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

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Aoko’s house was dark when she came home, as usual. She put her mop away-- ordinary now, like so many other things-- and went through the motions of taking out ingredients to make dinner before remembering she’d already eaten.

Right. Ran had made them all dinner. Aoko smiled; her friend really was the best. She wondered if maybe she should text her, but... she doubted she’d get much of a response. Ran had been awfully quiet lately, and she was the sort of person who only opened up when she was ready. Aoko would just wait, as she always had, for that time to come.

She tidied up the house a bit, more out of boredom than anything else, then breezed her way through about half of her homework. She’d always been smart enough to easily master the material, but she’d first been overshadowed by Kaito’s antics and then tried to not make a fuss out of it so as not to make Ran feel bad. Or wait, was it the other way around? When…?

Her internal musings were interrupted by a chime from her phone. Kaito had sent her a shaky image of what looked like a storm cloud, if that cloud was on a bad quality VHS tape. It was captioned “A thousand bees in a trench coat on their way to steal femurs.”

Shaking her head at his absurd sense of humor, she replied with a few question marks and then went back to practicing her use of the passive voice. Kaito was such a dork sometimes. Three years, and this was the first thing he sent her in an attempt to reconnect?

He sent something about beans, and she replied in kind, with a screenshot of a silly article about cats taking over the world. They quickly fell into a familiar rhythm, exchanging meaningless jokes and catching up on their lost years between homework. He was as frustratingly evasive as ever when it came to his personal life, always replying to her inquiries with something so outrageously funny or distracting or infuriating that she didn’t realize he’d dodged the question until much later, when her mind caught up with her fingers.

Things really hadn’t changed for Aoko, then. She was still her father’s daughter, with all the same faults and recklessness that had gotten him injured. And Kaito was out risking his life every day, while no one even noticed.

Everything had changed and nothing was different. Maybe it was time for something new.

Putting the completed homework in her bag, she resolved to talk with Ran about it tomorrow. The thought was weighing heavy on her mind, but she didn’t think text was an adequate medium to talk about this sort of thing. Maybe that’s why Kaito hadn’t answered her questions about his mom?

No, she decided with a huff, he was always this slippery. Like a fish. 

 

***

 

“Dad, I’m home!” Ran called, shutting the door behind her. No response. She put her bags down and found her father passed out at his desk again, empty beer cans scattered around him. It didn’t take a detective to figure it out.

“Honestly, dad,” she said, gathering the cans in her arms as quietly as she could, “Why do you always do this to yourself? Don’t you know I worry about you? I worry that you’re going to drink until your liver fails or something will go wrong and you won’t be able to stop it. What if someone tried to break in and rob the place, or get revenge for a case you’ve solved? What are you going to do when I go off to university, and you don’t have anyone to take care of you? Will you even…” 

She didn’t finish that train of thought, because she thought she knew where it led.

“Ran-neechan? Are you crying?” She turned, and there was Conan, in his Kamen Yaiba pajamas, hair mussed and glasses slightly askew. Right; it was past his bedtime.

“Sorry, I’m just a little emotional. It’s nothing for you to be concerned about.” She dumped the garbage in the bin and settled dad’s jacket around his shoulders so he didn’t get too cold. 

“But why not? I wanna help. I don’t like seeing you unhappy.”

Ah, the logic of a child. “Because you’re too young to be worrying about this sort of thing.”

“But aren’t we both too young?” he pointed out. “We’re not grown-ups.”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter.” She watched her father shift slightly in his sleep. “We’re such an upside down family, aren’t we. Dad’s barely functional unless he’s solving a case, and I can’t hold it together even when I should. I’m sorry you have to see this. You deserve better.”

“That’s not how it is at all! I’m glad you’re taking care of me, and I feel safe with you,” he insisted. “Families don’t have to be perfect. My parents travel a lot and aren’t always responsible, but I know they love me, and that’s what matters. You guys are like a second family to me, and I don’t want to see you put yourself down.”

“I’m glad you think so highly of us, then.” Even if we don’t deserve it. “What were you doing up so late anyways? It’s a school night; you should be in bed.”

“I…” He looked away. “I had a nightmare and couldn’t get back to sleep. Can you stay with me a little while?”

Her heart melted. “Of course.”

 

***

 

After all was said and done, Ran and Conan ended up in the kitchen, where Ran made juice from concentrate while Conan sat at the table and kicked his legs idly. She’d had to pull the concentrate from the very back of the freezer, and it was a weird orange-mango-pineapple blend she had no memory of buying, but she was almost certain she remembered passing it over in favor of the more typical fare. She was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, huh.

