Fallout from the party and recovery after it. Plus swimming.

While I think about it does anyone have any good thoughts on what the name of the so-far mythical 'Organisation' that Ms Aoyama works for should be? And a suitable logo for it? It's going to be required at some point in the not too distant future and I thought I'd throw it open for consultation.

It needs to be gently threatening in a very polite manner, ideally rather unnerving when you think about it for a while :) Creepy is good, oh yes it is.

Your chance to contribute to the wordage! PM me if you have any decent ideas.

In case anyone has missed it I posted the first chapter of the Xander/Ms Aoyama story I've been writing for a friend after a few requests. It's not going to update wildly often in all probability but it WILL get updated and finished. Enjoy. Or not. Your choice ;)

Waking to the sound of Akane lightly snoring in her bed, Nabiki stared sleepily at the ceiling for a few seconds, blinked, then turned her head to look around the room. It was surprisingly early considering the late night, only just after eight AM, she absently noted as she looked out the window to see yet another rather nice late August morning. After a little longer, she stretched widely, yawned, flipped the covers aside, and hopped off the folding cot they'd set up for her in her sisters room.

Shortly, after a quick wash up, she was dressed and waiting for the kettle to boil for her morning coffee. No one else seemed to have made an appearance yet. She could feel the various ki signatures of her family and friends, most of them asleep, although it felt like both Nodoka and Miki were stirring. A faint thump from upstairs in the direction of Kasumi's old room made her look at the ceiling momentarily and wonder what Miki had tripped over.

When her friend put in an appearance fifteen minutes later, still looking a little disorientated, she pushed a cup of coffee across the living room table at her with a smile. "Try this," she commented, sipping her second cup. Miki looked blankly at her, shook her head a few times, then grabbed the offered drink and slurped several mouthfuls. A handful of seconds passed then she seemed to wake up that last little bit, smiling back at the middle Tendo.

"Thanks, Nabiki, I really needed that."

"You're welcome." Nabiki grinned at her. "How did you sleep?"

"Really well, thanks," the other woman replied, sitting down and sipping more slowly. "That bed is very comfortable. John was still asleep when I got up, and there's no sign of Kimiko or Hana yet either."

"Akane and the rest are still asleep as well," Nabiki mentioned, finishing her coffee and putting the cup down. "Although I think Nodoka is moving around a little." She smirked a bit. "I heard you trip over something, I think?"

Miki giggled. "I forgot where I put my bag and found it with my foot," she admitted. "I nearly went out the window head-first."

"You don't want to do that." Nabiki laughed slightly as well when her friend nodded wryly.

"Not really, no," Miki smiled. Looking around for a moment, she added, "So what's the plan for breakfast? Wait for everyone else to turn up?"

"How are you hungry after everything you ate last night?" Nabiki queried, putting a shocked look on her face. Miki stared at her, narrow-eyed.

"So says the woman I've personally seen eat enough to put a normal person into a coma on more than one occasion," she snarked, causing the Tendo woman to laugh again. "I don't know what to tell you, I think my metabolism speeds up overnight. Whatever, I could eat."

"So could I," her friend agreed, sighing a little. "There's probably something wrong with us both."

Sharing a small smile with Miki, she stood. "Come on, let's see if there's anything left in the house to eat. We practically emptied the place, though, so don't get your hopes up."

Poking around in the kitchen eventually revealed enough in the way of ingredients to prepare some miso soup, which Miki started, and some rice noodles, which Nabiki quickly mixed with various left-over meats to form a sort of ramen-like stew. Tasting it she decided to add some more seasoning, and a chopped up onion, finally deciding it was as good as it was going to get.

"And what do you call this dish, Miss Tendo?" Miki asked in a superior tone, peering over her shoulder and sniffing a few times.

"Tendo House Special, or Slop in a Pot, Miss Sano," Nabiki replied in her best upper-crust accent. "Much desired by the commoners, but still acceptable to the likes of you and I."

They grinned at each other as she took the saucepan off the heat and turned the stove off. "It's edible, at least," she added. "I think."

"Worth a try," Miki shrugged.

As it turned out, the improvised meal wasn't at all bad. When they finished, Nabiki put what was left into a couple of bowls in the fridge then washed up what they'd used. Going back into the living room she found Miki standing outside the door into the garden looking around at the somewhat trashed area. A large number of people walking around on the grass for hours hadn't done it any favours, not to mention the results of the giant demonic duck. Nabiki sighed, shaking her head.

"What a mess."

"But what a party!" her friend chortled, nudging her in the ribs. "People will be talking about it for years."

"The ones who don't need therapy because of it," Nabiki giggled, making Miki nearly fall over laughing.

"True. Very true."

They wandered around for a while, picking up various odds and ends that everyone had missed in the dark the night before, including quite a few broken tiles from the roof. As Nabiki stacked the last one onto the pile they'd built with a clink of ceramic on ceramic she looked up at the roof, counting under her breath how many were missing. "I hope it doesn't rain until we can get that fixed," she said to her friend as Miki stopped beside her and followed her eyes. "Those ones up there are right over Dad's bed. He's going to be annoyed if he wakes up in a puddle."

"I'll bet," her friend smiled. "Will fixing it be a problem?"

"No, not really. There are a lot of companies in Nerima who specialise in repairing damage from unconventional causes." She grinned with a resigned air. "We have several of them in the address book. We're practically on first name terms with them."

Looking at the gap in the garden wall while Miki giggled, she walked over and inspected it more closely. "This isn't too bad, actually. Most of the stones are intact, it looks like it was only the mortar that went, so I think they can stick it back together easily enough." Glancing along the wall she pointed to a couple of spots. "It's not like it hasn't happened before." There were a number of places where differently coloured mortar outlined a previous hole that had been repaired.

"Good grief," Miki muttered as she counted the locations that were visibly fixed. "Is this a habit or something?"

"Sort of," Nabiki snickered. "Not so much in the last couple of years but at one point the gates weren't really needed, you could just come in through the holes." She pointed at the roof of the Dojo visible past the end of the house. "And that has been completely rebuilt once, not to mention all the damage being repaired over and over. Akane did a lot of it, various other people helped at one point or another." She shrugged. "We've had a lot of overpowered people with anger issues and poor self control come through here over the years."

Shaking her head in wonder, Miki looked around. "Still a pity, the garden looked so nice when we got here yesterday."

"It will again, dear," the voice of Nodoka came from the living room door, making them both look over, to see the older woman watching them while holding a steaming cup of tea between her hands. "Don't worry about that." She cast her gaze around with a small frown. "Although I will admit it's somewhat annoying. We didn't plan for a demon attack."

"These things happen, Auntie," Nabiki replied as they walked over to her. Miki gave her an odd look then laughed.

"You know, most people I've met would find that attitude very strange," she remarked, making both Nodoka and Nabiki smile. "But to you this is basically just another morning, isn't it?"

Exchanging a glance, the other two eventually nodded. "Pretty much, yes," Nabiki admitted. Nodoka merely smiled serenely.

"I always heard Nerima was a little peculiar but I never really realised what that meant until I met you," Miki giggled. "Even so, I wasn't quite ready for all this." She waved her hands around to indicate the garden and by implication the entire area.

"Fun, isn't it?" Nabiki smirked at her. She nodded enthusiastically.

"It sure is. Although I expect it could be a bit much if you wanted a quiet life."

"If you want that, dear, you move," Nodoka told her wisely. "That's something you work out very quickly around here. I understand Minato has it even worse."

"Minato is pretty strange, yes," Nabiki grinned. "Every time I visit friends there we see something a bit unusual."

"I'll have to come along with you some time, then," Miki suggested eagerly. "We should visit once we're back at university."

"That could certainly be arranged," the middle Tendo replied. A sudden sound from above made them all look up to see 'Chou' and Fumiko standing on the roof. Nabiki had felt them coming a little while earlier, of course, but said nothing. She waved.

"Hi, guys, what brings you here so early?"

The two women dropped off the roof and landed next to them. "We were in the neighbourhood cataloguing the damage and investigating the possible cause or source of that odd ducklike creature," the blonde told them, smiling a little. "Yori is with Aiko backtracking its path to see if they can find out where it came from. We're also going to see if we can find any of the bits Azumi blew off it. I saw at least one section of tail drop down over that way a kilometre or so. I'm curious about the thing and I'd like to investigate it."

"You'll probably find some government spooks have nabbed it," Miki suggested with a look of amusement.

'Chou' smiled back at her. "If they had, they'd give it to us to study anyway," she replied, making the Sano woman look surprised. "We have a very good working relationship with the 'government spooks'."

Fumiko chuckled, looking at her friend. "We practically are 'government spooks' if you look at it in the right way," she said with a grin. 'Chou' returned it as Miki stared.

"Shhh," the blonde said, holding a finger to her lips. "No one must know our secret identities. We must appear to be nothing but completely unremarkable and normal magical girls." She spoke in a low, conspiratorial voice, looking suspiciously around for spies in a very obvious manner.

Shaking her head, Miki laughed for a moment. Nodoka was listening to the byplay with a small smile on her lips. "You people are not at all what I expected," Miki announced.

"Better or worse?" Fumiko enquired with an expression of amused curiosity.

Shrugging, Miki appeared to think it over. "Different, let's leave it at that," she finally replied, making them all smile. "But fun."

"We do our best, worthy citizen," 'Chou' said with an elaborate bow involving much hand waving before straightening up grinning.

"Would you care for some tea, girls?" Nodoka asked pleasantly. 'Chou' and Fumiko exchanged glances before nodding.

"Yes, please, that would be very nice," the latter replied. She looked around the garden, inspecting the wall carefully for a moment. "We should get the reparations fund to do this," she added in an aside to her blonde friend, who nodded.

"I was planning on it already. It seems fair, it was a magical girl related problem in the first place." 'Chou' looked at Nabiki, who was grinning internally at the last few minutes of conversation. "Assuming your father wouldn't be offended by someone else paying for the repairs."

"Dad will be fine with it," the middle sister laughed.

"Fine with what?" Soun said, sticking his head out his bedroom window above them, which was still missing the glass. Everyone looked up.

Nabiki waved. "Hi, Dad. Chou was just saying that that magical girl reparations fund that sorts out things in Minato would deal with the repairs. You don't mind, do you?"

Smiling down at them, the martial artist chuckled. "Not at all. I'm not that proud, I'm happy to take help from the experts."

"We've added it to the list of damage from yesterday, Soun," 'Chou' told him with a small smile. "There will be several teams of assessors coming through first thing tomorrow to work out what needs to be done and in what order. This should all be sorted out within three days based on prior experience."

"That sounds more than fair," the head of the Tendo household agreed happily. "I'll be down in a moment. Is there some tea available?"

"Indeed there is," Nodoka replied.

"Thank you." He smiled again and vanished back into his room. The rest of them trooped into the house, sitting around the living room with Nodoka disappearing into the kitchen for a little while. She re-emerged with drinks a few minutes later, just as Soun came in followed by a yawning Kimiko.

Shortly everyone had a cup and was drinking appreciatively. "There isn't much in the way of food left for breakfast, assuming anyone wants anything," Nodoka commented.

"Miki and I put together some leftovers into something edible, so we're all right for the moment," Nabiki replied. "There's enough in the fridge for a couple more servings." She looked at her friend for a moment as she added, "We can go out and pick up some ingredients if you'd like." Miki nodded, still sipping her tea.

"Thank you, Nabiki, that would be very helpful," the older woman told her with an approving look. "I'll make a list. There are a few shops open today so it shouldn't be a problem."

"I'll come with you," Kimiko announced, smiling at them. "I'd like to see the area after all."

"How are you feeling after your ordeal yesterday?" 'Chou' asked gently. Kimiko looked at her with an expression of reminiscence.

"Better than I probably should be, actually, Chou," she said after some thought. "I think I should most likely be shivering in bed, requiring a series of long talks with a psychiatrist, but oddly enough I'm basically fine." She grinned. "All the beer last night helped, I suspect. I was really pretty drunk when I went to bed. But now all I have is a slight headache."

'Chou' smiled back, reaching out and putting a hand on the other woman's neck for a moment, with a brief glow of gold light. "You're just a little dehydrated, you should make sure to drink a couple more cups of tea or some water. This should help with the headache, though."

"Much better. Wow." Kimiko looked both surprised and pleased. "That's amazing." Sitting back the blonde grinned at her.

"It's a useful skill, yes, if you're around people who overindulge."

"Yori is the only one who's never needed it, of course," Fumiko chuckled from beside Soun, "both because she doesn't drink in the first place and because she could do it for herself anyway."

"I'm just glad Azumi was passing by." Miki watched her sister carefully for a moment before apparently deciding she was all right. "I was terrified when Yori said that thing had grabbed you and flown off."

"You were terrified?" Kimiko laughed. "Think what I felt like! It was the most horrific thing I've ever even imagined. I fainted at least twice, although I think the second time was more because it was holding me pretty tightly, and waking up to see the ground that far away is... not fun." She shuddered briefly. "The falling part when Azumi cut its leg off was much worse, believe me. I really thought I was going to die until she grabbed me."

Getting up Miki moved around the room to sit beside her younger sister, putting her arm around her and hugging her. "I'm so pleased you're OK, Kimi," she said in a low voice. Glancing at 'Chou' and Fumiko, who were watching along with the others, she continued, "Please thank your friend again when you see her. We owe her a lot."

"We will, but you don't owe her or any of us anything, Miki," the blonde responded, smiling again. "We all simply did what we do, try to help as much as possible."

"You'll forgive us if our opinion differs on that subject, I hope," Kimiko giggled. 'Chou' bowed a little from her seated position.

"Of course we will." She looked amused as Fumiko grinned.

"What was the flying part like after the real danger was over?" Nabiki couldn't help asking. Her disguised elder sister gave her a look which she returned blandly. Kimiko giggled as everyone else turned to her.

"Actually that part was OK, I guess. If it hadn't been under those circumstances I think I could have enjoyed it. But..." She shrugged. "I was kind of thinking about other things at the time."

"Understandable," Soun chuckled, putting his empty teacup down. "I would imagine your attention was elsewhere all things considered."

"Maybe you'd like to try flying under less perilous conditions?" Fumiko asked, glancing at 'Chou' enquiringly. "We were talking about going hang gliding on Fwetna at a place we know close to the waterfall last night at the party, before you guys got here. A few people seemed up for it." Nabiki raised a hand, grinning, making Fumiko laugh. "Akane seemed... not entirely convinced, but willing to go along with it," she added.

Miki and Kimiko stared first at her, then Nabiki who was still grinning, then each other. "That could be..." Miki started.

"Fun? Terrifying? Both?" Kimiko suggested, looking thoughtful.

"Both, I think," her sister replied after a moment.

"It's certainly possible to arrange," 'Chou' informed them, apparently thinking it over. "We're busy for the rest of the morning, but I think we could probably take a few hours off this afternoon if you'd like. That would correspond to about halfway through the day on Fwetna at the moment. Their days are about thirty hours long, so they move in and out of sync with our time." She pondered the matter for a few seconds then nodded. "Yes, that should be feasible if anyone would like to indulge. The lake there is very nice to swim in so you should bring towels and swimsuits as well."

Everyone looked at each other. After a little while Miki nodded, followed by Kimiko. "We can easily take a later train back home than the one we were planning on," Miki said.

"You could simply stay another night as well," Nodoka told her. "There's no rush to push you four out, you're welcome to stay as long as you like." The older woman glanced at Soun who nodded, smiling.

"Certainly, no one would object to that."

"And we can always ask Aiko to pop you home anyway," Fumiko grinned. "Why waste time with trains if you don't have to?"

"I can see why Akane and Shampoo like knowing you people so much," Kimiko giggled. "Free transportation is really useful."

"Damn right it is," Fumiko snickered. "We're all waiting for Chou and Yori to work out how to do it like she does and teach it to the rest of us. That'll be fun."

Miki stared in surprise at her, then the blonde, who was looking satisfied. "Can you actually do that?" she asked.

"We believe so," 'Chou' told her, smiling slightly. "We're quite good at reverse-engineering other people's magic and reimplementing it with our own system. Aiko's teleport spell is one of the most complex ones we've worked on, though, worse than the portal spell in some ways, so it's taking a while. We'll get it eventually."

"Unbelievable," Kimiko breathed. "I had no idea you could learn new magic like that. All the magazine articles I've read on magical girls tend to say that they have a fixed set of skills."

"I've read a few of those," the blonde sighed. "They're almost entirely wrong in every possible way. Some of them are so bad they're not even wrong." She shook her head in despair. "Most of the girls don't talk to other people who aren't in that world about what they can do at all so the various publications that are aimed at fans basically make it all up. Or base it on manga or anime, which are sometimes surprisingly accurate but normally make a lot of mistakes as well." She shrugged as Miki and Kimiko laughed.

