little, but it almost didn't feel like it was her skin tingling, but somewhere else entirely.

Then Cat Sìth exposed out a single claw from his paw, and sliced an arc across Akari's forehead, and then another one to match. She yelped a little in pain, as blood started to trickle out of the wounds

Finally Coyote came beside her and offered her a cup. "Here, drink all of this, and the curse will be broken."

Her face was really starting to hurt, so she drank the entire potion as fast as she could. It tasted terrible — it was the most bitter thing Akari had ever tasted.

But she did start to feel better. And a little weird too. It was hard to explain what she was feeling, so she just lay there staring at the moon, and the stars, and wondering if they would seem any brighter now that she had a third eye.

Time seemed to pass slowly, her hand on Cat Sìth's paw; for how long Akari wasn't really sure. And then she felt a sudden gurgle in her stomach, and waves of gastric distress built up quickly. She pushed herself up on her hands and knees, and proceeded to vomit.

Coyote cheered, "Oh good, it's working!"

Akari thought: Leave it to a canine to think that medicine was something you threw up. She crawled over to the stream, and filled her mouth with cool, fresh water. It was really only then that she started to feel better.

And she heard the sounds of the drums. And the feel of the water, flowing past her hands. She smelled the sage. And then the undine looked around, and saw a crowd dancing to the music. A crowd of animals and fairies and beasts, chatting and feasting on a buffet.

The wound on Akari's forehead had already sealed. So while the casual observer couldn't see her third eye, her two ordinary eyes were open just as wide. "Wooooow."

Coyote said, "I told you I throw the best Samhain parties."

"Wow," Akari reiterated.

Aria took the moment to smell Akari's vomit, but quickly turned his nose away, declaring "Pii-nyuu!"

"Okay, I don't want to be a bad host, so I've got mingle. Make sure to tell me a story by the fire later."

"Okay!"

Cat Sìth face Akari, and licked her face with his big tongue.

"Hehe, that tickles. I feel okay now, really. And your breath smells like milk. How much milk did you have today?"

His cat smile wide, he rolled his eyes then licked is chops.

"I guess everyone gets to splurge a little on Halloween. Shall we join the party?"

The perfect gentleman, in a suit without pants, he offered her his arm. She entwined it with his, and they strolled into the action. The dance floor she had seen before as a lone man playing a flute for some cats, was now teeming with hundreds of animals and spirits.

A circle of bison played the drums and stamped the beat with their heavy hooves. And they granted the rhythm that a crowd of animals danced to – she saw frogs, cats, coyote, lizards, and even a couple cougars. And that wasn't even the weird part. There were some guys with colorful boxy heads that didn't quite look like people. There was a guy over by the drinks table who had a normal human torso, but it looked like furry goat legs were attached below. A woman walked up straight out of the lake, who looked like she was wearing seal-skin clothing.

All at once, it was too much for Akari to take in. But if everyone else was having a good time, so would she. She made her way over to the drum circle, and joined in a dance of maidens, all waving flashy colorful clothes. It took her a minute to pick up the simple step dance they were doing, but it didn't take long before she was in the spirit. She stepped forward in time, waving the colorful veils of her Scheherazade costume, twirling a vibrant pattern around and around on the soft grass.

Cat Sìth watched her from the sidelines, lapping up the show like offerings of Samhain milk. Akari might not be the best dancer out there, but she sure made him feel like a sultan tonight.

She waved to him at the end of the dance, kind of like a kid showing off to her parents. But in another way, not a kid at all. He came over as the next dance began, kind of a folk dance for couples. They cut a dashing pose, the feline gentleman with his costumed odalisque. Sure she couldn't quite get the hand-offs right – how do you grab a white-tailed deer by the hands, anyway? – but she was joyous and gay. Sure, she couldn't quite do-si-do with a doe, but she cut a great figure and looked great doing it, and at a Samhain party, that's what really matters.

After the dance, someone from the crowd called out. "Oi. ¿'Sup Gato?" shouted Armadillo, a short fellow with a long snout who looked like he was wearing leather samurai armor.

Cat Sìth looked at Armadillo, the looked back towards Akari.

"It's okay if you want to mingle. I need to make new friends too." Akari smiled.

Akari wandered around the party some more, and realized that she had forgotten to look up. For among the fireflies and bats were honest-to-God fairies floating around, having their own dances.

One of them descended down to her level. It wasn't a petite young maiden, but a tiny old man with a long Gandalf beard. "I was wondering when you were going to notice us, newcomer."

Akari's eyes got wide once again. "Oh wow. A fairy!"

The man war an impeccable white suit, with large blue snowflake patterned on one half. "More specifically, a Season Fairy. I'm Sage, nice to meet you," he extended his hand.

Akari raised her pinky finger in return and shook. "I'm Akari! This is my first time at one of these parties, so please take care of me."

"I can't quite figure you out my dear. What are you, exactly?"

She thought for a moment, then answered logically, "I'm an undine of Venice."

"Oh, that makes sense," Sage concluded. "No wonder you had such good flow in the dance floor."

"That's training, every day!" Akari laughed.

Akari looked around a little more, and wandered towards the banquet tables. Standing beside them, was a small brown-furred cat with a striking pattern on her head. "Maya, is that you?"

The cat tried to pretend she hadn't heard.

"Maya! Did you... sneak into the party?"

Feline death glare.

Akari pleaded, "I won't tell anyone, promise!"

"Mew." And with that, Maya leapt off towards the dance floor.

It was just another reminder that the denizens of this party were truly wild. They were all friends for tonight, but the teeth and claws weren't for show.

Even Sakaki's pet Maya, she had a certain wildness to her that couldn't be tamed. Akari concluded that Maya must have had a hard life before Sakaki adopted her, because she was nothing like the sophistication of Aria, or Hime, or even that little savage Maa. That wildness was present in Cat Sìth too, but when Akari was in laying in his arms, she didn't feel anything but comfort and warmth.

She could have lost him that day. Lost him forever. The very thought made her heart throb, her chest tighten. An unknown curse was one thing, but losing Cat Sìth would be like losing a part of herself.

She could have lost herself in that train of thought, but a pang of hunger started to hit from below. Her stomach had finally calmed down from Coyote's medicine, and it being her second party of the night, Akari started to run really low on energy.

She looked at the tables of food, full of all kinds of fantastic foods: pancakes, meats, grasshoppers, fruits, fairy floss, cupcakes, and beer. It was enough to make her mouth water. And down at one end, Akari saw President Aria leaning over to get a drink, losing balance, and managing to fall all the way into the punchbowl.

"Oh, President Aria, there you are!" She hefted him up and back onto the grass.

"Munyuu."

"Don't worry, that will wash right off!" But a curious thing happened; the red punch swiftly evaporated, leaving a perfectly white Aria, still dressed in his goofy fruit hat.

He brushed himself off, licked a couple of the hairs still out of place, and looked back to Akari with smile.

"Aria, when I couldn't see with my eye, I could see the rocks and the trees, and the medicine Coyote made. But I never saw this banquet."

"Puuuu..." he reflected.

"May I have some of the fruit from your hat?" Akari asked, hoping this idea would go better for her than it had for Tomo.

Aria broke a banana off his hat and handed it to the girl.

"Thanks!" She peeled the skin back, and took a bite.

"Hi-hi-hii! Clever girl!" interjected Coyote. "Eat well and recover your strength." And then he trotted off to the next table.

She decided to sit down and eat for a bit by the fire using Carmen Meowranda's hat fruit bowl. Next to her was a woman with long black hair, with a white robe and a violet kimono, warming herself by the fire.

"Are you a snow woman?" Akari asked.

The yuki-onna replied, "Why yes, I am."

"I'm from Japan too! What brings you here?"

"I'm on a bit of a vacation," she said. "Actually, I tend to prefer the tropical climates, it's so much easier to keep warm!"

"Yeah, I bet!"

"But the season's just about over. As soon as the party's over, I need to head back to my mountain, to start looking for travelers."

"Uh... good luck, I guess," Akari offered lamely. Akari decided to return to the dance floor, before the conversation turned to freezing people to death.

As they returned, the dance music had taken on more of a tropical beat. Aria, now with a much shorter fruit hat, decided to take a chance on the limbo contest, but fell down in the late rounds, ultimately losing to another cat.

The band took five, leaving the music to the drum circle for now. Walking over to the drinks table, Akari saw a black man with white paint around his eyes, and feathers tied into his hair. He would have been tall, if he were not so hunchbacked, but there was something cool about him, bare-chested with leather pants. Akari went to greet the musician, but he spoke first, "Hey girl, what's going on?"

"Oh um, hi Mr. Musician!"