She really needed to go grocery shopping soon. Hopefully they’d have enough money for a trip; they’d used up everything from the last paying case already.

“It’s really late, isn’t it?”

10:37 , the stovetop clock informed her in dull red numbers. “Yeah, kind of. I hope you’ll be all right at school tomorrow, though.”

“But you’re up late too! You were out late last night, too. What about you? Aren’t you tired?”

“Hey! I told you to stop worrying about me. Teenagers don’t need as much sleep.”

“But isn’t it natural to worry about people you care for?” 

“I’m fine, Conan-kun. I was out with friends, and lost track of time.” She poured a glass for each of them, sitting across from him. “What about you? You told me you had a nightmare. You want to talk about it?”

“Not really.” He twisted his glass, leaving a small circle of condensation spreading from it. “It’s not worth mentioning, and I don’t remember most of it. I just don’t want to be alone. I feel like I barely see you lately, and my friends at school are too busy.” 

“Hey, just because I have a new friend doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. I’ll still spend time with you!”

“I guess.” 

“Hey, I’ve got another weird question for you.” Shinichi’s intense gaze flashed through her mind before she pushed the thought aside. This was her choice. “If someone offered you a wish, but the payment of that wish meant your life had to change, would you take it?”

“I think if someone offers you something that good, you should be scared. Hasn’t your dad investigated a lot of cases where the truth isn’t what it seems?”

“Maybe you’re right.” She thought of Kyubey’s disaffected insistence that they make their contracts as soon as possible, then of the way Kuroba had told them to take their time. “But if you had to, and you had time to think, what would you want to ask for?”

“Why do you have to? You make it sound like you owe it to someone to take this offer.”

She didn’t, did she? Of course not. The choice was hers. But when it came down to it, she could either continue her life as it was, never amounting to much, or she could accept Kyubey’s contract and start making a difference. “I feel like I’m in a position to accept it, though.”

“But why do you need to change?” Ran’s breath caught in her throat, watching Conan speak. For a moment, he sounded exactly like Shinichi, but that was absurd, wasn’t it?

“What did you say?”

“Why do you have to change? You’re kind to everyone, and pretty, and really patient, and you always make time to help others. Why do you need to give up something for your wish? I don’t like it. It’s not fair.”

“I--” She forced herself to laugh. “It’s just hypothetical. The question came up in my literature class, and I need to write an essay on it. But that’s not for a couple weeks. We still need to finish the book.”

“Okay. That’s fine.” He’d finished his glass when she wasn’t looking, and now carried it to the counter. “It just reminded me of my dream, is all.”

 

***

 

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior yesterday.” Ran looked up from her lunch, surprised to see Suzuki there. “If you two are in a relationship, it’s none of my business what you’re doing together.”

Aoko set down her chopsticks. “Uh, thanks? But we’re not. She’s straight and I’m single. We’re both single.”

“Ah.” Suzuki blinked several times in quick succession, then gave a small smile. “My apologies, then.”

“You sounded— relieved, though,” Ran said tentatively.

“I’m afraid such relations would be considered an offense to some people in my life. I was relieved that you two wouldn’t have to face such things, but really, I don’t know what your lives are like or how accepting those around you are.”

“Honestly? It’s fine. When dad found out, he just thought about it for a day and then said the same rules apply for dating girls.”

“He sounds pretty cool.” There was a flicker of a smile on her face before it was replaced by the carefully neutral expression she always wore.

“Yeah, he definitely is.” Aoko sighed nostalgically. “He’s pretty impulsive, though, which is where I get it from.”

“I think I was lucky to miss that gene in my family,” Ran said. 

“Yeah, you got the braincell instead!”

“Still. It must be nice to have parents that are accepting of whoever you date. Not that I’m worried, that is!” she added a bit too quickly.

<Ran, I think she’s a baby gay for me to take under my wing.>

Ran nearly choked on her rice, but recovered quickly enough. <Do you want to ask her to sit with us?>

<Yep!> Aoko did just that, moving over and patting the bench next to her.

“Yes. Thank you very much.” Even the way she sat down was so prim and proper, Ran noticed.

“So, icebreaker time, I guess.” Aoko leaned closer to her. “If you had one wish, what would it be?”

