Chapter 5: Everyday Madness

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

-o-

Location: The Crossroads

"Ummm..." Hinata asked quietly. "Excuse me, but... I don't think that he means us any harm..."

"Y-yes," Chrome concurred. "He actually seems kind of nice."

"Listen to them!" Alpha yelped, flinching back from the weapons and various abilities being aimed at him. "Please, I come in peace! Come on, I'm going to retire next week!"

The more serious members of the group ignored the two, continuing to threaten the man. "Quiet, girls, we're conducting an interrogation," Evangeline said. "Now then, 'Alpha' was it? Do your internal organs a favor and tell us about this 'Order' and why we're here. Otherwise..." Her grin turned feral. "Your kidneys get it."

The white-coated man whimpered in fear. "I-I was planning on doing that anyways! Just, well, not here!"

"And why not?" Mukuro asked, tapping his trident on his shoulder casually. "It appears that every second you remain silent, the closer your early retirement comes."

Alpha swallowed nervously. "For cripes sakes, we're on top of an enormous crystal tree! Sure, there are wards stopping people from falling off-!"

"Really!?" Luffy exclaimed. To the shock of most of the onlookers, he took a running start towards the edge. Luckily, Alpha hadn't been lying. A wall of glowing runes lit up in front of him and stopped him dead in his tracks, spread-eagled and stuck. "Wow, this is awesome!" He shouted, his voice muffled due to his face being pressed up against the arcane barrier.

Alpha's eye twitched. "Damn it..." He groaned as he ran his hand over his face. "Another idiot powerhouse. Just my luck."

"The way you say that implies you've dealt with more than one," Erza stated questioningly.

Alpha sighed and shook his head. "Too many. It's a common enough principle: The higher a person's power level, the lower their I.Q. and-slash-or grasp on sanity."

"My condolences," Nami growled as she ground Luffy's face into the floor. "God knows that we can barely deal with one."

"OOOW! Nami! Whyyyy?"

"YOU KNOW WHY!"

"Thank you very much," the white-clad man said in a sigh. "Anyways, I am entirely willing to explain everything to you, but before that I want to get you all settled in. How about this? I take you all back to my residence, you all choose rooms and roommates and what-not, and then we can begin the big explanations during dinner, alright?"

"Will there be meat?" SLAM! "OW! NAMI!"

"How about ramen?" SLAM! "OW! SAKURA!"

"Um, that's generous of you and all, but… I'm not sure whether or not you noticed, but there's over fifty of us here," Ichigo said in disbelief. "Are you sure your place has enough room?"

"Yeah, and why are you being so friendly anyways, 'Alpha'?" Asuna asked, accusatory.

Alpha raised his hand placatingly. "Alright, alright, listen. First and foremost, while Alpha might not be my birth name, it's the one I choose to go by and everyone calls me, alright? It's as simple as that. And second, my home has more than enough room, I guarantee it. The reason being the most obvious one; magic."

Alpha held up two fingers, "Third, there are two reasons why I'm helping you all. First, my superiors, who I will tell you all about when we get back to my place, told me to handle you until they're ready. Your arrival here has caused more than a few ripples, and they're dealing with the fallout. As for the second..." He gave a reassuring grin and shrugged helplessly. "What can I say? I'm a friendly guy who likes to make friends and help out!"

The group was silent for a moment, staring at the foreigner as they processed what he had said. Finally, Allen broke the silence. "You really are, aren't you?" He asked in bemusement.

Alpha chuckled and scratched the back of his head. "Basically, yeah. The proof is in the pudding! Or, in this case, the posture."

The other-worldly travellers were confused about his statement for a second before recoiling in shock as they realized what he meant: Not five minutes ago, most of them had been poised to rip his head off, and even before that they had been tense, worried and suffering varying degrees of fear at their unusual situation. That was no longer the case. Over the course of the conversation with Alpha, they had all relaxed, tension simply flowing out of them, leaving them all at ease.

Kakashi gave a low whistle. "You're good at this."

Alpha smiled widely in embarrassment. "Hehe, thanks. It's why my superiors pulled me out of retirement to do this, you know!"

Maka frowned in confusion as she remembered his previous statements. "Wait, pulled you out of retirement? Didn't you say earlier that you were retiring soon!?"

The white-clothed man sighed tiredly as he slumped forwards. "Yeah...Once this job is over and you're all settled, I'll be retiring again...Though no doubt next week I'll be forced to come out of it again!"

"What!?" Natsu asked in confusion. "How come? And why are you retired anyways? You're not a geezer!"

Alpha sighed as he tilted his head and crossed his arms. "It's not my fault!" He lamented. "This damn place is always undergoing one crisis or another so I have to throw my hat into the ring and pull everyone's collective asses out of the fire. All I want to do is retire in peace! Is that so much to ask!? Stupid sense of duty..."

"And as for my age..." His expression became more serious, eliciting surprise from the group. "Word to the wise. Most of the people you'll see from here on out? I can guarantee that they're older than they look."

The group mumbled in confusion for a minute before Naruto's voice rang out. "HEY! Enough talking! Are we going or what!?"

Alpha snapped his fingers in realization. "Oh, right! Thanks for that, Shouty MacOrange!"

"IT'S NARUTO!"

"Sorry, Naruto! Anyways, come on, follow me!" Alpha made to turn around, but suddenly halted. "Oh, before we go! For the record, there's a chance we might get stopped every once in awhile. After all, I'm a pretty well-known face, so chances are that a few people will want to talk with me," he sighed despondently and bowed his head in despair. "Ugh, it's not fair...I always try and remain inconspicuous, but everyone always notices me and I have no idea why. Ah well, come on everyone! Let's get a move on!"

And with that, he turned around. On his back, stretching from his long-coat's collar to it's bottom was a large electric-blue 'A'.

"Is he serious!?" was the general thought of the group.