"That said, there is a certain amount of truth in the idea that most of the girls have a signature attack or attacks which they tend to use as a theme. It normally comes with the magic, but it doesn't usually mean that it's all they can do, just that it's the easiest thing to fall back on. And if it works most of the time, naturally that's what they'll use more often than not. I suppose that as a result people who aren't experts on the subject tend to assume that it's all the girl in question can do."

"It makes sense, I suppose, as much as anything to do with magic does," Miki laughed.

"Don't try to make it make sense, you'll just get a headache," Fumiko advised her good-naturedly. "Just roll with the fact that it exists and that it works. Very few people, even mages, really understand how it works." She glanced at 'Chou' who was smiling into her teacup. "Even these guys are still working it out and they know more about the mechanics of it than anyone else I know."

"It's a reasonable attitude," Soun commented, having been listening with interest as was Nodoka. "I've talked to Elder Cologne about both magic and ki use in the past and she's said much the same thing about both of them. She knows far more about either than I ever will and even so will admit privately that she's not entirely sure how they actually work. She knows that they do, and a significant number of techniques using both, but the underlying principles are still something of a mystery in many cases."

"Strange," Miki mused. "Very strange. But very interesting." She grinned at Nabiki. "Hey, maybe I could learn to do that fireball spell the Elder showed last night! That could be useful."

"When?" the Tendo sister asked, grinning back. "Hopefully you're not going to run into any more little biting demons and it looked slightly excessive for lighting campfires. Or dealing with muggers."

Miki laughed. "OK, true, but it would be really impressive even so." She looked around, then added with a sly smile, "Anyway, with you around I don't need to blow up muggers, you'll protect us from them." Soun looked curiously at her, then turned his gaze towards his daughter, who went slightly red from embarrassment, while Fumiko and 'Chou' also looked at her with interest. Faked, of course, since they knew full well what Miki was referring to.

"Dear? What is your friend talking about?" Soun asked gravely, peering at his daughter closely.

Nabiki sighed, giving her friend a dirty look which provoked another smirk. "There may have been a minor encounter with an incompetent mugger a while ago," she muttered a little reluctantly. "He wasn't very good."

"It was amazing," Miki said happily. "We'd come out of a movie and were just wandering around minding our own business on the way to get something to eat when this idiot jumped out of nowhere waving a knife. John and I didn't even really see him before Nabiki disarmed him and had him on the ground groaning. It was better than the movie!"

Soun listened with interest and a very small smile lurking under his moustache while Nabiki sighed once again. "It wasn't all that dramatic, Miki," she tried, but her friend shook her head wildly.

"It was really impressive," she insisted, grinning widely. "You were incredibly quick."

"Dear? Do you have something you'd like to share?" The Tendo patriarch seemed both amused and interested. "Have you been learning the Art behind my back?"

Everyone looked at Nabiki who looked back, red-faced. Nodoka seemed to be quietly enjoying her somewhat flustered expression while Fumiko was openly grinning. 'Chou' smiled quietly but was obvious enjoying it as well. Kimiko had seemed surprised for a few seconds then merely sat back and watched, meeting Nabiki's eyes with a knowing look.

"It was sort of automatic," the middle Tendo finally said, speaking carefully and avoiding the second question, shaking her head a little. "You know that knife disarming move that you teach your students, Dad?" He nodded. "I've seen it so often I think I must have learned it without really noticing. This guy jumped out, pointed a knife at us in a really obvious way, and I sort of just did it. It was like when you're teaching the students, doing it slowly and in a way that they can easily deal with." She shrugged. "It was surprisingly easy, I didn't really think about it very much, I just grabbed him, disarmed him, and sat on him until the police turned up."

"I see." Soun studied her some more. "Well done, dear. As I said yesterday, I think you'd be good at it if you studied properly, but I'm very pleased that even without formal study you seem to have developed decent reflexes and habits. Perhaps some time we should experiment a little and see what other moves you've absorbed without realising it." He gave her an amused look that made her narrow her eyes at him.

"I've seen you and Genma 'experimenting' on Akane, dad. She couldn't walk in a straight line for two hours after the last time."

Her father smiled mildly. "It was an interesting outcome, yes. But she learned in the end."

Fumiko made a muffled snort of laughter, making her stare at the other woman for a moment with irritation, which only provoked more snickering.

"Thanks. You're really helping, Fumiko," she grumbled.

"All part of the service, Nabiki," her friend assured her with a grin. Everyone else laughed.

"Anyway, back to the question of using alien hang-gliders on an alien planet later today," Nabiki said, sighing a little at the smirks surrounding her. "Do you think John and Hana will be up for it?" She looked at Kimiko and Miki, who were still smiling a bit. The two sisters exchanged glances.

"I think John will," Miki said slowly, "He told me once he'd tried it back in the UK and liked it but it was too expensive as a hobby to keep up."

"Hana will go along with anything suggested by a magical girl, especially you, Chou," Kimiko snickered, making Miki grin again and roll her eyes. 'Chou' looked amused, as did Fumiko.

"Good, then that seems like a nice idea for later." The blonde thought for a moment. "Perhaps about three o'clock? That will give us time to finish what we're doing here and work out who else wants to go. Akane and Shampoo will, I think, and Mousse seemed interested last night. We can make arrangements to have enough aircraft available for everyone, we know several people who have a number of them who would lend them to us for a few hours." She looked around at everyone. "Does that seem like a decent plan?"

"I'm happy with it," Nabiki replied. Soun was looking thoughtful and the slightest bit apprehensive. "Dad? Do you want to try it as well?"

He hesitated, glanced at Nodoka, who smiled mischievously at him, then eventually and a little reluctantly nodded. "I suppose I can hardly let my daughters try something I'm unwilling to attempt, it would be highly irresponsible," he announced in a firm voice. Everyone else stared at him, then looked at each other, before all of them smiled. He chuckled as Nabiki shook her head mockingly.

"Such a manly father you are, keeping us safe like that," she laughed.

Crossing his arms and looking proud, the Tendo head nodded firmly. "I'm glad you understand, dear."

Standing, Nabiki grinned at him, then looked at Miki and Kimiko. "Come on, guys, let's go and get some shopping done." Turning to Nodoka, she requested, "Can you tell Akane and the others about this afternoon, Auntie, and see if anyone else wants to come? Ukyo and Konatsu might like to try it as well."

"I'll pass the message on, dear, don't worry." The auburn-haired woman handed the younger one a list. "Here, this is what we need at the moment. It should do for lunch and dinner, I'll have to make a bigger list to restock for the rest of the week tomorrow."

Nabiki ran her eyes down the paper then folded it and tucked it into her pocket. "OK, Auntie, we'll see you later." As the three young women headed for the door, 'Chou' and Fumiko finished their tea and stood as well.

"Thank you for the tea, Nodoka," 'Chou' said with a polite bow of her head, getting a smile in response. "We have to get back to work as well, but we'll see you again later today."

"It was nice seeing you two once more," the older woman smiled. "Please remember to stop by whenever you're in the area."

"We will," Fumiko assured her as they followed the other three out. Nabiki waited at the front door, the two Sano sisters having stepped through, as the other two joined her, giving them both a secret smile which they reciprocated. All three leaving the house, she closed the door behind her, then walked down the path to the gate with the other beside her.

"It was nice to see you two again," her disguised sister told the two Sano women, who smiled at her, once they were outside the gate. "I'm glad you suffered no ill effects from your ordeal, Kimiko. Hopefully a little hang-gliding will help with any residual issues surrounding flying." She grinned as Kimiko started giggling.

"I suspect it will, as long as someone is there to catch me if it all goes wrong," the other woman giggled. "Is Azumi going to come?"

'Chou' smiled regretfully. "I suspect not, she's otherwise involved today, I'm afraid. But I'll pass your best wishes on to her." The blonde carefully didn't look at Nabiki who was smiling to herself internally.


Both magical girls waved to the others, then bounded onto the roof of the house on the other side of the street, disappearing in seconds. Miki watched them go with a wide smile and a wondering shake of her head. "Wow. I wish I could do that!"

"I know you do, sis," Kimiko snickered, grinning at Nabiki. "I know you do."

Laughing, the trio headed into the centre of Furinkan, chatting about what to do next and enjoying the beautiful day.

Sitting at the small conference table, Martta studied the documents in front of her, then looked up. "So, Harry, you think you're a good fit for what could be a physically demanding and rather uncomfortable trip?"

The young man on the other side of the table swallowed a little nervously, glancing at Jerry beside her, who was quietly observing, content to watch how his colleague handled the interview. A medium height student of approximately twenty-four years of age, he was dark haired with a small neat beard and grey eyes. After a moment, he nodded, visibly telling himself to man up. "I do, Professor Laine. I'm in good condition, I jog at least eight to ten kilometres every day, swim for two hours a week, and try to eat a healthy diet. I'm an expert cross-country skier as well, not to mention I've been on some wilderness survival courses when I was in high school. I'm not too bothered by cold temperatures, I grew up in Edmonton, where it's damn cold in the winter and not exactly hot most summers."

Martta nodded, looking down at her notes and adding to them briefly. "I see. That's a decent resúme from that point of view. I have your academic records here, which also look promising. You've studied under both myself and Professor Benton, we don't need to go over that again obviously, and previous to your studies here you indicate a long term interest in ancient native cultures, specifically Arctic ones. Interesting." She flipped through her folder, checking a few facts again. "Not to mention you have a decent working knowledge of a number of remote sensing techniques, minored in Electrical Engineering, and you have good computer skills and research abilities." Looking up at him again she studied him for a few seconds.

"All of these are abilities we have need of and finding them in one person is helpful. So, on balance, I think we may well be able to find a place for you on this expedition." The young man smiled widely at this, relaxing noticeably.

"Thank you, Professor Laine. Very much." After a moment, he slightly hesitantly asked, "Can you tell me more about the expedition itself? The information I have so far is intriguing but a bit... vague."

Martta glanced at Jerry again, both of them smiling a little. "That was intentional, Mr Granger," the latter said with an amused look. "We are possibly going to make a discovery which could be truly incredible, based on information we received from an impeccable source. We don't want to be beaten to it as unlikely as that is, so we've kept the information quiet for the moment. You're the last of the team, assuming you accept, and you'll be required to sign a non disclosure agreement beforehand restricting you from mentioning anything you learn until either we publish our findings or six years has elapsed, whichever comes first. Any papers we publish as a result of research you are involved in you will receive joint credit for, which should help your career along nicely as well. Do you have any issues with any of this?"

The student sat and thought for a while, Martta and Jerry waiting patiently. Eventually he looked up. "I can't find out anything about this without signing the NDA?"

"I'm afraid not," Martta told him. He nodded slowly, still thinking. Eventually he sighed a little, although he was smiling.

"I have no choice, then. I'll never forgive myself if I walk away from this now."

She slid a set of stapled pages across the table to him, a pen on top, returning his smile.

"That's the attitude," she chuckled. Picking up the document he read it carefully, making her nod approvingly, then signed in the marked place on both copies. Handing it back he waited until she'd checked it, separated it into his copy and hers, then returned his copy to him.

"So, can I now learn what I've signed up for?" he asked, grinning.

"You can." Jerry looked at his watch for a moment. "The others should be waiting in the next room, so let's go and introduce you to them, shall we? We can go over the whole thing for everyone at once." All three stood, Jerry leading the way next door, where there was a larger table with a data projector on it pointing at a screen on the wall, and five other students ranging from early to late twenties, two female and three male.

"Thank you all for joining us, everyone, and giving up your Saturday," Jerry said, looking around at them, as Harry glanced about then took one of the remaining seats. Moving to the head of the table as Martta sat to one side, Jerry picked up a remote control for the projector and lights. "Let's make some quick introductions. You can all get to know each other later but I'd like to get this preliminary meeting started. OK, as you know, I'm Professor Jerry Benton, and my colleague and friend here is Professor Martta Laine. Our newest, and last, recruit is Mr Harry Granger, post graduate archaeology student." He indicated the young man, causing everyone to look curiously at him.

"We have in addition to Mr Granger, Miss Kimberly Vaughan, also post graduate archaeology student, Mr Carlos Shoults, likewise, Mr Park Yang, post graduate imaging techniques and information processing student, Mr Jan Hradil, post graduate palaeoanthropology student, and finally Miss Elisa de Boorder, post graduate archaeometallurgist. You all have excellent academic backgrounds and in addition to your primary qualifications all have skills that we may draw upon." He looked around the table as the various younger people glanced at each other, then went back to listening. "Quite a team. We should be able to deal with the majority of possible finds, or at least know enough to know who else to bring aboard."

One of the two women, Elisa, a petite woman with light brown skin and green eyes below almost black hair, raised a hand. He nodded to her. "Yes, Miss de Boorder, you have a question?"

"I do, Professor." She cleared her throat momentarily. "What exactly are we expecting to find?"

He looked at her, then around at the others, before turning to Martta, who was smiling faintly. She made a motion indicating he could have the honours. Turning back to the group of curious students, he shrugged a little. "We're not exactly sure."

"Oh." She looked puzzled.

Taking pity on her, Jerry pressed a button on the remote, causing the projector to come on and the lights to dim, while he stepped to the side. A picture came up on the screen, showing a satellite view of a section of the upper coast of Northern Canada. "This is Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut, the third largest island in Canada." Pressing another button made the image change, a small red dot appearing on it. "This is Alert, which is the most northern inhabited place on the planet. It's primarily a military base, a hold over from the cold war for the most part, although it started life mainly as a weather station. It still performs that function as well as being a military communications installation along with a few other scientific operations."

He pressed the button again. "This area here is known as the Northern Ellesmere ice field, which is a series of glaciers as well as a large ice cap, going north all the way to the sea. Up until the early twentieth century there was a huge ice shelf extending into the ocean from the island but it's been steadily shrinking for nearly fifty years, there's apparently less than fifteen percent of it left now. Even so, the ice thickness across much of the northern coast can be as much as a kilometre."

Once again he changed images. "OK, this is where it gets interesting. This location, as far as we can narrow it down to, was the subject of a somewhat odd occurrence a few weeks ago. There is a network of environmental monitoring buoys running through this area, satellite linked to Alert. One of them detected a sudden drop in salinity, much greater than normal natural processes could account for, right here. The scientists in Alert ran diagnostics on the buoy and are confident it wasn't an artefact of the sensors, it was a real event. The duration and type of the salinity change is consistent with a very large quantity, possibly around a tenth of a cubic kilometre, of fresh water suddenly entering this small bay here over a period of approximately two days." He indicated a point on the projected image with the built-in laser pointer on the remote.

"The working theory is that a sub-glacial lake of considerable size rapidly drained into the bay for reasons currently unknown. It's apparently not a unique event although no one seems to have seen anything as large as this. There was a noticeable temperature spike of several degrees at the same time, which is additional evidence for this sort of phenomena."

Stopping for a moment and to take a drink from a water bottle, he watched as the students who had been listening carefully looked at each other. "It's very interesting from a scientific viewpoint I guess," Jan, a medium height and very skinny blond with dark brown eyes, commented in a voice that bore distinct traces of his native Czech accent, "but I'm not seeing the link to an archaeological expedition yet, Professor."

Smiling slightly, Jerry put the water bottle down. "Understandable, Mr Hradil. It's not obvious and I have to admit we're still not completely sure about it." He turned back to the screen, pressing a button. "A little more than ten days ago I received an email from a source that, after some background checks, turned out to be one of high integrity albeit a certain degree of mystery. The message indicated that there was an interesting archaeological find located under the ice of Ellesmere Island at this point here." Pressing the button made another spot appear, this one in bright yellow.

"The coordinates were very specific, localising the position to within fifty metres. Now, the interesting thing, the really interesting thing, is that if one looks at the suspected underlying topography of the area, there is very likely some sort of valley or depression here." The graphic changed to show the relevant data. "We're not a hundred percent sure since hardly anyone has ever been up there to that exact spot and it's under a hell of a lot of ice as well, but satellite radar data does seem to show the ground dips there, with a ridge either side."

He moved the laser across the image again. "This essentially forms a valley all the way to the sea, probably about here. What do you see?"

Kimberly was the first to say it. "That's the same bay as the salinity drop, within a kilometre of the buoy. And it looks like that yellow point is uphill from the bay by a few hundred metres." She looked fascinated, as did the others.

"Correct." Jerry grinned. "As crazy as it sounds on the face of it, there is a possibility that there is actually a void under the ice at the location my source suggested, one which was full of water until very recently, and which now may not be. This void may have something of interest to us in it, assuming we can get at it."