“Hmm… well, I suppose it’s hard to answer. There’s not much in the way of material things that I couldn’t buy otherwise, but I’d love it if my parents would let me take a trip overseas. I’ve always wanted to travel to Paris!”

“City of love, huh?” Aoko raised an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t happen to be hoping for something to happen, would you?”

“I’ll admit, it would be nice.” She averted her gaze, but there was a soft smile on her face that even she couldn’t hide. “But that’s not all of it. I suppose I want to see what else is out there.”

“That sounds really brave of you, though. I can’t imagine leaving the country,” Ran said.

“No?”

“No. I don’t even know what my family would do without me.”

“Must be nice to be needed, huh?”

“It’s...more complicated than that.”

“Well. I won’t pry.” She sipped delicately from her mineral water, and Aoko sighed.

“See, I don’t even think I’d leave the country, because I’d probably have to learn another language. My English is terrible, and French looks even worse. All those sounds aren’t natural , and I can’t make heads or tails of the spelling.”

Suzuki giggled. “French isn’t that bad, once you get the hang of it. You just need to train yourself to make the sounds.”

“Easy for you to say! Your English pronunciation is the best in the class.”

“Then I’ll handle the translations. I’ve been learning a bit of French in my spare time, and while it’s not the best, it’s passable.”

“You make it sound like we’d be going to France or something,” Ran noted quietly.

“You’re right; I’d never be allowed to travel without adult supervision.”

“Well, wanna just get smoothies sometime?” Aoko asked, leaning closer.

“I have a pretty busy schedule, but I can try to make time.” She pulled a small schedule from her pocket. “Do either of you have weekly commitments I should know about?”

“I can’t go out Wednesdays or Fridays,” Aoko said.

“I… don’t really have anything. I mean, I used to be in karate, but I stopped when I was younger.” She knew that hadn’t been the other girl’s intention, but she still felt like her lack of talent was being called out.

“Why’s that? I’m sure you were good at it.”

Ran shrugged. “I was all right, I guess. Several of my classmates kept bullying me, and eventually I decided it wasn’t worth putting up with.”

“I wouldn’t put up with that either! I’m about ready to give them a piece of my mind, the little—” She was halfway to a standing position, looking ready to start a fight and win, when she froze and slowly sank back into her seat. She pushed a piece of hair back behind her headband and gave a small cough. “Pardon me. That was rather foolish.”

“Why do you do that?” Ran asked.

“Do what?” Suzuki sounded legitimately surprised.

“Every time you say something--” something real, something personal, any time you start acting like yourself for once, you shut down like you didn’t mean to let it show-- “Sorry. Nevermind.”

“Ah.” She looked down at her empty tray. “Well, thank you both for keeping me company today. I enjoyed it very much.”

<She doesn’t normally eat with anyone else, does she?> Aoko noted as Suzuki was leaving. <I mean, she seemed kinda uptight at first, but I think she’s just lonely and sheltered.>

<No. She acts like she’s used to being in a pair with someone, but she doesn’t have any close friends. Maybe we can change that for her.>

It sounded stupid even now, but all the things they said about magical girls and the power of friendship...well, Ran wasn’t opposed to the thought. Humming happily to herself, she spent the entirety of the math lesson doodling in her notebook.

 

***

 

“I can’t believe you!” Aoko was laughing as the labyrinth dissolved into nothing and Kuroba proved once again that there was no limit to his theatrics.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, somehow hopping off the telephone pole without spilling a drop of his tea. “It’s a perfectly cromulent pastime, you know.”

“Pastime? You’re showing off and you know it.”

“Am I? I don’t often have an audience, so I like to think of it as making the most of a valuable opportunity.” He detransformed in a puff of smoke, which Ran was beginning to suspect was just for show. “Anyways, the thing I fought just now wasn’t a real witch, but a familiar acting on its own. Hence the lack of grief seeds.”

“Seems like kind of a waste to fight it and not get anything,” Aoko complained.

“Perhaps, but we still need to hunt them to protect people. There are Puella Magi out there who are only in it for the grief seeds, and you should never become like them.”

Aoko nodded. “Like Kudou, right?”

“That’s not fair!” Ran protested

Her friend gave her a skeptical glance. “Are you sure you’re okay? I mean, I get that you have some weird obsession with him, but for crying out loud, he tried to attack us both underground to get at Kyubey. He’s bad news.”

