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Chapter 8 Main Chapters Chapter 10

Chapter 9: Backup

Later that day, we reached a great city, presumably the capital of Koutou. We didn't get a chance to see much of it, or the outside of its magnificent palace, because the ninja leapt in quick succession over various walls, through the city, and into the palace.

Ryoko Asakura was standing in a room with rich blue hangings, waiting for us. I was set down on the floor, facing her, still bound by the puppet Karasu.

"How wonderful to see you all," Asakura said politely. "Kyon, I believe you've met these three? They're the ninja team I hired from The Village Hidden in the Sand. This is Temari," she looked at the female ninja with the enormous fan on her back, "Kankuro," she looked at my captor, "and Gaara." She looked at the third ninja, who I now saw had red hair and apparently was an insomniac, judging by the dark circles around his eyes.

"Good afternoon," I said dryly, nodding my head by way of greeting.

Kankuro and Temari were nonplussed, looking between myself, themselves, and Asakura. Gaara seemed to be caught up in his own little world.

Asakura addressed herself to the ninjas, "Thank you very much for your hard work in bringing Kyon here. Please commit him into my custody, and accept these bonuses for your timely delivery." She proffered some blue jewels.

Kankuro made a slight movement with his hand, and Karasu's limbs released me. I stood up and stretched as the ninjas accepted the gems. My skin had chafed where Karasu had gripped me, but at least I didn't have splinters.

"What happens next?" I asked.

Asakura smiled at me. "You'll be happy to know that I'm not planning on killing you, Kyon."

I paused. Surely I couldn't have heard her right. Finally, I cautiously noted, "This is rather a sudden decision."

Asakura gently contradicted me, "Actually, I arrived at it after some thought. You know what people say: it's insane to keep trying what doesn't work. I realized I don't actually need to kill you for Haruhi Suzumiya to change the world. You just need to be in some sort of danger."

I tried to ignore the weird looks Temari and Kankuro were giving us as I asked, "And Konan?"

"There's no point to threatening Konan when you are my hostage," Asakura stated blithely.

Something just wasn't right here. "The emperor of Koutou doesn't mind moving his troops around pointlessly, or you dipping into his treasury to pay ninjas?" I was guessing that not even "biological interfaces" could produce jewels from thin air.

"After learning from you that humans don't want to die," Asakura said cheerfully, "I found that convincing the emperor of Koutou was easy."

Temari looked shocked, Kankuro looked disbelieving, and Gaara looked bored.

I decided I ought to find a new topic of conversation fast. Maybe something safe and harmless. At that moment, of course, such topics were in short supply.

"I should show you to your room, Kyon," Asakura decided.

"Hold it," Temari said sharply.

Asakura looked over in surprise.

"You see, we can't accept stolen goods as payment," Temari explained, holding up the blue jewel.

Kankuro smiled. "Why don't you have it back?" he suggested, throwing the jewel at her.

Asakura caught the jewel, though it had been flung very fiercely, then the one from Temari. A moment later, Temari had grabbed me, flung me unceremoniously over her shoulder, and bounded out the window.

"You make up your mind fast," I said a moment later.

We were bounding through the trees, and, by craning my neck uncomfortably, I could see Kankuro on my left. Kankuro said, "No pay, no work. We're expecting something for bringing you back to Konan."

"I appreciate it," I said, seriously hoping that Haruhi would actually pay up and not try her usual cutthroat bargaining tactics. "But do you suppose I could be transported right-side up?" All the blood was rushing to my head, and it felt gross.

But it appeared the ninja had bigger fish to fry. "She slipped past Gaara?" Temari said in shock.

"He probably was too bored to take it seriously, look how slow he's chasing her," Kankuro said disgustedly.

Great. Asakura's probably in pursuit.

You know, in the normal course of events, weird disruptions in the routine of daily life don't happen nearly so often. People aren't usually taken out of their normal school existences and placed in constant peril in ancient realms. Usually they just do their homework, take their exams, graduate, get jobs, and live a normal existence. In my life, however, I only seem to enjoy normalcy as an interlude before I go back to another crazy enterprise courtesy of Haruhi.

You'd think I'd be used to it by now.

