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Topics - Meliran

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1
Mafia Vortex / Sailor Moon Mafia (Signups)
« on: July 02, 2018, 06:53:36 pm »
Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight. That was how it was always supposed to be. The good girls were supposed to stop evil, and vice versa.

But with Chaos defeated, something strange began to happen. The girls, with no supernatural enemies to fight, started to get bored. And with boredom, nothing good can happen. Boredom leads to three things - theft, sex, and murder.

And it came to the last one when the police found Sailor Chibi Moon dead - her throat slashed by a knife. The sailor scouts come together to determine just who was the culprit!


So, yeah. Nobody's starting a mafia or queued for one, so figured I'd try to get one going. Might be a small game depending on signups, but we'll see.

Roles:
7 people minimum needed to run. Default - Mercury, Venus, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune.
Above 7 (in order) - Tuxedo Mask, Saturn, Pluto, Eris (original), Ceres (original), Makemake (original), Haumea (original). If we somehow get more than 14 people (do we even have 14 people on the forums?) I'll add more.

This is really just a fun game, you don't really need to know the series beyond knowing they're all magical girls.

2
Create n' Share / A MRPG Carol
« on: December 05, 2017, 06:24:04 pm »
Having a little bit of fun with MRPG in Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol." It will eventually involve Andro, Bea, Cordi, Jane, Maho, Pluto, and Sylvia. Just small parts at once~

Part 1
“Slyvia was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of her burial—”

“Jane?” Beatrix looked up from her papers at the girl with the bobbed hair. “What are you talking about? I saw her just this morning.”

Jane placed down her pen. “Sorry, just writing a fanfiction.”

“You shouldn’t kill off people you know, unless they break your code.”

“What if my code is ‘nobody touches Maho but me’?” Jane asked.

“Let’s not go down that road again.” Beatrix returned to her papers. Even on Christmas Eve, the raven-haired maid was hard at work sorting through her studies. She always had such a rigid schedule. From the time she woke up, the temperature she kept the room (even two sweaters weren’t enough for Jane), to the time she went to eat, nothing ever changed.

Jane didn’t mind too much in any case. She didn’t particularly interact much with Beatrix, so as long as she could keep her distance, there would be no problem.

Jane returned to her paper and, afraid of irritating Beatrix anymore, discarded the start of her story. Instead, she rewrote it about Maho being some sort of goddess ruling over the rivers, and then one day she found Jane washing herself in a stream. “My, Miss Jane, I never knew what fine skin you have,” wrote Jane.

She wished it was true. Her skin always dried up during the winter.

Beatrix stood up suddenly. “I won’t be in here tomorrow,” she said.

Jane cocked her head. “I mean, all right, but why?”

The girl sorted her papers into a neat stack and pushed them to the side of her desk. “Personal reasons.”

Jane could only smirk. “You could just say ‘because it’s Christmas,’ you know.”

But Beatrix wasn’t too happy with that. She’d never admit to doing anything outside of schedule, such as taking a day off from her schedule. Instead, she chose to change the topic. “Jane, do you have any spare money on you? Like, 500 kyn or so?”

Jane dug into her pockets. She did have the money to spare, that was for sure. But she didn’t particularly feel like parting with it. If for some reason Maho wanted to go out with her to Christmas dinner, she didn’t want to have to turn her down due to a lack of funds! Though 500 kyn wouldn’t really buy much more than a dollop of mashed potatoes, she had to be prepared. “Sorry, I’m flat out.”

Beatrix stared at Jane with cold eyes, as if she could see through to her soul. But she’d never fight Jane, so long as Jane didn’t say something bad about her code. “Then I’ll see you on Tuesday,” she said. She left the room, leaving Jane all alone.

The first thing Jane did was turn the heat up. She didn’t hate Beatrix, but some of her little quirks could be irritating at times. And then she slipped out of her maid uniform and into something a little bit more casual. Beatrix would never forgive her for breaking out of conformity outside of bed time, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Probably.

It was a bit early for bed – only ten at night. But Jane still held to her childish beliefs that there was a fat bearded man who’d come deliver her presents if she was a good girl and went to bed on time. Of course, he never did come, but she wasn’t about to give up.

She had barely laid down in bed when a knock came on her door. Her heart raced – what if that was Beatrix? What if she’d been caught in the warmth all comfortable? What would happen to her?

But when the knock came again, she realized it couldn’t be Beatrix. Beatrix had a key to the room. Then who was it? It couldn’t be a thief or anything – Lyceum’s security was far too strict to allow for that. So it had to be another student.

She groaned as she left her bed, and walked over to the door. When she opened it, she could scarcely believe her eyes.

The girl standing there had long blue-black hair, adorned with a cross on the side. She had a bright cheery smile on her face, along with a bright outfit to match. As if to go with her name, there were crosses all over her dress, sparkling in the artificial light of Jane’s room.

“Sylvia?” Jane asked.

Sylvia walked into the room, with a strange rattle coming every time she lifted her feet. “Do you have a trash bin here?” she asked. “My gum’s lost all its taste.”

Jane was as confused as ever, but pointed to her rubbish bin. She had barely pointed there before she realized what was on top – the start of her fiction with Sylvia dead as a doorknob! Sylvia practically skipped to the bin, but Jane was too fast.

“Jane?” asked Sylvia.

“On second thought, here’s a tissue. I’ll take care of it for you.”

Sylvia cocked her head. “Um, all right.”

Jane heaved a sigh of relief, and then casually flipped the paper over. “Was that all you needed?”

Sylvia blinked. “Well, I mean, yeah. Tasteless gum is so annoying!”

That was kind of rude. It was an unsaid rule that unless you needed something important, when a door was closed you didn’t knock. A master would never want to be disturbed for something so trivial, after all. But a proper maid is polite to all rudeness. “Well, I’m happy to have helped. I take it you’ll be heading back to your own room then?”

Sylvia’s eyes go wide. “Oh my! How could I have forgotten?” She pointed her finger at Jane. “Jane Scrooge, you are an evil person and must repent!”

Jane clutched at her chest. There was too much going on right now for her to understand even the half of it. “Um, I’m going back to bed now. We can talk about it in the morning.”

Sylvia let out a moan – though Jane couldn’t tell if it was a moan of agony or a sexual moan. In any case, this would be bad. Yuki Minase was known to patrol the hallways at night and if she heard a moan like that, she might cause her a whole bunch of problems.

“Shh, shh!” warned Jane. “Fine, tell me what you want. Just, don’t moan like that again.”

Sylvia kept her finger pointed at Jane. “I once was like you. I was selfish and greedy, and never gave anything to anyone. And look where it got me?”

Jane looked aside. She’d love to be in Sylvia’s shoes. Loved by all, and especially Maho. Although it wasn’t official yet, everyone in the school knew she and Maho were essentially an item.

Sylvia took a few steps closer to Jane. “You are the same as me. Your greed has overcome you, Jane Scrooge! So I, Sylvia Marley am here to stop you before it is too late!”

Jane really cocked her head. “But Scrooge isn’t my last name. And your last name is Cross.”

“Silence!” Sylvia moaned.

Jane held her ears, begging Sylvia to stop moaning. She rattled her legs. That was when Jane noticed how, attached to Sylvia’s leg, there was a chain tied together.

Jane was starting to piece it all together. “Are you going to tell me that the chain on your leg is the chain you forged throughout your life, link by link, with every greedy thing you did?”

“Chain?” Sylvia looked down and saw it dangling behind her. “Oh my God, where did that come from? Get it off, get it off!”

She pulled the chain off her leg and tossed it aside. Jane took note of its location, in case Maho ever came by. The thought of Maho hitting her and dominating her with that chain really got her blood boiling.

Sylvia held up three fingers. “Tonight, you shall be visited by three ghosts, starting at the stroke of midnight. I shall only hope you learn something from them about your greed and avarice?”

This really confused Jane. “You keep mentioning my greed, but when was I ever greedy? I give all I earn away in gifts and all.”

Sylvia only stared at her.

Jane again pieced two and two together. “Wait, this is about the 500 kyn I didn’t loan to Beatrix, right? I had a good reason for that! Yeah, it was a little selfish, but that was the only time!”

Sylvia held her three fingers up again. “You shall be visited by three ghosts, starting at the stroke of midnight.”

“What? All I did was refuse her once! Why do I have to do all of this to make up for something so trivial?”

But Sylvia was gone. Well, not gone, she was out the door and scampering down the hallway. Who put her up to this?

Actually, more than that, she knew that she didn’t loan the 500 kyn to Beatrix. But how? Did she have cameras in her room?

Jane looked around for the cameras, and in pass she realized the time. “Oh crap! It’s almost 11!” And how was santa going to come if she was up so late? She jumped straight back into bed and closed her eyes, begging herself to sleep. But that weird meeting with Sylvia weighed heavily on her mind. It was 11:30 when she finally got back to sleep for the night.
[close]

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Mafia Vortex / Magical Girl Madoka Magica Mafia - Conclusion
« on: October 29, 2017, 01:53:49 pm »
The girls of the town gather together by the lake, each one as afraid and suspicious as ever before. One of the girls steps up to the podium to address the others.

"My friends, we are gathered here today because of Megan's awful spell. I'm sure we're all aware by now that there is no going back to our old male bodies. But that curse is spilled milk."

"Curse?" asked one of the girl. "It's a blessing! I can lewd myself whenever I want!"

The girl on the podium holds her hand up, suspecting the pervert to be none other than Revo. "Let's get serious here. Despite us all being in the same boat, there are some of us who are different. I believe some of us are witches, some are magical girls, and there is a Kyubey among us to turn us into witches as well."

"What'll we do?" asks a girl in the crowd.

"Each morning, we'll return here and count our losses. If we suspect someone of being a witch, they will be left here alone. At that point, the magical girls, after transforming, will come and eliminate them. Witches are weakest during the day after all. But come night, we can only hope the witches don't choose us for their meals."

She stares up at the sky. "Unless one of you has a suspicion they want to levy right now."

---

With 10 alive, it takes 6 votes to lynch... probably.
1. Elvis Strunk
2. Arraxis
3. Jynx
4. Deeox2
5. Revontulet
6. Verthand
7. WeAreTheMeta
8. woolyshambler
9. WhydidIbuytheunionfrigate
10. Pal

Day 0 ends 10/30 at 8:30 AM Eastern (Shorter day for no real suspicions~)

4
Mafia Vortex / Magical Girl Madoka Magica Mafia - Signup Thread
« on: October 26, 2017, 12:19:34 am »
Once upon a time, there was a magical girl named Megan. She spent her day prancing through the town of Hyperspace, although she didn't exactly use her powers for good. Rather, she used them for mercenary work in return for cookies - lots of cookies. One day, however, a big storm stopped the cookie shipment from coming in.

She grew nervous. However was she going to entertain herself without cookies? Then an idea popped into her head. "How about instead of being the lone magical girl, we all become magical girls!"

The cat, who plays no other part in this story but to help with exposition, asked, "But how? Everyone in this town is a guy save you and Heinrike."

Megan bonked the cat on the head. "We turn them into girls, silly!" She opened a magical book and stared to recite the incantation. "Homura Madoka! Sayaka Kyouko! Mami Kyubey! Walpurgeis... COOKIES!" But the last part was not a part of the spell. Rather, she saw the cookie van coming in.

The spell shot out, and with it, the town turned into girls. But, when Megan was found dead with a missing head, the town got together and realized there were flaws in the spell. Not only did she turn the town into girls - she had created a witch to kill everyone, and a Kyubey to turn more people into magical girls, and then witches! They didn't know each other's identities and decided to keep it that way.

---

So, decided to start this with Bastard Mafia all but over. This is the signup thread. The rules are the same as always - no quoting GM PM's, no OOC talk in the main thread (only in here), no outside discussion, etc.

This game is along the lines of a vampire mafia. Here is the general progression of a player:

They start as a human. They have a weak ability - ie, the ability to prevent all non-fatal action against a person.

When visited by Kyubey, they become a magical girl. They gain a stronger ability, such as the ability to block all actions against a person and find out who was going to take action.

These magical girl abilities gain an attribute called "stress" - the corruption of the soul gem. The more powerful an ability, the more stress it gains a night. A few skills are subjective - ie, a vigilante who kills successfully gains no stress, and who kills a magical girl gains high stress. Only the GM will know a character's individual stress values. Stress can also be gained by certain events happening in the game. Taking no action will gain 1 stress every night - so don't not use your ability thinking you'll never become a witch that way.

Once a player breaks a threshold of stress, they will become a witch. Their abilities weaken a bit, such as the ability to block all actions against a person only. They will be able to talk to witches at night. The witch who has been a witch the longest - or Madoka, if she's a witch - has the night kill.


Another variation on the traditional rules - any time a "Good Magical Girl" uses her ability against a player, unless she's killing that player, the player will be receive protection from the night. If they're attacked by a typical witch, they will survive.


Last bit of public info I'll give is if Madoka becomes a witch, the town will learn of it and a night countdown will begin. When the countdown hits 0, she destroys the world and the witches automatically win.


This game works best if 13 people play. Otherwise I'll have to re-arrange a few roles. I have most roles assigned based off of who I think will be signing up (randomized), so I'll be sending you your role PM as soon as you sign up - most likely.

1. Elvis Strunk
2. Arraxis
3. Jynx
4. Deeox2
5. Revontulet
6. Verthand
7. WeAreTheMeta
8. woolyshambler
9. WheredidIbuytheunionfrigate
10. Pal
11.
12.
13.

5
Create n' Share / Trine
« on: October 14, 2017, 01:13:44 pm »
So, I have written a lot about Trine Sorensen for Crux of Cessation. Like... a real lot. 44k words of canon, a 9k idea abandoned midway, and a 19k story that I eventually decided to can because of numerous issues.

However, the 19k story is a complete story, so I decided to at least publish it for anyone who wants to read it. The issues in it include - misrepresentation of Odense, similarity to Orbit, and a few internal issues. It is not canon for Trine currently, but may be entertaining to get an idea about her personality and thought process.

I'll be publishing future Trine related works in this thread. Thinking of having all titles following the format of "SOS".

This story takes place 15 years before the events of the real prologue, called "Song of Sea" and 16 years before the events of CoC.

Source of Shame
Source of Shame

“Let x-7=2y, and let x+1=y. What are x and y?” The math questions lar out in an organized row on the paper, nowhere near halfway done.

I stared at the paper, unable to understand what to do. Did we ever learn this in class? I thought back, but all I could remember about math class was the nice tight butt of the boy in front of me.

I pulled on my long crisp blond twintails. “Argh, what do I need this crap for?!” What could math ever be used for on a ship? All I needed to know were the right ways to hoist a sail, how to maneuver a wheel, and how to seduce sailors to follow my will.

I needed some way to procrastinate. Spying the unturned calendar, I decided that might be a good idea. It had been May for three days already. On May the 3rd, there was a big red circle, reminding me of something I had dreaded at the beginning of the year, but could care less about now.

Two years ago, on this day, I had my first period. Of course, to me it was simply another inconvenience in life. But when I learned in health class that the majority of a girl’s changes occur through the two years after it, and I had still been pretty flat, I had dreaded I’d never be able to match Laerke. I would always be flat-chested Trine.

Even at the start of the year, I hadn’t had much in the way of volume. But that all changed in February and March when I went up three cup sizes. My breasts are soft to the touch, but something to be proud of now.

I placed down my pencil and dashed into the bathroom. The full body mirror on the door showed off all my assets. Guys in school had already been hitting on me and telling me how sexy I looked. One even offered to take care of my virginity for me, but 13 is a little young for that so I had to refuse.

When I returned to my desk, the math problems hadn’t completed themselves like I had hoped. They sat there, a gauntlet of terror and struggle. I supposed I’d need a little help to get through these problems after all.

I pulled open my desk drawer and pushed aside some papers. Underneath were a bunch of ridges to slide my long fingernails through until I found the perfect bump. Upon pulling it open, it revealed its precious innards to me – the 4-oz bottle of vodka I kept for my worst moments.

The liquid burned as it went down my throat, but I didn’t care. I’d be feeling really happy in a few moments.

“Trine!”

I dropped the bottle to the floor, where it shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces. Crap! Standing in the doorway, with her arms crossed, was my mother.

She held a spatula in one hand – the same spatula she would use to slap my rear as recently as three years ago when I disobeyed her. But this was much worse than that.

“I’ll be waiting for you in the kitchen.”

Of course, it wasn’t just her waiting downstairs. My father sat, stirring his coffee vigorously. “So you still aren’t laying off the liquor, Trine? After all we’ve done for you, you’re still trying to sneak it in?”

“What do you mean, all you’ve done for me?” I sneered. “All you’ve done is lectured me not to take a few moments out of my day to relax!”

He slammed his hand on the table. “Don’t you dare speak like that to me! I’m your father, and I know just how much I’ve done for you around this house! Do you think I want to go to the shipyards every day to put food on this table and pay your tuition? Do you think I wanted to throw out all the alcohol in the house to stop you from taking swigs out of it? How did you manage to sneak that bottle past me? Who gave it to you?”

I twirled a long lock of hair in my fingers.

My mother was a bit more sympathetic, of course. “Trine, dear, it really hurts us to see you like this. If you keep this up, you’re really going to have a problem.”

They really know nothing. A problem is having five drinks a day. I only have one every couple of days when I’m feeling down.

“Why can’t you be a bit more like Laerke?” asked my father.

My time froze. A bit more like Laerke? Again with that? “Oh, just shut the hell up!” I sprung out of my chair and slammed my hand on the table. “Why are you always like that? Why do you dream of me being like that perfect other daughter you’ve got? I’m Trine, not Laerke II! I have my own wants and needs, and I’m not going to deal with you trying to impose everything about her onto me!”

My father crossed his arms. “So you don’t want to join the royal navy, then?”

“And that’s always your reply! Yes, I want to join the royal navy like her, but there’s more than one type of person in there! I’m not going to become someone else I’m not because of you!”

My mother stared me hard in the eye. “We’re not asking you to become anyone else. You can be as loud and rambunctious up there as you want doing whatever you want. We’re only asking for you to stop doing adult activities until you’re actually an adult.”

I lifted up my boobs. “Guess what? I am an adult now! So leave me alone!” I charged up the stairs with them screaming at me and slammed the door shut. The door lock clicked, and I laid back on my bed.