"Now that won't do, babe. All my friends call me Kokopelli. What's your name?"

"Me, I'm Akari. Akari Mizunashi. Pleased to meet you!"

"The pleasure is all mine," he said smoothly.

"You play the flute really well, Mr. Kokopelli."

He replied, "Thanks a lot. I bet you could play the flute pretty well, if it was the right kind."

"No way!" she laughed.

"I can tell these kinds of things. This is my band, you know."

"Really! You play the most amazing songs. I've never heard music like this before if my life!"

"Well, Akari, I can teach you lots of things."

She smiled innocently.

"Why don't we get to know each other a little better over there?" he pointed to a little glade on the edge of the party. "We can make some beautiful music."

Akari was about to ask why, when she noticed the obvious bulge in his pants. "Um, I think I'll stay here."

"C'mon girl, I can show you a really good time, promise." He took her hand, and started to pull her away.

"But I–"

"Come on! It'll be—" Kokopelli was interrupted by a furry tap on his shoulder. "Oh, hey there, we're a little busy."

"Cat Sìth!" Akari identified the very unamused looking 2 and a half meter cat.

Kokopelli let go of her immediately "Oh hey, sorry brother. I didn't realize she was with you."

He growled.

"It's cool, it's cool. I'll go. Best of luck to you two!" The hunchbacked black man faded back into the crowd.

"Thank you so much! I didn't know he was like that, and I don't know what I'd do without you."

The cat said nary a word, but hugged her in response. They just stayed there like that, for a couple minutes.

Kokopelli, by way of apology, led his band in a slow melodic tune. And, as he knew it would, it prompted the right response from Akari.

"Shall we dance?"

She didn't have a lot of practice dancing, but the moves just flowed out of her body as she followed Cat Sìth's lead. As the song played on, it increased in tempo, turning into a passionate tango, but somehow, they kept pace. They were so in tune with each other it was like they were enchanted by the melody, which perhaps they were.

One moment she was staring into his golden eyes, and the next she was leaned so far back that her pink hair touched the grass. The tall cat in a red velvet stood ramrod straight, while the svelte girl set her blue and red veils flying like streamers. It wasn't as if Akari's steps were correct for the dance, but they were so correctly her that it was like a fluid movement of joy and love, reacting to her partner's practiced paws.

It was only at the end of the song, when they fell back into that initial embrace, that they realized they had attracted something of an audience, who began applauding. Akari blushed a little as her jaw dropped, while Cat Sìth held his gaze high and aloof.

Coyote came over to talk, "My, aren't you full of surprises, Water Sprite Girl!"

"It's nothing, really. I just followed his lead."

Cat Sìth's expression assured observers that he was a cat of culture.

"Are you enjoying my party?"

"It's a great time! I mean, it was crazy at the beginning with the curse, and all, but everything turned out well in the end. But some of the people at the party are a little dangerous," Akari complained.

"Really? Skinwalker and Chupacabra always take the opportunity to spend time on the other side today, so I don't know who it could be."

Akari let it go. "It's fine now, really." She smiled at Cat Sìth.

Coyote asked, "So, as a stranger to this world, what do you think about these lands?"

"That's a really interesting question. So many things are different, but under it all, people in all times have the same hearts and the same dreams. It's such a fascinating place to explore. Actually, we're going on a trip tomorrow, to the explore the desert."

"Oh, I like journeys. Where are you going?"

"Well, we're going to go Carsbad to the caves, and the painted desert, and Vegas. But really, I can't wait to see the Grand Canyon!"

Coyote thought it appropriate that she would be enraptured to see the power of water. "Oh, then I think it's time to tell the story of how I created the Grand Canyon!"

"You made the Grand Canyon?" she exclaimed.

"One of my many feats."

"But I thought it was made by water cutting the rocks–"

His tail went straight up. "No, don't give away the ending! It must be told properly."

Coyote waited for a gap between songs, before he called out to the crowd, "Come, gather around the fire. It is time for the telling of tales!"

A number of creatures filtered over the to the fire. Akari and Cat Sìth found their seat on a log, and Akari leaned into his side once again.

"Water Sprite Girl doesn't know the story of how I created the Grand Canyon, so I will regale you all with my amazing tale!"

Cat Sìth put his paws over his ears in protest.

Akari poked him, "Be nice, you."


Coyote began:

"Long long ago, back when I was still called Coyotl, there lived a vain and petty ruler of the People of the South. It was the middle of a scorching summer day when the Tlatoani surveyed his land, and saw the snow-capped mountains in the distance, enticing them with the promise of coolness. If I can only get some of that ice, I could be cool and comfortable, and not look like all of those sweaty laborers. So Tlatoani ordered the shamans to bring him back some ice. The shamans, too wanted to be cool, so they ordered the field laborers to bring it back enough ice for them too. And so the laborers set out with a giant sled, so that everyone could have enough ice to be cool.

They struggled up the hill pulling their weight, until they finally reached the cool ice on the hill. Yet to gather the ice, they worked too hard to even enjoy the cool air. Then down came the ice, and the longer they dragged the ice sled through the fields, the more melted away into the hot soil. Even the shamans never got their share, as they thought it would be safer to give such a small amount to their Tlatoani.

It was on that day that Tezcatlipoca the Mocker, the Enemy on Both Sides, came to visit the great city of People of the South, and the strolled into the Tlatoani's palace. Sorry everyone – I'm not in this part – but I promise you it gets better later.

Tlatoani tried to hide the ice he had so preciously desired, but Tezcatlipoca the Magician was wise, and had seen it in the field. He said, 'Can I have that ice you have procured? It is such a hot day, and I desire it now.'

'What ice?' said the Tlatoani, 'We have no ice here.'

'Then how is the cool water dripping out of that reed box, I wonder?'

The Great Tlatoani got on his knees and begged Tezcatlipoca, 'Please sir, my people have labored greatly so that I may have that ice, so I can look like a proper ruler and not a sweaty farmer.'

Tezcatlipoca bellowed, 'So you care about your appearance, Speaker? Give me the ice, and I will give you something to show you the proper appearance of a ruler, something that will keep you cool always.' So the Tlatoani, thinking himself wise enough to have negotiated a boon, had the box of ice placed upon Tezcatlipoca's altar.

But the Magician had other ideas. He took the ice, and bound it into obsidian using his magic, creating a large polished mirror, inky and cold to the touch. And this mirror was a terrible device, for it reflected everything in the worst possible light. Everything in this mirror that was good shrank to nothing, and every flaw exaggerated. It is because of this mirror that Tezcatlipoca earned the name Smoking Mirror.

Tezcatlipoca presented his gift in return to the Tlatoani proclaiming, 'See, I bring you a gift. This is a mirror of great power, as it reflects the hidden hearts of those who would do you wrong.'

The Tlatoani, vain and proud, looked at his own reflection, and he truly was chilled to the bone. For there he saw an aging man, with thinning hair, weighed down by impure gold, standing in a tiny, decaying city and groveling before the great Tezcatlipoca. 'Who is this?' he asked, but the magic of the mirror made the Tlatoani believe that this was his own true self.

'O Tlatoani, you are only a pale reflection of my splendor to rule in my stead. But things are not so bad; turn the mirror on your subjects.' And the shamans were shown to be greedy, power-hungry, backstabbing men, the lot of them. When the laborers were seen in the mirror, all knew that they were mere sacrifices, dancing to the desires of their Tlatoani and the Powers. 'They are all subject to your whims, but no matter what you do, they will eventually hate you. So sieze your destiny while you can, Great Tlatoani! Hohohoho!'

So the People of the South took the mirror with them everywhere, and set their foes low by its twisted magic, war drums, atlatls, and bloodshed.

One day, the warriors ventured into Quetzalcoatl's shrine, and the turned the mirror on the Feathered Serpent himself. But he would have no part of his rival's sorcery. Before anyone saw him in the mirror, the Feathered Serpent blew up a great wind that shattered the mirror into thousands of pieces, which blew all around the world. But his magic was not strong enough to destroy the mirror. Some hunks of mirror were large enough for the shamans to use in their dark fortune-telling, while others were small enough to slip in to your body like an icy splinter. But to all who came in contact with a shard, misfortune followed.

Many, many years later, Coyote (that's me!) wandered through a village of the People. They started telling me of their woes. For the river had dried up, and they had no fish to eat, and no water for their crops. "Our milpas our withering," they told me. 'The corn, beans, and squash are drying out. Even the watering holes are drying up.' It was really bad!

So I set out to investigate this disaster. I walked onward and upward, my nose to the river bed. But as the desert gave way into the hills, and there was still no water. I went further on into the forest, but there was still no water in the river.

