# MGH Part 33: Truth and Consequences

There was a silence.  A long, long silence.

"Probably," I replied, having found my voice again.  Of all the things I
had the foggiest clue what might be in Ramsbottom's wallet.  But if I'd had
a good long time to think about it, even if I'd had Lovely
Rhyme-and-Reason's Ultra Exam power still making me analyse at superhuman
levels, and been given a few subtle hints for good measure, I'm sure I
wouldn't have guessed that Ramsbottom would have a driver's license with my
name on it.

To judge by their reactions, neither would anybody else.  "YOUR name?" Aika
repeated incredulously after I explained.

"So it seems," Veracity noted, her musical voice a little less musical than
usual due to extreme shock.

"So what's it mean?" said Itami.  The tone in his voice would have sufficed
for 'faint concern' with anybody else, but anybody who knew Itami knew that
that much animation in his tone was reserved for shocks of the sort that
would have anybody else chewing on the carpet.

"As far as I'm concerned," I said after a moment, "there's only one thing
it can mean."  They all looked at me expectantly; Itami raised an eyebrow.
I paused significantly, pondering how best to say it, then realised that
said pondering was probably yet another aftereffect of the power of a
certain not-so-Lovely and soon to be dead magical schoolteacher.  So I
shrugged and said it straight out.

"Absolutely nothing."

----------
Improfanfic Presents
Magical Girl Hunters
Part 33
Truth and Consequences

Original Concept By Aaron Shattuck
This Segment By Chris McNeil
----------

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: This chapter of MGH contains everything you've come
to expect from Blade, except for Tarou.  And with the fresh taste of a
certain tangy citrus fruit, which -nobody- would expect from Blade.  You
have been warned.

********

Itami didn't even blink before nodding and sitting back in his chair.  Not
surprising, given that he knew me almost as well as I knew myself.
Veracity just looked confused, which was good.  Good, that is, because Aika
was making enough noise for all three of them and if anybody else had been
talking I'd never have got a word in edgewise.

Not that I didn't understand how Aika felt.  A couple of months ago, I
would have been worried too, about dark plots, conspiracies, and evil
bogeymen ready to jump out at me at any time.  But that was the old Yoi.
This was the new Yoi, the proactive, confident Yoi, the Yoi who had learned
to reserve his paranoia for when it was warranted.

"Look," I jumped in as Aika paused to take a breath, "I get what you're
saying.  But think about it for a minute.  Whatever's going on with
Ramsbottom isn't affecting me right now, so I can ask him the next time he
shows up.  And besides, what could it mean?  That he's me from the future
or something?  Hey, if I ever start talking and dressing like that, I'm
-begging- any of you to shoot me.  Really."

There was another silence, this time broken by Matsura, who had been
quietly watching what went on for the last few minutes.

"Well, Yoi, I must say that isn't quite the reaction I would have expected
out of you."

I shrugged again.  "Hey, going through what I've gone through's taught me a
couple of things, and one of the biggest is to worry about what's happening
right now.  Other stuff just gives me a headache, and I've never been able
to get the jump on it anyway."  Of course, there was this nagging little
voice in my mind saying that I was making a big mistake by ignoring this,
but I ignored it too.  It wasn't like I -didn't- have other things to worry

"Well then," Matsura said, nodding, "what about the thing that -is- your
current problem?  Do you think you can believe what Ramsbottom said about
Nazo?"

"Too easy," Itami grunted.

I nodded, understanding his point.  "I can believe she was actually Ultra's
flunky, not pulling the strings like she wanted me to believe.  But there's
more to it than that.  You heard what Mai said; she's shaking up things,
and nobody seems to know what's going on about her, her organization, and
her plans.  I think she may be the flunky for someone else now."

"Not to mention how she handled Ramsbottom," Aika added, apparently
agreeing with my take on the situation.  "I mean, he's the same guy who
stops time and stuff."

Veracity pursed her lips, an action which immediately got her my complete
and undivided attention.  "She's right.  Ramsbottom is not a major mover in
the circles I've worked with, but he can't really be considered a pushover,
either.  Certainly no minor servant of Ultra should have been able to harm
him like that."

"How much do you know about Ramsbottom?" I asked.  "Or Akari Nazo, for that
matter?"

She shook her head apologetically.  "Not that much, as I said.  Ramsbottom
was associated with the Balancers off and on, but he mostly pursues his own
agenda.  He was never important enough for us to thoroughly investigate.
And as for Akari Nazo..." she shrugged, which -definitely- had my complete
attention, "he's right about her being a servant of Ultra, but in what
capacity I don't know, nor what she's been up to since his recall from this
plane."

