[Orig][Shojo] Mahou no Mendo, chapter 1

This will be continued, hopefully soon. The general style of it is
similar to my Will You Be My Fiance? or a high school shojo
series with a dash of magic here and there.

***

Mahou no Mendou [Magic Troubles]
(An Original Fanfic)
By Ammadeau

anime/amma

Thanks to Ronny Hedin and LarryF for their pre-reading of this.

***

She sat as still as a statue in the circular room, legs crossed,
arms resting on her knees with palms upturned to face the high
domed ceiling, which was lost to the darkness. The room was
dimly lit from the glow of candles mounted at precise intervals
along the wall. Their flames flickered madly, although there wasn't
enough of a breeze to stir even a single hair on her head.
Not that she noticed, with her head turned down to the tiled
floor, the entire surface inscribed with ancient runes by people long
since dead. Her eyes were firmly shut, her breathing shallow and
steady. She refused to let anything distract her from her meditation.
To her, the room was barely there. She was nearly beyond feeling
her own body, even her long hair that flowed down to cover half of
her face, those locks now of the purest white.
Her entire focus was concentrated on the small object
which rested at the exact center of the room, her one and only focal
point. It looked like an abstract statue made from brown stone,
roughly cylindrical, with small spires jutting out from the top,
seemingly placed at random. It's appearance was rather
disappointing for something that was possibly the most valuable
thing in the world.
Little was known about this artifact. It had been found by
the Emperor himself before he had ascended to the throne,
although he never spoke to anyone about the actual details of this
discovery. He'd immediately recognized the great power the artifact
possessed. All magic is fueled by mana and the rarest kind of
mana had always been of the spirit. It was hard to gather even
small quantities of it, but this artifact radiated spirit mana on a
scale that made supposedly impossible magic possible.
To be allowed to use the artifact was a great honor. That
her assignment had been given to her by the Emperor himself was
an even greater one; but she could not let such thoughts interfere
with her focus. There was a simple reason for this: the spell she
was about to attempt was dangerous and if she wasn't completely
in tune with the artifact when she finally cast it, then she would
most likely perish.
She wasn't the first to be given this assignment, but she
vowed that she would not fail like her predecessor.
At the sound of breath, her eye not hidden by hair opened,
revealing gold. "Travel," she whispered, and then the room was
awash with light.

Chapter 1: The New Transfer Student

Taki took a deep breath as he sat in his chair just in time for
the bell to ring. Normally, he was a proper student, always on time
for school, but this morning everything had gone wrong for some
reason. His alarm clock broke, so he woke up late. The toaster
burnt his toast, making him forget about his eggs which ended up a
charred mass. The only kind of orange juice left was the pulpy
kind. There was no hot water for his shower.
Taki was an average Japanese high school junior, except
that his grandfather had been a gaijin world traveler of unknown
though probably mixed ancestry, and as a result he was about a
head taller than his fellow students. Otherwise, he was fairly
ordinary, with black hair that refused to stay combed, brown eyes,
a plain face that most people wouldn't give a second glance.
"Good morning, class," Miyoshi-sensei said as she walked
in the room. Taki's eyes, along with those of most of the males in
class, focused on the mature, trim body that seemed to be
desperately trying to free itself from the restraints of her
conservative outfit. Dark purple hair, long eyelashes, red lips.
Nayoko Miyoshi was in fact a former idol who decided to change
to teaching after her popularity had declined. She was now the
most popular teacher in the area, perhaps in all of Tokyo. Taki was
a card-carrying member of the local chapter of her fan club, and the
proud possessor of all of her music cds, even her rare early ones.
She had such a beautiful voice that he had to wonder why she had
given up singing, though the greatest speculation surrounding her
was over the fact that she had yet to marry.
"Good morning, sensei!" most of the boys shouted back
with enthusiasm, along with the females of the class who were far
less enthusiastic about it.
While to most of the boys Miyoshi-sensei was a godsend,
to most of the girls she was the devil incarnate. After all, with all
the eyes of the boys firmly locked on her, there was no one left to
pay attention to them. She even encouraged their behavior,
practically flirting with them in class.
"We've got to do something about her," Rika fumed to her
friend. Rika Yamaguchi was an athletic red-head and one of the
most popular girls in school - at least she was before Miyoshi-
sensei had shown up.
"Why bother?" Arisa replied indifferently. Arisa Inoue was
a blonde, blue-eyed girl who had inherited most of her good looks
from her gaijin mother, a former advertising model that now
owned the company she had once worked for. Her father had once
been, and still was, a handsome Japanese executive working for a
rival company. Despite that, her parents got along so well that she
was surprised that she didn't have more than her little brother for
siblings.
"Look at the way all the boys are drooling over her. It's
disgusting!" Rika nearly shouted.
"And why should I care what they think or do?"
Rika gave up with a shrug of her shoulders and muttered,
"No wonder you've never had a boyfriend."
"That's simply because I have yet to find a man of my
stature," Arisa replied airily. "I will not waste my precious time
with peons such at these."
"I just think you're standards are too high."

Miyoshi-sensei announced, "Class, I have a special treat for
you today."
Taki had to firmly stomp down on the hentai thoughts that
suddenly raced through his head. She wasn't going to do a strip
tease anywhere outside of his fantasies. He was glad that their
teacher couldn't read his mind, otherwise he'd be too embarrassed
to face her ever again. Taki didn't want her to think that he was
just another one of the perverts in class who only liked to stare at
her body. He respected her as a good teacher, but he still couldn't
stop himself from looking.
Miyoshi-sensei went over to the door and slid it open,
saying, "We have a new student that will be joining us today.
Please give a warm welcome for Eiko Hiraki!"
Most of the boys applauded, treating this as if it were a live
performance, while most of the girls groaned. Miyoshi-sensei
might have given up on being an idol, but sometimes she still acted
like one.
Taki wasn't applauding. His eyes were locked on the new
transfer. It wasn't due to her beauty, even though she was very
pretty. She was about average height, though her skin was nicely
tanned and her bust looked like it was having a hard time fitting in
a standard girl's uniform. Her hair was dark brown, tied up into a
long braid that reached all the way down to her knees. The slight
smile and look in her eyes seemed to indicate that she was happy to
be in this class, but feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment by
all the new faces. A shy girl, he guessed, nervous to be in a new
school.
But what was it? He felt something from her, something
that he didn't feel from the rest of the class, but he couldn't put his
finger on it. Then she turned to look his way, their eyes meeting.
Suddenly, her whole face lit up with joy, eyes wide and
grinning almost madly, and Taki could have sworn he heard
"Wai!" in a girl's voice, but it seemed to come from almost inside
his head.
"Eiko, why don't you tell the class something about
yourself?"
Eiko nodded, but she was still looking directly at Taki, who
was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable under her gaze. He wasn't
the only one to notice where he look was directed. He could feel
the eyes of his classmates on him, staring in confusion.
"My name is Eiko Hiraki and I just transferred here because
my parents tend to move around a lot. I like running and cooking,
and promise to try hard and do my best at my new school."
"Eiko, you can take the seat across from Taki." Miyoshi-
sensei told her, and then turned to face the boy indicated. "Taki,
can you stand up and show you where you are?"
Taki stood up a bit nervously, and then sat down quickly
when Eiko practically raced over to him, taking the seat just to his
right, all the time grinning like a maniac. He was a bit worried
because he didn't know what was going on, but she _was_ cute. If
a cute girl was paying attention to him, he wasn't about to turn the
other way.
"Welcome to our class, Hiraki-san," Taki told her carefully,
trying to hide the nervousness he felt. Up close she was even
prettier and he was fearful of doing something stupid and losing
the attention she was giving him. "I'm Taki Rheinhart. If you need
any help with anything here, feel free to ask me."
Eiko grabbed one of Taki's hands in both of hers and shook
them up and down, saying, "Thank you so much! Nice to meet
you! Please call me Eiko!"
Neither of them noticed the odd looks the rest of the class
was giving them, that was until Miyoshi-sensei said, "Eiko-san, I'm
happy to see that you're so... enthusiastic about making new
friends, but I would like to begin class now."
Eiko sat down, rubbing the back of her head in
embarrassment. "Sorry, sorry," she said nervously.

