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desdemona, the doppelgänger, and divided duty

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     On the night of Yachiyo’s sixteenth birthday, there is a storm so loud that it rocks the house.

     It’s the kind of rain that you can hear thumping against the roof, the kind that slaps the windows and drowns out the melancholic hourly groans of the grandfather clock. Her grandmother shuffles through the house in her slippers, lighting candles after the power sputters out for the third time. Better to shut the lights out and do things the old way, she says with a wink, her cheeky way of insinuating that she’s older than she is. The old boarding house is dimly lit with low, sputtering shades of orange.

     Yachiyo tells her grandmother to go to bed just before midnight. We’ll take care of the candles, Grandma, you should head upstairs. They listen to the creak of her feet up the flights of steps, the water from her bathroom sink hissing in the old pipes. The creak of her mattress box springs, the sound of her rolling over in bed. Their ears pick up on it as you can hear your own pulse, a familiar sound even past the heavy rain.

     At midnight, Yachiyo and Mifuyu are alone.

     Half of the birthday cake is wrapped in foil and sitting in the fridge. Guests flitted in and out throughout the day. An uncle and his stepson, two cousins twice removed, a flurry of colleagues past and current, models who know Yachiyo in the shallow, polite way that you know someone if you only talk to them between photoshoots and wardrobe changes. Girls who were driven here by their parents, stayed a few minutes, and left as soon as they came. A smattering of polite magical girls – weaker girls, rookies trying to make tentative allies. Momoko, a young hot-headed girl who came with the absent Mitama’s regrets. Tsuruno, an overeager school acquaintance whose clothes smelled like her kitchen as she left a greasy bag of takeout on the counter. And then it started to drizzle, and then it started to rain, and so her grandmother locked up the house for the day.

     That was okay, because Mifuyu stayed throughout the day, and she is still here now.

     “What are you writing, Yacchan?” Mifuyu asks.     
Yachiyo pauses with her pen above the paper, scratching lightly along the cardstock. The top of its page is embossed with stars and moons. “I’m writing my will for the year.”
      “I know that,” Mifuyu clucks. “What are you writing, is what I meant.”

     Mifuyu’s hand props her head up as she reads under a blanket on the sofa. Her fingers are splayed between the pages she’s stopped on. Yachiyo knows what she meant. She glances at Mifuyu’s fingers, then returns to her letter.

     “You will just have to find out when you read it.”
     “You know how impatient I am, Yacchan.”
     “Yes, I know. I also know that it’s fun to tease you.”
     Mifuyu makes an indignant noise and resumes her reading.

     When her eyes lower, Yachiyo returns her careful gaze to Mifuyu’s face. A stout candle burns on the glass table between them, a pool of wax sinking into its center. Its gentle light makes the shadows tremble, playing tricks across Mifuyu’s brow. Her fingers turn the page. Her hand moves softly down the worn paper. She’s read this book enough times that the spine is striped with white rifts. Another love story, maybe, with samurais and princesses and women who love below their station.

     Mifuyu sighs. Yachiyo looks away.

     How do you write a will? This is Yachiyo’s fourth time penning a letter like this. In the event of my death, please do such and such with my possessions, please give my regards to so and so, this is where I wish my soul gem to remain. At sixteen, Yachiyo does not know what a soul gem is. It is a token, a source of power, a pretty symbol. She would like Mifuyu to hold onto it, she thinks. Like a best friend’s charm, or a promise ring. It could sit on her dresser, or she could wear it on her finger. Yachiyo has no intention of dying, neither this year nor anytime soon. But if it were to happen tomorrow, she feels confident in giving everything away to Mifuyu.

     What do you do when a magical girl dies? When a witch gobbles you up and chews you in its maw and spits you out in several pieces, when your body is strewn across the labyrinth and the familiars pick at your flesh, what are you supposed to do? Who do you call? Do you go home, change into your night clothes, wash your face, go to bed? Do you go to school as if nothing has happened, act politely surprised when their parents call you? Did you know Mifuyu hasn’t been home? No, really? Well, she certainly wasn’t with me. We parted ways last night. What do you tell the police? Can your will be honored if someone is still holding out hope that one day, you’ll come home? And when someone catches you with tears in your eyes, what can you tell them, what could possibly make the pain go away?

     A low rumble of thunder rattles the house. Mifuyu shifts her hand through her white hair, and the candlelight glints off of her soul gem. Yachiyo closes her eyes, then signs the letter.

 

 

☽❂☾



     When Yachiyo and Mifuyu are seventeen, they find out what happens when a magical girl dies.

     It isn’t very pretty. They’ve written letters, they’ve mulled over the possibilities, but it all plays out so much differently than expectation. It goes like this: Kanae Yukino dies outside of the old auto factory. Her soul gem is broken into many jagged pieces. There is nothing to be done, so says the white rat. So what do you do? Think quickly, now – time is ticking out.

     It feels like being caught red-handed. It feels like being accomplices to a terrible crime. Yachiyo thinks about fingerprints and security footage while Mifuyu cries, her hands clasped over Kanae’s clammy palm. For a brief moment, she considers slapping her hands away. What are you doing, she wants to shout, your DNA will be all over her, you’ll be a suspect. It is highly unlikely that anyone would ever accuse Mifuyu Azusa of murder, but the fear remains. Yachiyo knows that she would not do well under questioning. Mifuyu has always been fragile under pressure. 

     As she continues to cry, Yachiyo feels part of her heart harden over.

     It goes like this: the police are called. Yachiyo collects herself and makes the call while Mifuyu watches, wringing her hands, looking away. We were meant to see her perform her first gig, but she never showed up, Yachiyo says with a hard voice. We don’t know her bandmates’ numbers, so we tracked her phone’s GPS out here. She’s fainted before, you see, she’s very anemic – so we tried to wake her up. Mifuyu will be free from blame, her DNA on Kanae’s hands easily explained away. A dusting of her illusion magic will make their story all the more believable. 

     Kanae has a bad rap at her school. She gets in trouble often, is quick to settle things with her fists. No signs of a struggle will be found, but the coroner’s office is willing to brush this aside. Girls die in Kamihama all the time – at least this one left a body behind.

     Yachiyo gathers the shards of Kanae’s soul in her hand and presses them tight to her chest. When she gets home, the pieces are already beginning to dull.

     It goes like this: Kanae’s parents are not the type to invite you inside for tea. Her father is a chain smoker. He sits outside the apartment and smokes in his lawn chair, watching the world trundle by. Her mother is always ironing – or at least she is when they come to visit. She stands in front of the TV and watches it in a vacant sort of way, steam hissing from the iron as she whisks it over the board, back and forth. She looks like a mannequin, propped up just to fill space.

     Yachiyo and Mifuyu come with flowers and offerings, the result of much back and forth bickering. Mifuyu wanted to go all out. Yachiyo wanted to be restrained, to distance themselves respectfully. Kanae was part of their team for six months, give or take. We didn’t know her as well as her parents did, as much as we’d like to believe, Yachiyo snaps at one point. It humbles Mifuyu, putting her in a dour mood for the rest of the evening. Yachiyo regrets saying it as soon as it leaves her mouth, and truth be told, she doesn’t even believe it herself. 

     It is much easier to convince yourself that you didn’t know someone very well after they are already dead. Downplaying it makes it hurt less.

     Tight, strained sentiments are exchanged between the two mourning parties. Kanae’s mother does not move to accept the flowers, or the trinkets. She moves the iron back and forth across the board. The beige and brown plaid of a Sakae school uniform sags over it.

     “One last thing,” Yachiyo says, right as they discover that this will not be the heartfelt visit that they hoped for, one that might provide a semblance of closure. “Kanae wore this once at my house, but she left it behind on accident. I never got a chance to give it back to her. So I’d like to return it to you, if that’s all right.”

     It’s a fragment of red stone hanging from a silver chain. It doesn’t shine the way it does when it was part of Kanae’s living soul, but it’s good enough. Her father holds the end of the chain between his thumb and his finger, staring at it with a faraway look upon his face. Mifuyu watches the gem sparkle, then looks away, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.

     He pockets the soul gem, he mumbles his thanks. Her mother irons her school uniform. Her teammates excuse themselves.

     Halfway to the station, Mifuyu stops in the middle of the sidewalk. 

     When Yachiyo turns to look at her, they’re a few paces apart. Her body looks limp and deflated. Things have not been going very well for Mifuyu lately. She fights with her parents. School is difficult for her. She’s easily distracted, fickle, idealistic, and awfully stubborn. Qualities that make it hard to get along in the Azusa family. Her parents want her to get engaged – troublesome for more than just her. She liked taking care of Kanae. She’s a good mentor when she steps up to the plate, and guiding Kanae along the straight and narrow made her happy. All of this feels like a catastrophic failure. Yachiyo can see it on Mifuyu’s face. The drooping of her mouth, the resignation in her brow. 

     She looks so tired. The half of Yachiyo that is still willing to feel sinks with a burning, bubbling sadness.

     “I didn’t picture ourselves ever having to do this,” she says meekly. It’s so soft, and so sad. “The letters. They seemed like a formality. I–”

     She covers her face.

     Dealing with the dead is one thing. They have nothing to say. They don’t have feelings anymore. It’s harder to deal with the ones who survive.

     “Mifuyu, look at me.” Yachiyo bridges the gap between them and places her hands on her arms, whisking her thumbs across her sleeves. “I’m here. We’re still together. It’s going to work out.”

     It’s going to work out. It sounds easier to believe when she says it out loud.

     Mifuyu wipes the waterline of her eyes. “Yes. Yes, I know, Yacchan.”     
     “You know,” she says, “there are still a lot of things Kanae wanted us to do for her. We need to return her guitar to her bandmates, and lock up her diary so no one will read it. Let’s try to get it all done before she can accuse us of being lazy.”
     This draws a smile out of her. “Yes, we should finish her list. It’s what she would want.”

     It’s small, but it’s a victory. Yachiyo offers a smile in return. It feels appropriate in this moment to pull her into a hug, to wrap her arms around her and let her cry. But that’s not Mifuyu, it’s not her style. Too many people want too much from her already. So Yachiyo pockets this little desire, and they continue home.

     Maybe her will was too vague, she wonders as they sit in silence on the bus to Shinsei Ward. Maybe she should amend it. Make it easier to fulfill, leave no stone unturned. But that would require paragraphs more than Yachiyo is willing to write. Things she isn’t willing to admit yet. Mifuyu needs her right now – unconditionally, unyieldingly, and one more unfair expectation may break the camel’s back.

     Maybe she’ll write it next year. Maybe it’ll be easier. It has never been easy, not for the past four years, but maybe – maybe next time, she won’t be so weak.



☽❂☾



     When Yachiyo is twelve, she meets a girl named Mifuyu. 

     Things blend together when you’re a magical girl. Time bleeds into an amorphous mass. Restless nights of witch hunting turn into days of sleepwalking through the school hallways. Weeks pass quickly, nights last ages. It’s a pain to escape the house during the twilight hours – it’s why so many girls don’t have what it takes to fulfill their duties. When her grandmother is asleep, Yachiyo goes out under the cover of darkness and wanders between the streetlights of Kamihama. Young, stubborn, and self confident, but without the slightest shred of experience. Holding still for a camera is one thing. Poaching monsters is another.

     It’s hard to stuff witch hunting into your daily schedule when you’re twelve years old. Your time management and independence are already so limited, so how do you factor in the responsibilities of a bona fide magical girl? These are things that Yachiyo did not consider in the heat of the moment. But as the white fairy says, it is possible that the nature of your wish will make you more amenable to the strenuous tasks of being a magical girl. Yachiyo hopes this proves to be true.

     In time, her soul gem latches onto a string of malignant magic that the white fairy says belongs to a witch. She cups her soul gem in her hand and watches the swimming shades of blue within, a sigil of some magical pattern shimmering above its crescent moon. She follows it down an alleyway and over a fence, past a dumpster piled high with garbage, and a foreclosed apartment with its windows boarded. At the apartment’s back door, there is a whorling mass of static black, and the sigil above her soul gem whirs as if to say yes, yes, there it is, there’s the beast I was telling you about. It’s a whirring that Yachiyo feels in some indistinct part of her. 

     The entrance to the labyrinth burbles with impurity. It radiates with a nauseating evil, the kind of ill will that you turn your eyes from, an unbearable and unreformable maliciousness. This is not the first time Yachiyo has ventured into a labyrinth, but the quirk of fear she feels has not gone away. She still feels ridiculous in this outfit. Armor that’s just for decoration, a skirt with too high a slit, awfully tall wedges that make her look older, but are hard to walk in. She feels as though she’s cosplaying someone much more talented and mature. It’s a costume one must grow into. The gemstones on her sandals sparkle, and she steps into the pocket dimension of some strange new witch.

     Inside the labyrinth, it is dark and muggy. A swampiness fills the air, heavy and wet and droning with the sound of hundreds of insects. Yachiyo must balance herself upon the giant lily pads scattered across the water, murky with algae and bubbling with noxious gas. The roots of cypress trees lash out indiscriminately, spraying toxic water wherever the droplets land. Yachiyo makes quick work of launching herself across the water, and when the lily pads run out, she runs across the halberds that she summons as a bridge. It’s a clumsy method, and she nearly trips and falls face first into the swamp, but in a short time she makes it to the center of the labyrinth.

     Familiars eye her from the misty depths. They’re like giant water striders, their exoskeletons edged with marbled fins. They glide across the water and snap at Yachiyo’s ankles the closer she progresses to their witch, their bloodlust like a mosquito’s. When she runs them through with her halberd, they utter terrible, ear-splitting shrieks.

     At the center of the swamp, beautiful pink and blue lotus flowers bloom together in clumps. They’re the size of her face, with bright petals that glisten with water droplets. And at the center of them all, there is a little girl peering curiously into the water.

     She hears the clicking of Yachiyo’s heels against her halberds before Yachiyo can even speak. This girl is a puffball, her outfit a fuzzy, pajama-like amalgam of white and black fleece. Strings of fluff are tied into her short white hair, and she tugs nervously at the short hem of her dress. It’s the meek self-consciousness of a newbie magical girl that Yachiyo recognizes as her own. As the other girl fidgets with the handle of her chakram, Yachiyo finds it in herself to say something.

