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

Chapter Text

It was dark, and Ran was alone.

Except neither one of those statements were technically true; she existed somewhere in the half-light state like a dream, the fog in her mind very nearly blurring the sharp divisions of black and white which she walked.

And she wasn’t alone, either; there was something up ahead of her. She was going somewhere. Where was she going? Her feet carried her like they’d done this a million times before, and her arms pushed open a door labeled EXIT, and the sky fell beneath her feet as she realized she had never been alone.

Walpurgisnacht. Somehow, she knew that was the name of the thing in the sky, a being of clockwork and lace that rained fire and destruction. As she watched, a boy in a dark inverness coat pulled a machine gun from his coat and unloaded it at Walpurgisnacht, to no avail.

She knew him. How did she know him? What was his name? His face was achingly familiar, and she felt a phantom pain pierce her chest as Walpurgisnacht sent a building crashing towards him.

“No! Please, stop!” She cried out, reaching helplessly. He met her eyes for just a moment, the pain on his face clear even at that distance, and then it was lost. The skyscraper didn’t even slow down as it hit him.

“All this pain… all this suffering.” There was a small creature beside her, whose presence hadn’t even registered to her. It gazed up at her with bright red eyes. 

“Isn’t there anything anyone can do?” Ran asked it. The boy emerged from the other side of the skyscraper, but he didn’t look like he’d last much longer. She wanted to help him, he was-- he was-- she didn’t know what he was to her, but he was hers, wasn’t he?

“He’ll just keep on fighting. He knows he can’t win. But you,” her breath caught in her throat as the creature stepped forward, “you can avert this future! You have the power within you to change this!”

“I...do?” All her life, despite her best attempts, she was useless. Useless to keep her family together, useless to keep anyone safe. She stared longingly at the boy who was so familiar and yet so far away. “Someone as pathetic as me can really change this?”

A blast of fire that he couldn’t avoid, and the boy was falling from the sky, screaming out something that was lost in the wind as his eyes met hers and her heart dropped. 

“Of course you can! All you need to do--”

 


 

“Ran-neechan! Wake up, wake up!” Conan was tugging at her blankets, and she remembered where she was. 

“Okay, okay,” Ran mumbled. The vestiges of her dream lingered, and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to catch the last fleeting glimpses as they left her mind. Something about hopelessness, and someone she’d lost, and… Walpurgisnacht. She had no idea how the word had entered her head, but just the thought sent a shiver of apprehension down her spine. “I’m up.”

She pushed herself to a sitting position, yawning heavily. Conan abruptly left, like he always did, and she quickly threw on her school uniform and made her way to the sitting room. Her father had fallen asleep surrounded by beer cans yet again; she pushed them into the wastebasket and gave his shoulder a firm shove. “Dad, come on! You need to stop doing this.”

“Come onnnnn!” Conan whined from his other side. “What if you get a customer? You can’t sleep all day!”

“I can solve crimes in my sleep, can’t I?” he complained. 

“Not if you can’t pull yourself together enough to get customers. Honestly, I think this whole Sleeping Kogoro thing has gone to your head.” She flicked on his desk lamp and grabbed Conan’s hand, dragging him along to the kitchen. “I’ll be making breakfast! Don’t miss it!”

Dad made some unintelligible complaint, but she was already one step ahead, starting on breakfast while Conan set the table. He was so diligent and sweet sometimes. “So, Conan-kun,” she said casually, “You’re pretty fluent in English, right?”

“Yeah! Do you need help with your homework or something?” he offered.

“Sort of. There’s a word I found somewhere that I think might be in English, but I’m not sure. Walpurgisnacht, I think? I’m probably mangling the pronuncia-- what’s wrong?” He’d dropped his glass of milk with a thud, splashing it on his plate.

“Nothing! It just slipped,” Conan said cheerfully, already reaching for the paper towels. “I guess I poured myself too much to drink. Are you having trouble with the plural forms? Sometimes the irregular nouns trip me up, too.”

“No. It’s just the one word, Walpurgisnacht.”

“Oh, yeah! That’s actually in German. Nacht is night, and the Walpurgis part is pretty old. It used to mean a really dark and scary night, but no one’s used that word in a long time.”