But I noticed something else: it was getting colder and colder as I followed the river bed, and this was the middle of summer! Eventually I walked to a place where there was snow on the ground, but it did not melt. This made old Coyote even more curious.

I finally turned a corner and what I saw shocked even me! It was a giant wall of ice making a dam across the river. But this dam, it was so tall, it stretched from mountain to mountain, made of piles and piles of icicles and snow. I climbed up to the top of the ice dam, so I could see what was the cause. And behind the ice dam was a giant lake, so large it looked like an ocean! It filled the valley with miles and miles of frigid water ringed with snow-capped mountains and pine trees poking up from below.

It was then that I saw my old friend Beaver working on the dam. He could breathe out and his breath instantly froze into an icicle, it was that cold. Then he added the icicle onto his dam. At last, I had found the culprit!

'Beaver!' I called out. 'Old friend!'

'Oh, it's you,' he sneered. 'What do you want?'

'Beaver, why do you build such a tall dam? You are keeping all of the water from the People, who need it to grow crops, and the deer and the rabbit need it to drink.'

'They are none of my concern,' Beaver said. 'You are keeping me from my work.'

'Why do you need a house this big?'

Beaver said, 'Isn't it beautiful? This is not a house, it is a palace, to show how magnificent I am. Far more important than the People's crops.'

I could tell then that Beaver's heart had been frozen solid. I thought of the Ice Mirror of Tezcatlipoca, and I realized that he must have swallowed a shard of it, and the shard was lodged next to his heart! I'm so smart!'"

At this line, Cat Sìth yawned impatiently. But Coyote continued his tale:

"So I try to approach him to see what can be done, but he just jumped into the lake. He slapped his flat tail on the water, and a big cloud of freezing water fell all over Coyote. It was so cold! And Ice Beaver disappeared, now safe in his dam palace.

I was at a bit of a loss for a while, until I looked around. All of the mountaintops were covered with snow from Beaver's magic – all except for one, which smoked on the top and only had a little ring of snow. So I walked across the Gobrin Ice, and leapt across the Helcaraxë, until I made my way to the volcano. I climbed until I came to an opening in the side, and I saw a few yellow jackets. "Long time, no see!"

'Buzz off!' they cried.

'Don't you want to see your friend Coyote?'

'Last time we saw you, you smoked us along with the salmon!'

'And now you possess the fire in your tails. So let bygones be bygones,' I said, "For we have a big tragedy to face! Beaver has been possessed by a shard of the Ice Mirror, and keeps all of the water to himself, so the People can't grow crops.'

'So what?' they buzzed.

'Well, if there's no water in the river, then there is no salmon to eat.'

There was a cacophony of buzzing, and the yellow jackets said, "How can we help?'

'I need the fire in your stingers to break the ice dam. Once we break that, the river will flow.' So the yellow jackets declared Bygones and accompanied me back to the dam. I brought some reeds too, telling yellow jackets that we would need them for a fire, which was technically true, hahahaha!

When we got to the dam, the yellow jackets tried to sting the dam, but the ice was too solid, so we went to the top. When I got there, I called out, 'Beaver, let me help you build this beautiful palace!'

'Oh, so you understand now? How can you help?' Beaver sounded pleased, but there was no warmth in his voice.

'I brought these reeds to help you build.'

'I do not use such common materials now.'

'But let me show you how amazing reeds can be!' As Beaver approached, I grabbed a yellow jacket, and stuffed it inside the reed. And then I pointed the reed at Beaver's chest, and blew with all my might!

The yellow jacket's stinger pierced Beaver in the heart, and injected it with pure volcanic fire. This melted the ice, and melted the obsidian shard in Beaver's heart into nothing.

'Coyote, friend, what have I been doing?'

'You have built a palace to yourself, and kept all the water the People need, but I have broken your curse.'

And then, the ice started to crack all at once! One minute we were standing atop the dam, and the next I found myself fighting for my life in the flood waters. But Beaver is a great swimmer, and he grabbed me by the neck up onto a raft made of wood. 'What we sit on, this was my house,' he said, 'Buried under that palace, it is the small home that saves us both.'

But the flood waters kept going and going. There was so much water that once there was a flat mesa, the water kept cutting and cutting through the rock, until there was a Grand Canyon. 'Beaver,' I said as we rafted through, 'We've made a beautiful palace after all!'

'Not for me. I've had enough grand places for a lifetime.'

Eventually, our raft washed up on the shore of the People's village, and they greeted us with cheers, and held a giant feast in our honor. And that, my friends, is the story of how Coyote made the Grand Canyon!"



There were an assortment of claps and cheers, but Akari just said "Wow."

"So what about your story, Water Sprite Girl?"

"My story? How do I follow that?"

"I've got a story!" Armadillo piped up.

Coyote groaned, "I'm already worried."

"I saw you talking with Cat Sìth earlier." Akari inquired, "Are the two of you friends?"

"Oh yeah, me an' Old Gato go way back. Waaay back, chica."

Cat Sìth was already shaking his head in the negative.

"Yeah, back in the old days, we hear about this Kachina's house where he kept these magic arrowheads that can hit any creature, including fey. But that sounds scary, right?

"So me and Gato, we creep in in the dead of night and steal the arrowheads. Gato leaps up on the table, throws down the arrowheads, and I sneak them out in my shell, all fifteen of them.

"Now, the arrowheads were made of pure silver, so we figured we might as well melt them down and sell it to the People. But we both thought that we deserved the silver more than the other ése.

"So Gato here challenges me to a race – whoever wins gets to keep all of the arrow points. But since he thinks I'm going to lose anyway on my stubby little legs, he lets me pick the course. So I choose a race to the bottom of a hill – and I rolled down the entire way on my shell! Just like a log!

"And that's the story of how I beat Gato, and got his 15 Silver Points!"

A chorus of bats floating above the group started shrieking in something that sounded like laughter, "Hi hi hi hi hi!"

Coyote on the other hand stood with his white-tipped tail straight out, booing.

"Now wasn't that fun?"

The resulting animal noises expressed cheering, disapproval, and just bewilderment, and Akari fell square in the latter camp.

"That's more than enough, Armadillo!" Coyote growled.

"I'll be here all week!"

After this goofiness, Akari had gathered her courage. She stood up to tell her tale, deeply personal as it was, for it was the only tale she had:

"Once upon a time, I was just an ordinary girl, living an ordinary life in a huge city with the People. Well, almost ordinary. I could get anything I wanted from the touch of a button, any food or toy or tool I needed from a machine.

"But I was a girl who was never happy. Now that I look back, what I really wanted was to feel the wind in my face, and the water beneath my feet. To live under my own power, just a little bit. But I don't have to tell you, sometimes the cities the People build now are more cages than homes."

There were a lot of grumbles of agreement from her audience.

"One day, I heard a tale of a beautiful place, far far away, where the People lived in a beautiful city of water and stone. A city maintained by Salamanders, and Sylphs, and Gnomes, and Undines.

"And when I heard of the Undines, the women who guide people through the waters, it stuck with me. I knew I had to get to this place, called Neo Venezia. I just knew in my heart I could be an Undine."

"There was only one problem: Neo Venezia was up in the stars, on planet Aqua." She pointed to a bright red dot in the southwestern sky. "How could I possibly reach there?

"I sent a message off to Neo Venezia, but it was really more of a prayer into the heavens. And to my surprise, an Undine answered my prayers – she told me to come to Aqua, and she would make a place for me.

"So I said goodbye to the people who were taking care of me, and stepped into my destiny. I got in a giant metal ship, and then they lit the biggest fire you've ever seen right underneath! It was such a big fire, it pushed us right into the heavens!"

Coyote whooped in approval at this idea. "Did it turn your tail white?"

A few people laughed, but Spider Grandmother hushed him, "Calm down. You're not in this story, Coyote."

"When we landed on Aqua, it was like a whole world I had never seen before, with tile, and buildings made of earth, and between them flowed a pure clear water. Even after the long trip, I felt reinvigorated, and so excited.

"And the first person I met on arrival was a certain white cat." Akari gestured towards Aria.

"Puinyuu?"

"Yes, you."

Coyote interrupted, "How come he gets to be in the story?"

Cat Sìth let out a deep growl.

"Oh fine!" Coyote yielded.

Akari giggled before she continued. "We shared our lunch together, and then as I was about to leave, he fell off the land and right into a boat!"

Aria tried to deny this claim, "Nyu Nyu Nyu!" He frantically waved his paws in front of his face, which was just enough to lose his balance atop the log. He fell ass over teakettle onto the ground.

So then, everyone laughed.