"What's with that girl?" Rika suddenly whispered to Arisa
half way through first period.
"What do you mean?" Arisa replied. She was too busy
focusing on the lesson to notice anything else, though she knew
that her friend was probably doing the exact opposite. It was only
due to Arisa's help that Rika had made it through their sophomore
year of high school. To Rika, school was only an necessary evil so
she could compete in sporting events.
"That new girl sitting there, grinning at Taki like that. Just
what does she think she's doing?"
"Do I detect a note of jealousy in your voice, Rika?" Arisa
asked with a slight smile. "Weren't you rather close to this Taki at
one point?"
Arisa vaguely remembered her friend mentioning the boy in
question in an almost wistful tone when they had found out he'd be
in their class, but had forgotten all about it as Rika had completely
ignored his existence. It was rather odd though.
"It was never anything like that!" Rika insisted. "We were
friends up until middle school because he lives down the street
from me, but then suddenly he got all weird and secretive. And his
mom is even worse than he is."
"Ah, so it _is_ jealousy then."
"It's not!" Rika shouted, standing up a bit.
"Rika-san, is there something wrong?" Miyoshi-sensei
asked with some concern.
Rika sat down immediately, blushing faintly with
embarrassment. "I'm fine, sensei. Sorry for interrupting your
lesson."

Taki did his best to focus completely on the lesson - which
was never easy to do when Miyoshi-sensei was the one giving it -
but this time it was nearly impossible. He could feel Eiko's grin
even when he wasn't looking in her direction. *Why is she staring
at me like that?* he thought. It was welcome at first, but it was
starting to get to him a bit. Not to mention the embarrassment he
felt over the whispered speculation of his classmates.
Then something bumped his right arm. He turned to see
Eiko offering him a small folded note with her constant smile.
Glancing around first to make sure no one was paying them any
attention, he took the note from her. She giggled softly and turned
her head so she could watch the blackboard and him at the same
time.
Taki quickly unfolded the note and read, "Meet me
privately during lunch and I'll explain everything. Eiko."
Taki wondered at first how she had known what he had
been wondering, but then shook his head. The confusion on his
face probably made it pretty obvious. He wrote down okay and
that he'd show her a private place where they could talk, and then
handed the note back to her, which she accepted with another small
giggle.

"Now they're passing notes! Why doesn't the teacher do
something?!" Rika said though clenched teeth.
"If you just ignored them, you wouldn't be feeling so
jealous," Arisa advised. She seemed to be finding the whole
situation rather humorous.
"It's not jealousy," Rika insisted with her arms crossed.
"It's not."

"Now can you please explain to me what's going on, Eiko-
san?" Taki asked with a trace of pleading in his voice. He never
thought he'd be anything other than happy that a pretty girl had
noticed him, but Eiko's smile had definitely got on his nerves after
a while, especially when he didn't know what it was about. He was
actually thankful that the other teachers had been less tolerant than
Miyoshi-sensei about it.
Taki had been relieved when the lunch bell had finally
rung, and as such was feeling much less irritated with the girl who
smiled as he lead her to a place away from the other students.
"You know magic, don't you?" Eiko countered with her
own question. She was still smiling, though her eyes were more
serious now.
The question took Taki completely by surprise. "Now why
would you think that?" he asked her as he nervously rubbed the
back of his head. "Most people know that magic isn't real."
Taki was in actuality a magus in training, apprenticed under
his mother, and had been so for a number of years now. He knew
that magic could only be wielded by a very small minority that had
been born with the ability already in them, and that it was
particularly strong in his family. His mother had said that this was
because his ancestors hadn't had any siblings like himself and so
the power hadn't been diluted. This didn't make much sense to
Taki, but as his mother was his sole source for magical lore, he had
to take her word for it. The only other mage he knew was his
grandfather, and Taki hadn't seen him since he was very small.
'Magic is troublesome' was the Rheinhart family motto,
because while magic had proven to be helpful to people, it could
also cause a lot of problems. That was why each mage had to be
very carefully taught, and that was also why no one else should
know of their power. Taki was sworn not to tell even a best friend
about his abilities, because they might be tempted to try to exploit
those powers or tell others. In fact, the only person he'd be able to
tell would be his future wife. So this was definitely not something
he was ready to admit to.
Eiko put her hand on Taki's chest, making him nearly jump
with the sudden contact. She closed her eyes and said in a soft
tone, "I can feel the mana inside you, Taki."
Taki stuttered in response, mainly because he hadn't yet
reached the point where he was able to say anything more coherent.
His mind was in chaos; a mix of her soft touch, light scent, a secret
exposed, his mother killing him when she found out, and sunlight
filtered through the trees.
"Why would your mother kill you?" Eiko asked with some
confusion as she broke contact, though still stood quite close to
him.
"That's because... wait, you read my mind," Taki said with
growing awe.
Eiko nodded happily. "Yep, that's because I'm a magus too!
Well actually, I'm only a spirit adept. Telepathy is my best power.
I have a few others, but most are either minor or unreliable."
Taki was sworn never to tell another person, but another
magus was probably okay, even if she was just an adept. After all,
his mother had never told him what to do when he met one. But
still...
"How do I know that wasn't just a lucky guess?" he asked
her.
Eiko's smile didn't flicker for an instant. Though her mouth
was firmly shut, he could hear her voice in his head. *Is this
enough proof? Not only can I read a person's thoughts or
emotions, but I can project my own when I want to.*
*Then that really was you before in class. I thought I had
heard something but I wasn't sure,* Taki thought, partly to test her
out further, but mostly to keep their conversation secret. He didn't
even want the remote possibility of someone overhearing this.
*I still need to work on my control,* she projected to him
while blushing faintly in embarrassment. *I accidentally project
my thoughts sometimes when I get excited. I guess I was a little
overwhelmed to meet another magus outside of my family.*
*Ah, so that's why you were grinning all the time like that,*
Taki thought as the realization dawned on him. *Still, telepathy is
an impressive power. My mother can do it, but it's far beyond me.
I've still got a lot to learn.*
Eiko nodded. *Me too, but it's mostly to control the powers
I already have. My mother is the master mage in our family,
though my father is a pretty good mage himself. I also have an
older brother and sister that are magus too. My brother already has
his own family and my sister is almost done with her training.
They're all great magus, but I'll never be more than just an adept.*
Taki was shocked to see Eiko's constant smile change to a
frown. He put his hand on her shoulder and thought, *You're
already powerful, Eiko. I'm sure that when you're done training,
you'll be the equal to any magus.*
Taki was not at all prepared for the sudden hug that Eiko
gave him. That didn't mean that he didn't enjoy it, however.
Both of them were too occupied to hear the faint sound of a
snapshot being taken.

"You do not look pleased," Arisa noted as she started in on
her bento. "I know you went looking for Taki after he had run off
with that new girl, so don't try to deny it. See something that upset
you?"
Rika sat down with a scowl on her face and silently dug
into her own meal. They ate in silence for a few moments before
Rika finally spoke. "None of your business."
"So were they just talking or will they have to be looking
for their discarded clothing afterwards?"
"They weren't doing anything!" Rika shouted. "Just
standing there silently and staring into each other's eyes."
"Ah, it must have been love at first sight then."
"Shut up, Arisa."

Taki grinned as the final bell rung. Time to go home and
receive some lessons much more interesting than anything taught at
school; magic lessons. Taki had some problems with his mother,
but he had to admit she was a very good teacher when it came to
the mystic arts. Her 'learn or else' attitude certainly motivated him.
"Taki!" Eiko called out to him just as he was about to leave.
He couldn't believe that in his rush he had momentarily
forgotten all about her. She had stopped smiling at him all the
time, but they had exchanged a few thoughts during class. Once he
had gotten used to the idea, Taki was happy that he had someone to
talk about magic with besides his mom.
"Yes, Eiko-san?"
Eiko was currently looking down at her feet, her usual
smile was there, but there was also a blush to her cheeks. Taki
couldn't help noticing that she looked even cuter than before, but
immediately stomped down on that thought. He hadn't forgotten
that Eiko was a telepath and he didn't want to drive her away with
his perverted thoughts.
"I was wondering, since I'm new to the neighborhood, if
you could show me around a bit, that is if it wouldn't be too much
trouble," she said all in one breath.
Taki balanced his mother's anger on skipping out on magic
practice verses spending time with Eiko, in the end deciding that
showing this girl around town would be worth risking his mother's
considerable wrath.
"Sure," he told her with a smile, "That sounds like fun."
*Yatta!* Eiko grinned, her nervousness gone.