There was a long silence as he sat down, waiting for them to process the concept. Eventually Harry looked at him, having been studying the graphic with an expression which suggested he was thinking hard. "That's a very long way from anywhere we know of that has historically had inhabitants."

"Also correct," Martta told him, speaking for the first time. "Which is one of the very interesting things about it."

"How old is the ice sheet there?" the young man asked.

Jerry sighed a little. "That's something we're not sure about, to be honest. There seems to be something of a difference of opinion on the subject. It's unlikely to be less than approximately eight to ten thousand years, which would correspond to the Holocene Atlantic warming in the last interglacial period. The data we've studied suggests that much of Ellesmere Island might have been ice-free during this time. Before that, you'd probably have to go back to the late Pleistocene Eemian stage, which pushes it back to well over a hundred thousand years ago. Of course, that's far too far back to be particularly likely. Even ten thousand years is rather strange. We don't have any records of any civilisation or group that far north that long ago which could leave permanent traces we'd have much chance of locating after having a kilometre of ice sitting on them ever since."

The students were all looking thoughtful, Carlos, a slightly overweight Hispanic fellow with dark hair and eyes, was tapping his fingers on the table in a repetitive rhythm while he pondered the concept. "Are you sure it isn't either a hoax or a mistake?" he finally asked.

Jerry glanced at Martta, who looked back with a neutral expression. "It's one possibility, although if so someone has gone to the most ridiculous lengths I've ever heard of," he admitted. They looked curious, so he added, "The funding for this, which is... very substantial... seems to have come from the same source as the initial data. Not to mention that the source is highly respected by people who make a habit of being careful and checking things very thoroughly." He shrugged a little, again. "Until we actually go there and look we can't be completely sure, of course, but there is enough circumstantial evidence that together with the other information I'm fairly certain we'll find something. What, I'm not sure at all."

"Which is at least half the fun of it," Martta smiled, making them all chuckle.

"Exactly." He glanced at her with a grin. Turning back to them, he asked, "Any second thoughts from any of you?" They all exchanged looks, then one by one shook their heads.

"It sounds interesting," Harry said, "and the pay is good, not to mention that if we do find anything, it's going to be one of the most remarkable archaeological events in history."

"That's very true," Jerry nodded.

"Do you think there's any connection to the Twitch?" Kimberly looked curiously at Jerry, who blinked a little, then glanced at Martta. "I mean, from what the time scale you've indicated is it must have happened at nearly the same time. It just seems an odd coincidence to me."

There was a thoughtful silence in the room. Jerry flipped through his paperwork, then looked at a calendar for a moment. "You know, that never even crossed my mind," he replied slowly. "I can't see how it could possibly be connected, we don't even know what the cause of that event was, or even what it was, but I have to admit as far as I can see you have a point. They seem to have occurred within hours, a day at most, of each other as far as these reports show." They all looked at each other in silence again, intrigued expressions crossing each face.

"Weird." Carlos summed it up fairly well.

"Indeed." Martta nodded. "Although, in the grand scheme of things, probably not immediately important. An interesting coincidence though."

"I heard that the US government was going to make a statement on the cause of the Twitch sometime in a week or so," Elisa announced. "They've had teams of scientists looking into it since it happened, including NASA, and have discovered some interesting possible causes."

"Such as what?" Jan asked curiously. She shrugged a little.

"I have no idea yet. There's all sorts of weird theories going around on the internet but most of them are obviously ridiculous, like aliens, the CIA doing something crazy, or stuff like that." She grinned. "Even some people insisting it was magic."

Harry snickered. "Magic. That's a good one, I hadn't heard that theory."

"I'll email you a list of the funnier ones," she offered, smirking a bit. He nodded, grinning.


"All right, we'll have time to mock conspiracy theorists later," Jerry put in, smiling slightly. "For now, any other questions on the expedition?"

"What's the plan for getting there?" Jan asked with interest. "That far north, it's not only going to be difficult, but the temperature is going to start dropping pretty fast soon and it will be dark for months."

"All true," the professor admitted. "It's too late in the season for a full expedition now, we're going to have to wait until around late April or early May to be able to do it properly. But, that said, we have a short window this year, up until the end of September, when the temperature is feasible and there's enough light to do a preliminary study. At least enough of one to see if there actually is anything there in the first place. In fact, it will be light twenty four hours a day which may help us."

Martta took up the explanation. "The plan is to fly up to Alert next week, where we'll be temporarily based. Contacts in the forces have generously agreed to help. They're going to arrange a C-130 to air-drop several fuel caches in the area along with some Arctic-grade inflatable shelters, food, and equipment, the sort of thing they use for training purposes. It's not luxurious but it's functional. Another contact managed to arrange the chartering of a Super Puma helicopter which we'll have access to for a month. The site is too far from Alert for the helicopter to be able to make a round trip without refuelling, which is what we need the fuel dumps for. There's no runway and the ice is probably too rough for the C-130 to land there so flying in by helicopter is about the only quick way to do it."

"We'll also be picking up a qualified medic with Arctic experience provided by our military contacts. He's also a trained mechanic, the sort of person it's always handy to have around in something like this. He comes highly recommended."

"The rest of the equipment we need we'll fly in at the same time we go, or just before. We've arranged to have the heavy stuff taken up in a C-130, but we're going by chartered aircraft," Jerry continued while they listened, looking mildly worried now. "The weather up there has been unusually good for some time, a few degrees warmer than normal, and the long range forecasts suggest it will be like that for at least three weeks after we get there. So, assuming all goes well, we should have time to do ground-penetrating radar scans of the whole place at least, which would show up anything under the ice. Assuming there is something there we then have the problem of how to actually get at it, which could be an issue."

Elisa was working something out in a notebook. "Professor, how long did you say the salinity drop lasted?" she asked without looking up from her notes.

"The best figure is about forty-nine hours, plus or minus roughly one," he told her, finding the relevant piece of documentation after a short search.

"In that case as far as I can work out there must be a tunnel something like twenty-five metres across leading from this possible void to the sea," she said slowly, looking up. "If we assume a volume of a tenth of a cubic kilometre of water as you mentioned, over a period of forty-eight hours as a reasonable estimate, that means it was flowing nearly six hundred cubic metres a second. That's an awful lot of water and it would need, or make, a pretty large hole."

Everyone looked at her, then each other, Carlos pulling out a notebook of his own and quickly running some calculations. "She's right, it would need a substantial opening to allow that much water to flow that quickly. So, theoretically, there should be a path all the way from the sea to the void, if there is one, which we should be able to use to get into it through."

"That would be a hell of a lot easier than digging through hundreds of metres of ice," Jerry mused, tapping his own pen on the notes he'd been making. Martta nodded.

"It's a good point. If there is a void, and such a tunnel, we might be able to actually get into it this year." Twisting around in her seat she inspected the image still on the screen. "Although assuming it goes all the way to the sea, it might actually come out under the ice shelf and we won't be able to get into it. Not to mention it's about a fifteen kilometre walk under the ice even if we can."

"It would be an interesting experience," Jerry chuckled. "OK, that's a very good observation, Miss de Boorder, thank you. It means we'll need to add some serious lighting, portable generators, and associated equipment to the list. Possibly another snowmobile as well. We planned on having two, but thinking about it three would be better. Each one can tow a sled with either two people or equipment on it." He made more notes. "Good."

"I would suggest we should take a certain amount of high explosives with us in case we need to make an entrance," Carlos said. Everyone looked at him, some of them a little worriedly. Jerry studied the young man, slowly nodding.

"I can see where that might come in handy. The only problem is that I have no idea how to safely handle explosives."

"I do," Carlos smiled, making the rest of them look surprised. "Blasting agents like water gel material at least. I grew up on a big farm, we used it quite a lot for clearing old tree stumps out of the way. I can make a list of what we need and where to get it. I still have a current purchase and possession permit for industrial explosives."

There was a pause of a few seconds while Jerry and Martta exchanged glances, the woman eventually nodding with a shrug. Jerry nodded as well, making more notes. "OK. Thanks. We can go into that in more detail tomorrow. I'd imagine that we'll need to liaise with our contact in Alert, the military will probably be a little uncomfortable about people bringing their own things that go bang, but assuming they're all right with it that seems like a good idea."

"Is it safe?" Park asked, apparently slightly nervous. Carlos looked at him and nodded, smiling.

"Pretty much, yes. The sort of stuff used these days is very insensitive, it will only go off if you use a detonator so the chances of an accidental explosion are very low assuming you follow sensible safety precautions. The detonators are the dangerous part, one of those can take your hand off, but again they're not likely to spontaneously go off. You just have to treat them with respect and make sure they're a long way from the main charge until you want to make a hole in something." The other student listened with interest, eventually nodding back to his compatriot.

"Thank you for the explanation," he replied politely.

Jerry made a few more notes while also listening to the student, thinking he did sound like he knew what he was talking about, then looked up when he finished. He said, "If we do find something, and it's big enough to make it all worthwhile, the longer term plan is to arrange to have an ice runway made, which will allow flights in and out much more easily. Prefab buildings can be installed quite fast from what we've found out so with a little luck we could have nearly four and a half months available next year." He inspected them all. "So is everyone on board with this?"

They all nodded, all of them looking excited. "Great. There's a lot more we need to go over but that can wait until Monday. We'll let you know the arrangements for travel within two days. There will be a two day Arctic survival course in Alert once we arrive, our contacts insisted on that, which is probably a good idea anyway. After that, the fuel and so on should be in place, so we'll fly out to the site immediately. Hopefully we can find something and this isn't the most over the top practical joke in history."

He grinned as everyone laughed for a moment. "Although that would be a story in its own right. OK, then, we'll be meeting again here on Monday at four, allow two hours to go into more detail on everything. We'll meet every day until we leave, so come up with as many questions as you can so we can work out the answers before we're stuck in the middle of the wilderness, all right?"

There was a chorus of affirmative answers, then the six students stood. "Remember, you can't discuss any of this with anyone outside this room," Martta warned. "Not a word to your friends or family. Just tell them you're going on a trip for a month, that's it. We'll be arranging for satellite phones so we can call out but that will be reserved for emergencies and short conversations only. Plan on being incommunicado for four weeks."

She watched as they filed out of the room, talking quietly to each other and getting to know their fellows. When the room was empty except for her and Jerry, she turned to her friend with a smile. "That went pretty well," he said, turning the projector off.

"I think so. They seem like a bright bunch, there were some good questions there. Assuming Miss de Boorder is right, which seems likely, we should have an interesting time. Presuming there really is something there in the first place."

"I sure hope there is or this will have been a complete waste of a lot of time and money," Jerry snickered. "Although I guess we at least get a nice Arctic vacation out of it whatever happens."

Giving him a hard look, she replied, "I wouldn't call wandering around on the wrong side of the Arctic circle even in summer a vacation, Jer. You know I don't like the cold."

Grinning, he packed his equipment away, then they headed back to their respective offices, good-naturedly arguing with each other on what constituted too cold for a vacation.

Twitching a little at the sudden sound, Shampoo reached out to find her phone, managing to pick it up after the fifth ring. Her hand disappeared back under the covers to where her head was. "Hello?" she mumbled, wincing.

"You sound terrible," Akane's voice said, itself sounding far too cheerful. "Did you drink too much last night?"

"Yes," she replied blearily. "I think so. When is it? Tomorrow yet?"

Her friend snickered. "Yes, it's tomorrow, about half past nine. What happened to that Amazon warrior constitution you're always going on about?"

"It went and drank half a crate of beer and then most of a bottle of rice wine, because of your father offering it," Shampoo hissed, flipping the covers back then closing her eyes again in the sudden pain caused by the sunlight instantly going for her with malice aforethought. "Now it wants to sleep it off for several more hours."

"You could ask Elder Cologne for that hangover cure she makes," Akane suggested somewhat maliciously.

"Oh, gods, no," Shampoo moaned. "Not that stuff. I'd rather be hung over, I think."

The Tendo woman was annoyingly unsympathetic, giggling at her again. "Go and drink a lot of water, then, that might help. Whatever you do, come over around two, OK? Chou and Fumiko were here earlier talking to Nabiki and the others who were awake and they invited us all to go back to Fwetna for some hang gliding like they were talking about last night. I'm not doing it without you doing it too, so be sure to come. Ask Mousse if he wants to try as well. They said swimming might be involved afterwards so make sure both of you use the special soap. I've already called Ukyo and Konatsu, they can't come because they're busy with something else for most of the afternoon."

"Oh, hell. OK, I guess," the Amazon mumbled, rolling onto her back and draping her free arm over her eyes. "Maybe Chou can fix this headache without that demon-juice of Great-Grandmother's."

"I'm sure she can," her friend assured her. "They can probably fix anything, a simple hangover should be no problem."

"Simple!?" Shampoo squawked in outrage, instantly regretting it as her head pounded sharply. "Simple?" she repeated, much more quietly the second time. "You try feeling like I do right now and tell me it's simple."

"Luckily, I can't do that," Akane replied with a more sympathetic-sounding laugh. "My head hurts a bit but not too badly. But then I said no to the rice wine, of course."

"I wish I had," the warrior muttered under her breath. Then, more loudly, she added, "OK, I'll come over, but right now I'm getting some more sleep first. See you later."

"Later, then." Akane hung up. Dropping the hand holding the phone to the bed with a groan, Shampoo massaged her eyes for a moment, then set an alarm for three hours time, rolled over, pulled her pillow over her head with a faint moan, and went back to sleep once more.

"Any news on the demonic duck?" Nabiki watched Kimiko discussing a dress in a shop near the centre of Furinkan with her sister, the younger Sano seeming rather taken by it. "Or at least the cause of it?"

"Some," 'Yori' sighed, the alter-ego of Ranma sounding a little irritated. "Aiko and I tracked it back to the car park near the police station, that big multi-story one. There are some weird magical traces around here, it's definitely where it came through from wherever it actually came from in the first place. It's not a portal, though, something a lot less common than that."

"I've found something up on the roof you need to see," Aiko put in, her voice over the com sounding puzzled.

"OK." There was a few seconds pause during which Nabiki began walking again, following the two Sano sisters as they all slowly headed back towards the Dojo, all three of them carrying bags of groceries. "Hmm. Interesting."

"What is it?" she asked curiously.

"Some peculiar variant of a summoning circle that someone who thinks they know a lot more about magic than they really do drew up here," her sister-in-law replied absently, obviously thinking hard. There was another pause. "It's certainly how that thing got here, and it's probably got something to do with Chiyoko's little menaces as well in some way. The entire thing is saturated with her magical signature, but... not in a normal way."

'Yori's' voice in her head was definitely both a little confused and rather annoyed.

"Summoning circle?" she asked. "Is that like a portal?"

"Yes and no," was the answer, still in an absent tone. She could picture the other woman studying the thing in question closely. "They're a generally obsolete form of calling something from somewhere. No one is entirely sure where in many cases. Not a normal portal at all in that sense. Those are very predictable and reliable. Summoning circles are... well, unless you know exactly what you're doing, the things are potentially hideously dangerous. It's a little like a reverse teleportation, pulling something here from somewhere else, but with the minor problem that exactly where from can be a little... indeterminate. Some of the things that come through are just flat out weird even in our terms. And they can be extremely hostile."

"Not surprising if they're just yanked here without any warning," Aiko snickered. "I'd be pissed off myself if that happened."

"True enough and a fair point," 'Yori' replied with a small laugh. "That may well account for some of it, I guess. But even so what you can end up with is often not what you wanted. That's why they don't get used much nowadays anywhere, really. You need a hell of a lot of control and even more skill to use one successfully although if you actually can pull it off they can sometimes be useful. They have all sorts of limitations but at the same time you can do some interesting things that would be difficult otherwise without a lot more work. Unfortunately, you don't need a vast amount of power to drive one. Which leads to things like this, an amateur who gets lucky. Sort of."

"Could you use one?" Nabiki asked with some interest.

"I've got the control, certainly, and the power is no trouble, but I don't know enough about the things to risk trying it without a lot of research," the martial artist replied thoughtfully. "Kas could do it as well, but with the same problem. Neither of us have ever really looked into them past the point of learning what they are and why they're normally a bad idea. Cologne could definitely do it without much problem, I know that for a fact because she tried it on me years back." 'Yori' chuckled. "Luckily they're really easy to ward against and it was Happosai's first precaution. The ward system blocks that sort of thing completely for all of us. Come to think of it, he could probably pull one off as well, no matter what he says about not being a mage."

"But it's not the work of either of them, obviously." Nabiki was thinking hard.