“Listen, I’m not denying that he’s sketchy, I just--” Ran looked down at her feet. “Yes, I think he’s dangerous, and I don’t trust him around Kyubey, but I can’t figure him out, and none of the explanations for his behavior seem right. Things...aren’t adding up, and it’s been bothering me. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it, and I don’t have evidence, I just feel like there’s something I’m not seeing.”

“Guess you inherited your dad’s instincts, huh? Sort of like the feeling you had about Suzuki-chan.” 

“Yes, but--” She shouldn’t have brought this up in the first place. “I’m sorry. I doubt he’d tell us anything. He’s been really secretive.”

“Great. We can just beat the truth out of him!” Aoko declared, with a spin of her mop.

“That’s too violent!” 

“Violence is rather crude, isn’t it?” Kuroba added. “Personally, I think he can keep his secrets. They’ll come to light eventually, and I don’t particularly care what he does so long as he stays out of my way.”

“Fine, but if he makes Ran cry we’re busting his kneecaps.”

“You are NOT!” She’d never felt the responsibility of ‘token braincell’ as keenly as she did around these two. “Can’t you just get along?”

“I won’t instigate anything if he doesn’t,” Kuroba promised. “You really are too kind, though.”

She looked anywhere but at him. “Not really.”

“Liar. You’re literally the nicest person I know. Half the class has had a crush on you at some point, and the other half doesn’t like girls.” Aoko sighed dramatically. “I just know you’ve got a secret admirer or two, the only issue is getting one of them to confess. They’re just too intimidated! Cowards.”

“Can confirm. You’re very sweet, Mouri-chan, and if I swung at all, I’m sure I’d swing your way~”

The two of them teaming up on her to shower her with undeserved compliments wasn’t any more comfortable than the previous subject. If anything, she felt a little sick; normally she took Aoko’s insistences in stride, because it was easier than protesting, but Kuroba was just so sincere, and… it was hard to explain why she felt this way. 

“So, um,” she began, looking for a way to change the subject, “We should probably head home now, right?”

“Ah.” He cast a quick glance around, then put away his teacup, although Ran wasn’t sure how or where it went. “Let’s walk and talk; it’s getting dark, and witches aren’t the only dangerous things out at night. Which way is your house?”

“Down that way, take the second right, and then keep going straight. It’ll be the one on the right with the stair missing from the fire escape,” Aoko offered. “Do you need my new address as well?”

“Ah, yes. It’s harder to walk you home when you don’t live next door.”

“That means you’ll be walking home alone, though, right?” Ran asked worriedly.

“It’s alright. I’ve run into a few unsavory characters when I’m out witch hunting, always with the same result. If anything, you should worry about any mugger foolish enough to think I’m an easy target!”

“All right.” It hadn’t been the idea of his safety she was worried about so much as the irrational notion that he’d be lonely or scared walking around in the dark, now that she thought about it. But that was stupid; Ran might feel that way, but certainly not someone who dedicated their life to protecting the city life Kuroba did.

She listened to Aoko and Kuroba trying to talk directions-- apparently their senses of spatial awareness were vastly different, and Aoko was trying to explain in terms of unique landmarks and residents while Kuroba tried to reconcile this with a bird’s eye perspective and the navigation app on his phone.

She’d decided on a wish, sort of, but wasn’t sure if she should mention it. It wasn’t a very smart wish to make, she thought to herself, and the two of them might even laugh at her. But the thought had been growing in her mind ever since her conversation with Conan.

If she were a Puella Magi, and knew she was doing good in the world, then she’d have the confidence to be brave in my everyday life. Maybe once she knew what she was fighting, everything else would fall into place.

Did it even matter what she wished for, so long as she lived the sort of life that she could be proud of?

“Please don’t, Aoko! If I could burn those years, I would!” Kuroba’s dramatic wail cut through her musings.

“We all do cringey things when we’re little; what’s the big deal?”

“I would literally launch myself out a window because of that, and I already said I was sorry!”

“You’re so extra,” she huffed. “We’re all terrible people in junior high. Except Ran, probably. Remember how I used your fear of fish against you?”

“Yes, because I deserved it.”

“That was back when I still talked in third person all the time. We’ve grown up, okay? Sheesh.”

“Um, this is where I live, so, I’ll see you both tomorrow, okay?” Ran interjected. She’d meant to ask him about what kind of wish she could make, but she’d been too intimidated to stop their conversation earlier.

“Will your guardians be upset that I brought you back so late, though?”