      “Are you hunting this witch?” Yachiyo asks.
     The girl fidgets again. “Yes… but I– well, I’m having trouble finding it.”
      Yachiyo forks another familiar on her spear. “I don’t recognize you. Do you go to the university school?”
      She blinks. “No, I go to the girl’s academy. In Mizuna.”
      “You’re far from home.”
      “Am I? This is the castle town, I thought.”
      Now it’s Yachiyo’s turn to be taken aback. “Is it?”
      “I – well, um, I’m not sure how far I tracked this witch but… I think we’re in Mizuna, still.”
      “I’m sorry, I tracked it too far, then.” She can feel her face burning with embarrassment. The first magical girl she’s met out on the field, and she’s made a fool of herself.
      “Is it bad that you’re here?”
      “I thought. Well, Kyuubey said… some girls don’t like their territories being interfered with.”

     Stupid Yachiyo, stupid, stupid. She’s always had a way with words when it comes to her colleagues, the other young models who look to her for guidance. This is not a situation for which she’s prepared, and she hates being made to feel dumb.

     The girl laughs. She brings one gloved hand to her face and tucks the white strands from her brow. She has a round face, pretty and dainty, but probably not suited for modeling. If she were a part of Yachiyo’s network, she imagines that their manager would tell her to lose weight. Her costume is a little silly, but it suits her well. A glittering sun, purplish and dark in hue, hangs at her throat. Yachiyo’s face is still red.

      “You haven’t been doing this for very long, have you?”     
      Yachiyo shakes her head. “Not really. Have you?”
      “This is only my second witch,” the girl replies bashfully. “So truthfully, I don’t really know what to make of what Kyuubey tells me.”
      This makes her feel better. She allows her shoulders to relax. “Me neither, to be honest.”
      “In that case,” the girl smiles, “maybe we can ignore Kyuubey’s whole speech about territory, and I can forgive you for stumbling into Mizuna.”
      “That would be very kind of you. I’m sure it won’t happen again.”
      “I never said you’re unwelcome.” There’s a sly cheekiness about this girl, like she’s used to being coy to get her way. “We might be rookies, but you seem pretty strong! I mean, look at all those weapons you’ve summoned!”
      Yachiyo glances behind her. “I mean, it’s really nothing special.”
      “See? Strong and humble. I bet you’re a really powerful magical girl. So if you want to wander over here more often, that’s okay by me!”

     She moves her chakram back and forth like a child playing with a hula hoop. It’s hard to get a read of her. Yachiyo is accustomed to ingraining herself with a number of personalities – some of them awfully unpleasant – in order to get along in modeling. It’s annoying not to instantly know what kind of person this girl is.

     “My name’s Mifuyu,” the girl says. “Mifuyu Azusa. What’s yours?”     
     She hesitates. “Yachiyo. Nanami, Yachiyo.”
      “That’s a beautiful name!” Mifuyu marvels, and somehow it doesn’t come across as facetious. “Have you ever met another magical girl, Yachiyo?”
      She shakes her head. “Not really. I wasn’t sure that there were any.”
      “There’s a few , I think,” Mifuyu ponders with her finger to her mouth, “but we haven’t bumped into each other.”
      “I see.”
      “I’m happy to meet another one. That means I can keep you to myself, then!” She punctuates this with another coy laugh, one that makes Yachiyo wonder if she’s being genuine.
      Well, isn’t she confident? “Since I’m here, and you were having trouble… maybe you’d, um–”
     “Like help? I’d love if you helped!” 

     Mifuyu swings her chakram over her head and loops it around and around on her arm. It looks like it should hurt, but perhaps the fleece of her sleeve protects her. Just as it makes a full circle, she throws it forward, where it skitters across the water and splits a familiar down the middle. It squeals, dissolving into black smoke, and the chakram dutifully returns to its master.

     “This is the center of the labyrinth, right? If we split up we can–”

     Yachiyo is interrupted for the second time as a great wave ripples through the water of the swampy labyrinth. Mifuyu yelps as she attempts to secure her footing on a lily pad, so Yachiyo extends her bridge of halberds and pulls her up above the surface.

     “Thanks, Yachiyo! You’re a quick thinker.”     
     “It’s no problem. Brace yourself – the witch may know we’re here.”

     And so she does. The water continues to bubble and burst, a septic smell rising from the bottom of the murk. There’s a dark, nebulous shape moving below them. Like the shadow of some giant whale, it swims between the lotus flowers, strangely shapeless. Yachiyo tries to train her eye on it. Her spears aim for it, playing the role of fisherman, but it’s too amorphous to track. 

     Mifuyu clings to Yachiyo’s arm, her heels perched precariously on the length of a halberd. “Be careful,” she breathes, “this one is a trickster. I can feel it.”     
     “I’ll try to spear it in its tracks,” she replies. “Hold onto me so you won’t fall.”

     One, two, three, four –  the halberds fly into the water, whizzing past their ears. They splash among the flowers, hitting errant familiars or else disappearing into the depth. There is no sound of impact, no resistance from the underwater witch. No dice, then. It didn’t work. Yachiyo feels her ears burn. This small failure may not bother her if she were alone, but with an audience it’s more embarrassing. 

     Without warning, the witch breaches the surface. At first, it is hard to tell that this is the witch at all. She’s almost transparent, with a gelatinous texture that seems to dissolve when it meets the muck. As her mass rises from the water, lotus flowers and lily pads cling to the top of her head, like little hats draped across the slimy tendrils of her hair. The witch raises one great hand, slapping Yachiyo’s arrangement of halberds with a pestilential stink. The spears break into sparks of blue, and the witch retreats underwater.

      “Are you okay?” Mifuyu asks. She helps Yachiyo get her footing. “I told you it was a trickster! I have an eye for things like that.”     
      “You have good instincts,” Yachiyo replies. “Thank you. We should keep our feet off the lily pads. I have a feeling that something bad will happen if the water touches us.”
      “I’ll say! It smells so bad I might be sick,” says Mifuyu with a grimace. “There’s the witch now, do you see her moving?”
      “She’s circling us like a shark,” Yachiyo remarks.
      “It’s going to be hard to pin her down, she’s nearly see-through.” Mifuyu rubs her chin. “I don’t think my weapons will do much good against her, but maybe my magic could help.”
      “What magic are you referring to, exactly?”
      “Mifuyu’s magic allows her to cast illusions on others,” comes a voice from above. 

     It’s the white fairy, Kyuubey with his sleek pelt, little red eyes peering out of the darkness. He washes his paws and whisks them over his face, comfortable in the cypress branches.

     “Kyuubey! How good of you to join us,” Mifuyu says playfully.      
     “Hello, Mifuyu. I thought I’d check up on you. I’m glad to see that you’ve made yourself an ally.”
      “Well, since you’ve been listening in on us, don’t you think my plan would work?”
     “Your illusions should be perfectly capable of fooling a witch,” he replies. “But don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself.”

     The next time the witch surfaces, Mifuyu is prepared. The swamp is illuminated with brilliant white light, reflecting off of every surface, bouncing off the shining surface of her sun-shaped soul gem. The face of the moon wanes over the labyrinth, filling it with a fine mist. For a moment, the witch appears confused. She stays stock still, unsure what to do.

     “I think I’ve made her believe that she’s no longer transparent, that she can be easily killed,” Mifuyu yips. “Her guard is down, take those weapons of yours and run her through!”

     So she does. Yachiyo whisks her hand and pulls a number of halberds from the ether, all trained upon the lily pad witch. Then she lets them go, and they launch themselves into the witch’s viscous body. The spears pin her into the trunk of a cypress, where she begins to struggle for her life.

     “One more, Yachiyo, and it’s over!” Mifuyu says. “Go for the flower on her head, and I think she’ll be done for!”

     Mifuyu’s instincts have carried them this far, so Yachiyo trusts her judgment and does just that. Her heels clank-clank-clank against the ends of her spears, and when she reaches the witch she lunges at the center of the lotus draped across her hair. All at once, the witch begins to dissolve. With her spear stuck into the tree, Yachiyo holds onto it and props her feet against the trunk so she’ll stay above the toxic water.

     Yachiyo keeps her eye shut until the whorling, grinding sound of a collapsing labyrinth reaches her ears. The dark swamp breaks into pieces, a pocket dimension now shuttered. Yachiyo drops to the asphalt outside the abandoned apartment.

     Mifuyu is still there when the labyrinth vanishes. As she helps Yachiyo to her feet, it’s hard not to notice how well she’s dressed. A prim and proper pinstripe shirt is tucked into her dress pants. Yachiyo wonders where exactly she came from. If someone’s still waiting for her at home.

     “We did great!” Mifuyu cries joyfully, jumping up and down with her arms ‘round Yachiyo’s neck. “Can you believe we pulled that off? And on the first try!”     
     “Y–  well, yes, I suppose we did well.”
      “Very well for one of your first battles,” Kyuubey notes from atop the fence. He scratches his ear with his hind leg. “Don’t forget the grief seed.”
     “The what? Oh!”

     Kyuubey flicks his tail in the direction of a small glinting object. It’s almost lost among trash wrappers and gravel. Mifuyu picks it up delicately. Black as obsidian and etched with silver, the grief seed has a needle-sharp taper and a symbol like a little bat at its top.

     “I’ve never gotten a grief seed before,” she marvels. “It’s so creepy.”     
     “I’ve earned one before,” Yachiyo says. “If this is your first grief seed, you can have it. You should cleanse your soul gem.”
      Mifuyu wavers. “But you did all the hard work.”
     “Listen to Mifuyu,” says Kyuubey, “Of the two of you, you spent more magic. Letting your gem get dirty isn’t a good idea.”

     Yachiyo studies her soul gem. A dull, murky blue. It shines less than it did when she entered the labyrinth. “Dirty” is not how she would describe it.

      “I think I’ll be all right.”
      “Well, even if you don’t need it, take it as my thanks. I think we made a good team.”
      “Most magical girls must fight with each other for quite some time before they develop an efficient strategy,” Kyuubey says with an indifferent flick of the ear. “You got lucky this time.”
      “Lucky or not, Yachiyo saved the day! I told you you were strong.”
      Yachiyo feels the heat rise in her face. “Your personal magic was impressive.”
      “Oh, it’s not really all that special.” Mifuyu toes the chunks of asphalt scattered on the ground. “I think I’m probably better suited in a support role.”
      Yachiyo rubs her arm. “Um. In that case, well. We probably don’t live very far apart. So, if you ever find yourself hunting alone….”

     Mifuyu steps forward and takes Yachiyo’s hand. Her hands are very cold as she rests her fingertips over Yachiyo’s soul gem. 

     “You don’t have to be shy around me, we’re fellow magical girls,” Mifuyu says. There’s that smile again – coy and endearing, perhaps practiced over many years. “I think if we stick together, there’s nothing we can’t take down!”

     Every now and then, there are people Yachiyo meets that she knows she will not be rid of for a while. This person, she thinks, will be around for quite a long time.

     The waxing moon hangs above Mizuna Ward. When Yachiyo looks down, she sees that Mifuyu has rested the grief seed between their two soul gems. It draws out the grime from their jewels, sucking the dust into the blackest black of its shape. When the grief seed stops absorbing the impurity, their rings are sparkling.



☽❂☾



     The gate to Azusa House buzzes for a long time before it groans open.

     Neatly manicured boxwoods line the driveway, paved with fan-shaped swaths of granite cobblestone. The lights inside are still on, dim behind the pulled curtains. Yachiyo’s heels click against the stone leading up to the front door, where another buzzer drones for several seconds.

     When the door cracks open, Yachiyo sees the housekeeper. One of the housekeepers, she should say. 

     “Hello, Nanami,” sneers Ms. Sachiko. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”     
     “Is Mifuyu here.” It’s not a question.
      Her face darkens. “My, my, it seems you don’t know Miss Azusa as well as you think.”
     “And what is that supposed to mean.”
     “Here I thought she would be holed up in the shack with you. Miss Azusa has not been home since she moved her things out.”

     Distantly, Yachiyo can hear noises from the house. Something slamming, the last half of a shouted remark. Loud footsteps. Someone isn’t very happy in there.

     “She’s moved out already.”     
     Ms. Sachiko gives her a vicious smile. “What, you weren’t the first to know? Master Azusa thought it was you who encouraged her to leave.”
     Yachiyo pauses. “The last time I saw Mifuyu was shortly after her graduation party.”
     “And you thought you might find her in here, squirreled away?”
     “Where did she move.”
     “Perhaps if I knew that, her parents would not be so distressed.”

     Ms. Sachiko falls quiet and allows the background noise of the house to do the talking. An argument is happening behind closed doors. It echoes in the large, empty house. Yachiyo can hear bits of syllables, but nothing distinct. She swallows her pride, her fear, her dread, and spits out the question that’s been nagging at her.

     “What about her fiance. Is she with him.”     
     “Him? No, I doubt it.” Ms. Sachiko’s eyes narrow. “Miss Azusa has not had a formal meeting with her betrothed in nearly three months. Another reason Master Azusa was of the belief that you stole her away.”
     “That I stole her away.”
     “Yes, stole her away. Filled her with doubts, until her feet were so cold she couldn’t bear to be with her family anymore.”

     Ms. Sachiko derives an unpleasant amount of satisfaction from playing up the drama. Yachiyo is relieved to hear about the fiance, but it provokes another concern altogether.

      “She must have told her parents where she was moving.”
      “Miss Azusa has little personal affectations. It didn’t take her long to leave the house with her bags, long before her parents even awoke.”
      “But you saw her leave,” Yachiyo presses.
      “Naturally.”
      “Did she say anything.”
      “No. She simply gave me those sad little puppy eyes of hers.”
      “Have her parents notified the authorities.”
      “What right do they have to do so?” Ms. Sachiko sniffs. “Miss Azusa is a legal adult. She can go where she pleases. Besides, the note she left hardly insinuated that she was in danger.”
      “She left a note,” Yachiyo says, maybe too eagerly. She takes half a step forward, prompting Ms. Sachiko to close the door an inch.
      “Don’t get your hopes up. I don’t have access to it, and if I did, I doubt I’d be permitted to pass it onto you.” That accusatory tone again.
      “Then there’s nothing more you can tell me.”
      “And vice versa,” she snips.     