An adult at 13? I supposed I could be one if I wanted to. I knew enough about how this world worked to make a living out there should I need to.

My parents pounded on my door and shouted until their voice was hoarse, but my discussing with them was over. I put on some headphones to drown them out and pulled out my magazine on the latest motorcycles.

The pictures of the beauties themselves were enough to get my blood going. The sleek streamline designs with the wonderful airbrushed trims were sexier than any man I’d ever seen, and the huge numbers for horsepower, steering, and handling were almost an orgasm in and of themselves. But, unfortunately there was the biggest number of all – the cost.

My savings had practically disappeared in middle school as I tried all sorts of different things out. Once my parents cut off my allowance when they discovered I’d be buying adult magazines and alcohol, it had pretty much stagnated around the 0 line. I had to get old enough to join the navy. They paid really well, and I’d have a motorcycle of my own before I could even lie in bed with my first sailor.

The next page were all stories about people and their bikes. “I worked an extra shift every week to pay for my baby for a year, and I don’t regret it one bit! She was totally worth it!”

The typical stories of how easy it was for people to get their bikes. His bike honestly wasn’t that great – a rather simple structure with two wheels, a motor, and a seat. I wanted mine to be something grander. I wanted flairs and pipes and the whole nine yards.

The next was from a girl. “When I ran away from home, I hitched a ride on my boyfriend’s bike, and I was hooked immediately. The thrill of wind blowing through my hair was more than enough to lure me in, and like sex, I didn’t want to stop! I needed one of my own, so I took a good part of the money I brought with me to buy one for myself.”

Running away from home? The thought had crossed my mind before. If I was really an adult, I should be able to leave this house and strike out on my own. Maybe I could even find a forger to give me all the documents I needed to join the navy. My body could certainly pass for sixteen.

The pounding on my door eased. I supposed my parents gave up. They’d be ready to scream at me tomorrow morning, but for now I would be safe.

But maybe I could avoid having to listen to them tomorrow morning. I’d only need to follow that girl’s footsteps and run away. I’d have to wait until they started fucking in bed like they do every night (I supposed nymphomania runs in the family) so as to cover the sounds of my leap out of the window. If I managed to land without injuring myself, I could probably make it to Odense’s outskirts by dawn. Good luck for anyone trying able to find me in that decrepit part of town!

My piggybank, however, told me otherwise. If I ran, it’d only be a matter of days before I would be too hungry to continue. I’d either have to crawl back here and face their wrath, or have to start selling my body to fat slobs and pigs.

A soft hand knocked on my door twice, then once, and finally three times. At first I didn’t want to speak with anyone. But when I thought about running away again, I decided it might be best to have a little bit of a chat with her.

Laerke and I had a special sort of relationship. We wouldn’t fight over petty squabbles like other sisters, despite her being close enough in age for it. And even though I envied everything about her, I never let it turn into hatred. Her perfectly kept blond locks cascading down her back, her blue eyes, her curvy body… they were all to die for. Beyond that, she had amazing grades in school, was hardly ever single, and was well on her way to enter the royal navy next year.

“Wearing one of those dresses again?” I asked when she walked in. I don’t think I could remember a particular moment when she wasn’t in some sort of knee-length dress, save maybe gym class or something.

“It looks pretty,” she said. “Though you don’t see me questioning you always wearing those skimpy bike shorts.”

I crossed my legs. “My legs need to breathe, you know.”

She sat on my bed. “Listen, Trine. I know you need an ally in this family, and you know I’m always here for you if you need anything. I won’t yell, I won’t judge, and I won’t advise unless you ask for it. But are you sure you want me to be your only ally? Sparring with them isn’t going to get anywhere.”

I grabbed a hold of a teddy bear lying on the bed. “I only have three more years under this roof. I don’t need an ally against them for too long.”

She held my hand. “But I’m going to be gone after next year. I can only help you for so long.”

She was right. It wasn’t going to be long until she was gone and I would be alone. I squeeze the bear harder, trying to think about what I could do in the meantime. I could always load up on after-school activities to avoid coming home. Or, I could always run away.

My thoughts turned back to the life in the streets. “Can I ask a question?”

“Shoot,” she smiled.

“Are you a virgin?”

She blushed a little. “Where did this come from?”

“Just curiosity. You’ve had a bunch of boyfriends already.”

She leaned back on my bed. “Well, if you must know, yes.”

“Waiting for marriage?”

“Oh, heck no! I just want to be prepared in case something goes wrong, you know. I want to be well in the royal navy and earning a salary good enough to support both myself and a baby before I do something like that.”

She really was a responsible girl. “Would you lose it if you really needed the money and somebody was offering to pay you?”

I thought she’d get mad at me for suggesting prostitution to her. But rather, she thought about it for a bit. “I suppose it’d depend on how they looked.”

“What do you mean?”

She pushed up on her breasts. “Listen, we’ve been blessed to be born into a family of beauties. We have to carry around these burdens all day long, so we should cash in on our hard work. You can love whoever you want – hot or not. But for me, at least, I’d want my first time to be with a total hottie. I mean, this type of body deserves it.”

I have to laugh. “Quite modest there, aren’t you?”

She winked. “Don’t have to be modest in private. You know how it is. A lady in the streets, and a freak in the sheets. As long as I am prim and proper out in the open, they’d never question what I do or think when I’m alone.”

She got up off the bed and dusted off her dress. “Well, just know that if you need anything, I’m always here for you. Mom and dad are too, if you’d let them. They’re quite sensible if you stop arguing and screaming at them all the time.”

“I thought you said you’d never give me advice unless I asked for it.”

She opened my door, clicking the lock back open. “And so I didn’t. I only stated a fact.” She shut the door behind her, leaving me alone to go back to my magazines.

This time, however, it wasn’t my magazine about motorcycles. It was one filled with naked men. I let my hands drift down my body and into my panties, falling into a state of insatiable lust and ecstasy.

The same noises which came from my mouth that night came soon from a few doors down, where my parents were romping each other and shaking the bed. My mom, as I learned, really was into bondage, so it wouldn’t be a rarity to find ropes all over the place in their bedroom the following morning.

I turned back to the magazine to try and drown them out. But my fingers somehow managed to turn to the page with the stories again.

The girl who ran away stood next to her bike with a huge smile on her face. She held one hand on the bike seat, and the other in her leather shorts. I wondered what kind of a life she lived outside of her bike. But I could tell her smile wasn’t faked. This was as real as it got. All the others looked as fake as the “steak” my parents sometimes buy from the grocery store.

Was she really so happy just because she ran away? Were my parents holding me back from living?

I made my decision and threw open the window. I took one last look back into my room, and passed my eyes over the poster for the royal navy. “I’ll be in you as soon as I find a forger,” I promised myself. I grabbed on the ledge of my window, and with all the strength I could muster, threw myself out of it.

For just a moment, I was airborne, and thrilled to be alive. But everything which flies in the air must fall sometime. I crashed to the ground with a thud, and sharp pains coursed up my legs. “Shit!” I yelled a bit too loud. I covered my mouth, half expecting the door to open up with my parents running out to wonder what I’m doing. But the moaning from their bedroom – and Laerke’s for that matter – doesn’t stop.

I tested my legs. They seemed stable enough. A few bruises and cuts, but nothing really seemed to be broken or anything. I took a couple of steps in walk, and then in jog. It’d probably feel like crap come morning if I put pressure on it, but I don’t really have that luxury. I have to run.

And run I certainly did. I ran down the street, down the main road, and all along the cobblestones. There are no vehicles on the road to dodge, so it was pretty easy going to run from one place to another. My legs cried out to me to give them a break, but my days of running in gym class taught me the importance of ignoring my body to get what I want.

Odense’s slate buildings passed me by – most of them boarded up and closed for the night. Every so often I’d pass a person, but they didn’t really pay much attention to me. In my shirt which stopped a few centimeters above the navel, and these short shorts – even if they are jeans shorts – I looked like a civilian out for an early morning, or in this case, late night jog.

I passed by the school and some stores in the commercial district. “Things have to get worse before they get better,” I told myself. But in this case it was the exact opposite – the commercial district was the best kept place in town, and I wanted to head to the outskirts: the slums and the trash of the town. But better and worse was nothing more than a subjective matter. What was better for people like my parents was worse for me.

The commercial district passed me by, and with it I came to the junkyard. It was here that I finally had to give into the pain from my legs. I was still far too close to the center of the city to feel at ease, but if I could just get inside the junkyard somehow, I could hide myself from any suspecting eyes.

They junkyard itself was a set of close to a hundred mounds at least five times taller than me, filled with all sorts of scrap nobody wants to deal with anymore. As a kid, I used to dream of finding something like a gold bar or a rare artifact under one on the heaps. But now I knew the most I was going to find were used syringes and broken chairs.

I felt along the edges of the fence for some sort of a hint of an opening. I didn’t even need to feel – for some idiot had left the gate open. I tucked my hair in my shirt so as to avoid identification in case they had a camera, and then dashed in so they had the smallest possible number of frames with me in the view. The night shift guard would probably not even notice it on his monitor.

My legs are really screaming when I manage to find a nice patch of dirt between two piles of rubble. It really was warm between these two piles, since the wind seemed to bounce off them and go around. The metal absorbed all the light’s energy and radiated it, creating a sort of nice ground to sleep on. If not only for the food problem, I could live here for the rest of my life.

But food was my best friend and my worst enemy now. For any sort of food in here was going to smell until they compacted it – the only thing they would compact in this entire yard.

I woke the next morning to a soft rain dripping on my exposed skin. It took a moment to remember where I was, and for that matter, why I was there. “I am Trine, I am in a junkyard, I am here because I ran away from home over alcohol.” I said to myself.

It all seemed so silly in retrospect. It was too late to change my mind or have regrets in any case. With runaways, I knew parents go through a few stages of desire. If I returned now, they’d flip out and lock me in my room for an eternity. If I returned in a week, they would be loving and happy I came back. If I returned in a year, they’d be shocked, but assume me independent in any case and probably not take me back for good. I wondered if I’d even survive a year out of the streets like this.

The mounds of junk called out to me to explore like a little kid. This was a little kid’s dream, after all. All kids want to leave school and engage in a hobby or play around. At age thirteen, I really shouldn’t be doing such childish activities. But maybe there was a real prize in here.

I ignored the rain which fell with increasing intensity, and climbed up the mound of trash. Each step pained my leg, but I knew that pain would be temporary. I was just from jumping out the window, and it should heal soon in any case.

Something sparkled inside the mound of trash and caught my eye. A diamond? Curious, I pushed aside and oversized television and a tricycle pounded into all sorts of strange shapes, hoping it was the real deal.

But it wasn’t a diamond. It was rather a stainless steel trigger of a revolver.

I pulled out the gun and examined it. When I unlatched the chamber of the revolver, it revealed something even more frightening – three bullets still left inside.

“Well, it probably doesn’t work anyways,” I said. I pushed it back together and aimed it at the middle of the pile. My finger fit so wonderfully on the trigger, it was like this thing had been made for me. I imagined a target and pulled on it, shouting “bang.”

My shout was completely drowned out by the actual sound of the gun firing. The shock of it actually firing made me lose my balance, and on a hill of junk, this was a really dangerous thing. I didn’t just fall – I rolled down the sharp corners and edges, feeling some of them cut my skin open and bite inside. I hated it at the time, but I’m really grateful for that tetanus shot I got back in March right now.

I landed on the cold hard ground, my leg crying out more than ever. But this time, I had more injuries than just that. My entire body was a bloody mess.

But the gun was still at my side. I supposed it was a gift to me from some sort of a guardian angel. I could protect myself now – at least two more times. But I wasn’t sure if things like angels existed. Which meant somebody had thrown away a perfectly good and loaded gun.

But who would do such a thing?

A murderer.

I was holding a murder weapon. That was the only reasonable explanation. But since these things were registered, there wouldn’t be a need for me to fear about being caught. At minimum I would only have to explain how I found it in the junkyard, and I would be in the clear.

I shoved the gun in my pocket. It wasn’t much of a holster, but it would have to do for now.

When I had the strength to get up and walk around the yard again, the rain had begun to flood the ground. Mud caked on my skin, and with no shower to clean myself off, I was going to be stuck feeling disgusting all day long.

Every step was agony. My leg pain were starting to centralize in my knee, and it certainly did hurt. Worse still, my stomach was crying out for food. With no supper the night before, a skipped breakfast, and probably a skipped lunch by now, I was utterly starving. Even something rotten sounded good to me.

By the time I reached the back corner of the junk yard and decided there was nothing worth staying there for, I had started to lose my balance. Between the pain and the hunger, there was absolutely nothing I cared about.

I looked back north, to around where I thought my home had been. It would be so easy to call a taxi to bring me back up there and drop me off. I would apologize to my parents, take my punishment, and that would be the end of this awful experiment of mine. But I would at least have food in my stomach, warmth, dry clothes, and an ice pack on my bad leg. It seemed so tempting.

Was this the extent of my adult life? I couldn’t even last a single day out on the streets? No, I wouldn’t accept that answer. I hobbled down the streets, inching away from the richer parts of towns and into the slumps. Maybe the garbage had some food in it.

There were all sorts of lowlifes on the streets out here. There were a few guys sitting around with a jar begging for money, a few with decrepit musical instruments playing horribly out of tune with their cases open and collecting bills, and a couple of girls with twenty-centimeter heels and not much more than a bikini and a thong on, some talking with some rather ugly and desperate men.

God gave me the body of a girl, so I always would have the option of using it like them. But at the same time, Laerke’s words resounded in my head. We were blessed with beautiful bodies, so our first times should be with beautiful men. If I sold my body away for a couple of meatballs and a cup of ramen noodles, I would always regret it.

I wandered deeper into the alleyways, not really sure where I was going or what I was hoping for. Pain emanated from both my stomach and my knee, forcing me to finally collapse in what seemed the dirtiest and loneliest alleyway of them all.

This was going to be my end. I would die here, and nobody would ever know until some unfortunate soul would identify my rotting corpse.

“Well, best take the bite off the pain.” I pulled my shorts and panties down, exposing the thing which made me a woman, and circled the pleasure center of my body.

It didn’t do too much to make the pain go away, but at least it got me to stop thinking about it for a little bit. Of course, my body didn’t have the energy to go for too long, so after a quick climax, I collapse in defeat.

“Well, that was quite a show,” clapped someone.

I looked through blurry eyes. A male figure walked out of the shadows, his hand continuing to clap. Realizing his sex and my danger, I pulled my shorts back over to cover.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything to you. The name’s Kristoffer.”

“Trine,” I weakly let out, still wary of him.

He surveyed my body. “Pretty young to be out here by yourself. By my guess, you’re either an orphan, a runaway, or a castaway.”

“The second.” I pulled out my gun. “And if you tell anyone, it’ll be the last thing you’ll ever do.”

“Whoa, whoa!” He hopped back and held his hands up. “I’m not going to do anything to you, so chill out! Rather, I’m trying to help you.”

“How’s watching me touch myself helping me?”

He pulled out a fresh pair of bills and threw them at my feet. Like a rabid dog, I leapt on them. These were bills I had never seen before – 1000 kroner notes. Any girl would recognize this as a lot of money.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You put on a better show than any of the whores frequenting these corners, so you can have the money I was going to pay them. At least I feel a little better knowing it’s going to food – and maybe a raincoat and better clothes – instead of drugs.”

I was barely able to get up, so the man helped me back to my feet as I pocketed the cash. I didn’t even have the energy to say thank you as he led me to a pub.

I couldn’t order any alcohol here, of course, but the food filled my stomach like nothing I ever thought would. After dealing with my mom’s no-salt cooking for so many years, the extra salt coursing through the meals not only made it taste better – but actually made me feel better.

The man didn’t stay for long. All he asked was, “Where will you be tomorrow night?”

I knew exactly what he wanted – another show. It was one step away from being a harlot, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take that step or not.

I took another bite into my meal. It’s sweet taste answered every question I had. “Same place, same time.”

I had a lot of money to spare, so after hiding my gun inside my shirt, I took a stop at the department store to buy a few things I would need. A raincoat, a change of clothes, some new waterproof shoes, and the two things I never thought I would need – a holster for my gun, and a knee brace, sat in my shopping cart at checkout.

The cashier sorted through the items. “I’m going to need to see some identification,” she said.

“For what?”

She held the gun holster up. “Minors are not allowed to own guns.”

I had to smile. “Who said it was for a gun?”

The cashier scowled. “What else would it be for?”

“Why, my makeup, of course. It’s just the perfect size for my lipstick.” I smacked my lips, but any makeup I would have had on would have washed away ages ago.

I could tell she doubted me, but she didn’t have any option but to check it out. The illegality was the gun hidden in my shirt – not the holster. The holster is only a piece of leather, after all.

After handing over what remained of my cash and getting a few hundred kroner in change, I returned to the streets. There weren’t really changing stations littering the streets, so instead I squeezed into a telephone booth and made the best to preserve my modesty in there.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle by now, but the raincoat did feel a lot better just to cover a lot of the cuts and bruises from my fall earlier. Most importantly, the knee brace really managed to ease a lot of the pain which had been accumulating in my leg. It seemed to massage the parts which hurt, and more than that, provide a bit of stability. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be able to run in this like I did the night before.

I stood in the drizzle, watching the double rainbow form over Odense. Somewhere on the other side would be a pot of gold with some extra luck for me. But for now, I would have to continue living life on the edge.

The next morning, I awoke under yesterday’s evening newspaper and some cardboard. I folded the paper up and tossed it. A gust of wind tore it open, revealing a rather familiar face to mine.

“Trine Sørensen went missing from her bedroom sometime between 10 PM on May 3rd and 6 AM on May 4th. Her parents are offering a reward of 2,000 Kroner for information which leads to her return to them.”

2,000 Kroner. That was really all I was worth to them? What I got from relieving my sexual urges last night was the same as my life in general? I spat on the ground, frustrated at everything.

While I sat in the streets, the sun rose only gradually. It wasn’t long until finally, I was simply too bored to care anymore. I had always dreamed of running away to be some glorious and soul-enlightening experience. Yet all I had to do was sit here and wait for my next “paycheck” – if I was even willing to do it in front of that man in the first place. Maybe I just didn’t want to do something so deceitful for him. I could survive on my change for another week in terms of food.