"Which doesn't leave you any further ahead," said Matsura, a hint of
amusement in her voice.  Guess she hadn't completely forgiven me yet.  "So
now what?"

"I look into other sources of info," I replied.  "And keep an eyes open for
a good opportunity to blow her brains out."  I didn't mention that I
already had a certain somebody searching for another source of info; no
need to let everyone in on my plans, much less somebody who HAD, after all,
been making threats in my direction not so long ago.  Okay, so maybe I was
still pretty paranoid.  You had to be, in my line of work.

"Probably a good idea," Matsura noted, still sounding amused.  She rose as
if preparing to leave, but then Veracity gave a loud cough, and she looked
over.  Matsura stared at her for a moment as if seeing her for the first
time, then gave a double-take.  "Why, Vera!  In all the excitement, I
hadn't even noticed that was you.  Since when have you been working for
this rag-tag group?"

I'd never heard Veracity's musical voice turn itself to dry sarcasm before.
She pulled it off surprisingly well, but then I was fairly sure she could
pull off ANYTHING pretty damn well(the more of it, the better).  Ah...not
that I mentioned this observation to Aika.  "Since Yoi rescued me from
being caught in the middle of nowhere, and agreed to provide me with
these."  She gestured at the television and piles of newspapers and
magazines around her desk.

Matsura actually had the grace to look embarrassed.  "You'll have to
forgive me for that.  Budget cuts, and all..."

"I never noticed how that stopped things when you required funds for your
activities, including those not officially sponsored by the group."

"Err...well..."

While listening to Veracity disassemble Matsura was definitely on the high
end of entertaining, after a moment I tuned them out in favour of trying to
sort out what we'd discovered.  That any kind of thoughts could distract me
from anything Veracity was doing was a measure of how concerned I was, I
guess.

The problem with Akari Nazo was that I just didn't really know anything
about her, and what little I did know was contradictory.  Now that I
thought back on it, I realised that while she'd told a lot about her plans
past and present at the restaurant-and just about all of that information
was suspect anyway-she'd pretty carefully avoided giving me any information
about herself.  And neither Ramsbottom, Mai, or Veracity seemed to know
much either.  I'd have given just about anything to know some concrete
information about who she really was or what she wanted.

I suppose, given all the past experience I had just been bragging about, I
should have known better than to think something like that.  But then, I
might've thought better of it, if I hadn't been interrupted by Veracity by
that point.

"Yoi?"

"Huh?"

"Would you mind if I took the rest of the night off?  Matsura has been
generous enough to offer to take me out to dinner.  And shopping.  And a
few other things I've been meaning to get around to."

"Uh...sure, I guess."  Hell, why not?  Veracity had literally never left
the office since she arrived; if anybody deserved a vacation, it was her.
Of course, I'd miss how much she improved the decor, but it was about time
I knocked off for the day anyway.  Besides, after a look at Matsura's
definite mental reminder to never piss Veracity off if I could help it.

The two walked out the door, Matsura holding Veracity's statue, the two
chattering fairly amiably about, as far as I could tell, the last
millennium or so of events in their lives.  Being around supernatural
beings could get downright disturbing at times.

It was only a moment after the door clicked shut that I noticed Itami was
also gone, apparently having slipped out at some point when I was
distracted.  Looking for H, or just brooding?  Hard to say with him, maybe
both.  I was just thinking I might head after him, when I suddenly realised
what situation the two departures left me in.

Alone with Aika.

I looked at her.  She looked at me.  After a couple of moments, she got up
and moved closer to me.  "So, is that what you really think about the
Ramsbottom thing?"

"Pretty much," I replied.  There was a few more minutes of silence, during
which I got a little uncomfortable at the intense look in her eyes.
Somehow, I didn't think that look had much to do with Nigel Ramsbottom, in
any capacity.

I was right.  Suddenly throwing herself down beside me, she stared up at
me.  I was acutely conscious of her body next to mine.  She was trembling
slightly, though with nervousness or...something else, I couldn't tell.
"Yoi, about what we were discussing the other day..."

She didn't need to remind me of which 'discussion'.  "Don't you have to get
back home before your curfew?" I interrupted, maybe a little too hastily.
Well hell, this was certainly bringing the reasons for that curfew to mind.

She shook her head.  "Nah, I convinced Mom and Dad I'd be safe as long as I
stayed in my...other form all the time.  Which I'd have to do to fight
evil, of course."