Temari stopped short on a tree branch and whirled around, making me feel dizzy. She whipped the fan off her back, accidentally jolting me as I had been slung over it, and it sounded like she tried to use it to blow Asakura back. There was a thud, but apparently Askura hadn't fallen far, because Temari then continued on. I heard Kankuro deploying Karasu- I could tell because of the wooden rattle of Karasu's joints.

It must not have been enough, because after a gut-wrenching fall, I found myself flat on my back, Temari sprawled a short distance away.

I clambered to my feet to find Asakura looking at me, her hands already blades.

"My earlier plan, to kill you, did have the advantage of simplicity," she noted as she started towards me.

A witch hat suddenly sailed through the air, interposed itself between Asakura and me, and disgorged Yuki Nagato. She lost no time in firing a fusillade of energy bolts at Asakura, who used her blade hands to parry them.

Then, out of the hat popped Haruhi, who declared, "Everyone out of the hat! Attack, smash them! Smash them all!" She looked behind her at me and asked, "Do I have to make it any clearer? You're supposed to attack her, Kyon!"

I was trying to decide who was more of a threat to my life, a determined Asakura or a disappointed Haruhi, when Koizumi emerged from the hat, holding his sword at the ready.

"This is an interesting situation," Koizumi noted.

Haruhi ordered, "All right, Koizumi, you take on our enemy over there-" she pointed at Temari, "while Yuki and I take Asakura!"

"Actually, they're looking for new employment," I said quickly.

Koizumi quickly strode forward and helped Temari to her feet, saying, "Quite a fascinating coincidence, isn't it? I suppose it'll just be a matter of offering a higher price."

"We'll take the offer, and thanks for the hand," Temari said, stepping forward and wiping away some blood from the corner of her mouth, "but I think you should all fall back. We're the top-ranked genin from our village, we'll be fine."

"You do realize that Miss Asakura isn't quite human?" Koizumi said in a low voice.

With a grimace, Temari informed him, "That's why it's only going to get worse."

Asakura used her lightning to strike Nagato. Nagato fell to one knee, but before Asakura could press any advantage, Karasu swung down from behind. Asakura blocked it with a pearly spherical shield that extended around her, but Karasu remained, lashing out with limbs and needles that emerged from its joints.

Odd noises had been coming from the witch hat for some time, and now I heard a voice from inside say, "Oh, wait, maybe you get out like this- Aaugh!" Soon afterwards, Miss Asahina fell to the ground in a heap out of the hat, and slowly picked herself up, saying, "Ouch!"

Incensed, I cried, "You brought her to a place like this?"

Haruhi turned a baleful eye on me, "This is an SOS Brigade operation, Kyon! Of course we need all of our members here."

Miss Asahina ran towards me, saying, "Kyon, thank goodness you're all right!" Then she tripped on a tree root.

I was going forward to help her. Temari used her fan to create a gust of wind that hurled Asakura bodily into a nearby tree trunk, but Asakura's shield protected her from real harm. Asakura's return shot of energy was expertly ducked, and Asakura didn't have a chance to continue the assault because Koizumi and Karasu rushed her. She ambidextrously parried them, and used her energy shield to block the shuriken that Temari hurled.

Taniguchi came out of the hat just after Miss Asahina got up. He looked at the madness around him, shook his head, and muttered to himself.

As though everything around me wasn't unlikely enough before, my friend Kunikida emerged from the hat. He has dirty blonde hair, and has been my friend since junior high school. Kunikida is in my class at school. That is, when he's not emerging from a floating witch hat into an ancient land of superwarriors. "Hi, Kyon!" he called. He looked in amazement at the melee. "Wow. Up until now I thought you guys were kidding about Asakura being an evil esper."

Really a "biological interface," but it's close enough, and it's not as though I'm going to correct him at a time like this.

"Kunikida's in this Suzaku Seven thing too," Taniguchi told me as he and Kunikida edged away from the combat zone.

"Yeah, I'm told I'm Chiriko," Kunikida said.

Haruhi was devouring the sight of the fantastic combat, a gigantic smile on her face. At least someone here is happy.

