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Etiam in tenebris, unus veritatem valet (even in darkness, one truth prevails)

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On the train ride there, Ran leaned in so Kuroba couldn’t hear. “If you two were so close, how come you never told me about him?”

Aoko poked her cheek. “I did tell you about him, remember? You two have met before. And we haven’t actually spoken in years; not since I moved away. I haven’t even seen him at school.”

<That’s because I skipped a grade.> Ran squinted at Kyubey, but the creature hadn’t stirred. <Nope, not the cat ferret, me. Eleven o’clock, messy hair.>

Kuroba. How was he doing this? As if reading her thoughts, he sighed. <I’m not reading your thoughts, you’re just thinking too loud. Or Kyubey is too sensitive; he acts as a receiver for our thoughts so that we can communicate telepathically.>

<Ah, my bad. They’re new, so I’m afraid I haven’t had time to adjust to their thoughts.> Kyubey closed its eyes and there was a sharp pop, like atmospheric pressure dropping. <That should fix your problem. Try it now.>

<Testing, one, two…> Aoko blinked in surprise. <Hey, this actually works! How come?>

<That’s because Kyubey chose you. Sometimes, if he sees potential in someone, he’ll do that.>

<Our potential to do what?> Ran asked.

Kyubey hopped out of her arms, landing gracefully on the subway floor. <To make contracts with me and become Puella Magi, of course!>

“WHAT?” Aoko burst out. Several people turned to stare, but quickly lost interest.

“Oh, don’t mind him. He’s got no tact; besides, it’s rude to force a girl to make a decision like that so early.” Kuroba huffed. “Honestly, he’s incorrigible. Well, this is our stop!”

 

***

 

Kuroba’s house was large, but strangely empty. “I live alone, so you’ll have to pardon me. I’m not used to entertaining visitors much,” he said, ushering them past a portrait of a man who looked like an older version of him.

“You mom doesn’t even stop by anymore?” Aoko asked. Ran shifted uncomfortably, feeling like an outsider. She still wasn’t sure she’d ever met him before; sure, he looked familiar, but that was because his features were similar to Shinichi’s. The way he moved was completely different.

“I did tell you it was a long story.” He smiled at the two of them, but it was pained. “Why don’t I get some refreshments?”

“That would be nice,” Ran admitted.

“Lovely! I’ll be right back.” Kyubey’s tail swished on his shoulder as he entered the kitchen. He returned a moment later, carrying a tray with tea and chocolate cake. “Aoko, I still remember how you like your tea, but I’m not sure about Mouri-chan.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Ran assured him. He distributed a plate of cold chocolate cake to each of them, then the tea in delicate mugs with irregular gold filigree below the rims. She picked hers up and inspected it, admiring the craftsmanship. “Is this...writing?”

“Yes, it is!” Kuroba seemed delighted that she’d noticed. “Italian and cursive, as if it wasn’t illegible enough. Mom sent me these from Italy. She used to love traveling to new places.”

“Used to?” Ran set down her cup without drinking from it. “Did something...happen?”

“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate, however. “I’m sure you both have lots of questions for me.”

“I’ve got one. You still drink Earl Grey?” Aoko said, poking his cup. Ran drew in a sharp breath, sure her friend was being insensitive, but Kuroba just smiled indulgently at the change of subject.

“Yeah. Hakuba-kun got me addicted to the stuff. I got him back, though; I introduced him to Japanese sweets, and now he likes them so much he gets them imported all the way to London.”

“Do you two still keep in touch, then?”

He made a wavy gesture. “It’s a bit touch and go. The only way we can really talk is by texting, between my witch hunting and his detective work, plus the time zones he’s so fond of reminding me about, but we manage.”

“Um…” Ran looked between Kuroba and Kyubey, who was napping on his shoulder like a fluffy scarf. “You introduced yourself as a Puella Magi, and Kyubey mentioned that he wanted us to become Puella Magi as well. What does that mean, exactly?”

“Ah!” He clapped his hands twice, dimming the lights. “In this world, there are dark creatures known as witches. They hide themselves in labyrinths made of nonsense, luring in unsuspecting humans. Sometimes, the witch will leave a mark known as a kiss on them, driving them to kill or commit suicide. If left to their own devices, they will continue to devour the energy of humans, growing larger and larger until they can reproduce or, in very rare cases, escape their labyrinths. Of all the evils that plague humanity, witches loom the largest. Like the spirits in Pandora’s box, they spread to every corner of the earth. They are born from curses, curses that leave only death and destruction in their wake.