Nothing like parents who put fighting evil on a higher level than possible
danger to their daughter's virtue.  Of course, the biggest danger to their
daughter's virtue was coming mostly from their daughter.  And me, as I was
forcefully reminded as she sidled even closer to me.  Her face was so close
to mine now that I could feel the warmth of her breath, smell the faint
intermingled scent of sweat and shampoo from her hair.  It wasn't a bad
scent, really.  Not exotic perfume, like I remembered Reika, but something
plainer, simpler, and yet somehow very vital.  Alive.

Remembering Reika reminded me pretty forcefully of all the problems with
this.  I took a deep breath, and tried again.  "Look, I don't think we
should..."

This time it was her turn to interrupt me.  "You remember, Yoi.  You
remember what it was like.  Was that kiss really so bad?  Really?"

I started to say something, to make another excuse, but then I -did-
shown up, it had been at least as good as any other kiss I'd gotten.  That
wasn't a huge amount, admittedly, but it still made the prospect of another
one not so unappealing.  Besides, it was just a kiss.

So I shut up and kissed her.  Long and deep and hard.  It felt good, all
right.  And I guess it felt good for her, too, because when I finally drew
back for breath, she dragged my head down and kissed me again.  And again.
And again.

Sometime during all this we ended up on the floor, making me definitely
grateful for the carpet.  And then I noticed that Aika had removed my
trenchcoat with one hand and was letting the other run up and down my body,
all the while remaining firmly joined to me at the lips.

And my body was reacting.  It was...strange.  Nothing like what I
remembered.  Not like a male would.  But it wasn't unpleasant, either.  Not
really.  Not as weird as I'd thought it would be.  Somewhere, something
inside my head was yelling at me this I ought to be getting out of this
situation RIGHT NOW, but that voice was low and far away, and Aika was
close and warm and in my arms.

I had wondered, occasionally, when I'd had to fight the more mature magical
girls, how those fukus might come off.  Hey, I was-am-a guy, those are the
kind of thoughts we just -have-.  Maybe they all had concealed zippers in
the back like Aika's did, maybe not.  Given the circumstances, she could've
deliberately put one in.  Of course, I didn't think much of that at the
time, more than I had to to hastily rip the zipper down and slide the cloth
away from her, at the same time as her hands slipped under my shirt.

There was a sharp, electric tingle as she touched my breasts, completely
unlike anything I'd felt before.  I responded almost instinctively, my hand
sliding down her side, under the waistband of her panties, and...her body
went hard.

No, not THAT kind of hard, although I guess you could be forgiven for the
mistake, what with the situation being what it was.  I meant she got rigid,
her muscles suddenly all bunching up as if to defend herself.  I drew back
from the kiss, opening my eyes, and saw her staring up at me.  Her glasses
had been knocked or taken off, I honestly didn't remember when or how, and
her large brown eyes were wide and vulnerable, staring up at me.  Even as I
watched, tears formed in the corners of them, and she drew a long,
shuddering breath.

"I..." she started to say, then broke off, twisting almost violently away
from me.  She got up slowly, staring at me, trembling, and I could see the
tears collecting in her eyes, one falling free and trickling down her
cheek.  "Yoi, I..." she began, but was again unable to finish.  A moment
later, she turned around and rushed out the door.  The sound of it slamming
behind her seemed very loud in the quiet of the deserted building.

I stared after her for a moment, and the thought came to me that she had
just run out of here in nothing but her underwear.  She'd have real
molesters to worry about if she wasn't careful, and her parents would
probably never let her out of the house without supervision again.  Then I
remembered her powers would allow her to generate a new outfit, and
relaxed.

Then the events of the last few minutes hit me.  It felt like they
physically hit me, in fact, and I almost fell over.  What Aika and I had
been doing, what -I- had been doing...what Aika had just did.  My body was
still shaking with the aftermath, or maybe that was just shock.  I was
acutely conscious of sitting there on the carpet, half-undressed, a

I found I didn't really care about Akari Nazo anymore.

********

The next day, Aika didn't show up.  I wasn't surprised, but that definitely
didn't lighten my mood.  Itami and Veracity were back (the latter, I
couldn't help but notice, sporting some high-priced designer wear), and
while they both definitely noticed I wasn't feeling the greatest, after a
few rebuffed attempts to start a conversation they dropped the subject.

Partially I didn't want to talk was because Itami was far from over his own
problems with H, and giving him Aika to worry about probably wouldn't be
helpful to either of us.  More, though, what had gone between me and Aika
was...private.  Not just because it'd be embarrassing, though there was
that, but because I felt very uncomfortable at the thought of relating what
had happened with Aika.  It wasn't the right of anybody else to know.