By ten in the morning, at least, I assumed that was the time, I couldn’t take it anymore. I took the steps back to the junkyard, intrigued as to what other treasures I might find in it with good sunlight and better health – although my knee was absolutely killing me by now.

As I found out, the junkyard’s fence was really well maintained near the street, but on the back side there were holes and cuts all over the place. I slipped into a hole, nearly tearing my raincoat in the process, and walked across the muddy stream which had started to flow down the river.

The junkyard was mostly the same as yesterday – filled with old auto parts, machines, and other pieces of trash. The gun really was a one-in-a-million find. There may have been several million items of trash in here, but I didn’t feel  like searching through them to find the other couple gems.

For I didn’t need to. It lay on a heap of trash, completely bent out of shape and ugly. But it was something I had always dreamed of. I was looking at a bonafide motorcycle.

I pulled it up and felt its handlebars in the palms of my hand. They were all worn and cruddy, and some of the frame had a bit of rust on it. But that was nothing I wouldn’t be able to scrape off and repaint, should it be necessary.

I swung my leg over the seat and tested out my position. This bike was made for me. It was calling for me to ride it. Its key was still in the ignition, so I turned it and waited for the obvious roar of the engine calling to me that it was ready for takeoff.

But there was no such roar. There wasn’t even a pitter patter. I should’ve known. They always kept the good parts of a bike for refurbishing, and throw the junk out when they don’t want it anymore. All I had here is a frame and a couple of pipes.

So much for my great plans of finally having a bike to call my own.

I laid the bike back down on the pile of junk, but when I did, another thought entered my head. There were a lot of old auto body parts here. Maybe I could find a piston or a crank shaft or a fender somewhere on here to make it work. But first I needed tools to get these parts in, and I was sure there had to be tools somewhere in these heaps of junk and scrap metal.

By the time the sun set, I had found a few basic tools like a wrench, a hammer, and both types of screwdrivers. There were a few parts which seemed to go to a motorcycle, but I had no way of telling for sure. Magazines and my memory really don’t give assembly much justice at all.

I laid my finds together in their own pile. Nobody seemed to ever check back here, so they should be good for tomorrow, when I could continue my futile attempts. But at least these attempts kept me busy all day instead of sitting bored on the streets. But anything would be better than returning to my parents and deal with their crap all over again.

I found my legs walking themselves to the dark and lonely alleyway again. The man, Kristoffer, leaned against a deserted warehouse, flipping a coin. “I suppose runaways are not known for their timeliness.”

It was hard enough to come here. Facing this man again was even worse. “It’s not like I have a watch or anything. I only know when the sun goes down.”

He tore off his watch and threw it at me. “Here, take it. I wanted to get rid of the old thing anyways.”

I wasn’t about to offer to give it back in the first place. If I really was living the life of a runaway and a borderline whore, I didn’t need to be polite. I strapped it on my wrist and adjusted it to my preferences.

“Well?” he asked.

“Well?”

“I came here for a show. Are you going to deliver or what?”

He was pretty demanding for a man pretending to be a friend. But on the other hand, I could see the fresh 2,000 kroner between his fingers.

“All I have to do is pretend he’s not there,” I told myself. “That’s all I have to do.”

I closed my eyes and sunk down to the ground. And before I knew it, my pants were at my ankles, and my fingers explored deep underneath. Not once did I think of the man watching me. Not once did I worry about anyone seeing me. I only worried about how to make myself feel even better than ever before.

The man tossed his money down at me. “Shame you’re only thirteen. I’d be totally up for banging you now, but I don’t want to go to jail over some bait.”

“I’ll take that as a good thing.” I stuffed the money in my pocket, both appalled at the line I had crossed, and happy to have some pocket change.

“I’ll be out here every night you feel like coming. Same deal every time. You don’t come, I’ll find myself a whore for the night. But if you don’t show up for a week, don’t come crying back to me when you need money.”

I fingered the money in my pocket. “I understand, sir.”

I didn’t go for any fancy meals that night – instead going for a basic precooked meal from the local grocery store. There were pictures of my face as a missing child everywhere, so I took to hiding my hair in my raincoat and keeping my eyes down on the ground. Last thing I needed was a discovery and an end to all the freedoms I had earned myself.

In the end, I didn’t even dig into my newfound funds. They burned a hole in my pocket, begging me to spend them somewhere. I saw a drug dealer on the side of the road. It would be so easy to get a couple of hits off him with this money, of course. But that would be a bad idea. Running away from home was of course the first down a long steep spiraling slope, but I didn’t want to run down it any faster than I had to.

The next day, I woke eager to get to work on the bike. But, despite that, I had no idea where to start. I didn’t know what needed replacement, what needed to be repaired, and what needed to only be cleaned – save, of course, my body. But there was one place which would know that answers to all those things.

I entered the bookstore and browsed through the automotive section to try and find the best guide for what I was trying to do. Of course, there wouldn’t be any literature on how to repair a busted up motorcycle, but maybe I could find something on the parts of a bike, or how to improve a bike.

The book was way in the back corner. It was more a book on proper maintenance of a bike – both inside and out – intended to have the biggest Do-It-Yourselfers avoid ever having to stop by a repair shop. But it broke down every part and gear so exquisitely, I should be able to identify exactly what I needed and where to find it.

There was an auto repair shop one door over. The man sitting behind the counter couldn’t care one bit about a teenager entering his shop. He kicked his feet up on the counter and smoked his cigar, sending a noxious smoke into the room.

The parts were all labelled according to size and weight. I wasn’t exactly sure what size I should be looking for, so instead of buying something expensive which might not work, I grabbed a couple of tools for measuring, adjusting, and repairing.

The bike and parts were right where I left them. I flipped through the book, checking through each part I had found, trying to see if I could find a match.

Of all the items I found, only one part seemed to be usable – the charge pipe. But that needed other parts to connect to it, and I didn’t have ten thousand kroner to buy all the parts for that just yet. But, I did know a place where I would be able to earn that money. And best of all, I wouldn’t have to do anything tiring or boring to get it. I only had to have a little bit of fun, let Kristoffer watch, and then return to here to build the bike.

I did some work in scraping off the rust and covering it with a cloth in case the threatening clouds actually did pour rain. It was hard and deliberate work, but bit by bit I was able to free up the metallic finish under the bike. I would probably have to reinforce it if I could ever get a blowtorch, but for now it was good enough to pass for me.

By the end of the day, I was sweaty and tired. But I felt alive – something I hadn’t felt for many years now. I had never felt better in my life.

And so, my life turned into a weird sort of routine. Every morning I would head out to the junkyard and work on some small part of the bike, learning more about both mechanics and myself in the process. And then in the evenings, I would have to let myself go in front of Kristoffer. It was a sense of stability, even if the stability was only balancing on the edge of a knife.

This all changed the tenth day since I ran away.

“Come on, come on,” I urged the bike as I put in the key. This was going to be a bit dangerous, since the engine had never had power supplied directly to it before. There was always the chance it would catch fire or explode. But I was fully prepared to run should something go wrong – well, as close to a run as I could do on my worsening knee.

The key turned in the ignition, and with it came a roar. The engine fired up, and the gentle hum of it was the sweetest music my ears had ever heard. I jumped in excitement, happy to have my work finally pay off.

Of course, this was only the engine. I still had to connect the actual locomotive elements to get it to move, and there was a lot of prettying up I had to do on it, but it was a step in the right direction. I imagined the front of it, one day being mine. I definitely needed to airbrush something on it which represented me. Lots of people went with things like lightning bolts and comets, but I wouldn’t consider myself a sudden force of lightning like them. I was more a caged animal which had been liberated. A bird, maybe?

“Wow, Trine, did you do that all by yourself?”

Speaking of birds… I spun around to see somebody with her arms folded, and a small smile on her face.

“Laerke!” I realized. She was definitely my sister. After ten days without her, I couldn’t hold myself back and ran up to her, throwing my arms around her. “I missed you so much!”

She ran her fingers through my hair. “You’re absolutely filthy.”

I sighed. “Yeah, it’s not like there’s a bath out here or something like at home.” My heart thumped against my chest. Home? That’s right – Laerke still lived at home. I let go of her and backed away slowly, keeping my hands raised. “Are you here to bring me back? Because I’m not going to come.”

“Even if I was, it isn’t like I could make you. Considering you’re still alive after ten days is testament enough as to how much you want to stay out here. Only you can decide to come back home.”

I cocked my head. “Then why are you here?”

“Because sometimes, misery needs company. I’ve decided that as long as you’re running away, I might as well run away too.”

My heart thumped. “But you’re the bright shining star with a wonderful future ahead of you in the navy. Why would you need to run away?”

“Because you’re out here, and I can’t let my poor sister expose herself to the elements alone.” She walked over to my bike and examined the still churning motor. “Though where did you get all the money for this? These are some pretty new parts.”

I bit my tongue. I surely couldn’t tell her about Kristoffer and the things I had to do for him. Speaking of which, I didn’t have much time to spend with her either. He would be waiting for me back in the alley.

“Well, performances,” I half-lied.

“Performances? What kind of performances?”

I gripped the fabric on the inside of my raincoat. “Well, that is…”

Laerke lowered her eyes. “I kind of expected it. Why would you ask me about my virginity the night you left otherwise?”

“No, that isn’t it!” I look at the sun on the horizon, gently dipping beyond the canyon of buildings beyond.

“You have to go to work now, don’t you?” she asked. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here when you get back.”

I clench my fist where she couldn’t see. I had completely lost her respect. “I’ll be back as soon as I can!” With that, I turned and walked away without looking back at her.

Every bit of my walk was agony. On one end was the physical agony. My knee had only gotten worse by the day, and the brace had changed over time from a comfort to a replacement for my entire knee. To make matter worse, my period had started earlier in the day, giving me the cramps. But when I added in the mental agony of never having my sister look at me the same way again, I couldn’t help but weep.

Despite all my best efforts to wipe away my tears before entering my usual alleyway, Kristoffer noticed. “Something got you down, my dear Trine?”

I unfastened my raincoat and placed it neatly on a bench. When I stripped all the way down, he would give me an extra 500 kroner, so I always made sure to please him as best I could.

“It’s my sister.”

“You have a sister?”

I supposed I never told him anything about my life. “She’s two years my senior, and she’s like the perfect version of me. She has the grades, the respect, and the looks.”

“You have the looks too, you know.” He fingered a couple of bills in his hand. “If you weren’t so young, I’d be on top of you in an instant.”

The sexy talk again. I forced a blush on my face as part of the performance, as he liked. “Thank you, sir. But in any case, she’s the better version of me. Despite that, she loves me more than any other girl has a right to do. We never really fight, and she loves to call herself my ally in this cruel world.”

“I see,” he said. “So you miss her.”

“I wish I could. She came to meet me in the junkyard, and declared she was going to run away with me as long as I want.”

The man let his smirk disappear for a half second. He obviously wasn’t expecting to hear something like this tonight. “Will she be joining you here?” he asked.

I shook my head. “That’s what’s upsetting me. She figured out, at least sort of, what I’m doing to stay alive. She thinks it’s full on prostitution, but even so, she’s not too far off. And without her respect, I don’t know what to do.”

He sat down on the ground across from me, not caring about the dirt getting on his suit jacket. I wondered what he did for a living to make so much money to continue paying me like this every day. He must have been someone high up in the government with a dirty little secret.

“You have my respect, little Trine,” he said. “And that’s not me saying that just because you’re hot as hell. That’s me admiring everything you’ve done. You seized your life into your own hands instead of relying on your parents for everything, and have found your own hopes and dreams. Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about that motorcycle you’re building?”

I grabbed my bared thigh. “It’s not the same. Laerke is my sister. I don’t get to choose her. I can either be blessed with her as my sister for the rest of my life, or stuck with her. If I had the choice, I’d always choose the first option. I want to make her happy.”

“You ran away from home knowing she’d be upset, didn’t you? That doesn’t sound like a particularly loving sister to me.” He chuckled a bit. “You know, screw the law. If you want to take me to court over it, fine. I’ve bribed them out of worse convictions before. But I can’t hold back anymore. I want your body too much.”

He unzipped his pants and started to descend on me.

“No,” I said.

He pulled out twenty 1,000 kroner notes. My eyes transfixed on them. With that sort of money, I could probably get my own flat or something. Or more importantly – find somebody to forge me false identification papers to join the royal navy.

Laerke’s voice echoed in my head. “I’d want my first time to be with a total hottie. I mean, this type of body deserves it.”

This man wasn’t a hottie. He didn’t deserve my first time. No, that was meant for somebody much more special. I wouldn’t accept his advances.

Like a flash, I grabbed the handgun out of its holster in my dropped skirt, and aimed it square at the center of his chest. He held his hands up and backed up, but didn’t wipe that smirk off his face.

“Are you really going to shoot me? Or would you, if I actually went through with it?”

“Don’t try me.” I held my hand stiff. “I have enough money to last me as long as I want now. My virginity is more precious than a stupid bike.”

He chuckled. “There are plenty of things more important that money, and I wasn’t asking you about the money. First off, are you really satisfied living the rest of your life knowing you killed a man? It’s a slippery slope to live on.”

“What do you mean? This is self-defense.”

“That’s what it always starts off as.” He zippered up his pants and leaned on the building on the opposite side of the alley. “You’re afraid and want to keep yourself from getting hurt. And then when you see the first person die, there is nothing to stop you from doing it again. You break the barrier, and whenever you’re threatened, you’ll kill the assaulter. Threats will become delusions, and soon you’ll kill anyone you please for the smallest slight against you. Death is not something to take lightly, Miss Trine, even in defense of yourself.”

I didn’t lower my hand. “You said there were two reasons.”

He reached in his suit jacket and pulled out something which shouldn’t have fit in a concealed manner in there – a gun of his own. It was far too large to fit in the jacket in any case, in the form more of a rifle or shotgun more than a handgun. “Don’t think your assaulter can’t fire back either.” He didn’t aim it at me, but instead kept it well positioned so I could see it clearly in the moonlight.

“What is that?”

He twisted it around. “It’s a Sjogren 12. I think it’s a bit of a better fit for a girl like you than a murderer’s weapon.”

“I’m no murderer. This is my defense.”

“Not yet. But you know your weapon doesn’t have a good past to it. You know it was used in a murder – specifically the North Endlebrook shootings last year, if you’re so inclined to know. But you picked it up out of the trash yard and used it in any case.”

I steadied my gaze. “How do you know all that? Who are you?”

He slipped the gun back into his suit jacket. “I told you already, my name is Kristoffer. But names really make no difference in this world. The only exist to identify one person to the next so we have an easier time ascribing our judgments on them.”

“My head hurts.”

He put away most of his cash, leaving out the 2500 kroner. “Then do the usual, and you will receive what you care about.”

As much as I wanted to spite him over tonight, I had a hard time figuring out what a difference it made. It was hardly embarrassing to do this in front of him anymore, and it wasn’t like I would be skipping it if I didn’t show him. So, as usual, I lost myself to my lust and forgot where I was for a few minutes.

When I recovered, he had already left, and the money lay by my feet. I licked the juices off my hand and sighed. Was this really all right? Did I really have nothing better to do with my life other than make him happy?

Laerke sat on a pile of televisions when I returned to the junkyard. “Do you sleep in here too? It kind of smells.”

If she worried about the smell, then she really had a long way to go in learning how to live on the street. It had been hard enough to live with my own smell the past couple of days. I really needed a rainstorm to at least wash some of the grime away.

Or, I had a better idea. “Let’s go to a motel tonight. My treat.”

We had to choose the seediest motel in the district – the one least likely to ask for identification or use a credit card instead of cash. After getting our keys, I headed straight into the room and into the shower. I didn’t even bother to change out of my clothes until the fresh water poured over my skin. They could use a wash too, after all.

I hung them up on the rail and walked out in nothing more than a towel. Laerke had a book open and turned through the pages – some small romance novel which could fit in her pocketbook. It was yet another way the two of us were difference. Laerke loved her books, yet I could barely get through a newspaper article. Unless it was loaded full of pictures of bikes or sexy men, I had no interest in it.

It was then I realized her intention. “I’m not going home.”

She closed the book and put it on the nightstand. “What do you mean? I never asked you to go home.”

I tugged on her dress. “Not verbally. But just look at you! You’re still in one of your normal dresses, you brought your pocketbook, and you even had a book for the downtime. You weren’t intending to stay out here with me for an extended period of time. You were intending to dig into my soul and make me feel guilty for putting you through this sort of life.”

Her silence was the only thing I needed for confirmation of my theory.

“Laerke, how could you?”

She folded her hands. “I need a drink. Where do you keep you liquor on you? Your pockets? Or do we have to go back to the junkyard?”

“Liquor?” I patted my hips, but towels don’t have pockets in them. “What do you mean? I haven’t bought a single bottle since I ran away.”

Laerke’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“I haven’t had anything I want to forget or get through out here. Why would I need it?”

“Didn’t you run away over alcohol?”

“No, I ran away over our parents manipulating every little thing in my life. Tell me, have you ever seen me drunk?”

Laerke held up one hand and showed four fingers. “Each of the last four Christmases.”

“Those were different. I mean, from times when I wasn’t allowed to drink.”

She thought for a few seconds. “Well, I suppose not. But you were hiding it, so couldn’t you have hid that from me too?”

“No. I hid it from our parents. You know everything about me, including things they don’t. I wouldn’t run away over a drink. I ran away over an entire future.”

Laerke’s eyes watered. “Oh, Trine, I’m so sorry!” She threw her arms around me. “I shouldn’t have judged you like that! I should’ve understood you. Every time I see you, I keep seeing the little girl who liked to play with her dolls under an electric blanket, not the woman you’re developing into.”

I shifted my eyes aside. Well, maybe I could keep my thing with heat private for now.

“What are your long term plans?” asked Laerke. “I’m sure you’re not going to spend your entire life as a prostitute.”

“You’ve got the wrong idea about what I do.”

“Then what do you do?”

I admitted everything about the nights to her. She only sat and listened. “And this guy never touched you?”

“At least not in any sort of dirty way. He’s only watched. Said something about not wanting to go to jail.”

“I suppose that’s because you’re thirteen still. Age of consent is fifteen in Denmark.”