Arisa delicately raised one eyebrow as her friend Rika
warped her metal desk with her bare hands. She felt sorry for the
rest of the female karate team that their captain was currently in
such a state. Practice that day would not be fun.
"So are you going to skip all of your after-school activities
to follow them, or try to forget in a haze of senseless violence?"
Rika glared at Arisa. "Remind me again why we're
friends."
Arisa seemed more amused than intimidated. "That's
because every other girl is too afraid of you to do anything other
than immediately surrender to your will, and you want someone to
talk to who won't bow to your every whim."
Rika nodded, her anger leaving her. "Definitely forget
about them. I don't even know why I'm feeling so upset in the first
place. Taki was just a friend, and a former one at that."
"It must be jealousy," Arisa told her with a grin.
Rika stood, pretending that she hadn't heard that. "See you
after practice, Arisa."
Arisa nodded and went off to her own practice. It might
have been interesting to watch her friend's karate training that day,
but as the captain of the girl's swim team, Arisa was always keen
on her responsibilities.

"Hiraki residence."
"Hi, mom!" Eiko nearly shouted into the phone.
"Eiko dear, is something the matter?"
"No, mom," Eiko replied with an amused smile. She was
seventeen now, but her mother looked out for her like she was still
in kindergarten. Overprotective didn't even begin to describe Mrs.
Hiraki; she still looked out for Eiko's older brother who had a
family of his own now.
"Actually, I just had a great first day of school and I wanted
to know if it was okay for a new friend to show me around the
neighborhood."
"Is this new friend a boy?"
Eiko blushed faintly. There were times that she was sure
her mother could read her thoughts over a phone line, even though
that should have been impossible. "Umm... yeah," she said finally.
"But he's really nice."
"All right, if he gets too fresh you can always... well, have a
good time, but don't forget about our family rule."
Eiko grinned, happy her mother couldn't see or read her at
the moment. That family rule had been on her mind ever since she
had first met Taki. "I just met him, mother. It's much too soon to
be thinking about stuff like that."
"I know dear, but it's better to have that clear from the start.
For you or your sister, only someone very special will do, that's
why we keep moving all over Japan."
"Don't worry, mom. I'm not like sis. I'm not going to have
the same problems with boys."
"I trust you, sweetie. Take your time coming home, but I'll
save your dinner just in case, okay?"
"Thanks, mom."

*She's beautiful,* Taki couldn't help thinking as Eiko
walked towards him from the bank of pay phones, sunlight from an
open window alighting her face, causing her green eyes to shine.
Her movements were slow and graceful, like a cat. Her long braid
even swished back and forth behind her like a long tail.
Taki also couldn't help noticing that she was blushing as
she stopped before him, a small smile on her lips. Realizing that
she must have picked up his thoughts, he tried to explain, but she
spoke first.
"My mom said it was okay... that you show me around
town."
Taki nodded and cleared his throat, which had suddenly
gone dry. "I better ask my mother then, but I'm sure it will be okay
with her too."
Actually, he was sure that it wouldn't be, but was able to
keep that out of his surface thoughts. Dealing with his nosy
mother had trained Taki somewhat in handling a telepath. They
could only read surface thoughts, and then those that were
relatively clear. He knew a few mental tricks that could keep his
thoughts hidden, but he had to be concentrating in order to use
them. For some reason whenever he was around Eiko his
concentration fell to pieces.
Eiko watched Taki walk over to the bank of pay phones,
faint blush still on her cheeks as she hugged herself tight. She
knew what her logical father would think, that it was too soon, that
she was getting her hopes up only to probably wind up hurt in the
end, but Eiko couldn't help herself. It felt all too perfect and too...
right to try and analyze it from a detached point of view.
*Maybe he's the one I've been searching for.*

Taki hung up the phone and frowned. His mother had not
been at all happy with him telling her that he wanted to skip magic
practice that day, but she had reluctantly agreed even though he
was sure that she had seen right through his phony excuses. He
knew from past experiences that if his mother had known he was
with a girl she would do everything in her power to drive her away.
In his mother's opinion, no girl was good enough for him. He
wasn't looking forward to eventually coming home - that's when
the real interrogation would begin.
He forced a smile on his face as he turned to Eiko and said,
"Okay, let's go."
Eiko returned the smile and nodded.

Taki wasn't sure what to show Eiko, so he decided to walk
towards the main business street and point out things along the
way. Despite having been around women all his life, Taki knew
very little about them. He had no idea what would interest Eiko,
and he was too embarrassed to ask. He figured though that since
his mom loved to shop, Eiko might like it too, and the shopping
district was a good destination, at least until he could think of
something better.
"Here's where I get off the bus for school," Taki pointed out
the bus stop, feeling like a geek for mentioning it, but not thinking
of anything else to say. He didn't want her getting bored.
"You mean you just don't fly to school?" Eiko asked as she
stuck out her arms and swooped around in the imitation of an air
plane, including sound effects.
Taki couldn't help laughing. "Why did you just do that?"
Eiko brought her finger to her chin in thought and said,
"You were looking kind of down there, and it was the only thing
that I could think of to cheer you up."
"It worked, but I wasn't really depressed, just a bit nervous,"
Taki admitted, now feeling a bit embarrassed as well.
"Why?" Eiko asked, her eyes wide in confusion.
"I'm worried that I'm too boring for you," Taki told her,
feeling even more embarrassed now, at the same time wondering
why he was admitting this to her. "I'm not a very good tour guide."
"Well, It's been pretty interesting so far. Just taking in the
sights of a new city where everything is fresh and new to me can be
a bit overwhelming, which is why I wasn't saying anything before.
How about this? I'll tell you when I get bored and we'll both come
up with something fun to do to solve it. Deal?" Eiko asked,
holding out her hand.
Taki grinned, feeling all his fears and worries evaporate as
he took Eiko's hand and shook it. "Deal."

Arisa burst out of the pool after her perfectly executed dive,
only to notice Rika there sitting and watching from the stands. She
knew that karate practice shouldn't have been over for another half
hour yet, so couldn't help wondering what was up. Taking a towel
from the assistant captain, Arisa made her way to the benches as
she dried off her hair.
Rika was sitting there with her head down, water bottle
hanging loosely in one hand.
"Want to talk about it?" Arisa asked as she took the seat
next to her, at the same time making sure to keep on eye on her
team's practice. Rika was her best friend, but the swim team had
an important meet coming up in only a few days.
Rika glanced up, as if noticing her for the first time. "I
don't understand why, but I just can't stop thinking about them. I
keep wondering where they are, and what they're doing."
Arisa decided against using the jealousy stab once again.
This seemed to be more serious then she had thought, though
maybe this explained why Rika never had a boyfriend for longer
than a few weeks. None of them matched up to her first love, or at
least the ideal image that she held him as. From what Arisa could
see, Taki was far from perfect; he was barely average.
Arisa was starting to feel irritated for her normally
energetic friend to be moping like this. "Look, you obviously still
have feelings for Taki. Why don't you go after him? You have a
much better chance than Eiko, she's only known him for a day.
And if he doesn't want you, well then maybe you'll see he isn't
worth all this in the first place."
Rika shook her head. "It isn't that simple."
"Okay, are you going to expand on that, or will I have to
beat an explanation out of you?" Arisa asked with a smile. She
knew that in a fight she'd be no match for Rika, knew this very
well since she had taken a beating from Rika before. Ironically, it
was that fight that caused them to become such close friends.
Rika smiled a bit as well, it was on-going joke with them.
"I really do wish I could tell you, Arisa, but I promised that I
wouldn't, even though Taki seems to have forgotten all about it.
Then it was a long time ago."
Arisa slipped into her 'lecture' tone of voice. "Well, since
you're missing your karate practice to mope, you're not getting your
exercise. I think as your friend it is my duty to motivate you so you
can keep in shape to impress Taki, or whoever else is next on your
list."
"Oh, and how are you planning to do that?" Rika asked,
amused. She knew her friend was making some joke, but she had
no idea what the punch-line would be.
"By forcing you to eat a giant parfait, of course! You'll feel
so guilty having consumed so many extra calories that you'll end
up forcing yourself to work extra hard just to lose them. Naturally,
I will have to accompany you to make sure you eat the whole thing.
Otherwise, you'll be interfering with my practice yet again."
"Naturally," Rika repeating with a smirk. Who would have
thought that the stuck-up bitch she had first met could have turned
into such a good friend? Rika was feeling better already. "And
you'll also have to order your own sundae, if only to justify you
being there."
"The only reason; you know I have no interest in sweets."
Arisa's smile made it clear that she was lying. "Unlike you,
though, I can eat my fill and not have it leave a single mark on my
perfect figure."
Rika smirked. "Right. We'll see how hard you exercise
tomorrow."