Tsuruya came out of the hat next. She looked at the scene and whistled. "Well, this is exciting!" she exclaimed. "I ought to get our class to make this world the theme for next year's arts festival!"

Any further commentary was drowned out by a peal of thunder, earsplittingly close. Asakura had sent out forked lightning, aimed at Koizumi, Kankuro, and Temari simultaneously. Koizumi had collapsed, and Kankuro had fallen out of the tree he was in, his puppet collapsing as he lost concentration. Yuki had leapt and created a shield that stopped the fork of lightning aimed at Temari, so the two of them were unharmed.

Temari and Yuki took this opportunity to go on the offensive. Temari leapt into a tree and began throwing knives at Asakura, while Nagato ran from spot to spot in the clearing, trading energy bolts with Asakura.

Meanwhile, the rest of us ran towards Koizumi. Miss Asahina worriedly took Koizumi's wrist and tried to figure out where to find a pulse. Tsuruya leaned over and asked, "Hey, you OK, Koizumi?"

"Somehow, that does seem to be the case," Koizumi murmured, causing Miss Asahina to smile. "Although it would be stretching truth to call this OK." He grimaced in pain.

"Let's see how well you are, then," Tsuruya suggested. "My fingers - how many am I holding up?" She held out her hand with her palm open, all her fingers out.

"Five," Koizumi whispered, then we all gasped as the Chinese character on Tsuruya's palm blazed red, and small, colorful balls of light wafted out of the character and onto Koizumi's body. His injuries faded, and even the dirt on his clothes melted into nothingness.

He stood up quickly, his eyes now bright and alert, and held his sword steadily. Tsuruya bent her palm towards her to look at it. Koizumi said in a more normal voice, "My thanks, for whatever it was that you just did."

Tsuruya wondered aloud, "How did I do that?" She re-extended her arm and tried moving it up and down, as though shaking a bottle to get the last drops of liquid out.

"Excellent work, Brigade members! Our mission to invade Koutou has been a complete success! Now, Koizumi, Taniguichi, Kunikida and Kyon will back me up while I take out Asakura! Mikuru will be a distraction!" Haruhi grinned evilly and put Miss Asahina in a headlock while Miss Asahina began to wail.

Taniguchi protested, "Now wait a minute! One, where do you get off ordering me around! Two, not even my flamethrower," he waved his iron fan, "dropped Asakura!"

When Haruhi glared at him, Kunikida pointed out, "Miss Suzumiya, I don't suppose you noticed half of us are entirely unarmed? I seriously hope I'm not expected to fight with this whistle." He produced a small green leaf.

We were suddenly joined by Temari, Kankuro, and Yuki. Kankuro said urgently, "If you don't want to die today, get back now!"

Taniguchi complained, "Hey, what are you guys doing! If you're here, who's keeping Asakura occupied?"

I saw the answer for myself. Asakura had paused contemplatively, facing Gaara, who must've arrived sometime while we were busy with Koizumi. Gaara's arms were folded, but he no longer looked bored. He was staring at Asakura, the dark circles around his eyes accentuating his mixture of contempt and hunger.

Miss Asahina shivered, "Wh-wh-what's going on?" she asked plaintively.

Kunikida asked Temari, "Has your friend slept in a month?"

"You don't know what our younger brother is," Temari said, and I realized she was almost in a panic. "Move now!" She seemed ready to shove us.

Yuki whispered to me, "I concur, you know."

Haruhi insisted, "Now is the time for a frontal assault!"

Kankuro said disgustedly, "Fine, throw your life away! I'm going. Don't waste any more time on fools, Temari!" He leapt into a nearby tree.

"Can we get back to Konan in the hat?" I asked Yuki.

Yuki shook her head. "Asakura will almost certainly manipulate information to restrain the hat if it leaves the area, you know."

I turned to Temari just as she was turning to leave us. "Would you please ferry us to someplace safe?"

She was put out, but obligingly slung me over her shoulder and jumped into a faraway tree branch. "Kankuro," she called out, "get the others up here!"

"We're cutting it close," he muttered as he used his puppet to haul the others up to the branch.

Haruhi raised her fists in the air angrily and shouted at me, "Kyon, come back! We're supposed to be attacking!" She was shouting similar things even as Temari hauled her up to the tree branch I was squatting precariously on.