“So in two years—”

She shook her head. “If you don’t return home, are you sure you want to continue living like this forever? Don’t you have any other sort of future?”

I hugged my pillow to my chest. “I suppose I’d still like to join to royal navy. But I still have to wait three years unless I can find somebody to forge some documentation with my age a little bit higher.”

Laerke jumped up. “That’s it!”

“What’s it?”

She reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a couple of bills. “I have some money saved up, and you know I want to do the same thing as you. So how about I look around tomorrow to find someone good at forgery and have them make us twin sisters? Then we’ll join together and we could even get sorted on the same ship. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Aren’t you intending on returning home? You weren’t planning to stay out here for more than a day or two in the first place.”

She sat back on her bed, grabbed a pad and pen, and started to scribble down some notes. “Today’s May 14th, so if we were born on April 23rd, subtract 16 years and… boom! Our new birthdays are this!”

She flashed me the date. I took the opportunity to grab a pair of fresh hair ties to affix my twintails. “Great, but that doesn’t answer my question.”

She got off her bed again and shamelessly dropped her dress. The rest of her clothes went off in a matter of seconds, leaving her stark naked. Then she grabbed her purse and threw it against the wall. “I don’t care about them. I am Laerke Sørensen, not a clone of one of them. I need to be a bit more of a freak in the sheets and less of a lady in the streets. I need to get out and live my life with my goals. I’m going to join the navy a year young, and there’s nothing they can do to stop me. I’m never going to wear those dresses again!”

I giggled. “Good luck with that.”

“What do you mean? I’m serious!”

“And what are you going to wear in the meantime? I’m pretty sure the department store isn’t going to let you stroll in naked.”

As a result, she had to throw on the dress for one last time, but as if in her own way of rebellion, she refused to wear the bra. It was more stubbornness than anything else. When a girl is as big as us, a bra is more of a necessity for support than a fashion statement.

It didn’t take her long to find something she liked – a pairing of ripped jean shorts and a crop top blue tee. I grabbed a matching pair in my size.

“You don’t need to do that,” she said. “You have your own clothes.”

“We’re going to be twins, right? Twins love to dress alike.”

By the time we were back at the motel room, there was no other thought in our head than sleep. “Good night, Laerke.” I shut off my light.

“Good night, Trine.”

I closed my eyes, willing the restful sleep I had been missing so much for the past almost two weeks to come. There was never really comfort lying under a set of newspapers, knowing at any moment a drunk guy could come to rape you – or even worse, a cop to bring you back home. I supposed it would have to be a month or two until Laerke and I could join the royal navy even with our fake papers, thanks to all the missing child notices our parents plastered over the papers.

Just when I thought I was making progress in falling asleep, the bed leaned down on one side and creaked. Bare skin pressed against my own.

“Laerke?”

She put her finger to my lips. “Please, just let me sleep here. It’s more comfortable like this.”

She leaned her head on my shoulder. I supposed it couldn’t hurt. I leaned on her shoulder my entire life, so when it comes to the street life, it’d be all right for her to lean on mine for the meantime. Besides, she was a lot better of a person to sleep with than a newspaper or a cardboard box.

The next day came, and we set off on our separate ways. “I’ll meet you in the junk yard after you’re done with Kristoffer,” she promised.

“Stay safe.”

“You too.” She turned down an alley, and then she was gone. But unlike when she left my room two weeks ago, I knew she’d be coming back. There would be a future between the two of us.

Now that the motor had been completed, the rest of the pieces fit in quickly and easily. They were mostly dealing with gears and coolant, along with actually turning the wheels with the energy from the motor. The wheels themselves could use a bit extra air, but they were in pretty good shape for how much crap they’d been through in the elements.

“Ready?” I asked nobody in particular as I sat on the seat. There was no applause, but that didn’t matter. I turned the key regardless, and embraced the rumble of the motor. I kicked up the stand and placed my feet down. I should probably wear a helmet, but there were a lot of inconvenient things I should did in this life which I chose not to. It wasn’t like I’d be taking it far – if I moved at all.

My heart race as I pumped the gas in. Like magic, the bike moved on its own.

I had been in cars and boats and all sorts of things which had moved before. I had even pumped my own bicycle, powered with my feet. But nothing felt quite as exhilarating as being in complete control of your motion in a motored piece of equipment. I barely hit 5 kilometers an hour on it, but even that small bit of motion pumped ecstasy in my blood. I couldn’t wait to show this to Laerke tonight.

The sun crept under the horizon, and I practically skipped to the alleyway. Kristoffer had stayed in his usual place, smoking a cigarette.

I didn’t need any prodding that night. I simply tore off my clothes and got to work. Kristoffer obviously enjoyed it, as he threw down an extra 1000 kroner note my way.

“What’s got you so happy?” he asked when I put my clothes back on.

“My bike moved! It’s a success!”

He clapped his hands twice to acknowledge my statement, but not put too much in the way of credence in it. “Now what are you going to do with your money?”

“Well, it needs a lot of cosmetic work, like new paint, replacing some covers, headlights, and an airbrush, though I can’t seem to figure out a good pattern.”

“Airbrush?” he asked. “Well, tell you what. You’ve been such a good girl, why don’t I take you to a friend of mine tomorrow. He’d be more than happy to show you some of his designs, and if you’re an especially good girl, I might be willing to get one for you.”

“Really?” I beamed. “That would be so nice!”

He stretched. “But you better make sure it’s one you really like. It’s very hard to get rid of them once you put them on.”

He was just about ready to leave when I tugged on his coat sleeve. “Yes?” he asked.

“Can I see the gun again?” Somehow, despite all the fun I’d had with Laerke and the bike, his gun kept drawing me in. The fact it came from such a small area was amazing enough, but there was something else calling me to it. It was like it wanted me to touch it and hold it, and learn all its intimate secrets. It wanted me to learn to use it, and toss away this small pistol I’d been carrying.

He slipped it out of his jacket. “Do you want it?”

I nodded.

“You can have it tomorrow night if you’re a good girl for me. But there will be no payment. Understood?”

“As long as you don’t do anything to me.”

He slipped it back into his jacket. “Smart girl there. You have yourself a deal.”

When I returned to the junkyard, at first I couldn’t find Laerke. “Did she get lost on the way back?”

Something bright shone through in the direction of my bike’s storage. I followed the light, and sure enough, there was Laerke with my blowtorch. “Oh, hey Trine. I thought I’d work on the bike a bit while you were gone.”

Part of me wanted to yell at her for working on it without my permission. But as my sister, I knew she only had my best interests in mind. “Safety stuff?”

She placed the blow torch down. “Of course. This is your bike, so I wouldn’t dare customize it beyond what you’ve done. But I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you, so I had to fix a few loose nuts and bolts and readjust a connection.”

I threw my arms around her. “This is why I love you.”

We sat around eating a pre-cooked chicken from the grocer. “So Kristoffer is taking me to see some airbrush designs tomorrow. Said he’d pay for it.”

“Airbrush?” She took a bite of a leg, and like a proper lady didn’t speak again until she swallowed it. “Well, you’re old enough to make your own decisions, and after living out here for so long, who would I be to tell you otherwise?”

“Is there a problem? I mean, plenty of bikes have them.”

She laughed. “Oh, so that’s what you meant. A lot of people say airbrush to talk about a tattoo.”

“What? Since when?”

“Eh, ever since that comedian did. So, this Kristoffer person of yours is probably thinking you’re going to want a tattoo.”

I clutched at my chest. I had seen girls with designs on their bodies before, but that certainly wasn’t what I meant in the slightest. I only wanted something to decorate my bike. “I don’t want one.”

“Then tell him what you meant. I’m sure he’ll be all right with it.” She folded the cardboard box containing the scraps of her chicken a looked around. “Where’s the trash?”

“Seriously?”

“What? Even if we’re runaways, I can’t litter. I have to protect the environment!”

I point at the pile of broken parts and furniture. “We’re in a junkyard. You could say we’re living in trash.”

After a pregnant second, she cautiously got up and threw the Styrofoam container on the nearest pile. After dusting off her legs and settling back down, we got back to chatting.

“How did the meeting with the forger go?”

She pulled out a piece of paper from her shorts. I had to admit – as weird as it was to see her in these sorts of clothes instead of her usual dresses, they really made her legs shine. I knew not everyone wanted to show off their body, but she could easily be twice as popular with the guys if she knew how to dress.

“I found a couple of them, and they usually charge a lot more than I expected – closer to 30,000 kroner than 10,000.”

“How much did you bring?”

“5,000.” I tabulated it in my head. 30,000 kroner minus 5,000 was 25,000, and if I earned 2,500 a night that would be—

“Argh!” I screamed

“What’s wrong?”

“I wanted to get away from math, and it keeps following me!”

She chuckled. “There’s no escaping it. But no, I did it for you – it’d take about two weeks to hire one of them with you alone. We’d have our transportation to get out of town, but we’d probably need a bit more money for the application fees and living while they go through interviews and all, and they’d probably want us living in an apartment or something and…”

“How long?”

She gripped her knee. “It’d be more like half a year when you add up all the expenses and the hiring freeze in the summer.”

Half a year to get into the royal navy? There was a goal I could work toward. “Then let’s do it. I’m all for it.”

“But Trine, what about you?”

“What about me? Did he only agree to forge documents for you?”

She pointed at my leg. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed your brace. The Royal Navy would never let you in with that. What happened, and how bad is it?”

“Oh, it’s nothing much. I landed funny jumping out of the window, and with all the running and work I’ve had to do since I left, it never really got a chance to heal. It’ll be fine by the time we get there. It doesn’t even hurt anymore.”

Laerke eyed my suspiciously. “Does it not hurt, or did you simply get used to the pain?”

“It’s fine. I’m totally fine.”

“Take it off and take a couple of steps then. Show me.”

My hands hesitated when they went down to the straps. It probably was nothing more than my own self-doubt – I really hadn’t felt pain in a couple of days.  But I unfastened it none the less.

My knee hardly looked human. It had swollen up badly, and the knee brace had bitten into it, leaving thick red marks.

“Trine!”

I ignored her. I would prove her wrong. This would go away when we got to the navy’s headquarters. I took one step forward with my bad foot. So far so good, even if I winced a little.

I picked up my good foot, putting all my body’s weight on my bad leg for an instant. This was the straw which broke the camel’s back, and it buckled under the pressure, with popping sensations coming from within.

“Trine!” She barely caught me before I crashed on top of my bike.

I did my best to keep the pain hidden, but it was no use. Laerke brushed a strand of hair off my face. “We have to get you to a hospital!”

“Don’t. They’ll alert our parents.”

“Are you still going on about them? Your health is more important than some score you have to settle with them. Stop being stupid.”

I grabbed her wrist. “You said you’d never give me advice I didn’t ask for. I know my body and its limitations. I can get better, I’m sure. Give me time.”

“But how are you even going to walk?”

I pointed down the yard. “I saw a pair of crutches down there when I first explored here. Go see if they’re still there.”

She left, and for a few tense moments, I questioned if she’d be coming back with crutches or an ambulance. Yet faith held out, and she came back with the pair. “You know you’re really stupid for doing this. And I’m really stupid for letting you, for that matter.”

I hobbled up on them, working to rebalance myself. “Thanks. Maybe once the swelling goes down I can put the brace back on and get more than two steps in.”

“Two is enough.”

“Why? We have a long journey ahead of us to reach the navy.”

She was visibly crying. “Remember, Trine, two steps ahead is always enough to win the race.”

We didn’t really feel like talking for the rest of the night after that incident, and when I woke up the following morning, she was gone. Where, I didn’t know, but she left me a note to say “back at night.”

It was hard to get up. My entire body ached, and my head was swimming. It must have been a miracle from God how I remembered to grab the crutches before attempting to walk.

My knee was still too swollen to fit the brace around, but it was a bit thinner than last night. The red from the brace had disappeared, so that was an improvement at least.

I didn’t have much time to waste in any case. I had my entire life to get this knee healed. I only had one chance to get an airbrush for my bike for free. And tonight, I’d get to touch that gun in my hand for real, and maybe take a practice shot or two. That was the part which really got my blood pumping.

It was a few minutes after we left the junkyard when I realized Kristoffer and I never arranged on a specific place to meet. I panicked at the possibility of the lost chance, but then I remembered there was only one place I had ever met him. Like clockwork, he situated himself there and leaned against the building.

“You look different,” I said.

“Speak for yourself. What’s with the crutches?”

I placed my bad foot on the ground. He didn’t need more that a second’s glance to understand. “I always wondered what that brace was for.”

It wasn’t until we were well on our way to the tattooist that I realized why he seemed different. I had never seen him during the daylight before. That was why his dark hair seemed so much lighter, and he seemed so much older. I could see every wrinkle in his care-worn face now.

“Surprised? I’m probably quadruple your age.” Somehow he knew my thoughts.

“Not really. At least, it doesn’t make a difference. Money is money.”

“Good answer. Now come on, let’s get you an airbrush.”

I gripped on the crutch’s handle. “Listen, when I said I wanted an airbrush, I meant a design for my bike. I didn’t mean a design for me.”

“I know.”

He did? But then what was all the talk about it being really hard to remove? If it didn’t come out how I wanted, I could always paint over it and try again.

The tattoo parlor was about as stereotypical of a place as one could imagine. Stencils and designs plastered the walls from floor to ceiling, and there were quite a few stands with rings for various parts of the body – everything from the ears to the vagina. The tattooist himself was a young man who had at least 90% of his body covered in ink, and enough rings to set off a metal detector. He held a cigarette in one hand, and a bottle of beer in the other.

“Ah, Jannick, it’s been a long time.”

The tattooist, Jannick, put down his cigarette and beer to greet us. “Nice to see you too. How can I help you, erm…”

Kristoffer stared him hard. “You remember me, don’t you Jannick? Kristoffer. We used to go to school together.”

Jannick’s eyes glazed over for a second. But it only lasted a second before they returned to the wild eyes of a man on drugs. “Oh, Kristoffer! Of course, of course! How could I forget you? Who is this lovely lady with you?”

“Trine.” I was as curt as possible. I doubted he read newspapers to see my missing child reports, but I couldn’t be too careful when dealing with someone outside of my close circle of trust.

“Lovely name. Coming in for your first airbrush? It’ll hurt, but you’ll get used to the pain soon enough.”

He reached for my hand, but Kristoffer grabbed his first. “She doesn’t want one. She’s only looking for a stencil to airbrush her bike.”

Jannick seemed disappointed, but I was sure he knew a sale was a sale. “Go ahead and look around. If it’s just a stencil I should be able to get it done in a matter of half an hour.”

So many of the designs on the wall were things I’d never want to see on my bike. Some were designs like skulls, blood, or tears. I wanted to have a bike, but I didn’t to be in a bike gang. Even some of the animal designs were a bit off. Snakes were disgusting, and I always had a bit of a fear of spiders – and that wasn’t including how creepy spider webs would look on my bike.

There were a few which really stood out among the rest, but none of them really seemed too special. A bird would be nice, but it wouldn’t really have much of a meaning to me. It had to show that I had broken free of my prison – and not all birds had been caged at one point.

I had just about seen every pattern in the place when my eyes settled on the perfect design.

“Butterfly,” I said.

There were two of them in the designs, touching at the corner of their wings. They had been freed from the prison of their cocoons, and now they were free to wander the world how they pleased for a time. Neither were better than the other. They were Laerke and me, freed to pursue our dreams.

“You like this one?” asked Kristoffer.

I nodded. I couldn’t see how there was anything else I could ever like better. That was until my nodding head caught sight of another drawing.

This one had no symbolism in it. It was a bundle of flowers growing in the wild. But the sheer beauty of it made my heart race. Maybe I could airbrush one in on one side of the bike, and one on the other?

No, that would never work. I had to choose between the two. I could go for symbolism, or I could go with beauty.

“Is there a problem?” Kristoffer seemed to know my lingering doubts.

“I’m between two patterns. They’re both calling to me, and I want to keep them both forever. But I don’t know which to choose.”

He pulled out several bills. “It’s up to you, but you’re trying to declare your independence permanently, right? We’re in a tattoo shop, and what would be a better way of doing it than actually making a permanent mark on your body?”

I leaned on a crutch. I had never thought of it in those terms. Tattoos always signified rebellion to me – rebellion against society, parents, or what have you. But they were also a permanent way to state that nobody could control you anymore. Nobody could ever remove them from your body unless you allowed them to.

I ran my hand up the side of my right thigh, taking a good look at the smooth skin. I imagined it with the floral pattern on it, caressing all the way up and under my shorts, stopping just below the hips. It seemed so tempting, so alluring, so, well, me.

“Will you pay for it?”

“Why else do you think I have the money out?”

I gulped. “Do it. I want this design here.”

Despite all the glorification of tattoos in my magazines, they never put in any information about what a horrible process getting one would be. Every time he drove his tool into my skin, I had to stifle a yelp. Even after he injected the ink, it still tingled for a long time after. But I did my best to stay still. After all, this would be a permanent change to my body. If I jumped and he messed up, there would be no changing it back.

Beyond that, I had promised Kristoffer I would be a good girl today. I wouldn’t complain or give him any hardship. So I sat there as best as I could as the hours ticked by and he moved ever so slightly higher up the side of my thighs, tracing in the flowers.

When he finally declared he was finished, it was a bit of a shock. I had expected it would’ve lasted for quite a bit longer than it did. He held up a mirror and let me look at it firsthand.

I didn’t regret what I did at all. It was so perfect right where I had put it. I was a flower, and I was growing with every day. But I had been cut off from the rest of the vine, living my life as I pleased. Maybe there was some symbolism in it after all, rather than just being a pretty picture.

The view was fleeting, as Jannick immediately covered it with a bandage and wrapped it with tape. “Don’t take the bandage off for at least six hours. This is a rather large area of skin, so it might itch for a bit, but don’t scratch it. Make sure to wash…”

And so he went into all the details of care and maintenance. Washing it was going to be the hardest challenge, but there was a water fountain near the junkyard I could always use to clean it for the first couple of weeks.

“And the stencil?” asked Kristoffer.

“Right away.”

I left the parlor with a lot more than I had gone in with. The sun had started to set, but I was in no rush to get to the alleyway. Kristoffer was with me, and he knew how slow I had to go on these crutches.

