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How many pictures does it take to say three words?

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It was another day in Sakae Academy’s art room. It should have belonged to the art club, but there was only a single member of the art club, so the room was shared with the manga club, which also consisted of only a single member. It was a room for just the two of them, each striving towards their separate goals alongside one another. And so…

“Che palle! Once again, you’ve created nothing but garbage!”

As usual, Alina was taking it upon herself to ensure the quality of the art produced in this room. She absolutely would not tolerate substandard works to be created in her presence. If the fool girl wanted to make trash, she should do that in the dumpster.

“Nooo! My strawberry milk!”

Alina slurped angrily away at the confiscated beverage. It was a punishment that Karin well deserved, but it did little to quench Alina’s frustration. The idiota had really gotten on her nerves this time.

“I, Alina, thought you’d been improving lately, but then you go and make something like this. Clean up your own trash, put this in the dumpster!”

“But I worked so hard on it!” Karin whined. “What was wrong with it?”

Tch. She had the nerve to even ask. “Putting aside the art, which was as bad as ever–” “Hey!” “–the story is terribile. Completely atrocious. What were you even thinking?”

“I put plenty of thought into this!” Karin spoke up. “I’m trying to do something new! So I wanted to try writing some romance into the manga! It’s a forbidden love between the hero and the villain, but it’s also really sweet!”

Alina scoffed. “Sweet? Ridicolo. The entire thing is contrived. Phantom Thief Magical Karin falls in ‘love’ with the villainess, confesses, and then immediately the villainess abandons her evil ways? Peggiore! You’re bending the story to cater to the protagonist, at the cost of the integrity of the other characters and the story itself!”

“But, they’ve actually really liked each other for a long time and just didn’t know it–”

“No! No excuses! It’s bad enough as a story, but it’s even worse considering that the protagonist is just a thinly-veiled expy of yourself!”

Karin stiffened up, and then started turning red. “Er, n-no. Sure, Karin is based on me, but, um, this one wasn’t–”

“Silenzio!” Alina roared. “You are entirely transparent, fool girl! You’ve had your first crush, and now you want to write some droll wish-fulfillment fantasy! But you’re only cheating yourself and your characters by setting up terribile unrealistic expectations! Start over from the beginning and write it again!”

Karin looked like she was on the verge of tears, but she nodded, slowly at first and then with more confidence. “...Okay. Okay! I’ll do it! I’ll write a story that you’ll definitely approve of!”

Alina just turned away with a harrumph and went back to her own painting. She had half a mind to just tear her painting up and assemble something from its corpse, in the hopes that a bit of senseless destruction would make her feel better. Karin’s absurdity was somehow even more distasteful than usual, and she felt vaguely ill in the pit of her stomach. The fool girl. What was she thinking? A romance manga. Ridicolo!

 


 

Have you heard? Has anyone told you?

The Rumor of the Irate Artist.

The Magius have a genius artist among them! Her art can change the whole world. But look out! On days when she’s upset the Wings of the Magius do their best to avoid her. If a Feather gets caught, they’re whisked away to her studio and stuck modeling for her until she gets bored! Girls that she takes a liking to can be stuck for hours, and they’re never the same again afterward.

Talk about scary!

“...And that’s the rumor that’s been going around among the Feathers,” Tsukuyo reported.

“Mifuyu, you can do something about this, right?” Tsukasa pleaded. “We saw her earlier and had to hide, she looked really angry about something. Last time was bad enough, I don’t even want to think about what would happen if she caught us while she’s in a mood like this...”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Mifuyu promised. “Really, that Alina. I’ve told her before that she can’t just go around harassing the Feathers like this, it’s terrible for morale.”

“Thank you very much, Mifuyu,” Tsukuyo said graciously. “We really appreciate your efforts.”

Mifuyu,” a familiar voice spoke in all of their heads. The mental broadcast was being transmitted to every member of the Wings in the base. “Your perfect body is needed for my art. Report to my studio, subito. These others are no good, I’m not getting any feeling at all out of them.”

“...Well, I’d better get going,” Mifuyu said, her steady voice betrayed by the sweat on her brow. She took a deep breath and marched off to meet her fate.

“...She’s doomed.” “Right?” “Right~?”

 


 

“You haven’t learned anything at all!” Alina’s voice bellowed from the art room, sending a group of underclassman in the hallway outside scurrying for safety. “Sono incazzata! I’ll dispose of this myself!”