"Yeah, exactly like that! So I'm thinking, I've got to save him! So I jump in the boat right after to save this poor kitty! But of course, Aria's had been in boats longer than me. We ended up in Mr. Postman's boat, and he even let me pilot the gondola! I didn't really know what I was doing, but it was so fun, and free.

"In fact, I had so much I completely forgot about my interview to become an Undine! Mr. Postman delivered me to the company, late, and I was so worried I ruined everything. But then, it turned out that Aria here was the company president all along!"

The crowd started murmuring in excitement – one of them was a company president? Aria, back on the log, stood up proudly, as if to say, "How do you like me now?"

"So of course Aria and his human Alicia hired me, and I started training to be a true Undine of Neo Venezia. A girl like me had found her calling on another world. I started making beautiful friends, and learning the aquamarine waters.

"Everything was going well, until one morning, when I woke up, I saw the water started rising up into my house! But... that's a story for another night!"

"Such a tease, Scheherazade!" Coyote cried.

Laughter gave way to cheers as Akari bowed, and sat back down in her place along the fire.

After the tales were over, the party kicked back up, but Akari and Cat Sìth remained by the fire. It had been a busy day, since she had met so many people and goddesses, went trick-or-treating, went to two parties, and even had a sort of magical surgery. The big cat himself had visited plenty of dairies earlier that night, to collect his annual offering of milk.

Grandmother Spider strolled up to the pair, still sitting on a log and staring into the roaring flames. "That dress really is exquisite," she asked. "May I ask who made it?"

"Oh this is just a costume made by my friend Tomoyo. I'm playing Scheherezade for Halloween!"

"It's truly fine regalia, fluid in exactly the way you are. How long have you known this Tomoyo?" she pressed.

"Just a few weeks. She just arrived in this world, too. It must be so hard to change your whole life when you're young like Tomoyo, but she's a really strong kid."

Grandmother Spider's face softened. "You shine so bright, Akari, that you really do attract the best friends."

She nodded, causing her pink pigtails to bounce. "Thank you!"

Grandmother Spider began rummaging through her purse, and pulled a bolt of delicate-looking white cloth that probably shouldn't have been able to fit inside her purse in the first place. She held it out to Akari, "I would like for you to take this..."

"Oh no, I couldn't! You've been too kind to me already."

"It is not for you, undine-child. I would like for you to take this, and to give it to your friend Tomoyo for me. She'll know what to do with it."

"Hahi!"

"I hope to see you again soon, undine-child. Happy Halloween!"

"You too!"

The pair remained there, watching the crackling fire. Fatigue finally set in in earnest, and despite all of the noise of the party, Akari and Cat Sìth fell asleep right in each other's arms.



Akari woke up the next morning in a ravine, embracing Aria. Sunlight was filtering down through the trees, so she rolled over. Rolling onto a rock only woke her up more, so she was fully awake in about a minute, as was her cat.

"What a dream I had, President Aria."

"Punyuu?"

Sitting up, she realized her pillow had been a bolt of pure white cloth. "Some things can be real, and still be a wonderful dream."

She stood up and stretched, then brushed the dirt off her costume. In the process, she discovered a single white blossom in her hair. She removed the jasmine bloom, and inhaled its scent deeply, her lips forming a secret smile.

"C'mon President Aria! We have a delivery to make."

"Nyuu!"


Chapter 6. The Next Day

Having awakened early because of the time difference, Rob had made his way to the kitchen. He was about to knock on the kitchen door frame and offer to help make breakfast, when he saw Belldandy, Fujitaka, Sakura, and Makoto already helping Sasami with the cooking. Fujitaka was still dressed in his shiny red chef's costume from the night before, being the most obvious to cook in, but left off the fake mustache.

There wasn't room for another person in the kitchen. Rob knocked anyway. "Good morning! Do you need help setting the table?"

"We've got it covered, Rob-oji! Go and relax!"

"If you insist, Mako-chan." He grinned and headed for the living room.



Tomo woke up early as she always did when there was excitement to be had. Even earlier than usual, considering the time difference between Texas and California. But on a day like today, her eagerness was like an alarm clock, rendering her ready to meet all of the fun people once again.

She sat herself down under the canopy with a plate of Sakura's pancakes topped with some of the maple syrup the Montreal crowd brought along and a glass of orange juice. They were so good, she scarfed them down really fast so she could go back for seconds.

As she was returning to the grill, she heard a familiar voice calling out to her. "Hey Tomo, can we talk for a bit? Alone?" Minako requested.

Tomo hesitated a bit, and then said, "Sure." She followed as Mina walked across the courtyard.

"I was thinking that maybe we gave you the short end of the straw."

Tomo rolled her eyes a little. "Go on."

Minako explained, "You asked if you could become one of us, and we rejected you right away."

"Oh, don't worry about that. I never take it personally – especially when I already knew what she'd say."

"But maybe we shouldn't have said no."

Tomo's eyes lit up. "Is this about my duchy?!"

"Well, sort of..."

"Score!"

Minako Aino laughed. "It's not that simple, Tomo."

"What's the catch?"

"If you truly want a noble title, you should know what that entails. It means that should I call on you, you are obliged to defend the realm. And most importantly, you must be an example of love and beauty to the world.

Tomo's eyes narrowed, but her face still bore a smirk. "Are you trying to trick me into being less selfish?"

"Uh, yeah?"

"Yeah, huh. Maybe it's working."

"I thought maybe there was a reason that you asked us for a title, and not the court of Jurai. You know our story, right?"

"Un," Tomo nodded.

"And that given a choice between a decadent space empire and a few pretty guardians, you chose us."

"I did try to marry Tenchi. But that's more because it was funny and Tenchi's so--"

"So utterly handsome? Oh my God, I know!"

"I know, right? I met him, and right away I knew why half the galaxy is trying to marry him."

They both collapsed into giggles.

Once they got their composure back, Minako continued, "Do you think you could do those things? For me?"

"As for coming the the defense of the realm, I don't know that I can do much of anything. But knowing who you are and what you've gone through, I think my heart would break if I did nothing."

"That wasn't really the part I was expecting from you, but I appreciate it all the same. But I think you can be a paragon of love and beauty."

"Love and beauty, huh? With this body, that will be way too easy." She strutted around in an attempt to accentuate her curves, but those curves remained conspicuously absent.

Minako laughed again. "Tomo, you can draw every eye in the room even when surrounded by princesses and amazons. There is beauty in you, I know. Don't sell yourself short."

Tomo thought that she definitely couldn't sell herself tall either, and then realized that the solution was not to sell herself at all. "Truth is beauty, right? I can do that."

"See, that's why I'm talking to you. You really understand beauty."

"So you're telling me I can be Mine Fujiko after all!"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves."

"Feh." Tomo looked away dramatically, but she couldn't keep a straight face. "So what would I have to do to get a noble title?" Tomo really hoped it wasn't taking out this week's monster. She thought she could probably take Doorknobder to the mat, and that was about it.

"You had a pretty good oath before, and you meant it, right?"

"Yeah, basically." Tomo had forgotten exactly what she had promised to Usagi, but she probably meant it. Probably.

"Well, we have something a little more elaborate for what you want. I think I remember how this goes.

"I, Minako of Venus, Grand Princess of the Golden Second World, Duchess of Ishtar and Lakshmi, recognize the free woman standing before me, Tomo Takino.

"Will you seek out, promote, protect, preserve, and embody the virtues of love and beauty so long as you live?"

"Oh yeah!" That one was easy for Tomo, who was not fool enough to stand against love itself.

"Do you, of free mind and heart, swear to serve the Queen of the Moon Kingdom, and the Princess of Venus, and to defend the realm against its enemies?"

Tomo hesitated. She was proclaimed a free woman, and now asked to bind herself. And yet, her heart was already bound by love for the girls she watched in the anime so long ago, so it was no new binding at all. "I do," she said. She worried that she had traveled too far down the otaku path.

"Do you promise to the people of Venus to rule those in your domain honestly, in my stead, and judge them with justice and mercy?"

"I promise," Tomo responded. "Can you write this all down later?"

"I accept your oath. May the bond between us ever be strengthened by love and beauty. Kneel," she instructed. When Tomo had bent down, Minako drew her transformation pen and touched it on each of Tomo's shoulders. "I proclaim you, Tomo Takino, the Fifth Baroness of Ameno Uzume! Rise."

By the time Tomo had gotten to her feet, Minako embraced her. "Congrats, Tomo!"

"Huh, I actually feel different. Rituals are weird."

"Oh yeah. I forgot the last part was so... imperial. I'll probably change it."

"So you actually remember the Silver Millennium?"

"Oh, some of it. I remember more than everyone else, but it's mostly just unrelated moments and feelings. But thinking about it totally mixes my wires."