“You don’t want to get your knee checked out?”

Stubbornly, I drove the ends of the crutches into the ground. “I’m fine as I am. It’ll heal on its own.”

He didn’t argue the point with me any further.

At the alleyway, I went right to payment. It was a lot harder to get in position that night with a broken knee and a healing tattoo, but pleasure knows no limits. Yet when I finished, my vision took a lot longer to return, staying blurry and damp. My sweat didn’t feel the same either. It was a bit colder and damper than usual.

Kristoffer didn’t seem to notice, and pulled the gun out of his jacket. He held it out to me to grab. “This is yours now. But she needs a name.”

The name seemed to strike me like a bullet. “Rosalee.”

“That’s an interesting choice. Why?”

The gun felt like velvet between my fingers as I took a hold of it. “It was my grandmother’s name. She ran away from home too, so I suppose I have a connection to her.”

I turned my attention to the gun as he let go. It had the sleekest design, and my hands seemed to be a perfect fit for the trigger. It called for me just like the handgun hand, but this one seemed like one I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

He left a strap for me as well to fling it over my shoulder on the way back to the junkyard, but as for Kristoffer himself, he had disappeared while I had been examining the gun.

Maybe tomorrow night I could bring Laerke here to meet him. Maybe she’d be interested in what he had to do and say. Maybe she’d get a different opinion on my nights out, or possibly want to join in with me.

The road back to the junkyard was long and hard with difficulties on both legs. To top this off, my head really had started swimming. I was so lightheaded the world appeared double.

When I got into the junkyard and found Laerke, there was nothing I could do but collapse unconscious.

I woke in Laerke’s lap with the sun rising over the edge of town. She sung to me in her sweet voice a song with no words, no meaning, and no real ending. It was a song she had sung to me as a child, and one I had always cherished.

I tried to sit up, but my body wouldn’t answer me. Rather, it ached all over.

“Laerke?” I asked.

She ran through my hair with a brush she must have found in a trash pile. It seemed clean enough, for whatever cleanliness for two girls living in a junkyard mattered.

“Don’t worry about anything. It’s only a cold, nothing more. It’ll pass.”

I sneezed to confirm the diagnosis. “Why now? Why when everything’s blowing up in my face?”

“Blowing up?” she asked. “What’s gone wrong for you? You’re away from the home you hated so much, you have a future, you have a man you apparently liked enough to get coerced into a tattoo, you have your dream bike rearing to go, and you even go a special gun. A little cold is nothing. Even your knee should be good enough to put the brace back on again. And most of all, how could you say everything is blowing up in your face when I’m here with you?”

My weakness really kept me down. “Will you never leave?”

“Unless you ask me to, or decide to stop running away, you’ll always have me with you, as far as you want to go.”

I closed my eyes. “Thanks, Laerke.” There was very little else to say.

She let me lay there until I was strong enough to get up on my own. “So, let me see it.”

“See what?”

“What else? You got a tattoo, right? I didn’t want to remove the bandage, so I haven’t seen it yet.”

I placed my hand on the bandage. “I’m sorry. I just saw this, and I really had to have it.”

“What are you apologizing to me for? I’m your sister, not the keeper of your body! Come on and show me.”

I undid the tape carefully and pulled it off, revealing the intricate leafs, stems, and flowers of the design.

Laerke examined it with her nose only a few centimeters away from it. “That’s so you.”

“Thanks. He also gave me a stencil which is so you.”

“I’m not going to get a tattoo.”

I pulled out the paper. “Aren’t these butterflies us? Freed from our shells, and out together in the world? I was going to put it on the bike.”

Laerke’s expression softened. “You’re so sweet to think of it like that. But, wouldn’t I be the caterpillar more creeping along than a butterfly?”

“Didn’t you escape the shell of that home as well?”

She held onto the stencil. “If you could call it a shell for me in the first place.”

She left me alone in the junkyard to get some medicine, and by the time she returned, the sun had already begun to set.

I strapped the knee brace back on, happy to have it fit. But it didn’t provide the support I had hoped. It was big and bulky, and it certainly didn’t prevent my knee from buckling, much less hurting.

“We need to see a doctor about that,” said Laerke. “You’re going to do some permanent damage if you keep it up. It probably wouldn’t have even been this bad if you saw one in the first place.”

The more it hurt, the more temptation I had to follow her advice. It would be so easy to turn back home now and stay there until I turned sixteen. I’d have to return to my cage, but at least I’d be health, well fed, and sheltered. For the first time since the day I ran away, these thoughts ran through my head.

“I’ll be back in a bit.” I steadied myself on my crutches.

“Where are you going?”

I shook my head in attempt to clear out the lightheadedness. “I need to get my money for the day.”

“You can skip a day! We have plenty for food for tonight. We could even stay in a motel again if you want. You don’t have to go to him again.”

It seemed relaxing to think of that sort of freedom. I’d be free to do what I wanted, when I wanted, without having to answer to anyone.

A raindrop fell on my nose. With it, I realized my folly.

I hadn’t run away from my cage at all. I may have broken out of my shell, but all I had done was change my master. My parents didn’t control me anymore – Kristoff did. When he told me to do something, I did it. When he suggested something, I followed his lead. He had become a more sexualized version of my parents, and instead of a shelter, he gave me money.

I wanted to vomit. I wanted to die. I wanted to end it all here and now.

I touched my bike, and realized the only way to truly be free would be to leave Odense. “I’m going to tell him that it’s over. And then we’re going to leave for good. We’ll go to the Royal Navy as refugees, and if they don’t take us in, I’ll make them take us in.”

They would never listen to such a feeble request. But I couldn’t think of it like that. I had to think of everything as a positive and definitive future, or I’d never be able to keep myself going.

Laerke sat by the bike. “I’ll be waiting here for you when you’re ready.”

The rain only intensified with every “step” I took. By the time I reached my usual alley, it was a complete downpour.

Kristoffer wasn’t there. I checked up and down the alley a couple of times, but he hadn’t shown up at all. There was no sign of his smirk, and no sign of his suit jacket.

It had to be the rain. He was only gone because of the weather. But he had been there the first night after the downpour, so why would he not be her tonight? Did he have another date? Was it with another woman?

Did I love him?

The thought crossed my mind only briefly. But I quickly crumpled it up and threw it away. I didn’t love him. I loved his money. And he was not the right kind of person to love in the first place, even if he did give me gifts.

Defeated, I took the long road back to the junkyard. Maybe we would move out of Odense tomorrow instead, once I made sure he wasn’t going to come back. I prepared my heart to tell Laerke everything she needed to know about leaving the town of our birth, and setting off to a new and unexplored part of Denmark, at least in our lives.

But nothing could have prepared me for what I would see when I returned to the junkyard.

Laerke was screaming, and begging for mercy. I couldn’t see her from outside, but her cries were not falling on deaf ears. I pushed my way through the hole in the gate and pushed between the piles of trash toward the scream.

She lay on the ground with her clothes – the same wonderful clothes I had bought her on her first night her – in shreds. Her breasts were exposed to the world, and her shorts were at her ankles. Her hands were held in place by two brutish and masculine hands belonging to the man on top of her, forcing himself inside of her. She screamed, “Stop! I don’t want this! No!”

This man had no intention of stopping, and repeated his action over and over, grunting as he did it. Not matter what Laerke’s cry, he wouldn’t listen. A flash of lightning coursed through the sky and lit up his face.

This was Kristoffer.

Everything fell together. He had always talked about my age as the main reason he didn’t do anything to me. Laerke was 15. She was legal, despite looking almost exactly the same as me. He had done all those nice things for me yesterday to throw me off guard, so that today he could betray me and take Laerke for himself. He had tried to get me to love him, and he damn well succeeded!

I didn’t even need to think twice. I pulled the handgun out of its holster and took aim at his head. He only noticed me the instant I pulled the trigger.

The bullet flew out and struck its mark, lodging itself between his eyebrows. His eyes rolled into the back of his head, and like a bag filled with concrete he collapsed unmoving on the ground.

Laerke didn’t move. She stayed still on the ground taking slow breaths with her feminine juices still running down her leg. She had cuts and bruises all over her body from how rough Kristoffer had been with her.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. But she didn’t respond. She only stared into the sky with its continuously falling raindrops.

We couldn’t stay in the junkyard any longer. I threw the gun as high up on the pile of junk as I could. It still had one bullet left, but I doubted anyone would discover it until I needed it again. That last bullet was for my own temple when my time came.

I gathered my Sjogren 12, my tools, my stencil, and my book into a trashed duffel bag and slung it on the handlebar of the bike. The last part of the escape plan was Laerke herself.

She still lay on the ground, not having moved an inch. I would have tried to drag her or carry her, but with my knee as bad as it had gotten, I wasn’t about to try something so stupid.

“Come on, Laerke. It’s time for us to go.”

There was no emotion in her as she got up from the ground. Like a zombie, she followed me to my bike. Nominally, this bike was only meant for one person, but we always had a way of making things work.

I turned the key and kicked it in gear. We wouldn’t be going far tonight – just to a motel so she could take a shower and have a soft bed to cry in, should she choose to do so. But we couldn’t stay much longer than that.

The rain pounded harder as we rode, and every mile we travelled showed me ever more how little I knew about driving. It was only by some sort of miracle I managed to avoid crashing – dodging past a mailbox, a homeless man, and a car at one point.

We travelled as far as the gas left in the bike would take us, stopping finally in front of a motel with cracked windows and a roof with missing tiles. But from its flashing neon “Vacancy” sign, I knew it wasn’t completely abandoned.

Laerke didn’t speak when we dismounted. I grabbed the kroner out of my pocket and slammed it down on the front desk.

“Is this enough for a room?” It wasn’t too much – the leftovers from my parts purchase two days prior, minus our food expenses. I really needed Kristoffer’s money tonight, but I wouldn’t be getting any of that anymore.

The teenage desk clerk fingered through the bills and coins. “Room 203. You’re 5 kroner short, but I won’t make a fuss.”

I grabbed the key from him before he could second guess his decision.

The room matched the outside of the motel. The probably didn’t even have a cleaning staff here, given the amount of dust all over everything, and the unmade beds. Laerke moved ahead of me, stumbling into the bathroom. She didn’t bother closing the door and turned the shower faucet on.

I struggled back to my bed and lay down, propping my bad leg up with the comforter. My adrenaline calming down made the pain of all the rapid motions and misuses of it compile all at once. It would be nice if I could put an ice pack on it or something, but I seriously doubted the mini-fridge was running in the first place.

I nearly lay down on my gun. I took it off and examined the long barrel of the semi-automatic shotgun. “Sjogren 12,” I said to nobody in particular. It really was a beautiful gun. I really must have seemed strange carrying around such a visible gun in Denmark.

My eyes flared open. I really did seem strange, and threatening for that matter. I came into the motel lobby with my half-dressed sister and a gun. That was why the person at the front desk allowed us to skimp on the far. That was why he didn’t question us.

He was probably calling the police right now.

I opened the chamber and checked – there were a full array of bullets still loaded inside. The door was narrow enough, so I would probably be able to take care of them as they came in. I’d shoot them one at a time, and as long as there weren’t too many of them, they’d be a pile of corpses. And then maybe I’d take care of the squealer downstairs as well—

 “You break the barrier, and whenever you’re threatened, you’ll kill the assaulter. Threats will become delusions, and soon you’ll kill anyone you please for the smallest slight against you.” Kristoffer’s voice echoed in my head.

I stared at my hands, and despite them being clean, a red blood erupted out of them. It wasn’t my blood, it was Kristoffer’s, and it spilled out faster than I could contain it. It spilled over and crashed on the floor, staining my legs, the room, and everything around it. I screamed, feeling the weight of his life on me, his blood ready to drown me.

A pair of wet arms wrapped around me. “Shh, Trine, shh. It’s all right now. We’re all going to be all right.”

I wasn’t in a room filled with blood. I was in the motel room, and Laerke, dripping wet, was hugging me from the back. From the wet footprints on the ground, she must have heard me and run right out of the shower.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have screamed.”

She cooed in my ear. “No, you should’ve. This has been a hard night for all of us. Sometimes we just need to let it out.”

I clutched hard on my hand. “Just look at me. You’re the one who needs help, but I’m the one getting consolation.”

“I’m fine. I really am.”

“But what he did to you—”

She smiled. “I guess my first time wasn’t with a hot guy, then.” She forced a laugh out. “Now come on and tell me what’s bothering you.”

I clenched my hands. “Really, are you human? Don’t worry about me, and worry about yourself.”

“If you don’t tell me, I won’t let you go.” She gripped me even tighter. “Come on and tell your sister what’s wrong.”

“You’re strong. You’re really strong.”

“Oh, sorry.” She loosened her grip around me.

“I don’t mean physically.” I envied her. She was the victim and was able to recover this fast, yet I was the perpetrator and couldn’t recover. I closed my eyes. “I killed the man who attacked you. I killed Kristoffer.”

“I know.”

And so I went into the whole thing with her about my thoughts and how they’d changed. “I don’t know if I can trust myself anymore. What’s going to stop me from killing someone ever again? I did it once, so why wouldn’t I if the situation called for it?”

Laerke undid my twintails and brushed through my hair with her fingers. “Sometimes, people need to die. This man, Kristoffer, was one of them. But nothing is quite as important as understanding for yourself the importance of their life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take a moment to decide whether they really deserve to die. Wish everyone to sleep before you kill them. It’ll calm your thoughts and make you rationalize whether that person truly deserves to die or not.”

I wrapped my fingers around hers. “Thanks. I will.”

She gave me one last squeeze. “If the police come, we’ll just have to be honest with them. Let’s get to sleep for now in any case. If we’re here in the morning, we ought to start planning out our next course of action, now that the junkyard is closed off to us.”

We split to our beds. When I closed my eyes, I kept seeing the bullet splitting Kristoffer’s skull over and over again. I probably would see it for the rest of my life. He and I were forever tied through the mark of blood. It was more than a mark – it was a command. I had to protect Laerke for the rest of my life, no matter what it took.

Sobs came from the other side of the room. I peeked over and saw the tears coming from Laerke’s eyes. They were closed and obviously asleep.

“Mom, dad, it hurts,” she cried. “Please take him off me. Save me.”

I turned my head to the other side so I didn’t have to see her tears. Of course she would lie to me. She was my big sister. She always lied to make me happy. She wasn’t strong at all. She needed help, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to give her the sort of help she needed.

My legs burned the next morning. On the left, my knee had swollen up like a grapefruit again – likely from all the agitation and problems from the past day. But on the other, my tattoo really burned. It hurt way more than it should have, and the skin was even redder than before.

Laerke touched it and frowned. “I think it’s infected.”

“How? I’ve been cleaning it as the guy told me to and all.”

“We haven’t been living in the most sanitary of conditions. It was bound to happen.” She pulled open the drawer and pulled out a map of Denmark. “Since the police didn’t bring us in yesterday, we need to make a plan for the future. There is a recruiting office for the royal navy in Carlisle, but I don’t think we’d want to go so close to Odense. So how about we go to Copenhagen instead? We’ll get you checked out at a doctor there as well – I should have just enough money for an appointment.”

“What about the recruiting papers? The apartment? The background checks?”

Laerke hugged me again. “We’ll be able to manage. As long as the two of us are together, we’ll be able to overcome anything.”

Her cries from the night before for our mom and dad echoed in my head. She had lost so much because of me. She may have been my ally, but she had never been afraid to confess her problems to our parents. She lost them, and she lost her future as well. Her grades would probably have gotten her into the officer’s academy when she applied to the royal navy, while now she’d have to go into enlisted service with me. She had lost her first time, having it stolen from her by Kristoffer. And more than all of that, she had lost her security. She could never feel safe again out here, nor could she ever feel I was safe.

I folded up the map.

“Trine?”

I pushed it back in the drawer. “I have another idea. Let’s go home.”

The trip home took a lot less time than I thought it would. With my bike coasting on fumes, carrying one person too many, I thought we would reach home by the end of the day. Yet it was still afternoon when we pulled up in our driveway.

Our parents didn’t run out of the door like I had seen in so many stories when the long missing children returned home. Those were only production pieces, made to add to the intensity of the moment. They were probably inside and working on some puzzle or watching television, too distracted to notice us.

Laerke walked up the sidewalk with a skip in her step. She really never wanted to run away. She only wanted to support me, and she was glad to be back. She rapped on the door with a smile on her face.

For me, I had no thrill returning to this home. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to. I had no money, I was injured and infected, and I was tired. But I would have still been on the streets if those were my only reasons.

Laerke needed to be home, and I needed to be there to support her. That was the only reason I came back.

Laerke bounded into my parents’ arms when the opened the door. I was hardly the same warm response, but for the first time in a long time, they smiled at me and welcomed me home.

There were a lot of things to do – recounting our trip minus anything sexual which happened, apologizing (even if mine was forced), and explaining a lot of things like my tattoo, gun, and bike. My dad in particular was interested in the bike.

“You really built that entire thing yourself?”

“Well, I more bought the parts and welded them together than actually built it. It was in a book.”

“Let me see it. Give me a tour.”

My mom and Laerke stayed inside to discuss some things while I brought him outside. He stood on one side of the bike, and I stood on the other. “You didn’t come home because you wanted to, did you?” he asked.

“How could you tell?”

“Parents have their ways. Are you going to run away again when we turn our backs on you?”

I shook my head. “I’ll stay here as long as Laerke needs me. I’ll be leaving once she does.”

He closed his eyes. “Then you’ll have to make a choice. Do you wish to be a girl or a woman?”

“What difference does it make?”

“If you are a girl, you’ll live under our roof and do what you want without having to worry. We’ll feed you, shelter you, clothe you, and you can engage in hobbies we approve in. But you’ll be under our rules until you can join the navy.”

So it would be the same as before. Well, possibly worse, given my recent runaway. Instead of a cocoon I can break out of at any time I’m ready, I’d be a caged bird with clipped wings.

“And as a woman?”

“You’d be responsible for your own life. You can come and go as you please, and you could do what you want – so long as it is nothing illegal, and you don’t harm us or our property. But that includes an adult’s responsibilities. You’ll need to pay us rent – a thousand kroner a month.”

“A thousand? I can’t afford that!”