“But for every curse, a wish rises to face it. And from wishes are born…” His ring changed form into a softly glowing gemstone that resembled a Fabergé egg, but with currents of light inside that shifted as Ran watched. Kuroba raised the gem slowly, eyes gleaming in the light. “Puella Magi. We are the ones chosen by Kyubey to fight the evils of the world, to be a light in the darkness. After all, the final spirit in the box was Hope, and that is what we Puella Magi become. In exchange for any wish, we agree to dedicate ourselves to this ideal. It’s not an easy life— there’s no time for dating or hanging out with friends. You won’t be able to tell anyone about it, since witches are invisible to regular humans. But I believe Kyubey chose you two for a reason.”

“This wish…” Aoko was fiddling with the handle of her cup. “It can be anything? Even something impossible?”

“Yes.”

“Does it have to be for your sake?”

“Not necessarily.” His gaze softened, and he snapped to turn the lights back on, making the room look ordinary and faded once more. “I’d advise against making a wish for someone else unless you fully understand the situation, though. It’s not the sort of decision to make lightly, unless you want to regret it.”

“Do you regret your wish?” Ran asked tentatively.

There was a long pause before he answered, and he spoke carefully this time, like he was picking his way through a minefield. “My wish is the reason I’m alive, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But if I knew what I know now, I would not have made the same wish, no. That’s why I want you both to think long and hard about what it is you’d be willing to trade your life for.”

<It makes no difference to me. The sooner you make a contract, the better!> Kyubey yawned, flicking its tail. <The two of you combined have immense magical potential, greater than anything I’ve ever seen.>

“Really?” Aoko exclaimed.

“Stop that, you. A gentleman isn’t pushy, nor does he harass ladies.” Kuroba summoned a white top hat like the one he’d been wearing earlier, then picked up Kyubey by the scruff and deposited it neatly inside. “Into the time-out hat with you.”

<You are a strange human, Kaito Kuroba.>

“And you are a strange magical cat-ferret.” He stuck out his tongue, but Kyubey just curled up and went back to sleep. “In any case, if you’re not ready for the decision, I’d be more than happy to let you two shadow me on a few witch hunts before you make up your minds. I’m a veteran, so I’m more than capable of protecting you both, if you’re worried about that.”

“I’m down!” Aoko said instantly. “Ran, what about you?”

All this pain, all this suffering...you have the power to avert this destiny! She wasn’t certain why the words occurred to her, or what they meant, but they felt significant. If someone like her could do good for once…

“I’ll do it.”

 

***

 

<Hey, Kyubey...the transfer student is a Puella Magi like Kuroba, right?> Projecting her thoughts felt weird, but talking out loud would draw too much attention. Especially since Shinichi was at the front of the class, and turned around to watch her every now and then. She was glad Kyubey was staying with Kuroba, on the other side of the school.

<Yes, but also no. He’s something of an anomaly; he hasn’t made any contract that I know of, but he’s unmistakably very powerful. Especially for a male.>

<You mean boys are less powerful?> Aoko asked.

<In general, yes. Puella Magi are selected based on their potential, which tends to be higher in the females of your species. I’d estimate about 70% of Puella Magi are female. Of course, I don’t waste time with those whose potential is too low, so their power levels are more on par with each other. Shinichi is a highly unusual case for sure.>

<Personally, I don’t put too much stock into things like that,> Kuroba said. <Experience is the most powerful weapon anyone can have; after all, my power isn’t a very strong one, but I learned to use it to my advantage.>

<Your power?>

<Every Puella Magi has a unique power and weapon based on their wish. For example, someone whose wish was to go unnoticed might gain the power of invisibility, or someone with a strong personality might get a warhammer as a weapon. For me, my power is ribbons, but I taught myself to create basically anything out of them. Cards, hats, even the frame for my hang glider. They’re my only weapons, but still incredibly versatile.>

<Huh...I wonder what sort of weapon I would get?> Aoko mused.

<Maybe a mop? I remember you always chasing me around with one in middle school,> Kuroba teased. Ran frowned; she’d gone to the same middle school as Aoko, hadn’t she? From middle school to high school the faces seemed to blur together, and yet she felt as though she was trying to put together a puzzle when another box had spilled its pieces into the mix.