“How’d you get to be so smart, huh?” She brought the skillet over to the table, putting a fried egg on each person’s plate. “Already speaking three languages when I’m having trouble with my second one.”

“Ah, it’s not like that! I was watching the history channel again, and there was a really interesting special on the Sturm und Drang movement! I only picked up bits and pieces.”

Huh. Maybe she’d heard it from the other room, and that’s how the word had crept into her dream. “I’m telling you, you’re going to go far someday. If you’ve got this sort of mind when you’re only seven, who knows what you can do once you grow up? You’re smarter than I was.”

“Don’t say that!” Ran looked back in surprise; her little brother was scowling at his plate as if it had personally offended him. “Ran. You’re already such an amazing person, and you’re going to do great things too. Or even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter because you’re a wonderful person. You shouldn’t compare yourself to others!”

“All right, I won’t,” she said, smiling as his gaze softened. Conan got weirdly protective of her sometimes; it was one of his strange quirks that she’d come to accept since he started living with them. “Things will turn out all right, don’t worry.”

The rest of breakfast passed more comfortably, with Conan rambling about the cool new things he’d learned in science class and Ran nodding along, making comments and asking questions where necessary. Dad stumbled in about halfway through, poured himself a massive cup of coffee while Conan’s eyes tracked his every movement, and then made a few halfhearted attempts to join the conversation before giving up all together.

That boy in her dream...his face was already fading from her memory, but his eyes looked even more familiar now that she thought about it. Why was that?

“Hey, Ran-neechan, can you pass the butter? I can’t reach.”

No. It was just a dream; it wasn’t like it meant anything. “Of course. Finish up quick, okay? You don’t want to be late.”

“Okay!” He had surprisingly good coordination for a seven year old, something Ran found herself taking for granted sometimes. It was good that he was so independent, but he always made time to spend with his big sister.

After only a few months, it was strange how familiar his presence felt, like he’d just always been there. He really was the little brother she’d always wished for when she was younger and there was just….she frowned at the weird half-thought. Aoko had always been her closest friend, right? 

She was in the bathroom, applying a bit of makeup and doing her hair, when Conan came in to wash his face.

“You haven’t seen my red hair ribbon, have you?” Ran asked him.

“No, why?”

“Aoko’s been getting on my case to always act as if I have a secret admirer. I’ve been humoring her, but I don’t see what it’s all about.”

“But you’re really pretty, Ran-neechan! I bet you have tons of secret admirers.”

“That’s sweet of you, kiddo.” She ruffled his hair, and he ducked under her hand, glaring petulantly.

“Hey! I just combed that, and now it’s all messy!”

“Oh, all right. Here, I’ll fix it for you, see?” With a few quick strokes, she brushed the mussed portion back into shape. “All better?”

“All better,” Conan agreed. “I think you should wear the yellow ribbon!”

“Yellow?” It was at the top of the pile; strange. She didn’t wear it much.

“Yeah.” He fixed his glasses, the light concealing his eyes. “It’s pretty on you.”

 


 

“Hey. Hey, Ran.”

This was going to be a long semester with the new seating chart. Ran adored Aoko, and the two were closer than sisters, but she was trying to learn here. “What?”

“I heard there’s going to be a new transfer student. Do you think they’ll be cute?”

“How should I know?” Ran sighed, turning a page as she tried to follow along with the lesson at the same time. “Aoko, I’m not going to fight you if you want your shot at a whirlwind romance. If you’re interested, go for it.”

“Come on, don’t you want to talk about it a little bit? You’ve got no sense of drama.”

Sonoko Suzuki twisted in her seat. “You two refer to each other without honorifics? Like an old married couple?”

“Uh, yeah. We’ve been friends since we were kids. You got a problem with that?” Aoko shot back.

“Oh, not at all. If you’re just friends, that is.”

“What do you mean by that?” Aoko stood up. “You trying to start something, rich girl?”