Ah, hell.  When had I started being that concerned about her privacy?  It
wasn't like I loved her or anything, I started to think...then stopped, and
scowled a little deeper.  Damn it, why had everything suddenly gotten so
complicated?

What made matters worse is that is was a damn slow day.  No clients had
come in, nobody had called, nothing had happened, there was nothing but the
steady thunk of Itami's darts and the low drone of Veracity's sitcoms.  I
didn't want to think right now.  I wanted to DO, to go out and blow some
pastel-covered prepubescent psychopath's internal organs across the
landscape.  I found myself silently wishing for something to happen.

And, just to prove what an idiot I was for thinking something like that,
the door swung open and Sato walked in.  He waltzed towards me with that
arrogant smirk of his plastered all over his face, taking only enough time
to run a hand through his long black hair and leer at Veracity.  Reaching
my desk, he took out a photo and flipped it down in front of me.  I stared
at it; it was a fairly grotesque shot of a clearly dead girl in a robe/fuku
with several large wounds.  It was only after a few moments that I even
remembered who it was.

Lovely Rhyme-and-Reason.

"SO sorry to take away your business, Yoi," he sneered, "but she was no
longer useful to Ms. Nazo, and, after all, you didn't seem to be in any
hurry to tangle with her aga..."

He stopped rather abruptly at that point, due in large part to the fact I
had just pulled out my Glock and blown his bishonen head off.  Veracity and
even Itami stared at me in some shock as the echo of the shot was
punctuated by the sound of his body hitting the floor.

"You know," I said after a moment of silence, "I feel better now."  I even
did, a little.  Competition, especially in niche work like mine, was
annoying at the best of times, and it was probably going to eventually
occur to Sato to try to take me or one of my friends down more directly.

Itami seemed to agree, as he gave me a thumbs-up and an approving grunt.
Veracity was not so easily appeased.  "Yoi," she said with some acerbity,
"next time you want to get rid of competition, don't you think it would be
wiser to do it someplace where there isn't a carpet?  That'll cost a small
fortune to dry-clean, to say nothing of bribing the cleaners to make sure
they never mention what they're cleaning."

"Whatever.  We're pretty flush right now."  I didn't feel like arguing.
Besides, she was probably right.  Not that I cared.

She looked ready to scold me some more, but at that point the phone rang.
I didn't make a move to pick up the phone, and Itami had already gone back
to his darts, so after a moment she picked it up, muttering to herself.
"Hello, Magical Girl Hunters?" she said, reverting to a pleasant tone.  A
short moment later, she hung up the phone and looked over at me.

"Yoi, somebody named 'the Finn' called.  He said to meet him at the usual
place as soon as possible."

I looked up. "That's it?"

She nodded.  "Then he hung up."

Well, it seemed my information request had turned up something faster than
I thought.  Of course, I wasn't so enthusiastic anymore about it.  After a
moment, I got up anyway.  Sitting here thinking about Aika wasn't going to
get me anywhere.

"I've got to go, then.  Vera, handle the cleanup, would you?"

She nodded, with a put-upon sigh.  Itami grunted a farewell that was rather
similar to his 'approval of killing competition' grunt, not even looking
over.  Slipping the Glock back into a hidden pocket in my coat, I stepped
over the body and headed out.

********

I sensed the trap the moment I entered the Finn's hideaway.

Not that there was anything obviously wrong.  All the assorted guns,
gadgets and gizmos were in place, and if anybody was hiding, I couldn't
tell where.  Nothing -seemed- openly out of place...but my senses were
screaming warnings at me as soon as I walked in, and if there was one
place I'd learned to trust my hunches, it was for situations like this.

Maybe it was the Finn himself, walking forward with a wide smile across his
face.  Too wide.  He extended his hand.  I didn't take it.  Not put off by
this, he nodded as if we were old buddies.  "Thanks for getting here so
around, as if he was afraid of being overheard.  "I'm afraid of being
overheard.  Perhaps we ought to go out back."

Every muscle in my body tensed as he said that.  "Yeah.  Sure."

He didn't seem to notice my expression, for he grinned affably and began
leading me through the maze of his shop.  I quietly loosened my Glock in
its holster, keeping an eye out to blow any would-be assassin away.

Nothing happened, and we reached the back door of the shop.  Opening it,
the Finn stepped out.  A quick glance and I saw it led to a small open-air
terrace, surrounded on all sides by walls.  Nowhere to run, plenty of
places for concealed gunmen.  At the very least, pathetically easy to bug.