     Yachiyo leaves Azusa House feeling worse than before. 

     So she left on her own. But she didn’t tell anyone. But she isn’t in danger? And she hasn’t spoken to her fiance. Questions unearth still more questions. Mifuyu is gone. But is she? She surely isn’t dead. Or could she be? She’s too stubborn to fall prey to a witch’s kiss, surely. Or maybe not. Mifuyu has always been fragile under pressure.

     Yachiyo clenches her fist ‘round her purse as she walks between the streetlights. Evening traffic whirs by, the groaning of buses and the loud bass of party music from someone’s car speakers. As she strides past a bus stop, she regains enough clarity to notice a girl with green hair.

     She knocks lightly on the plexiglass of the bus stop before she speaks. Hinano looks up from her schoolwork, the end of her pencil riddled with teeth marks. She beckons Yachiyo forward with the jerk of her chin.

     “Nanami,” she says. She has the high pitched voice of a lapdog turned human. Stray hairs frame her face as she fiddles with her work. “In Mizuna for Azusa, I’m assuming.”

     This stings. The twitch of Hinano’s eyebrow betrays the fact that she can tell she’s upset Yachiyo somehow.

     “Did you know Mifuyu moved out of her parents’ home?”     
     Hinano cocks her head. “I don’t know her very well. Is she staying with you, then?”
     “No.”

     A heavy silence falls between them. Hinano clears her throat. For someone so small and shrimpy, she’s very perceptive. It makes her easy to underestimate. It’s also what makes her a good mediator between East and West.

      “Is something wrong?” Hinano asks.     
      “Have you happened to see Mifuyu in your territory at all?”
      She shakes her head. “No, I can’t say I’ve seen Mifuyu in Chuo or Minagi Wards at all. I thought I’d run into her this evening, but since I was teaching an after-school program, I’ve been preoccupied.”
      “Has Kanagi seen her in the East?”
      “Kanagi doesn’t keep tally with me of every girl who crosses her territory, so no, I haven’t heard that either.”
      She has all the pent-up aggression of a lapdog, too. Yachiyo exhales. “I see. Thank you anyway.”
      “Are you worried about her?” Hinano pipes up as Yachiyo turns to leave.
      “I don’t know. Do you think I should be worried?”

     A bus is trundling down the street. It slows down as it reaches its stop, and Hinano gathers her things and slings her oversized backpack over her shoulder. The bus pulls up, and Hinano gnaws on her pencil as she considers the question.

      “I think you know Mifuyu better than I do. So why don’t I just keep an eye out for her?”     
     It’s not a very conclusive answer, but she’ll take it. “Thank you, Hinano.”
      “No problem.” The bus doors slide open, and Hinano nods before she steps on. “Take care of yourself, Nanami.”
      “I’ll try.”

     The bus takes off, and Yachiyo is alone.

     The waning moon hangs above Mizuna Ward.



☽❂☾



     When Yachiyo is fourteen, Mifuyu takes her to see the cherry blossoms.

     Along the riverfront, trees are shedding their petals. It is not quite as lovely as they make it look on TV, but it is pleasant nonetheless. The banks are freckled with piles of pink, and the petals are smattered across the river, carried away towards the sea. 

     Historically, the Azusas are manufacturers of traditional kimonos. Old school, disgustingly overpriced, tasteful and tight. Mifuyu is squeezed tight into hers, and she looks visibly uncomfortable as she stands along the bridge, fanning herself idly with a paper brochure. 

     “Mifuyu,” Yachiyo calls over the crowd. “Mifuyu, over here!”

     She works her way through throngs of strangers, until finally Mifuyu can see her. When her eyes fall on Yachiyo, Mifuyu’s whole face relaxes. Her shoulders lower, and she gives Yachiyo a smile so big that it carves sharp dimples into her cheeks. She moves to offer a hug, but the kimono restricts her movement. Her mother must have tightened it too much – her parents are always telling her she should lose weight, and then maybe her clothes won’t be so uncomfortable. Yachiyo gives her a small hug, brief and courteous, just long enough to inhale the scent of her hair.

      “Thank you for inviting me,” Yachiyo says.     
      “Of course,” replies Mifuyu, “I wouldn’t have invited anyone else. Have you done this before?”
      “A few times when I was smaller, I think. Nothing this formal, though.” Yachiyo reddens as Mifuyu tucks a stray ringlet of azure hair behind her hair. “It feels very nostalgic for some reason.”
      “I was afraid you wouldn’t want to come, Yacchan,” Mifuyu admits, her eyebrows furrowed bashfully.
      “Why is that?”
     She looks over her shoulder. “Oh, because I told you my parents would be here….”

     Yachiyo has met Mifuyu’s parents enough times to count on one hand. Her father is the grim and silent type. Her mother is the type who cannot be happy unless she is unhappy. Yachiyo has been on the receiving end of several backhanded compliments from Mrs. Azusa, all of which left her feeling strangely insecure for several days afterward. She’s glad that they aren’t her parents, and she’s glad that the boarding house doors are always open to Mifuyu, whenever Azusa House gets a little too much to bear. But it also stokes the coals of resentment, Yachiyo suspects. No parent likes to believe that their child would rather be anywhere than at home. 

     “Your parents don’t scare me,” Yachiyo scoffs. “I’m just happy that we could spend time together.”     
     Mifuyu grins, squeezing Yachiyo’s hand. The silver of her soul gem’s ring glints on her finger. “It’s nice to have a day off, isn’t it? I’m grateful that you haven’t gotten sick of me yet.”

     She says it jokingly, but her face falls anyway. As Mifuyu leads Yachiyo through the streams of locals, her grip on Yachiyo’s hand is weak. She turns her face from side to side, looking for the picnic spot that her parents staked out a long time ago, and when Yachiyo catches glimpses of her profile, her face looks pensive. She gets in moods like this sometimes, and most of the time Yachiyo never figures out why. It could be something her mother said, or a poor grade on a test she studied all night for. Sometimes a combination of the two. Yachiyo’s job is not to pry, it’s just to be present. It’s enough for Mifuyu, which means that it’s enough for Yachiyo, too.

     Down on the riverbank, picnic blankets are dusted with the petals that drop one by one from the branches above. At fourteen, neither of them are concerned with eating anything remotely nourishing. They crack open thermoses of sugary lemonade, picking food off of each other’s plate with plastic toothpicks. 

     Boats are rowing down the stream. Young couples and parents with their children, allowing the water to push their boats idly south. Mifuyu pops a sour plum in her mouth.

      “You know, Yacchan. In a few weeks it’ll be two years since we teamed up,” she says.     
      Yachiyo doesn’t move her eyes from the river. “I know. I’ve been thinking about that.”
      “Do you want to do something special?”
      “You said that like you want me to say yes,” Yachiyo laughs.
      “No I didn’t!” Mifuyu laughs back, “I am completely neutral, the choice is yours.”
      “If you want to do something to commemorate it, I’m behind you.” She takes a sip of lemonade. Much too sugary, but just enough to Mifuyu’s liking. “I think it’s typical of you to want to mark the occasion.”
      “What’s that supposed to mean!”
      Yachiyo throws her head back and laughs. “I meant it as a compliment. You know, you’re just… very….”
      “Very…!”
      “Very sentimental. You’re mushy like that.”
      “I’m mushy!” Mifuyu feigns offense. “You wound me, Yacchan. I am wounded.”
      “I can’t believe it’s already been two years,” Yachiyo sighs.
      “Me neither,” replies Mifuyu, “it feels like we’ve only been magical girls for a short time. Do you think we’ve gotten any better?”

     The question might as well be rhetorical. Truthfully, Yachiyo and Mifuyu are the scourge of West Kamihama. Lesser magical girls have fled their territory with their tails between their legs. Witches fall easily, familiars are minor league. Grief seeds are split evenly, and the surplus sits in a box at the boarding house. Their routine is regimented – though perhaps it leaves less time for studying than Mifuyu needs. Kyuubey marvels at their teamwork, almost annoyed by the frequency of their successes.

     “I think you’re in a whole other league from when we met,” Yachiyo answers. “Your magic is awesome, you’re confident, you’re agile… I’m glad we’re teammates, or you’d run circles around me.”     
     “Ah, Yacchan, you’re teasing me again,” Mifuyu scolds. She swats her on the arm, then winces and moves to adjust her tight obi. 
      “Your mother tied it too tight,” Yachiyo observes. “She knows this isn’t a private event, doesn’t she?”
      “To her, every event is a chance to look your best,” Mifuyu gasps. She manages to loosen the obi a bit, then exhales in relief. “I am a walking billboard, Yacchan. Azusa’s finest craftsmanship, come and take a look at our wares.”

     She gestures to her body as she says this last part. Yachiyo clicks her tongue, and the two sit in comfortable silence for a while. Children chase each other across the grass. Dogs bark and strain joyfully against their leashes. It’s the kind of idyllic scene that makes them think that all their hard work is worth it. That this peaceful picture is a direct result of their battling. The mark of a witch is absent today, no trace of impurity to be found. Isn’t that a testament to their power all on its own?

      “Yacchan,” Mifuyu says with a sigh, “do you think we should keep writing our yearly letters?”     
      The question surprises her. “I think it will end up being useful.”
      “You don’t think it’s depressing?”
      “Maybe a little.” Yachiyo moves her head from side to side. “Maybe a lot. But it’s a necessary evil, you know?”
      “I thought you would say something like that,” Mifuyu responds. “You always say something like, ‘it is for the best that our honest wishes and feelings are laid out on paper, so that there remains no doubt or regrets between us.’”

     Mifuyu impersonates her with her shoulders held stiff, her voice much deeper than Yachiyo’s. It causes them both to erupt into raucous laughter, drawing the attention of several picnickers around them.

     “I want to keep writing letters,” Yachiyo says. “They make me feel more self-assured. But if you don’t want to continue, don’t feel bad about it.”     
     “No, no. I’ll keep writing them. It’s just….” Mifuyu pauses. “It’s just, I feel like one day I’ll be too ‘sentimental,’ as you would call it. I think, if I write what I really feel, it’ll make you see me differently.” She smiles shyly. “I don’t want you to pity me, or feel like I’m your burden. That’s all I wanted you to know. So thank you, for sticking by me for this long.”

     For a brief and rapturous moment, Yachiyo allows her heart to swell. Then she presses down on it with both hands. Down girl, down, she pleads. Don’t let her see your face. Don’t be so desperate, so overeager.

      “I don’t have intentions of going anywhere,” Yachiyo replies gently. She rests her hand atop Mifuyu’s. “I’ll keep fighting with you, as long as you want.”     
      Just then, Mifuyu stifles a laugh. She presses her hand to her mouth. “Yacchan,” she sputters.
      “What?” Yachiyo feels her face burning. “What, was it really that bad?”
      “Yacchan,” she snorts, “you have petals in your hair.”

     Yachiyo closes her eyes and allows Mifuyu to brush the pink and white flowers from her scalp. They fall into her lap, and Yachiyo tucks one into Mifuyu’s short hair. Because it’s white, it blends into her hair, but Yachiyo thinks it looks lovely. At the sight of it, her mouth begins to speak without her brain’s consent.

     “Mifuyu,” says Yachiyo, “I–”     
     “Oh, Nanami. Our daughter told us you’d be here.”

     The shadows of Mr. and Mrs. Azusa stretch over them. Mifuyu shrinks into herself, and Yachiyo puffs her chest out in adolescent defiance. 

      “I was wondering when you’d return,” Mifuyu says meekly.
      “Sit up straight, Mifuyu, and close your legs. That isn’t a proper way to sit, you’re in public,” her mother hisses. 
      “How are you today, Mrs. Azusa?” Yachiyo interrupts.
      Her mother eyes Yachiyo with a sweep of her beady eyes. “Fine, Nanami. You’re wearing that, are you?”
      It’s not an Azusa kimono, but it’s far from frumpy. Yachiyo feels indignation prickle in her chest. “This was my grandmother’s, so yes, I like to find opportunities to wear it.”

     Mifuyu shrinks further. She balls herself up within her own shadow, cowed by the back and forth between her mother and her partner. Making herself small, however, rarely works.

     “Mifuyu, what is in your hair?” Her father notes. His voice is a sharp bark, the kind that draws heads and demands obedience. “Get those dirty flowers off of you, you don’t know where they’ve been.”

     They’ve been on the tree, you absolute oaf, and if you looked around you you’d see a hundred tourists poking flowers in their hair, Yachiyo wants to snap. Arguing on Mifuyu’s behalf, though, is not helpful. If she wants to keep working beside her like this, she needs to play nice.

     Mifuyu reluctantly pulls the white blossom from behind her ear and sets it in the grass. After an exchange of uncomfortable and infuriating words that Yachiyo can hardly remember for how angry they make her, the Azusas finally leave for wherever they came from. When they’re out of earshot, Mifuyu deflates, like she’s been holding one big breath this whole time.

      “I don’t know how you do it,” Mifuyu exhales. “How do you stick up to her like that?”     
      “I don’t know how you do it,” she answers. “Firing back is the easy part.”
      “I’m so tired of it,” Mifuyu grumbles. “I can’t wait until we graduate so I can move out, and then we can be together all the time. I’ll just move into the Villa and never come out.”
      “I’m sure Grandma would love to have you as a permanent houseguest,” Yachiyo says. “Even now, if you really wanted to.”
      “I don’t think I’m that strong,” says Mifuyu meekly. “It makes me happy, though, that you’d even offer.”
      “What are teammates for?”

     Mifuyu smiles, then picks the white blossom from the grass. She tucks it behind her ear, and Yachiyo feels her heart soar.



☽❂☾



     The Coordinator’s place smells stale, like metal and dust.

     Magical trinkets whir and click in display cases. Schoolwork sits on a chaise lounge, a vending machine recovered from the dumpster hums with electricity. Particles of dust float in the streams of light that coast through the cracked windows. Kamihama Miren-za might not last another winter, but that’s not Mitama’s problem. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s moved house to another foreclosed office building.