He walked alone for a full minute before finally, Luffy, Naruto and Natsu started following him.

"Natsu! You're following him!?" Lucy asked in confusion.

Natsu shrugged indifferently. "Why? Do you have a better plan?" Naruto and Luffy nodded in agreement.

Lucy worked her jaw for a minute before she was broken out of her thoughts by Sakura clapping her hand on her shoulder, sighing despondently. "Don't you just hate it when they have a point?"

Nami groaned and ground the heel of her palm into her forehead. "Don't I know it... well, come on. These guys are going to go either way, might as well follow them."

And with that, the group followed behind Alpha.

Within the crowd, Inuyasha kept his hand on the hilt of his Tessaiga, glancing around and sniffing the air. Nearby, Ichigo was watching him warily. Finally, he decided to speak up quietly. "Hey, everything alright?"

Inuyasha shot the orange-haired Soul Reaper a glare before growling and baring his teeth. "Something doesn't smell right. A lot doesn't smell right. Someone's following, someone's watching, there's a lot going on that we can't see. And I don't like that."

Ichigo frowned and clenched Zangetsu's hilt. "Tch. Me neither. I like it better when my problems are in front of me."

Inuyasha glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "Why are you so curious anyways?"

Ichigo returned the look with equal intensity. "I'm curious because it concerns my friends. I won't allow anyone to threaten them. And you?"

Inuyasha kept watching him for a second before growling and setting his eyes dead ahead. "I'm just in this for me, no one else..." As he said this, he unconsciously glanced towards his group. More specifically, towards Kagome.

Ichigo noticed and chuckled to himself. "You're a bad liar, you know that?"

Inuyasha growled angrily as he glared at Ichigo. Finally, he grunted quickened his pace. "Whatever. Just stay out of my way, got it?"

Ichigo accelerated just as much, a smirk present on his lips. "Fine by me, so long as you do the same."

And with that, they continued on in silence.

As they had spoken, Alpha had led the group to the trunk of the Crossroads. To their surprise, there was an opening, hidden due to the inner crystals matching that of the tree's outer shell, thus forming the illusion of a solid barrier. Through the opening was a huge stairway, spiraling around the trunk, going both up and down.

Yamamoto whistled appreciatively. "Wooow," the baseball player said in awe. "Impressive."

"Yup!" Alpha agreed. "And not just structurally! There's a lot of beauty unseen too!"

"Um, yeah… I'm sure… but..." Nami spoke spoke up hesitantly. "Judging from how high up we are and the angle the stairs… won't it take us the rest of the day to get down?"

"Ah! That's where the unseen beauty comes in!" the white-coated man said as he held a finger up. "For you see, just as these stairs are immaculately carved, so are they immaculately enchanted!"

"WOW!" Luffy exclaimed. "MAGIC!?"

"Eh? What's so special about that?" Natsu asked in confusion.

"Well, Pinky-"

"IT'S NATSU!"

"Sorry, Natsu!" Alpha chuckled in embarrassment. "Anyways, Strawhat McMoron-"

"IT'S LUFFY!"

"Sorry, Luffy is from the Blue Seas. Though they have Devil Fruits, there's no other form of magic, only pure skill! Well… there might be a Magic-Magic Paramecia or Logia fruit, but..." Alpha shrugged indifferently. "Who knows."

Robin blinked in surprise. "It appears that you have a fair amount of knowledge on our world."

He raised his hands and shrugged again. "Eh, as I said, I've been around awhile, I know all of yours and more. At the least, I know enough so that I trust you more because you're pirates, not marines," He scowled and growled under his breath. "Believe you me, anyone who opposes the World Government and Nobles is a friend of mine."

Some made to question him, but they were cut off when he shook his head and gave a large, surprisingly honest smile. "Ah, I'm digressing! Anyways, yes, the enchantments! I'm not entirely certain of how the details on how they work, but the gist of it is that they fold space, compacting the stairs so that people going up and down can make the journey in about an hour. Nifty, huh?"

There was a general sound of agreement, prompting Alpha to wave ahead. "Glad to hear it! Now then, come on! In the words of a great man and friend, allons-y!"

Once again, the group moved, moving down the stairs. As they went down, there were cries of awe as they observed the inner walls of the tree. Like the pillars that had brought them to where they were, colors, shapes and lights shifted and blurred within the walls, a myriad of mirage-esque images trapped within.

"Amazing..." Negi breathed. "Alpha, who created this... this monument?"

Alpha glanced over his shoulder, an unreadable expression on his face. "Who said someone did?"

Tsuna's jaw dropped open in shock. "Y-y-you mean you-?"

"Found it? Basically, yeah. A long time back. Way before my time, anyways. The people who found it were the ones who carved these stairs out, and figured out how to harness the tree."

"Harness it?" Maka asked.

Alpha nodded. "Yup, harness. See, this tree… it's called the Crossroads for a reason. Has anyone ever heard of Yggdrasil?"

"Hmm... Yggdrasil... oh, I remember!" To the DWMA student's surprise, it was Liz who spoke up. "The world tree, right? Supposed to signify the life force of all existence, roots and branches reaching between worlds, right?"

"Correct."

"Wow, Liz!" Maka exclaimed. "That's incredible! Where did you learn that?"

The Thompson sister scowled and jabbed her thumb at her meister. "Kidd forced me and Patty to read up on Norse mythology when we went to deal with Nidhogg." She growled venomously.

Death the Kidd was unrepentant. "I merely felt it best to have as much information as possible in case of any eventuality."

"THAT DAMN SHIP WASN'T EVEN CLOSE TO A DRAGON, YOU IDIOT!" Liz screamed furiously.

Kidd shrugged indifferently. "Maybe, but who knows? The success or failure of the mission could very well have depended on our knowledge."

"THE MISSION FAILED BECAUSE OF YOUR STUPID OBSESSION!"