“It’s just me and Dad, and he has a pretty hands-off approach to parenting. Good night!” She entered and shut the door behind her before he could ask any more questions. How was she supposed to answer that? Oh, my dad is a semi-functional alcoholic who hasn’t been doing the greatest job at parenting, so I do my best to keep the house running smoothly while he has to physically drag the kid we’re taking care of away from bloody crime scenes. He’s usually passed out at his desk this time of night, which is why he hasn’t asked any questions.

No, best to keep that to herself. She couldn’t help but wonder, though; if she was braver, would her house be any different?

 

***

 

“I guess Dad didn’t want visitors today.” Aoko sighed, plopping down on the bench beside her friend. “It kind of sucks, you know? He spends all this time complaining about the hospital food, then when I come, he doesn’t even want to talk to me.”

“Your mom’s birthday is in a week, right?” Ran suggested. “My dad always gets moody around that time of year for my mom. I know it’s not the same, but...”

“You’re right. I wish he’d just talk to me about it, though! He always gets emotional, saying how much I look like her, before burying himself in his work again. Ugh! Why are men so secretive about their feelings?”

<I believe it’s because the males of your species are socialized differently than the females.> Kyubey offered. Ran blinked; she hadn’t even seen the strange creature approach. It just seemed to show up whenever it pleased, really.

“Yeah, well, it’s stupid!” She threw her school bag over her shoulder with a loud thump and stormed towards the entrance. “This whole thing is stupid! Why do people think it’s all right to keep things from me, huh? I can handle the truth. I’m lucky he even told me that mom had died, instead of making up some story about her leaving. But nooooo, I guess his pride is injured, too, and not just his leg.”

“Aoko, it’s okay…”

“No, it’s not.” She shoved the automatic door when it didn’t open quickly enough for her, leaving it shuddering and crooked on its rails.

“I’m not saying you don’t have any right to be angry, but isn’t that--” Ran stopped. Stared. Took a step closer to the object embedded in the wall, radiating a darkness that was almost familiar. 

“Kyubey?” She looked around for the creature, but it was nowhere to be found. “This is a grief seed, isn’t it? Why does it feel so wrong?”

<It’s about to hatch!> There it was, right in front of her. How-- no, there wasn’t time to ask that.

“What do you mean, hatch?”

<It’s going to become a witch!>

“Wait, what?” Aoko paused in her rant, and rushed over. “That thing’s going to turn into a witch? But everyone inside--”

<Will be safe for a few hours while the witch is still gaining strength. After that, people who wander into the labyrinth will start to go missing, nurses could make deadly mistakes that they don’t remember, patients might even start to take their lives. It’s difficult to predict the effects of a witch’s kiss, and there’s also the fact that it could move. By the time it’s found, it could kill dozens of people.>

“We need to stop it. I’m going to call Bakaito right now, and—“ Aoko froze midway through the motion. “This...can’t be right, no! I think my phone is glitching out on me or something. I swear I talked to him just the other night, and now I can’t find his contact information anywhere. But if I run and get him, the labyrinth might move...”

<Actually, since Kaito Kuroba made a contract with me, he’s able to track my location. If I were to enter the labyrinth when it opened, he could find me using telepathy, no problem. There’s one problem, though. Only human souls and the things they carry can enter or exit a labyrinth, so I couldn’t do it on my own.>

“Then I’ll stay with you.” She scooped up Kyubey, giving Ran a decisive nod. “You’ve got much better stamina than I do, so you should be the one to find Kuroba and bring him back here; I’ll stay with Kyubey, and text you to let you know if my phone stops spazzing out on me.”

“But—“ The uneasiness she always felt around Kyubey, some unknown reluctance to trust it, to refer to it as anything other than just that, was flaring up again as she looked at the creature’s eyes. “Aoko, are you sure about this?”

“Yeah, I’m positive. Now go!”

When Ran looked back, Aoko was nowhere to be found.

 

***

 

This labyrinth felt more focused than any of the others, like it knew it was near a hospital. It was giving Aoko the creeps, to be honest. She didn’t think of witches as anything more than supernatural animals with a malicious hunger than needed to be fought back, but this felt uncomfortably self aware. Medicine bottles floated in midair, syringes were embedded in pastel rocks, and colorful pills made stepping stones to cross a syrupy river that smelled strongly of eucalyptus and something else, something sickly sweet and slightly rotten.

Vier eins neun, read one empty medicine bottle, only to be filled with red capsules and labeled vier acht sechs neun when she blinked.