“Nakamori-san, please take a seat. I’m trying to teach. Now, the reflexive verb...” The teacher continued with her lesson, but Ran found herself fading in and out. She couldn’t help but think that Shinichi-- wait, where had that name come from? She rewound her thoughts from the last few minutes, then deeper, trying to think of where she knew the name. Shinichi. Who was--

“--Shinichi Kudou-san, who has just joined us from America!” Ran nearly jumped out of her seat at the teacher’s voice. There it was, written on the whiteboard. Shinichi Kudou. “Since he’s been in another country for so long, he may need some help adjusting, so please give him a warm welcome, will you?”

“Oh, he’s pretty cute! Not sure if he’s my type, though,” Aoko whispered. Ran didn’t respond.

It was hard to say for sure, but he looked exactly like the boy from her dream. And when he met her eyes, she knew for sure. Had she seen him before? She knew— no, it was stupid. Still, he seemed to draw her gaze like a gravitational pull. He was tall, with a slim build that suggested he played sports, although the uniform concealed anything more. His dark hair was neatly combed down, save for a few errant strands in the back, and his eyes were a shade of blue only a little darker than Conan’s. 

Why did he remind her of Conan? It was weird.

But as the day went on, things only got weirder. Every time she looked at him and tried to remember where she might know him from, he seemed to sense her gaze and turn around, forcing Ran to hastily glance away and pretend she hadn’t been doing anything suspicious. Despite the teacher’s words, he didn’t seem to need any help adjusting, effortlessly solving every equation thrown his way, reciting answers with perfect speed and intonation, even correcting the teacher’s English. After class, a small group of boys and girls alike crowded around his desk, bombarding him with questions and invitations. 

“I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well,” he said, in a soft voice that somehow carried with it the implication of power. “Ran Mouri-san. You are the nurse’s aide for this class, correct?”

“M-me?” His gaze was so intense, completely focused on her, that she felt her face heating up. “Um, yeah. I can show you where the nurse’s office...is?”

He was already out the door, waiting for her to catch up. 

“I’ve changed my mind; this one’s all yours. Go get him!” Aoko gave her a small push on her back, which was enough to propel Ran forward to the door.

Shinichi walked as if he’d been down this route a thousand times before, his long legs forcing Ran to practically jog to keep up. “So, are you sure we haven’t met before? You seem sort of familiar.”

“I’m positive. I believe you’re confusing me with one of the upperclassmen who looks similar to me; I’ve already been mistaken for him once today. Kuroba, I believe.”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Mouri—“

“You can call me Ran if you want.” She didn’t know why she was offering; it just felt right for some reason she couldn’t explain with logic.

“Very well.” His fist clenched at his side; she was making the wrong impression.

“Shinichi’s a pretty cool name, you know? It sounds pretty similar to the phrase for ‘one truth!’ I like it a lot.”

Rather than answer, Shinichi picked up his pace, heading out onto the walkway connecting the two halves of the school. Ran followed tentatively. Did he not like his name? She felt like she’d offended him, but wasn’t sure when it happened.

“Listen, I—“

“Ran.” He spun to face her, his state as intense as ever. “Do you value the life you currently live? The happiness of the people who love you?”

“Y-yes. Of course I do. I mean, I’m incredibly lucky to have the people I do.”

“Then don’t change. You’re a smart girl; you know better than to take deals that are too good to be true. Remain as you are. Don’t give everything up for some stupid, selfless reason.”

“Okay…”

“You’re perfect, exactly the way you are.” He turned back, uniform fluttering behind him in some unseen wind, and walked to the nurse’s office as if he could do it in his sleep, Ran trailing behind him the whole time.

 


 

“So you’re telling me he just tells you to never change, then walks off like he owns the place?” Aoko huffed, putting down her headphones. “I’m not so sure about this boy, Ran. He seems pretty fishy to me.”

“That’s the thing, though…” Ran looked down at the music sample playing on the headphones in front of her. Nostalgia ☆ Sky. “I feel like I know him from somewhere. Is it weird if I say I think I first met him in a dream… or something?”

Aoko paused a full five seconds before she burst out laughing. “Come on, I thought you’d gotten over your anime protagonist phase when you were nine!”

“It’s not like that!” Ran protested.

“Oh really? Remember how you wore fingerless gloves every day, and went through bottles of hairspray?”