      “I’m sorry, Yachiyo,” Mitama clucks. She stirs her spoon around and around in her teacup, the contents of which smell sour. “Even if I’ve spoken with Mifuyu, you know I’m a neutral party. If a magical girl tells me to stay mum, it’s my responsibility to do so.”
      Anger flares up in Yachiyo’s gut. “So I’m just meant to be clueless, then.”
      “I’m not trying to be malicious, you know.”
      “How would you feel if Momoko stopped showing up here?”

     It’s not a fair comparison, and Yachiyo hates feeling like she’s lost her cool. Keeping her cool has been the only thing holding her together for the past two years.

     “I think I would be pleased that she’s graduated from being my personal bodyguard,” Mitama says, tongue in cheek, as she takes a sip from her cup. She crosses her ankles. “I’m sorry. Was that rude?”     
     “Mitama,” Yachiyo says lowly, dropping her voice although no other girls are here to listen. “Did Mifuyu become a witch?”

     Mitama is taken aback. She makes a surprised sound as she sets her cup and saucer on the coffee table. 

      “Oh, Yachiyo. You haven’t been hunting for her magical signature as a witch, have you?”     
     The answer to that is yes, but she doesn’t say so. Instead she repeats, “Did Mifuyu become a witch, Mitama?”
      “No, Yachiyo. Mifuyu is not a witch.”
      “Tell me again, and look me in the eye. Is Mifuyu a witch?”
      Mitama leans forward and props her elbow on her knee. She stares into Yachiyo’s face. “No, Yachiyo. Mifuyu. Is not. A Witch.”
      “You are absolutely sure.”
      “I am absolutely sure. Yes.”

     For a long moment, they continue to stare at one another. Yachiyo represses the urge to seize Mitama by the collar and scream until she tells her what she knows Mitama is hiding. But she doesn’t. Keeping her cool is all she has.

     Mitama breaks eye contact, then stands and stretches. Just as she does so, there’s the hollow clunking of the freight elevator in the lobby. Someone’s coming upstairs for an appointment. Yachiyo recognizes Mitama’s tidying of papers and dishes as a silent request for her to excuse herself. She uncrosses her legs, slings her purse over her shoulder, and prepares to leave.

     “Mitama,” she says over her shoulder, “don’t fool yourself into thinking this is the end of the conversation.”     
     The Coordinator offers a v-shaped smile. Her gloved hand whisks across her jaw. “Oh, I know, Yachiyo. When it comes to Mifuyu, you are stubborn as a bull.”

     Some twiggy little magical girls enter the room, their shadows stretched long on the concrete floor. A girl with strawberry blonde hair pulled into cutesy pigtails, a girl with gray hair lurking just behind her shoulder. They give her a curious look as Yachiyo passes them, glaring at the two of them down the length of her nose. She wants to shake their shoulders, too. Where is Mifuyu , she wants to shout at anyone and everyone with a soul gem, one of you must have seen her. One of you must have felt her. The unsteady resentment in her gut threatens to boil over. It’s too much to bear.

     Kyuubey is gone. Mifuyu is gone. Kamihama is swarming with witches. The streets are overrun with unfamiliar magical girls, young and inexperienced faces. None of them know what they’re doing. None of them know how strange all of this is, how wrong, how awful.

     Why is no one telling her anything?

     Outside of Kamihama Miren-za, Yachiyo steadies herself against a telephone pole. She takes ten deep breaths. She ties her hair up, then lets it down again. She checks two missed voicemails from her manager, then deletes them. She thinks about making tea when she gets home. She thinks about getting under the covers and sleeping for several days.

     Mifuyu is not a witch, she must tell herself. She repeats it all the way to the station, all the way to her home. She repeats it as she removes her shoes, she repeats it as she scrubs the makeup from her face. Mifuyu is not a witch, she says. She continues to chant it as she draws the curtains, she repeats it like a prayer as she climbs into bed. Mifuyu is not a witch. Mifuyu is not a witch.



☽❂☾



     The sun is bright and hot on the day that Yachiyo’s grandmother dies.

     Yachiyo would like to tell herself that she prepared herself for this day. She’s steeled herself against the grief, she’s gone over the scenarios in her head, and she feels ready for it all to finally be over. But reality rarely follows expectation.

     She isn’t there when her grandmother passes. Actually, she’s getting dressed to run to the hospital when she suddenly gets a call. The window is open to let the sun in, and cicadas hiss in the trees. She recognizes the phone number, and all at once she feels her gut sink.

     Back at the house, there’s a mountain of things to be done. The death certificate needs to be copied, arrangements made with the shrine, a number of memorial services scheduled. The hospital wants to know if Yachiyo wants her grandmother to pass one more night in the house. If her grandmother hadn’t told her in the weeks leading up to her death what she wanted done, Yachiyo might have had trouble coming up with an answer.

     I spent several decades in that house, she told her as she coughed into her fist, what good would it do to traumatize you? Tell them not to bother.

     That was one less thing to worry about –  watching them place her body in her old bed, her pale corpse packed tight with dry ice. There are other pressing concerns that are moderately less traumatizing, like life insurance and crematorium appointments and the reading of the will and the estate transfer and medical insurance and erecting a gravestone and hosting more and more memorial services and –  

     “Yacchan,” Mifuyu sniffles, “let me go with you.”

     Yachiyo has been shooting back and forth across the house all day. Every two minutes, someone calls her; either a neighbor or a family friend or hospital staff or else another Kamihama magical girl who heard the news through the grapevine. Girls from all across the city have stopped by, all wanting to pay respects to the eldest veteran. Mifuyu deals with most of them, then shuffles back to the couch to cry.

     “Yacchan,” she blubbers again.     
     Yachiyo has no time to pause. She shuffles through her grandmother’s old accordion folder of tax documents, looking for some stray file. “I know, I know.”
      “I don’t want you to go alone,” she sniffs, “I want to watch her go.”
     “You don’t even need to ask,” she snips, “why would I go to the crematorium without you?”

     The reality is that few others will be there to watch the remains go up in flames. Hardly any Nanamis are left in Kamihama, none of them close enough to help her pick through the bones. An uncle and his stepson, two cousins twice removed, faces she recalls vaguely from birthdays and funerals. She’s fielded a few calls from relatives on the other side of the country, names she barely remembers, sending their regrets and their prayers and their promises to mail her something nice for the gravesite. Yachiyo doesn’t have the energy to deal with them. Some go to voicemail, and she hopes they have the good sense to let every other Nanami know. As they should; after all, Grandmother was on her way out for a long time.

     “I’m so grateful that she taught me to deal with these things,” Yachiyo sighs. 

     Her phone is pinched between her ear and her shoulder, still on hold with the life insurance company. A call from Momoko comes in, and she declines it.

     “Yacchan,” Mifuyu whimpers, “I wish you would sit down with me.”

     Mifuyu is looking rough. Her eyes are puffy and red, and tracks of tears streak her face. Maybe it’s because she was reluctant to see her grandmother hooked up to wires and machines. It made her feel nauseous, and oftentimes she would leave the room to cry, as she often does these days. She didn’t have it in her to watch Yachiyo’s grandmother die. And so when the news finally broke, she wasn’t prepared. Mifuyu was already spending the night when the hospital called, and now she’s spent all morning and afternoon on the couch, clutching her tissues and sniffling pitifully.

      “I know, Mifuyu, but I just don’t have time.”     
      “You’re trying to do it all yourself, it’s not fair,” Mifuyu replies. She wipes her eyes. “Surely someone else can be doing this for you.”
      “If that were true, I wouldn’t be on the phone right now.” Yachiyo perks up when the music on the other end of the phone cuts off, but it’s just another message saying that a representative will be with you shortly. “Grandma doesn’t have any living children. It’s just me, and random in-laws and cousins from my dad’s side.”
      “Can’t they help you?”
      “They’ve never been very helpful, not unless they’re being paid. Grandma didn’t like most of them, anyway.” 

     Even if Mifuyu hates being an Azusa, at least the family is big. If she were in Yachiyo’s position, she wouldn’t have to lift a finger.

      “Can I help you then?”     
      Yachiyo blinks. “Mifuyu, I don’t think you’re in the shape to do so.”
      Mifuyu sniffs. “I am too, I can do something. Do you need me to make a call? I can make tea, if you want.”
      “Mifuyu, just being here is enough. Just take it easy, all right?”
      She takes a long moment to rub her eyes and blow her nose, and when she looks up again her eyes are swimming with tears. “Yacchan, are we going to lose the house?”

     We. Yachiyo swallows the lump in her throat. 

     “No, the villa is paid off. I’ve already been assured that it’s been left in my name.”     
     “Will you be able to pay for it?”
     Yachiyo looks up at the ceiling and sighs, perhaps too harshly, because Mifuyu flinches. “If I take more jobs and cut back a little bit, I think we’ll be okay. If I take care not to waste electricity, and I keep the water bill low, and I’m a little smarter with our groceries… yeah, I think I can do it.”

     The phone tells her that a representative will be with her shortly, she is currently fifth in line. Yachiyo swears and hangs up. Tsuruno calls. She declines it.

     “I’m so sick of this already,” Yachiyo laments. She props her elbows on the kitchen counter and lets her face sink into her hands. “I don’t know if I can be an adult, Mifuyu. I don’t know how she did it.”     
     “Well,” Mifuyu says, “we’re magical girls. Maybe… we’re not meant to grow up.”
      The memory of Kanae’s funeral still stings. “You need to take a deep breath, Mifuyu.”
     “Can you please sit with me? Just for a second?”

     Oh, she just looks so sad. Yachiyo has never been good at denying Mifuyu anything, and it seems especially cruel to do so now.

     Slowly, Yachiyo puts away her things, and kicks her slippers off as she joins Mifuyu on the couch. She allows herself the temporary irresponsibility of turning her phone on silent, and Mifuyu immediately slumps against her. Her breathing is ragged, her face pink and swollen.

      “Try not to hyperventilate,” Yachiyo scolds. “You’re going to rupture a tear duct.”
      “I can’t believe you’re telling me to calm down about your grandmother, Yacchan,” Mifuyu responds. “Am I being too much right now? Do you want me to go home?”
      “No, no, I don’t want you going anywhere in your condition,” she sighs. “Just stay here until you feel ready.”
      Mifuyu presses her face to Yachiyo’s shoulder. “I feel so helpless,” she mumbles. “I feel like things are getting so bad, and getting worse. I just want it to be normal again.”
      “I know,” she replies, “but that’s just the nature of things.”
      “Am I stupid for thinking that?”
      “No, you’re not stupid.” Yachiyo rubs Mifuyu’s arm. “Do you need a grief seed?”
      “I should be asking you that, Yacchan.”
      “I’ll be okay. I just worry about you, Mifuyu.”
      “And I worry about you too,” Mifuyu sighs, “so I guess that makes us even.”

     The grandfather clock chimes the hour, and a car outside blares its horn. If Yachiyo hadn’t hung up the phone, maybe she’d be able to check one more task off her list. There is still so much to be done, and no one can help her. This isn’t a witch hunt, and this isn’t a photoshoot. This time, it’s uncharted territory, and she feels like she’s failing at every turn. She’s even failing to take the time to mourn. 

     “Yacchan,” Mifuyu says softly, “oh, Yacchan, you’re crying.”     
     “I am?” Yachiyo sniffles, pausing to touch her cheek. Her fingertips come away shiny with tears.
     “I knew you couldn’t keep it in for long,” Mifuyu says with a wavering smile, “you’re more emotional than you like to believe.”

     She reaches out and wipes the tears from Yachiyo’s face. 

     There is still so much to do, and the week will continue to get worse. They will go to the crematorium together, they will pick out the bones side by side, and when her grandmother’s gravestone is installed they will be its first caretakers. But first, Yachiyo needs some time to grieve.

     Mikazuki Villa will not be the same. Its first great era has passed, and the future is unclear. But if Mifuyu is here, if Yachiyo can hold onto this small comfort, maybe it will be all right.



☽❂☾



     Something terrible is living in Yachiyo’s head, and it’s trying to get out.

     Most days she can ignore it. It’s a hermetic roommate that skulks around in the back of her thoughts, dragging its feet, a quiet and voiceless observer. In her dreams she can feel it sitting on her chest, a massive weight that makes it hard to breathe. It smells like salt and brine, it says nothing but sees all. A number of eyeballs rattle around inside its face. But she can ignore it. Most days.

     There is a book of rumors that sits on the coffee table. Rumors with a capital “R,” when Yachiyo is feeling particularly serious. Its pages are lined with the missing and the dead, the bewitched and the cursed. The charmed, the stunned, the fogged, all the bedside tales of caution your mother tells you. Yachiyo does not think that Mifuyu would be easy prey for any of these boogeymen. But she’s starting to think that she doesn’t know Mifuyu as well as she thought.

     Have you heard? Has anyone told you? Down by the waters, just under the bridge, there camps a fortune teller of great renown. Venture to her cottage, and for a fair price she will gaze into her crystal ball. What’s this? She can see your true and destined lover! She’ll fashion you a most powerful potion of love, but don’t dare to drink! Else you’ll be swallowed whole by the silk and lace of her living hut. A tale of horror and romance that has the girls in Minagi Ward all in a dither! How devious!

     It was a good lead. For hours she walked the ports of Minagi Ward, tracing the docks full of boats bobbing in the dark water. She weaved through shipping containers and under concrete bridges, she walked back and forth until her sandals began to dig into her ankles. No fortune teller to be found, and no Mifuyu either – just fishermen, and a drunk man collapsed against the dumpster of a boat rental place.

     It was a good lead, she tells herself. Mifuyu has always been a romantic. 

     For a while she traces the dull footprints of familiars, all the little leavings of magic left behind. None of them are up to snuff; they’re too weak to substantiate a rumor. On her way out of Minagi, empty-handed and with sore feet, she runs into the veteran of central Kamihama.

     “Nanami,” Hinano says, surprised.      
     “Hinano.”

     She lingers outside of a foreclosed jewelry store, her hand cupping the green jewel on her finger. She’s been tracing familiars, too. Yachiyo feels a bubble of shame in her gut.