<That was one time! One!>

<And I’m never going to let you live that down.>

<Bakaito!>

<Ahouko!>

Whenever she tried to think about where she would have known Kaito-- no, Kuroba, she wasn’t on first name terms with him, why did she think that? her mind went to a younger, more serious version of him with tame hair. But wasn’t that… her eyes drifted to the front of the classroom and met Shinichi’s.

She let out a small eep of surprise and ducked down, wishing she hadn’t tied her hair back. She felt weirdly exposed without a curtain of dark hair to hide in. Only a few more minutes left of class, and then she could leave with Aoko and meet up with Kuroba.

“You’ve been awfully quiet all morning,” Suzuki said, turning to face her. “Did something happen between you two?”

<We can’t exactly tell her, can we?> Despite not being visible from Ran’s current position, Aoko’s smirk was clear. <Should we make something up?>

<Don’t be mean. I’m sure Sono-- um, Suzuki-chan is a nice girl, even if she acts a little weird. We should invite her to get smoothies sometime.>

<You almost called her by her given name. Have you been hanging out with her behind my back or something?>

<No!> Ran protested. <I don’t know why I did that!> In all honesty, Suzuki just looked like a friendly face to her; it was hard to say why, but she felt like they could be close. <Listen, I know she was acting weird yesterday, but I think she’s all right if you give her a chance. Please?>

“You two...” Suzuki looked between the two of them in horror. Behind her, the teacher dismissed the class. “You just had an entire conversation without speaking-- without even looking at each other. You couldn’t do that before. The only way for two people to become so close overnight...”

“Come on, what are you trying to say here?” Aoko complained. 

“Can’t you see--” she was growing more distressed by the minute. “Girls can’t like girls!”

“Yeah, they can! Girls are cute!” Aoko called at Suzuki’s retreating back as the girl ran away. A few people gave her weird looks, but Aoko just shrugged it off. It was an open secret that she wasn’t terribly picky about gender, and the few classmates who couldn’t accept that knew better than to mess with her. “Geez, some people are weird.”

“That’s so unlike her, though...” Ran opened her mouth to continue, then realized she’d lost the though. She didn’t even know Suzuki that well, so why did that feel so wrong?

“Yeah, probably something going on there,” Aoko conceded. “We can ask tomorrow, okay?”

“Thank you.” Ran finished packing her school bag. “Well, we promised to meet Kuroba-kun, so we should get to it, right?”

“Right!” Aoko hefted her own bag, and the two left the deserted classroom together. “Are you scared?”

“A little bit. But… Kuroba-kun would be able to keep us safe, so I’m not that worried. It’s just… that labyrinth was crazy, wasn’t it? Everything was upside down and backwards and scattered, like whoever made it was on drugs. Do you think there’s any meaning to it?”

“It’s a monster, not some boring piece of classical literature. It doesn’t know what anything means. Besides, if it wasn’t that, if it was trying to talk to us...” They left school grounds together, walking in sync. “Then that would mean Kaito killed it, and that’s impossible. He’s an idiot who hates seeing people hurt or unhappy.”

“You’re right. That’s Kaito-kun for you, I guess.” She remembered the time she’d been upset and alone, waiting for— who was she waiting for? She remembered him bringing a flower to cheer her up, or maybe that was—? No, it couldn’t be.

She was getting things all mixed up again, her memory playing tricks on her. She had to be the one who was forgetting things; everyone else seemed so sure of themselves, and it wasn’t like there could be two versions of what happened, right? After all, someone very special to her had once said there could only be one truth.

She wondered who that person was.

 

***

 

“So. Are you both ready?” Kaito asked, leading them down the street. “Like I said, I’m perfectly capable of protecting you, but if you’ve brought any equipment, I can get a head start on teaching you to fight.”

“Well, you already did that, remember? That’s why I brought a mop!” Aoko proudly removed it from her school bag, extending it with a click and throwing it over her shoulder like she’d done it a thousand times before.

“I… brought dinners for all of us in case we stay out too late? And snacks.” It seemed like such a trivial thing next to Aoko’s mop. Obviously she should have brought a weapon or something if she wanted to protect others rather than just picking up the pieces.

“Geez, Ran, you’re such a mom!” Aoko teased.

“No, Mouri-chan makes a valid point. It may take quite a while for us to find a witch, and you should never fight on an empty stomach. After all,” he added, with the grin that made teachers brace for impact back in middle school, “Maybe we’ll find a candy witch, and when I defeat it, it’ll shower us with desserts to eat afterwards! Like chocolate ice cream.”