“Yeah, well, what about your princess phase? You cried when the teacher made you take off your tiara!”

“Whatever. If you think he’s so fishy, maybe you should ask your dad to investigate him.”

“I can’t. Money’s sort of tight these days, and I wouldn’t feel right asking him to look into a boy I just met rather than working on cases. I guess you’re right; I’m just being dramatic and making a mess of things as usual.”

“Ran...” Aoko poked her sharply in the side. “Don’t say self deprecating things like that!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She dodged another jab, then blocked a third. “Stop it!”

“Take it back, or I’ll tickle you!”

“Aoko, we’re in the middle of a store!”

<Help me!>

Ran paused, feeling Aoko crash into her. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Her fingers hovered over Ran’s sides. “You wouldn’t be trying to distract me, would you?”

<Ran, help me!>

“No, I’m serious. I heard someone crying for help!” She put down her headphones and sprinted in the direction of the voice, through several stores.

“I can’t hear anything? Are you sure about this?”

Ran met Aoko’s gaze. “If someone is in trouble, we have to help them! Get ready to call the police if you need to.” With that, she pushed open the basement door and continued in the strange half-light.

I’ve been here before… haven’t I?

A bolt of something shot through the darkness ahead of her, intensifying both light and shadow as it passed before dissolving onto the cobblestones. Two more followed, illuminating a cat-like shape that darted between them in quickly fading sepia tones.

“Hey! Stop that!” Ran yelled. Another projectile shot after the cat-like creature, this one shaped like a soccer ball first before it condensed into the same energy as the bolts before it. The creature made no sound as the projectile hit, and it stumbled forward, limping. “Stop, you’re hurting it!”

<Ran, please…> The creature collapsed at her feet, bleeding from all over. It had pale fur and enormous red eyes, the left one swollen shut. <Make him stop.>

“Him? The one who’s chasing you?” She held the tiny creature to her chest, taking care to support its head. Sure enough, there was a vertical patch of darkness the size of a person, although she couldn’t make out much more. “Who…?”

The person stepped into the light, and she realized it was Shinichi, wearing the exact same clothing she’d seen in her dream— a black, thigh-length Inverness cloak that moved as though it was made of shadows deeper and older than the ones surrounding it, long shirt sleeves with a complex pattern resembling diamonds, lace up boots with faintly shimmering circles on the outside of each, and a red ribbon laced around his neck like a bow tie.

“You should get away from that thing,” he said flatly, one foot resting on another soccer ball. Ran curled around the creature protectively, unsure of what she should do.

“No, you need to back the hell off!” Aoko yelled, placing herself in front of Ran. “I don’t know what your deal is, but you don’t get to just waltz in here like you belong and start attacking people.”

“You dare talk about places you don’t belong, when you defend that creature?” Shinichi pointed at Ran; it took her a moment to realize that he meant the thing in her arms.

“Just stop it, both of you!” Ran cried. “Why were you hurting it? It didn’t do anything to you.”

Shinichi paused. “If you hand it over to me and promise never to interact with it again, I promise things will turn out all right. Otherwise…” He reached into his cloak, his arm disappearing until it emerged holding something she recognized as—

“Run for it!” A spray of mist erupted in front of her; Aoko was holding a fire extinguisher, hair wild. Shinichi threw an arm up to shield himself, but he was quickly lost in the cloud. “Go on, go!”

“G-got it!” She turned to run, not knowing where she was going. A hollow clang, and Aoko was hot on her heels. She didn’t know if Shinichi was following, or if he’d shoot any of those strange soccer ball-like projectiles at her, she just knew she had to get away. The creature in her arms was still breathing, if just faintly, and she silently apologized for jostling it.

She knew she’d lost the way out at some point, but the deeper she ran, the more unfamiliar her surroundings grew. Concrete turned to brick turned to worn dirt, ivy clung hungrily to the walls, and little shapes darted past the edges of her vision. The shapes solidified into nightmares and broken fragments half remembered and only tentatively believed.

“Zahlen, schneiden, kommen, neun!”

“Ran? Are you seeing this?” Aoko asked quietly.