      “What are you doing here?” she asks. She has the shrill voice of a long-suffering lapdog. “Not poaching, I hope.”     
      “I….” Running into Hinano was a possibility. She should’ve formulated an excuse.
      “I’m just kidding, Nanami.” Hinano smirks, but it’s hard to tell whether she was actually serious. “You’re rumor-hunting, aren’t you?”
      “Who told you that?”
      “I heard it through the grapevine.”
      “So, Mitama.”
      Hinano covers her mouth with one oversized sleeve. “I don’t reveal my sources.”
      Yachiyo pauses. She’s not accustomed to apologizing. “I’m sorry. I have no way to prove it, but I wasn’t going after your prey. Your assumption was correct.”
      Hinano sighs. “You’re still on the West side, Nanami. I can’t get angry with you for hunting here. Though, do you really think chasing rumors is going to get you anywhere?”
      This bewilders her. She blinks. “You never know. It could lead back to a witch, after all.”
      “Or back to someone else entirely.”

     They stand and look at each other for a moment. 

      Hinano swivels her ring so the soul gem faces her palm. Changing the subject, she says, “The pickings are slim tonight. Witches don’t hang by the water.”     
      “Then why are you here?”
      She shrugs. “Change of scenery. I’m going home now. You probably should, too.”
      Her jaw flinches. “Yes. See you around.”
      “See you. Oh, and, you know… I’m still keeping an eye out for you. I didn’t forget.”
      Yachiyo’s heart sinks. “Thank you, Hinano.”
      “Hey, veterans have to look out for each other. Goodnight, Nanami.”

     And then she walks away, her backpack rattling with glass and plastic.

     Yachiyo does not go home, even though she probably should.

     For a while she stays at the docks, hanging her legs over the boardwalk, watching the waning moon cast little flecks of white over the water. The Rumor could still manifest, she thinks to herself – capital “R,” because she’s feeling rather serious now. Maybe it only shows up during a certain time. Maybe she already missed the window. Maybe you have to be in love for the fortune teller to materialize.

     Well, that last part isn’t a problem.

     Yachiyo was excited when she heard about this rumor. Over the past several months, she’s been entrenched with the doomed and the dead. She spends her days reading the last blog posts of the disappeared, trawling through forums of the deleted and the damned. People who were having problems with their families, people trying to escape the future. Avoiding college, avoiding marriage, avoiding life. This Rumor was a breakthrough.

     Miss Azusa has not had a formal meeting with her betrothed in nearly three months, the housekeeper told her. Maybe Mifuyu got cold feet. Maybe she didn’t want to get married, maybe she ran away from home because of it. Maybe she ended up on this Rumor’s doorstep, enticed by the promise of meeting her true and destined love. 

     Because you know it’s not you, says the thing with many eyes. Why do you even bother?

     Something terrible is trying to get out of Yachiyo’s head.

     “Be quiet,” she seethes to no one.     
     Did you see how much she pitied you just then? Everyone knows it, everyone’s realized it but you.
     
She presses her eyes shut. “Be quiet.”
      Mifuyu doesn’t want you. You drove her away, you desperate little thing.
     
“Be quiet,” she hisses. Yachiyo sinks her fingers into her hair. “Just be silent. I’ve heard enough.”
      Little Yacchan, poor creature, all alone.
     
“Be quiet!” she shouts. 

     Yachiyo knows that this voice is new and abnormal. It has a deep and burbling voice, its sticky hands stain her thoughts. It has gravity, it has a presence, it is more than just an intrusive thought. It’s alive , and breathing, and Yachiyo is terrified of it.

     Her breath quickens as she looks at the soul gem on her ring. A murky blue, dull and dingy. A swirling black claws at its azure hue. She fumbles in her purse for a grief seed, but doesn’t find one.

     Little Yacchan is slipping, says the thing with many eyes, did you think it would be romantic? Did you think it would be nice to go out the same way they did, like darling Mel and your lost lamb? Mifuyu isn’t a witch, you know. She left because you disgust her.     
     She keeps fumbling for a grief seed, her hands clammy. “Shut up, shut up, what do I have to do to shut you up?”

     There is no grief seed. Yachiyo sinks her face into her hands and begins to cry bitter tears. And all the while, the thing inside of her head is growing. Its many eyes rattle and roll. It sprouts legs, claws around in the air. It feels cold and wet and slimy, and its weight is too heavy to bear. Distantly, Yachiyo wonders if this was how Mel must have felt.

     “You can’t do this,” Yachiyo whimpers, “none of it’s true, all you do is lie.”     
     Isn’t it? Isn’t it true that your wish, that selfish wish, is leeching the life out of anyone you get your hands on? Isn’t it true that you scared Mifuyu away, that she was petrified you’d let her die? Isn’t it true that everyone hates you, that they don’t care if you live or die? Isn’t it true that you’ve never been honest with yourself a day in your life?

     Yachiyo is no longer aware of where her body is. Her hands and feet feel numb, like she’s wading in freezing water. And as she sinks, the thing has its hands on her neck. She can feel the thing pressing down on her from all sides, pushing her further down, pressing her face into the murk.

     Mifuyu doesn’t love you, Yacchan, it burbles, not like you love her. And if there’s no one left to love you, you should just die.
     “I don’t want to be a witch,” Yachiyo cries. Her body feels stony – she tries to move her head, but can’t. “This can’t be happening to me. Please, I don’t want to be a witch.”
      Oh, you aren’t a witch, little one, growls the thing with many eyes. I am.

     It all comes forth at once. Yachiyo’s scream is cut short as saltwater rushes from her mouth. The thing inside her head has calcified, it has secured a physical form and it has begun to rampage. She’s vaguely aware that something has seized control of her arms and legs, that she’s being bogged down by some incomprehensible force. Behind her, she hears the rattle and roll of a great many blinking eyes. 

     “Stop–” she mumbles, coughing up briny water. A black veil covers her face now, preventing her from seeing what’s before her.

     Her body – their body stumbles forward, and there’s a metallic thumping above her head, a chopping sound, a clicking like old scissors. Chk, chk, chk, it chitters, and she can only squeeze her eyes shut as the thing rushes forward and seizes a wooden post from the dock. It snaps it into many splintered pieces, spitting them across the asphalt behind them.

     For a moment the thing seems satisfied, but quickly it grows restless again. It stomps one of its feet, then two of them, and the giant thing above her head begins to rock back and forth. Yachiyo allows her body to go limp. This new thing, this terrible new body, cannot be controlled. Perhaps it would be better, maybe it would be for the best, if she just let it all sink. If she could just drown it all in misery, let it all be swallowed. Maybe it would all stop hurting. 

     A torrent of water floods the docks.

     Saltwater rushes across the pier, spilling out into the tethered boats, threatening to sink them all. It washes away trash cans, which roll over the docks and into the sea. It spills and spills and spills until the boats are half-sunk and the pier is cleared, crates and bikes and all forms of waste and garbage half-sunk in the bay. And for a moment, a brief moment, Yachiyo is relieved to see something laid to waste.

     Later – perhaps hours, perhaps moments – she wakes up.

     Water clings to her clothing. As she pushes herself upright, she can feel little bits of rock and gravel stuck to her skin. She brushes the dust off her face, then notices that her hands are all pruny. 

     “I suppose you’re–” she hacks, “– happy about this outcome.”

     The thing with many eyes does not answer her. There is only a dull roar in her ears. Yachiyo examines her soul gem and sees that it’s a clear and sparkling blue.

     “I didn’t become a witch,” she says aloud to herself, still hoping that the thing will answer. But it doesn’t. She pauses for a long time before stating the obvious: “That wasn’t normal.”

     No, it very much was not. A manifestation of the Rumor, perhaps? That seems unlikely. Whoever heard of a witch sprouting from one’s soul only to retreat back inside? Or maybe it’s unique to her, an undiscovered magic that only she can utilize. Whatever that was, she just survived it. And doesn’t that follow the parameters of her wish?

     On her hands and knees, Yachiyo coughs until the water stops coming out of her throat. Then she stands and tries to make herself presentable. It’s a lost cause – her makeup is ruined, and her hair is stringy and damp. Several yards away, she finds her other shoe. She wiggles it back onto her foot, and feeling more than a little undignified, she begins the long walk home.

     This Rumor was a bust. But there could still be another one, and next time she’ll bring a grief seed.



☽❂☾



     There is a vase of asters on the coffee table that needs to be watered.

     Yachiyo thought about this, briefly, as her eyes fluttered into light dreaming. Half-formed dreams come and go, and each time she blinks into awareness she sees the petals bobbing in the breeze that comes in through the open window. It has recently rained, and so the sweet scent of asters bleeds into the deep, wet smell of rain in the garden. Outside, the pavement steams.

      “I need to–” she mutters, a little slurred, “I need, the,”     
      “Hm?” Mifuyu asks. Her hand pauses as it runs through Yachiyo’s hair.
      “I need to – replace the water, in the vase,” she sighs, rubbing the corner of her eye. Mascara comes off on her knuckle. “It’s getting… green.”
      “I’ll replace it later, Yacchan, just keep resting,” Mifuyu says.
      “No you won’t,” Yachiyo mumbles. “You’ll forget. You always forget.”
      “I’ll remember, Yacchan. I wouldn’t forget Mel’s flowers.”

     The tips of Mifuyu’s fingernails run through Yachiyo’s hair. It puts her to sleep almost at once.

     Four months ago, Mel Anna died.

     It goes like this: Mel is a spontaneous, bullheaded East side girl with a lot to prove and few ways to do so. Keeping her on the team was like housebreaking a new puppy. She got into everything, startled easily, needed to be reminded of all the dos and don’ts. Yachiyo feels like they adopted her from Kanagi. Took her off the hands of someone who had enough going on already.

     It goes like this: Yachiyo and Mifuyu made a fine duo for years, but the addition – and subsequent elimination – of Kanae Yukino leaves a void. They feel like empty nesters. They feel like they’ve lost their only child. Mifuyu liked guiding Kanae towards constructive outlets. Yachiyo enjoyed providing a quiet, stable home. Very quickly after Kanae’s funeral, they realize that they want to steer and guide someone else. They want to adopt someone new. And so the overeager acquaintance, Tsuruno Yui, comes into the picture. And then Momoko Togame, Mitama’s hot-headed bodyguard. And finally, the little runt from the East, pocket-sized Mel Anna.

     Mifuyu dotes on Mel. Secretly, Yachiyo believes that Mifuyu finds pleasure in playing the “good cop.” She lets Mel get away with the little things, like pulling daily tarot cards, or eating too much butterscotch. She gives her grief seeds when she wastes her magic, she puts an extra cube of sugar in her tea. Mifuyu has always been indulgent like that – she likes to treat people, she likes to give others a reason to smile. She also likes that Mel pushes her to expand her horizons. It’s because of Mel that Mifuyu is formally engaged – which Yachiyo is far from pleased about, quietly leaving the room when the subject of him is broached. And so Yachiyo is stuck playing the bad cop. She has bills to pay and taxes to file and groceries to buy and a whole house to maintain, and sometimes, yes, she gets snippy with her teammates. But Mel, the tiniest fortune teller, Mifuyu’s little darling, they both favor.

     Mel Anna did not leave behind a body.

     The dark veils of her witch’s labyrinth quickly swallow her up. Her corpse tumbles and falls and is enveloped before anyone can recover it, and when the witch is defeated and Mel Anna has died a second time, her body is gone. Little girls go missing in Kamihama all the time –  it’s not unlike them to leave no trace behind. So what can they do? Kyuubey flutters in before being thoroughly bludgeoned by Momoko, who then grabs her things and goes home in tears. Mifuyu cries. Yachiyo makes her tea. Tsuruno calls from Banbanzai. They tell her nothing. They sit on the couch. Yachiyo cries. They fall asleep in their school uniforms. And when Mel Anna’s mother calls the house, Yachiyo steels her voice and tells her no, I have not seen Mel, isn’t she at school? As she lies and lies and lies, Yachiyo feels another part of her heart harden over.

     It takes four months before a funeral is held. Mel’s mother was really holding out on her daughter being found, and in the end it took a pinch of illusion magic to put the charade to rest. Mifuyu couldn’t stand to watch the search continue. Kanagi was growing impatient with them. Impatient, or else regretful that she placed Mel in the hands of careless West side girls. Another Daito life snuffed out, and the survivors could go home to their nice, expensive houses and cry about it over nice, expensive tea. 

     Mifuyu and Yachiyo sit at the back of the service. As Mifuyu tearfully speaks to Mel’s mother, Yachiyo waits for her outside. Attending a magical girl’s funeral is no easier the second time. Kanae’s parents, at least, got part of the soul gem. What are they supposed to do with Mel’s grief seed? Just throw it away?

     It doesn’t make any sense. Mifuyu and Yachiyo worked so well together. It’s so unfair that things go south every time someone new enters the picture. 

     It has been one week since Mel Anna’s funeral, and Yachiyo can feel Mifuyu pulling away.

     It’s a slow process, made up of little gestures and words left hanging in the air. Her face is faraway and despondent. Her movements are slow, she takes time to collect her thoughts. Her grades are slipping. She spends her days looking out the window and letting her tea go cold. She won’t speak to her fiance, her parents grow angry with her. Her magic, Yachiyo notices, has grown frailer. The chakram has lost its edge. Mifuyu liked guiding others along. She liked being a mentor. And all of her treasures have died, or else been driven away. Yachiyo studies her face for anger, for resentment, and finds nothing but sadness.

     Yachiyo reaches up and rests her hand atop Mifuyu’s. Mifuyu pauses her hair stroking and looks down at her, where she’s rested her head in Mifuyu’s lap.

      “Yacchan?”      
      “Do you really want to keep being a team with me?” Yachiyo asks. Her voice is still soft and blurred from sleep.
      “Yacchan….”
      “Do you?”

     Mifuyu’s eyelids droop. She closes her eyes and touches the soul gem on Yachiyo’s ring. 