"Nope. Happi's still enjoying himself wandering around the demon worlds somewhere, probably annoying the hell out of everyone he meets, and this certainly isn't Cologne's work." 'Yori' snickered. "I've spotted half a dozen errors in what I can still make out of the circle and at least half of it is unreadable. She wouldn't make any, that much I can say for sure. No, this is the work of someone who's managed to get hold of some instructions that he or she barely understands, then messed even that up, badly. Like I said, an amateur. One who is going to end up killing themselves or someone else if they keep trying this stuff."

Nabiki felt worried. That sounded potentially very bad. "Any idea who? Some local Neriman mage?"

"There aren't that many around here, Cologne's certainly the most powerful and experienced by far, although there are a few. None of the ones I know would mess it up like this either, though, even if they tried it. These are really basic errors. Spelling mistakes, if you'll allow me the pun."

Both Nabiki and Aiko groaned as their friend laughed again.

"I don't think this is the work of anyone who's a practising mage," she went on. "Or if it is they need a hell of a lot more practice. This is what someone with enough power to be dangerous but not enough knowledge or patience to be safe has tried for some reason. They got freakishly lucky, I think, and managed to make the thing resonate to Chiyoko's magic right when she just happened to turn up at the critical point. Without that it would never have even powered up. The signature under hers from whoever made the diagram is very faint, it's not that of someone particularly powerful."

The martial artist fell silent, apparently thinking it through. Nabiki did the same as they turned into the street leading to the Dojo, nodding to a comment that Miki made without really hearing it. "OK. It's a local, probably," she mused 'out loud' to her friends, "someone who thinks they know more than they do, has some power but not much, and is willing to try a spell they don't really understand. Which makes them, what, stupid? Or just very incautious."

"Probably the latter, whoever it was has made a lot of substitutions here which implies a certain amount of wit although a severe lack of common sense." 'Yori' sounded bemused. "Oregano?" she muttered more faintly, a note of incredulity in her voice.

"All right, intelligent but not careful or thoughtful." Nabiki thought some more.

Then she sighed.

"You know who it's probably going to be, don't you?" she asked almost rhetorically. The martial artist sighed as well, having apparently also worked out the identity of the most likely culprit.

"I'm afraid I do. Does he still live around here?"

"Yes, not too far away, with his parents. They moved a couple of years ago to a bigger apartment. I haven't seen him for a while but he turns up occasionally looking just as unhealthy as ever, usually talking total crap. Akane chases him off and that's the end of it for another six months." She snickered. "Sis doesn't like him much, but she's nothing like as annoyed with him as she is with Ryoga. She was almost polite the last time."

"Who are we talking about?" Aiko asked curiously.

"Hikaru Gosunkugi, would-be mage and generally irritating person," Nabiki sighed. "He was yet another one who was involved in all the Akane-chasing in school, although admittedly he was one of the less dangerous parts most of the time. He's... not harmless, based on what you guys have found, but not really malicious. And kind of creepy."

Laughing, Aiko replied, "This, coming from the woman whose alter-ego is the creepiest thing I've ever seen in my life!"

"Hey, Ms Aoyama is professionally creepy, I'll have you know," Nabiki retorted with an inner grin. "Gos is just... odd."

"I'll take your word for it," Aiko giggled.

"Good. Or she'll have to come and have a... discussion." The middle Tendo sniggered darkly.

"Ranma, help, I'm being oppressed!" Aiko sounded like she was laughing hard enough to be at risk of falling over.

'Yori' chuckled, obviously amused. "You brought it on yourself, Aiko. I'm not getting between Ms Aoyama and someone she's peeved with. That could be bad."

"Thanks a bunch," the other woman laughed. After a moment, more soberly, she asked, "So what do we do about all this?"

"We can't risk something like this happening again, that's certain," 'Yori' replied slowly. "To be fair I doubt this was what he intended, assuming it actually was him, which seems likely. Nabiki's right, he's not an evil person, just a bit overenthusiastic. But we're going to have to impress on him how dangerous what he did was in a way that makes it stick. And confiscate whatever documentation he has on the whole subject to make sure he can't do it again if it doesn't stick. Next time we might not get so lucky."

"A visit from the creepy one, then?" Aiko suggested.

"That's one method, certainly," 'Yori' replied with a musing tone to her voice. "But it's not quite there. Let me think about it. In the mean time, we'll go and find the guy and check his magical signature to be sure it really was him. I'm about ninety percent sure it was, but I want to be certain."

"OK. Let me know if you need me." Nabiki and the others were nearly at the gate now. "Still up for flying later?"

"Oh, definitely, I wouldn't miss that," the martial artist assured her. "Flying with our own wings is better but those gliders are still fun. We'll finish up here, then get back and talk to the others about a few things. I've asked Ami and Rei to cover for us just in case, they can call if anything goes to hell, but hopefully it won't."

"We're going to have to take them all to Fwetna soon, you know," Nabiki said.

"I think so too, they deserve to see it and also to meet Uthryyl, but for the moment let's concentrate on the immediate issues." 'Yori' sighed slightly. "At least Kas managed to find two of the tail sections that you blew off that damn thing and retrieve them. The other one probably fell in the river and washed away as far as we can work out. We're going to give one to the PSIA to look at while she investigates the other one."

"Do they collect parts of aliens, then?" Nabiki found the idea amusing for some reason, picturing some buried and dimly lit room full of specimens floating in eerily lit jars.

'Yori' managed to project a grin with her voice. "More or less, yes. They've got little bits of dead demons frozen in the research department, which have shown some interesting things over the years, but it's never been a very significant part of their work. They just like to keep an eye on what's going on. Understandable, really."

"True. OK, we're back now, so I'll talk later."

"See you, Nabs," the martial artist commented, immediately disconnecting before she could reply. She sighed faintly.

"I'll kick him for you," Aiko snickered. "See you later."

"Thanks. Bye." The link went dead, as she pushed the gate open and went inside with Kimiko and Miki.

Hikaru stumbled slightly as he tripped over something, looking back to see what it was and not being able to make anything out. Suddenly walking into someone he let out a grunt, feeling the unknown person grab him and stop him falling over as he recoiled. "Hey, kid, you alright?" a deep voice said.

He turned his head and looked up. And up.

'Holy crap, this guy is huge!' he thought in shock, staring at the large man who could easily have made three of him, most of it looking to be muscle wrapped in a nice suit. Momentarily panicking as he wondered if he'd managed to bump into a Yakuza enforcer, he relaxed a little when the man grinned slightly.

"Don't look so worried, kid, I'm fine." The man released his shoulders and brushed him down briefly. "See? No problems."

"I'm sorry, Sir, I wasn't watching where I was going," he mumbled.

The large man smiled more widely. "That's OK. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. And I'm Shin, not Sir."

Hikaru made a small polite bow of respect, which the man mirrored. "Hikaru, then. I'm very sorry about causing you any trouble."

"Never mind, no harm done," Shin assured him. Glancing at his watch he frowned slightly. "Anyway, I'm late, so I have to get going. Try not to fall over, OK?" Chuckling at Hikaru's wry smile, the man left about his business, soon disappearing around the next corner. Hikaru watched him go, sighed in slight relief that nothing worse had happened, then headed off himself to look for more magical texts. There was a shop he'd heard about that might be a good place to check out, assuming it was open.

He had four kilos of the best coffee beans he could afford in his backpack and he was ready for anything.

Aiko watched with a grin as the young man walked off, then turned at the sound of the door behind her that gave roof access to the three story building opening, admitting the very same large man who Gosunkugi had somehow mysteriously managed to stumble into. 'Shin' grinned back at her as he approached, shimmering into the form of 'Yori' mid-step. The black-haired girl stopped next to her friend, both of them watching as Gosunkugi got on a bus.

"Is it him?" Aiko asked.

"Definitely. His magical signature was the one associated with the diagram." 'Yori' stretched with a grunt, flexing her shoulders. "We'll have to come up with something... interesting... for dear old Gos."

The brunette next to her chuckled. "Do you have any ideas?"

A certain amount of amusement was radiating from 'Yori'. "As it happens, I do. I think I might have to ask Cologne for a small favour. It can wait until later, but it should work pretty well, I think."

Aiko looked surprised, then started laughing as her friend explained. Soon afterwards a bright flash made a few pedestrians on the street below look up curiously, although nothing was now visible on the roof.

Smiling to himself, Soun watched his daughters talking and laughing with their friends in the back garden, Nodoka and Genma sitting to one side drinking tea and discussing something in low voices. After a moment, he sighed slightly, drew himself up firmly, then walked out into the sunlight, stopping next Nabiki who looked up at him when he put his hand gently on her shoulder. "Dear, could I have a word with you, please?" he requested quietly. She met his eyes, then nodded without a word, apparently picking up on his mood. As she stood her friends watched, an expression of mild worry going across the face of Miki, causing Nabiki to smile at her reassuringly.

"Akane, can you come as well?" he added, glancing at the youngest Tendo who had turned to look at both her sister and her father. The younger woman gazed at him for a long moment, then looked at her older sister, before also standing. Shampoo watched this with a sombre look, obviously realising there was something going on, but said nothing.

Leading both daughters back into the house, Soun headed for his room, hearing them follow him up the stairs and towards the front of the house. Opening the door he waited until both had entered before going into the room himself and closing the door behind them. Nabiki and Akane exchanged glances, turning back to him curiously. The older sister raised an eyebrow quizzically, her expression one of calmness which he knew well hid a very sharp mind. Akane was looking more visibly concerned, glancing between her father and her older sister while biting the corner of her lower lip slightly.

"Is there a problem, Dad?" the youngest Tendo asked, worry in her voice.

He shook his head, smiling at them both, then stepped forward, putting his hands on one shoulder of each, before pulling them into a brief three-way hug. "Not any more," he replied, releasing them. "There was, but it's been fixed. But..." He sighed as they exchanged glances again. "I was trying to think of a way to tell you and couldn't, until I got some good advice from a friend." After a few seconds, he waved at the bed, then sat on it, the two young women sitting on either side of him. Putting his arms around their shoulders, he smiled at Nabiki, then Akane.

"You know I love you both more than anything, don't you?" he asked. They grinned at him, Nabiki raising an eyebrow again, this time more from amusement. "And I'm incredibly proud of you as well, you're both going to go places and achieve things far past anything I have ever managed."

"Thanks, Dad," the older sister said, pleased. Akane mumbled something slightly unclear but which seemed to be much the same in sentiment, looking embarrassed. He hugged them again to his sides.

"So, what's the problem?" Nabiki asked curiously, before correcting herself with a chuckle. "Or, rather, what was the problem?"

After another long pause while he tried to think of the best way to put it, he began.

"A few weeks ago, I went to the doctor. I had a nasty cough that wouldn't go away..."

They sat in silence as he talked for some time.

"Hi, guys," a by-now familiar voice sounded from the right, next to the house, making Miki and everyone else look over and up to see Yori grinning at them from on top of the garden wall, Tamiko and Misaki standing next to her. The three magical girls dropped lightly to the lawn and walked over to the small group standing there. "How are you all after yesterday? Good party, wasn't it?" The black-haired young woman seemed in a very good mood.

"It was... somewhat more exciting than we'd planned," Nodoka noted dryly, making the other woman snicker, shrugging a little in a 'what can you do?' manner. Miki laughed to herself, attracting a smile her way from Yori. Misaki hid a small grin of her own while Tamiko sighed a little then also smiled.

"These things happen, Nodoka," Yori consoled the auburn-haired woman, who looked mildly amused.

"So Nabiki said as well. It's true but somewhat irritating at times," the Saotome matriarch admitted. "Nerima can be a strange place."

"So can Minato," Tamiko giggled. "You wouldn't believe some of the things that happen there sometimes."

"Quite likely not," Nodoka admitted, smiling more widely. "Although some of the adventures that the various people of this household have become entangled in over the years might give your experiences a run for their money."

"I've heard about some of those," Tamiko admitted, grinning. "Why don't we just agree that both Nerima and Minato are nuts and leave it at that?"

"Acceptable," the older red-head chuckled. She looked over at Yori and Misaki who were listening with amused expressions. "Did you succeed in working out what the cause of all the excitement yesterday was, dear?"

Yori frowned a little as everyone looked at her. "I have a pretty good idea, yes. Someone who did something a bit stupid. We're going to have to have a chat soon, I think." She rubbed her hands together and grinned darkly, snickering in an unnerving manner. "I'm looking forward to it."

"I assume the person in question won't be?" Kimiko asked. Yori smirked at her.

"Not as such, no," she smiled.

"Good. I may be OK, but whoever sicced that damn duck thing on me needs a good kicking." Miki and Hana exchanged a glance then studied their younger sister, who sounded somewhat peeved. Misaki laughed out loud, looking at her friends who were now both smirking.

"I think that can be arranged," the tall girl commented idly, snacking on an apple that had appeared in her hand. Beside her, Tamiko held out her own hand without a word, receiving another apple in return, which she bit into with a loud crunch.

Looking around the assembled people again, Yori asked, "So, who's coming gliding in another reality?"

Miki laughed loudly, holding up her hand, then grabbing John's and holding it up as well with her free one. Hana and Kimiko also put their hands up. Sighing a little and wincing at the sound, Shampoo put hers up too. Her other one went to her head, making Yori grin at her.

"Drank too much, hmm?"

"Yes," the Amazon muttered, adjusting the sunglasses she was wearing to block out the bright light of day.

"Here, let me sort that out for you," the violet eyed woman snickered, walking over and putting her hand on Shampoo's head, a purple glow appearing for a second. The Amazon's face relaxed immediately.

"Oh, thank the gods," she sighed in relief. "That's so much better."

Removing her hand Yori smiled. "No problem. Drink some more water, though, you're still dehydrated."

"Thank you," Shampoo replied, taking her sunglasses off and blinking a bit at the bright day. "The only other options were waiting for hours, or taking the horrible stuff Great-Grandmother makes. It works, but..." She shuddered hard. "It's... not nice."

Yori grinned at her. "I can imagine, I know a little about some of the ancient Amazon cures and I can see they're probably a bit... harsh."

"That's putting it mildly," Shampoo muttered, making several people laugh a little, it was obvious from her expression that she was speaking from bitter past experience. After a moment she added more loudly, "She asked me to pass on her regrets but that she feels she's past the point of flying in some little toy airplane, although she appreciates the invitation." Yori looked amused, nodding her understanding.

"Fair enough, but if the Elder is actually genuinely past anything I'll eat my own boots." Shampoo started giggling at the idea.

"Are any more of your group going?" Genma asked curiously, looking at the three magical girls. Tamiko turned to him, nodding.

"Yes, everyone is coming. Chou and the others will meet us there. They're leaving a portal open to Minato so we can go back instantly if something happens, we've got some friends covering for us for a few hours but if anything kicks off we'll need to get back to help. Hopefully that won't happen, but..." She shrugged with a smile and a sigh, making the rotund martial artist nod wisely.

"I understand. Your life is even more fraught with peril than that of a normal martial artist."

Yori started chuckling, as did Misaki, Tamiko grinning over her shoulder at them both before looking back to Genma. "Wise words indeed. Well put, Genma." He nodded with a satisfied smile, making Nodoka look at him and shake her head a little while sighing very faintly.

"Where are Nabiki and Akane?" Misaki asked after a moment, taking a seat next to Miki. She produced a bottle of water and unscrewed the top, sipping it, then as an afterthought tossed another one to Shampoo who caught it with murmured thanks before draining it thirstily.

"Their father took them inside about twenty minutes ago to tell them something," the Sano sister replied, suddenly brought back to thinking of her friend. She frowned a little. "It seemed serious, but hopefully it's nothing too bad."

Seconds later, Akane shot out of the house, dashed across the grass, then grabbed a rather startled looking Yori hard enough that Miki was pretty sure a normal person would have ended up with broken ribs at least. Somewhat to her shock the youngest Tendo had tears in her eyes.

"Thank you so so much," Akane almost whispered, holding Yori like she was a life preserver in stormy seas. "Both you and Chou. Why are you so nice? We don't deserve everything you've both done for us."

Miki stared at this, as did most of the others, then turned to look at the house out of which Soun and Nabiki were coming, considerably more slowly. Nabiki had a thoughtful expression while Soun was smiling in an odd but loving way at his youngest daughter. Returning her attention to Akane and Yori, Miki watched as the latter raised her arms and returned the embrace for a moment, before gently removing the Tendo girl from her.

"Of course you do, Akane, you're all decent people." The young woman glanced at Genma with an eyebrow up, then at Nodoka, who for some reason raised a hand to cover her mouth, then looked back at Akane who was still staring at her. "We fix things. That's our main purpose, when we can. We can't do it all the time, obviously, but we do our best, and Soun was pretty easy compared to some stuff we've dealt with."