Aoko rolled her eyes. “You’re such a little kid, Bakaito!”

“I’m not Kid!”

“Wait, what?” Aoko frowned, and Kuroba seemed taken aback by his sudden outburst as well. He recovered quickly enough, though, with a minute shrug and a leisurely turn into a side street.

“If anyone’s childish, it’s you. I’m all grown up and fighting witches, so there.” He blew a raspberry at her.

“Yeah, and aren’t you supposed to be teaching us? Some senpai you are.”

“Um,” Ran said, “What exactly are we looking for? You’ve been looking at your hand this whole time.”

“Ah, so you noticed! Perks of being a detective’s daughter, I suppose.” He showed her his ring: a black band with the clover gemstone embedded on one side and strange runes on the other. “When a contract is made, a Puella Magi’s soul gem is created. It can switch between three different forms; right now, I’m keeping it in ring form to conserve energy. When it reacts to a witch’s energy signature, I’ll switch it to its gem form so I can track the witch better.”

“You hunt witches to keep the city safe, though, right?”

“Of course.”

“So if—“ she paused, staring at her hands. Shinichi rolled off her tongue so easily, too easily. “If the new transfer student is a Puella Magi like you, then why is he so against you?”

“Doing the right things doesn’t make a person good. There are certain rewards for defeating witches, known as Grief Seeds. Some Puella Magi are more than willing to do unsavory things for them, like steal another person’s kills or have battles over territory.” He stiffened, gem lighting up suddenly. “I’ve caught a trail.”

“We’re going to fight another witch tonight?” Aoko asked.

“If Lady Luck will grant me her favor.” He glanced at the sky once, just once, before he smiled. “Fortunately, she’s an old family friend.”



***

 

One step at a time, numb feet ringing out against the metal stairs like church bells, like a metronome. Step by step, in time with the piano music playing its siren song.

Moonlight Sonata. He knew it by heart; the sheet music was etched into his mind as crisply and indelibly as any tattoo. And it burned, within and without.

Where was he going? A strange question. He touched the scorch mark on his neck. Up, it told him. Up, and his spirit soared, but was tethered to this sorry earth. Not for long. Soon,  he would be free.

Soon. Every step made his heart ache with longing, placated only by the whisper in his ear. Yes, it would all be over soon. He was climbing the staircase to the roof, but that would lead to a better place, one where he would see his father again.

He would fall, and then, free of the weight of sorrow, ascend.

 

***

 

“This is where the trail ends.” Kuroba put a hand to the wall, and Ran thought she could hear a faint, resonant tapping noise. “Aoko, hand me your mop, will you?”

“Sure.” She held it out to him, and Kuroba pulled out a white handkerchief with his other hand and draped it over the top. When he pulled it away, the mop was a bright sapphire blue with a gemstone embedded at the hilt, and the cleaning end now floated subtly in an invisible wind, like seaweed.

“It’s heavier…” Aoko muttered. She gave it a few experimental twirls and grinned. “I like it. Feels like I could bash monsters in the name of justice with this! Hyah!”

“I like your spirit! With any luck, you won’t need it, but I might let you test it on a few minions if they’re not too strong.” Without any further ado, the wall burst into life under his hand, five concentric rings adorned with runes spinning in front of them. The tapping intensified, and underneath it a familiar melody on a piano was audible.

They stepped through together; Kuroba first, then Aoko with her modified mop, and finally Ran. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, reaching blindly towards the portal, and then there was a sensation like she was falling sideways to some unknown gravity and then--

“Whoa! Ran, look!” Aoko shook her arm, and Ran let out a small noise of surprise. “Come on, don’t be such a scaredy-cat!”

“I wasn’t sure how the entrance worked,” Ran muttered, opening her eyes. Aoko gave no indication that she’d heard her, tossing her mop from hand to hand.

She wasn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t this. It reminded her of a lesson on story archetypes she’d had in elementary school, where the teacher had shown them a picture of a girl in a red cloak staring up at the wide, imposing woods. The teacher had explained that red, especially on its own, symbolized danger and standing out in many parts of the world. Of course, domestically, they had a saying: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

The world around them was painted in monochrome, stalks of something like grass poking up in clumps and patches, the only trees ashy grey and made of bundles of pale wood, tipped with white that was separated by a band of blazing red. They did not stir, even as a cold wind stirred tiny runes around them like snowflakes, pausing as if they were spelling out letters. Here and there, smoke curled around anything it could reach. Ran tightened her grip on her bag, wishing anew that she’d packed a weapon.