Patty was cackling madly as she walked along. "Heeheehee! Yeah! You went ZOOM! In the wrong way!"

"Umm…" Liz and Kidd looked over their shoulders and saw Chrona, who was glancing down sadly. "I'm… sorry about what happened… back then…"

"Aww, it's alright!" Chrona flinched in surprise as Patty wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "You just made a mistake, that's all! It wasn't your fault, we don't blame you! You're our friend!"

"Well in that case, don't mind if I do!" Ragnarok burst out of Chrona's back and smirked widely, exposing all his teeth. "We kicked your asses! We kicked your asses! We kicked your asses! Gyahahaha!" he cackled madly.

"R-ragnarok!" Chrona weakly protested.

"Heeeeey Ra~gnaro~k..." Patty singsonged.

"Hm?" The black-blood being glanced down at her.

Patty's smile was pure evil, filled with malice and promised pain. "Shut your goddamn mouth before I permanently shut it for you, got it ya damn bastard?" she growled, darkness surrounding her in an aura of evil.

Ragnarok clamped his jaws shut and nodded hastily.

Once again, a single thought ran through the heads of most of the people present.

'Scary...'

Liz was one of the few unaffected. She merely rolled her eyes and sighed at her sister's antics. "Anyways, you were saying, Alpha?... Alpha?" She repeated the question when she notice that he was staring intently at her sister.

The man flinched and quickly smiled again. "Ah, right, sorry, lost in my thoughts."

"Riiiight..." Liz conceded, not entirely convinced. 'What was that look in his eyes? Surprise?'

"We've digressed. As I was saying: Yggdrasil. That legend is based on the Crossroads. This tree's roots and branches extend out into the multiverse, and it certainly signifies the world we are in, the Nexus. For you see, the Nexus is a truly unique world!"

"Really? How so?" Negi questioned.

"Well..." Alpha waved his hand in the air. "The Nexus is as it's name proclaims: a nexus of worlds. It is constructed out of the overlapping parts of many worlds, held together by the Crossroads. And, it's growing."

"Seriously!?" Luffy asked in surprise.

"Well, what did you expect?" Alpha queried. "The Crossroads is a tree. Crystal or wood, trees grow. And as the Crossroads grow, so too does the number of worlds it is connected to, and so too does the Nexus. Lemme tell ya, it makes the atlas a freaking nightmare… anyways, the people who discovered the tree studied it, and discovered how to use it to enter the myriad of worlds it was connected to. Heck, they even learned how to perform interdimensional travel on their own!"

Evangeline whistled appreciatively. "Not bad. Inter-world interactions are tough. Quite an endeavour."

"Yeah..." Alpha was silent for a second as his mood soured and he bowed his head. "Still though," he continued morosely. "It's far safer to use the Crossroads. As accurate as interdimensional travel has become, there's always a chance that the connection can be broken, and the world lost. And if that happens..." he sighed sadly. "There are a lot of worlds out there. The chances of finding that one world again... astronomical. We learned that lesson the hard way when the Thirteenth Legion was lost."

It was impossible to miss the sadness present in Alpha's voice as he spoke.

"Who were the Thirteenth Legion?" Hitsugaya asked quietly.

Alpha flinched and rubbed the back of his neck. "A very bad memory. Look, the point is, the Order was shown that no matter how reliable any methods we come up with are, they will always pale in comparison to the Crossroads. The Crossroads are invincible, a connection to it cannot be severed. Once a world is discovered by means other than the Crossroads, we link it up as soon as possible, few to no exceptions," He sighed heavily and shook his head. "Look, this is an... uncomfortable subject, can we just keep walking? We're almost out."

The group continued in a somber silence for some time before the silence was finally broken.

"Alpha," May asked quietly, "Why does the… Order... use other means of travel if they're so risky?" Her pet Xiao-Mei nodded in agreement.

The man sighed and shrugged helplessly. "Because, despite the risks, the rewards are far too great. As useful as the Crossroads are, a lot of people are lured in by dreams of independence, of gaining new knowledge. Besides, the Crossroads tend to grow a bit fast on their own, and vetting worlds for connections to the Nexus is time consuming. People are impatient, so they use their own ways to find what they want. There's usually no harm... for the most part," he finished morosely.

A silence blanketed the group of misfits for but a few moments before Luffy tore the silence apart. "I'm hungry, how much longer until we can eat?"

Alpha's eye twitched for a second before he glanced over his shoulder, a sickeningly false smile on his face. "Nami, was it? You seem like a sane person, would you mind...?"

"Way ahead of you."

SLAM!

"OW! NAMI!"

"Thank you."

Still, Luffy's outburst did manage to break some of the tension, resulting in the rest of the trip down the stairs being filled with raucous laughter and conversation ranging from heated to casual.

Suddenly, the conversation was cut off when Alpha came to a sudden halt. "We're here."

The group had reached the foot of the stairs, ending in a huge, open atrium. Impressed into the trunk of the tree itself were two large pairs of double doors: one pure white with a pair of angelic wings imprinted upon them, the other pitch black and bearing bat-like wings. Opposite the doors, leading out of the Crossroads was a towering arch, carved straight into the walls of the tree itself. Runes covered the pillars, and the inside was filled with shifting lights.

"So..." Maka asked tentatively. "What are those two doors supposed to be?"

Alpha gave the doors an unreadable look before shrugging. "The Memorial and the Mortuary, white and black, respectively. The prior I can tell you about later, and the latter..." His mood darkened visibly. "The latter is currently of no concern."

"Er, right..."

Alpha flinched as he realized his choice of words left a lot to be desired, courtesy and politeness being two of them. "Sorry, it's just that the Mortuary is a really dangerous subject, so we try to keep it under wraps," He spun around on his heel to face the crowd again, clapping his hands together. "Anyways! Before we go out there, I just need to ask: does anyone here have any issues with individuals of a non-human nature? Meaning, not even remotely human in any way."