Taki and Eiko stopped before the torii of the local Shinto
shrine, staring at the cobblestone walkway surrounded by a lush,
well-trimmed carpet of grass. Despite the number of trees that
swayed in the breeze there, there wasn't a sign of a single leaf
littering the ground.
Eiko closed her eyes to feel a gentle wind on her face. "I
can already tell it's very peaceful here."
"Yeah, it's a nice place to relax," Taki told her, then
frowned. "That is, unless she's here."
"She?" Eiko asked puzzled as he opened her eyes and
turned to him.
"Ah, Taki my boy, you've come to see me again!" came the
sound of an elderly voice from farther in the temple grounds. They
both turned and saw a small old woman in a bright kimono
decorated with butterfly designs slowly making her way down the
walk. She was hunched forward and used a worn-looking cane,
but seemed to be having no particular difficulty making her way, as
if the cane was more for decoration than actual use.
"Good afternoon, Meiri-san," Taki said with a bow of
respect.
"Surely the goddess has guided you here today. There's so
many chores to do around the temple and my old limbs aren't what
they used to be. My own grandson should be taking care of things
now, but he always bolts at the first sign of work."
"Oh, that's terrible!" Eiko exclaimed.
Meiri turned to face Eiko and nodded. "Boy's as lazy as
they come. Must have gotten it from his grandfather - may he rest
in peace - because he sure didn't get it from me. You don't seem
familiar to me, young lady, and I make it a point to know all the
neighborhood children to see to their spiritual development, which
too many parents forget these days. What's your name?"
Eiko bowed and said, "I'm Eiko Hiraki, pleased to meet
you. My parents and I just moved into the neighborhood."
"You did, eh?" Meiri said with a smile. "You'll have to
leave me your address so I can make a home visit sometime."
"I'm sure my family would be honored, Meiri-san. In fact,
since I'm not really doing anything right now, I can help you
around your temple. I even wanted to be a miko when I was a little
girl."
"Thank you, thank you! That's a great relief!" Meiri told
her then turned to Taki and gestured for him to bend down so she
could whisper in his ear. "Take an old woman's advice and don't
let this one get away like you did with that other girl. I'd already be
setting an appointment to meet her parents and get something
formal arranged if I were you."
"Obaasan!" Taki nearly shouted, his face red. "I think it's a
little too soon for-"
"It's never too soon to be thinking about marriage," Meiri
insisted, cutting him off. "You're already seventeen, Taki. Most
men your age are at least engaged if not married already. If you
wait too long, all the good brides will be taken and you'll be left
with the dregs!"
Then she turned back to Eiko - who was finding it
extremely difficult to pretend she wasn't overhearing this
conversation - and asked, "Tell me, dear, do you cook?"
"Yes," Eiko answered a bit hesitantly, surprised and pleased
to find it such a safe topic. "My mother was actually a gourmet
chef and taught us all how to cook. I'm not nearly as good as she
is, but I'm still learning."
The old woman brought her attention back to Taki. "See?
She's perfect for you. All you have to do is square everything away
with her parents. Don't worry, I'll take care of your mother if she
has any objections. We can even have the ceremony here at the
shrine!" Meiri declared, pushing the two of them together with a
surprising show of strength.
Taki and Eiko exchanged glances, both blushing from
embarrassment. They realized at the same time that they had
caught each other when Meiri had pushed them together and nearly
jumped away from each other at the same time.
Taki was really wishing that he had remembered to avoid
the temple that day. Seeing Meiri looking up at him expectantly,
he told her, "I'll think about it."
"Good," she replied with a smile. "Now that that's all
settled, there are a few chores that need doing."

Taki sat inside the temple making the good luck charms
that the shrine was locally famous for. He'd been making them for
years, ever since he had made the foolish mistake of asking Meiri
how they were constructed. He never actually completed them -
Meiri herself would add the finishing touches - so he supposed
that technically the people who bought them weren't getting
cheated. They might even be getting more then they had expected
since Taki had been subtly changing their designs to make real
magic charms.
Meiri was a dormant mage, which meant she had some
magic power she used all the time but couldn't access at a
conscious level. She wasn't aware of it, and telling her would only
reveal his own status as a magus. It was one of the reasons why
she was so good at manipulating people, but it also meant that
when she finished a charm, real magic would be locked in it's
design. Taki didn't know if it was enough to make people's dreams
come true, but he thought it still made them more authentic than
the charms other temples sold.
Taki eyed the stack of materials like a hated enemy. He
had just started and his hands had begun to hurt already. "Miss
Meiri, just how many of these charms do I end up starting for you
anyway?"
"All of them, of course," the old woman replied, not
looking up from her work. He could see the small sparks of mana
jump from her fingertips to the charms like static electricity,
causing their designs to glow briefly. It was something that would
have surprised the old woman had she been able to see it.
"What?" Taki said in exasperation. "Don't you get Shiro to
do some of these too?"
Meiri shook his head. "That boy will never be a decent
shrine priest. Can't make a charm to save his life. Not like you,
Taki. Your charms are always perfect, every last one. Are you
sure you won't reconsider my offer?"
Taki sighed. "I told you that even if I wanted to become the
new shrine priest, my mother would never let me, and that's one
thing you'll never get her to back down from."
Meiri hmmed in thought. "Do you think she'd consider
trading my Shiro for you?"
Taki shook his head, half-amused and half-exasperated. "I
don't think so, Miss Meiri."

Eiko was out behind the temple, sweeping up the stray
leaves that she found there with the wooden broom Meiri had
given her. She was again surprised of how few leaves there were
to sweep up, considering the number of trees that surrounded the
small yard. She was also happily wearing the miko outfit the old
woman had leant her, which fit pretty well considering they had
been Meiri's when she had been a young woman, though they
seemed to have been made with the 'one size fits all' philosophy.
*Sweep, sweep, sweep,* Eiko thought with a wide smile on
her lips as she chased down the scattered leaves blowing in the
wind, her long braid dancing behind her. *I'll get you, you nasty
leaf!*
*I'm sorry to drag you into this, Eiko-san,* she could 'hear'
Taki think, only realizing then that she had accidentally projected
her thoughts to him again. Thankfully, normal people weren't
sensitive enough to 'hear' her when she did that. Otherwise, she'd
have a lot of explaining to do whenever she got excited.
*Actually, its sort of fun, Taki. I wasn't lying when I said I
used to dream of being a miko. Besides, we have to help out an
old woman like her, especially when she was abandoned by her
horrible grandson.*
*You don't know Meiri-san very well yet. She's not nearly
as feeble as she pretends to be. I think she could run this place all
by herself if she wanted to, but she'd much rather get others to do it
for her. She makes her grandson Shiro work his fingers to the bone
to keep this place in top shape, and then tricks the neighborhood
kids into doing the rest.*
*But she doesn't seem like a bad person.*
*She isn't, just lazy. And she does try to pay everyone who
helps her out back, even if its sometimes in ways they don't want.*

Taki figured that Meiri had to be in a good mood that day,
since she declared that it was time for a break after only an hour of
work. He knew from experience that the amount of things that
needed doing around the old temple seemed infinite. He'd seen
entire afternoons vanish into tending the grounds alone.
Taki and Eiko sat on either side of a low table in Meiri's
living room. The old woman herself had told them to make
themselves comfortable while she prepared some tea and cake as a
reward for all of their hard work.
Taki couldn't stop himself from staring at Eiko kneeling
before him, still dressed as a miko. The long red hakama blanketed
her legs, hiding them from view, while the heavy white shirt
contrasted against her tanned skin. And the bright red bow that
now bound her hair went well with her green eyes.