“No need to be nervous, Mouri-chan,” Kuroba said smoothly, conjuring a yellow rose from nowhere. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Yellow means friendship. She wasn’t sure where the phrase had come from; it felt like a vivid memory of some sort. Kuroba— a Puella Magi who faced down evil every day— wanted to be friends with her.

“Thank you,” she said, accepting it with a smile.

“You’re most welcome! After all, I’ve got you two looking to me for an example. Can’t lose my head in front of my new kouhais, can I?”

“Good thing there aren’t any fish here, right?”

Kuroba flinched for a moment before regaining his composure. “Please, Aoko. I’ve overcome that since we last saw each other. Now, do you want to fight one of the witch’s minions?”

“For real?”

“Just the one, mind you. I’ll catch it for you first, so there won’t be any danger.”

“Heck yeah!”

“Good. Well, since magic draws them out…” With a flick of his wrist, he sent his soul gem spinning up above him, light sparkling in every facet. It changed as it spun, then fell to adorn the green charm on his monocle, slotting neatly into place. Kuroba tipped his hat to the two of them with his usual poise, then removed several decks worth of cards, which he loaded into his card gun. “Let’s see what comes, shall we?”

“You even get your own transformation sequence?” Ran couldn’t stop herself from asking.

“Well, naturally. What did you think I did, carry around a fancy suit and throw down a smoke bomb to quick-change every time I go to my night job?”

“I wouldn’t put it past you,” Aoko said resolutely.

“And that’s absolutely fair and valid. I wouldn’t put it past me either. Here they come!”

The music abruptly stopped, then switched to the second movement of the sonata. Ran wasn’t sure why she recognized it; she rarely listened to classical music, but she must have picked it up somewhere, right?

“I’ve heard this before,” Aoko muttered at her back. “Where…?”

This witch’s minions drifted in, as if carried by the same breeze that brought the snowy runes. These were like cherry blossoms, spinning randomly and chittering their nonsense. 

“La colomba morirà

Non può unirsi alla nostra canzone!”

Kuroba raised his pistol and cut down each before it could get close, aiming for the heart of each flower. They didn’t scream, just continued their ominous chittering as their petals were soaked in a liquid like burgundy wine spilled over a cardboard cutout.

“La sua melodia non è piacevole per le nostre orecchie

Le sue ali saranno tagliate!"

A firework shot from Kuroba’s sleeve, anchored itself the ash-colored sky, and snatched up a cherry blossom minion in its glowing tendrils. Kuroba spun, shooting roses from his sleeves and neatly impaling the last few. 

Finally, when the ground was covered in crumpled petals and false bloodstains with no more foes left to fight, he snapped his fingers and extended his cape, catching the last minion in it. Wrapped tightly in ribbons as it was, it could do nothing more as Kuroba tossed it in front of the girls.

“Aoko, would you like to do the honor?” He asked. “I’m afraid it’s not a blue rose, but it’ll have to do.”

"Come uno staccato inaspettato, morirà!" it screeched, shifting back and forth like a glitch.

“It’s…” Aoko poked it with the broom, then jumped back, shuddering. “It’s weird!”

“First rule of being a Puella Magi.” Kuroba wrapped his hands around Aoko’s, making small adjustments to her grip. “Don’t hesitate. The enemies we face won’t hesitate to kill humans. Raise your weapon…” They raised it together, side by side, and brought it down with a thump that was too soft in contrast to the effect it had. “And strike them down.”

“That was…” A wide grin spread across Aoko’s face as she looked down at her first kill. “ Amazing !”

“See? You’re a natural!” Kuroba praised her. “I think that’s all for today’s lesson. Let’s move on— oh.” 

The piano sonata began its third movement, and the trees simultaneously scraped their branches against the concrete sky and burst into flame.

“What’s happening?” Ran moved closer to Aoko on instinct; she knew the broom wouldn’t do much, but her friend had always been her shield. The burning trees cast accusing shadows of the fallen minions that stretched as if reaching for something just out of their grasp.