The people present muttered between themselves for a second before everyone nodded to themselves, eerily enough at the same time. Most shrugged, while others said nothing. Anko said only, "Whatever."

Chopper raised his hoof. "I think the point is kind of moot with me."

Alpha sighed in relief. "Thank goodness. Believe me, no better way of getting an entire crowd to turn a cold shoulder than someone being a racist prick. Still though, just do me a favor and try not to stare." He turned around and began walking towards the exit.

As the crowd followed him, Kagome managed to ask a final question. "Why? They'll find it offensive?"

To the surprise of many, Alpha's response was to let out a bark of laughter. He stopped inches away from the light. "No, worse," he shot a wry grin over his shoulder. "They'll try and show off."

And with that, they left the Crossroads.

The crowd came to a sudden halt, all but forced to stare at the sight before them.

They had emerged into a scene of controlled anarchy as a wave of sight, sound, smell and in cases even taste, struck them in the face like a shower of bricks.

People, or rather, beings, of all shapes and sizes, some recognisable, others completely alien but identifiable, and still more that defined description in any meaningful way.

There were angelic beings with feathered wings and pale features and people with leathery bat wings and darker complexions. These people were often in the company of each other, either with opposing genders or similar, despite their obviously contrasting imagery. The angelic people looked and acted prim and proper, like they were nobility, while the demonic individuals acted far more laid back, casual and emotional.

Some seemed to be amalgamations of man and animal. The ratio of features varied from one individual to another, some bearing more humanoid aspects with animal features, and others were more like animals in humanoid bodies. There was also a clear divide in the creatures: some of them, mainly mammals, fish and birds, were wearing casual clothing composed of leather and cloth, along with some lighter forms of armor like chestplates and gauntlets while the ones who were part insect, reptile and amphibian, all seemed to be wearing a form of heavy armor one way or another, be it a full-blown suit or just a metal-plated arm or other limb.

Other people were less... defined, per say. There were clusters of people throughout the crowd, linked by the fact that their clothing styles seemed to match one another in a form of elemental motif. There were six styles in all: fiery crimson, aquatic blue, windy white and light grey, earthen brown, electric yellow, and darker metallic grey.

Perhaps the more shocking individuals in the crowd were the automatons. Androids of varying shapes, forms and sizes. What they all held in common was that they were composed of a brown, bronze-ish metal, with gears and clockwork innards showing at their joints and cameras of various glowing colors in their eye sockets.

And finally, there were the mythological creatures. All forms, of varying shapes and sizes. Proud, confident elves, noble centaurs, lamia supported on long, winding tails, heavily-armored minotaurs, even a dragon or too parting the crowd around them as they walked.

And on and on, a true myriad of beings.

The courtyard itself was massive, extending a fair distance around the Crossroads. The crowd ebbed and flowed like a living thing, all manners of people and individuals interacting with each other casually, not even sparing a glance to what others would deem as insanity. Some just chatted, others had heated debates, and there were even a few vendors with carts running fairly lucrative businesses.

On the edge of the plaza were a pair of massive arches, towering high above the crowd. The sights held within the arches contrasted with the landscape behind them.

Through the one on the left was a thriving metropolis of brass and bronze, skyscrapers interlinked by pipes, with massive cogs and gears poking out of the walls. The ground itself was made of metal, and the robots were more numerous in the arch, though a good part of the crowd flowed into it.

The arch on the right led to a more... arid city. The buildings were shorter, made of stone, and the air visibly shimmered from the sun shining down upon it. The road was made of dust and stone, and sand seemed to cake the city. Perhaps the most noticeable feature was the monolithic pillar of rock that seemed to engulf the horizon, rising high and out of sight due to the arch's constraints from the perspective they were in.

Beyond the two arches was the strange, mismatched metropolis known as hub city. Hi-tech, low-tech, and what was obviously magic mixed liberally. Skyscrapers, normal houses and everything between could be seen.

The group of foreigners was stunned, to say the absolute least.

Panther Lily gaped openly at the thriving crowd. "This is... surreal."

Gajeel nodded numbly in agreement, watching a towering mechanical being slowly pick it's way through the living mass, "You can say that again."

Sanji giggled happily as he oggled a pair of catwomen, one covered in fur and one only with ears and a tail saunter by, "Oh it's surreal alright. Heck, I'd even go so far as to say it's paradise!" He all but swooned when the two beastwomen blinked at him and giggled mischievously.

Miroku smirked in agreement, throwing an arm around the cook's shoulder, "Truly, my friend, we have reached the promised land. As they say, good things come to those who-"

SHINK!

"URK!"

He cut himself off hastily as he nervously eyed the blade Sango was holding beneath his throat, "I'm sorry, would you care to repeat that?" Her fiancé hastily shook his head. "I didn't think so."

Shino readjusted his glasses a bit as he watched a trio of what appeared to be bipedal human-sized ants scurry by, "This is all very intriguing. Why? Because there are most likely many new things to discover."

Kanda grunted in agreement, slowly scanning the crowd and glaring at whoever met his eyes. Some flinched, others returned the glare equally. And a few even forced him to avert his eyes first, "This is one hell of a place."

Hibari also scanned the crowd, intently analyzing everyone he laid eyes on, picking apart their weaponry, their armor, any outward signs of experience. His lips drew back into a terrifying smile, "Herbivores and carnivores. A whole new hunting ground."

Greed cackled maniacally, slapping the prefect's back casually, "You said it, kid! Just don't get too ambitious, you hear? This world is all mine."

Hibari glared at the madly grinning man for a moment before scowling and returning to scanning the crowd.

Tsubaki was unable to observe the scenery as intently as the others due to being... erstwhile occupied, "BlackStar! Please calm down! I know that you want to give a speech, but now isn't the right time!"