Taki blinked in surprise as he turned and saw Meiri peeking
around the doorway.
"Just making sure you weren't necking. Didn't want to
intrude on anything," the old woman explained as she entered the
room carrying a large platter containing a tea set and three slices of
a white cake.
"We haven't kissed, Meiri-san," Taki explained in a tired
voice, too exasperated to be embarrassed. "We only just met
today."
"Why that's no excuse at all," Meiri countered as she set
down the platter and took a seat herself. "I've been working at this
temple for longer than most people have been around and I can just
tell by looking at you that you both were meant to be together.
Have I ever been wrong?"
*At least a dozen times that I can think of without even
trying,* Taki thought, causing Eiko to giggle. Taki blushed faintly
to realize she had overheard his thoughts again.
"Well, I suppose you can take care of that after we've had a
little snack," Meiri declared then turned to face Eiko. "Eiko, be a
dear and pour the tea for me. I'd do it, but these old arms aren't
what they used to be."
Eiko blinked, remembered the ease with which Meiri had
handled the large platter, but nodded and told her, "I would be
honored."
While Eiko poured the tea and passed the cups around - to
Meiri first, then Taki, and finally herself - Meiri passed around the
cakes. Meiri muttered a short prayer and then they all started in on
their snack.
"It's delicious!" Eiko cried out after the first bite. It was
some kind of coconut cake. She didn't even particularly like
coconuts, but this cake more than made up for that. It was sweet,
spongy, and everything a cake should be.
"My cakes are known all over the Japan. Even the emperor
himself wept after sampling one of my cakes. I was even offered
to become head baker of a larger confectionery company, but I had
to decline. I could not even consider abandoning this shrine,"
Meiri explained with false humility.
*Did she really make this cake?* Eiko sent the thought out
to Taki a bit hesitantly. After the things that he had told her, she
wasn't sure what to believe about this woman anymore.
Taki nodded and thought, *Yes, her cakes are the only
thing that she will not ask for help in. She'll let you watch her bake
one, but you will not be allowed to assist her at all, even if it was to
get her a spoon or something. I think her cakes would still be good
if she were just a mundane, but it's her powers as a dormant mage
that make her cakes something special. The whole baking process
is actually a powerful incantation, one that she must have been
subconsciously perfecting for decades.*
"Wow," Eiko whispered in awe, wondering if it was
something she could learn. Her baking was good, but it was not
even close to this.
Both Taki and Eiko looked at Meiri as she sighed
contentedly. The old woman was staring back at them with her tea
cup in her hands and a twinkle in her eyes. "Ah, young love, what
a sight for these old eyes to see. I can still remember when my
husband and I could just sit and stare into each other's eyes, letting
the time pass by without a word. No words were needed to express
the feelings we both shared."
"It wasn't what it looked like!" Taki explained quickly.
"That's what we used to tell people who caught us at it too,"
Meiri replied with a wink.
Feeling Taki's frustration, Eiko redirected the conversation
by saying, "That's a lovely kimono you're wearing, Meiri-san.
Where did you buy it?"
Meiri adjusted to the new topic without so much as a blink.
"Oh, this? My lazy grandson is the one who sewed it for me.
Though he took his time about it, he did do a wonderful job. I've
tried to persuade him to think about a career in fashion, but he still
has his heart set on becoming a journalist. I tried to convince him
to at least try and become a photographer instead, but he wouldn't
hear of it. Shiro can take a good picture, but couldn't write a story
to save his life. That boy is all mixed up, unlike Taki here."
Taki tensed, knowing the old woman was about to do
something again, but having no idea what. He was right to worry,
as Meiri walked over and gestured to him like he was an item up
for auction.
"This boy is something special. He's got looks, brains, and
he's a hard worker. And a boy that's kind to old ladies has to be at
least worth consideration. Now Eiko, with your looks and pleasant
personality you probably could do better, but I strongly urge you to
grab Taki here while you can. He may not seem exceptional on the
surface, but take it from someone who knows him better than his
own mother, Taki will make a fine husband and excellent father
besides."
Eiko nearly choked on her tea, and knew that she had to be
blushing just as badly as Taki was at the moment. She couldn't
believe that Meiri could be so... blunt about something like this,
even after seeing how she had bothered Taki about it before.
Recalling his words from then, Eiko told Meiri in a voice that was
only shaking slightly, "I'll think about."
Meiri sat down with the smile of the cat who had finally
caught the canary.

Thankfully, as they went back to their snack, the topic of
conversation drifted away from marriage and the like. Meiri told
Eiko some of the history of the shrine and gave a few of her ideas
of good places to visit in their little suburb. Eiko talked a little
about their family and the places that had been, explaining that
they moved around a lot because of her father's job. Taki was
mostly silent, and when he did speak, usually expanded on
something Meiri had said. He couldn't shake the fear that if he
spoke too much, Meiri's attention would again latch onto him and
the topic of engagements would return to the forefront.
The problem wasn't that he didn't like Eiko, it was more of
the reverse. He did like her and didn't want Meiri driving her away
with talk of engagements and marriage. Though it was also a blow
to his pride to be talked about as if he were a new blender or
something. He was glad that Eiko didn't seem to be taking Meiri's
little suggestions seriously.
Meiri was a picnic compared to his mother though. He had
already decided that he would do his best to make sure that his
mom didn't even know Eiko existed. He didn't want to lose
another friend.

After only a relatively short while the cake had been eaten
and the tea all drunk. Eiko had gone to change out of the miko
outfit, leaving Taki and Meiri alone. The temple was quiet and
serene, with only the distant calls of birds to disturb the peace.
"Meiri-san, why were you going on about marriage and
things like that? I appreciate you looking out for my welfare, but-