"So the fifth Baroness?"

"Well, the fourth was a friend of mine, and Ameno Uzume had the most beautiful waterfall. But that was back when... So Tomo, what are you going to do with your title?"

"Mostly brag and use it to impress guys."

"What?" Minako laughed.

"It's not like I get anywhere to rule. I'm an environmentalist, so maybe I'll petition the Princess to do something about the acid rain problem."

"Okay, point taken."

"Do I get anything else to go with the job, like maybe a sassy cat?"

"You're just going to have to ask Sakaki real nice to borrow hers."

"Awwwww," she pouted.

Of all of the things that Artoria Pendragon was expecting to see during her morning sword kata, it was not this: seeing the funny girl swearing fealty to, and receiving the accolade from, the ditzy blonde with the red bow. From her short time observing them, it seemed so out of character for both of them.

And it was strange too, all alone under a tree on the edge of a parking lot. For all of the wonder of carts without horses and cobbleless roads, it was hardly the setting for such an affair. In her day, such ceremonies would be a demonstration of her power granted by God, done in royal halls or cathedrals. For the knight, it would be a public declaration of status. Their little ceremony had been an act of simple love.

Obviously, they had hidden depths. She had heard that some of the women from the realm of Ottawa were in fact Princesses of the Sky, but she hadn't really believed it until that moment.

Furthermore, this summoning had been so strange. During a Grail War, there was a ebb and a flow to it, a course it would follow. Victory or defeat, there would be an end, and she would return to her own world. A world she could understand.

But this time, there was no goal, no masters, no guardrails. And there were those two young women, swearing to each other as if it isn't going to end. She had been told that she would return to her realm, or perhaps summoned to serve in another quest for the Grail. But she too was beginning to have her doubts. Days of uncertainty had turned to weeks of peace, then months of routine. If this lovely exile was going to end, then when?

Alice happened to pass by the pretty blonde woman in her gleaming breastplate and deep blue dress, letting her sword droop as if in a daze. She felt the urge to comment on the scene, "Hey, party's over. You don't have to wear your costume today."

"I like these clothes."

"Who are you, anyway?"

"I'm Artoria Pendragon."

"Huh, not a bad attempt, but I'd go with a different fabric. That color doesn't look period-appropriate."

"Huh?"

"Oh, and that sword looks a little too banged up to be Caliburn."

"What?"

The green-haired teenager said, "Don't worry, if you work on it I'm sure you can perfect your cosplay." She left the woman with an even more blank face than when she arrived.

On the way to see what was for breakfast, Aika ran into her. "Good morning! So, what did you think of the party?"

"There sure are a lot of weirdos here."

Aika concurred, "I know, tell me about it."



Sunlight filtered through the blinds, causing the temporary occupants of Westwoods unit 131 to slowly rouse to consciousness.

"Good morning, pretty boy."

"Good morning, sexy lady."

Akira and Kurz looked at each other. Neither of them made a move to get out of his bed.



Two doors down, filtered sunlight cast golden lines across another guest bed.

Urd's consciousness stirred slowly. A thought about last night bubbled to the surface, so she turned and mumbled, "Hey sexy man."

The empty space next to her didn't reply.

As she wasn't the type to get hangovers, her memories started to disentangle themselves from her dreams pretty quickly. She definitely remembered him helping her out of her armor last night. But then that Brent guy had weaseled out of it; something about her being too drunk.

And she was perfectly fine! Almost sober even. She wasn't slurring her words when she complained about her ex-boyfriends. She didn't lose her balance when she sang "Sweet Caroline" from atop the bar, not even for a moment.

She began to see he might have had a point. She through scratched the dissheveled white mane atop her head and rubbed her eyes, smearing her costume makeup.

Urd was just a bit frustrated. But it was nice to know a guy who didn't take advantage of her, she thought. Nice to know a guy who didn't take advantage of her and liked her better than Belldandy. It would be nice to know a guy like that. Now that idea gave her a frisson of excitement, which made her smile and turn over in bed.

As her eyes met the clock, she did a quick conversion to AST – Asgard, not Atlantic. Urd jolted out of bed – she only had about ten minutes until her shift started.

"Oh darn! And today was starting so well", she grumbled.



The more Artoria thought about it, the more she worried. Not since her childhood days had the weight of duty been so absent from her shoulders. She had no country to lead, no people to save, no master to serve as his Saber, no Holy Grail to quest. It is when one's purpose becomes so unclear that the doubt starts to creep in, followed closely by guilt.

Worse, it was the kind of thing she couldn't explain to her friends here. They just wouldn't understand. Couldn't understand; it was a world away from what she knew. It was one thing to quest for the divine power to change the world, but it was quite another to exercise the divine right day by day.

Walking towards the canopy in the central courtyard, she took note of an old man eating breakfast, his pancakes topped with fresh strawberries and cream. He was laughing joyfully over some private joke with his friends, but there was something about his bearing said he might understand. Underneath the gray mustache and the jovial exterior was something weighty, something vaguely martial. In times of old, his collar would have been sign enough, but she had been burned by that recently.

Still, it was worth the chance. When he had finished his meal, Saber approached. "Father, if I may, I need a word with you."

Mal Reynolds teased, "You never told us you had a daughter. You've been holding out on us."

Ignoring him, he answered, "Shepherd is my title. Shepard Book, at your service."

A fine title for a priest of the Lord's Shepard, she thought. But for her own title, she felt lacking. "Artoria Pendragon. I seek your guidance in matters of faith."

Book silently wished that members of his own flock were so forthcoming. "Please walk with me."

As he led her back to his room to pick up a very particular book he thought she might need, she asked, "You are a Christian priest, but a displacee like me. Are you someone of power, or — how did you come to this world?"

"I don't rightly know why me or my crew was chosen to come along. The Lord works in mysterious ways, as they say. And me, well, I'm just an ordinary old shepherd now. Been a pilgrim for long before this, but I have to say, I never thought I'd make it this close to Jerusalem."

"How do you keep your faith among — all this? A pagan Samhain party, attended by women calling themselves goddesses. They did not seem like the Devil's agents, but..." she trailed off.

"They are not the Devil's agents, I can tell you that much. And I've met a couple of Hell's finest. Maybe goddess isn't the right word to think about the Norns, at least not for you. Maybe cherubim or seraphim. From what I understand, they too serve the One God."

"But their names are of the pagan Norsemen."

"Best I can figure, God said to place no other gods before him. I'm still trying to puzzle it all out myself, but well, it's a miracle I'm here at all."

"Will you hear my confession?"

"Of course. Please, sit," Book gestured to a chair sitting in his room, while he grabbed his bible and sat on the bed across from her.

Saber made the sign of the cross. "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Kyrie el—" she began.

"I'm not that kind of preacher. English will be fine, please."

So much had changed. A priest not speaking Latin, who preferred her native tongue – as bastardized by the Angles and the Gauls and the Franks.

And so she began listing her sins, sins of a great enough magnitude to perhaps match his own. It finally struck him that this Artoria Pendragon was in fact the legendary King Arthur of the Britons. The part where she was a girl definitely never made it to the legends, though.

But how could he miss it as she confessed her callous rejection of her son, Mordred. Or by her confession of a continuing illicit attraction to Lancelot du Lac – thus cheating on her wife – which truly just confused the preacher's sense of history further. She confessed that she failed to rule with human warmth, applying justice and strength of arms without love.

"And finally, at the last, I failed my divine charge to serve as King of the Britons, leaving my realm open to pagan armies, through failure of my strength and nobility alone. In my pride I seized the sword, which I should never have done, and all Britain must pay for my vanity. Lord have mercy on me, a failure of a King."

Perhaps the most unnerving thing to Book was the way she calmly assessed her life as a total failure. Which if the stories had any truth to them, she obviously wasn't. "Blessings and peace to you, Artoria."

"Amen."

"Your sins are weighty, that's for sure. But I think you expect too much of yourself. Even Moses never got to see his promised land. King David, who the Lord loved, never got to see his temple," he taught.

"But they failed God, just as I have done. But I too have failed my people. Surely, another could have succeeded where I had failed. A better king who could have saved her country from falling into pagan hands."

"But you didn't just fail. If I recall the legends, you bought your people decades of peace and happiness, despite foes within and without. A Christian should define herself on the good she achieves, with the help of the Holy Spirit."

"But it wasn't enough. A better king would have won."

"But like David, you're still only human."

"But I'm not human! Not any more."

"Now where did you get that idea?" In her own way, she was even more screwed up than River.

"A king cannot be human, not and bear the power I had."