Stepping back having released the magical girl Akane wiped tears from her eyes with a quick motion of one hand, looking quickly at her older sister who had come to stand beside her. "Sorry," she muttered. Nabiki chuckled a little, putting her hand on her sister's shoulder.

"It's understandable, sis," she replied with good humour. Looking at Yori, she bowed formally. "Thank you very much indeed," she added. "I'm proud to call you a friend."

Yori peered at her in a manner that seemed full of humour, then bowed back.

"And I, we all really, feel the same way about all of you, and you're welcome." Both women straightened up and exchanged small grins.

"What on earth brought all this about, girls?" Nodoka asked, fairly calmly, but still apparently extremely interested in the answer. The assembled people all looked at her, then back at Akane, who was now going pink from embarrassment as she apparently realised how abruptly she'd managed to interrupt the rest of them.

"Allow me to explain," Soun put in, appearing to find the entire thing somewhat funny. He moved to sit in a chair next to Genma, who handed him a cup of tea without saying anything although leaning forward with a curious look. "Yesterday, during the party, I approached Yori with a... rather annoying medical problem. She and Chou were good enough to help and skilled enough to be able to help. They fixed the problem and I'm fine now. For which, as I told them both at the time, I owe them anything in my power to give."'

Yori now looked slightly embarrassed, which was an odd expression on her face, not really fitting somehow. "It wasn't that big a deal, Soun, we do that sort of thing all the time. To more or less anyone who needs it and will hold still long enough."

He chuckled, his moustache lifting a little as he smiled.

"It may be trivial to you, my dear girl, but I assure you it isn't to those of us without such abilities." She shrugged slightly, smiling.

"What was the problem, if you don't mind me asking, old friend?" Genma queried after a moment or two. Soun looked at him, then sipped his tea with appreciation, while everyone waited for him to speak, leaning forward in their seats.

"Terminal lung cancer," he replied quietly. Miki froze in horror, before looking quickly around and meeting similar emotions in the eyes of almost everyone else present. Genma looked like someone had just disembowelled his first-born in front of him for several seconds. Nodoka nearly fainted, gasping and going pale.

"Oh, shit," John muttered, holding Miki's hand tightly.

"I'm fine now, though," the elder Tendo continued, smiling at them with a level of happiness Miki could well understand. "The two young ladies fixed everything and I'm assured I'm now in perfect health. They even fixed the nicotine addiction as well so I'm not craving a smoke for the first time in twenty years or more."

"Oh, thank god," Nodoka whispered. Colour was coming back into her cheeks. "Why didn't you tell us, Soun? How long have you known?"

"I was diagnosed about six or seven weeks ago, and I didn't want to worry anyone until I knew exactly what I was going to do," he replied calmly. "The doctor wanted to start me on very aggressive chemotherapy immediately but after I read the documentation it sounded almost worse than the alternative. Luckily, while I was thinking it over, it occurred to me to ask our friends here, and..." He waved a hand at Yori who was listening with an interested and sympathetic expression. "If they had turned out to be unable to help, I would have started the treatment in all probability, but as it turns out it's unnecessary. The poor doctor is going to be very confused when I go in for my next appointment."

"Next time, if there is one, Soun, call us in earlier, will you?" Yori asked with a smile. "Like I told you, we don't mind at all." She looked around at the others. "That goes for all of you. If you need us, get in touch, and we'll help however we can."

"Because it's a calling?" Kimiko asked with a weird little smile, causing the magical girl and both her own sisters to look at her for a moment. Miki noticed Nabiki was smirking slightly. Yori, for some reason, glanced at the older Tendo sister with a smirk of her own before nodding.

"You could say that, yes," she chuckled.

Laughing a little Kimiko raised her drink in a salute to the black-haired girl who returned it lazily with two fingers to her brow, before hopping to her feet energetically. "Enough doom and gloom over something that didn't happen," she announced happily. "Let's go and have some fun."

"Mousse isn't here yet," Shampoo put in, frowning a little as she looked at her watch. "He was helping Great-Grandmother with something but he said he'd be here by ten past."

"He's thirty seconds out and closing fast," Tamiko told her with a grin. She looked surprised, then very curious. The red-head tapped the side of her nose. "Trade secret."

Giggling, Shampoo began counting under her breath, just loud enough for Miki to hear. As she reached twenty-five, Mousse hopped over the garden wall, then looked puzzled when everyone started laughing.

"What?" he asked, walking over. Shampoo giggled again and just shook her head.

"You're weird," the Amazon mumbled, turning to look at Yori who was obviously finding this all funny. "Sorry I'm late."

"No problem," the woman smiled. A portal crackled open beside her. Waving at it, she added, "If you want to bring swimming gear there's a nice lake as well."

Most of the people present held up towels, smiling at her. "Chou already said that," Akane laughed.

"Great. OK, then, let's go. Don't be worried about the people there. Like I explained last night, the D'Sage are very nice friendly people and not hostile in any way. You may also see various people from other species than the D'Sage, they get quite a few visitors, so don't overreact, please. None of them will be human but all of them are people." Yori smiled reassuringly at them all as a few of those gathered looked slightly worried. Miki took a deep breath, stood, then headed towards the portal with determination, glancing sideways at Nabiki who joined her, a small bag slung over her shoulder.

"Should be fun, right?" she asked. The Tendo woman grinned.

"I'll be disappointed if it's not."

Sharing another look, they stepped through the portal together, the rest of the small party following behind.

Looking around at the well-remembered scene of the lake, Nabiki smiled to herself, glad to visit again, then turned to see the reactions of the others. There had been dead silence behind her for the last few minutes, only broken by the natural sounds, and the cries of excitement from a group of young D'Sage who were messing about in the water fifty metres away apparently having a lot of fun.

She saw that Miki was slowly turning in a complete circle, her mouth hanging open in a somewhat funny manner, inspecting everything with an expression that was gradually turning from surprise to pure joy. Beyond her, Akane and Shampoo were doing much the same, while Hana was simply staring steadily at the lake and the dozens of users of it who were wandering around enjoying themselves. Kimiko seemed stunned, looking at each of them in turn, then going back to watching the surroundings.

Mousse was constantly pushing his glasses up his nose as his head flicked about. Next to him, Soun was smiling to himself, while Genma and Nodoka who had trailed along out of curiosity were staring wide-eyed.

'Yori' and her companions were off to one side, watching the reactions with broad grins. She caught the eye of the martial artist and smirked a little, getting a look in return that made her giggle inside.

A couple of D'Sage walked past having landed and parked their vehicle a little distance away, nodding politely to the group of humans then going on their way without comment. Most of the Neriman visitors stared in shock. Nabiki quickly put a surprised expression on her face but noticed that Kimiko who had been watching her at that moment looked amused under her own, more genuine, amazement.

Another portal opened next to the one 'Yori' had produced, 'Chou', Fumiko, and Aiko popping out of it and looking around for a moment smiling before heading over. "Hello, everyone," the blonde said, stopping beside 'Yori' who greeted her with a hand on her shoulder for a moment. "How are you all finding Fwetna this time?" Behind them the portal to Nerima expired with the usual pop.

"It's fantastic," Hana breathed, looking around. Beside her Kimiko was now squinting at the dual suns, her hand shading her eyes, with a smile on her face. "Like something out of a really good science fiction movie only real."

"It's a nice place," Tamiko grinned. She pointed to the edge of the crater wall, over the low rise leading up from the lake. In the distance, what Nabiki knew was a couple of thousand metres from the edge out in free air, half a dozen gliders could be seen looping and diving. "The flying happens over there. That's the edge of the cliff which is even taller than at the falls." She chuckled when Akane went pale at the thought. "No wall, either."

Finding her sister's expression quite funny, Nabiki looked up at the gliders again. Jun helpfully tagged each of them with owners IDs, one of which was blue while the others were green. She studied this one, seeing it was apparently Onkra. 'Thanks, Jun,' she told the device.

#You're welcome, as always, Nabiki,# it replied calmly.

"Is that you up there, Onkra?" she broadcast to her friend. The glider turned towards them, coming closer fairly fast.

"Yep. How are you today? Ready for some flying that doesn't involve attacking giant demons and rescuing friends?" the D'Sage woman responded, sounding pleased to see her. Nabiki noticed that there were a pair of familiar shapes accompanying the glider in formation, the little arrowhead of fliers steadily approaching.

"I am, actually," she snickered. "That was pretty bizarre all things considered."

"Ranma sent us some recordings of it. It looked really impressive from the ground. I'd love to see it from your point of view."

"I can do that," the middle Tendo laughed, quickly putting together a set of files from her own viewpoint and that of the drone she'd used, sending them to her friend. "Are your father and mother here as well?"

"Dad's around somewhere, he was swimming a little earlier," Onkra replied. "Mom's away on business in Krentak for a day or so. She said to say hi to you all."

By now several of the others had noticed the glider and soarers heading their way, now only a kilometre out and descending rapidly. Miki pointed and asked, "What's that?"

"One of the locals with her glider," 'Yori' told her, joining her and Nabiki to watch as the flying machine approached. "You'll like her, she's a good friend. Onkra, the daughter of Uthryyl, a major trader and an old friend of mine. The other two are the soarers from last night. So you've met them before." She smiled as Miki looked amused.

Onkra soared overhead only fifty metres up, looking very pleased, then pulled up hard, stall turned, and glided to a neat landing fairly close to the group. The soarers circled overhead, not at the moment showing any particular inclination to land, although everyone could hear them yipping at each other. Slightly relieved as she was still wondering what she would say if the things mobbed her, Nabiki watched them for a moment, then followed as everyone headed after 'Yori' who was going to meet Onkra. The D'Sage woman was disconnecting herself from the glider, nodding her thanks when the martial artist reached her and helped.

They all stopped at a polite distance, watching as Onkra quickly made the glider fold up into a long bundle which she put on the ground. Turning to them she studied them closely, before leaning sideways a little towards 'Yori' and whispering loudly, in perfect Japanese and with her hand in front of her mouth, "Why are they all looking at me like that? Aliens are weird." Nabiki could easily see she was very amused. Her ears were up like a hunting dog, making a mental picture that nearly had the Tendo sister giggling.

'Yori' grinned and replied in a similar manner, "I have no idea. Some people are just a little strange. Try not to make any sudden moves and you're probably safe."

Akane suddenly collapsed laughing, breaking the minor tension that had arisen, the others all relaxing and grinning. Shampoo sighed heavily, poking her friend with her foot which didn't actually help. "Stop that, you're embarrassing us," she hissed. Akane just waved a hand weakly at Onkra and 'Yori' and kept laughing.

"This... this..." she managed to gasp out, "this is completely insane. Why have our lives gone so sideways recently?" Peering up at Onkra, who was looking down at her with an easily recognisable expression of dubious interest despite her non-human features, she fell over laughing again.

Onkra turned to 'Yori', who shrugged. Shaking her head, the D'Sage woman carefully skirted the still giggling Akane, walking over to stand in front of the others, who were looking mildly confused. Except for Shampoo who was pinching the bridge of her nose and kicking Akane gently but repeatedly in a vain attempt to get her to stop laughing.

"Hello," she said politely, giving a small bow of respect, her tail curving up behind her. "I'm Onkra. Yori and the others have told me quite a bit about all of you recently. Welcome to Fwetna."

After a moment of silence, Soun glanced at his friends and family, then stepped forward, responding to her bow with one of his own. "Thank you on behalf of all of us, Onkra. Don't mind my youngest daughter, there's clearly something amiss with her in some way. Possibly stress from recent events." He frowned slightly at Akane, who looked momentarily a little annoyed before the absurdity of the entire situation started her giggling again. Shampoo sighed audibly, shaking her head sadly.

"Ah, yes, some sort of job interview as I understand," Onkra replied, also looking at Akane. "From what Yori told me it went well."

"It did indeed, thank you." Soun looked a little surprised that the D'Sage woman was so well informed, yet pleased by her comments. "Pardon me if I'm being rude, but I have to compliment you on your Japanese. It's very good indeed."

She made her own version of a smile, nodding to him. "Thank you." Looking around at the others, who were still apparently a little taken aback by their first encounter with a friendly 'demon', she waved to the end of the lake. "If you guys want to come with me, I'll introduce you to my friend Jyrron, who has a number of gliders set up for you all." Returning to her own she picked it up and put it over her shoulder, then headed in that direction, 'Yori' beside her and the others following along in a ragged group, looking around with interest and slowly diminishing shock.

When they crested the rise blocking the view of the valley floor, each of them stopped dead and stared in amazement, even the ones who had seen it the night before. Hana started laughing softly to herself, pulling out her camera and taking pictures one after another. Nabiki watched the expressions on her family and friends with pleasure, this was something she'd wanted to show them since she'd first seen it, and hadn't thought it would become possible so soon. Casting a quick look at 'Chou' she saw her hidden elder sister was watching as well, smiling a little to herself. The blonde caught her eye and smiled more widely for a moment.

"It's absolutely fantastic," Nodoka breathed, looking from one side of the vista to the other, then peering at the distant towers of Krentak for some seconds. "I still can't get over how beautiful it is."

"We like it," Onkra laughed. "I've travelled quite a lot and I have to admit home is still one of the nicest places I've been. But I expect most people would say that in the end." She waited for another thirty seconds or so, then pointed to a group of people and brightly coloured flying machines a hundred metres away, off to the side and down the slope although at a safe distance from the edge. "That's Jyrron and the others over there."

They resumed walking, watching as someone trotted down the slope and took off, the glider soaring out over the incredible drop then rapidly gaining altitude from the updraft at the edge. Shortly it was several hundred metres up and circling slowly.

"Wow," Miki muttered to herself, next to Nabiki, who looked at her and grinned. "That looks... terrifying."

"But a lot of fun," the middle Tendo replied happily.

"I guess," her friend said slowly. "But still terrifying. That might take some time to get over."

"I'm sure when you're hanging in the air a few kilometres up you'll just start to enjoy it," Nabiki snickered, getting a slightly wild-eyed and not entirely happy look back.

"Thanks for that image. Now I'm really terrified," Miki quavered. Putting her arm over her friend's shoulders, Nabiki chuckled.

"Come on, it'll be fine. Yori says these things are essentially uncrashable, and if you can't trust a magical girl, who can you trust?"

Behind them, Fumiko started giggling, making her look over her shoulder for a moment with a wry grin at the taller woman. "What? A lot of people probably think that way."

"True," the other woman grinned. "Still weird to hear someone say it like that, though."

Miki took a deep breath and put an obviously deliberate smile on her face. "You're right. Once in a life time opportunity and all that. Let's go and have some fun."

Squeezing her for a moment, Nabiki let go. "That's the spirit. I'm looking forward to this."

"Yes, but everyone knows you're just crazy, Nabiki," Miki giggled.

Shrugging, the Tendo sister accepted this as self-evident, making her friend laugh harder for a moment, then followed as she headed over to the gliders with the others. Having introduced them to Jyrron, and interpreted for him as he didn't speak Japanese or have the advantage of the translation spell, Onkra picked up something from a container on the ground, showing it to them and revealing it was a pair of odd-looking goggles.

"Yori ordered these after the last time they were here, they were finished a few days ago. Obviously our own heads aren't the same shape as your species has, so the standard ones we use won't fit. For non-magical-girl people, that's something of a problem, so these were custom-made for your species." Everyone looked at the black-haired girl, who shrugged a little with a grin.

"Azumi was considering importing the gliders to our world at some point, which would need the right headgear anyway, and I was thinking of getting a few for friends as well. Uthryyl knew someone who could do the redesign easily and got me a good deal for it."

Handing out goggles to everyone, Onkra waited while they investigated them, then explained the control system and the basic flight controls while Jyrron and a couple of his friends rigged several gliders, reprogramming the control system in the same way as when Nabiki had first tried them to compensate for the lack of a tail on the part of the pilot. Shortly they were ready, the three D'Sage stepping back having tested everything. "So, who's first?" Onkra asked brightly.

There was a long pause. Miki nudged Nabiki in the ribs, causing the middle Tendo to grin, then step forward. "I'll give it a try as long as Akane comes as well," she announced, which made her sister glare at her for a second.

"Oh, thanks, 'Biki," she muttered. More loudly, she added, "Shampoo has to come in that case as well." The Amazon looked somewhat taken aback but eventually, when her friend stared hard at her, nodded.

"Try not to make it look to easy, Nabiki," Onkra sent with a silent laugh. "They might get suspicious."

"Don't worry, I can make mistakes with the best of them," the brunette replied. "I'll try not to crash too much, though."