“Waah! Alina, don’t light a fire in the classroom!”

“Trash should be incinerated! Ridicolo girl, do you even understand what you did wrong?”

“No! Ah, not my strawberry milk!”

Alina slurped down Karin’s strawberry milk while the other girl moved the manuscript (and the lighter) as far from Alina as possible. Just when she thought the idiota couldn’t get any more ridiculous, she surpassed all expectations. This second draft was even more infuriating than the first. It didn’t take long for her to finish the carton, and she turned to deal with the foolish would-be manga artist again. Karin was glaring back at her defiantly, to Alina’s surprise.

“I thought really hard about what you said!” Karin shouted. “Yeah, the first one was unrealistic! It’s too much to hope that the villain would just turn good like that! That’s why this time, Karin thinks really hard about it and decides to join the villain for the sake of love! It was a really hard choice for her, and she makes a big sacrifice! What’s wrong with that?!”

“Everything!” Alina shouted right back. “Idiota! The hero turns evil over some silly first crush? What sort of story is that?”

“It’s a human story!” Karin returned fire fiercely. “It’s not idealistic, but people are messy! Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Have you no conviction? You would throw away your aspirations for the first face that catches your eye?” Alina sneered. “You call that love, but it’s just ridicola foolish infatuation.”

Karin’s face reddened and her glare hardened. “Senpai, you don’t know anything about love! You’ve never been in love, so you don’t know anything!”

Alina’s eyebrow twitched. The nonsense this girl kept spouting. “It’s the same for you, idiota, you have no experience with love.”

“Not true!” Karin shouted. “I, I have feelings!” She stomped her foot against the floor. “I’ll show you! I’ll write a story that you have to accept!” She stormed her way to the door and slammed it open. “Arrivederch!” She slammed the door shut behind her.

“...It’s ‘arrivederci’,” Alina muttered to herself. She turned back to her painting. She raised her paintbrush, and…

Nothing came to her. She frowned. She was still worked up from the argument. Turbulent emotions roiled about in her gut. She shouldn’t care so much about the fool girl’s absurd manga. But she refused to allow someone to make shoddy half-baked art in her presence. Especially from a potentially promising artist, and yes, she had to admit that Karin did have promise, unpolished as she was. That was all.

...It still bugged her, like an itch. She dipped her paintbrush in black, following her emotions. Who was it that had so ensnared the idiota? She wouldn’t forgive anyone that would mislead her charge. If she found the villain, she would… she would… well, she’d have to come up with something especially inventive.

 


 

It was frustrating. None of Alina’s art was working out. Of course, that was a reality of art, she’d always dealt with inspiration being a fickle thing, sometimes there and sometimes not, but this time she had something she could blame. Her thoughts kept circling around back to the idiota, and that would just make her angry. It bothered her more than she cared to admit to see the fool girl squander her talents, producing mediocre works when she’d shown herself capable of better, and especially for such an insipid reason. Alina needed something to take her mind off of that.

When the call came in from the Feathers that a familiar group of meddling girls was attacking an Uwasa, Alina had smiled from ear to ear. A perfect chance to work off some stress.

At least, that had been the plan.

The Feathers were useless, half of them already too battered to take a stand and the rest being held at bay by the invisible girl from Endless Solitude. The Uwasa of the Midnight Mall was under assault by the preachy girl that vexed Touka so much and the veteran girl that had a history with Mifuyu, and if left unimpeded it was only a matter of time before their teamwork brought it down. Alina probably ought to be stopping them, but…

The blond brat that had destroyed one of Alina’s works of art was here, and she cared more about that than the Uwasa. “Hold still! Merda! Stop running around like a cockroach!”

She thrust a hand out and her emerald cube pivoted in midair and painted the night green with a barrage of magic, but Blondie dodged away from the attacks. Alina swept her arm to the side to launch a sweeping series of blasts that would corner her for sure, but was forced to sidestep a flaming fan and her aim went wild.

So frustrating. She was certain that she could tear that blond little monster limb from limb if she were alone, but the self-proclaimed Mightiest got in her way every time, and whenever Alina tried to focus on that brunette then Blondie got in her face with that absurdly sized hammer of hers. Their teamwork was frustratingly effective. She was sure she could turn the tables if the Feathers could just do their damned jobs, but the pied piper twins were still on the ground trying to heal their broken legs. Alina wasn’t concerned about being defeated by these insects, but she wasn’t able to land any hits either, and that was just so frustrating.