"Of course you are human, and God still loves you, in spite of all of your sins. He even loves me, in spite of all of my sins." He thought a minute, then continued, "You were called to service, just as I was. After all of this, everything you went through, would you truly reject God's call now at your final hour?"

"But I was never worthy. That is why I quested for the grail. If I could have just one wish, I wish that I had never picked up this sword – that a better king had taken my place."

"None of us are fully worthy, Artoria. It is only from God's grace that we amount to anything. He gave to me to be an evangelist, he gave to you to be a king. Remember the parable of the talents?"

She nodded; Christians in her era took the Bible very seriously. With all of the golden crosses embellishing her steel armor, she literally wore her faith on her sleeves.

"Then you know that if you had never become king, you would waste your Lord's gift. He invested it in you. It has borne Him rewards, perhaps not all in your lifetime, but in the centuries beyond, and in the world to come."

"Yes. I... understand." She didn't really, and Book knew it, but she had made a start of it. It had taken him long enough to accept himself, but at least this Artoria was not one to shy away from truth.

"And all of this palaver on today, of all days. It's All Saints Day. A day to rejoice in the achievements of all Christians, large or small."

"Is it? I like the sound of that. All Saints Day."

"Right. You mentioned Samhain a while back, but over time, we took the day as our own, and made it into a celebration of All Saints and All Souls."

"Ah." She looked a little relieved that she hadn't participated in a pagan festival.

"Well, seeing as you have sought the mercy of the Lord, and in Jesus' name, I pronounce to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!"

"That's it? No penance?"

"Well, there's a long story about something else that happened on October 31, but suffice to say that most of us now believe in forgiveness by God's grace alone, through our faith alone."

The blonde still looked worried, "But what should I do, Shepard?"

"I think the answer's staring us right in the face, isn't it?" He opened his book back up, and recited,

"Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand you ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with you feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

"If you're not outfitted to do that, Miss Artoria, I don't know who is. But remember to battle with your heart. Usually you're supposed to take this as metaphor, you see."



"Sailor Venus made me a baroness!" Tomo flashed the V-sign.

"Really? How'd you do that?" Yomi asked, incredulous.

"It's like all jobs: It's all about the nepotism, Yomi."

Brent wondered, "Yeah, but how on Earth did you talk her into that?"

"Oh well, it's totally obvious that I'm suited to Venus as a paragon of beauty."

Yomi landed a karate chop smack in the middle of Tomo's head.

"Owie! But it's true!"

"Like anyone's going to believe that!"

Tomo called across the room. "Minako-chan, tell them!"

"Oh yeah, Tomo's the Baroness of Ameno Uzume now. I escalated her to the nobility an hour ago."

"Can somebody check Minako and make sure she isn't being mind controlled?" Kuroko asked.

"Hey!"

"She's fine," River commented from the quiet corner she had holed up in.

"So what made you go and do that?" Rei asked, incredulous.

Minako smiled wider. She justified the decision simply: "Woman's prerogative."

Usagi said, "I'm just happy Mina-chan is making friends!" She seemed to satisfy, or at least mollify, the other senshi with her skillful application of Occam's Razor.

Rob cleared his throat. "Before somebody else decides to ask for a title, I have to point out the time zone difference between here and Ottawa and Montreal. Some people here need to go to school soon."

"Ack!" Makoto and Mikoto grabbed their "Best Clothing Swap" award, Rei Hino made sure her "Most Elaborate Costume" award was in her bag with the Hatsune Miko headset that Kazari had made for her, and the Servants, Masters, Senshi, and Judgment members made their way to their portals home.

Washuu looked over at Brent. "Shall I open the portals to L.A. and Pensacola while I'm at it?"

"Maybe." He called out to the kitchen, "Hey Fujitaka, do you want to see if you can beat the traffic to the university?"

"That's okay, I told them I'd start the fellowship on Wednesday."

Brent replied to Washuu, "On Venice, let's wait until everyone is up and about, so we can say our goodbyes to the undines before their vacation."

"Speaking of which," Ben added, "We still need to give Akari and Aria their prizes."

"I got a prize?"

"Nyu?"

"It was rigged. Rigged, I tell you! A total gyp! Millions of voters ignored!"

Yomi leaned over and karate-choped Tomo, shutting her up. "You get to be a Baroness, Kami-sama alone knows why. You don't need a prize."

"Eh-heh. There is that."

Brent and Ben ignored them. "We announced the costume contest winners while you were ... wherever you were."

"Did anybody else in our group win any of the categories?"

Ben chuckled. "Tomoyo made your costumes. I'm surprised Aria House didn't make a clean sweep."

"Kaorin-neesan got Best Idea for her flapper dress," Sakura said before the conversation was derailed any farther.

"And you four got the Best Group Costume award," Kaorin said quickly, moving the spotlight back off of herself.

"I got one, too," Athena Glory added, holding up her "Funniest Costume" award. Nobody would normally mistake a Prima Undine for the Littlest Mermaid, after all.

"Pyuu-nyu?"

"Oh, right." Ben cleared his throat. "The award for best non-human costume — the 'Beast Costume' award — goes to Aria Pokoteng as Carmen Miranda." He handed a scroll to Aria. "And the Best Costume Overall as voted by everyone who cast their ballots goes to Akari Mizunashi as Scheherazade!" He handed her a small trophy.

Akari looked shocked for a brief moment, then she smiled. "Oh! This is... Congratulations on making the winning costume, Tomoyo-chan!"

"That's your award, Akari-neesan."

Before the discussion could turn into an argument, the door opened. Sasami looked up and smiled as Kurz and Akira finally showed up for breakfast. "Good morning, you two!" she said loudly enough to draw everyone else's attention.

Akira blushed slightly. Kurz smiled and replied, "It is a good morning!" which deepened Akira's blush.

Sasami quickly stepped forward with two plates of pancakes. "You'd better have some food before all the maple syrup's gone."



Ryoko set up her "Scariest Costume" award on a shelf in her room. It was just a paper certificate, but it was the first thing that her friends — all of her friends, old and new — had given her.

She wanted to show it off.



The van from Venice Beach, painted in Aria Company's livery, sat idling on the driveway, stuffed with six undines and their luggage.

Shaoran called out, "Have a good trip!"

Brent told Athena, "Drive carefully! It's a long trip, so stop if you need to rest."

"I will, thanks."

"I wanna go too!" cried Tomo. "Take me with you!"

"But you didn't pack anything," Akari said, almost apologetically.

"Don't worry, I was going to wear these clothes for the next week anyway."

"Ara!"

Yomi held her nose, "Take her with you!"

Aika ruled, "Gross people are not allowed."

"You don't have to leave so soon!" Kurz suggested.

Akira pointed to a folded paper map, "Schedule, schedule. I am not sleeping in a truck stop tonight."

"We'll see you in a week," Kaorin said. "Have fun!"

A chorus of "byes" later, and the van emerged from the parking lot, headed for the interstate, and set off towards the desert country. It would become the greatest tour of the American Southwest undertaken by Martians since 1947.

With most of his remaining residents gathered around, Brent concluded, "I guess it's time to get going. The kids have to get to school, and I can't think of anything else we need to do in San Antonio."

"Let me go tell Washuu to crank it up." Ben started moving right away.

"Oh Ben? Before you go, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this event. It was just what the doctor ordered."

"Washuu didn't order it. Neither did Simon."

"Well, either way, it was fun. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Among the people milling around the courtyard in the aftermath of the party and the piles of red plastic cups there was a young girl on the edge of, what was to her, a brilliant insight. Osaka began, "So I was just thinking, Tomo is the Baroness of Ameno Uzume now, right?"

"Sure am!"

"Well, that bein' the case, doesn't that mean she's Kagura's boss now?"

Yomi and Tomo looked at each other suspiciously, each hoping the other figured out what Osaka was on about this time.

"Oh, I get it!" Chiyo explained, "When Amaterasu hid in the cave, Ameno Uzumeno Mikoto danced to lure her out, which is said to be the first kagura dance. The dance made everyone laugh so hard that Amaterasu went to investigate, and then she saw her reflection in the mirror Uzume hung. Once she was outside, light returned to the Earth."

"Wait, wasn't that obvious?" Osaka queried.

"No." Yomi and Brent said it simultaneously.

Kagura chose this time to wander downstairs with her backpack packed and ready. "Good morning, everyone!"

"Kagura, can you go bring my suitcases down from my room?" Tomo directed.

"Okay, sure!" Kagura hopped back up the stairs.

"Looks like I have a serf!"

"A surfer serf!" Osaka inserted, proudly.

Brent reprimanded her, "Tomo, no bossing around your friends!"

"I've never been able to stop her before," Yomi said with resignation.