"But Tsubaki! How else are they supposed to learn of the greatness that is ME!?"

"BlackStar!"

Kasumi giggled like a madwoman as she snapped picture after picture like clockwork, "Forget the school paper! I'm aiming bigger! The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Daily Mail! By the time I'm done, I'm going to be the queen of journalism! My one sole regret before I die will be that I didn't have more memory space!"

Sayo sighed sadly as she rested her head in her palm, "I wish she didn't get like this every time she smelled a scoop..."

Rukia's eyes widened in surprise as many people looked not just at her but at the other Soul Reapers and Sayo as well, "They can see us?! But how? Is everyone's spiritual power that high or-?"

"Nah," Alpha interrupted, "It's more like the world itself has enough spiritual power to compensate. The place you know as the Mortal Realm actually has very low levels of magic in the air, as well as its inhabitants. The difference in power levels means that higher beings of power, like anyone from another world or a soul, is effectively invisible. But everywhere else? The magic is high enough so that you can be seen. Smile, you're technically not a ghost anymore!"

Rukia's eye twitched at the man's nonchalantness, "First, before you get a chance to nickname me, my name is Rukia. And second... you do realize you just tore down one of the founding principles of my existence in a few words, correct?"

Alpha smiled casually at her, "What can I say? This job has it's perks. Not enough to keep me from retiring though. Anyways!" He clapped his hands together, drawing attention to himself, "We aren't going to be getting anywhere standing around! Come on, follow me, stick close together, and try not to get in any trouble. I know that there's high chances it won't work, but a guy can dream."

He started walking forward into the crowd, the rest of the group following behind them.

Alpha appeared to be an expert at moving through the throngs of people. The crowd flowed around the foreigners easily, without any risk of splitting them up. As they walked, the group overheard snippets of conversations going on around them.

"-and now he wants me able to purify a two-ton boulder with my bare hands by the end of the week." "Yeesh, that's harsh! Can't you ask him for something lighter or-?" "Nah, it's training, no pain no gain. And considering what he did and has done for me, it's not like I can feasibly say no..."

"-so I says to the guy, 'half the loot and no less,' and he says that he's not going any higher than a third cause me and my 'wimpy bow' didn't do much else than distract the damn bastards!" "Seriously!? So what'd ya do?" "I took the third... then I followed him home and took the rest while he was sleeping!" "HA! Nice one, but I think I can top it! Alright, so I'm tracking this ent, right? And-"

"-half the place shut down! Can you believe it? Half of an entire Citadel! Man, once we manage to rectify the power fluctuations, I'll bet you anything that it'll be standard equipment." "Geeze, that's powerful. Sometimes you Gearheads scare me, you know that?" "Oh we scare you? Please, I've been to the Orichalcum testing fields! I've seen some practice fires! You Rune-slingers have just as many weapons as us! Remember that one that turned an entire-"

"So we've got the beta-quadrant for most of the day. Clan Water said that things'll be free and clear there for a good while, but that Clan Air will be passing a storm front they're developing over us around noon, so we'll either need to be careful or go deep enough it can't affect us. What about you? Anything on your end?" "Ship shape. I got us some guys. We'll need to swing by Aguasala to pick them up." "Aguasala? That's a Fed port. They any good?" "Mostly amphibian. A few scale-tails, but they're all aquatic. I think they can handle it." "Really? Well, alright then..."

"-know you cheated!" "What!? Oh come on! You can't hold that against me! That's the entire point of the game!" "Yeah, when it's a game of skill! Look, just pay me, will you? Then I'll leave you alone!" "Ah, see... there' a problem with that." "...where did you get that new hat?" "Weeeell..." "Oh come on!"

"I'm telling you, it takes a lot of skill! Finesse!" "What 'finesse'!? All you do is bash people with your shield while you flail around like an idiot!" "Oh, and that massive slab of metal you call a sword is any better? I happen to remember kicking your ass tons of times!" "And every time I've gotten back at you ten fold!" "Well now, what say we do it one more time, huh?" "Oh you took the words right out of my mouth!" "Come on, bitch!" "Bring it, asshole!"

"Serya! Manus!" Alpha shouted over the din of the crowd.

One of the white and black duos nearby, an angelic woman wielding a six-foot long claymore and a demonic man holding a large rectangular tower shield who were squaring off, snapped their heads around to glare at the person who'd interrupted them, "What!?" They hollered simultaneously.

Alpha jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, "Take it to a training field. If you start something here, there's a good chance you'll start something that somebody else will finish. Got it?"

The two had the courtesy to blush as they noticed the other members of the crowd leering eagerly at them, cracking their knuckles and toying with their weapons eagerly, sheathed or otherwise, "Got it, Alpha!" And with that, they walked off into the crowd, glaring at each other the entire way.

The white-clad man sighed, shaking his head tiredly, "And they're usually so sweet with each other too."

Orihime tilted her head in confusion, "Was that a lover's quarrel?"

Alpha shuddered violently, "Heavens forbid. No, they're more like... companions, I suppose. Blood siblings? Eh, you get the gist."

Ino looked around the crowd, noting how close the other black and white pairs were. "Is it that way with all of... what are they exactly?"

"The white ones are called Orderlings, and the black ones Chaoslings. They're from the U.K.O.C. The United Kingdoms of Order and Chaos. And yes, that's how it is for most of them. Some of them might actually be lovers, or just friends with benefits. But still, they're close. You see- wait hang on a second. Hey, Ixar! You got a minute?"

The group suddenly became aware of just how active Alpha had been. Like he had said, it seemed like every person in the crowd knew him. Every minute he was walking, someone was either talking with him or showing him something or he was talking to someone else.

His face was a river of emotions and expressions, constantly shifting. Sometimes he was stern and serious, other times he was laughing and joking, and even at other times he was angry, or understanding, or pensive. It was hard to pin him down, it was like he adapted to every situation almost perfectly.