“Everything changes so fast...it’s like this place is messing with my head,” Aoko muttered. She was starting to understand more of the feeling Ran had described, the uneasiness like someone was playing a trick on her that she couldn’t prove. But at least Ran had good instincts; Aoko was the type to look before she leapt.

Case in point: right now.

<Are you scared?> Kyubey asked. <You can make a contract with me right here and now, and I’ll turn you into a magical girl. You can fight the witch before it has the chance to hurt anyone in this hospital.>

“I’ll keep it in mind, thanks. But I’m not going to make a contract unless I absolutely have to. My wish is going to be something special, that I don’t want to throw away before I know what I want.”

With that said, she turned back to the tiny grief seed, which was pulsing like a heartbeat. Gah. It made her sick to look at. It was inside a cage of something like half melted wrought iron, and making small noises like a television full of static.

At least she wouldn’t be here for long. It wasn’t more than a fifteen minute walk to Kaito’s house, shorter if you were running. Still, she wasn’t sure how she’d gotten herself into this situation.

“I wish Kaito was here,” she said to the grief seed.

Eins, vier, eins, zwei , raced past her on the floor, like a newsreel. She wished she’d brought her school bag at least, so she had something to do. Das Fenster, genau geschlossen. Der Vögel kann nicht flüchten.

All there was to do was wait.

 

***

 

Ran arrived at Kuroba’s house out of breath and knocked sharply, then paced on the front step, too anxious to stop and catch her breath. It only took a minute or so, probably, but it felt like forever and she couldn’t trust her own perception of time, not when she’d been misremembering things all over the place and seeing things that weren’t--

“Mouri-chan?” Kuroba blinked from the genkan, wearing basketball shorts and an oversized t-shirt advertising a magic show from ten years ago. “What’s wrong? You look out of breath.”

“Aoko is in a labyrinth because there was a grief seed at the hospital and she couldn’t call you and she sent me but I’m worried it might find her!”

“Aoko did what?!?

“Kyubey said that it couldn’t enter the labyrinth alone, that only humans could, and Aoko wasn’t backing down, so she went with Kyubey so you could track them. Her dad is recovering from a work accident in that hospital, and she didn’t want anyone to get hurt. We need you to come and defeat it for us.”

“I mean--” He inhaled sharply, then let it all out in a huff and reached for his shoes. “She didn’t make the wrong choice, per se, but I’m still upset that she was that reckless. Come on, no time to waste!”

He was out the door and running before she could even say where they were going. Right. He can track Kyubey’s location.

The return trip was even shorter; unlike Ran, who had checked the street signs to make sure she was going the right way, Kuroba moved as if being pulled by a string, dodging pedestrians and leaping over obstacles. People moved out of his way as if they could sense his purpose and urgency, and Ran was left to follow in his wake as quickly as she could.

<...ing yet?> Aoko’s voice appeared in her head, soft and out of focus, but growing in clarity. <Testing, testing...it’s kind of boring here.>

<Aoko! I can hear you. We’re coming!>

<Are you okay?> Kuroba added. <What’s the status of the grief seed?>

<I’m fine, really. I just wish I’d brought my school bag so I’d have something to do. The grief seed is sort of pulsing, but it hasn’t done anything more, so I think I’m good. We’re going to have a talk when you beat this witch, got it?>

<Anything for you. Stay safe, okay? Don’t do anything reckless.>

<Yeah, yeah,> Aoko grumbled.

<Come as quietly as you can,> Kyubey’s cool voice interrupted. <It may hatch if you disturb it by using magic.>

<Got it!> He turned a final corner, dashing across the last few seconds of the crosswalk. Ran froze when she was caught in the middle, then hurried across, mumbling an apology to the driver, who honked as she passed.

Kuroba grabbed her hand and pulled her towards the wall, which was softly glowing a few meters away from where Ran remembered it. So it hasn’t moved that much at all?

Another labyrinth. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to the feeling of them; they weren’t supernatural in the traditional sense, but something else, something other . She felt fine with Aoko and Kuroba, of course, but split up like this? 

“Don’t worry, Mouri-chan. I won’t let anything happen.”

Ran reached into her blazer’s inside pocket, fingers easily finding the silk rose he’d given her yesterday. It was a reminder, and maybe a source of courage. “Thank you.”

They stepped through the labyrinth together, and this time, Ran didn’t close her eyes. They landed on a soft, powder blue path that absorbed all noise. Without the sound of her footsteps, she felt as if she might be swallowed up by this place without any trace that she’d ever been there. It was a strange thing, this reminder of her own insignificance, and yet it was undeniable.