“That would be the witch. Hang on; it’s coming, and it won’t be happy. You two— hm, I don’t suppose there’s much cover, is there? No matter. Take this and hide; I’ll make sure it’s focused on me.” He removed his cape with two small popping sounds and tossed it at them, his silhouette looking strangely small without it.

“Are you sure it’ll be okay?” Ran asked. She’d watched him use this for his hang glider, and while it didn’t feel sturdy at all, he’d given up his flight so that they would be camouflaged.

“Not to worry. I doubt it’ll even notice you. After all, Aoko knows I’m very good at making people mad.” He smirked before spinning on his heel, walking through the air as playing cards unfolded and stacked themselves beneath his feet. Every footfall made a resonant tap, but the house of cards being built underfoot was undisturbed. 

Aoko and Ran exchanged a glance, but did as he said, sharing the massive cape like a blanket so only their heads poked out.

The sky distorted, rippling like a canvas in the wind before a gash rent itself through the fabric, loose threads becoming scraps of teeth that gnashed hopelessly at the air before the maw was wrenched apart. The thing that emerged from it was an abomination, a being of swishing blades and grasping shadows and black metal that moved in tempo with the music, constantly in motion. A pair of piercing eyes that shone from the center of the thing locked onto Kuroba, and it gave a roar like a child banging angrily on a piano.

“Care to dance?” Kuroba asked cheekily, extending a hand with flawless etiquette. He leaped aside in time to avoid the shadowy appendage that crashed down where he’d just been, collapsing the house of cards with an awful crash. The witch lumbered after him as he drew it further and further away, each time leaping like he really was dancing and the witch was just an exceptionally clumsy partner.

With a cry that was louder than any of the others, it sent a pair of bladed arms down on either side of him. Ran gasped as she watched Kuroba falter, his foot sinking through empty air as he stumbled straight into a third limb that swooped through the air and caught him. It dangled him upside down, dragging him closer and closer to its center through the air.

“Kaito!” Aoko cried, tensing beside Ran.

“Not to worry!” he called with a wink, and in a flash, he had a card gun in each hand. They combined into one with a decisive click, and Ran could have sworn the witch’s eyes widened as he shot a royal flush directly into its core.

He landed with arms outstretched to the sky as the witch burst into pieces behind him, and with one final discordant clatter, it was gone.

“Well,” Kuroba said brightly, “I think that went quite well! Now, who’s up for a picnic lunch?”

Even as they left, though, Ran couldn’t help but notice a dark shape on the rooftop, and a familiar red ribbon. She blinked, and there was nothing.

Was that…?

***

“It’s okay.” The words of a stranger dragged him back to wakefulness, back to light, to the open sky above him.

Where was he? He was on a rooftop, of course, but why? He was climbing, then falling, because—

“I jumped!” The realization hit him like a physical impact, and he couldn’t breathe. Why had he done it? Why did he jump? Maybe a few years ago he would have done it, but he was over that. He’d made peace with his father’s death, brought the ones responsible to justice the legal way. He’d made a new life for himself, with new friends, he’d gone to therapy despite the stigma and the cost… 

Did it all mean nothing?

“You’re okay now,” the person beside him said reassuringly. “It was just a bad dream, nothing more. You’re not suicidal, you’re just tired and confused and disturbed and having a bad day. You didn’t jump.”

“But I did!” The other person— was just a kid, barely out of high school, why did he look so accustomed to this? How many people had he seen die? “I did it, I jumped and I don’t know why. I don’t understand it and I almost killed myself just now, please, I know it sounds crazy but it’s the truth.”

“The only thing that matters is that you’re safe. Can you stand?”

“I--” He’d left his shoes behind, hadn’t he? But when he looked down, they were lined up neatly next to him. He didn’t remember taking them off. “I think so.”

“Good.”

“I didn’t want to die...” He wasn’t sure why he kept saying that, only that it mattered more than anything else.

“No, you didn’t. You wanted someone to stop you,” the boy stated. “You wanted someone to care, Seiji Asoh.”

“How did you--”

“I was a detective, once. I make a habit of knowing these things.” He froze, eyes locked on something down below. Seiji almost wanted to reach out and pull him back from the edge, his expression was so intense, but stopped. Something told him the gesture wouldn’t be appreciated. Still...

“You’re not going to try to jump, are you?” he asked cautiously.

The detective stared at him, expression flickering like a glitch before becoming blank, unreadable. “What would be the point in dying?”