The Finn turned, gesturing for me to follow, and that's when I shot him.
Once, twice, three times I caught him, in the shoulder and both legs, and
he went flying back to slam into the wall opposite.  I walked out
carefully, glancing up where nothing moved except a few circling birds.

"Alright," I growled, careful to keep watch on the walls, ready to leap
back into the relative safety of the shop at any moment, "what's your game,
Finn?  Are you working for Nazo, or..."

"For christ's sake, you stupid primate pusbag, I knew you were a worthless
waste of flesh, but I figured you were at least stingy with lead."

I blinked, for the voice had come from above me...not from the walls, but
-directly- above me.  Whipping my Glock away from the Finn-who had not
moved and was still grinning idiotically, I noticed dimly-I stared up.

"Put that goddamn cheap-ass piece of crap down before I peck your eyes out,
you trigger-happy moron."

I continued to stare.  "Murray?"

The magical avian mascot glided down to perch on a pipe sticking out the
wall opposite me, glaring.  "No shit, Sherlock."

When Aika had first picked up her magical powers-unwillingly-and become
transformation, her obligatory 'cute mascot' was in fact a filthy,
foul-mouthed and thoroughly ugly buzzard named Murray (although, now that I
thought about it, it was hard to imagine a buzzard being cute).  I hadn't
seen Murray in some time, since the end of the Ultra incident, at least.  I
hadn't missed him, and the feeling was probably mutual.

find room with all the bone you've got in there."

Nope, hadn't missed him a bit.  "What the hell are you doing here, Murray?"

A long string of expletives was hurled in my direction, touching on my
ancestry, my mother's virtue, and my sexual preferences regarding common
ruminants.  "What the hell do you THINK, jackass?" he spat out after a few
minutes.  "You came to see the Finn, and that goddamn bucket of bolts you
just perforated sure as hell isn't it."

I looked over; the Finn still hadn't moved, was still smiling, and besides
which was now leaking some sort of green fluid on the ground.  "What
happened to him?"

Technically, I'm pretty sure buzzards can't roll their eyes, but if they
can't, Murray did a damn fine impression of it.  "God, Yoi, you're even
more fucking stupid than I remember, and I didn't think that was even
possible.  That ain't him.  The guy you remember-who was even more stupid
than you, which makes me wonder how the hell he remembered to breathe-was
playing with his stupid gadgets out there last week, and got sucked into
some portal to the netherworld or something."  He paused, snapping at a
nearby flying insect, and crunched it with obvious glee.  "Your species
ought to be glad he's gone from the gene pool, except of course that you're
still around.  Anyway, since I'm sure you haven't kicked what passes for
your brain into order, that's a android I traded a few things to an Elder
God for, and which is going to cost me a bundle to get repaired after your
goddamn little shooting spree."

I restrained myself from blowing Murray into a cloud of feathers, if only
because a) he still hadn't told me what I came here for and b) killing her
'mascot' might have done something to Aika.  "So what's with the whole
cloak and dagger bit?"

The magical scavenger probably couldn't have actually made his expression
more contemptuous, but he looked like he was trying hard.  "You might know
me, Yoi-to my eternal fucking regret, and I just love your new look, by the
way-but most customers would be a little freaked out to be greeted at the
door by a talking buzzard.  Given the kind of clients that come here, that
wouldn't be healthy, for reasons you've made pretty damn obvious."

"So you're the new Finn?"  He snorted and opened his beak, but this time I
cut him off.  "Yeah, yeah, that's what you've been trying to tell me.  But
why?  I mean, it's not like you need money, right?"

He ruffled his wings.  "Nothing better to do.  Besides, these guys have
been dropping like flies in the last few months," he snared one as if to
prove his point, "so it was about time somebody with half a brain moved in.
And hey, if I can help you stupid primates blow yourselves away, then I eat
all the better, right?"  He cackled.

Well, that was all the explanation I could've wanted and then some.  Then
again, I had asked.  "Right, Murray.  So, let's get to the point.  You
wanted me to come, and I don't think it was for the company."

"Damn straight, pusball."

"So I guess you've got the information about Nazo I was asking for.  What
did you find out?"

feathers on his chest.  A moment passed by in silence, but just as I was

"Nothing."

"What do you mean, nothing?"

"Just what I said.  Nadda.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nobody knows jack-shit
about Akari Nazo.  She and her whole damn organization popped up literally
overnight right after you guys offed Ultra."

Pretty much what everybody else had told me.  Great.  I almost slumped
against the wall, but then straightened and glared at Murray.  "What a
second.  Don't tell me you called me out here just to tell me you didn't
know anything."