"But you'd much rather that I stay out of your business and
keep my opinions you myself?" Meiri finished with a smirk.
Taki started to nod, but then shook his head instead. He
knew that Meiri would never keep her opinions to herself no matter
what he may say. "I just want to know why you brought it up so
suddenly. You never mentioned anything like this before."
"I'm an old woman, Taki, and I can tell that my time left on
this world is growing very short," she told him seriously. Meiri
was wearing an expression he's never seen on her before, her old
eyes hard and serious, her mouth a thin line. For the first time
since he had known her, which was nearly his entire life, she
actually seemed old.
"But before I die, I'd like to hold one last ceremony, binding
a loving couple in holy wedlock like my own grandmother had
done for me so long ago. I had hoped that Shiro would be the one,
but with the way that boy is around women he'll be sixty before he
gets engaged, if then. You're my last hope, Taki. So if I've come
off as a little pushy today, please forgive me."
Taki could only stare back at her in complete shock. She
seemed to lively and healthy, that is when she wasn't faking illness
or injury, he had just assumed that Meiri would still be around for
decades to come. "I had no idea..."
Meiri's unusually serious face suddenly broke up with loud,
cackling laughter. She banged her fist on the table as she
continued to laugh so hard that tears came to her eyes.
Taki reflected that if he could have a sweat drop like an
anime character, he'd have one big enough to drown himself in
now.
"I can't believe," she started to say as she gasped for breath,
still chuckling, "that you actually took me seriously. I've still got
plenty of good years still in me. Heck, my mother is still around
and I'm not about to give her the satisfaction of dying before she
does."
Taki wondered what the old woman's mother was like, and
then immediately stomped down that thought. It was something
best left unknown. Meiri alone was bad enough. That thought was
almost enough to make him forget about the trick the old woman
had just pulled on him.
"Then why?" Taki nearly demanded.
Unfortunately for Taki, Eiko chose that moment to return.
She walked up to Meiri and held the miko outfit out to her, saying,
"Thank you for letting me wear this, Meiri-san. It was nice to
pretend to be a miko, even for just a little while."
But Meiri shook her head and made no move to take the
clothes back. "No, no, no," she told Eiko. "I want you to have
them now. I'll never wear them again so it's a shame to let good
clothes go to waste, especially with all the work that went into
sewing them. Besides, you look almost as good in them as I once
did. That is if you want them."
Eiko looked down and the clothes she still held in her
hands, finally shaking her head. "I can't accept them, it's really
much too generous of you. You'll need them for whoever
eventually becomes a miko here anyway."
"Oh, I can just sew up a new set if that happens, besides..."
Meiri trailed off, gesturing for Eiko to bend down so she could
whisper in her ear. Eiko did so and Meiri continued, "Besides, they
suit you well, Eiko. These clothes help bring out your natural
beauty. Taki certainly noticed. He couldn't keep his eyes off of
you."
Taki thought it was just his ego talking to think the two
women were whispering about him - since it was too low for him
to overhear - but when they both turned to glance in his direction -
- Eiko with a faint blush and Meiri with a grin - he just knew that
Meiri was at it again.
Eiko bowed low to Meiri as she clutched the miko outfit
close to her chest. "Thank you very much. I don't know how I'll
ever repay you."
"Well, I do enjoy visitors," Meiri told her. "And I think it
would do my old heart good if you occasionally dropped by
dressed as a miko. If people start to see a pretty girl around here,
that will probably encourage even more guests. This old shrine
could use all the publicity it can get."
"I'll visit as often as I can," Eiko promised with a smile.
"It'd be worth it just to wear this, and to sample more of your
delicious cakes."
Meiri chuckled. "Well, if you promise to bring Taki along
with you, I'll make sure to have a cake ready and waiting for the
both of you."
"It's a deal. Right, Taki?" Eiko asked him with a wink.
Taki felt his mind turn to putty under the influence of
Eiko's enthusiasm. "Um, yeah," he managed to say.

Arisa called off swimming practice early. She wasn't the
kind of person who made her team work while she was off gorging
herself on sweets. Besides, there was still a few days before the
meet and her team was in great shape. A half hour wasn't going to
hurt their chances.
After a quick change back into her uniform, Arisa was off
with her friend in the direction of the local ice cream shop,
inconveniently some distance from the school. Their school had
been situated away from such shops to discourage skipping class,
though in the end this had little effect on absences. Students
simply took the bus.
It was a nice day, so Rika and Arisa decided to walk,
chatting idly about various things on the way. They really didn't
have many common interests, but there was always enough to talk
about. Arisa talked about her preparations for the upcoming swim
meet while Rika discussed her various strategies to whip the karate
team in shape for their next match. Arisa explained her
experiments with makeup and Rika enthused about the new games
at the arcade.
Rika breathed a sigh of relief when she saw who was
working - or rather wasn't working - that day at the ice cream
shop. She used to date the upperclassman who worked there, and
running into him would have been awkward. It was always
awkward for Rika to run into old boyfriends. She felt just a bit
guilty for breaking up with them. The problem was with the
number of boys she had dated even since the end of middle school,
it was hard to avoid them.
It was rarely their fault. She'd been lucky to date some
nice, polite - not to mention handsome - guys, but somehow none
of them could hold her interest for more than a few weeks. There
was always something missing, some unknown quality that she
was searching for and that they had so far lacked.
"Two mega-sundaes, please," Arisa said to the girl behind
the counter, taking out some yen from her purse.
"Two?" the girl asked, blinking in confusion.
"One for me, one for her," Arisa explained with an
undertone of irritation, indicating Rika.
The girl nodded to show that she had already understood
this. "Do you know how big the mega-sundae is? It's huge! Are
you sure you don't just want to split one with you're friend?"
Arisa shook her head. "Definitely two. My friend here is a
pig and I definitely don't want her eating any of mine."
"And who said she was just going to get a sundae for
appearances sake?" Rika taunted, doing her best to imitate her
friend's tone.
Arisa turned around, pulling down one eyelid and sticking
out her tongue. "Biiidah!"
Rika couldn't stop herself from laughing.

Arisa and Rika carried their mountains of ice cream,
drenched with all sorts of toppings, to one of the booths by the tall
windows that lined the shop.
"You didn't have to pay for me again," Rika said as they sat
down, "I do get an allowance to cover things like this."
"I'd much rather have you owe me," Arisa explained as she
carefully ripped open the small plastic bag to get at the spoon
within. Rika, by contrast, practically tore it to shreds to get out the
spoon as soon as possible.
"If I added up all the times you've paid for me, Arisa, I'd
have to buy you a new car to pay you back."
"That would do me a lot of good," Arisa replied with a
smirk. Her parents had already bought her a new car, even though
she was still a year too young to get a driver's license. Her mother
had been talking about visiting relatives in the US so she could get
it sooner, but Arisa was in no rush. A car seemed like way more
trouble than it was worth to her.
"Okay, how about we go shopping after this? I can buy you
something nice to start paying off my debt."
"Rika, I was only joking," Arisa replied with a hint of
exasperation. Sometimes her sarcasm went right over her friend's
head.
"I know, I know," Rika replied with a smile. "I need to buy
you something, or I'll feel too guilty about all the money you've
spent on me."
Arisa nodded in acceptance and the conversation died for a
time as they started in on their sundaes. Arisa ate slowly at hers,
looking perfectly content to spend the entire day dismantling it
piece by piece. Rika devoured hers in large spoonfuls, stopping
mainly for breath. After they had both made some headway,
conversation resumed, though they still continued to eat away at
their mountains of ice cream.

"And this is shopping district," Taki gestured to the wide,
four lane street, lined with brightly colored shops on either side,
half hidden by the crowds of people who made their way through
the shops. The road divider in the center lined with trees provided
a bit of greenery amidst the chaos.
Eiko laughed in delight. Most of the places her family had
moved to were small, out of the way towns. It had been a long
time since they had been anywhere near something like this. She
instinctively grabbed hold of Taki's hand and was off in a flash,
nearly running to look into the picture windows of the shops,
studying the wares on display with interest.
Taki didn't have much time to reflect on holding Eiko's
hand as he struggled to keep up. Eiko was fast and he wasn't
exactly in the best of shape. He was generally lazy when it came to
physical labor, and if it wasn't for Meiri gently forcing him to work
he'd probably would be in terrible condition.
"Let's go in here!" Eiko enthused after examining the items
on display for a few minutes.
"Err, Eiko, that's a women's clothing store," Taki told her
with some embarrassment. A place that in his opinion no boy past
puberty should enter. Even when his mom started shopping for
clothes, he always made sure to be some place far away.
"Come on, Taki!" she said as if she hadn't heard, dragging
him inside.
The door closed behind them with a small ching of tiny
bells, shutting out the roar of the crowd. Taki glanced around, only
to feel even more embarrassed when he noticed the women who
had stopped to stare at him. Finding no convenient hiding place,
he tried to sink into himself, but her could still feel their eyes on
him.
By the time he had finally shaken off their stares, he turned
to face Eiko, but she had vanished into the flora of row upon row
of clothes racks that surrounded him.
"Taki-kun!" said a voice nearby. The boy in question was
startled to turn around and come face to face with his home room
teacher.
"Miyoshi-sensei, what are you doing here?"
"Well, this is a women's clothing store," she told him
pointedly. "I think the question is more appropriate for you."
Taki immediately blushed in embarrassment. "Well, I..."
"I saw Eiko just a minute ago," Miyoshi interrupted. "Let
me guess. You knew she was new here and offered to show her
around?"
Taki nodded eagerly. He would really accept anything she
said as long as she didn't think he was some kind of pervert.
"Oh, what a good boy you are!" Miyoshi shouted suddenly,
wrapping the surprised Taki in a close hug, mussing his hair at the
same time. When he finally realized what was happening, Taki
nearly fainted, though by then it was already over.
"That reminds me," Miyoshi said while Taki was still
recovering. "What time does your mother get off work?"
Taki blinked at the odd question. "Why do you want to
know that?"
"I was planning a home visit soon and wanted to know
when was the best time. I know! When do you normally have
dinner? I'll bring something and we can talk over the meal."
Taki told her his family's usual dinner time, frowning
slightly. He was pretty sure the teacher wasn't supposed to bring
anything like that for a home visit, they never had before. But then
teachers had stopped paying a call on their apartment some time
ago. His mother had a habit of frightening them off. Word had
gotten around that it wasn't a good idea to arrive at the Rhrineheart
household unannounced. Meiri being the only known exception to
this rule, mainly because there didn't seem to be anything that
could frighten her off.
"I'll drop by in a few days. Don't tell your mother though,
it's supposed to be a surprise," Miyoshi told him with a smile.
Taki nodded. Though he still felt confused, he wasn't about
to object to the former idol visiting his home. By the time he could
think of what to say, Miyoshi had already left.
He only had a few minutes to mull this over before Eiko
appeared again. No longer wearing her school uniform, the spirit
adept now wore a long, sleeveless summer dress, complete with
matching sunhat. Eiko posed, turning her head to face him, her
long braid running down her shoulder. Her eyes sparkled with
mirth.
She grinned and asked, "Well, what do you think? Is it
me?"
Taki nodded dumbly.
"Great!" she enthused. "I think I'll wear this home."