      “I know you’re frightened,” she answers, “but I won’t leave your side. I think… even if your wish puts me in danger, I’m happier sticking by your side than I would be leaving you alone. I think that being your partner is worth the risk.”     
     Yachiyo swallows the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mifuyu.”
      “Oh, Yacchan. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”
      She squeezes her eyes shut, and the tears slide off her cheeks and onto the couch cushion. “I killed Mel, and I don’t want to kill another one of your friends. I don’t want to kill you.”
      “You didn’t kill Mel, Yacchan. Her fate was sealed when she first spoke with Kyuubey. Her, and you, and me… your wish isn’t killing us. It’s because we opened our hearts to him that we ended up this way.” Mifuyu strokes her face, wiping the tracks of tears away with her sleeve. “But you know, if I hadn’t met him, we would have never become partners, and we would never have met Kanae, or Mel… so, I think that it all happened for a reason.”
      Yachiyo sniffles, and her laugh comes out as a gargle. “You always think that there’s hidden meaning in everything. You’re such a romantic.”
      “Maybe so, Yacchan. But I feel that if it means I can continue to walk beside you, the suffering is worth it. It’s like a ticket for admission, you know? Otherwise there’s no way to grow.”

     It’s hard to tell if Mifuyu even believes what she’s saying right now, but Yachiyo notices the subtle softening of her facial features. Her shoulders are lowered, her brow less creased with worry. She cups Yachiyo’s face with one hand, just looping her long blue hair ‘round her finger, and gradually Yachiyo falls back into sleep.

     The aster petals dance in the breeze from the open window. When Yachiyo begins to dream, Mifuyu will replace their water. A nod of respect to little Mel Anna.



☽❂☾



     Yachiyo forgot how much stuff Mifuyu has.

     The boxes are impossibly heavy, even for a magical girl. They’re piled high onto a dolly, where Tsuruno makes a big fuss out of being able to lug it up the stairs by herself. Sana lingers behind her, fretting that the boxes will topple over, holding her arms out in case they do. Felicia runs back and forth between the truck and the villa, rooting through the boxes Mifuyu failed to tape completely shut.

      “Felicia, either help us with Mifuyu’s things or wait inside the house,” Yachiyo snaps. “You’re going to get in the way.”     
      “But you won’t let me help!” Felicia complains. “You said I’d break her stuff!”
      “Exactly, it was rhetorical. Why don’t you head in and make sure Tsuruno doesn’t pull her back out?”
      “What does rentorical mean?”
      “Felicia. Inside, now.”

     Felicia delights in being argumentative. She runs circles around Yachiyo and Mifuyu as they stack boxes of clothing onto a dolly. 

      “White Lady told me she was gonna braid my hair,” Felicia sniffs.     
      “Excuse me, no, we are not doing this. Don’t call her that. Her name is Mifuyu, and you will be respectful to your housemates.”
      Mifuyu laughs. “I’m still going to braid your hair, Felicia. I’ll do a really good job, just like I used to do for Yacchan. But you have to be patient, okay?”
      Felicia groans. “You guys are taking forever. If I were doing this I’d have ‘em upstairs like BAM!”
      “That’s quite right, Felicia, which is why you broke a number of Ui’s things when Iroha kindly let you assist them.”
      Felicia makes a choked, indignant sound. “I only broke one thing!”
      “And you didn’t learn your lesson, so go inside and let us finish.”
      “Yachiyo,” Felicia whines.
      “Felicia, I am going to count to ten. One, two….”

     Felicia lets Yachiyo reach six, then she scampers into the villa with her tail between her legs.

      “She hasn’t grown up much,” Mifuyu observes. Sweat is already beading on her forehead. She takes the collar of her shirt and flaps it back and forth to cool herself down.     
      “She was getting better,” Yachiyo sighs. “All these changes are stressing her out, I think. She was finally comfortable with the way things were, and now Ui is here, so she’s not the baby anymore… it’s just tough on her.”
      “I wonder if my moving in will just rock the boat,” Mifuyu worries, biting her lip. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
      “What else will you do, keep living in an eleven-year-old’s apartment?” Yachiyo shoots back.
      “It was a decent apartment….”

     More girls flow in and out of the house. Momoko drops by with a card for Ui and Mifuyu, signed with the cutesy signatures of her teammates. At some point, Tsuruno inevitably pulls her back out lifting boxes. She lies stomach-first on the floor as a barefoot Felicia stomps across her back to “fix” it, all while Iroha pleads with her to let her use healing magic on Tsuruno instead.

     “I don’t know how you did this all on your own,” Mifuyu marvels. 

     Sana joins the living room argument on Iroha’s behalf, trying and failing to pull Felicia off of Tsuruno. Ui sits at the breakfast bar and swings her legs, quietly enjoying this demonstration of life outside a hospital room. Tsuruno is still lying on the floor, groaning in agony.

     “Honestly, I’m not sure how I did it either. I’m glad to have another adult in the picture.”         
     “Well, at least you had Tsuruno’s help. And Iroha, too. She seems mature.”

     Currently, Iroha and Sana are in the middle of wrestling Felicia to the ground.

      “She reminds me of myself when we were younger,” Yachiyo reflects, tapping her chin. “She had to grow up quicker to take care of her sister. But now that we have another adult in the house, and Ui is finally here, I hope she can loosen up and start being a kid again. There’s a big difference between being grown up and just faking being mature.”     
      “What do you mean by faking?” Mifuyu asks.
      “Plenty of the magical girls in this city act older than they are. They have to, in order to keep their heads above water. There’s just no substitute for experience, though. Even the most solemn and serious of sixteen-year-olds still has a lot of growing up to do.”
      “You’re preaching again, Yacchan.”
      “I don’t preach, do I?”
      “Yes she does! She preaches all the time!” Felicia shouts. Sana has her knee pinned against Felicia’s back, leaving Iroha free to heal Tsuruno’s muscles. “White Lady, tell Yachiyo to get off my back!"
      “I’m not on your back, Felicia, Sana is. And stop calling Mifuyu that.”

     Yachiyo gives Mifuyu a withering look that says please don’t leave me alone with these children. The stress is finally getting to her, too. There’s grocery lists to amend, and budgets to split, and water bills to be mindful of. Four full-time residents was one thing. Six is another. 

      “You know, I’m contemplating making them split utilities with me. The ones with money, anyway.”     
      “Oh, Yacchan, you are so stingy.”
      “I have a house to maintain, Mifuyu. I’m beginning to think they’ll all drive me into bankruptcy.”
      Mifuyu loops her arm with Yachiyo’s. “Ah, now I see why you wanted me to come back. You want someone else to pay you rent, don’t you?”
      “I certainly won’t say no if you happen to offer,” Yachiyo responds.

     Later that night, when dinner has been eaten and dishes washed and teeth brushed and pajamas adorned, when Felicia gets her hair braided to her liking and is finally content for the first time all day, when most of the boxes have been unpacked and the recycling bins are stuffed to the brim with cardboard, Mifuyu lies in her new bed and yawns.

     When Iroha moved into Mikazuki Villa, she claimed Mifuyu’s room arbitrarily. She didn’t know its owner would come back, and now that Ui has joined her sister, Mifuyu doesn’t have the heart to reclaim it. It wasn’t as if she spent much time in that room, anyway. Prone to nightmares, Mifuyu would often leave her bed to stay in Yachiyo’s room instead. 

     The new room has had a variety of past uses. It was a game room, a reading room, a room for painting, it held storage and extra bedding and Grandmother’s possessions. Mifuyu could either live in Yachiyo’s grandmother’s room – an idea that sent a chill down both their spines – or share a room with Yachiyo, who was not keen to rearrange all her things. So she took the storage room instead. Its contents have been shifted to the attic, and Mifuyu stretches her arms above her head, pleased with herself for unpacking so quickly.

     “I think I could get used to this place,” Mifuyu teases.
     Yachiyo sits on the floor pillow, twisting her hair into a bun. “You say that now, but wait until you start barging into my room again.”
     “Oh, I never said I wouldn’t,” she says with a flutter of her eyelashes.

     Part of this seems too easy. It seems too good to be true that Mifuyu is back, that she’s come home, that she hasn’t lost her. After all this time, and all this hurt, Yachiyo is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mifuyu must notice the serious look on her face, because she begins to frown.

     “You look pensive,” she says.     
     “I’m not… pensive, I’m just.” Yachiyo rubs her lip. “I’m still waiting for it to sink in that today was real. I waited a long time for this.”
      Mifuyu’s brow creases. “I hope you don’t think I pushed myself onto you. I don’t. I mean, well. After everything that’s happened, I don’t want to be your burden.”
     “You’re not a burden,” Yachiyo answers. “You’re never a burden, you’re my partner.”

     Mifuyu reaches out and touches Yachiyo’s shoulder. Then she slides off the bed and sits beside her on the floor.

      “Yacchan,” she falters. She pauses for a long time, opening her mouth and closing it without saying anything. Then she finally says, “Do you think I still belong here?”     
      “Of course you do. You lived here for six years.”
      “But that was then,” Mifuyu says meekly. She rubs her arms. “So much has changed, and I put you through a lot of grief.”
      “You have time to make up for it,” Yachiyo cuts in, “I haven’t exactly dealt with my emotions in the best way, either.”
      She squeezes Yachiyo’s hand. “I’m glad you’re speaking with Momoko again, Yacchan.”
      “Yes, I’m speaking with Momoko because I made it up to her. We all deserve second chances, Mifuyu. Don’t you think I’m a good enough judge of character to be able to see that?”
     Mifuyu smiles and tucks her hair behind her hair, looking bashfully to the floor. “I’m just… afraid that the house has outgrown me, somehow. I’m afraid that so much has changed and evolved that I don’t fit in anymore. Because I don’t feel like I’ve changed at all. Or maybe I changed for the worse.”

     Yachiyo’s jaw twinges. She crosses her ankles, not sure where to train her eyes.

      “I think… if you feel that I don’t have room for the past in my life anymore, then you should go downstairs and tell Tsuruno she isn’t welcome here, either. Or call up Momoko and tell her not to come around anymore.”     
      “Yacchan….”
      “I’m serious. Mifuyu, just because we fell out of sync doesn’t mean that we can’t work towards being normal again. Do you know how much it hurt me when you disappeared?”
      Mifuyu fiddles with her sleeves. “I try not to think about it.”
      “Well, I think about it all the time! Somehow, someway, we stopped being on the same page. And I don’t know why you didn’t talk to me before you left, and maybe one day you’ll be able to explain it to me, but you are….” Yachiyo swallows the tears that she feels stinging in her eyes. “You are the most important person to me, and even when the house filled up, even when I let myself rely on others again, it wasn’t the same. It just wasn’t the same.”

     There’s a color-changing light on Mifuyu’s dresser that shifts between green and blue. It makes all the shadows change their hue as they stretch across the floor. Yachiyo swallows hard, and Mifuyu reaches out to hold her hand.

     “I made up with Momoko. I made up with Tsuruno. We can be normal too, Mifuyu. Let me work things out with you, too. I want to understand you again.”     
     Mifuyu whisks her thumb across the top of Yachiyo’s hand. “I don’t know what it is that makes you see the good in me, Yacchan,” she says sadly.

     It’s the soft, meek voice of someone who genuinely does not believe that there’s much to love or admire about themselves. It’s how low her voice is, like the quieter she speaks the less likely it is that she’ll cry. It’s the forlorn look she had on her face at twelve, at fourteen, at eighteen. The disbelief that anyone could find her worthy of affection. It’s always been hard to watch.

     “If you’ll keep me around, Yacchan,” she continues, “I’d love to be your partner again.”     
     “You’ve always been my partner, I was just waiting for you to come back.”

     Mifuyu smiles and hides her eyes behind her hand, and a little sniffle betrays the fact that she’s begun to cry anyway. 

     Not for the first time, Yachiyo wants quite badly to kiss her. Another time, she tells herself. Another place. When things are right, and you won’t frighten her away.

     “You won’t be mad at me if I sleep in your room?” Mifuyu asks as she quickly wipes her eyes.
     “You’re impossible,” Yachiyo sighs, butting her head against Mifuyu’s shoulder.

     An owl is hooting outside, and somewhere, tree branches are scraping the roof. The gentle sounds of nighttime at Mikazuki Villa, all the noises that Mifuyu finally has the chance to experience for a second time. In time, it will be normal. In time, they will be in sync again.

     “We just have to keep working at it,” Yachiyo tells her. “You’ll begin to feel normal again. We just have to work at it.”



☽❂☾



     Nobody has used the patio in ages. Together, Yachiyo and Mifuyu have removed the dusty tarps protecting the furniture from rain, bringing out pillows and blankets and a few bottles of the decades-old liquor Yachiyo’s grandmother left behind. Neither of them will be able to drink legally for a few months, but what the kids don’t see can’t hurt them. 

     An hour ago, Tsuruno left for the night. The children are all tucked away in bed, the living room cloaked in darkness. The lights of Mikazuki Villa are all out, save for the back porch light and the candles Yachiyo has lighted on the patio table. Their wooden wicks crackle and pop, attracting a few stray moths.

     Mifuyu settles into a creaking wrought iron chair. One summer, Yachiyo’s grandmother allowed them to set up a tent in the backyard. They used the patio furniture as armature for a great fort, still thirteen and immature. The metal is a little rusted now, but they feel too valuable to be replaced. Mifuyu pours a minuscule amount of vodka into a cup full of cranberry juice. She stirs it around for a bit, then makes a disgusted face when she takes a sip.

      “Ugh! Yacchan, I had no idea Grandma liked this stuff.”     
      “I think she had it in the cabinet just for show, to be honest,” Yachiyo says. She takes a sip of her own drink, then smacks her lips at the bitter taste.
      “I hope the children don’t see us doing this,” Mifuyu titters. She’s always gotten a little rush of adrenaline from breaking petty rules. “They’ll never let it go.”
      “Ah, they fall asleep pretty quickly. Felicia is sure to be conked out if she isn’t playing video games under her bedsheets, and Sana is a religious rule-follower.”

     Yachiyo takes a long drink to make herself look tougher. Mifuyu sets aside her drink and crosses her legs.