He stared at me, then went back to preening for a few seconds.  He muttered
something under his breath that I was probably glad I couldn't make out,

"Yeah," he snapped, "Aika.  You know, that goddamn moron who is head over
heels for you and who I'm supposed to be the protector of?"  He speared a
dragonfly viciously.  "Since you're too damn clueless to figure out what
the hell's going on with her, I figured I'd spell it out for you."

It took a moment for that to sink in, but then I almost laughed.  "Why
Murray," I grinned, "never knew you cared."

Another long string of expletives, this one easily as colourful as the last
two put together.  "I DON'T, you goddamn retarded punk!  It's just...ah,
hell, I've got a soul bond with her or some crap like that.  So I know what
she's feeling, and all that shit."  He waved his head around agitatedly,
and shifted back and forth on his pipe.  "So even after I ditched you
losers, I had to check up on her every now and then.  Just so she wouldn't
make ME miserable, you understand."

I nodded seriously at him.  "Perfectly."

He glared at me, then growled something under his breath.  "Anyway, after
your little mutual heat last night, I'm sure you can see why the hell I
called you today."

So much for privacy.  Oh well, listening in on feelings was better than
them having telepathy or something, I guess.  "Right.  So what is it you
wanted to tell me?"

"Well, first, unless you're completely braindead-which is why I have to
tell you-you should've figured out that what happened last night had to do
with what happened between her and damn pusball Kawaii."

I didn't exactly feel comfortable discussing this with Murray, but after a
moment, I figured what the heck.  Aika obviously had, and if he knew
something that could help me straighten this out... "Actually, yeah, I had
kinda figured that.  But I thought she'd gotten over that, especially with

He flapped his wings in extreme irritation.  "Jeezus, Yoi, with those two
goddamn mammaries hanging on your front I figured you'd have gotten a
SINGLE clue about how the other side feels!  Girls don't just 'get over'
that kind of damn thing, especially not girls her damn age!"  Taking a deep
breath, he calmed down. A bit.  "I guess our bond doesn't go between
dimensions, 'cause I didn't feel anything when it happened.  But since
she's got back, her frigging emotional stability has been shot straight to
hell."  He viciously pecked at a bug on the wall.  "Frankly, I'm surprised
nothing like this happened before.  But when-I figure-you two were about to
shag each other, she must've snapped.  Christ, it felt like she was hitting
me with some damn emotional blast or something."

I thought about that, remembering all too clearly how she had frozen last
night.  And the expression on her face... "So why tell me?"

"Damn it, Yoi, you stupid primate, look at me!  She might talk to me, but
I'm not a goddamn shoulder to cry on."  He paused, glaring at me.  "Not
that I give a shit anyway.  But she's driving -me- nuts, and if I'm ever
gonna get any bloody peace, she needs somebody from her own damn species to
help her out."

I would have grinned, if I weren't still worried about Aika.  Err...a
little worried, anyway.  "And you picked me, huh?"

"No," he spat, "she did, due to some combination of abysmal taste and a
single-fucking-digit IQ.  You're what I've got."  He ruffled his scraggly
feathers and clacked his beak.  "So I want you to do something."

The prospect didn't exactly excite me.  I wasn't what you'd consider
extremely experienced with handling girls or emotional problems.  But
still, Aika was my friend.  Right?  Damn it, there were times I almost
wished I could have normal friends.  "Maybe I should go talk to her."

Murray fixed me with a glare from his beady black eyes.  "You'd better,
monkey-boy.  You're all she's got."

********

By the time I returned to the office, it was late afternoon.  After awhile
haggling with Murray, he'd extracted a promise to come stock up on weapons
soon, to make up for breaking the dummy 'Finn'.  Maybe that'd be a good
time to let Itami do the shopping, for once.

I'd considered going to Aika's place, but decided against it.  I still
didn't know if her father had gotten a good look at me, and besides, I
needed a bit of time to think over things before I tried to talk with her.
I didn't feel guilty over letting it wait...well, maybe a little.  But I
doubt I'd help her if I went in stammering like an idiot.  I just wish I
knew what WOULD help her.

As I walked in, I noticed the scene hadn't really changed from before,
aside from the fact Sato had been quietly removed.  Veracity looked over
and opened her mouth as if to say something, but at that moment the phone
rang.  She picked it up and greeted the other person.  I turned and gave a
wave to Itami, who acknowledged it by scoring another bullseye.

I was about to mention Murray to Itami, when I noticed Veracity looking at
me with an odd expression, still holding the phone.  "It's for you, Yoi,"
she said, her voice strangely muted.  "From Akari Nazo."