He held up his hand. “I know a mechanic downtown who is looking to hire somebody to work on motorcycles. If you’re interested, it should bring in plenty of cash for you to stay here as long as you choose.”

I clenched my hand. “I’ll take it.”

And that was how I wound up staying with my parents. They would not get in my way, and I would not get in theirs, save for a few conversations when we needed them. The job itself was fun, so I never complained – especially when I got to take my pick of the litter of shiny new parts to put on my bike.

Laerke left for the Royal Navy the day after her 16th birthday. She would send us home pictures and news all the time. And as much as I wanted to follow her and join the day after my 16th birthday, I realized I had destroyed that opportunity.

For while my infected tattoo was easily treated with some proper cleaning and penicillin, my knee was much worse than even Laerke thought. Apparently it started as a tiny tear, but the more pressure I put on it, the worse it got, until it finally snapped. The doctors put me under the knife, and I had a long recovery, but one surgery wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until I was 19 that they could fully medically clear me to join the royal navy.

Without my ability to walk for months on end, I began to pick up target practice with my Sjogren 12. It started with shooting it in the backyard at a target on the tree, but eventually I hired an instructor and joined a club in town of enthusiasts.

Before I knew it, the day came for me to leave. I polished off my bike, and pinned the stencil on its panel.

“What’s that?” asked my dad.

I patted my thigh. “When I got this, I also got a stencil for an airbrush. It was supposed to be a pair of butterflies to symbolize Laerke and my freedom, but since we returned to the cocoon, it never felt right to put it on.”

“So this home has felt like a cocoon to you?” he asked. “It never changed?”

I set up my tools to apply the airbrush. “Even cocoons can turn into homes with enough love and care. Now, back up. This stuff can be toxic.”

After applying it to both sides and admiring my work, I gave my dad a hug. “I hate to say it, but I’m going to miss you.”

He ruffled my hair. “And me too. You’ve become a fine woman. Keep in contact, and keep Laerke happy.”

“I will.”

After letting the paint dry, I grabbed my gun and hopped on the seat. “See you!” I called. I revved the bike up – its roar still exciting me as much as the first time I heard it in the junkyard. I kicked it in gear and took off, riding down the road and toward the outskirts of town.

When I passed by the junkyard, I gripped my gun one more time. I never forgot what I did to Kristoffer. But I know if I ever do kill again, I won’t do it without wishing them to sleep.

“Dormir.” I whispered to him, hoping it would reach the past.

---

The rain fell on the piles of junk and cascaded down in a brown slop to the ground below. In the middle of all of it was the corpse of a man with a gunshot wound through his skull. He had laid there for a few days at this point, but the maggots and worms were not interested in him. Besides the dried blood on his forehead, nothing signified how long he had been dead for.

A fox crawled between two piles of trash and stared at the man. Why had he fallen here? What brought about his end? Why did nobody seem to miss him?

It jumped back when flames engulfed the body. There was no spark and no trigger. It all happened so suddenly.

The flames consumed the body almost instantaneously, and from the ashes arose a girl. She couldn’t have been much older than ten, and kept her black hair tied back in two pigtails. Her eyes were pitch black to match. She stared at the fox and smiled. “It’s too late.”

She took no heed to her nakedness or the rain. Instead she only turned and hummed to herself, walking out into the darkness beyond.

The fox darted away, not wanting to see anything more.
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6
Create n' Share / Fire and Shadow
« on: October 09, 2017, 08:56:49 pm »
Hello! So, some of you may know, but I've been working on a light novel for the past year. This isn't related to any RPGs here (sorry!) so may not be of any interest, but I figured I'd publish it here in case anyone wants to read it. This novel is pretty close to publication - needing layout done in inDesign when I have more time, proofreading, and official publication.

If you do read it, I really appreciate it! Please, if you see any typo's or errors, let me know! :)

All pictures were made by my lovely illustrator kogane, at https://kogane-x.deviantart.com/

Cover
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Front Pictures






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Title Page Chibi
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Chapter 1
Chapter 1: The Road to Darkness

When travelling the road of life, we inevitably come to a series of crossroads. One way leads forward, and your life continues unchanging. Another leads astray, but you can experience all sorts of new and exciting things you’d never be able to see otherwise. Some roads are darker and scarier. Others may even be brighter than the road you’re on.

I wish the road of life would work like a real road. At least then, if you turn astray, you could turn back.

My fingers wrap around a tree branch and I give it a tug. It’s certainly stable enough to hold my weight, but I don’t like the looks of the twig near the trunk. It’s far too likely it’ll catch my uniform skirt and flip it up, or even worse, rip it.

I choose a smoother branch to climb up onto and take a seat. Wow! What a view! From this height, I can see the entire city down the hill. White houses and buildings speckle the landscape, split only by one of Kochi’s many meandering rivers. Beyond them, light shimmers off Urado Bay. April’s still too cold to think about swimming, but the warm breeze reminds me of summer’s rapid approach.

In the distance, a small train rushes toward its station. Right on time. Japanese trains are never late.

The wind picks up and makes my skirt flutter. I’m holding tight, or I’d be falling for sure.

Students emerge from the station and climb the hill—each one of them in the same red blazer, red-and-pink-checkered skirt, and white thigh-high socks as mine.

A pair of girls with yellow neckties jabbers as they pass below me. Red for a first year—like me—yellow for second, blue for third, according to the introductory letter.

“Think we’ll be in the same class again this year?” asks one of them.

“Don’t bet on it. Too many students. But at least we’ll have breaks together, right?”

The wind picks up, shaking the sakura flowers. A few break off and flutter through the open air to join the sea of pink littering the road. This isn’t an isolated incident, as the trees stand like soldiers all along the street, dressed in their pink uniforms. I never knew April in Kochi is so beautiful.

I take my left hand off the tree to wipe a stray brown hair out of my eyes. This is a bad idea, as my weaker right hand slips, along with my balance. It is only by a split-second reflex I manage to steady myself—but not my racing heart. Careful! Don’t want to the start the school year with an injury!

The students trickle away, which only makes my heart race more. She is going to come, right? I could grab my phone and give her a call, but no. I need to trust her.

The steady howl of wind is interrupted by a soft click-clack of crutches. Light flashes off their owner’s black glossy hair as she struggles up the hill. Her cute ponytail bounces with every step, accentuated by that adorable flower.

My skirt’s not caught in a twig, is it? No? Good. I launch myself out of the tree. “A-YU-MI!”

She lifts her head in time to see my fall. This’ll be perfect! I spread my arms out and, with all the grace of a gymnast, land on my feet.

Pain shoots up my legs from the force of the landing, but I refuse to show it. I need her reaction first.

She giggles.

I break my pose and rub my sore legs. “That’s a ten, right?”

She lifts up seven fingers.

“What? A seven? But I stuck the landing so nicely and got you to giggle. Oh, forget it. I missed you!” I throw my arms around her, not caring anymore.

She returns the favor. “It would’ve been an eight, but I had to deduct a point for its corniness.”

“Corniness?”

“A Sakura falling out of a sakura tree? How corny can you get?” Curse my name! Why does it have to be Sakura?

“But it made you giggle, didn’t it?”

“Well, fine. I’ll bump it back up to an eight.” She brushes off her clothes and resumes her ascent.

We pass by more pink trees as we approach the school. “Maybe you should surprise me sometime. I’ll grade you a lot easier than you do me!”

Ayumi taps a crutch on the ground. “Hard to surprise you when you can hear these from a mile away.”

The school gates come into view, and he is leaning against them, arms folded. What the hell? We’re nine hours away from Tokyo!

Hopefully they haven’t seen each other yet. “We should use the back entranceway.”

Ayumi cocks her head. “Didn’t you say we should walk together through the front gates to our new lives?”

I step in front of her. What am I trying to do? Stop him from seeing Ayumi, or stop Ayumi from seeing him? But when she starts shaking with fear instead of skipping with joy—as much as one can skip on crutches—I know I’m too late. “Why is he here?”

“I don’t know, but he hasn’t noticed us yet. Turn around naturally, and when we’re out of sight, run to the back gates.”

She gestures to her knee brace.

“Unable to put any weight on it?”

She puts her bad foot down and winces.

“I guess not. Just pretend you didn’t see him and he might not notice.”

As natural as we act, we’re too late. The click-clack of Ayumi’s crutches are a dead giveaway. He’s approaching at a breakneck speed.

“Come on.” But it’s too little, too late. He catches us and places his hand on Ayumi’s shoulder.

“You really thought you could run away.”

Ayumi doesn’t respond.

“After all I’ve done for you, you think you can get up, run away, and all your problems will be solved?”

Ayumi takes a deep breath. “You know full well what I’m doing. This isn’t your choice to make anymore.”

His grip tightens. “It certainly is, so long as you’re my daughter. We’re going home. Couple of months of physical therapy, and you’ll be on Fuji North’s tracks by summer!”

She winces from the pressure. “I already told you—”

“I don’t care. You will listen to your father. Understood?”

Come on, stand up to him. Tell him no.

She slouches, defeated. “Yes, Dad.”

I can’t believe him. Even after all my threats, he’s still acting like this? I can’t break my promises to Ayumi.

I pull out my phone and tap a few buttons, making it painfully clear to her father what I’m doing.

“You wouldn’t dare.” He releases her shoulder and redirects his anger at me.

I tap another button. “I would. Ayumi is under my protection from now on. If you disagree, I’ll have the police here at the touch of a button.”

“You have no proof!”

His tune changes when I show him the picture I snapped moments ago. “I’m sure the police will believe your word over my picture of you assaulting her.”

He’s cornered. “You’re no daughter of mine!” He spits on her shoe—one last act of hatred before storming out of sight.

Ayumi’s a stone. “Are you all right?” I ask.

She dabs her face with a tissue and rolls her shoulders. “Nothing more than a bruise.” I pull her collar back to get a better view, but she flinches away as if to say, it’s as bad as you think it is.

“No, I mean, do you need a shoulder to cry on? I’m here—”

“I’m fine.”

She stays quiet as we pass through the gates. I fumble to start a conversation, but the most I can get is an “I see.” Seriously, if he ruins our first day of school together, I won’t forgive him. No, I never could forgive him in the first place.

“We’re in the same class!” I point to the listings in the front of the school.

She barely lifts her head. “That’s nice.” After a month of texts worrying about this, that’s all she can say?

“Isn’t it great? Combined with all our time in the dorm, we’ll always be together!”

Silence.

I have to do something to lighten up the mood, and fast.

This school certainly lives up to its reputation as the largest school this side of Tokyo. Its three floors—one for each year—stretch back as far as the eye can see, straight to the dorms. I wonder how many years it took to build this thing, considering how it’s built entirely out of brick. It certainly isn’t lacking in windows, with them forming stripes across the surface. The school and the dorms form a U-shape around a large courtyard. But I know on the other side of the buildings are the sports fields, and beyond them, the forest.

“Look at the size of this thing!” The atrium is filled with shoe lockers which seem to go on for kilometers in either direction.

She stands in silence, her ponytail fluttering from the fans set up in the entranceway. It’s too tempting.

I grab it and give a small tug. “Ding dong~ Anybody home?”

“Ouch!” She swats my hand away, and grabs ahold of her ponytail to hide it.

I chase it as a dog chases its tail. “I hope I get to sit behind you and play with it all day. It’s too adorable to leave alone.”

Ayumi tucks it in her blazer. “If you like it, why don’t you put your own hair up in one?”

I grab a strand of my messy hair and twirl it in my fingers. “Well, I would, but then I’d never be able to leave it alone. I’d play with it, perfect it, get bored, and then remake it over and over and over! You remember how in junior high my grades nearly slipped a full mark because I kept getting so distracted by it! You wouldn’t want me to flunk out of high school, would you? Think of my life! Think of the children!”

“So, in other words, you’re too lazy to bother.”

I throw my hands up in the air. “You know me too well.” If this has broken the ice, I’ll take it.

Under a banner reading “Welcome to Kochi Girls’ Private High School,” a member of the student council directs us toward the auditorium.

“How long do you think it’ll be until we figure out where everything is?” Ayumi asks.

“Maybe a month.” Maybe even longer.

Ayumi takes one last look at the shoe lockers. “I used to always dream of the day when I’d open my locker and a love letter would tumble out. But that’s impossible in an all-girls school.”

“Girls can like girls too, you know.”

Ayumi giggles. “I meant a boy. But school’s for studying, not for love.”

I grab my skirt. “Look at the bright side. When’s the last time you got to wear pink to school?”

She pulls at her socks. “The socks are a bit weird, though.”

I tug at my own, which stop a couple of centimeters below my skirt. At least I’m tall enough to make them look good. Poor Ayumi. They seem to add two kilos to her thighs. “Yeah,” I admit. “I guess dealing with mandated thigh-highs is the price we have to pay for getting to wear pink…”

“Why would they mandate thigh-highs anyway?”

We pass by a portrait of the school’s founder. “Maybe the principal is some sort of pervert. Doesn’t matter. We’ll get used to them soon enough.”

After a boring opening ceremony (except for the part where the student council president slapped the principal for staring at her chest), the third-year students gather us up by class to lead us to our rooms. As per tradition, the teacher has us go around and introduce ourselves.

“Aya Nakajima, Kochi Middle School,” says the girl in front of Ayumi. “One thing to know about me, I really love tennis and hope to join the club! Pleasure to meet you all.”

We all clap, hearing the same old stuff repeated over and over. At least Ayumi will be a little different.

Ayumi steadies herself against the desk and winces while she struggles to get up. The students wait patiently, if not also curiously, as she rebalances herself on her crutches. “Ayumi Okanawa. Tokyo North Middle School. For my one special trait, I like baking. Pleasure to meet you all.”

We clap as she sits down. “Tokyo?” asks the teacher. “Isn’t that a bit far?”

Ayumi struggles up again to answer her. “Yes, ma’am, it was over nine hours in the train.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, what made you choose Kochi?”

Ayumi shifts uncomfortably as the teacher waits for a response. I need to step in before she says something problematic.

I stand up. “She chose it, because I chose it.”

Not like I can give our real reasons, but at least I’ve bought Ayumi a little bit of time.

“…and you are?” asks the teacher.

“Sakura Okura. Tokyo North Middle School. For my one thing to know, I’ll answer your question. I chose to come down here because it’s got a good view of the sea. Pleasure to meet you all.”

The teacher motions for us to sit back down after a moment of awkward silence. “Well? Next?”

***

I stretch after the endless first day. From our introductions to the teacher introductions to receiving our books to the general tour of the school, I’m exhausted!

“Thanks.” Ayumi leans on my desk. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

I finish putting my notebooks in my desk. “That’s what friends are for. Besides, you saved me too.”

“Humor me. How did I save you?”

“For my one unique thing, I was stuck between ‘My favorite dessert is a cookie,’ ‘I’ve had my freckles since I was two,’ and ‘I’m left-handed.’” I stick my tongue out and follow the crowd.

She hasn’t moved. “Where’re you going? Aren’t the dorms more toward the woods?”

I put my arm around her shoulder. “Dorms? Come on. I’m joining a club, and you’re joining with me!”

“I’ll pass. Going Home Club sounds fine, and I’ll need to spend some time in physical therapy if I want to walk again.”

My arm moves like a bullet as I snatch Ayumi’s crutch.

“Give it back!” She hops on one leg like a distressed flamingo.

I hold it out of her reach. “Only if you come with me!”

Ayumi puffs out her cheeks. “Fiiine.”

Every club in the school has set up a booth somewhere in the courtyard, with the student council sitting in the gazebo to oversee the activities—if you can call sitting around sipping tea overseeing. The only person who seems to be doing any work is some young dark-skinned girl with bells in her hair. She has to be somebody’s sister, since she can’t be much older than ten. But judging by how quickly students react to her commands, her sister must be somebody important.

There’s no way I’d join the student council. Three years of paperwork and spreadsheets sounds like misery. The other booths are much more appealing.

The basic setup is standard—a cloth-draped table and a sign identifying the club. Though, why is there a butterfly drawn on every sign? Yet those setups didn’t stop the members from adding their own flair. The archery club has an arch of arrows over their table, while the art club is actively painting a mural on theirs.

Ayumi takes a brochure from a member of the newspaper club distributing them. “Let’s see, there’s the knitting club, the bowling club, the baking club… What do you want to check out first?”

My eyes involuntarily wander over to the track club’s booth. They have a whole bunch of smaller trophies on their table—probably for things such as finishing 45th at the national meet. I know they don’t have any particularly special trophies. If they did, we’d never have chosen this school.

I snap out of my daydream. “Sorry. Anyway, you like baking, right? Why don’t we go there?”

Ayumi doesn’t buy it. “I don’t mind if you want to join the track club. My knee’ll heal soon enough. I could do statistics or set up or something in the meantime.”

I place both hands on her shoulders. “We only have three years of high school. I don’t want to waste a single minute of it doing busy work. We’re going to find a club we’ll both enjoy all year.”

“Then you join, and I’ll find something else.”

“Do you think I value the club more than you? The club is fun because you’re in it; you’re not in it because it’s fun.” I flip through her brochure. “How about we start with the Garden Gnome Club?“

“Garden Gnome Club? What would they possibly… Why do they even exist?”

I grab a brochure of my own. “It’s a big school.”

***

Ayumi and I collapse on a bench after hours of visiting club booths and jotting down thoughts. We pull out our brochures to compare out impressions.

“Whoa, you’re interested in the French club?” she asks.

Oui, oui! I’ve always been interested in French culture and pastries.”

Ayumi leans in and frowns at my notes. With her red pen of death, she crosses the French club off my list. “Let’s get rid of the ones you put down because they give you food.”

“Fiiine.” There goes half my list. I glance at Ayumi’s brochure. “Oh, the School Care Club? What do they do?”

“Oh, they care for all the animals on campus. They feed them, take them for walks, groom them, etcetera.”

Back in elementary school, I had volunteered for a similar duty. But one thing still traumatizes me. “And scoop up their dung.”

Ayumi freezes. “Yeah, let’s not.” She crosses it off her list.

We go through each club, finding the goods and bads of each and comparing notes. “Then baking?” she asks.

My ears perk up. I had crossed it off earlier because of the food, but this time she’s the one suggesting it. “Why not? You like baking. I like eating what you bake. What could possibly go wrong?”