Nearby, Rika was nodding dumbly to Arisa, who was
chattering on about her parents, her brother, makeup, fashion,
books she had read lately, or anything in general. Rika wasn't sure
exactly, she wasn't paying attention. Arisa was so quiet around
others that it always surprised Rika what a blabbermouth she could
be when they were together, not that she really minded. Her friend
had quite successfully pulled her out of her gloom, and her chatter
was a comforting noise to keep her from dwelling too much on
what had bothered her in the first place.
Rika idly dug her spoon the in the remains of her friend's
mega-sundae, having finished her own and half of her friend's
besides. It always ended up like this whenever they ate together.
Arisa had to match her order, never allowing the possibility of
splitting an order to be considered, and would leave it half-
finished. Only then would Arisa offer it to her. "So it wouldn't go
to waste," she would say. Something to do with pride, Rika
supposed, since she couldn't think that Arisa was competing with
her. Arisa was only competitive when it came to swimming,
everything else was usually beneath her interest.
"I know exactly what you need, Rika," Alisa said suddenly.
"And what's that?" Rika asked as she ate from the pool of
toppings that was all that remained of the sundae.
"A napkin for one," Arisa said, frowning slightly as she
handed one to her friend. "I do wish you'd be a bit neater when
eating."
Rika shrugged and took the napkin. She didn't really see
the point of trying to stay clean when eating something that was
going to be messy anyway. Her dates never complained about her
eating habits, so she didn't worry about it. Arisa was a neat freak
though; Rika had known that the moment she had stepped into the
blonde girl's room for the first time. Arisa cleaned her own room
because she was never satisfied with the job that her family's maid
did.
Arisa nodded a bit in satisfaction once Rika had cleaned up.
"But what I really meant that you could use a total makeover. I
have everything we'll need at my house anyway. You can stay the
night and you'll have a whole new look for school, something that
will really blow Taki away."
"I doubt he'll even notice," Rika muttered, though in a tone
that suggested she had already given in to the idea.
Arisa frowned again as she idly glanced out the window.
"Well, if he doesn't then he's blind or dumb. Either way it'll prove
he's definitely not worth moping over. I really don't know what
you see in a guy like that. I mean look at his hair, it's ridiculous!"
she shouted, pointing Taki out as he walked by their window.
Arisa and Rika both blinked to realize that the boy they
were talking about was walking right by the window, accompanied
by a girl that had to be Eiko. The summer dress and hat concealed
most of her from the back, but her long braid was unmistakable.
Rika was already standing when Arisa said, "All right, go
ahead and follow them if you must. Just feel free to drop by my
house when you're done with the chase."
Rika bowed to her friend in apology, and in moments she
was out the door, on the trail of Taki and Eiko. She failed to notice
the person that had been watching their window hesitate for a
moment before following.

Taki was quickly becoming fascinated by Eiko's braid. Not
that Eiko herself wasn't interesting and strange - though in a good
way - enough for him, but the braid was even more unusual. It
seemed to move and sway almost of its own free will, like a tree
snake dangling from a branch. He could have sworn that it was
inching up his back once, but when he turned around, it lay limply
on Eiko's back, as if playing dead. He had the strangest feeling that
it didn't like him very much.
He was tempted to ask about it, but was too worried that
she'd think him odd - or perhaps deranged - to think that her hair
could be alive in that sense. He was careful to even keep it out of
his thoughts, though he had to wonder if she'd even notice with the
current state she was in.
Eiko fluttered from store to store like an overexcited
hummingbird. Taki following behind, usually being tugged along.
Holding hands with a girl was nice, but Taki was beginning to feel
that his arm couldn't take much more of this. It almost felt like it
was going to get ripped from its socket. Eiko wasn't exactly
strong, but she was fast. Not keeping pace could prove hazardous
to his health.
For Eiko, it was almost as if she were shopping for the first
time. She had been going to stores for a long while, but she'd only
been a little girl the last time she had seen anything on this scale,
and that had been a little different, being lead by the hand of her
mother. She was giddy with the freedom to explore this strange
new shopping territory as she saw fit.
Her parents had been of the opinion that the out of the way
and lesser known places where were she and her sister would find
their perfect mates. After all, that was how her parents had met
and how her brother had found his wife. But for whatever reason
they never found what they were looking for there, so her mother
had simply given up, and given in to the protests of her daughters
who wanted to live in the city.
Eiko's sister loved to shop, while Eiko herself loved to
browse. She didn't really want much, but got a thrill by simply
looking at all the strange and wonderful things that were for sale,
and occasionally when her interest was particularly aroused, buy
them.
Such was the case with her current clothes. Eiko very
rarely bought clothes herself since she was usually content with her
sister's hand me downs. Her sister seemed buy clothes constantly
to keep up with the latest trends, and since they were nearly the
same size, Eiko got them once those trends had died out.
But when she had seen the summer dress that she now
wore, she just had to have it. It was light and airy, making her feel
free to move how she wanted to. Taki's approval was also nice. It
was a little too light for early spring weather, but feeling Taki's
gaze on her was enough to keep her warm.

"Where are we going now?" Eiko asked in confusion. They
had left the shopping district behind and we now entering the
business one, mostly composed of tall buildings reaching up
towards the sky. The sun was about to set and she was starting to
feel a bit worried about how her mother was going to react to her
staying out this late.
Taki grinned as he turned back to face her. "It's a surprise."
Eiko nodded and followed. She could feel Taki's eagerness
to show her something which he thought was wonderful, and she
couldn't help but feel curious.
All around them the streets surged with salarymen finally
making their way home after another long day at work, masking
the presence of the two that pursued the couple. Though the sight
of two kids still dressed in their high school uniforms slinking their
way down the street - hiding behind phone booths and the corners
of buildings - was an unusual sight, most people were too tired
and focused on getting home to even notice.

Taki lead her to what had to be the tallest building there. It
would have been dwarfed by many others in Tokyo, but here it
stood proudly head and shoulders above all around it. Taki
glanced up once with a smile before leading her inside.
"Distraction," Taki whispered under his breath, and a
moment later the security guard happened to look away as they
passed, not noticing them. Eiko could feel the magic he used on
the guard, though all she could really tell about it was it was fueled
by spirit mana.
Eiko felt a bit tense, expecting to be caught any moment,
but they made it inside the elevator without any problem. She
didn't like to break the law in any way, it always made her feel
uneasy. Her father used to tell her stories about the terrible things
that might happen to her if she were ever caught and exposed as a
mage. She knew that he'd only done it to make her cautious and
his stories were probably wildly exaggerated, but that childhood
fear had remained with her.
Eiko could tell that Taki wasn't tense at all. He just pushed
the button for the top floor and leaned back against the elevator
with a small smile. She had the feeling that this was something he
did often. Not knowing what to say, Eiko rode the elevator in
silence, wondering what Taki had to show her.