Yuki also turned out to be able to leap up to the branch with a person on her back, so we were all together up there relatively quickly. Now we were a good distance from Gaara and Asakura, hopefully out of danger. At least that particular danger. It's very crowded up here, and although it's a sturdy branch, there's not exactly a lot of room to maneuver. Miss Asahina in particular is having trouble balancing.

We were still close enough that we could all hear Asakura say, "This should be an excellent test, to see if I've improved. I'll never be able to fulfill my plans so long as I'm merely a backup unit." She looked thoughtfully up at Yuki, then continued, "So I hope that you'll do your best, Mr. Gaara."

Gaara smiled coldly. "I'm looking forward to it."

The hat was still floating near Yuki, and my little sister's head poked out of the hat, upside down. She asked, "Is it safe to come out now?"

"I don't think you could've picked a more dangerous time," I told her. "Get back inside."

She grasped the brim of the hat and protested, "But it's so fun being upside-down!" She began to sway back and forth.

Gaara extended an outstretched hand towards Asakura and said, "Sand Coffin."

From out of nowhere, a large stream of sand flowed past his arm and towards Asakura, seeking to envelop her. Her shield appeared and blocked it. The sand remained outside the shield, coiling and writhing, dashing itself against the shield, and screaming with the fury of the wind.

Asakura leveled her arms at Gaara and began to launch a fusillade of energy bolts at him. In an instant, a wall of sand had appeared only centimeters away from Gaara's nose, intercepting all of Asakura's bolts.

Asakura flung more and more bolts at him in a ceaseless barrage, her face neutral. Gaara scowled as his sand wall remained in place. The sand that was whipping around Asakura's shield whipped about faster, but was unable to penetrate her defenses.

"This is bad," Kankuro said anxiously.

Temari agreed fearfully, "She's powerful enough to hold him back at this level. If she doesn't fall soon, Gaara will unleash that thing inside him. We could all die if that happens."

That thing? Sounds rather ominous. And extremely vague. In any case, Gaara looks plenty tough as it is, and I have no desire to see what carnage will ensue should he and Asakura mix it up at any higher level.

Haruhi had been silent, but now made a harrumphing noise in my general direction. She crossed her arms and remained standing on the tree branch with perfect balance. I had earlier decided that whatever deadly combat Asakura and Gaara were engaged in was more dangerous than Haruhi's disappointment, but the latter's scowl almost made me reconsider.

Koizumi choose this moment to sidle disturbingly close to me and whisper, "It does seem that she wants you to win the fight against Miss Asakura."

He had gingerly stepped even closer to me, so I told him, "Hey, you're too close. You'll make me fall off." I gripped the tree branch to be more sure of my position.

Koizumi smiled that annoying smile of his and retreated only slightly, reiterating with a wave at all of us, "She's so confident in your abilities that she's ready to risk her precious Brigade, and the only espers she knows, in order to defeat the threat that Miss Asakura poses to you, and to all of us."

"If that's how it is, one of these days I'm going to die trying to live up to her expectations," I said.

Koizumi put a hand to his chin for a moment, but finally responded, "I'd be highly surprised if that were ever the case."

Asakura had now tired of throwing bolts of energy at Gaara, and was now circling him, trying to get in close and use her blade hands. Gaara was standing calmly, with his arms crossed, a wall of sand erupting from the ground to block her every attack. Asakura, however, was going faster and faster, while his sand was not.

Temari had been watching the conversation between Koizumi and I, and she said urgently, "If there's anything you can do, you'd better do it now. I think soon Gaara will decide to shift into the thing inside him. Nothing within a five kilometer radius will be safe."

I sighed. Normally I try to avoid calling on my fellow Brigade member's exceptional abilities, because it feels like cheating to me. But there's no way I'm going to face Asakura alone. That's just stupid. I asked, "What are our chances of cheating?"

"Not good," admitted Koizumi.

Miss Asahina, a few paces away on the branch, said, "I'm afraid I don't really have any ideas."

The three of us looked at Nagato, and she said, "It will be difficult to utilize information controls in the strong local warping generated by Asakura and Gaara's combat, you know?"