Ayumi pokes my stomach. “You’d put on a little more here.”

“Come on, you know it all goes to my chest!”

“Some girls have all the luck.” She puffs out her own rather flat chest. “But, yeah, I agree. Baking club it is!”

We get up off of our bench to go sign up. Wait, where did everyone go?

“Were we really chatting that long?” Ayumi asks.

I check my phone. “Wow, it’s almost seven. We’ll have to join up tomorrow.”

She stuffs her brochure in her bag. “How do we get to the dorms?”

“They’re supposed to be in the building connecting the other two, so over there.” I point down the courtyard.

“Is our luggage there too?”

“Yeah, the student council brought it up yesterday.” The student council really does a lot here, from organizing days like today to managing life in the dorms. Then again, not many high schools in Japan even offer on-campus dorms, so somebody has to run it.

Something darts in front of us. “What’s that?” asks Ayumi.

“A cat or something. I’m sure there are plenty of strays around here. When the residence committee catches students with cats and makes them get rid of them, it’s not like all of them actually follow through.” My stomach grumbles, begging for dinner. “Let’s go.”

As we approach the building, we find something far more disturbing. “Blood?” I ask. There’s a trail of it crossing the sidewalk.

“Aw, the poor kitty! It’s hurt!”

“Or the mouse in its mouth is. I’m sure it’s fine. Let’s get to the dorms. It’s getting cold.” A cool breeze ruffles my skirt.

Ayumi follows the trail, paying no heed to me. “You go ahead. I want to make sure the cat’s all right.”

I can’t accept her answer. Even if this is a girls-only school, it’s not like there aren’t weird men in Kochi who’d pounce at the chance of finding a girl all alone. With her crutches, it’s not like she can even run if worse comes to worst. “I’ll come with you.”

The trail meanders aimlessly. “You sure it went this way?” I ask as we follow the blood splatters.

“Yeah. It was running away from the sakura trees over there.”

“Lot of blood for one little cat…”

Before I realize it, the school grounds have faded into the background, replaced by tall buildings and shops. The warm lamplights illuminating the campus disappear, giving way to cold and dim streetlights. Their dark shadows hide the unknown, be it dangerous people or animals. Several stores seem to have been boarded up long ago, graffiti freshly plastered as if to warn us to leave. “Ayumi…I think we better turn around.”

“But we haven’t found it yet!”

My blood pressure rises when a man sitting on the side of the road gives me a toothless grin.

“We’re not supposed to leave the grounds without permission. Come on, Kochi’s a big city. I’m sure somebody’s picked it up by now and cared for it.”

Ayumi clenches her fists. “No! We’re not stopping until we’re sure it’s all right.”

She’s beyond hope. Any time she clenches her fists, she’ll ignore all reason and stubbornly continue until she gets her way. Arguing with her is going to get us nowhere. “Lead on.”

The blood trail turns down an alleyway. “Here, Kitty,” Ayumi calls as we pass a dumpster.

My unease increases with every step. On the main street there are a few people around in case something bad happens. If anyone is hiding in the shadows here, they certainly don’t have our best interests in mind.

Yet Ayumi remains oblivious. “Kitty~”

The trail ends abruptly, and we see the cat curled up on the lap of a hooded figure. The cat itself is fine, save a small cut on its leg. But the figure hardly moves.

“Hello?” I ask.

There’s no response. Ayumi gulps. “Do you think they’re…”

“I don’t know.” I tap its shoulder. “Um, miss?” I venture a guess by the general shape of their body. “Or sir, sorry if I’m wrong.”

No response.

“Do you think we should call for help?” Ayumi’s crutches rattle as she shakes.

“Yeah.” This person needs a professional, not us. I reach down with my right hand, keeping my stronger left in reserve in case I need it. “We’ll be getting help. You keep your hopes up, all right?”



The person’s limp hand shoots up and grabs my wrist. Her nails bite into my skin, creating a burning sensation.

Ayumi shrieks.

Even if it hurts, I have to stay calm. Latching onto a rescuer is a natural response. “At least we know you’re alive now. So why don’t we calm down and get an ambulance here?”

I pull on my hand, but the figure holds firm. Is this some sort of joke?

“Come on, let go!” I tear my hand away, which causes the person’s hood to fall back. If you can even call it a person.

There isn’t a single distinguishable human feature there. Its eyes are fleshy bumps, and its un-nostriled nose holds flat on its face. There isn’t a single hair on its head. Despite that, it has a mouth—a gaping chasm filled with spiraling rows of sharp teeth sucking in like a lamprey.

“Um…S-Sakura…” Ayumi hobbles back on her crutches and away from the figure. The cat mews as if nothing special is happening and bounds off into the darkness.

The person rises from the ground, casting an even darker shadow on the road than the one from the building. No, this creature isn’t human. Not even close.

I point to Ayumi’s crutches. “How fast can you move on those things?”

“Fast enough.”

“Then let’s move.”

It’s just in time too, for the instant we take off, the creature gives chase.

I assemble a plan in my head. We got here by following a trail of blood, so if we follow it back, we’ll get back to the school. But then what?

At the end of the alley, there are five more figures, draped in tattered clothes instead of cloaks.

So much for that plan.

“On second thought, let’s go a different way.” I skid to a halt. More creatures pour into the alleyway, blotting out the light from the main street and creating an unnatural chill. My mouth goes dry while my wrist throbs from my scratch. While trying to pivot, Ayumi stumbles to the ground, but I catch her just in time.

There’s only the original figure waiting for us the other direction.

“Let’s go,” I say partly to Ayumi, and partly to encourage myself on. We bolt past the original figure, and turn down the street at the end of the alleyway.

This street is even darker than the last, but darkness doesn’t seem to hinder them. “Are they still back there?”

Ayumi looks back. “We gotta go faster! They’ll be on us soon!”

No sense in stopping and letting them kill us. Might as well give them a run for their money.

“Help!” Ayumi yells. “Somebody! Anybody! Help!”

Her words fall on deaf ears. We’re too far away from the main street, and I have yet to see anyone in these alleyways. Ahead, there’s a long fence and some sort of grassy field beyond it. I might be able to get over it, even with my bad arm. But Ayumi’s another story.

“Left!” We turn onto quasi-road running parallel to the fence. The pavement has fallen so far into disrepair from disuse, we might as well call it gravel.

Bad move. At the end of the road, a chain link fence blocks our escape. I pivot, but it’s too late. The creatures have blocked all other paths.

I’ve led us astray. There’s no turning back.

I back up to the dead end with Ayumi.

“I need to borrow one of your crutches.”

“What? Why?”

“Trust me.” I don’t have time to explain.

Ayumi grudgingly hands me the crutch. I grab its handle with my left hand and the top with my right. As soon as I touch it a jolt of pain shoots through my body, originating from the scratch on my wrist. So much for just a scratch…

I let my right arm go limp, and rely on the strength of my left hand.

“You couldn’t possibly be thinking of fighting them.” A massive horde approaches. I can’t even count how many there are now.

I get in position with Ayumi behind me. “What other choice do we have?”

I swing her crutch at the closest one. It goes flying on contact and crashes into the wall in a mess of blood. Ayumi covers her mouth.

But as I get rid of one, two more take its place. Not only that, but it seems like the one I hit is getting up off the ground again, coming back for more.

Ayumi cries as I smash a few more. But I can’t look away from my battle. “Are there any on the other side of the fence?”

“I don’t see any…”

“Good. I’m gonna smash a couple back, grab you, and throw you over. You call for someone to pick you up from there.”

“And what about you?” she asks.

Yeah, what about me? “Well, if this is the end, at least I did it for you.”

“No! You climb. I can’t go without you.”

I smash another one of them with the crutch. Even if I were the type of person to abandon Ayumi, it isn’t physically possible. My right arm is dead, and my left is sore from swinging this crutch around.

“Get real.”

“I’m telling you to go!” Ayumi grabs her remaining crutch and tries swinging at a creature. It won’t work. She can’t get enough force behind her blows, balancing on one leg.

It’s a good thing I didn’t throw Ayumi over. The creatures are crawling on the walls and getting quicker. They would have crawled past the fence to grab her if I had.

My right shoulder is numb now. I glance at the scratch on my wrist. Besides appearing darker, it doesn’t look too different. But it feels as if somebody were sticking needles into my skin. “So much for escaping.” I steel my hold of the crutch.

When I was on the track team in middle school, the more I worked, the warmer I’d feel. But now, it’s almost the opposite effect. My body grows colder with every swing of the crutch, and every breath I gasp for sends ice through my veins. I feel weak. My vision blurs, and I stumble to the ground.

I can’t stand up. Those creatures swarm, and soon they’ll be on top of me, eating my flesh. I’m sorry, Ayumi. I can’t even protect you.

A flash of blue light flies across the sky. The creatures stop approaching us to check it out, and it’s the last thing they ever do. The blue light descends, and they burst into flames. I can’t tell what it is, or what’s happening. All I know is something sharp pokes through my chest.

I squint to refocus my vision. “Oh, it’s a sword. But why is it all bloody?”

That’s my blood, you dolt. The sword is sticking through my chest.

My body falls limp, giving in to the world of darkness.
[close]

Chapter 2
Chapter 2: A New Light

I awaken to a world of pain. Exhaustion keeps my eyes shut like lead weights. Every part of my body burns like it’s on fire. “Oh, you’re back,” says a man’s voice. “I was wondering how long you’d be out for.”

I open my mouth to speak, but my throat is as dry as a desert.

“Go back to sleep. I’m hardly done with you.” My alertness fades like the sunset, falling below the horizon.

***

I was shielding my eyes against the setting sun’s glare with one hand, and gripping onto the baton with the other. A few more steps and the sun would sink behind the large “Tokyo North Middle School” banner flying off the track. My footsteps pounded against the hard red surface as I gained some distance from my competition. We had to get this handoff perfect.

“Ayumi, incoming!” I shouted. What a flawless pass! Ayumi took off like a bolt of lightning, sealing our victory. The other team should have given up at this point. When you had the fastest girl in the prefecture as anchor, they had no chance to catch us if we had the lead. Which, as the second fastest girl in the prefecture, I never had much difficulty giving to Ayumi.

A short minute later, the four of us were celebrating our victory and jumping up and down—or we may have been keeping warm because it had begun to snow.

“How do you run so fast?” asked Kanae, our lead. “You must be breaking all sorts of records.”

“Not really…” Ayumi checked the stands, where a man stood up and pointed at his watch. “I need to talk with my dad a bit. You start the party without me.”

This was all typical routine. “Go get ’em.” We all knew how tough of a critic her dad could be at times, and today was no exception.

“So, what’s next?” asked Yuki as we left campus. “Prefecture championships?”

I checked my phone’s calendar. “We’ve got two weeks until it. Tokyo East’s first. They’ll be tough unless you two can win the sprint events.”

Yuki kicked at a snowdrift. “We really did try! You saw how hard we worked this week!”

“I’m not criticizing you. I’m telling you how it is.” Ayumi and I could carry the distance events fine, but without a strong 2nd and 3rd place finisher behind us, we’d always lose against the larger schools. Unless, of course, we could sweep all the races.

“Have you started studying for the entrance exams?” asked Kanae. “I keep looking over the notes for Narita Private, but it’s so hard!”

Yuki snickered. “Narita? Would they even let an idiot like you take the exam?”

“You’re so mean!”

Kanae and Yuki led me to their dorm room. This had been designated as the after party room back when we were first years. My single room was too small, and Ayumi still lived with her parents.

Nothing ever changed in there. The same track star posters plastered their walls, and their desks were still a mess. We threw down our bags, grabbed a fresh pair of clothes, and headed for the showers.

“I haven’t really started studying,” I admitted.

Kanae dumped her fresh clothes in the basket. “There’s only a month until the exams! You aren’t planning to skip high school, are you?”

“Of course not. What I mean is, a guy from Fuji South High School approached me.”

“Fuji South?” they both exclaimed, almost in equal shock.

“Yeah, I was surprised too, but he liked my form on the track. He said he’d make sure I got in, no matter what. Told me to skip studying and focus on my training.”

Yuki flipped on her faucet to test the water temperature. “It’s like a dream come true. I wish I could run on that new track under Coach Chihawa’s guidance.”

Kanae followed suit. “She worked hard for this. You, on the other hand, have been sitting around eating dumplings.”

She squeezed Yuki’s waist, who burst into a fit of giggles. When she calmed down she asked, “Are they going to take Ayumi too?”

“Yeah, they came to her a month before me.” If they were taking me, they’d obviously take her. She had been the national champion in the 400 for two years running.

After we took our showers and changed, we sprinted back to their room and shoved our weary legs under the heated table.

“So, what’s the plan for this weekend?” asked Kanae.

“Well, we have practice first thing on Saturday and—” Bzzt. Yuki checked her phone. “Oh, Ayumi’s here. I’ll go let her in. She said she’ll take a shower first.”

Kanae and I broke out a deck of cards while we waited. Something seemed missing. Yuki had just come back when I put my finger on it.

“What’s wrong?” asked Kanae.

I pulled out my bag and looked inside. Nope, they weren’t there.

“I forgot my bloomers in the shower. Take my place; I won’t be back. My bed’s calling me.”

Kanae laughed. “Never change.”

Yuki folded her arms. “You better do your math homework tonight. I’m not going to let you copy tomorrow.”

“What, seriously?” My heart dropped to my feet. “What if I did half?”

Yuki smirked. “Sixty percent. And exactly sixty percent.”

“Wait, how many problems out of twenty is sixty percent?” I tried to count on my fingers.

“Figure it out. It’s math homework.”

“So mean.”

My bloomers weren’t too hard to find. I don’t know how I stepped over them on my way out of the shower room.

Ayumi’s soft humming filled the steamy room. A wicked grin spread across my face. I’d really surprise her this time. Maybe she’d give me the ten out of ten I had wanted for so long. Jumping out of closets wasn’t earning me much more than a three nowadays.

I tiptoed in and verified she was in the second stall from the end. If I lay low, she’d never be able to see me approaching. The moisture in the air dampened my clothes as I crept closer, but who cared? Water would dry.

I crouched in front of Ayumi’s stall so I could see her cute little legs behind the curtain. Ah, perfect, she was facing away. There’s so much more surprise factor when you can’t see your assailant.

“A-YU-MI!” I sprung up and threw open the curtain. Ayumi’s humming stopped as I got a fleeting look at her back. Were my eyes playing tricks on me?

She spun around, giving me a full view of her frontal nudity while hiding her sides with her arms. Something was going on. Girls hide their fronts, not their backs.

“S-Sakura? What the hell are you doing?!”

“I-I thought I’d surprise you… We’re both girls and…”

“Get out!” She pressed her arms closer to her body. But the damage was done. I had seen it. And it wasn’t like she was doing a very good job hiding the marks around her ribs.

“I refuse.” I couldn’t obey her. As team captain, I had to ensure the health of my teammates. But this was beyond a captain’s duty. This was the duty of a friend.

“Do you want me to call the police? Don’t try me. I will!”

“Show me your back.”

Ayumi clenched her fist. “I told you to leave.”

“You can hit me if you want. I’m not leaving until you turn around. There’s no use hiding it.”

She relaxed her fist and lowered her head. “Why did it have to be you?”

Despite her protests, she turned, unveiling the full horror of her life on me.

Her entire back was discolored. Blacks and blues interlocked, sometimes interspersed with reds from open wounds. Some bruises were smaller and older, while others were inflamed and raging, as if they had occurred recently.



I didn’t want to believe it. “Wh-what is this? Who, or what, did this to you?”

Ayumi spun back around to hide her shame. “I…I fell off my bike this weekend. If you could’ve been there, you’d have seen how much it hurt!”

“Don’t lie to me.” Ayumi never lied before, so this was a very serious matter.

“I’m telling you, it was a fall from my bike and—”

Enough of this. “Finish your shower and meet me in my room.”

***

When I wake up again, the weight has disappeared. A solitary fan spins on the dark ceiling. The rafters obscure the hanging lights in the room, making it dark and dusty. “Well, aren’t you a light sleeper?” A man leans over my body.

He’s a scruffy fellow, as if shaving is too much of a bother. Wrinkles litter his face, and his nose bends unnaturally as if someone had broken it. Despite the age marks, his visible hair is still mostly-brown. The rest of it is hidden under a baseball cap. “Where’s Ayumi?”

“Ayumi?” The string around my heart tightens. Don’t tell me she didn’t make it. “Oh, you mean the girl who followed me all the way here? She’s sleeping on my couch.”

Hundreds of questions roll through my head as I remember the events of the past couple of hours. What happened? What are those things? Why am I here? But, above all, what happened with Ayumi? “Is she all right?”

He grabs my head and forces it around so I can see her. “Are you deaf, or are you stupid? Do you really think she could follow me all the way here and not be all right?”

“Thank God.” She’s lucky to have that couch under the bookshelves. I’m stuck with a desk, by the looks of it.

“Shouldn’t you be worried about yourself? She wasn’t even touched, thanks to you.”

I examine my wrist. There’s hardly a sign of the wound anymore. “It’s a scratch, nothing crazy. But how am I alive? They drove a sword through me.”

“No, I did.” He lays the still-bloody sword next to me.

Trying to process this gives me a headache. Why would he drive a sword through me? “If you wanted me dead, you should’ve finished the job there. Why bring me back here? Do you want to torture me? Are you some kind of sick sadist?”

He grabs my wrist so hard, I have to cry out. “Why don’t you listen instead of asking questions, Miss Freckles? Or even better. How about I ask you a question? How’d you find yourself in that situation?”

Miss Freckles? My friends called me Saku in elementary school, but are freckles my only defining feature? Fine, if I’m Miss Freckles, I’ll call him Baseball Cap Man. Too long. How about Cappy?

“I’m talking to you.”

I can’t meet his cold black eyes. “We saw an injured cat and it sort of led us there.”

“A cat?” He drops my wrist and chuckles. “So her shades are active again.”

“Shades?” But that was Ayumi, not me, asking that.

Cappy snickers. “Glad to see you awake, Princess.”

Ayumi ignores his comment. “Um, I ought to thank you for saving our lives and all, but…”

“Saving your lives? Hardly. Yours, maybe—though you should be thanking Miss Freckles here for that. But it’s too late for her. She’s already dead.”