Tomo put her right hand in front of her mouth, "Oh ho ho ho ho!"

A blue vortex of light swirled on an exterior wall of the apartment complex. Then only a couple of seconds later it resolved into a 2-meter wide circular view of the dark and mostly empty Aria House garage floor.

Fujitaka saw Tomoyo carrying a sewing machine in its case, and offered, "Can I help you carry that home?"

Sonomi stepped up behind her daughter declaring, "I can do it." She snatched the machine, and hefted it right along with the other two cases she was already carrying. The woman wearing a forest green business suit and skirt with heels turned to Fujitaka, stuck out her tongue, then marched directly through the portal.

Tomoyo giggled a little. "I'll see you at school today, Sakura-chan!"

"See you there!"

The Venice Beach crowd moved through the portal, leaving only Brent and Sakaki at the end to make sure everything made it back home. Brent turned to Ben, "Thanks again."

"No problem, it was great. Good luck handling them all."

"They're not so bad. Live the dream, Ben!"

"I wish."

Maya sniffed the air in front of the portal, judged it to be acceptable and took a giant leap towards home. The mountain cat was followed shortly by her adoptive mother and her mansion's caretaker.

Back in Venice, Sakaki turned to Brent. "That was nice. We should do it again."

"Well... there's always Christmas."

The image of Westwoods Apartments started to distort, then fade away, revealing a plain concrete wall once more.

Brent snapped his fingers. "Oh damn it! I forgot the Alamo!"
--
Rob Kelk

"Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law."
- Michael Ignatieff, addressing Stanford University in 2012


"Don't let anyone think for you; most people can barely think for themselves."
-
Rare Earth, ending credits
Reply
RE: [IC][Arc 1] Halloween in Another World
#2
Concordance


1. The Invitation


"I've sweet-talked Washuu-chan into setting up some portals."
"Like she did earlier today? In that case, call me Chell."

By "earlier today", Rob means the events of It's All Relative. Chell is the protagonist of the game Portal.


"Yeah, it's supposed to 'ride like this'. Don't be a wuss. Live with it."

Had Mr. Humphries been at Gulfside Rest, he would have advised Kensuke not to worry — it rides up with wear.


Makoto held up a card. "This says it's a dance gown worn by somebody named Sarah in a movie that I haven't seen."

Sarah being the protacgonist of the movie Labyrinth. There's a photo of the scene [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091369/med...1810138368 here].


"Just call me Gloria."

Gloria Steinem, who worked as a Playboy Bunny in 1963 for long enough to write an exposé of the working conditions at the Playboy Club in New York.


"Ten Thousand Stars"

One of Hatsune Miko's songs, from one of the "live" concerts that the Vocaloid programmers and illustrators give on occasion. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gzve2hpLeqc Watch a performance of it here.]


Also, can you make me a daimyou? A duchess would be fine, too.

Daimyou were the top tier feudal lords, under only the shogun or emperor. Each one controlled a clan and a roughly a prefecture's worth of land. Actually, I think the Silver Millenium government was a little more similar to the Holy Roman Empire, with each of them having a literal sphere of influence. Patrons of planets, such as Princess Venus, would be akin to prince-electors, where other senshi of minor planets like Vesta are the other princes, grand dukes, and counts.


Tomo withdrew an elaborate pink pen with wings from her pocket and raised it above her her head.

Buying a prop in advance for a joke I might be able to use in a month or two is a thing I've done in real life. Unlike Tomo, I spend my own money.


2. Trick-or-Treating


Kagura started thinking about oni holidays. "Not if they throw beans at you!"

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Setsubun Setsubun] is a annual Japanese holiday where oni are cast out with soy beans. A culturally inaccurate depiction of this holiday can be found in the pages of Urusei Yatsura.


"You took us to the Yamaguchi-gumi when we were ten!"

The Yamaguchi-gumi in real life are well known for their Halloween giveaways to the community. Yakuza can simultaneously run criminal enterprises and be pillars of the community, protectors of the downtrodden.


"Pinky swear!" Tomo held out her smallest finger, offering it in the ancient Japanese custom of yubikiri.

The term "pinky swear" originally comes from Japanese language as "yubikiri" 「指切り」, literally "finger cutting". But the implication Tomo makes is of yubitsume 「指詰め」. In the yakuza, one of the main punishments for failing to live up to one's obligations is cutting off of fingers in ritual penance. As expected, there's a social stigma against having missing fingers in Japan, to the extent that ex-yakuza – or even normal people who had accidents – often need prosthetic fingers to get hired to jobs.


"I guess she's not a carnivore, then." Sakaki reached down to pet the cabbit.

Cats are obligate carnivores; the majority of their diet must be meat to survive. Ryo-Ohki survives just fine on carrots.


Well, he's actually holding a whole spaceship wrapped in an 8th dimensional quantum loop.

8th dimensional vehicles are more common than one would expect.


But none of them could match the speed of Tomo charging into the middle of the fray at full tilt, her wooden sword lunging forward.

Canon: Tomo's sprint speed is the fastest of the Azumanga cast, so long as it's for a very short distance.


He stopped crying and looked up to Tomo. He said weakly, "Right."

Ugh pronouns. Imma keep it cis for now. All letters of complaint can be addressed to my prereader Rob Kelk, Ottawa, Canuckistan."


"That's a hard question," Fujitaka began patiently. "I've studied all kinds of cultures from around the world."

Fujitaka is an archaeologist, but anthropology is a pretty closely related field. He has almost certainly given lectures on gender roles in ancient societies, since it shows up in all sorts of artifacts.



3. The Party


A cloud of ruby rose petals burst through the arch.

Definitely not foreshadowing or anything.


She was expecting it, of course, and posed with fake modesty, hands holding her dress down over her important parts.

Minako's important parts include, of course, the mound of Venus.


"He's using terms from Dumas." Urd turned from Skuld to Rob. "Aren't you?"

Specifically, The Three Musketeers – the English noblewoman DeWinter is referred to as "Milady" by the French musketeers.


Ben raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me that you want me to be your own personal Cyrano de Bergerac."

If Brent was there, he'd have said, "No of course not! Jareth wants Sarah for a knob goblin."


"Oooooh claaaaw!" Tomo nasalized.

About the Golden Claw: Farce is the best form of comedy. Tomo's quote is from the three-eyed alien toys inside a crane game in Toy Story, who actually did have a religious worship of The Claw. The underlying concept is also religious; see [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guf Guf] in Jewish mysticism.


Brent began educating the youngsters, "You know, crane games were actually invented in ancient Babylon."

This next part is Brent imitating Takashi Yamazaki from Cardcaptor Sakura, as it turns out that Sakura and Shaoran are just as gullible as Osaka is. Yomi is imitating Chiharu Mihara, Takashi's tsundere sweetheart and protector of the truth. She's actually doing him a favor as he was just about out of bullshit at this point.



4. The After-Party


'Oh Kei, now aren't you a big strong man, Sweetling'

If you haven't read "Bubblegum Pink: Raging Fires" yet, please wait until you are at least age 18.


"We goddesses are a lot more like humans than you think. We make mistakes."

Of course, some of us don't try to kill the gods when they find this out. Looking at you, Salem.


"Come on, you gotta have something better than that!"

Brent: Almost every inebriated person, after I've told them that I don't drink, has then proceeded to try to convince me that I should try some alcohol.



5. Samhain


Even tonight, she eschewed makeup to rely on her plentiful natural beauty.

Akari is a little unfair on things like this, which is to say she is quite fair. Like maybe so fair you'd call her a fair person, or call a collection of people like her fair folk.


It didn't seem like much of a party to Akari, as she could only make out a couple of people in the area:

So with the curse, she can really only see the most powerful spirits present: in this case, Coyote, Cat Sìth, Kokopelli, and Grandmother Spider.


"Just ask Pan about the smell of beet blossoms!"

This is a reference to Jitterbug Perfume, which is impossible to really explain without reading the whole book. Otherwise, I'm sure I'd lose you somewhere between the Bandaloop doctors and Mardi Gras.


A tall, rail-thin woman sitting by the fire set down a scarf she was knitting, and scurried over to investigate the pink-haired girl. The woman was dressed in the finest black embroidered dress Akari had ever seen.

Spider Grandmother's appearance here is inspired by Atoko from Haiyore! Nyaruko-san (a fujoshi from planet Atlach-Nacha) and also a cellar spider I saw trying to capture a crane fly while I was writing the passage. (Both animals are nicknamed daddy longlegs, despite their closest relationship being at the phylum level.)


"He patted her head with his left paw."

Cat Sìth is a southpaw. Didn't want to ruin the mood with puns though.