“Just hold still!”

“Make me!” the blond brat shouted back.

She’d had enough. She was going to squash this child, even if it cost her a few Witches to do so. She gestured and her cube unfolded, unpacking twisted space within itself, opening up into one of Alina’s personal labyrinths. A Witch that looked like a giant stuffed rabbit emerged from the labyrinth, locking on to the first target it saw: Blondie. This Witch might not be enough to beat her, but it should at least keep her occupied long enough for Alina to paint the streets red with Blondie’s fan-flinging partner…

The Witch screamed as it was almost immediately driven back by some sort of… explosion? But rather than an explosion of flame, it appeared to be an explosion of…

Candy.

The sound of laughter echoed through the night, coming from above. Alina raised her eyes and saw a girl that perfectly evoked the typical imagery of a classic ‘cute witch’ from media, wearing a pointed hat and riding a flying broomstick. Both her appearance and her signature attack, the so-called Candy Death Squall, were unmistakable. As was the speech that she was already starting to give.

“Leave this to me! It is I, the Magical Girl born of Halloween, Magical Karin!”

The flying girl floated down until she was level with Alina, staring at her with resolution in her eyes. Here she was, Karin Misono of the Manga Club, Alina’s idiota. This was the first time that Alina had run across her while acting as one of the leaders of the Wings of the Magius, but Karin didn’t look surprised or even disappointed, she just looked… prepared. Had Karin already known what Alina was doing, even though Alina had never told her? How long had she known?

That blond brat spoke up, spoiling the mood and further cementing that Alina would never forgive her. “Oh! It’s the candy girl! Why are you here?”

“Don’t worry about that!” Karin said without taking her eyes off of Alina. “Go help the others. This is my special move, Trick and Treat! Give me something good, and I’ll pull a trick on you!”

“I don’t have any treats on me, though!”

“Oh, well, don’t worry! I’ll just put it on your tab. Anyway, my trick is… stopping this villain right here!”

Alina laughed. Karin did look surprised at that, but Alina couldn’t help herself, she almost doubled over she was laughing so much. She scarcely even noticed the other two magical girls escaping to help their comrades with the Uwasa. Even after she got herself under control, she couldn’t stop her mouth from locking into a rictus grin. This was just…

“Fantastico! Truly fantastico!” Leaning back, she raised one hand to half-cover her face and extended the other to point toward Karin. “So, you’ve come to oppose me at last! Phantom Thief Magical Karin! Do you really think you’ll be able to stop me?”

“I know I can!” Karin summoned her scythe with a flick of her wrist and held it out in Alina’s direction, answering her challenge. “Just you wait! I, Magical Karin, the Magical Girl born of Halloween, will stop your evil deeds in their tracks!” Her magically-imbued candies rose up around her, and she launched them at the rabbit witch again just as it was getting up.

“Give me your best shot, Magical Karin!” Alina summoned another cube, and then, with a wave of her hand, split it into twenty-seven smaller cubes. “Don’t hold anything back!” She smiled manically as energy crackled between her cubes. She didn’t have a single thought to spare for the Uwasa she was theoretically protecting, or the consequences of this encounter.

The only thing she could think of was how much fun she was having.

 


 

The operation was a complete bust. The Mikazuki Villa girls had managed to defeat the Uwasa while the intruder, Karin Misono, had kept Alina busy, and then all of them had managed to escape. It was a disheartening loss for the Wings of the Magius, though not a critical one. This Rumor hadn’t been a particularly important one, and all of the Feathers would recover.

For Tsukuyo and Tsukasa, the most troubling part of it all wasn’t even the defeat (though it was true that they might be developing a Pavlovian fear response to Yachiyo ‘Legbreaker’ Nanami), no, the most troubling thing was their boss’s reaction. It would’ve made sense if Alina was fuming mad at the loss. It also wouldn’t have been strange if Alina had been entirely indifferent to the result, since she tended to have… unique priorities.

No one would have expected Alina to be elated.

“Quickly, I need some paints!” Alina’s frenzied smile was the stuff nightmares were made of. “I can’t let this inspiration go to waste! I need to record this, at once!”