Rika tried to sneak past the security guard, but she had
never been one for stealth. Body low, inching her way under the
security guard's booth, she was so focused on not making a sound
that she wasn't really looking where she was going and sent a
standing ash tray crashing to the ground with a loud clank.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing here?" the security
guard asked her angrily. "Get out or I'll call the police!"
Rika bowed humbly and told him, "Yes, sir" before making
her way back out of the building. Her father was a police detective
and if she got into trouble with the police she'd never hear the end
of it. She already got into enough hot water about troubles at
school.
Time to go home anyway - with the sun about to set - but
at the last minute she remembered what Arisa had said over their
sundaes and changed course. Even if Taki didn't notice her new
look the next day, the process of finding one was sure to make her
feel better.

Seeing Rika leave, the second pursuer sighed and gave up
on his plan of following them inside, but he wasn't about to
abandon the pursuit entirely. They had to come out of the building
eventually and besides, he had a feeling - more of an instinct -
that something interesting was about to happen. Checking his
camera once again, he found a comfortable place to sit and watch
the building.

Taki easily lead Eiko down a maze of corridors, brightly lit
though completely vacant, eventually ending at a locked metal
door.
"Open," Taki whispered with his hand on the lock. Eiko
once again felt the slight surge as he used magic. There was a faint
click and then the door opened, revealing stairs leading up, dimly
lit by waning sunlight.
"After you," Taki told her, gesturing toward the stairs while
he bowed to her.
Eiko smiled and bowed back to him before ascending the
stairs, Taki following close behind.
Eiko gasped at the sight that awaited her on he rooftop.
The sun was setting in the distance, its remaining golden light
illuminating the city which lay all around them. She ran up to the
fence that ringed the roof and peered through it so it wouldn't block
her view. She laughed to see her new school in the distance. A
place that had seemed huge and almost forbidding was now so tiny
she could have held it in the palm of her hand.
She didn't even notice when Taki was by her side, looking
through the fence next to her. "I found this place while wandering
off during a field trip in middle school. Ever since then I've been
coming here whenever I needed time to think or be by myself. It's
very peaceful here."
"Yes, it is," Eiko said at a whisper, a little awed that Taki
would share something like this with her, something she could tell
meant a lot to him. She turned to face him and said, "Thank you
for showing this to me, Taki. It really is wonderful."
Taki immediately blushed in embarrassment. "It's not a big
deal-"
Then his voice was swept away by a sudden gust of wind.
He gasped when it lifted up Eiko's skirt, revealing her lightly
tanned, long and slender legs. Eiko gasped herself, but because the
wind snatched her new hat right from her head. She tried to reach
out and grab it, but she just missed, the hat sailing on the breeze,
only to land on the top of the fence once the wind had died.
"Don't worry, I'll get it for you," Taki volunteered
immediately and started climbing up the fence.
"Oh, no, it's too dangerous," Eiko protested, feeling
worried. Something was telling her that it was a bad idea.
"No problem. I'm a mage, remember?" Taki told her with a
confident grin as he studied the problem of the hat teetering on the
edge of the fence. Using a magic wind was a little too chancy, and
he never had really mastered telekinesis, so had no choice but to
retrieve it the mundane way.
Taki carefully climbed up the fence, trying to avoid jostling
the hat, slowly inching his was up until, with a smile of triumph, he
had grabbed hold of it.
The next moment the whole building shook violently with
the power of an earthquake. Taki shouted in surprise as this
sudden movement sent him right over the edge of the fence, headed
for the street far below. He blinked when he felt something wrap
around his ankle, halting his descent. He looked back up to see
Eiko now on the top of the fence, her long braid firmly wrapped
around his ankle. His weight should have been yanking her hair
out by the roots, but she didn't even look strained. She stared down
at him in relief as the fence still shook with aftershocks.
"Thank goodness you're all right," Eiko nearly whispered,
as if she feared that her voice might cause another earthquake.
"I got your hat," Taki told her weakly, not thinking of what
else to say. The situation was a bit too weird for him. He guessed
that hanging outside of a tall building only supported by a woman's
hair would be weird for just about anyone.
Eiko laughed lightly and began to haul him back up by her
braid when suddenly another tremor hit. Suddenly, everything
seemed to slow down for Taki as he watched the fence shake
violently, sending Eiko tumbling over the edge towards him, his
own interrupted fall now resumed.
Taki let out a deep breath, at the same time expelling the
remaining spirit mana from his body. He breathed in the air mana
all around him, in his panic over-saturating himself, so that he
actually began to feel lighter without even doing anything. In a far
corner of his mind, he knew that he'd be paying for this later.
In contrast to the speed of his vision, his thoughts were like
lightning as he considered and narrowed down which spell to use
under the circumstances. Fly would take too long to weave,
featherweight just as bad since he'd have to cast it twice. There
was only one solution.
"Float," he whispered, completing the spell weave and
igniting it with his breath. Immediately, his descend slowed and he
opened his arms to reach out and catch Eiko as she fell towards
him, holding her as tightly as could. The sudden added weight
increased his momentum, but eventually they slowed and stopped,
hovering there only a few stories from where they had fallen.
Taki could feel Eiko shaking in his arms, her eyes filled
with unshed tears. He also noticed her braid wrapped around his
waist, which he probably wouldn't have under the circumstances if
it hadn't been holding him so tightly. He idly considered if there
was some magic that could turn hair into steel.
Taki wondered where his own fear had gone. He had
certainly felt it when he'd been sent tumbling over the edge, but for
some reason it had vanished when Eiko had caught him, and not
returned after she had fallen. He tried to reach for it - they weren't
out of danger yet - but found nothing.
"Are you all right, Eiko?" he asked slowly.
After a few moments, Eiko nodded.

There happened to be only one outside observer to all this,
and he only noticed because he had been so bored waiting that he
decided to use his zoom lens to peer up at the darkening sky. His
initial shock at seeing the two of them just hanging in mid-air
faded into joy.
"I knew I'd see something interesting," he muttered to
himself as he snapped off a few pictures. Even with the zoom all
the way, it was impossible to identify the two figures, but hanging
unsupported in the air was enough. Besides, he knew who one of
them had to be.

Setting the both of them back down on the roof, Taki let out
a deep breath to rid himself of all the air mana. Some of it still
lingered though, wedged deep inside himself when he had brought
it in so violently. Excess mana always made him sick, but he'd be
fine until he'd gotten home at least, and then his mom would take
care of him, probably berating him all the while.
Noticing that Eiko was just sitting there unmoving, staring
at the ground, he asked her slowly, "Are you all right?"
Eiko nodded absently, her eyes still downcast. "That
sudden quake wasn't natural."
"Magic?" he asked her in surprise.
Eiko nodded again. "Someone used a lot of earth mana to
cause it. I'm trying to trace the source, but it was too widespread.
The lingering echoes of the spell are all over the place."
Taki was impressed at how sensitive to magic Eiko was.
He hadn't felt a thing when the quake had first hit, even though his
mind had been elsewhere at the time. He tried his best to sense
now, but all he could feel was the lingering traces of his own
spells.
Eiko finally stood, shaking her head and dusting off the
hem of her new dress. "It's no use. Whoever did this is probably
long gone by now anyway. Do you know any other magus in this
area?"
"Only my mom, but she rarely uses anything other than
spirit magic. I've never seen her do anything on this scale, and its
not really something she'd do anyway."
"Not a member of my family either. I can tell when one of
them uses magic. That means that there's another mage around,
one that doesn't seem to mind showing off. This could be bad, I'll
have to ask my mom what she thinks should be done about this."
Seeing the worried frown on Eiko's face, Taki handed her
back her new sunhat, which he had managed to hold onto despite
everything they had just recently been through. Letting go of it
finally, he frowned to notice that his grip had warped part of the
rim.
"I'm really sorry," he apologized. "I'll... I'll buy you a new
hat."
With a grin, Eiko set the hat back atop her head, turning it
so the warped part was at her back. "You don't need to do that,
Taki. For some reason, I've become very fond of this one."

"Oops," said a girl sitting cross legged on a rooftop some
distance away from Taki and Eiko. "That wasn't what I wanted."