"Good idea." Her friend sounded amused. "We've dialled the sensitivity of the controls down a lot for the first run. We can adjust them when everyone gets to grips with it."

Nabiki remembered her first flight, thinking this was a good idea. #I can monitor your sister and the others and adjust the control gains appropriately as they become used to them, Nabiki,# Jun put in helpfully. #It's not difficult.#

'Thanks, Jun,' she told it with an inner smile.

Stepping forward she allowed Onkra to use her as a model to explain how to attach the glider and how the controls worked. "It's very easy, the computer will do most of the work at first, and as you get used to it will allow you more and more control. If everything goes completely wrong the anti-grav recovery system will make a safe descent but that's very unlikely to happen. If you try anything dangerous or that might cause other problems the computer will take over, even to the point of auto-landing, so you'll basically find it essentially impossible to crash. They're all set to teaching mode which will get you flying pretty fast, it's not difficult at all. As soon as you're at a safe altitude the controls will unlock and you're flying."

Pulling the goggles down over her eyes Nabiki looked at the display with curious interest, then had Jun disable it in favour of her own overlays which were better and more familiar. "OK, I'm ready," she announced. Her family and friends watched as she stood and allowed Jyrron and Onkra to steady the wingtips, orienting the glider into the wind coming up the slope, then began running down it. As had happened the first time, she was rapidly lifted into the air, swinging her legs back and locking them in place, before soaring past the edge of the cliff and out into empty air.

Even with her recent life it was a heady experience, the way the ground dropped away so suddenly to such a great distance was truly remarkable. Grinning she waited while the computer circled her around in a slowly ascending spiral, laughing with delight. 'I almost forgot how much fun these things are,' she commented to her SI.

#More entertaining than flying under your own power?# it queried with interest. She thought for a moment.

'No, not really, that's still one of the most incredible feelings I can think of, but this is a pretty close second. Hopefully the others will like it too.' She looked back and to her left to see the small group in the distance, several hundred metres away and down by now.

A moment later, she heard the voice of Akane, sounding a little tentative as she used the comms system built into the flight goggles. "Can you hear me, Nabiki?" her sister asked breathlessly. As the computer relinquished control to her the Tendo sister circled about so she was looking directly at the cliff-side. She added a few deliberate over-corrections so it appeared she was experimenting.

"Yes, perfectly," she replied with a chuckle. "What did it look like from down there?"

"Amazing," the other woman replied, also sounding like she was about to laugh. "And horrifying at the same time. What's it like?"

"Incredible," Nabiki said happily. "The view is absolutely incredible. This is pretty easy, really. Hurry up and get in the air, sis."

There was a slightly nervous sigh, then Akane responded, "If this kills me I am definitely going to haunt you and tell you it's all your fault for the rest of your life, you realize."

Giggling Nabiki circled around some more. "Fine by me. Just jump over the edge and get on with it."

"Crazy woman," Akane told her with a put-upon sigh. Looking down she could see her sister being attached to her own glider, a bright green one as opposed to the blue and yellow of the one she was flying. Soon enough Akane was in the take-off position with Onkra and Jyrron steadying her, Onkra apparently giving her some last minute advice from what she could make out.

Seconds later Akane ran down the slope, a scream of surprise and excitement coming over the communications link and much more faintly several seconds later through the air. She lifted off and zoomed out into space, the glider smoothly leaning into a right-hand spiral ascent. Soon she was at a similar altitude to her sister, who was behind her in the same circling pattern. "Oh my god," Akane kept repeating for several seconds, sounding both terrified and enormously happy.

"Calm down, Akane, you're perfectly safe," 'Yori' told her with a chuckle. "The computer will release the controls any second now. Remember what Onkra told you, and make small motions at first, those things react pretty fast even with the controls in learning mode."

A moment later the glider twitched, then rolled enthusiastically to the right, before recovering and rolling less wildly to the other side. Akane yelped, apparently taken by surprise. Nabiki watched with amusement as her sister kept over-correcting, the aircraft wiggling around in a way that made her wince a little, although she could well remember her own wild gyrations the first time she'd tried it. It only lasted about thirty or forty seconds, though, the highly-tuned reflexes of her sister quickly learning what to do.

"That looked fun," she commented when the glider settled down and flew fairly straight.

"Not quite the way I'd have put it," Akane replied with a certain amount of strain in her voice. "But it's getting better." She giggled nervously. "That's really a very long way down indeed."

"Isn't it?" Nabiki laughed. "At least three thousand metres, I'd guess."

"Please stop helping, Nabiki," her sister growled. Snickering to herself, the middle sister watched as Akane slowly got used to the controls. By the time she was flying fairly well, Shampoo had launched and was going through the same process albeit very slightly faster. A whoop of joy came over the comm system, making Nabiki grin.

"This is amazing!" Shampoo yelled. "I'm glad you persuaded me to try it, Akane."

"It's starting to grow on me," the youngest sister laughed. The two new fliers spiralled around for a while, slowly getting to grips with the controls, until Shampoo got cocky and tried a roll. It nearly worked to design, getting about three quarters of the way through it, before she lost too much airspeed and suddenly stalled, the computer catching her just as she emitted an undignified squeak of shock while nearly going into a spin. Laughing hard enough that her own glider was rocking from side to side, Nabiki matched speed and altitude with the surprised Amazon, looking over at her while wearing a wide grin.

"A little too much, too soon, I think, Shampoo," she quipped, seeing the Chinese woman glance over at her with a wry grin.

"It was pretty exciting, I have to admit," Shampoo replied, slightly embarrassed by the sound of it.

"Are you OK, Shampoo?" 'Chou' asked, sounding mildly concerned.

"I'm fine, Chou, thanks," she said, laughing slightly. "I tried running before I could walk, basically."

"Who's next?" Nabiki asked. "Come on, there's enough gliders to go around for everyone."

There was a pregnant pause, then Kimiko's voice sounded. "I think this calls for the Sano sisters. Miki? Hana?"

A few seconds passed, then Miki rather reluctantly replied, "Oh, hell, all right. I'll do it. I can hardly let Nabiki get away with something I can actually try as well." She emitted a slightly nervous chuckle.

"I... think I can do it," Hana said a moment after that, not sounding entirely sure.

"It's pretty easy, Hana, don't worry," Nabiki assured her. "The computer seems to keep everything going smoothly, Shampoo just proved it can take over if everything goes a little odd. You'll be fine. It's damn good fun as well."

After a few more words of encouragement from not only the three in the air, but Yori and Onkra, the three sisters were strapped into their own aircraft, Kimiko being the first to charge headlong down the slope towards the edge. "I have to be insane," everyone could hear her mutter, immediately before yelping in surprised shock when she took off. Her legs flailed around for a moment before Onkra reminded her to lock them up, which she immediately did. Seconds later Hana yelled something incomprehensible and followed her youngest sister, Miki sighing and doing the same as soon as the second Sano woman was airborne.

All three of them got the hang of it to one degree or another within ten minutes, proving Jyrron right from when he'd said the things were easy and designed to teach pilots how to fly. Miki was laughing almost constantly for nearly half that time, making Nabiki grin to herself. She was more than glad to be able to share some of the recent strangeness in her life with her friends and family.

Half an hour after that, everyone who had come through the portals were in the air, even Nodoka, who had taken a considerable amount of persuasion from 'Yori', 'Chou', and Soun. It turned out that the Saotome woman had a knack for flying once she got over the initial fright, picking it up very quickly and clearly enjoying it a lot. Eventually there were a couple of sets of gliders swooping around the skies, Nabiki and her sister with Shampoo, the Sano girls, John, and Tamiko in one flock, the rest in the other.

The soarers, which had been circling far above them the entire time, came down to join the formations, swapping from one to the other and yipping excitedly, before eventually falling into their familiar formation to either side of and slightly behind Nabiki, causing John to snicker. "They seem to like you, Nabiki," he commented with amusement. The middle Tendo laughed, looking across to where the young man was flying fifty metres to the right, as their group headed away from the cliff out over the plain. They were just over ten kilometres away now, and at about four thousand metres altitude.

"What can I say?" she replied. "I must have a magnetic personality, or possibly they simply recognise skill when they see it."

"Did you give them any sushi last night?" Akane asked. "It's more likely that they just think you're going to feed them." She was some distance behind, flying in slow lazy S-bends and obviously having fun.

"No, I'm sure it's the skill thing," her sister giggled.

"Of course it is." Akane sounded amused and mildly sarcastic.

"Be nice, girls," Soun advised, from some considerable distance back. He and the others were flying back and forth across the cliff area in a pattern some four kilometres wide, still getting used to the gliders.

"OK, Dad," both sisters chorused, before laughing again.

The flying session went on for over three hours. Eventually everyone headed back to the clifftop, landing one after another. Shampoo managed, somehow, to nearly end up upside down, blaming a hole in the ground she'd stepped in but which no one else could find any trace of. Grumbling a little at how no-one believed her she soon went back to grinning in excitement. "That was absolutely incredible," she announced as Jyrron and 'Yori' helped her disconnect herself from the glider. "I think I want one."

"With a little luck that might be possible eventually," 'Yori' smiled. "Azumi is working on importing various items of high-tech from Fwetna and a few other places, and she was definitely interested in these things herself."

"Why?" Miki asked with interest. "She's got her own wings!" She ducked as both soarers picked that particular moment to drop out of the sky close by, the female running over to Onkra for a head-scratch while the male looked around, then flopped onto his side with a satisfied grunt and closed his eyes in what looked all the world like pleasure. "Crazy animals," she mumbled, looking at them with affection.

"But not everyone does," Fumiko grinned. "So she thinks they'd sell all right back home."

"There are some legal issues with exporting them from here, to do with the anti-grav systems mainly, and of course there would be different legal requirements at home as well, but it's not impossible," 'Yori' added as she folded up the glider Shampoo had been flying, a brilliant scarlet one. The Amazon handed her the goggles she'd been wearing which she accepted with murmured thanks. "I don't know how long it will take though."

"We can come back easily enough at some point if any of you want another go, though," 'Chou' told them.

"I may want to take you up on that, dear," Nodoka replied, smiling gently to herself as she looked out at the view. "That was an extraordinary experience and one I'm very glad I allowed myself to be talked into. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

"I'm very happy you enjoyed it, Nodoka," the blonde told her, smiling back. "Well, I think we should go for a swim for a while, if anyone else is up for it, then I'm afraid we're going to have to get back. We can't leave our area for too long or strange things tend to happen."

They all thanked Jyrron, who was packing up the extra gliders with the aid of his friends, then with Onkra headed back to the lake. The soarers looked at each other, the male sitting up suddenly, then followed. Shortly arriving back where the portal to Minato was still crackling away, a few of the locals looking at it curiously as they walked past but not bothering to investigate, 'Yori' looked around. "So, who wants a swim?"

It turned out that practically everyone did. After a certain amount of changing of clothes most of the group were enjoying the warm water of the lake, Nodoka and Soun watching Genma, now a panda, paddling around while several passers-by had stopped and stared in mild shock. 'Chou' explained the situation to them and they eventually wandered off, although not without a few backward glances.

"Come on in, Akane, it's great," Nabiki called, watching her sister wading around in the shallows.

"You know me and deep water, 'Biki," the younger Tendo replied uncertainly, looking at the lake with extreme suspicion.

Nabiki laughed for a moment. "It's not hard, honestly." She swam back to the shallower water then stood, approaching her sister. "Right. Sit down on the bottom." After a moment, Akane did as instructed, the water coming up to her shoulders. "Lie back and lift your legs slowly, while I support you from underneath," the elder sister went on, waiting until she performed the requested action. Quickly slipping her arms under her sister, Nabiki held her up, the water taking most of her weight. "Now put your arms out to the sides, head back so you're looking straight up. Yes, like that. Keep your body flat like this, OK?"

Very slowly she lowered her arms, until her sister was floating in the water. Akane twitched a little at the lack of support. "No, don't do that or you'll sink. Stay flat." Nabiki watched with approval as Akane remained rigidly supine, looking somewhat panicked. "Just breath normally. Keep your head tipped back a little or the water will go up your nose, then you'll start coughing, which will almost certainly make you sink again."

Her eyes wide, Akane floated on the water, slowly relaxing as it became apparent to her that she was in no immediate danger of drowning. "Wow," she finally said quietly. "I've never stayed in water this long before without ending up with most of it in my lungs, except in the bath."

Nabiki grinned down at her sister. "If you get into trouble, just do what you're doing now. You can float without a lot of effort for quite a while and it lets you relax and regain your strength. As long as the waves aren't too high you'll be fine. In salt water it's even easier than this, you have more buoyancy. All right, try bringing your arms back to your sides, slowly." Akane followed the instructions, bobbling around a little but not sinking, although she did end up spluttering a bit as she managed to push a ripple of water over her face. "See? It's not hard. Now carefully open your arms out slowly, then bring them back more rapidly to that position, your hands open but your fingers together."

A few more minutes passed, as she gradually got her sister from a very simple floating paddle to a rather messy backstroke, with a lot of extraneous flailing of arms and legs. Privately she agreed that the poor girl was definitely not a natural swimmer, but overall was pretty pleased with the progress. Akane herself seemed ecstatic about having been in the water for a quarter of an hour and not yet having had to be rescued.

Both the soarers were watching from the shore with their heads cocked to the side, visibly wondering what on earth these crazy people were doing playing around in the water when they could be flying. Hana was sitting with them also watching having decided to sunbathe instead of swim. She seemed quite comfortable with the animals now, something that amused and somewhat impressed Nabiki when she looked over and waved.

After another half hour and some demonstrations by both herself and Miki, she had managed to get the younger sister started on a basic front crawl, only having to dredge her off the bottom twice. "There you go. You need to practice a lot, but that's the basic stroke. When you're happy with it we can work on improving the technique and teaching you some more but at least you should be able to get out of a swimming pool without taking half of it home in your lungs now."

Grinning happily, Akane hugged her sister. "Thanks, 'Biki. I don't know why no-one at school could ever teach me like that." She shook her head. "Sharks and boulders. The man was insane."

"Yep. Even nuttier than Kodachi, and she's about as loopy as anyone I've ever met," Nabiki giggled.

"Tell me about it," Akane sighed. "At least she doesn't go for you."

"She wouldn't dare," Nabiki assured her. "I'd yell at her again like that last time."

Now grinning, Akane pushed off into her version of a front crawl, which was fairly enthusiastic although not wildly effective, foaming and frothing her way towards where Soun was racing Onkra across an improvised course and losing badly. Nabiki watched her go, smiled to herself, then followed with her own vastly smoother and professional stroke, almost immediately catching up and passing her sister. Privately wondering what they'd do if she used her mer-form and thinking about how on earth she could eventually let them in on the secret, she swam back to where the others were sitting in the shallows talking.

"Well done, Nabiki," 'Chou' greeted her, smiling. "That seemed like a very effective lesson." Standing up in knee-deep water Nabiki looked back to see Akane slowly approaching, gradually becoming more efficient in her swimming, and nodded with satisfaction.

"I hope so. I've been meaning to get Akane at least able to not drown in a bath for years but this is the first time I've been able to help." She looked at Miki, who was grinning. "You remember I mentioned she wasn't exactly a gifted swimmer."

"Oh, trust me, I do," her friend chuckled. Beside her John had his arm around his girlfriend, watching Akane with her. He looked fairly pleased overall with the day so far, as did everyone else.

A certain amount of low-volume swearing from off to the side made everyone look over, to see Mousse on his hands and knees in shallow water, groping around on the bottom apparently looking for something. "Damn it," he muttered.

"What's the problem, Mousse?" Nodoka asked, concern apparent in her expression.

"My glasses fell off and I can't find the damn things, because without them I can't see well enough," he sighed, feeling around in the sand. "If I had them on I could see them but then I wouldn't need them."

She stood and waded over to help him look, Miki and Kimiko joining her. A few seconds later the latter stopped, a look of guilty worry going across her face. "Oops," she said quietly. Everyone turned to her. "I think I just found your glasses." Bending down she retrieved a somewhat mangled set of eyewear which she'd obviously stepped on. "Sorry about that."

Mousse took them from her, holding them close to his eyes to inspect them, then sighed again. "Oh, crap. That was the last pair I had."

"I'm really sorry, Mousse," she told him sincerely. "I'll pay for some new ones."

"It's not your fault," he assured her. "I should have been more careful. The water's cloudy here so you couldn't see them."

'Yori' watched the minor drama with a slightly amused expression, then looked at 'Chou', who nodded. She waded over to the Amazon. "There's an easier solution, Mousse. Come over here to the beach and sit down." He looked up in her general direction, puzzled, then did as directed, Kimiko hastily helping when he started to head in the wrong direction.