      “They really respect you, Yacchan. How should I say this… it sort of warms my heart.”     
      “You’re getting sappy.”
      “You should be used to that by now, Yacchan.” Mifuyu rests her cheek in her hand. “Children just seem to gravitate to you. You have a maternal nature, I think.”
      “Ha, maternal. Tell that to Momoko or Kanagi, and they’d laugh you out of the room.”
      “Well, I think I know you better than both of them.” She stirs her drink with her straw, but declines to take another sip.

     Yachiyo closes her eyes, bobbing her foot for a while. Crickets are singing in the bushes, and the distant sound of a helicopter can be heard overhead.

      “I thought about adopting them, you know. It’s just such a complicated process.”     
      Mifuyu raises her eyebrows. “Did you really?”
      “It was one of those fantastical little thoughts you have sometimes. There’s no way any judge in his right mind would grant me custody of a child who isn’t related to me. Even if I have the income to sustain a household.” She pauses. “And if I failed, especially with Felicia… well, they would take her into state custody.”
      “But I’m here now, too. She would have a house with two adults in it.”
      Yachiyo shakes her head. “But we’re still only nineteen. And besides, we aren’t married.”
      Mifuyu blushes. “Well… yes, there’s that.”
      Yachiyo takes a long sip. It makes her face feel flushed, but she still hates the taste. “It’s messier in Sana’s case, too. Her parents don’t even know that she lives apart from them, after all this time. Or if they think she’s missing, they just don’t care. From what I know of them, they’d never allow themselves the embarrassment of legally relinquishing her to a teenager. Not to mention that she wouldn’t be visible in the courtroom.”
      Mifuyu taps her chin. “I think I could use illusion magic to make her visible to the general public.”
      “That’s a big expenditure of magic, Mifuyu. I’d hate to take advantage of your abilities for something I already know is a moot point.” She crosses her ankles. “I appreciate the offer, though.”
      Mifuyu gets a far away look on her face. “It makes me really happy to see the way they look at you. Sana is Mel’s age, so… well, it reminds me of old times.”
      “Sana is a good kid. They all are.”

     Mifuyu’s phone buzzes. She takes a brief look at it, then sets it away on the table.

      “Who was that?” Yachiyo asks.     
      “One of the twins,” Mifuyu answers. As if to distract herself, she takes a sip of her juice. “They like to send me pictures of what they’re doing.”
      “They respect you a great deal,” says Yachiyo. “It’s almost as if you have, I don’t know, a maternal nature.”
      “Oh, Yacchan, stop it. They’re Tsuruno's age!”

     Yachiyo draws a knitted blanket around her shoulders.

     “It isn’t lost on me that all the little Feathers looked up to you,” she says.      
     Mifuyu squirms in her seat. “I recruited a great deal of them. Mitama often contacted me when someone had ended up in her office, exhausted after accidentally unleashing their Doppels. I was the first person to sit down and explain things to them. It was… my duty, almost, to stay with the Magius through thick and thin. I didn’t want to abandon my girls, not after bogging them down with such a responsibility.” She blinks, her eyes looking glazed and unfocused. “I know I run away from things a lot. I like to, um. Ignore the truth, about a lot of things. I was determined not to give up this time, even if I felt conflicted. I had a lot of young girls looking to me for guidance.”
     “Mifuyu,” Yachiyo asks suddenly, “why did you join the Magius?”

     She blinks. Mifuyu exhales, staring at a spot on the ground. For a while she doesn’t answer, then she takes a long sip of her drink.

      “Well. Because my Doppel came out.”     
      Yachiyo is about to take a drink from her cup, but lowers it onto her lap. “That was all?”
      “It was a chance encounter, really. Eve’s labyrinth was just beginning to collect impurities from the atmosphere. I think they were using radio waves to trace the first Doppels to ‘hatch,’ if you will. Because when it came out, and I was dazed and confused on the ground, Touka found me. It was like she traced the magic back to me, and I was precisely who she was looking for.” Her cheeks are already pink from the tiny fraction she’s drunk. “I was one of their first success stories.”
      “Why?”
      Mifuyu cocks her head. “Why?”
      “Why did your Doppel come out?”
      She sighs. “It was all a blur, really. You had already split the team. I took the time to see Momoko on my own, just to check up on her and see what she was up to. She told me about her team. I remember being jealous of her.”
      Yachiyo’s stomach churns. “Momoko is better suited for a role of leadership. She was never going to grow much if she continued being a supporting role in our team.”
      “I know, and looking back on it, I agree. At the time, though, I began to feel helpless. Everyone was moving on with their lives. People were moving on past Mel, they moved on past us. I remember thinking that I had already peaked, that I would continue to get weaker and weaker until I died, too. And then you would think that it was your wish that killed me.”

     They sit in silence for a while, just listening to the crickets sing. Yachiyo pulls her blanket tightly around herself, even as her face begins to heat up.

     “So Momoko went home, and I had nowhere to be, so I just sat by myself for a while. You know how I’m always overthinking things. I think I knew that I could’ve gone home and told you everything that I was worrying about, but you were still. I don’t know. I didn’t want to burden you with everything I was feeling. Not only my worries about my magic, and Momoko, and the team. My worries about college, and my parents, and my engagement. It felt like too much to pile onto you.”     
     “Mifuyu….”
      “I know. It’s not an excuse, and it’s too late to go back and change it. I just kept thinking, and thinking, and I started to feel like something was choking me. Like this separate entity had crawled into my head and was pressing its hand down my throat.” Mifuyu looks pained as she recalls this. She whisks her knuckles across her bottom lip. “Have you ever felt like you can hear your Doppel’s voice? Like, you can tell it’s trying to get out?”
      Yachiyo thinks of the thing with many eyes. “I. Um. I don’t know.”
      “I guess it’s different for everyone. This… thing, I could hear it speaking to me. It kept telling me these awful, heartless things. I can’t even repeat them. How I was dragging everyone down, and how it would be better if I just flew away from all of them. Yet at the same time, I felt like I was rooted to the ground. And the thing just kept choking me, until I could feel it coming out of me. It was crawling out of my mouth, and puppeteering me with my arms, this… absolutely crushing weight.”
      “And then what happened?” Yachiyo blurts. 
     Mifuyu rubs her face, her brow creased with worry. “I remember the way it smelled. It was like being piled underneath bolts of chirimen and rinzu. That starchy, fabric scent, you know? It was so heavy, and warm, sort of how I imagine it would be like to be in a dragon costume.” She closes her eyes, trying to articulate her thoughts. “I remember… when I was a kid, sometimes I would hide in the bolts of fabric in my family’s studio. I would drape the linen over my head and wait until someone walked by to pop out from under it. But it was pressing down on me so hard, and I could feel these things flying out of our shared body. They might have been birds, I don’t know. Then I felt like our body must have been empty, and the whole thing just… dissolved. It took a while for me to come to my senses, but when I did, Touka was there.”

     She doesn’t continue. Instead, Mifuyu takes her drink and stirs it ‘round and ‘round with her straw. The ice clinks inside the glass. Finally, she takes a short sip and places it back on the table. A gnat flies circles around the rim, so she swats it away.

      “I wish you would have come home instead,” Yachiyo says quietly.
      “I know, Yacchan. I know you did. For a long time, I kept wanting to run away, too. I mean, I did run away… from my parent’s house, from you… but the more I learned from the Magius, the more I wanted to shut my eyes. I wanted to remain ignorant to it all. There were days when I could scarcely get out of bed. I just wanted to go home, and have it all be normal again.”
      “But you had your new girls to take care of,” Yachiyo replies.
      “When I look at it now, with all of it behind me, I feel like it was probably a good thing that I stayed to the end. I think I prevented those girls from doing worse things than what they were planning. I did a pretty good job of reining them in sometimes. It’s just impossible to weigh the pros and cons.” She stirs her drink again, idly. “After all, without me, you were able to move past that fear of your wish. You were able to build a team again. That’s something to be very proud of.”

     To think that anything in the world was worth the pain of thinking Mifuyu was gone forever. Yachiyo’s mouth twitches downward, and Mifuyu seems to notice. She shrinks into herself, the same old way she always does when presented with discomfort. 

      “I spent such a long time looking for you.”     
      “I know, Yacchan.”
      “I thought you were dead. I thought you were a witch.”
      Mifuyu frowns, hugging herself awkwardly. “I know you’re angry with me, Yacchan. If you have to believe anything I tell you, it has to be that I performed all of my duties as a Magius for you. I knew you were afraid, and I wanted to save you. I just….”
      “Couldn’t tell me. Couldn’t confide in me.”
      “Yacchan, all I can do is try to make up for it now. I can’t go back and fix it.”
      “I know. I’m being unfair.” Yachiyo tucks her hair behind her ear.
      “You’re not being unfair. I think I would feel worse if you let me get away with it all scot free.”

     Mifuyu looks so uncomfortable now. She can hear the thing with many eyes now, the nameless thing she now knows as her half-witch, her Doppel, its words echoing distantly. You drove her away, it says. She stamps out the thought before it can bloom into something worse.

      “We've had a bad year, Mifuyu.”     
      Her lips tighten into a thin line. “I know, Yacchan.”
      “Even so. We’ve known each other for seven years, and I feel like I know you pretty well. All of this, this entire mess, it’s taught me that there’s another side of you, that there are things you’re capable of under pressure that I would have never guessed. I wish I had been there, right at the beginning. I could have told you that I would still stay beside you.”
      “I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse,” Mifuyu laughs sadly. 
      “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to pile guilt onto you, Mifuyu. I just want you to know that I still love you.”

     That last part hangs in the air almost tangibly, hovering between them. Yachiyo’s mouth opens again, then closes. Mifuyu blinks at her.

      “You mean. I mean, that, you– you, like, huh?” Mifuyu babbles. “You like. As a friend?”
      Yachiyo’s mind is filled with static. It would be the easy thing to laugh it off and say yes of course I mean as a friend, whoopsie daisy, silly me. However, she’s not thinking straight at the moment. So instead she blurts out, “No, I mean that I love you.”
      “As. You mean like that?”
      “I mean like that.”

     Mifuyu looks like she has temporarily short circuited. 

     “Like. But you. I mean. You wrote… the letter you wrote me that year, it was…?”     
     Oh, that stupid, coy little letter. Yachiyo knows she should have never told Mifuyu she had feelings for someone. “It was you. I was writing about you.”
     “About me? Me. I. Yacchan, I.”

     The thing with many eyes is rattling the bars of its cage. You desperate little creature, it sing-songs, you lonely little wretched thing. See how you’ve disgusted her.

     Mifuyu begins to cry.

      “Oh, no. Oh, Mifuyu….” Yachiyo stands awkwardly, gesturing vaguely, unsure what to do. “Should I…? Oh, no. Do you want me to go inside? I can go inside.”     
      “No, no….” It’s not full blown sobbing, but she’s sniffling quite a bit. Mifuyu wipes her face with her sleeves. “Why didn’t you tell me, Yacchan?”
      “Ah, I see. It’s my turn to be scolded for dishonesty.” Yachiyo slumps back into her chair. “Is there any chance that you’ll forget this all in the morning? That would be convenient for me.”
      “Yacchan!”
      “Okay, all right. I’m sorry. You have to understand where I’m coming from.”
      “That doesn’t make any sense!” she blubbers.
      “I’m sorry! I wasn’t planning on tonight unfolding like this, or I might’ve written a letter.”
      Mifuyu buries her face in her hands. “Yacchan, you’re such a sap.”
      “I’m sorry that I didn’t want to make your life more complicated,” Yachiyo huffs. “Your parents wanted you to get engaged, and you were so eager to please them–”
      “I might have told them no if I had known!”
      “But you seemed to really like him!”
      “I liked that someone was paying attention to me!” Mifuyu shouts. “I liked that my parents were off my back!”

     A light goes on inside the house. Yachiyo recognizes it as Sana’s window. Her shadow looks outside for a moment, where the two of them have quieted down so they don’t wake up anyone else. The shadow goes away, and Sana switches off the light.

     “This wasn’t a good time to broach the subject,” Yachiyo sighs. “Not now, when we’re still trying to sort through all our feelings, and there’s still so much to be done. You have a lot on your plate, Mifuyu. I shouldn’t have given you one more thing to worry about.”     
     Mifuyu wrings her hands. “Well. It isn’t as if I’m unhappy about it.”
     Yachiyo’s brain struggles to make sense of this. “You aren’t?”

     Mifuyu reaches out and touches Yachiyo’s hand. She almost withdraws it, afraid that her hands are too sweaty.

     “Maybe I always knew, and I kept shoving it to the back of my mind. Maybe I didn’t want to complicate your life, either.” She looks to the side, her face tinged with pink. “I always knew you were a softie, Yacchan. You put up too much of a front, being all cold and serious.”
     Yachiyo clenches her jaw. Half of her wants to jump up from her seat and run headfirst into the ocean, never to be seen again. “You don’t have to answer me, you know. It’s… a lot to process. I’d like you to be more comfortable here before I begin throwing expectations on you.”
     “Thank you, Yacchan. I really appreciate that.”

     This is a little disappointing. The selfish part of Yachiyo wants Mifuyu to assure her that she loves her too, that they’ll always be together from now on, that nothing will come between them. But that’s unfair, and unrealistic. They have a lot to work on before they can come back to this conversation, and a great deal of catching up. They have to rebuild their partnership from the ground up, and perhaps that will take a while. 

     It’s better than disgust, though. Doppels never have a good sense of judgment, anyway.

      “Yacchan?”     
      Yachiyo blinks. “Yes?”
      “Thank you for not giving up on me.”
      She reaches out and squeezes her hand, and Mifuyu holds on tight. “We’re partners, aren’t we?”
      Mifuyu smiles. “Of course.”

     The waxing moon hangs above Shinsei Ward. Crickets are singing, the air is warm, and finally, finally, Yachiyo feels like all the pieces have clicked into place.



☽❂☾



     Gentle laughter and TV static is coming from the living room.

     Yachiyo wakes up in the late hours of the night and realizes that Mifuyu is no longer in the room. She toes into her slippers and walks down the halls, placing her ear to the doors and peering into bedrooms. It’s the compulsion of an anxious, hand wringing mother. On the other side of Felicia’s door, Yachiyo can hear her snoring. The door to the Tamaki’s room is cracked, and Yachiyo catches a glimpse of Ui rolling over in her sleep. 