“The little...cotton and scissors and— ACK!” She leapt out of the way of a strand of barbed wire that danced around them, chattering nonsense.

“Ohne, Rosen, schenken, Tod!”

“Okay, good. Thought I might have inhaled some of the fumes from the fire extinguisher.” She laughed shakily, kicking aside a mustached cotton ball that came too close.

A pair of scissors struck Ran from behind, leaving a line of frayed threads on her sock as it barely missed her leg. It seemed to chitter in delight as it joined the fray, still snipping through nothing but thin air.

“Stecken, Nadeln, Fenster, Stoff!”

“Are you okay?”

“I am for now.” Ran pressed closer to Aoko, as the barbed wire drew closer and the scissors continued to snip threateningly, making passes with increasing frequency. “What’s going to happen to us?”

<I’m afraid you’ve stumbled into a labyrinth,> the creature in Ran’s arms said apologetically.

“Wait, that thing talks ?” Aoko exclaimed.

“I told you, it called to me!” 

“Fänger, laufen, gleiten, Dieb!”

“Are you ladies in need of assistance?” An unfamiliar voice called. A triangular kite above them unfolded and revealed itself to be a young man in a pure white suit, who walked on air as if descending a staircase. He flipped an entire deck of cards through his gloved hands, then blew gently on the top, sending them spiraling to the ground to plant themselves in a neat circle surrounding the girls. A moment later, the cards fell down in unison, sending shockwaves radiating from the circle and clearing the ground of the strange creatures.

He stepped lightly in front of them, took off his hat, and bowed. “Kaito Kuroba, Puella Magi and magician, at your service. That was a close call, but I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Bakaito?” Aoko asked incredulously.

“You know him?” And well enough to have a nickname for him, no less.

“Guilty as charged. See, this is why I haven’t been returning your calls. I’m not avoiding you, I’m just very busy. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He launched himself into the air again, sending a spray of cards flying from a gun-shaped contraption in his hand. Wave after wave of creatures who looked like they’d crawled in from another dimension were cut down, all as gracefully as a midair dance.

Finally he set down, deliberately stamping on a rose vine. Something…. grotesque and huge and vaguely green rose up from the landscape, a series of strange runes dancing beneath it. Kuroba looked back and winked cheekily at the two of them before dashing through the air again, sending a chain of scarves to wrap around the monster. It roared its disapproval, lashing out with a tendril that he easily dodged, spinning.

The scarves transformed into bouquets of flowers, each one launching a stream of ribbons from the center until the entire monster was trapped in a beautiful floral arrangement. Kuroba spread his arms wide, a barely contained smirk on his face, as cards flooded out both sleeves, coming together in a cloud above his head and solidifying into a larger version of the card gun he’d held earlier. 

“Ready to see my ace, girls?” he asked, hefting the canon effortlessly and taking aim. “TIRO FINALE!” 

The monster gave a pained cry as the ace of diamonds collided with it, and it deflated like an old balloon. Kuroba landed and gave a deep bow, and by the time he was standing again, the strange labyrinth was gone. They were alone in the basement of the mall once more.

“I see you’ve been taking care of Kyubey in my absence,” Kuroba said, removing his monocle and approaching Ran. “Would you mind holding him out for me?”

She nodded, unsure what he intended. A moment later, he held the monocle next to ‘Kyubey,’ and the white clover-shaped gem hanging from it began to shine. Kyubey’s injuries faded away as easily as washable marker, and he perked up almost instantly. <Thank you, Kaito!>

“Oh, don’t thank me! I was just passing through. Don’t you owe your gratitude to these two, who found you when you were injured and kept you from that witch?”

<Thank you, Ran Mouri. Thank you, Aoko Nakamori.> Kyubey inclined its head to both of them. <I appreciate your help.>

“You know our names?” Ran asked it.

<Of course I do! I chose you, after all.>

“Hang on a minute, Kaito. How long has this been going on?” Aoko demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

With a small puff of smoke, Kuroba’s suit was replaced by a school uniform, although a black ring with a tiny clover gem like the one on his monocle adorned his middle finger. “I see I owe you an explanation or two,” he said lightly. “Why don’t you come over for tea and a chat? It’s a long story.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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!”