"Thanks," he commented, going slightly red with embarrassment. Nodoka and the others followed curiously. When Mousse was sitting down, the martial artist knelt next to him.

"Close your eyes for a moment," she said. He stared at her, shrugged, and obeyed. Putting her hands over his eyes she concentrated, the familiar purple glow appearing for ten seconds or so. "That should do it. You can open them again."

Opening his eyes Mousse blinked a few times, his expression becoming one of wonder. Holding his hand in front of his face he moved it back and forth for a second or two, a smile steadily widening, until he jumped to his feet, grabbed 'Yori', and swung her around, laughing. "Thank you," he yelled in joy. "You have no idea how much trouble that's caused me my entire life. Putting her down he suddenly seemed to realise what he'd done and looked worried.

The young woman grinned at him. "I'll allow it this time, but don't make a habit of it," she laughed. Embarrassed he scratched his nose, blushing.

"Sorry. But you really don't have any idea how much this means to me." He looked around at the scenery with literally new eyes. "I've dreamed of being able to see properly since I was about five. It's incredible."

"No problem. I should have thought of it earlier, to be honest. But it's fixed now."

"Did you really just fix his eyes just like that, so easily?" Kimiko gaped in awe. 'Yori' nodded, smiling at her.

"Yep. Eyes are a bit fiddly to rebuild from scratch but fixing the lens and the retinal issues is pretty straightforward." She nodded to Mousse, who was still looking around with a brilliant smile on his face, then wandered off, rejoining 'Chou'. Kimiko watched her go then looked at her sisters, all three of them seeming stunned.

"That was a nice thing to do," Nabiki silently said. Her current sister-in-law glanced at her with a small smile.

"Why not? It's easy enough and my problems with the guy are long in the past. We seem to be repairing all sorts of problems with the Neriman side of life at the moment, his eyes are a fairly small thing in the grand scheme of things but it means a lot to him, obviously." She looked over at Mousse who was closely inspecting the lake, still grinning like an idiot. "I can understand that, his vision was absolutely terrible. I'm kind of impressed he's managed what he has with that disability. Even the glasses wouldn't fix it all the way."

"It was still nice." Nabiki smirked a little. "I approve."

"Well, in that case I'm certain it was the right thing to do. Having the Nabiki Tendo seal of approval, I mean." 'Yori' looked at her with an eyebrow raised, nearly making her laugh out loud.

"Good. Remember, I'm always right." The middle Tendo frowned contemplatively while 'Yori' rolled her eyes, 'Chou' beside her smiling in amusement. "Except when I'm wrong, of course."

"Of course." Out loud, the martial artist said to the group at large, "We're going to have to get back in about half an hour, so we should probably get out of the lake soon."

"It's been nice seeing you all again," Onkra put in, wading out of the water to join Misaki and Fumiko on the beach, where they had been sunning themselves for the last twenty minutes, the former eating her way steadily through a packet of energy bars. Her sister was helping herself to one every now and then as well. "You should come back more often."

"It's been somewhat busy what with one thing and another," 'Chou' replied, sighing very slightly. "But we hopefully will have some more free time soon. I'd like to visit your home again, I have to admit. It's a very nice place."

Feeling a familiar ki signature approaching, Nabiki looked around to see Uthryyl strolling towards them down the beach, looking pleased with himself. He raised a hand in greeting. "Hello, everyone," he announced as he stopped next to his daughter.

"Guys, this is my friend Uthryyl, the master trader I mentioned before," 'Yori' told them, in the process going over to greet the merchant. "He's a really nice person, so be polite." Uthryyl laughed at her comment, bowing deeply for a second.

"Such an introduction! I'm honoured that the great Yori thinks so highly of me." Straightening up he looked around, his ears up in an expression of interest. "Sorry I didn't come over earlier, I was on the other side of the lake talking to some people I haven't seen for quite a time who are on holiday here. I saw your flying escapades, though, it looked impressive from down here. I haven't seen so many gliders in the air at once before."

"It was a hell of a lot of fun, actually," Tamiko chuckled, walking over to him and giving him a quick hug. "Hello, Uthryyl. How is Quannyr?"

"She's very well, thank you, Tamiko," he responded. "Business is good and she's in Krentak sorting out a new contract with a client. She should be back tomorrow morning."

"Give her my best," the red-head requested.

"I will." Looking around again, he said, "So, Yori, introduce me to your friends." Nabiki grinned internally as she knew well that the trader already knew more about everyone present than most of them would believe.

'"Good acting, Uthryyl," she sent, getting a chuckle back over the com.

"Thank you. I practice for at least an hour a day." He glanced at her with a flick of one ear.

"It wouldn't actually surprise me if you did," she giggled, which made him laugh.

Ignoring the silent conversation, 'Yori' made the introductions and gave a brief explanation of their recent exploits. Uthryyl listened with interest. "Ah, yes, Akane Tendo. I have heard quite a lot about you, my dear," he said jovially, studying the youngest Tendo sister, who looked a little overwhelmed at the comment. "Apparently you have gained the attention of a somewhat disconcerting person in recent times. My sympathies, I've met Ms Aoyama as well." He grinned in the D'Sage manner as Akane and Shampoo both shuddered a little.

"She's... not someone you forget in a hurry," Akane replied quietly. "Although I am grateful for everything she's apparently done for me."

"You're just not in a great rush to meet her again," Uthryyl suggested knowingly. She nodded quickly.

"Not at all. She's... a bit scary."

"My dear Akane, she's one of the most horrifying people I've ever met, believe me, so I understand your feelings well." Uthryyl laughed, catching Nabiki's eye with a quick sly glance. "But, I believe, at heart a decent person."

Turning to Nabiki while Akane appeared mildly worried for a while, looking around with sudden paranoia, he went on, "I have also heard about you, Nabiki. An economics student with an interest in commerce, from what I hear. Something I also have a deep liking for."

She nodded, noticing that 'Chou' was hiding a laugh. 'Yori' snorted with amusement. "You should spend some time talking to her, Uthryyl, she might be a good contact for further trading opportunities on our world."

"I'm open to negotiations," Nabiki grinned. "And always ready to make a good deal."

Uthryyl narrowed his eyes at her, making her grin more widely. "I see. A woman after my own heart." After a moment he nodded. "Yes, I think we should probably talk again at some point. It's not impossible that even a lowly economics student would have some good ideas."

Soun, who was listening with interest, burst out laughing at the dry comment, placing his arm around his middle daughter's shoulders as she put a comically offended expression on her face. "She's young, but I have no doubt she will learn fast. I have faith in my daughters." Uthryyl studied her then slowly nodded again.

"Possibly. I believe I can see promise there."

"You're just being gratuitously annoying now, you know," she told him silently, laughing inside even while on the outside she frowned.

"Of course. We find our entertainment where we can, Nabiki," he chuckled.

A little later, Soun and Nodoka were talking with Uthryyl, both apparently finding him very interesting. The others were scattered around in small groups, slowly drying themselves and getting dressed. Nabiki was sitting on the local version of grass just off the beach with Miki next to her, both of them watching everyone else. The male soarer had wandered over and dropped onto his side near her, looking at her longingly, so she reached out and stroked his head, privately very pleased that for some reason they hadn't acted like they normally did when she was around. Miki grinned at her as he made a faint yip of pleasure.

"They really do seem to like you," she said. "They're very friendly animals considering that Chou told us they're not actually tame or anything. And what they look like."

Nabiki nodded. "I think they're kind of cute in a slightly worrying way." She tickled the male behind his ear, making him stretch his head out like a happy cat. "Although they're certainly rather large for housepets."

"That doesn't seem to stop them trying," Onkra laughed, sitting down on the other side of the supine soarer, which opened one eye, looked at her, then closed it again. "Mom is always chasing them out. If you leave the door open they'll be inside in seconds. I'm pretty sure that they know how to open the doors as well, I found both of them on my bed a few days ago and I'm certain I closed the door on the way out."

"You must have a pretty big bed if both of them could get on it," Miki giggled. Onkra flicked her ears.

"It's quite large, yes, but you couldn't actually see it under a pair of mostly grown soarers." She shook her head in wonder. "I've noticed that some of the other soarers around the place have started coming closer since these guys turned up. I'm a little worried that one day I'll come home and find the entire house full of the things. Mom would go totally nuts about that."

Nabiki and Miki exchanged glances, then fell over laughing at the thought. "That could be awkward," Miki said, grinning.

"More than a little," Onkra sighed, rubbing the soarer's head absently. He was making little squeaking sounds of delight.

Eventually everyone was dressed again, various bags and the like packed away with damp towels and swimsuits. Heading back to where 'Chou' had left the portal, they stopped while 'Yori' produced another one next to it. She turned to them. "That's leading back to the Tendo Dojo. I'm going to have to go back to Minato now, but it was very nice seeing you guys again and a lot of fun as well."

"Thank you very much for doing all this for us," Nodoka replied with a happy smile. "It was the perfect afternoon from my point of view, one I will treasure for years."

"You're more than welcome, Nodoka." The black-haired girl smiled at the woman who had no idea she was talking to her own offspring. Nabiki watching, wondering what the auburn-haired woman would say if she knew with some inner bemusement. It was becoming apparent to her that the day of revelation, at least in part, was steadily drawing nearer. She wasn't sure if that was good or bad yet, but it seemed inevitable with the way in which the Minato branch of her family was becoming more and more involved with the Nerima branch. All of it ultimately because of her in a way.

"It will work out, sister," 'Chou' said from where she was standing near Fumiko by the portal to Minato. The blonde looked at her, obviously having picked up on her thoughts somehow. "Trust in the fact that family bonds are strong, and we have a good one despite past issues. It's not quite time yet but it's getting there faster than I expected."

"I still have no idea how we can actually tell them," Nabiki admitted.

"Neither do I, yet, but I'm sure it will happen eventually. At the rate things seem to have improved over the summer it might not even require the security spell." 'Chou' smiled gently at nothing in particular. "I would so dearly love to be able to talk to father again as myself. Well, my original self." She giggled quietly. "I seem to have many selves these days, all equally real."

"Maiko and Rika need to visit soon, Auntie was talking about them a little while ago. She likes them." Nabiki snickered.

"Of course she does, they're nice people," 'Yori' commented with a laugh. "I know them both well."

"Idiot." She smirked at the other woman.

The martial artist sent her a look of amusement, before turning back to Uthryyl, who had come over to say goodbye. "It was nice seeing you again, Uthryyl. I'll be back soon, I have a lot of things to talk about, but for now I guess we'll be on our way."

"I look forward to your next visit with anticipation," Uthryyl told her gravely, although the tip of his tail was twitching.

"Come on, everyone, let's go home," Nodoka announced, smiling at Uthryyl and Onkra, then at the collection of magical girls. She waved, before disappearing into the portal. The others trailed after her, calling goodbyes to those remaining behind, until only Nabiki and Akane were standing and looking around.

"This was amazing, 'Biki," Akane said in a low voice. "I'm glad you pushed me into trying the gliding, and thanks for the swimming lessons as well."

"Any time, sis," Nabiki grinned. She waved to 'Yori' and the other girls, smiled at Onkra and her father, watched the soarers who were chasing each other around the portals for a moment, then followed her sister home again. It had been a good afternoon, definitely.

"That went well," Onkra said once the first portal had collapsed. She turned to the disguised Ranma. "I like your mother, she seems very nice."

"She is, to be honest," 'Yori' smiled. "I do miss her, although I still remember all the problems. That said, she seems to have changed a lot since those days. Even Genma seems less... well, Genma, in some ways. He might eventually grow up into a real human." She shook her head slightly as the others laughed. "I'll never be able to trust him the way I should, too much water under the bridge for that, but at least I'm slowly becoming able to stand being near him without wanting to leave the room."

Putting her arm around her husband, 'Chou' smiled down at her. "We understand, dear, and there's no pressure. We'll deal with revealing ourselves to them when you decide you're ready."

"Are you ready?" the martial artist asked curiously. The blonde woman thought for a moment, then sighed.

"Mostly, yes, I think. There are still problems and we shouldn't rush into it, certainly, but... Perhaps sometime in the next year at the rate things are improving?"

'Yori' looked slightly dubious but eventually nodded slowly. "It's not impossible. We'll see how things go. With Ukyo safely married that will be one less problem, definitely."

Onkra looked curious. "What about Shampoo and Akane?"

"Akane is certainly a hell of a lot easier to deal with these days," 'Yori' grinned. "If I'd met the woman who was swimming badly in the lake for the first time today, I think I'd really like her. Shampoo too, and even Mousse. I guess that's growing up for you. People change, some for the better, some not. Those guys are all improved more than I'd have thought possible based on the past."

"I expect at least part of it is due to your own maturity," Uthryyl chuckled. "From what you've told me over the years you yourself were somewhat... quick to take offence when younger."

'Yori' looked embarrassed as her friends all smiled at her. "Well, yes, that's true. I'll admit that I definitely didn't help sometimes. Although I still say most of the time someone else started it!"

Several people laughed, making her grin. "We all got better. Anyway, time to go." She turned to Onkra. "You should come and stay for a while soon, perhaps next week if you can free up a month or so. I need to see where you've gotten to with your training, then show you some more advanced katas. Nabiki needs to get back to it as well, and I have Ami, Rei, and Hotaru to start off as well."

Smiling, Onkra nodded. She looked at her father for a moment. "I should be free in a few days for a reasonable period of time. I'd certainly like to come and visit."

"It's fine with me," Uthryyl assured his daughter. "Perhaps we can combine it with delivering a pair of fusion reactors. Nabiki seemed quite keen on getting on with that now the paperwork is sorted out."

"The PSIA is as well, so that sounds like a good idea," 'Yori' mused, rubbing her chin. "We'll have to talk about that soon." She looked up. "Right. See you two later." Turning to the soarers who had stopped running around and were now sitting nearby watching with curiosity, she firmly added, "Stay!"

Both Onkra and her father laughed as the animals looked disappointed, their heads drooping, while the six humans walked through the portal, which immediately dissipated. "That was fun," she said when they were alone.

"Yes, it was," he replied, smiling. "Come on, let's go and find something to eat." Picking up her glider which had been packed away completely she accompanied him back to the car.

Sitting outside in the now-cooler evening air after a good dinner, Miki leaned back in her chair and looked up at the first stars which were just coming out, before turning to her two sisters who were talking quietly near the pond and drinking a little wine. "This has been one of the strangest weekends I've ever had," she announced firmly.

Kimiko stared at her, her glass at her lips, then lowered it slowly. "One of the strangest? What sort of parties do you normally go to, if this is only one of the strangest weekends you've ever had?" she asked incredulously. Hana, beside her, began laughing, looking at them both.

Thinking about it, Miki finally nodded agreement. "OK, you're right, sis, it's the strangest weekend. Fair enough."

"Was it fun, though?" John asked from her other side, where he'd been relaxing with his eyes closed. She glanced at him with a smile, seeing he was still apparently asleep.

"Oh, yes, so much fun. I can't believe how much."

He smiled to himself, opening his eyes and rolling his head towards her. "So you're glad you became friends with Nabiki then, I guess."

"Very glad. She's not only a really nice person but she knows all these weird other people. I mean, magical girls?" She laughed. "Normally, you'd be pretty impressed if someone you knew could introduce you to a decent band, but magical girls of all things? Never mind her sister, the Amazons, and everything else."

"Like I've said before, Japan is crazy, and that Tendo woman is one of the crazier things in it," he snickered. Reaching down he felt around until he found his beer bottle, lifting it and taking a drink before putting it back. "Nice, but totally nuts. The way that she just accepts all this and simply looks completely unsurprised is... not at all normal, like I said. But everyone around here is like that to one level or another."

"I suppose if you grow up with it you don't think of it as all that weird," Hana put in. "OK, so the magic and everything is pretty new from what I've heard, but the crazy martial arts things aren't and they're nearly as odd." She looked around the garden, before waving at the claw-marks still visible in the lawn as mute evidence that something unusual had recently happened. "Although that has got to be a little strange even around here."

They all nodded, none of them disputing the fact. "I always heard Nerima was different from almost everywhere else but I never realised quite how different," Hana added, finishing off her wine and putting the glass down.

"I suspect that unless you actually experience it you'd never believe it," John chuckled.

"True. Very true."

They fell into a companionable silence for a while. Eventually, Kimiko asked, "Where is everyone else, anyway?"

"Mousse went home, still grinning like a lunatic, Shampoo and Akane I think are in the Dojo practising from what Nodoka said, she went to return some pans she'd borrowed from a friend and took Genma with her, and Soun and Nabiki were talking about something to do with money a while ago," Miki replied. "Nabiki said she'd be out a little later but to just relax until then."