     Down the hall, Sana’s door is wide open. She likes to keep the door open, Yachiyo has realized. Sana finds comfort in hearing all the living noises of Mikazuki Villa, all the footsteps and the echoes, watching friendly faces pass the door and chat with her from the hall. She likes being aware of everything unfolding – though she is still meek, she’s awfully perceptive. Yachiyo pauses in the doorway, and Sana is sitting straight up in bed. 

      “Sana,” Yachiyo exhales, startled, “you’re awake?”     
      “Yes,” she says simply. “Iroha is downstairs.”
      “You should all be asleep,” sighs Yachiyo.
      Sana shrugs. “I heard their door creak. It woke me up.”
      “All right, well, try to go back to sleep, or you’ll be exhausted tomorrow.”
      “Okay.”

     Sana is never argumentative. She switches off the lamp beside her bed and pulls the quilt over her head, though Yachiyo knows that it will take her some time to fall asleep. Moving on, Yachiyo carefully walks down the steps, avoiding the spots where the wood groans underfoot. She shuffles down the entryway and into the living room, where the TV is turned on.

     Yachiyo, Kanae says through VHS static, tell her to stop recording me.

     The voice startles her, and makes her pause for breath. Yachiyo falters in the dark, where she realizes where Kanae’s voice is coming from. A home movie is playing on the TV, casting a dim flicker over the living room. White-blue light dances over Mifuyu’s hair, and her shadowy silhouette trembles.

     Don’t listen to her Yacchan, Mifuyu laughs from behind the camera, we’re saving precious memories! We have to record Kanae’s progress.     
     I don’t want evidence of me sounding like crap, Kanae complains.
      You can watch it years from now and see how much you improved, Yachiyo says somewhere off camera. The camera pans over to reveal her leaning against the breakfast bar, sipping from her mug and watching the two of them with a bemused look.

      “She looks so young!” Iroha exclaims from the couch. She sits beside Mifuyu, who is suppressing her own laughter.     
      “Oh, don’t let Yacchan hear you say that,” she says. “The uniform makes her look like a kid, doesn’t it?”
      “She still looks very serious,” Iroha observes.
      “Yes, Yacchan has always had that solemn look about her. She wanted to be a good role model to Kanae.”

     While they talk, the camera goes back to Kanae. She strums a few chords, cursing when she misses a note. Mifuyu offers a few words of encouragement, and Kanae lets the blonde hair droop in front of her face. It was the reason she liked to keep her hair long – hiding her face from strangers.

     Yachiyo feels a lump form in her throat. She hangs back in the dark, leaning against the door frame, watching them watch their memories.

     Iroha tends to tense up around strangers. She’s a cautious creature, eager to see the good in others, but sensibly slow to trust. Yachiyo can’t see any of her telltale signs of anxiety as she sits beside Mifuyu. Instead she relaxes, sinking into the couch cushion, her body angled towards Mifuyu. It’s a relief to see. Mifuyu was so worried that Yachiyo’s new fledglings wouldn’t trust her, wouldn’t like her, wouldn’t speak to her. What a comfort it must be to her to spend a bit of time with Iroha like this. Mifuyu has always liked being a mentor.

     “Watch this,” Mifuyu laughs. She reaches out to tap Iroha on the shoulder. “Oh, I remember this. It’s so cute.”

     That’s all I have, Kanae says, can you stop sticking that camera in my face now?
     But you’re doing so well, Mifuyu replies, do you have anything to say to your future fans?
     
Mifuyu, groans Kanae, seriously.

     Iroha laughs. “She reminds me of Felicia,” she says.     
     “Don’t let the sour look fool you,” Mifuyu says fondly, “she was always very gentle.”

     On the TV, an old woman shuffles into view. Her white hair is piled atop her head.

     “Is that Yachiyo’s grandma?” Iroha asks.     
     “Yes. She passed shortly after we lost Kanae,” Mifuyu sighs wistfully. “She loved Kanae. You would think they wouldn’t understand each other, but they were very close.”

       We’re recording for when Kanae is famous one day, Mifuyu tells Yachiyo’s grandmother. Do you have anything to say for the camera?     
       Oh, let’s see…. She pauses to rub Kanae’s shoulder, who looks quite bashful to be on the receiving end of so much attention. I want to tell everyone that Kanae is so talented, and hard working, and kind….
     
Grandma, Kanae protests.
      And one day I think we will all be seeing her in concert, but first she needs to eat some cookies to keep her energy up. She produces a platter of tea cookies, and Kanae turns bright pink.
      You’re spoiling her, Yachiyo scolds her grandmother affectionately. 
      Well, if you ate my cookies I wouldn’t have to peddle them off on poor Kanae, her grandmother answers.

     “She sounds so sweet. It makes me sad that I can’t meet her,” Iroha says. She takes the pillow beside her and hugs it.     
     “I think she still visits us from time to time,” Mifuyu sighs, that dreamy tone in her voice, “It must make her happy to see the house full of so much life again. I’m sure she would have loved you.”

     Just then, the VHS skips ahead to another recording. Yachiyo remembers Mifuyu cutting them all together with a fair bit of help from Momoko, neither of whom knew what they were doing. Some of the tapes skip and glitch, little strips of static skittering across the screen. This tape has the camera trained at the corner of the coffee table. Yachiyo recognizes the time stamp, and wills herself not to sigh aloud.

     So what does this mean? Yachiyo asks.
     I’m a little nervous speaking when there’s a camera, Mel falters, smiling awkwardly forward.
     Don’t even pay any attention! Tsuruno yells from behind the camera. Just act like I’m not here!

     Her audio crackles from how loud she’s being, so Mifuyu rushes to lower the TV volume. Tsuruno’s camerawork is not very steady –  the frame trembles as she restlessly holds the camcorder.

     “She hasn’t changed at all,” Iroha says.     
     “She certainly isn’t meant to be a photographer,” Mifuyu laughs, “but she had a lot of fun recording us.”
     “We should show her these tapes sometime,” Iroha muses.
     “That’s a good idea, Iroha. Why don’t you see if Yacchan will convert these to something a little more modern? We could put it on a flash drive, I bet.”
     “I don’t really know how any of that stuff works,” Iroha wavers. “But it might make a nice gift.”

       So the card Miss Nanami has pulled here is The Fool… well, specifically it’s the inverted Fool, Mel explains. She points to a card that Yachiyo pins beneath her finger. Barely out of frame are the edges of Momoko’s hair and the lavender of Mifuyu’s school uniform.     
       Doesn’t fool mean idiot? Tsuruno asks, prompting Momoko and Mifuyu to burst into laughter.
      Mel, Yachiyo says, her eyes narrowed, this isn’t because I told you no more spreads in the house, is it?
     
It isn’t a card trick! Mel exclaims. You shuffled the deck yourself, you picked this card because it called to you.
     
Did it now, Yachiyo says.
      Now, Yacchan, let her do her thing, Mifuyu says off screen. Her hand reaches down to rub Yachiyo’s shoulder, and she allows herself to relax.
      So the Fool isn’t the Fool because he’s dumb, he’s the fool because he’s inexperienced, Mel continues. Like me! I pull the Fool a lot, too. Basically, see that little bag he carries? He’s going off into the big wide world, but he doesn’t know anything yet. 
     
I feel like I’m being made fun of somehow, Yachiyo says, skeptical. She says something else, but it’s garbled in static as Tsuruno shifts the camera.
      You’re not! The Fool here is indicating big changes… like, the start of a new journey, exploring the unknown. But the Fool is upside down, though, so it changes the meaning.
     
I’m hoping it means I’m not inexperienced after all, Yachiyo says.
      Well, all the core parts of the card are still in play, replies Mel. The Fool is telling you a few things, really. Your journey is being impeded somehow, either through taking too many risks and being reckless– 
     
That doesn’t sound like Yacchan, Mifuyu says.
      Or it could mean that you’re afraid to take the first step by being too cautious. Like, you’re afraid you don’t know all the details yet.
     
That sounds more like her, all right, Momoko laughs.

     The camera shakes as they all share a laugh at Yachiyo’s expense. Mifuyu throws her arm behind the back of the couch, smiling in profile. Yachiyo watches her face from the back of the room. For months, Mifuyu would push these tapes into the back of the cabinet. Hearing their voices hurt too much. She wonders if Mifuyu was watching these alone before Iroha joined her downstairs, or if they popped it into the VCR together.

     So I think you need to be confident and self-assured in your own knowledge, and take that first step, and then that way you won’t be the Fool anymore, Mel shouts. She gets an excited little twinkle in her eye. 

     Yachiyo passively notes that Mel was Sana’s age in this video. Today, she’d be older than Iroha.

     What card do you think suits Yacchan the best, Mel? Mifuyu asks. She always liked to have Mel explain her thoughts behind the cards.     
     Mel pauses for a long time. The Magician? No… no, I think she must be the High Priestess!

     “I don’t think I understood what any of that meant,” Iroha admits, tucking her hair behind her ear.     
     “Mel was often in her own little world,” Mifuyu says, “the way little kids are, you know. I didn’t always understand her, but I loved that she was passionate about her interests.” She rubs her lower lip with one finger. “She passed away not long after this was filmed.”

     The two of them sit in silence for a moment, watching Tsuruno push the camera into Momoko’s hands as she attempts to perform a karate demonstration in the middle of the living room. Off screen, Yachiyo barks at her to mind the flower vase.

      “I’m glad you showed me these,” Iroha says suddenly. “I felt kind of weird asking to see old things from before we came to Kamihama. I sort of felt like I was intruding, if that makes sense.”     
      “Ah,” Mifuyu clucks, that motherly little sound she makes. She pats Iroha's hand. “Thank you for indulging me. It’s not always easy to watch things like this.”
      “I enjoyed it,” Iroha replies, “I think… they were very lucky to have been part of your team.”
      Mifuyu exhales through her nose. “I like to think they were happy. We tried to take care of them as best we could, Yacchan and I. She was always good at mentoring the young ones. I think she found it to be very rewarding.”
      “She definitely doesn’t always have fun taking care of Felicia,” Iroha laughs, “but… I see what you mean. She takes really good care of us.”
      “You’re very responsible, Iroha. I can see why Yacchan relies on you so much.”
      “Ah, I don’t know about that.”
      “Don’t be modest,” Mifuyu says. “Thank you for keeping her grounded. You’ve helped the Villa change for the better.”

     Yachiyo shifts her weight from one foot to another, and the floorboard beneath her creaks. The two of them startle a bit, and Mifuyu turns to look at her.

      “Shouldn’t you be asleep?” Yachiyo teases.     
      “Ah, Yacchan, you scared me half to death,” she exhales. “Do you always have to creep up on me?”
      “Iroha,” Yachiyo says, “you woke Sana up coming downstairs. If you have school tomorrow, you should try to get back to bed.”
      “I’m sorry,” Iroha replies, a little cowed, “I came down for water, and Mifuyu was already down here, so….”
      “I’m being a bad influence, Yacchan,” Mifuyu says with a little smile.
      “I can see that. Do you have room for one more?”

     Iroha and Mifuyu exchange looks. 

      “Now, Yacchan, I thought you were going to send Iroha up to bed,” Mifuyu says.     
      “Oh, we can watch a little more. There’s a tape somewhere in here that I seem to remember, let me see if I can find it.” She settles into the couch beside Mifuyu, who gives her the remote. 
      “What are you looking for, Yachiyo?” Iroha asks.
      “We took a video outside of the house once for my grandmother’s birthday,” Yachiyo says. “We all had a group photo, and we wished each other well on her behalf.”
      “I remember that,” Mifuyu says, “that was a good day.”

     Yachiyo fast-forwards until she finds it. The five of them stand in front of the Villa garden, waving at a camera that’s precariously situated on a tripod. Mifuyu stops to fix Mel’s hair, and Momoko plays with her braid.

     One, Yachiyo counts, two, three, and….     
     Happy birthday Grandma! they shout in unison. From all your family at Mikazuki Villa!

      “Yachiyo,” Iroha blurts, “do you think we could do the same thing this year?”
      “Well, I don’t know….”
      Mifuyu grabs Yachiyo’s hand. “That’s an excellent idea, Iroha. Grandma’s birthday is coming up soon, too.”
      “Can you imagine how hard it will be to get Felicia to dress up nice?” Yachiyo asks.
      “That’s why I’m here to help, Yacchan,” Mifuyu says. “You’ll help keep her in line too, won’t you Iroha?”
      “I think I can try,” Iroha laughs.

     As the video continues, Iroha begins to doze off. Her head sinks into the couch cushion, and Yachiyo throws a crocheted blanket over her. When she settles back in, Mifuyu tucks her head into Yachiyo’s shoulder. It’s probably obvious to her how fast Yachiyo’s heart is beating, but if she hears it she doesn’t say anything.

      “I told you you’d fit in here,” Yachiyo says softly.     
      Mifuyu exhales and closes her eyes. “Do you think things will ever feel normal again?”
      Yachiyo whisks her thumb across Mifuyu’s fingers. “I think it feels more normal now that you’re here. I’m not going to lose you to another cult, am I?”
      She groans. “Yacchan….”
      “I’m kidding, I’m kidding” She rests her head against Mifuyu’s hair. “I’m glad you’re here. I missed you.”
      “I missed you too, Yacchan.”

     There are plenty of things Yachiyo would like to ask right now. Did you give any thought to what I told you, Mifuyu? Do you know how you feel about me? Am I going to drive you away? But she keeps it all to herself. Mifuyu will answer it all in her own time, when she’s ready. And when she’s ready, Yachiyo will still be there, even if she doesn’t like the answer.

     It isn’t just the two of them anymore. The nest is full of fledglings to feed, and as time continues to pass, Mifuyu will return to what she does best. She’s always liked being a mentor. Yachiyo is excited to watch her raise their team.

     Some ancient, yawning wound finally feels like it’s beginning to heal. Yachiyo squeezes Mifuyu’s hand, and when she smiles up at her, both of them close their eyes.