I'm not sure how much peyote there was in there, but it was certainly enough to make Akari throw up. Perhaps fairy realm peyote works a little differently, but it's still Medicine. Willow bark is just aspirin. And I didn't know this until after I wrote, but according to some book Commanche used Osage orange root as eye medicine. But I think I liked the concept of medicine from the roots, trunk, and branches too much to switch the recipe. The wood from the Osage orange tree is among the world's strongest, which is why I picked it.


He asked the woman in black, "Grandmother Spider, do you happen to have some fairy ointment on you?"

Fairy ointment, and the process to make it with magic, is described in great detail in The Ancient Magus' Bride (Mahou Tsukai no Yome) volume 5. Applied to the eyelid, it can make a mundane see fey. Fairies also anoint their children with it.


"Akari decided to return to the dance floor, before the conversation turned to freezing people to death."

Have you ever been to a party where you meet someone, and then after talking a bit you realize they are totes cray cray and you need to get away?


"I bet you could play the flute pretty well, if it was the right kind."

He means the skin flute. Pretty much all of the pre-contact depictions of Kokopelli include the penis pretty obviously. In my version, he's a master of the tango both vertically and horizontally.


"Thank you so much! I didn't know he was like that, and I don't know what I'd do without you."

"There is no honest woman with an uncorrupted heart whom a man is not sure of conquering by dint of gratitude. It is one of the surest and shortest means." – Giacomo Casanova

"A cat is fine, too" – 4chan


"No, don't give away the ending! It must be told properly."

Coyote hates spoilers. His personality is at least somewhat inspired by [Gunnerkrigg Court](https://www.gunnerkrigg.com/?p=485) but he doesn't look like all black and colored like that like a totem animal. Coyote here just looks like a big, occasionally bipedal coyote.

Coyote's tale here is not traditional, and incorporates a lot of different traditions. There are some echoes of [https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Fairy_tal...Snow_Queen The Snow Queen], Hopi, Shasta, Mojave, and Mexica stories and culture. [http://abandonedfootnotes.blogspot.com/2...ought.html Aztec political thought] is pretty alien to modern folk.


There was a cacophony of buzzing, and the yellow jackets said, "How can we help?'

Yellow jackets really freaking like salmon, even when you're trying to eat it *grumble*. The particular backstory the yellow jackets are referring to [http://ilhawaii.net/~stony/lore75.html Mount Shasta's Eruption].


There was so much water that once there was a flat mesa, the water kept cutting and cutting through the rock, until there was a Grand Canyon.

Incidentally the Grand Canyon was not caused by a massive glacial lake outburst flood, but uplift of the Colorado plateau and long term erosion. On the other hand, the [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channeled_Scablands Channeled Scablands] of the Columbia basin were most definitely caused by an ice dam failure. But the primordial flood stories have a tendency to blend together.


"And that's the story of how I beat Gato, and got his 15 Silver Points!"

If you're clueless here, it's a reference to Chrono Trigger. Gato is a cat robot you can fight for Millennium Fair merch points... and he has a song. Gato, of course, is Spanish for "cat". And if you don't think armadillos can roll, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x71UlnYVEU check this youtube out].


"But I was a girl who was never happy."

I must have written these words almost in a dream, because I woke up the next day and thought, "Really? For Akari?" But there's a difference between a cheery demeanor and self-actualized happiness.


"How long have you known this Tomoyo?"

Tomoyo seems to be very good with cloth and Akari had a sewing-related curse. Statistics show that 95% of curses are inflicted by people that are known to the victim. But Tomoyo has an excellent alibi.



6. The Next Day


"And that given a choice between a decadent space empire and a few pretty guardians, you chose us."

"Decadent" is a great word to describe any regime you don't like, as opposed to an elegant government.


She thought she could probably take Doorknobder to the mat, and that was about it.

Doorknobder was a SM canon daimon spirit possessing – get this – a doorknob, the result of which was a monster of the week with no fighting ability nor desire to fight. She did like to open and close doors though. We can only hope that in the next life, she replaces Durandal aboard the UESC Marathon and lives happily ever after.


"I, Minako of Venus, Grand Princess of the Golden Second World, Duchess of Ishtar and Lakshmi, recognize the free woman standing before me, Tomo Takino.

Grand Prince is a real title used in eastern Europe, though it hasn't been held by anyone as their highest title since 1547 when Ivan IV of Moscow became Tsar of All the Russias. It's functionally equivalent to Grand Duke, but you know, for principalities instead of duchies. I think it describes the hierarchy of the Silver Millennium well, where the planets are royal entities in and of themselves, but also are subject to the empress, or in this case Queen Serenity. This is more or less how the Holy Roman Empire worked for centuries. Presumably the sailors for minor planets (like 1 Ceres) would be styled simply as princess.


:Land features on Venus are named for various goddesses. There is a tholus named for Otafuku, which is an aspect of Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, but honestly I didn't think Otafuku's look was quite right for Tomo, so I went for the original. I felt like the hyphens looked odd in the noble title, so I agglutinated the 'no' particle to the previous word – Japanese doesn't use whitespace, so there are a few different ways to transliterate.


I'm an environmentalist, so maybe I'll petition the Princess to do something about the acid rain problem.

She's alluding to the excess of sulfuric acid in the atmosphere of Venus, one of a long list of tragic results wrought by the Youma War, which brought an end to the Silver Millennium. Anyway, Tomo: Dumb, but not ignorant.


"But their names are of the pagan Norsemen."

The invaders of Sub-Roman Britain were the pagans with their Norse gods. Artoria would be understandably totally freaked out by Verðandi. Even more than Brent was.


He gave to me to be an evangelist, he gave to you to be a king. Remember the parable of the talents?"

Ephesians 4:12, then Matthew 25:14. For people of Saber's era, the Bible was a main source of literature common to her people, like Star Wars is today, but somehow even more so. Our modern meaning of "talent" comes directly from this parable – the original meaning was the value of a coin. The serfs who invested their coins on behalf of the master were praised, but the one who hid the coin in fear of his master was punished.


"Therefore put on the full armor of God ..."

Ephesians 6:13 – an extended metaphor for how an evangelist is a warrior, protected and armed by the Word, shooting at the walls of heartache: bang, bang!


"Well, there's a long story about something else that happened on October 31, but suffice to say that most of us now believe in forgiveness by God's grace alone, through our faith alone."

To Lutherans and other mainline protestants, October 31 is also known as Reformation Day, the anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. But explaining the Reformation to a sixth century Christian is a little beyond the scope of what she needed. This a pretty standard formation of sola fide, sola gratia, which along with sola scriptura is a standard formation in the Lutheran and Calvinist lines. So Book would probably be from one of those traditions. But hey, at the rate things are going, by the 25th century Catholics will have accepted the remainder of the 95 theses.


The dance made everyone laugh so hard that Amaterasu went to investigate...

Chiyo's explanation of Uzume's dance left out the part that it was a strip dance. Tomo has a sufficient lack of shame that she would strip for laughs, if in fact she got laughs. She's prideful about the actually being funny part though.


Brent snapped his fingers. "Oh damn it! I forgot the Alamo!"

Mainly a note for non-Americans, but "Remember the Alamo", in reference to the disastrous siege in San Antonio, was a rallying cry for Texas independence.
--
Rob Kelk

"Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law."
- Michael Ignatieff, addressing Stanford University in 2012


"Don't let anyone think for you; most people can barely think for themselves."
-
Rare Earth, ending credits
Reply
RE: [IC][Arc 1] Halloween in Another World
#3
OMAKE


She showed him the Canadian Smarties, and in all seriousness answered, "Chocolate."



Kazari waved at the newcomers. "Hello! Do you have a moment?"

Nanoha and Fate walked over to her. "We're meeting everybody right now," Fate replied.

"But we haven't met you yet. I'm Nanoha Takamachi."

"Kazari Uiharu. I'm pleased to meet you."

"Fate Testarossa. I'm happy to make your acquaintance."

"Oh! Have you met a girl a few years older than me, with gray eyes?"

Nanoha and Fate looked at each other, then Nanoha replied, "Not yet."

Kazari smiled impishly. "Then I get to introduce you." She waved the gray-eyed girl over.

"What is it, Ms... Uiharu, wasn't it?"

"Yes. There's somebody here I'd like you to meet. Fate Testarossa, this is Teletha Testarossa."

They all looked surprised, then Nanoha grinned. "I see why you wanted them to meet."

Nearby, Osaka turned to Tomo. "I wonder whether they're related."
--
Rob Kelk

"Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law."
- Michael Ignatieff, addressing Stanford University in 2012


"Don't let anyone think for you; most people can barely think for themselves."
-
Rare Earth, ending credits
Reply


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