“Sometimes--” Seiji’s relapse had brought back dark memories, ideations he’d done his best to forget, but if it would save another person’s life, it was worth digging back through those. “Sometimes it feels like you’re trapped with no way out, like nothing will ever change. I used to feel that way when my father died, and I almost did something I couldn’t ever undo. But things do get better. In time, it’ll stop hurting. Please, just--”

The detective flinched as though he’d been physically struck. “You really don’t know how cruel you’re being, do you.”

He’d vanished from the rooftop before Seiji could respond, as if he’d never been there in the first place. Seiji peered cautiously over the edge, but thankfully found no body below him; only a trio of high schoolers, two of them gesturing animatedly as they talked while the third lagged behind. Maybe the detective was a construct of his imagination after all.

He didn’t want to die, he just wanted a reason to live. And if there was none, then he’d accept his fate.

 

***

 

“This is what you wanted from today, isn’t it?” The grief seed sparkled under the streetlight as it flew through the air, then was abruptly snuffed out as a hand closed around it.

“You misunderstand my motives.” Stepping into the light, Kudou tossed the grief seed back as if it offended him with its presence. “It’s an insult to Ran Mouri to try and atone with such a paltry trinket.”

“What is it between you two, huh?” Kaito asked, flipping the grief seed between his fingers until he made it disappear. A simple sleight of hand, but just as impressive as the magic he’d been gifted with. “I know you’ve noticed her incredible potential too. So why is it that you’re so dead set on keeping me away from her?”

“She’s unsuited for the life of a Puella Magi,” he said curtly. “I’m protecting her from you.”

“Come on now,” Kaito gave a lopsided grin, “Do you really think I’d throw these girls into danger without teaching them at all? It’s just a sample, to see if they think they’re up for it.”

Kudou’s state was unwavering. “It’s a gateway drug. I won’t allow it.”

“You really underestimate me, don’t you.” A deck of cards flashed through his fingers and disappeared before he plucked two cards from thin air, the queen of hearts and queen of spades. “Aoko is the most precious person in my life, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. I’ll extend the same courtesy to her friend. All I’m offering them is a chance at informed consent.”

“How well informed are you, really?” Kudou asked. “Do you know what it means to accept Kyubey’s contract? Do you really understand it?”

“It means a chance to live, and I plan to make the most of it.”

He pulled a card from his pocket: the ace of spades. One of Kaito’s, strangely enough. Where had he picked that up? “That creature is death. If you know what’s best for you, you’ll make sure Ran Mouri stays far away from it.”

“A neat magic trick, but it’ll take more than that to impress me.”

Kudou had crossed the distance and had a pistol aimed between Kaito’s eyes. There was no warning, not even a movement, as if he’d magically teleported. “Will this do?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t.” Except… Kaito prided himself on reading people. Kudou was more closed off than most, sure, but his intentions were abundantly clear now. Kaito had seen murderers once in his life, and the look in their eyes wasn’t something he could ever forget. It was the same expression Kudou had now. Wasn’t the other Puella Magi his age? “You would . You’ve done it before. What the hell are you?”

“You shouldn’t concern yourself with that. After all, your life means nothing to me.” A shot rang out, and Kaito conjured a tendril of ribbon to try and knock the gun away, but it was too late. Kudou merely allowed it to clatter to the ground, pointing at a space behind Kaito. “It’s right there. Next time, it’ll go through your skull.”

The gun disappeared back into his pocket, and in the same way, Kudou vanished into the night.

 

***

 

Kaito didn’t move even after Kudou was gone. He needed to preserve the moment, surreal and terrifying as it was, when no one was watching.

Perhaps in another life, Kaito could have overcome his aversion to blood and used his intelligence and eidetic memory to become a detective. But Lady Luck had given him this hand, and he would do his best to play it.

A loose ribbon clone of Kudou took shape in front of him, holding the gun. Kaito stepped aside, making a clone of himself to stand in, then quickly found the bullet in the ground.

Stringing to find the angle of a shot was the oldest trick in the book, right next to the block of ice. A delicate red ribbon (like the string of fate, his mind reminded him) stretched from the bullet to the gun in a straight line, passing right through the ribbon Kaito’s head. By all rights, he should have been killed, but it was as if it simply phased through him.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Kaito muttered to himself. He extended his right hand, and the entire re-enactment unraveled and gathered itself back in his ring, taking with it the cornerstone of the scene.

The bullet weighed heavy in his pocket as he walked home through the dark.