Anko whistled appreciatively under her breath, "Damn, that's impressive."

Rangiku gave her newfound drinking buddy a curious look, "Oh? How come?"

The trench-coat wearing kunoichi shrugged. "The way he's handling himself. It's seriously professional. Going from zip to full blast on an emotion is one thing, pulling a one eighty almost instantaneously is something else. Takes a lot of practice. I'm not saying he's lying, but the way he's handling everyone... it's seriously something."

Rangiku gave Anko a sidelong leer, "Oh? And I take it you have experience in infiltration?"

Anko returned the grin all too eagerly, "Oh yeah. In case you hadn't guessed, seduction is a favorite of mine."

Hitsugaya rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Oh no, I never would have considered that." He drawled.

Anko and Rangiku exchanged a glance before sharing a devilish smile.

Before Hitsugaya could react, he was lifted off his feet and his head was pressed between four mounds of something very soft.

"Awww, does my poor captain not understand how adults work?" Rangiku crooned mournfully.

Anko snickered malevolently. "Maybe we should...educate him."

"MMMPH!" Hitsugaya struggled violently until he finally managed to dislodge himself from the grips of the women. Once on the ground, he gasped deeply, intent on swallowing as much air as he could. When he finally recovered, he rounded on the two women, "Do you have to do that every time Rangiku?"

"Aw…" Rangiku pouted, "Honestly Captain, what kind of a man are you? Anyone would be glad to be on the receiving end of such attention."

Hitsugaya blushed as Anko started laughing and leaned against Rangiku, "I guess you're still too much of a kid to fully appreciate a woman's charms."

As the two women laughed, Negi felt a pang of sympathy as his mind drifted back to a similar incident.

Asuna caught the look on his face, "You'd better not be thinking something perverted, brat." She warned menacingly.

"Ah! No! I was thinking about that one beach vacation!" Negi quickly explained.

THWACK!

"WHAT DID I JUST SAY!?"

"But Asuna!"

Meanwhile, Hitsugaya felt a large amount of killing intent being directed at him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Miroku, Sanji, Brook, and Kiba glaring at him murderously. He returned the glare tenfold, "It's not like I either asked for or enjoyed that, you perverts!" The glares did not diminish.

Alpha rolled his eyes at the ongoings, a smile upon his lips, "Oh yeah, you guys are going to fit in just fine." Suddenly, he blinked in surprise and looked upwards, "What the...?" He caught sight of something, paled, and took a step back, forcing the rest of the group to come to a halt.

THUMP!

Something fell straight out of the air and landed directly in front of Alpha unharmed. It was one of the insect people, a bipedal grasshopper. It had massive, multi-faceted orange eyes, fidgeting mandibles, and a pair of fidgeting antennae. It stood upon massive, powerful legs, and had wings twitching lightly on it's back. It had two sets of arms, one in the usual place and one growing slightly posterior to it. It was covered in a sandy brown set of segmented armor.

It stood imperiously before Alpha, all four arms crossed behind it's back, "Alpha." It buzzed in a flanged, double-toned voice.

Alpha blinked in surprise before smiling and giving a lazy salute, "Trizax! It's been awhile! How have things been?"

The insect didn't react, staring intently at the man, "We need to talk."

"Alright then!" Alpha gestured with his arm, moving to step around the bugman, "Come on, walk and talk."

A segmented arm snapped out, pressing on the white-clad man's chest, "No. Here. Now."

Alpha frowned in concern and confusion at the grasshopper-like being, "That's... not feasible. Sorry, but I'm kind of in the middle of something urgent, so-" He made to continue walking ahead.

Trizax snapped out his second arm, pressing it more forcefully into Alpha's stomach, "So is this." He intoned darkly.

The people following Alpha began to fall into combat stances, but were halted by Alpha raising a hand. He gave Trizax a worried look. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I need to handle these people. Once that's done, I'm all yours."

"That is unnecessary." The overgrown grasshopper continued to stare dead ahead, directly at the members of the group. "My business is with these individuals as well."

Alpha's head snapped to the side as he stared at Trizax in shock. "What!?"

Whispers ran throughout the small crowd as they glanced at each other and nervously eyed the insectoid.

The human chewed his lip hesitantly, "Trizax... these orders come from above. The Leaders themselves! Much as I wish I could, I can't go against them. They need to come with me, asap. I'm sorry."

Trizax was silent, turning his head to stare at Alpha silently before bowing his head deeply. "So am I."

Alpha relaxed instantly, "Thank you! Now look, maybe we can meet up at the Den later or-"

"Not what I'm sorry for."

Alpha's face clouded with confusion for a moment... before paling in abject horror, "Wait, Trizax, don't-!"

Too late.

The grasshopper had brought his opposite arms together, armored wrist to armored wrist, and before Alpha could stop them, rubbed them together viciously, producing a violent, rasping sound.

Several members of the group with more acute hearing winced, doubling over as the sound screeched against their ears. Others tensed as the crowd surrounding them suddenly parted. They'd been giving them space before, but now the group was an island in the masses.

"What the hell...?" Darius muttered, instinctively getting back to back with Heinkel.

"DON'T FIGHT THEM!" The group was shocked when Alpha suddenly shouted, fear and concern evident in his voice, "NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, DON'T FIGHT! THEY'LL ONLY ATTACK IF YOU STRIKE FIRST! JUST DON'T GIVE THEM CAUSE TO ATTACK!"

Mana glanced around, scanning the area as she unslung her rifle from her back, "What is he talking about?"

Zazie stopped juggling and pointed up into the air, her expression remaining neutral, "Them."

Mana followed her finger, "Wha-?" Her pupils dilated as she caught sight of something approaching at breakneck speeds, "Oh shi-!"

CRASH!

Ten plumes of dust and smoke erupted simultaneously around the group as several objects impacted with the ground.