But when she focused on the rose she held, focused on the hand in hers, drawing her closer to danger, she felt oddly safe.

“I’ve been thinking--” she began, only to be abruptly cut off when Kuroba spun around, staring intently at something behind them.

Shinichi. He was dressed in his school uniform, but there was something in his pocket that looked suspiciously like the handgun Ran had seen during their first meeting. She hadn’t been certain then, but now that she saw it again, her suspicions were confirmed. What did a Puella Magi need such a mundane weapon for?

“That witch is my prey,” Shinichi announced. 

“But Aoko and Kyubey are in there!” Ran protested without thinking.

Shinichi didn’t blink. “I’ll ensure that they are safe, then.”

“Really?” Somehow, even in such casual clothing, Kuroba managed to look perfectly in control. “I know how you tried to attack Kyubey, and these girls were caught in the crossfire. And you’ve demonstrated your respect for human life to me perfectly well the other night.”

“But wasn’t he--” Ran stopped, looking from one to the other. She couldn’t be sure it was Shinichi she’d seen on that rooftop, talking that man down, but she couldn’t see why someone as heartless as Kuroba claimed would care about preventing a suicide.

“Regardless of your opinion of me, this is my witch to hunt. I’ve told you that I will take care of it, so get out of my way. I don’t have time to fight you.”

“Well, you don’t seem to care much about my opinion of you, but I wonder if you care what Mouri-chan thinks?” He pulled a small object from his pocket, dull and grey, and tossed it at Shinichi.

The moment Shinichi reached out and caught it, wide ribbons sprang from the walls and bound him in place, suspended in the center of the tunnel.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m just making sure you don’t interfere, nothing more. I’ll let you go once I defeat this witch, but this fight is personal. I care too much about Aoko to let you get in the way.”

“You don’t understand! I swear , this witch is not like the others!”

“Yes, yes, every witch is unique. Please; I’ve been around longer than you, transfer student. Sit tight and I’ll come back for you, all right?”

“KID!” Shinichi yelled, and Ran distinctly saw Kuroba flinch at that.

Why did he react to that word? What did it mean? Ran wasn’t a detective, not like her father, and not even like Conan, who aspired to the same career. She didn’t like conflict, or blood, or unhappiness, all of the things a detective needed to wade through to find the truth. But there was a feeling, rising like bile in her throat, that something was very, very wrong .

“You… you know something we don’t,” Ran said slowly, taking a step towards him. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Of course he does, the pretentious bastard,” Kuroba said contemptuously. “He likes holding all his cards close to his chest, so he can watch people die and swoop in like a carrion crow to take whatever’s left. I’m just taking away his chance to do that, since he can’t use that weird power of his if he’s not touching his watch. Isn’t that right?”

Shinichi scowled, but didn’t reply.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. After all...”

...no one gets hurt.

 

***



“So, um, I’ve been thinking about what I want to wish for,” Ran said suddenly.

“Oh?” All Kuroba’s earlier vindictiveness was gone, and he fell behind in his stride to walk next to her. “What is it you’ve decided, then?”

“That’s the thing. I don’t think it matters what I wish for, so long as I can fight for something. I want a purpose in life-- I’ll never be more than average at school, and I couldn’t stick with any club long enough to get good at it, and I want to have the courage and confidence that you do. That’s why it doesn’t matter what I wish for, since it’ll come true no matter what. My real wish is to be able to help people like you do.”

“Are you positive that this is what you want?” Kuroba asked quietly. “You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You could wish for more money for your family, or a feast, or a house with a turret.”

“That’s the thing, though. I was talking to-- well, he’s not technically my little brother, but I think of him that way. He said he thought the consequences of a wish were dangerous, and I should be careful of anything that sounds too good to be true. To be honest, I’d rather gain the confidence to solve my problems with my own hands than ask for those problems to go away. And I’d be a stronger person who could smile brighter if I was a Puella Magi like you!”

“You shouldn’t be like me.” He’d turned so his face was hidden by shadow. “Mouri-chan, I haven’t known you for long, but you’re such a bright, genuine person. And me? I act like I’m someone to look up to, but what do I know? I’m no older than you, I just happened to be blessed with a uselessly high IQ. It’s not fun, being a Puella Magi. Both of my parents were killed by witches, and I’m just doing this job for closure rather than anything so noble as justice. When I’m hurt, I have no one to turn to. All I can do is cry on my own.”