"Fine by me," her boyfriend mumbled, almost asleep by this point. "It's been a long day."

Some time later, Nabiki came out of the house carrying a bottle of wine in one hand and some more glasses in the other, walking over and sitting in a garden chair between Hana and Kimiko. "Sorry about that, I was helping Dad with some household accounts stuff. He seems to think that just because I've been doing a degree in economics I should be his accountant."

"Which, of course, you can do with your eyes shut."

"Well, yes, but he's not supposed to realise that." She grinned when Miki snickered. Extracting the cork from the bottle with a corkscrew she took from her pocket, she filled three glasses, then topped up Hana's and Kimiko's. Handing a pair of them to Miki and John, she looked at hers for a moment, then raised it.

"To a damn good party, with some interesting friends," she toasted with a small grin. Laughing, the others did the same, all tapping their glasses together then drinking. "Oh, I nearly forgot. Hang on, I'll be right back." She put the glass down then jumped to her feet and dashed back inside the house.

The four people left behind exchanged curious glances, before returning their attention to the middle Tendo as she came back outside carrying a cardboard box. Sitting down again she put it on her knees, looking around at each of them in turn with a sneaky smile. "I had some free time on Friday so I called a friend and talked for a while," she began, slowly opening the box, then putting her hands inside. "She was good enough to give me..." She lifted a couple of brightly coloured boxes with transparent fronts out of the larger one and displayed them with a grin, "...these."

Hana sucked in a breath sufficiently hard that she ended up coughing in surprise, while Miki's eyes widened to a level that it almost hurt, a rush of acquisitiveness shooting through her instantly. Both sisters stared in wonder, then looked at each other. "So, who wants Yori and who wants Chou?" Nabiki asked with a wide smirk. John sighed as his girlfriend leapt to her feet, her elder sister just as fast, then nearly crushed the Tendo woman in their rush to approach. He looked at Kimiko and rolled his eyes, making her giggle.

"Me!" shouted both Sano sisters simultaneously. They glared at each other.

Laughing, Nabiki waved the action figures in their boxes around just out of reach. "Only one each. Decide politely or I'll let your parents do it for you." She looked over at John, then towards Kimiko. "Would one of you ask them if I give these to you?"

"Of course, Nabiki," Kimiko agreed, grinning. "You can trust me to keep them safe until Dad makes a ruling. He might even keep them for himself, because they're pretty rare from what I understand."

"NOOO!" Hana wailed, grabbing at one of the boxes. "Don't let him steal them from me."

"Us, you mean, Hana," Miki snapped, before flushing as Nabiki grinned at her.

"Girls, girls," the middle Tendo said calmly. "We can work this out. John? Do you have a hundred yen coin?"

"I do indeed, Nabiki," he smiled, producing one from his pocket

"Right then. Hana? Heads it's Yori, tails it's Chou. That seems fair to me." Both sisters stared at each other for several seconds with narrowed eyes then reluctantly nodded.

Balancing the coin on his thumb, John watched them stare at it for a couple of seconds, shook his head sadly, then flipped it, catching it in his other hand and slapping it down on the garden table. "Are you sure we should be enabling them like this?" he asked Nabiki, not moving his hand.

Miki glared at him, annoyed. "Move your hand, John," she growled.

"But it's feeding your problem!" he protested, making both Kimiko and Nabiki giggle.

"Move your damn hand or... or... I'll think of something horrible later. Just move it!"

Grinning, he did as requested, to reveal the reverse side of the coin. "Tails."

Nabiki handed the Chou doll to Hana who grabbed it so fast it nearly disappeared from sight. "You're welcome," the Tendo woman joked. Hana flushed.

"Sorry. Thank you very, very much, Nabiki. And your friend."

"It's not a problem, Hana," Nabiki grinned. She turned to Miki who was waiting beside her, her hands itching, and handed her the Yori box. "And here you go as well. A pleasure doing business with you both."

The sisters inspected their new possessions with wide smiles, then looked at each other's figurines as well. "It's wonderful, Nabiki, thanks a lot for this," Miki finally said, feeling very happy again.

"Enjoy them. Remember, you can't sell them legally, but other than that, have fun." The brunette looked amused as the two sat back down cuddling their action figures. "You could take them out and play with them if you want."

"I'm not six any more, Nabiki," Miki said with amused asperity.

"Open the box!? Are you insane?" Hana yelped at the same time, then looked slightly embarrassed when the others stared at her. Subsiding she held the box close to her chest, grinning in a slightly deranged manner than made Kimiko laugh and sigh simultaneously.

"I still think I was adopted, you know," she remarked, finishing her wine.

"Got a quick job for you, Nabs," Ranma's voice said in her head as Nabiki was getting ready for bed, at just after midnight. She sighed faintly, looking over to where Akane was sleeping peacefully having dropped into her own bed nearly an hour ago.


"Call her Nabs!" several voices chorused on the com, making her grin. Ranma laughed a little.

"What sort of job?" she queried. He explained, making her grin widen, then become rather dark.

"Oh, yes, please let me do that," she sniggered in a manner that would make those who knew her take a step back and look worried. "I'll be ready for a pickup in the usual spot in about two minutes."

"I'm on my way," Aiko told her. Quickly putting her shirt back on she ran a hand through her hair, checked that everyone was asleep with a quick scan, then snuck downstairs and out the back door, closing it silently behind her. Checking once more she hopped through the gap in the wall and headed for the alley. Seconds later it was empty.

Putting the last of her supplies away in a warded cupboard, Cologne finished cleaning her workroom, running a damp rag over the bench she'd recently used. She slowly became aware that the back of her neck was getting cold, scratching it for a moment before suddenly freezing mid-motion. 'Oh, hell,' she thought nervously. A couple of seconds passed while she stared at the bench, before reluctantly turning around.

"Greetings, Elder Cologne," Ms Aoyama said politely, in a manner that probably passed as friendly in whatever eldrich dimension she claimed as home. Feeling her guts clench, the Amazon wondered fatalistically what on earth the horrible woman-thing wanted this time. Not to mention how the hell she managed to wander back and forth through her wards, which she'd beefed up considerably since the last time, with no apparent effect or problem.

"Hello, Ms Aoyama," she replied, equally politely albeit somewhat less evenly than she was really happy with. "What can I help you with today?"

"I wish to request a minor consideration I am reliably informed you have sufficient expertise to provide," the green-haired woman told her calmly. "It has come to my attention, Elder Cologne, that you possess a considerable proficiency with summoning circles and rituals, a field of study that is somewhat unconventional amongst the magically capable denizens of your world. My employers find themselves requiring such expertise locally and are amenable to providing suitable recompense for your time and effort if you would be good enough to accommodate them in this matter."

"You need a summoning circle?" Cologne asked with interest and a certain amount of slightly horrified wonder. What in the name of the gods could someone like her be summoning? The woman nodded once.

"That is correct, Elder Cologne."

"May I ask why?"

"You may."

Ms Aoyama waited silently and patiently.

After a short pause, Cologne sighed to herself, making very sure that it wasn't audible, and politely added, "Why do you need a summoning circle?" She was fairly certain the answer would be the normal, rather unnerving "That information is unavailable," and was therefore pleasantly surprised when Ms Aoyama did indeed explain in some detail. The ancient woman started cackling.

"Oh, my," she chuckled. "Yes, of course I'll help, I'd be happy to."

"Your assistance in this matter is appreciated. Your file will be updated appropriately." Ms Aoyama looked, as far as she could tell, pleased. Cologne stopped laughing for a moment, wondering what that fairly worrying statement actually meant, then shrugged, deciding there was nothing she could do about it anyway, and started poking through her supplies to find the right materials.

"This is a little extreme even under the circumstances," she said over her shoulder.

"It was felt that a demonstration of unmistakable intent was required due to the potential severity of the recent regrettable occurrence," Ms Aoyama replied in her chilly tones. "I am confident that such an approach will impress upon the individual in question that such acts in future will bring somewhat more vigorous response and therefore provide a more effective restraint on less than ideally competent overenthusiasm in the field of magical rituals than a mere verbal warning would."

Privately thinking that a verbal warning from Ms Aoyama would probably be sufficient to stop practically anything up to and including a volcano erupting, Cologne nodded her understanding. If nothing else it was a damn good practical joke. She wondered if whatever it actually was that was standing behind her radiating cold knew that. Or cared.

"I'm ready," she finally announced, putting the last of the materials into a bag and picking up up.

"Excellent. Ms Aiko awaits outside to provide transportation to the remaining actor in our small presentation," Ms Aoyama, turning to the door. Cologne followed, smiling a little to herself. This promised to be entertaining. For her, anyway.

The poor sod who had attracted the wrath of the green-haired horror silently descending the stairs in front of her was entirely another matter.

Hikaru lay in bed reading his latest acquisition, a scroll that reeked of alien magic, which he'd traded the coffee for to another weirdly odd person in the middle of Minato. It was written in some very strange looking language, not the same as the book he'd used recently, but had a translation in archaic English of all things attached to it, which he was slowly puzzling his way through. He was also wishing that he'd paid more attention in school as he did so. Picking up his notebook he added to the notes he'd made already, then retrieved a Japanese-English dictionary and leafed through it.

"Oh. It means 'triangle'," he mumbled, blinking tiredly at the scroll and making some more notes. "Weird. OK, that doesn't make a lot of sense, but..."

A few minutes passed silently, until he sniffed. A second later he sniffed again, then looked around, puzzled. "Why can I smell burning?" he said out loud. Dropping the scroll he leaned over the side of his bed, his eyes widening. There was a line of blueish light forming a circle around the entire bed. As he watched in awed horror, the line expanded in width, cryptic symbols in red fire appearing above it and slowly circling around him. The smell of wood smoke strengthened.

"What the hell is that?" he squeaked in shock. The entire thing had taken only four or five seconds to appear. Diving off the bed towards the door, he yelped in pain as he bounced off an immaterial barrier at the edge of the circle, recoiling onto the bed again.

"Ow." Staring wildly around while holding his abused nose in his hand, he noticed that the symbols were circling faster. They sped up to a blur, then a horrible sensation of falling went through him, everything going dark for a moment. When the light came back he looked around, then recoiled in shock.

"Uh oh."

"Indeed, Mr Gosunkugi. That is most certainly an appropriate sentiment."

He stared in horror at the woman in the expensive-looking suit who was inspecting him with an air of cold interest, then looked wildly about himself again. He was still sitting on his bed, but that bed wasn't in his room, it was instead apparently now located on a flat sandy surface lit by half a dozen ghostly spheres of pale red light floating above him. Past them he could see stars.

In addition to the woman with green hair and, now that he looked more carefully, pointed ears, who was for some reason wearing sunglasses despite the near-darkness, he saw the figure of that ancient little Chinese woman who was balancing on the end of her long staff staring at him. A little further around the circle was the most disconcerting one of all, a tall shape covered in fine blue scales standing on legs that ended in hooves, wearing black leather and not a lot of it. Apparently female yet very obviously not at all human, this one was looking at him in a manner that made him think she was working out the best cuts as if he was a beef cow.

When she met his eyes with her own inhuman ones, she licked her lips with a long forked tongue which slipped past sharp teeth for a moment, then vanished again.

"Who... who are you?" he managed to ask, clutching at the bedclothes.

"I, Mr Gosunkugi, am Ms Aoyama. You will of course recognise Elder Cologne of the Joketsuzoku Amazon tribe, currently resident in Nerima as are you. My other companion is Arch-mage Zythra'a, a colleague from... elsewhere. She would like discuss the recent events you precipitated with an overambitious yet unfortunately misplaced attempt at a summoning ritual." The blue-scaled female demon was watching him unblinkingly, and with extremely worrying attention.

She said something in a very disturbing sounding language, full of hissing sibilants, which made him quail. He was sure that even Cologne, who before right now he'd have put down as one of the scariest people he'd run into, quivered a little at the sound. Ms Aoyama listened, then replied in the same language. "Arch-mage Zythra'a would like me to inform you that your... uniquely... modified ritual of summoning caused unacceptable interference to delicate operations she was in the process of performing, and to impress upon you the importance of ceasing such activities forthwith. Furthermore, she requested that I relay the information that repeating such interference may attract a response which you would find somewhat upsetting."

The scaly demoness hissed something else, Ms Aoyama cocking her head a little as she listened, then nodding her understanding. "My apologies, Mr Gosunkugi. I misspoke. Please replace the word 'upsetting' in the previous utterance with 'fatal'. Do you understand her warning as stated?"

Hikaru went even paler than he had been for the last couple of minutes, which was already more pallid than healthy or normal. He nodded jerkily. "Yes," he managed to say, his heart hammering in his chest.

"Excellent. I assume, therefore, that you will comply with Arch-mage Zythra'a's request?"

"Yes," he squeaked through a tight throat.

"I am most appreciative of your cooperation in this matter, Mr Gosunkugi. Additionally, to ensure that there is no further misunderstanding, I would request that you deliver all documentation you may have utilised in your recent magical experimentation to Elder Cologne at your convenience." The tone implied very strongly that 'at his convenience' meant 'immediately, if not sooner.' Once again, he nodded.

"First thing in the morning." His voice was scratchy and weak.

"Again, excellent. Well done, Mr Gosunkugi. My apologies for interrupting your activities but the matter at hand was deemed sufficiently important that an immediate action was required. Our business is now concluded. Farewell." She stepped back, moving to stand beside the blue demoness, who was still staring at him with a look that made him want to hide under the bedclothes.

Cologne hopped closer on her staff, looking hard at him, then over her shoulder at the two alien women. "I'd take that advice seriously, my lad. I don't know about the Arch-mage, I've never met her before, but Ms Aoyama..." She shuddered. "Trust me, you don't want her annoyed at you."

"I'll be good," he whispered.

"Good. Read about magic all you want, but don't try rituals like that again, they're likely to attract all the wrong sort of attention. Come see me in a couple of years if you're still interested in the subject and we'll see what we can do about it."

He nodded, after which she mumbled a few words in Chinese and drew some symbols in the air with her finger. The falling sensation came again, blackness following instantly.

Arriving outside the Café again, Cologne turned to Ms Aoyama, who was standing next to Aiko. The magical girl had dropped them off in what she said was a desert in the middle of Australia, then picked them up again after she'd reversed the summoning circle and sent the Gosunkugi boy home once more.

Grinning a little, she said, "All things considered that was more fun than it should have been. A little intimidation is always good for a laugh."

"I am pleased to have brought a certain quantity of entertainment into your life, Elder Cologne," Ms Aoyama stated, a very faint air of amusement underlying her words. "It is to be hoped that Mr Gosunkugi accepts the warning he was given. My employers do not wish to be required to take further action against him although I have no doubt that should it become necessary such measures would be authorised." A tiny and chilling smile accompanied this comment.

"I'm interested in seeing what on earth led him to working out such a botched summoning circle in the first place," Cologne remarked after she'd finished shivering at that horrible smile. "I assume you'll want the paperwork he delivers?"

"That is indeed correct, although I am willing to allow you some time to study the documentation for your own edification. I will return in one week to collect it."

"Thank you." Cologne was genuinely grateful, the boy had managed to do something that strictly speaking he shouldn't have been able to and she was very curious to find out how.

"I must take my leave, Elder Cologne, I have other activities which require my attention." Ms Aoyama held out her hand, on which a ten centimetre metal cube was now sitting, of a colour that Cologne recognised with shock. "As promised, recompense for your efforts. Your aid in this matter is noted with gratitude."

Taking the offered, astoundingly heavy, solid gold block, Cologne stared at it for several seconds. When she looked up both Aiko and the creepy alien woman were gone. She hadn't even noticed the flash.

"Thank you, Ms Aoyama," she said anyway, just in case, before going back into the Café and yet again locking the door very carefully, resetting the wards and wondering if there was actually any way to keep the woman out. Gold or no gold, she found her more than a little uncomfortable to be around.

Blinking, Hikaru stared at the ceiling of his room, before suddenly sitting bolt upright on his bed. Frantically turning his head he looked around. All he could see was his bedroom.

"Oh, thank god, it was only a dream," he mumbled, dropping back onto his pillow and sighing in relief.

A couple of minutes later he decided he need a drink of water and got out of bed, managing two steps towards the door before he froze, stopping dead in his tracks. Then, very very slowly, he turned his gaze downwards to see the perfect circle of reddish sand that his bed was in the middle of, before swallowing hard.

"Oh, dear," he sighed, as he felt blackness take him yet again. This time it was something of a relief.

Nabiki kept giggling to herself for some time after she finally got to bed. It had been a very interesting day.