"Great. The floor's open to anyone who has any ideas for using our Suzaku powers against Asakura," I said without much hope.

Miss Asahina almost fell off the branch we were standing on. Tsuruya helped steady her, laughing, "Whoa, hang on!"

Once Tsuruya had helped her stopped teetering, Miss Asahina went on to say, "If I could get back on the ground, I'd have good enough footing to use my super strength and throw something heavy at her."

The question, of course, would be whether or not it would hit.

My friend Kunikida inquired, "Do I have any Suzaku powers?"

Ignoring him, my other friend, Taniguchi, said, "All right, all right, I'll use the flamethrower if it'll help."

Koizumi offered, "Of course, I'm game to try more swordsmanship."

Taniguchi challenged me, "You are coming too, right?"

Oh, whatever. "Why not? I guess she's going to try to kill me whatever I do," I replied.

"At last!" Haruhi exclaimed. "Finally, the SOS Brigade enters the fight! I'll go first, and when I signal, one of you will take over for me! We'll wear her down with sheer numbers!"

That's not how you wear someone down with sheer numbers! Besides, natural athletic talent or not, Haruhi'll be mincemeat in five seconds facing off against Asakura.

"As the leader," I disagreed, "you have to stay here and look after Kunikida and my little sister."

"Hey," Kunikida protested, stung out of his usual easygoing nature, "don't treat me like a burden just because I got stuck with a whistle!"

"I can honestly say I'd switch places with you if at all possible," I said as I put my hand to my forehead.

Haruhi hopped down to a branch further forward and lower down, then turned back to face us and pointed at Miss Asahina, saying, "Here's the battle order: I'm first, then Mikuru takes over for me, then Koizumi," she pointed at him, "then Kyon. I'll decide the next ones as we go along."

Kunikida suddenly had a strange look on his face, then recovered somewhat. "President Suzumiya!" he suddenly said with a suspicious respectfulness, "may I make a proposal regarding the upcoming battle?"

I overheard Temari whisper to Kankuro, "How long is this going to take?" He whispered back, "Now I can see why ninja go in teams of only three or four."

Haruhi turned to Kunikida and said, "Very well, go ahead!"

Kunikida said eagerly, "I realized that if Miss Yuki Nagato goes in front, she can shield us. Miss Asahina can pick up that fallen tree there-" he pointed to a giant log, "-and throw it at Miss Asakura. When Miss Asakura dodges it, she'll probably try to move further from Gaara. Miss Nagato will therefore lead a charge to that side as soon as Miss Asahina throws the log. Pres. Suzumiya, Koizumi, and Kyon, will follow Miss Nagato and attack when they get to close range. Meanwhile, the other ninja will take Taniguchi to Miss Asakura's rear via the trees. Taniguchi will use his flamethrower to cut off any further retreats of Miss Asakura - Temari's fan should fuel the fire and increase its spread. I'll stay with Taniguchi and the ninja to observe the situation and watch for unexpected developments. Miss Tsuruya will stay with the ninja and drop into the combat zone to administer first aid as needed."

"Excellent work, Kunikida! All of you should learn from him!" Haruhi said happily.

You should learn from him, too, Haruhi. I haven't heard such an example of good planning since I joined the SOS Brigade.

Taniguchi turned to Kunikida and asked skeptically, "So, if we all combine our powers, we can win?"

Kunikida grimaced, but replied tenaciously, "I know, I know, but it does work in the real world."

Too bad we're here instead. Still, I actually feel rather confident about his plan.

Yuki, with Miss Asahina on her back, leapt smoothly to the ground, unnoticed by Gaara and Asakura. Haruhi climbed down nonchalantly, Koizumi descended elegantly, while I used my head and requested assistance from Kankuro and Karasu. I'm almost getting used to being carried around in dangerous situations by a wooden puppet.

I let go of Karasu as soon as my feet were on the ground, and Kankuro retracted it. Kunikida climbed aboard Karasu as it took firm hold of Tsuruya, while Temari slung Taniguchi over her shoulder. "Whoa!" Taniguchi cried as they bounded through the trees. The witch hat followed them, and my little sister, still hanging out upside down, cried "Whee!"