 “But you don’t have to be on your own anymore. I’ll fight with you, and make sure no one has to be lonely. I’ve thought about it, and this is the sort of life I want to live. This is what I want more than anything else.”

“I’m-- I’m sorry, this isn’t the sort of behavior you’d expect from your senpai.” Kuroba sniffed and wiped away his tears, muttering something about a poker face, then smiled at her. “Thank you. You’re much too kind; I’ll do my best to live up to your view of me. If you really want to live as a Puella Magi, you’d better think of a wish soon!”

“Right...” She’d sort of overlooked that aspect, in hindsight.

“Why don’t we make a game out of this, then? If you can’t figure out what to wish for by the time I beat this witch, you have to wish for a chocolate cake with ice cream, and we’ll use it to celebrate us becoming a magical girl duo!”

“I can’t wish for cake!”

“Then make up your mind~” Kuroba sang. “This witch won’t take too long, so you’d better decide!”

<Hurry! The grief seed is hatching!>

In a flash of light, he’d transformed. “I’ll just have to wrap this up quickly, then!”

 

***

 

My heart is so light, I finally understand how a dove feels.

The witch came for him, clumsily, like it hadn’t accustomed itself to its surroundings yet, but that was all the better. He wanted it to acknowledge him, wanted to fight, wanted to protect his friends. Space bent like an accordian as the witch warped its labyrinth, bringing him just one open door away from a room like an inside-out candy shop, with too-tall chairs and toadstools lining the back wall.

Cape fluttering behind him, he stepped out into the light, quickly scanning the scene for Aoko’s distinctive messy hair. He found her hiding behind a donut, and sent Ran her way with a gesture. His real focus tonight lay elsewhere, at the table with long legs and the doll-like body of the witch slumped over one of the chairs.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime,” he announced. The witch turned to him and pointed, sleeve hanging loosely off its tiny frame. 

Round after round of candy minions with nurse hats came for him, and he dealt razor sharp cards at them with a speed he’d never reached before, stepping on gossamer-thin ribbons like he was dancing on air. Breathless, he wondered if he really could fly now that he wasn’t bound to the earth by his solitude.

I’ve never felt this way fighting before.

He’d never had anyone who saw him in his weakness and accepted that, acknowledged their own weakness and asked to fight by his side. And when he saw Aoko, cheering him on despite everything, he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been wrong. If he’d only been hurting her by distancing himself, if everything could be solved if they just talked, if they worked side by side like in old times. If the magical girl duo would inevitably become a trio, if he’d feel safe enough with them to open up and entrust them with every secret that weighed on his heart.

This freedom...it’s intoxicating.

He laughed, openly, genuinely, for the first time since his mother had been killed, and sent a hand of cards zipping towards the witch. The chair wobbled and began to tip over, the witch fell, and Kaito conjured a mop and hit it towards a sugared gumdrop with a dull thwack.

It didn’t move, just flopped limply on the ground as he embedded round after round of cards in its soft body, then lifted it with a pair of intertwining ribbons as he summoned his final shot. He didn’t think he’d faced such a weak witch since he’d first started! And after this, he’d never be alone again.

“TIRO FINALE!”

There’s nothing left to be afraid of!

And then… it changed. From the mouth of the tiny doll-like figure came a second monster, a massive, colorful serpent with kaleidescopic eyes and tiny wings on its head. In an instant, it was too close to escape. Another, and it had opened its massive jaws.

Oh...I underestimated this witch, didn’t I.

He knew then. Why he wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. It was because he couldn’t be afraid of dying, and once that happened, it was only a matter of time. But he could do one last thing, couldn’t he? One act of protection before he left.

Kaito closed his eyes and let it fall from his sleeve.

Sorry, Aoko.

 

***

 

Somehow, Ran felt it before it happened, a tugging in her gut that started right as Kuroba fired his finishing move. And then-- then the tiny, helpless witch in too-big clothes sitting at a table that was far too tall became a grotesque monster emerging from the empty body of the first one.

Kuroba had time for one panicked glance in her direction before regaining that easy calm that surrounded him like a predetermined fate, and something slipped from his sleeve.

White smoke erupted from the thing he’d dropped, and his smile was the last thing to disappear behind the cloud as the witch descended upon him.

There was an awful crunch, a sound like glass shattering, and then a wet thump.

The yellow rose crumbled to nothing in Ran’s hands.

“KAITO!”