There was a moment of silence.  I almost told her to hang up, but finally
held out my hand; she gave the receiver to me wordlessly.  After another
moment, I held it up.  "Yoi here."

"Ah, Mr. Kurasaka," said that naggingly half-familiar voice on the other
end, "I've been awaiting your return."  She paused.  "I was a little upset
with you about Mr. Matsumoto, you know.  He had a place in my plans.  An
unimportant place, but still, his death is somewhat inconvenient."

"You have no idea how sorry I am," I said.  She wanted to be polite and
formal?  I could play that game.  "If you don't want to lose any more
servants, they ought not to come around here."

"Granted," she said, a hint of amusement in her voice.  "It was his own
fault for being foolish enough to come.  Particularly bad timing, too,
after last night.  I can understand your reaction, especially as you had no
reason to have left him alive."

There was a knowing tone to her voice that annoyed me.  "I'm not really
interested in chatting with you, MISS Nazo.  What do you want?"

"Patience, Mr. Kurasaka," she said smoothly.  "Unfortunately, our
conversation last night did not get satisfactorily concluded, due to the
interference of certain uninvited parties."

Well.  She had certainly calmed down a bit since then.  "So what's your
point?  Here to tell me more of your plans?"

"Not precisely," she replied.  "As I said, the appearance of Ramsbottom at
this point forces me to revise my schedule slightly.  In any case, I feel
you are ready to know."  She paused, just long enough to make me even more
irritated.  "You are a very important man, Yoi Kurasaka.  Many beings take
a special interest in your activities."

"I know that," I snapped, wishing she'd stop beating around the bush.  "I'm
the man with no fate, or something like that.  What I don't get is why that
makes me so important.  I mean, even if nobody can tell what I'm going to
do, I'm not very important in the scheme of things."

"Yet you defeated Ultra," she pointed out.

"Maybe, but I had help, and it was more than half fluke anyway.  I'm still
not powerful, not like a god or anything."

"That is true, Mr. Kurasaka," Nazo granted.  "It is not the only reason you
are considered important...or more precisely, it is only part of the
reason."  She paused again, annoying me, but I figured that was the point
of why she was doing it, so I tried to stay calm.  "You are not the first
Fateless that has been brought into being.  As nearly as I can tell, one
shows up every millennium or so.  But without exception, each one has found
themselves in a situation where they had to make a choice."

"A choice?"

"It varies depending on the being and the situation.  But it is always a
choice towards one of the governing principles of the universe, you see:
Good, Evil, Law, Chaos or Balance.  And what is more, their choice has
always had a significant impact.  It is not generally of multiverse-
spanning consequence, but certainly enough to make even the higher echelons
of each principle take notice."

I digested this.  This was getting way too close to destiny for my tastes,
even if I knew that had probably be in store for me anyway, given
everything I'd heard before.  "So that's why everybody's so interested in
me?"

"Indeed.  But with you, Mr. Kurasaka, the situation is even more
interesting."

Joy.  "How so?"

"You see, as far as I can tell, all the other Fateless had been relatively
obscure, completely unimportant until a seemingly unrelated incident thrust
them into the crux of events.  But you, Mr. Kurasaka, are different.  You
drawn the attention of higher powers.  Some of them feel this means you may
be even more important than your special status would indicate."

"You've got to be kidding me.  Some kind of saviour?  Not my gig.  I mean,
geez, I'm a guy who shoots kids for a living."

"I am merely relating what others think.  Many people are very interested
in earning your allegiance, in hopes you will choose in their favour when
the time comes."

"Shubby-chan didn't seem too interested," I snapped back.

"Ah yes, that is true.  For every being that wants you as an ally, I
suspect several more don't like one in five odds.  Fortunately for you,
they are prevented from interfering directly on this plane, but you can be
assured they have agents searching for you."  There was now more than a
hint of amusement in her voice.  "Perhaps even magical girls."

Great.  Just what I needed.  "So where do you fit in with all this?  You
trying to recruit me, too?"

"Just so, Mr. Kurasaka.  As for myself, I am aligned with Chaos."

"Shub-Niggurath does indeed, but she is only one of the powers of Chaos,
albeit one of the few that knows of you directly.  However, while she is my
superior, I am not her subordinate.  My true allegiance, I'm afraid, must
remain secret."  After a moment, she continued, "Of course, I doubt that
our actions thus far have encouraged you to our side."

"Not quite," I said dryly.

"But then, what have any of the other principles done for you?  I assure
you, my actions towards you were all conducted for sound reasons."

"Yeah, the reasons of getting me to join you without figuring out what I
was doing."