Miss Asahina picked up and carried the giant fallen log as though it were no heavier than her school bag. I was afraid that she'd overbalance while carrying it, but she managed somehow.

"All right, then, Brigade members!" Haruhi called. "On my mark, we'll charge!"

Asakura had by now exceeded the speed of Gaara's sand wall, which is saying something since it appears in the blink of an eye. Now they were fighting hand to hand. Gaara was covered in a layer of sand that clung to his skin and deflected Asakura's blades, though the sand cracked under the impact of the blow. He struck back with bare fists, which sounds lame, except that Asakura was flung back three meters every time he managed to connect.

"Charge!" Haruhi called.

Yuki immediately began to run forward, and Haruhi, Koizumi, Miss Asahina, and I followed as fast as we could. Needless to say, this ensured that we had no formation whatsoever.

Gaara connected again, and Asakura was flung back a few meters. She picked herself up and started to run at him again when she noticed us coming and turned on a dime.

All of us, as we ran, shouted something at poor, innocent Miss Asahina, something inane like, "Throw the log! Throw it!" Miss Asahina responded with a panicked, "Okay!" She stopped running to throw the giant log, and the sudden change in motion made her lose her balance and fall to one knee. The front of the log, several meters ahead of her, tipped forward and hit the ground. Miss Asahina, however, straightened up as though she had been carrying nothing and heaved the log at Asakura.

No matter how much strength Miss Asahina had gained with her Suzaku powers, her accuracy was about normal - a meter or so off target. Ordinarily, Asakura would've avoided that easily, but Gaara had started sandblasting her again, so, as we hoped, she moved away from him. The log crashed to a halt between her and Gaara.

Yuki, Koizumi, Haruhi, and I were now all running at Asakura. Yuki's lips moved rapidly, and she began to fire bolts from her hands as she ran, then she said, "Kai-ha, you know?" and blue bolts shot out of her wand. Asakura had to use both her hands to deflect the attack, so she attempted to move to the side.

Koizumi, Haruhi, and I, were running to that side. Koizumi had managed to stay in front of Haruhi, but I was still a few steps behind.

I heard Taniguchi shout "Rekka Shinen!" I looked up to see him standing on a tree branch, beside Temari, Kankuro, Tsuruya, and Kunikida. There was a jet of flame emerging from Taniguchi's iron fan. Temari swung her giant fan, and the jet expanded into an inferno with an almost malevolent hissing sound. Asakura halted her sidestepping as a massive swathe of underbrush beside her was engulfed in flames higher than my head. The heat came out towards me like a wall, and I almost stumbled.

Koizumi was on Asakura a moment later, swinging his sword rapidly. She had kept her head, as well as both of her hands as blades, and was parrying him, even managing to force him towards the inferno, but Nagato was keeping up her long range bombardment, so Asakura had to relegate one hand to each opponent. In the meantime, a cloud of sand began to swirl around her, as Gaara, beyond the log, grinned. Asakura, however, didn't appear worried, and I heard a warning rumble of thunder in the skies.

Right into the midst of this deadly melee and exchange of fire, Haruhi ran, as though this were something enjoyable, like a day at the beach. Of course, I only saw her face for a moment, as she looked back at me. Still, it was enough to see that she was very, very happy. Five seconds later, she leapt in the air and executed her flying kick, straight on target for Asakura. Unfortunately, Asakura's shield was still up, blocking Gaara's sand, so Haruhi rebounded and fell unceremoniously to the ground.

Asakura held her arms extended a moment, and a giant bolt of lightning leapt out of the sky, and flowed from her head to pour out of both her arms. Yuki leapt towards Koizumi and Haruhi, forming her shield. She crashed straight into Koizumi and knocked him into the ground, leaving them more or less piled on top of Haruhi. The other bolt of lightning flew towards Gaara, and was only dissipated partially by a hastily forming sand wall before it struck him full in the chest. He collapsed to all fours, then struggled to his feet with a murderous look on his face. The sand which had been layered on his body had been fried into glass by the lightning, and cracked and fell off him as he moved with tinkles I could only barely hear over the roar of the nearby flames.