Gokudera shifted his position so as to shield Tsuna, several sticks of dynamite in his clutches, "What the hell?"

Alpha swallowed heavily, staring worriedly at the smoke clouds, "Hoppers..."

Almost as in response, a noise erupting from all the clouds simultaneously.

"SKREEEE!"

As the dust settled, several shapes began to take form.

Most of the group reacted in horror and fear, while others tensed at what they saw.

They appeared to be insect men like Trizax, but they were... different. For starters, they were huge! Each of them easily hitting eight feet. They were clad in a dark, mud-brown armor. They had large, muscular legs and four taloned arms. But the most disturbing part of them were their heads.

They were twitching, whipping to and fro as they stared emotionlessly at the group, snapping into different positions faster than most could follow. And their mouths... instead of having mandibles like the other insectoids, they had metal faceplates split straight up the middle in a jagged line. Chitters and chirps occasionally came from them as they jerked erratically.

Chopper swallowed heavily, instinctively clutching at a Rumble Ball in his pocket, "W-what are they!?"

Maka's breathing quickened as she took a step back from them. Soul clutched her hand hastily, "Maka? What's wrong?"

"T-their souls..."

"Huh?"

"T-they don't have any souls!"

"What!? But, they're alive!"

"And that's all they are." Trizax stated monotonously, "Hoppers are living weapons. You see, Locustmen went extinct a long time ago. However, several years back, we were able to recover a viable DNA sample. The Locusts were less than sentient, so we restructured their genetics a bit and began to breed them."

"Yeah, as super-soldiers!" Alpha interjected angrily, "Trizax, Hoppers are meant as tactical weaponry, crowd control, things like that! This? This is overkill!"

"Maybe so," The grasshopper admitted, "but I need you and your wards to remain present. The Hoppers act as incentive to that end. Should any of them try and resist..." He snapped his clawed fingers together.

One of the Hoppers snapped it's head forward. It's faceplate split open, revealing a gruesome set of jaws composed of grasping mandibles and teeth as it screeched viciously, "SKREEEE!"

"HEY, WATCH IT!"

CRUNCH! SMASH!

Before anyone could react, Luffy had snapped his fist out and straight into the bio-weapon's face, sending it flying into the crowd and crashing into a nearby cart.

The pirate captain huffed angrily as he stood protectively in front of Chopper, "Don't mess with my crew." He turned around and looked at the reindeer, "Hey, Chopper, you alright?"

Chopper nodded hesitantly for a second... then paled drastically when a figure appeared behind Luffy, a fist raised high in the air, "LUFFY! LOOK OUT!"

Luffy glanced behind himself before vanishing into thin air, moments before a fist rammed through the space he'd been occupying and buried itself in the ground. He appeared behind the figure, steam trailing off of him.

And he wasn't alone, either, "Hey, watch it!" Natsu yelled, igniting his palms.

Naruto nodded in agreement, a pair of kunai held ready, "Yeah! Leave him alone!"

But before any of them could react...

"NO! STOP!" Alpha shouted, running to place himself between the three and the figure.

Luffy stopped himself short, the steam ceasing almost immediately, "Alpha..."

"Look, just... no more, alright!?" Alpha demanded, "No fighting..."

With things starting to calm down, the rest of the group was finally able to catch sight of the figure.

Nami gasped in shock, "What the hell!?"

It was the Hopper Luffy had hit. It's neck was twisted at an odd angle, and most of the chitin that composed it's face was cracked and shattered, streams yellow ichor seeping out of it's wounds.

Before their eyes that all changed.

Slowly, with a great amount of cracking and crunching, the creature's neck righted itself, slowly straightening out. It's chitin crunched and snapped as the cracks in it's face slowly closed, leaving only the ichor on it's face and the rage in it's eyes as the only signs it had ever been injured.

"As I said, it's a bio-weapon," Alpha scowled, "Advanced regeneration and redundant systems are all a part of the package." He turned to glare at the as of yet unmoved grasshopper, "Which, again, is overkill!"

"Then let me do my job and this will be over and done with!" The bugman reprimanded.

The two stared at each other for a moment before Alpha finally bowed his head, "Fine. What are you here for?"

Trizax returned his stare to the group, sweeping his multi-faceted gaze over them, "Someone in this crowd is saturating the air with pheromones. Insect pheromones."

Alpha's pupils shrunk to pinpricks, "Pheromones!?" He screeched in disbelief. "We're dealing with pheromones and you called in Hoppers!? Do any neurons fire in that thick-plated head of yours when I call you insane!? You know what pheromones do to Hoppers!"

"And you know what they do to insect beastmen in general!" He shot back venomously, "The only reason I was allowed to handle this situation is because I'm immune. Now listen up!"

He raised his voice to be heard, "To whosoever is utilizing the pheromones! I commend you on spreading it enough to mask yourself, but by Desert Confederacy law, the usage of widespread insect pheromones in a public forum outside of combat is illegal because of the threat it poses to the general populace. Should you cease production now, all charges will be dropped. Continue to do so..."

Trizax swept his eyes over the increasingly agitated Locustmen, "And we will apprehend you by force. The choice is yours."

Mutterings ran throughout the crowd.

"Um, Kiba..." Hinata whispered hesitantly, "D-did he just say... insect pheromones?"

The Inuzuka heir nodded in agreement, "Yeah... you don't think...?"

They both began to glance over their shoulders.

"If you even think of looking at me, I'll give you both fleas for a month."

The shinobi snapped their heads straight ahead, shivers running down their spines.

"Look!" Alpha shouted over the noise, "Whoever's doing it, you don't have to completely stop if you can't! Just restrict it to about one or two feet around you and try to stay away from any bugmen. Pheromone usage is only illegal if it poses a public threat, right Trizax?"

The grasshopper nodded in agreement, "Yes. So long as the output lessens, then all will be forgiven."