"Again correct, Mr. Kurasaka.  Yet at no time did I actively deceive you.
Everything I have told you is the truth, from a certain point of view."

"Yeah, right," I shot back.  "What about Ultra?  I know you were a flunky
of his, not the other way around."

There was a moment of silence, as if she were considering saying something,
but when she continued, it was if I hadn't spoken.  "In any case, that
brings me to my point.  You are grave danger, Mr. Kurasaka.  I recognize
you can take care of yourself, and would not appreciate being babied.  Yet
the faction which I represent can offer you something which none of the
others can...or will."

"And what's that?" I asked sardonically.  "A membership card?"

She laughed, although it was probably more for my benefit than hers.  "Not
quite, although I suppose that could be arranged.  No, what we can offer
you is a sort of protection, the kind of protection I feel is the type you
could truly appreciate."

"Like what?"

"Truth."

"Huh?"

Her voice was intense now, focused.  "We will offer you the truth, Mr.
Kurasaka.  The one thing nobody else dares give you.  The truth about
yourself, and about us.  No longer will you have to worry about whether
each agreement is a new plot, whether any casual acquaintance is actually
some agent of a higher power.  We can tell you all we know about you and
for you.  The others either want to kill you, or they want to bundle you up
in a safe little box where they think nobody can hurt you.  We will let you
defend yourself, by yourself, the way I think you would prefer it.  Accept
our offer, and you won't be stumbling around in the dark any longer."

I didn't reply right away.  Sure, I didn't like Nazo, and I wasn't sure if
I believed a word she said...but I remembered working with the Balancers.
And Ramsbottom.  It would sure as hell be a nice change to not be led
around by the nose all the damn time.  "So tell me the truth."

She laughed again.  "Not now, Mr. Kurasaka.  I know you have not decided to
join us, yet.  I can hardly fulfill my end of the bargain until you do, can
I?"  I started to ask something else, but she interrupted.  "Here is a
bit of truth for you to ponder, however.  We do not really consider all
this necessary.  You see, Mr. Kurasaka, by all indications you are firmly
especially.  We feel you are already one of us; just not officially.  So
you know that, also unlike the other factions after you, we don't feel the
need to force you to change into something you're not."

"Sounds like another sales pitch," I said.  "Not much 'truth' in those."

She was amused again.  "So how can I prove our intentions to you?"

Now I had her where I wanted her.  Clearing my throat, I continued what I
was going to ask a moment ago.  "Tell me the truth about, oh, say,
yourself.  What are you after?  Who ARE you?"  If they really wanted me so
bad, maybe she'd have to tell at least a bit of the truth.

"Ah, Mr. Kurasaka, so suspicious.  It is lucky that there seems to be some
time left before your choice is made, or I would be worried you would
choose against us out of spite.  Actually, I'm rather surprised you know so
little.  The intelligence services that you consult must have gotten lazy
over the last few millennia.  Anyway, since you ask, Nazo is my maiden
name.  I haven't used it in a long, long time."

"So what's your real name?  And who's your hubby?  That guy you said you
used to love and wanted back?"  There was something nagging at the back of
my mind, but I couldn't figure out quite what it was.  Something about that
too-familiar quality in her voice...

"Another piece of truth for you, Mr. Kurasaka," she said, suddenly changing
the subject.  "It is our belief that to succeed in reaching the time of
your choice, you will need certain companions.  Most of them you have
around you at all times, which is wise.  However, it may not be enough."
She paused yet again, and that nagging feeling got stronger.  "If that time
comes, you should be sure to send a message to Kyo and Mai.  A pity we're
not in contact anymore, or I'd have done it for you."

"Not in contact..." And then I knew.  I -knew-.  The voice, the appearance,
what her status in Ultra's organization and plans was...it all fit.  Too
damn well, it fit.

"But if you ever need to get ahold of them," she continued, "you can tell
them Mommy said to help you out.  I can almost guarantee that will get
their attention."

And with that, Akari Ultra laughed one more time and hung up.  I continued
holding the phone for a long moment, the dial tone loud in my ears.  I was
conscious of Veracity and Itami looking at me.

The word I said would probably have done Murray proud.

To Be Continued...

(sigh in relief)  Well, that's it.  Probably caused me to fail my exams due
to lack of studying, but hey, one has to prioritize. ;p  This chapter is
respectfully dedicated to Matthew Campbell, in the hope I didn't disappoint
him TOO much. ;p  Thanks go to Eric Pinnick for prereading, and the
numerous people I ran the lime scene by before I was satisfied with it.