Tsukuyo and Tsukasa exchanged a look. They knew better than to refuse Alina anything when she was like this.

“I’ll get the paints.” “I’ll get the canvas and brushes.” “Right?” “Right~?”

 


 

Alina’s high didn’t last. She had worked all night putting her newfound inspiration on canvas and produced a veritable masterpiece, then fumbled her way through the next day’s classes, and now she was working in the club room and the idiota was late.

It affected her mood more than it should. Why wasn’t she here? It was unlikely that anything had happened to her since the previous day, she was capable of handling herself and it wasn’t as though she could’ve run into a threat more dangerous than Alina herself. Was she avoiding the room? Avoiding Alina? Because of what had happened?

Until now, Alina had never so much as mentioned the Wings to Karin and Karin had never run across her in her capacity as one of the Magius. Indeed, she’d never really even considered how her position would affect their relationship. Her actions as a Magius were separate from her status as Karin’s… mentor? Artistic peer? Something between the two; her senpai, not just in school but in art as well. Art was Alina’s entire life, her purpose for existing, which she pursued along any and every path that interested her, and it had never occurred to her that some of those paths could end up conflicting. From her perspective, her Witch-breeding project was completely separate from her art in the classroom, but she didn’t know if Karin would see it that way.

She gnashed her teeth and bent her pencil to the edge of breaking in her frustration. Karin’s opinion might have actually been useful, today. She, Alina, did not limit herself to any one medium in her art, following her inspiration whether it took the form of paintings, sculptures, Witches, or clothing, and today while nodding off in social studies she’d had a new spark of ispirazione from yesterday’s events that had led her to a new medium: she was trying her hand at making a manga. The idea had been so clear and fresh in her mind when it had occurred to her, but now that she was in the art room it seemed so hard to properly focus on it. And this was the one artistic medium that Karin actually had more experience than her at, and while Alina had every confidence in her own ability it would’ve have been useful to have that girl’s opinion for extra context. What was that idiota thinking, making her worry like this?

Where was that damned girl? And was she coming back?

The door slammed open abruptly, surprising even Alina. Karin stomped in, her clothes rumpled, dark circles under her eyes, generally looking like she hadn’t caught a wink of sleep last night. One hand shot out dramatically to point at Alina. “I’m done!”

Alina blinked, thoroughly befuddled. “Scusi?”

“I’m done!” Karin strode across the room boldly despite her clear exhaustion and, after fishing around in her bag for a moment, slammed a stack of papers down on the desk beside Alina. “This is my last redo! It’ll blow you away!” She pulled out a carton of strawberry milk, stuck the straw in it, and sipped it while staring defiantly at Alina.

Ah. Right. The draft for her manga. Alina picked up the bundle, looked at it for a few moments, and smirked. “Very well. I, Alina, shall judge your work once again. Don't disappoint me.”

Looking at the drawings, Alina did have to admit that Karin’s art had come a long way since they had first met. It was still a long, long way from being masterful, but even in an unfinalized rough draft like this she could see the strength of Karin’s fundamentals in the linework. And there were parts where the rough style helped to convey the emotion that Karin had clearly poured into this work. Alina still hesitated to call the art ‘good’, she had quite high standards, but it certainly wasn’t terrible.

But the quality of a manga was more than just the strength of its drawings, and it was not the artwork that Alina had vehemently rejected in the previous attempts. Whether or not Karin had managed to improve the story was the critical question here. The premise was unchanged: Phantom Thief Magical Karin had developed a crush on this chapter’s villain, who happened to also attend Karin’s school in her secret identity. Various things happened, and then in the climactic scene, at a suitably dramatic moment in the middle of a battle, Karin confessed her feelings to the villain. The villain declared that she would not give up on her evil ways. And Karin…

Karin declared that she wouldn’t give up, either as a heroic thief or as a maiden in love, that she would defeat and redeem the villain and ‘steal her heart’. A bit corny, but consistent with the flavor of Karin’s works. And then…

Alina frowned. She turned over the last page and put the manuscript down thoughtfully.

“So?” Karin asked anxiously, unable to contain herself. “What did you think?”

In answer, Alina snatched the strawberry milk and took a long pull of it.

“Hey!”

“It’s an improvement,” Alina finally admitted. “Where is the rest of it?”

Karin looked at her with a bit of frustration. “What are you talking about?”