"See? Just don't clog the air, and we can all carry on our merry old way."

For the longest time, things remained tense. The Hoppers shivered and shuddered, the foreigners prepped for a fight, and Alpha held his breath. Finally...

The Hoppers stopped jerking and instead straightened up, standing ramrod straight with their hands clasped behind their backs like tin soldiers.

Trizax let out a sigh of relief, "The pheromones are gone. All clear."

Most of the crowd seemed to relax almost instantly.

Alpha ran his hand over his face, sighing in relief, "Thank Existence..." He slowly turned his head to stare at the armored grasshopper, "Now... do me a favor, will you? Get out of my way."

Trizax nodded, "Very well then." He scraped his wrists together again, letting out a short, sharp rasp.

The Hoppers disappeared simultaneously, kicking up clouds of dust as they went.

The insect man looked back at Alpha, it's mandibles somewhat drooping, "I'm... sorry it came to that, Alpha. I was just doing what I had to for my people. Can we discuss it over drinks at the Den?"

Alpha sighed tiredly, shaking his head. "Maybe some other day, Trizax. But for now..." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the one Hopper that remained, "Shouldn't this one be gone too?"

Trizax's chitinous face shifted into something like a frown, his antennae twitching frantically, "It... should be... I gave the retreat signal." Trizax tried scratching his gauntlets together again, this time with a different pitch to it.

The Hopper ignored him. Instead, it slowly stepped around Alpha and strode up to Luffy in a few ground-eating strides.

Luffy raised his fists, readying for a fight.

The hopper raised a fist, extended a finger... and shoved it into it's own face, directly above it's right eye.

The onlookers watched in horror as it drove the finger in up to the first knuckle, not displaying any outward signs of pain. It then dragged it's claw down, carving through the chitin around it's eye and straight down to it's faceplate. Ichor oozed from the fissure for a moment before halting, but the wound did not heal.

Instead, the Hopper leaned down, lowering itself until it was directly face to face with Luffy.

It's faceplate cracked open slightly, allowing it to speak in a scratchy, raspy voice.

"Will... be... back..."

And with that, it disappeared like its brethren.

Trizax gave out a low, keening groan, slapping two of his hands over his face. "Great, now he's gained sentience! Looks like you got your revenge, Alpha! I have a date with paperwork."

Alpha chuckled grimly, "Well, what can I say? Karma! She's a helluva bitch."

Trizax let out what had to be several curses in a clicking language.

They must have been very severe, because Alpha threw his hands up defensively and exclaimed, "Whoa whoa, that's a bit extreme, don't you think?"

"Fuck. You."

Maka was dumbstruck, staring at the spot where the Hopper had just been, "I-Its soul..."

"Huh?" Soul blinked in surprise, "I thought you said those things didn't have souls?"

"They didn't! But that one, the one that cut itself, i-it just... got one somehow!"

"What!? But how's that possible?!"

"Miracle of life!" Alpha exclaimed. "Sometimes semi-intelligent objects or beings spontaneously begin developing sentience and acquire the start of a soul! Happens all the time."

Allan frowned, folding his arms, "And what will happen to him?"

Alpha shrugged noncommittally,"Eh, same old, same old. He'll go into the program: counseling about his emotions, learning about taking responsibility, taking a name, the whole nine yards. After that, he's free to do whatever he feels like. Maybe he'll stay with the other Hoppers, maybe he'll go forth and venture, who the hell knows?"

"Considering how the first thing he did was threaten Luffy, I can guess." Nami growled.

Alpha frowned, biting his thumb for a second in thought before sighing and turning to face the pirate captain, "Fair point. In my opinion, he'll hold a grudge against you, probably hold you up as someone to be remembered, a goal to surmount. I doubt he'll try and murder you, but he'll definitely be looking forwards to ways to fighting you."

Luffy grinned widely, pounding his fist into his palm. "I'll be ready."

Trizax scoffed. "One lucky punch and he thinks he can take a Hopper? They get dumber every generation."

"Still pissed at you, larvafucker!"

"Right! Leaving! Later!" And with that, the grasshopper leapt to somewhere else in a plume dust and minor debris.

General Armstrong huffed angrily, "You're just going to let him hop away like that?"

Alpha shrugged, "What can I say? The guy was just doing his job. No one got hurt, a new life has entered the world, and we've stopped any embarrassing situations before they could begin. In my opinion, this little debacle turned out for the better!"

Erza crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow tentatively. "So... do things like that happen often?"

Alpha raised his hands equally as he turned around and started to walk forwards. "Eh, so and so. It was basically just an officer of the law stopping someone to ask them to stop doing something potentially illegal lest they be written up. Sure, the Hoppers were a bit much, but still, it was all pretty routine. Now zombie attacks!" He raised a finger in the air triumphantly. "Those are rare! Almost never a zombie attack in dead city."

He suddenly ran straight into a figure standing in front of him, forcing him to a halt. Seeing who it was, Alpha gaped openly at the odd person.

A humanoid figure, clad in rusty, destitute armor and wielding a chipped longsword. Its skin was an ashen gray, and green flames flickered within its mouth and empty eye sockets. Its face was gaunt, skeletal, with deep, sunken eyes and lipless jaws.

The figure tilted its head to the side, raising the top of its eye socket and brow ridge, "This just isn't your day, is it?" it asked in a groaning voice.

Alpha sighed, hanging his head sadly. "I don't suppose there's any chance you can call them off, is there?"

The figure shrugged regretfully. "Sorry, out of my hands."

"Of course it is."

Lenalee swallowed heavily as she eyed the figure. "Alpha? What's going on?"

"Remember what I said about zombie attacks?"

"Yeeeeaaaaah?"

"Try and keep calm. We're about to be detained by the living dead."

And with that, the ground erupted.

Alpha sighed tiredly as he rubbed his eyes.

"And just two days left before retirement too..."

To be continued...