Now my long, long, long run had finally taken me into hand-to-hand range with Asakura. I was coughing, and my eyes were burning, as the smoke's stench penetrated my nostrils. Through my blurred vision, I saw Asakura swing one blade hand at me horizontally, at my throat, and the other towards my stomach, stabbing or slicing or something that would be painful.

I was about one second away from being dead. My lungs were screaming for oxygen, and my brain was gibbering incoherently. I frantically skipped to the side of Asakura's attack - she would've pressed it further, but she almost tripped over Yuki and the others, and Gaara's sand was hemming her in elsewhere. In sheer panic, I used my open palm as a weapon, striking at her head, not even realizing that her shield was up and all that would happen was a bruised fist.

Then her shield sputtered and died as Gaara compressed his sand further, and my hand struck her face, rocking her back. It felt for a moment as though all my adrenaline surged through my body towards my hand, and for just a moment I saw a blue, needlelike bolt of energy zip out of my palm and through Asakura's skull.

Asakura stepped back, shaken, then began slowly, slowly, to dissolve. Gaara hopped on top of the log and crossed his arms, a triumphant smile on his face.

Rain began to pour out of the sky, dousing the nearby brush fire, and wetting us all to the skin, but this was barely noticed by anyone.

After many shouted, contradictory orders from Haruhi, the pile of Nagato, Koizumi, and herself, finally got sorted out. Haruhi saw the dissolving figure of Asakura and threw her fist in the air, congratulating herself, "Excellent! My plan was a complete sucess!"

Haruhi, it was Kunikida's plan.

As Kunikida was lowered to the ground by Kankuro, Kunikida whispered to me, "I know, but really, what matters is that Asakura's gone, right?"

Taniguchi clambered down and stood beside me, elbowing me sharply in the ribs. "Yeah, that is all that matters!" he said, and began to criticize me. "Why did you have to kill her? Couldn't you have convinced her of the error of her ways and made her turn good again?"

"Before she slit my throat? Probably not," I said incredulously. "Look, we just took out a tough, otherworldly enemy, and we all seem to be more or less all right. Why are you not happy?"

"How can I be happy," he groaned, "when there's one less A-rank beauty in the world?"

His disappointment was short-lived, as Miss Asahina descended upon us - almost literally, because she tripped over a root a short distance away. She got to her feet quickly and asked, "Kyon, are you-" - then she shot a glance over towards Haruhi and quickly asked, "Is everyone all right?"

Yuki gave an almost imperceptible nod as Tsuruya, Kankuro, Temari, and my little sister in the witches' hat came down out of the trees. Koizumi said satisfiedly, "Somehow or another, we all seem to have come through that unscathed."

Asakura began to speak, and she was smiling, which was altogether disconcerting since she only existed from about the waist up and was still dissolving. "I am very satisfied. I had an opportunity to witness first-hand so many changes that Miss Suzumiya made to this world! And Kyon, you and the others should be happy too. You'll be able to continue living. That makes you happy, doesn't it?"

It does, although I seriously hope that Asakura isn't going to be making any more returns to haunt me. Two attempts on my life is more than enough.

Soon she had disappeared completely, and Gaara and the ninja finally turned their attention to us. Koizumi stepped forward and proffered, "I believe it's time that we recompensed you for your help." He held out his sword, hilt-first. "Would this be satisfactory?"

Kankuro took it, and he and Temari looked it up and down, noting both the balance and the jewels in the hilt. Gaara, bored again, looked nowhere in particular. And I thought Haruhi was the only person with an attention span that short.

"It's an excellent sword," Kankuro finally said with a smile.

"I'd judge it to be a worthy payment for an A-ranked mission like this," Temari agreed. "It was a pleasure. If you need our services again, just contact the Village Hidden in the Sand."

"It's been a pleasure working with you too," Haruhi bowed to them. "If you ever need the help of the SOS Brigade, just contact us at North High School!"

Temari and Kankuro shared an awkward glance, then Temari settled on replying, "Farewell." Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara leapt away simultaneously.

Koizumi commented, "That was a good sword. Almost as good as that other one back in the armory." He gestured towards Konan. "Hopefully I won't need a weapon anytime soon."

Chapter 8 Main Chapters Chapter 10