“I am asking where the rest of it is, capito? The ending is inconclusive. We never see whether or not Karin succeeds at seducing the villain.”

“She isn’t seducing!” Karin objected. “And that’s for a future issue! This one is about Phantom Thief Magical Karin coming to terms with her feelings and making her resolution. It’ll be a two-parter.”

Alina frowned. “Bah. Very well then, you can just tell me. How does the story end?”

“…I don’t know,” Karin admitted, blushing and looking away from Alina’s eyes.

What. “Ridicolo. This is your story. How could you not know how it ends?”

Karin’s face managed to turn even redder. “Because! I… I haven’t gotten a reply yet!”

Alina’s eyes narrowed. Ah. So Karin’s artistic integrity was still being inhibited by her real romantic drama. “That’s inaccettabile. You should proceed toward the ideal image that you envision. There’s no need for you to wait on an answer from some wishy-washy harlot.”

Karin stepped forward, getting right up in Alina’s face with surprising intensity. “You’re making me mad, Alina. I am working towards what I want, and she’s not a harlot.”

That was a lot of backbone to be coming from the fool girl. The only other time Alina had seen Karin this worked up was that time in the hospital, after Alina had almost died pursuing her (admittedly misguided) attempt at her ultimate piece of art. This time, though, Alina didn’t think she was mistaken, and she wasn’t willing to back down. “Please. There’s no way that this apple of your eye is worthy of your time,” she said dismissively. “Who even is this person that you’re so enamored with?”

In a move that caught Alina completely off-guard, Karin reached forward and forcefully grabbed Alina by the chin. Blushing clear from ear to ear, the shorter girl leaned in close while Alina was still startled, and…

Kissed her. On the lips.

Alina very nearly fell over, her arms barely managing to find a desk to lean on in time to keep herself upright. Che cosa?!

“I’ve been trying to tell you, but you just weren’t getting it! You’re a blockhead, and you can be really mean, and your artwork is amazing, and you’re always helping me out and looking out for me, and you don’t care enough about yourself, and I really respect you, and I don’t know what you’re thinking, and you’re doing some bad things, and you look really cute when you’re embarrassed!”

Alina’s brain was misfiring as she tried to keep up with this sudden barrage of information. It was all she could do to latch on to the last thing and try to fire back. “I never look embarrassed!”

“You’re embarrassed right now, and it’s super cute!” Karin shouted fervently. She was still right in Alina’s face, and Alina’s eyes kept darting back to the girl’s lips. “I really like you, senpai. Alina. I want to be your girlfriend. And… I’m going to redeem you from your wicked ways!”

“My what?” An image flashed fully-formed in Alina’s mind, a painting of herself at sea, desperately trying to stay afloat as she was battered by the wind (Karin’s words) and the waves (Karin’s face).

“So, so, that’s why! This is my, Magical Karin’s, declaration of war!” Karin stepped back suddenly, just enough so that she could swing her arm and point a finger right in Alina’s face, just a hair away from touching her nose. “It’s my special move, Trick and Treat! I already got something nice from you, so now I’ll play a trick! My trick is… stealing your heart!”

They froze in place like that for long moments, still and silent both. Except that they were neither still nor silent, both of them breathing hard after that frantic exchange, both of them trembling with emotion.

And then, with no further words, Karin stole back the carton of strawberry milk, slurped it dry while Alina watched, made a satisfied sound, and then walked toward the door with attempted casualness, opened it, and left. Still red-faced the entire time.

The spell over the room seemed to break when the door shut again, and Alina slumped. That… that idiota. That brillante, stupida, bellisima idiota! What was Alina even supposed to do with this information?! With these feelings, churning around inside her?!

Her eyes fell over Karin’s manga, which she’d left here. And then on Alina’s own latest project, the mostly blank pages of the manga she’d begun. Something erupted from Alina’s throat, and it took her several seconds to realize that it was laughter. Her hands jerked into action, tearing up the pages that she’d already worked on, and then she laid the blank pages before her and readied her pencil.

Stupenda. Stupenda! The world seemed so vibrant, like it had when she’d discovered Witches. “Very well, Magical Karin,” she said aloud, even though there was no one in the room to hear her. “I, Alina, accept your challenge!” The pencil flew across the page, beginning Alina’s new manga in earnest without any storyboarding, fueled by the burning inspiration in her heart. “This isn’t over! I’ll show you… my reply!”