“Huh?” I sit up. “But I’m right here. I’m not dead.”

“Just because you’re here doesn’t mean you’re not dead,” he sneers. “Do you think those shades were among the living? No, Miss Freckles, you’re dead, just like them.”

Ayumi loses it. “Shade, shade, shade. What the hell are you talking about? Who are you, and where are we? Can you give us some answers already?”

Cappy glares at her. “I would if you two would shut up and listen for once. You’re like all the other kids I’ve had in here, asking question after question. It drives me mad!” When he sees Ayumi isn’t about to back down, his expression softens a bit. “Listen, Princess, a shade is a kind of undead. They would have killed the both of you if I hadn’t interfered.”

According to him, they did kill me. But I keep my comments to myself. He might be a jerk, but he did save Ayumi’s life…

“Now, where are we? This would be my office, and your friend here happens to be lying on my desk. It’s going to be really nice explaining to the government why I have blood all over my tax forms, but we all have to make do with what we have.”

Cappy sits back in his chair and pops a cigarette into his mouth. He never bothers lighting it and instead chews on the end. “As for the thing you care about most, no, I didn’t save your lives. Princess—”

“Ayumi,” she interrupts.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” he slams his hand on the desk, mere centimeters away from me. “Or would you rather I not tell you about your friend, Princess Ayumi?”

Ayumi shuts her mouth.

“So, Princess.” He reverts to his favorite name for her. “You’re fine, thanks to your friend. On the other hand, your friend’s life force drained out the instant the shade touched her. Had I been even a minute later, she would’ve turned into one of them. That’d be pretty bad for you too, wouldn’t it?”

I refuse to believe him, and for that matter, neither does Ayumi. She asks, “She seems fine, doesn’t she?”

Cappy grabs her hand and puts it on my forehead. “Does she feel like one of the living?”

Her hand jolts at the touch. “It’s cold, but what does that matter? It was pretty chilly out there.”

Cappy scowls in frustration. “Here.” He puts her fingers on my wrist. “Do you feel anything?”

“What did you do to her pulse?”

Cappy lets go of Ayumi, who grabs a crutch to steady herself. “I keep telling you, I did nothing to it or her. It was over when the shades scratched her. I only preserved her life for a little longer, thanks to the sword.”

“What do you mean?” I’m still having a hard time believing all this.

He pushes the sword closer to my face. Does he have no caution? That’s still sharp!

He pulls it back “You’d better get used to it. That’s your life from now on.”

“My life? But you said I’m already dead.”

He puts his palm on his face. “Did you not listen to anything I said? Look, I bound your body and consciousness to the sword. Now you won’t turn into a shade. As long as this sword exists, so will you.” It’s a bit weird, but I’ll live. I’ll have to keep it safe in a bank, or bury it or something.

“But don’t get your hopes up. This sword is for the living, and you’re dead. It’ll corrupt and eventually break under its own weight. Then, you’ll be dead for good. Not a shade, just dead. You can keep it until then. It’s useless for me.”

My heart twists. How could I go from my dream high school life to dead in a matter of hours? No, he’s lying. I’m not going to die. I feel perfectly fine, after all.

Soft sobs fill the room. Ayumi is on the ground crying, a total mess. I told myself I’d never let her cry again, and here I am letting her down.

I get off the desk and sit down next to Ayumi, putting my arm around her. She leans her head on my shoulder.

“How long?”

He arranges some papers. “Really? You’re just going to accept it?”

No, I’m not. I don’t believe him at all. Then again, I don’t believe what I saw in the alleyway earlier, either. Yet, it happened.

Stay strong, Sakura. “How long do I have?” I repeat.

He looks at me and then lets his hard expression leave his face for a moment. “I’d give you five days. A week at most.”

A week? He says I have a week to live? All my hopes, all my dreams, gone just like that? I want to crumble to the floor and cry. But, no. I need to be strong. I need to show Ayumi I can make it through this. After all, if I can’t make it through this, how could she? Besides, he’s lying. I feel perfectly fine. I can push his words to the back of my mind.

He shoves some papers from his desk into his briefcase. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to head back home. If you want my advice, enjoy the time you still have together, and don’t worry about this shade business. You already lost one life; don’t throw away the other. It’s not like you’d be willing to do anything about it anyway.”

He deliberately turns his back on us and almost gets to the door when Ayumi shouts, “Wait!”

Cappy heeds her command. Is that a small grin buried within his scruffy cheeks? If it was, it’s gone already. “What, Princess?”

“I’d be willing to do anything to save her. If there’s something, can I do it? You know, like how you saved her life with the sword, couldn’t we get more swords and do something similar?”

“No, you can’t. You’d better start arranging the funeral.”

Ayumi reduces herself to a bundle of tears again. Cappy grabs the door handle.

“Unless…”

Ayumi’s chokes on her tears. “Unless?”

“Well, I doubt you’d want to do it.”

“Please! I’ll do anything if it’ll keep her alive.”

He releases the handle. “You could always summon a familiar. Princess could perform a ritual, get a familiar, and they’ll take care of supplying the life force to whoever you choose. Not only would Miss Freckles get to live indefinitely, but Princess could live forever too. Her time would freeze. Any future damage or aging will quickly reverse itself, and her body will revert back to her present state. You could lose a limb and wake up the next morning completely whole again. Ayumi, if you do this, you could save Sakura.”

“Please let me! Tell me how to do it!”

“Wait.” I’m far too suspicious. This personality change is too quick. And what’s with calling us by our real names? But for now, let’s check the obvious. “You said her time would freeze, didn’t you?”

Cappy puts down his bag. “No matter what injury, it’ll heal itself right back up, and she’ll be as good as new.”

“What about her knee?”

The room falls dead silent, outside of the soft hum of the fan. “Pre-existing injuries are not affected by summoning.”

“Answer my question. Will her knee heal or not?”

Cappy’s shoulders slouch. “She’ll return to exactly how she is right now. If she summons a familiar, she’ll never walk again.”

I knew it. There’s always a cost for a miracle. I shoot a glance at Ayumi, but I can’t read her thoughts in the slightest.

The man switches back to his cheery demeanor. “But a knee for a life? I’d take that trade if it were up to me.”

He places his hand back on the door handle. “Take a card from my desk. If you’re interested, come visit me whenever you want. I’ll be here whenever you come; no appointment necessary.”

He’s not going to have the last word. “What is your name?”

“The hell does that matter?” He slams the door behind him.

We sit in silence until Ayumi pipes up, “Listen, Sakura, I think—”

I pick myself off the floor. “Let’s get back to the dorm first. Then we’ll talk.”

Darkness still blankets the streets of Kochi as we arrive back on campus. The dark sky extends all the way to the sea, where there’s no hint of a sunrise. Good. At least we can get a couple hours of sleep before breakfast.

When I slide my key card to get into the dorms, the loud beep of recognition nearly gives me a heart attack. A large clock hangs over the entranceway informing us how long we’ve been gone.

We sneak up to our rooms as best we can—there’s no way to muffle the sound of Ayumi’s crutches—and enter our dorm room. On one side of our room are our closets, which create a small hallway leading in. On the other side is a large window above our desks. At the corners are our beds, and on top of them, boxes stuffed full of our belongings.

“Let’s leave them for tomorrow.” Ayumi pushes her box off onto the floor and collapses in bed.

“No. If somebody on the residence committee inspects our room, we’ll arouse suspicions. Come on, it won’t take long.”

I break open the box, hoping nothing got damaged when it got shipped. First order of business—my poster of Silent Circular Infinity, my favorite idol group. This belongs in the spot of honor over my bed.

I pull out my spare uniform. “Guess this isn’t a spare anymore.” I laugh, poking at my healed chest through the hole in my blazer.

Ayumi doesn’t join in. In fact, it seems she’s doing all she can to avoid collapsing in tears again. “Here, can you help me with mine?” She pulls out a poster of some boy band.

“Yeah, no problem.” I stand on her bed and apply some sticky tack to the back of it.

“You know…” says Ayumi finally.

“Don’t even think about it.” I pat down a corner.

Ayumi drops the notebook she has taken out of her box. “But, I mean, it was my fault anyway! If I wasn’t so stubborn, then we’d never have run into the shade.”

She can’t keep blaming herself forever. “There are a lot of things worse than death.” For example, turning into a shade.

I pat down the last corner and sit next to her on her bed. “I don’t trust him. Do you?”

She stares at me for a moment before shaking her head.

“If he knows about shades, he has to be involved with them somehow. He’s no knight in shining armor saving innocent maidens from demons.”

Ayumi shrinks down. “But, if it’s my only chance to save you.”

I hold her hands and force her to make eye contact with me. “I might not even need to be saved. I think he’s lying about the whole thing.”

“And what if you’re wrong?”

The stone wall I’d put around my fears shatters. “Then that’s the end. But how do you know he’s not trying to hurt you? Then we’d both be dead, or worse.”

Ayumi’s fists clench. “Do you think I could live with myself knowing I could’ve done something for you and didn’t?”

“Do you think I could live with myself if something were to happen to you?”

“You might not even be alive in a week!”

Ouch. “Thanks for reminding me.”

She covers her mouth. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean…”

There are far worse things to hold a grudge about. “Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t.”

She stays silent, as if she might say something she doesn’t want to again. “I won’t lie, if my life really is in danger and you saved it, I’d be happy.”

I grab one of her knee braces from her box. “But, are you sure you’d want to become a cripple for me? You’d never be able to walk again.”

“Of course.” No hesitation. “I deserve what happened to me. You don’t. If that’s the price I have to pay, I’ll accept it.”

“You don’t deserve that.”

“Whether I do or not isn’t the point. I’ve been on crutches for a couple of months now, and I’m getting used to the pain. I can deal with it forever if it means getting to spend it with you.”

I can only hug her, and she hugs me back even tighter.

Ayumi breaks the embrace first. “Then we’ll go to him tomorrow and do it.”

I have half a mind to tell her yes. I shouldn’t keep denying this. I am going to die in a week.

And then I spot the sword lying on my bed. Already it seems as if it doesn’t glimmer quite like it used to. It seems a little older, a little worn.

There’s something important he hasn’t told us.

“Why did he save me?” I ask.

“Why wouldn’t he?”

I grab the sword off my bed and hold it up to the light. “If I’m dead anyway, and he could dispose of shades so easily, why would he want to prevent me from turning into one? Why save me?”

Silence returns.

I open up my closet and lay the sword down on the floor and throw some dresses I’ll never wear on top of it. “Can’t have the residence committee confiscating this as a dangerous weapon.”

“You ought to name it,” she says. “If it’s going to be important, it’d be a shame to call it ‘your sword.’”

“Twilight. It’s the Twilight of my life.”

She doesn’t respond to the morbid name. We finish unpacking before wordlessly crawling into bed.

It seems like I wake up the instant my head hits the pillow. But I must have slept somewhere in there, seeing how orange beams of light flicker through my window, and my alarm shouts for me to wake up. Weird. I can’t remember the last time I had a dreamless sleep.

“Good morning.” I yawn. Ayumi remains a stationary lump underneath her blanket. “Ayumi~” I sing. I pull off her blankets and give her a shake. “It’s time to get up.” She stays still, aside from her chest, which inflates with each breath.

“Guess we’ll have to do this the hard way. Try and sleep through this!” I jump on her bed and tickle her stomach.

She bolts upright and laughs uncontrollably. “Please! Stop!”

I jump off her bed. “Good morning.”

She rubs her sides. “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine.” I stretch my achy joints. “Maybe a little sluggish? Like, I’m awake and all, sure, but it’s like my body can’t keep up with my mind or something. Actually, wait. Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

She pulls her covers over her head. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

I pull them right back down. “You’re clearly not. You’re all bloodshot, and there are bags under your eyes darker than coal! Did you sleep at all?”

She unbuttons her pajama top. “Not too well—Oh, wow, look at the sun out there! It’s gonna be a gorgeous day!”

Don’t hide it. I’ve known her for far too long to not know what’s on her mind. But I also know not to push the subject.

I thrust my hand into the closet to pull out my uniform. I get dressed and head down to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!” Ayumi beckons to the worker to put a second serving of rice on her plate. Really? After yesterday’s excitement, I don’t have much of an appetite.

I check out the various dishes in the serving line. There are quite a lot of options for a high school cafeteria. Then again, this isn’t a public school like Tokyo North. They can afford a little bit more variety.

“Next,” calls the worker. I move to the front of the line and place my tray down.

She pays me no heed and stares at the person standing behind me. “I said, next!”

“Um, I’m right here.”

“Ah, sorry dear, I hardly noticed you.” She places a few plates of food on my tray. “Next!”

After paying for my food, I search for Ayumi. There she is! She’s found a nice isolated table and is eating without me.

“Weird.” I sit next to her.

“Oh! Sorry, I forgot you were coming or I would have waited.” Ayumi shovels down her rice.

“Am I short?”

“Huh?” she cocks her head. “If you’re short, I might as well be a grasshopper. No, you’re kind of average. Why?”

“The serving lady didn’t notice me standing right in front of her.” I take a bite out of my bread. “But everyone’s tired in the morning.”

After we finish our meals, a trio of girls approaches our table. “Hey, you’re Ayumi, right? The girl from Tokyo?”

Ayumi looks at them almost defensively. “Yeah. Why?”

“Oh, we saw you eating alone over here, and thought you might want to meet new people. We’re from the chess club, and we eat over by the window. We’re looking for new members if you’re interested in joining.”

Ayumi bows politely. “Thanks, but I think we’ll probably join the baking club instead. And I’m sort of done eating anyway.”

“Ah, shame. Well, if you change your mind, let us know!”

I help Ayumi out of her chair as they leave. “Am I that unnoticeable?”

“What do you mean?”

“They didn’t notice I was here with you and acted as if you were eating alone.”

Ayumi thinks for a second. “Yeah, it was sort of strange.”

I know I’ve never had the biggest presence, but why would they ignore the only other girl sitting at the table? Unless I’m somehow disappearing.

Ayumi hums quietly to herself as we head to class. She looks so peaceful. I wonder if she’s forgetting—oof!—I collide headfirst into a rather heavy girl.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. She continues on without so much as an acknowledgement. This is too much. I have to find out for sure if these are mere coincidences, or if I’m really getting ignored.

“Welcome to the second day of school,” our homeroom teacher—a short lady with blue eyes who could be confused for a student if she were wearing our uniform—says as she stands in front of the room. “We’ll take a little extra time today to elect a class representative and vice rep. But first, attendance. Asaka?”

After the long and droning process of calling the roll, the teacher folds her arms. “Now, I know none of you wants to be the class rep, but somebody has to fill the role. So I’ll give you the choice. Either you all agree on who you want to be the class rep in the next ten minutes, or I’ll pick a name out of a fish bowl and say you voted on it. Your ten minutes starts now.”

I jump out of my seat. “I nominate Ayumi!” Ayumi gasps. I really surprised her there, didn’t I? But this is perfect. If she’s head of the class, she’ll learn how to build her own confidence. The best way to destroy somebody’s fear of water is to throw them in with the sharks.

The teacher taps her foot and surveys room. “Nobody has a nomination? Or better yet, wants to volunteer?”

How can she not hear me? I’m screaming on the top of my lungs! The hell is wrong with this school?

Ayumi raises her hand.

“Yes?” asks the teacher.

“U-um… I’ll do it.”

The teacher pumps her first in the air. “Excellent! Do we have a second?”

Ayumi stutters. “B-but, I thought I was the second…”

“Who nominated you?”

“Sakura.”

The teacher picks up her seating chart to examine it for a second and then checks my seat. “Seriously, Sakura, you need to speak up! I thought you were absent.” She called my name during the roll!

“It’s nothing.” I slouch back down into my seat. How could she ignore me? How could everyone forget about me? Do I matter that little to them?

It is at this moment I come face to face with reality. Cappy was not lying. I am disappearing and will be dead in a week. So why am I wasting this precious time in school?

The class gives their affirmative votes for Ayumi, but I hardly notice as I organize my thoughts.

“Good. Let’s fill out the other class positions.” By the time we finish, our first period teacher is already setting up for his lecture.

***

The bell rings for lunch after a grueling morning. At the cafeteria, a bunch of students huddle around a table with sandwiches set out by the staff. “I’ll get you something to eat; you sit down,” I say. Ayumi had a lot of difficulty balancing her tray this morning, thanks to her crutches, so it’s easier like this. Ayumi hands me her lunch token absentmindedly before heading off to get a seat.

“Sorry.” I push past a girl in the middle of the serving area. “Excuse me, pardon me.” But I might not have said anything, as they don’t notice me. I grab two premade boxed lunches off the counter and hurry to check out.

Where’s Ayumi? Knowing her, she’s probably sitting at the same table as this morning. No, she’s not—some dark-skinned girl has taken her place.

Oh, it’s the short girl with the bells again. Her sister must have brought her again. Why’s she alone?

A couple of third year students giggle and make a remark about her legs not reaching the floor. She stabs at her rice with her chopsticks until I think they’re going to snap. I take a step toward her, but then I see Ayumi out of the corner of my eye.

She still hasn’t found a seat. She flips out a skirt pocket, grumbles, and puts it back. Did she drop her phone?

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

She flips out her other pocket, and her phone pops out with it, disproving my hypothesis. “I can’t find my lunch token.”

Her too? “You gave it to me and I told you to find a seat.”

“I did? Well, you have two meals, so you’re probably right.” She wanders over to the nearest empty table and takes a seat.

Even someone as close to me as Ayumi isn’t immune to this. I should have seen it coming. She had started eating without me this morning, after all.

Ayumi sniffles. “I’m a terrible person…”

“What do you mean? What did you do?”

“I forgot about my best friend. I…I didn’t even notice you!”

“It’s no big deal. You just forgot about your lunch token.”

“Yes it is!” she slams her hands against the table. “It was like you didn’t even exist anymore. What’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s a coincidence and—” I cough, choking on my words.

“It’s no coincidence.”

I poke at the food on my plate. “You’re right. I’m fading away, and I hate it. I hate every bit of it! Sure, it’s a bit annoying to have to yell to even get heard, but who cares? What hurts is when I’m gone, it’ll be like nobody ever loved me. I’m sorry. I told myself I’d be strong for you. I told myself I’d give it my all so you could live on happily when I could not. But it’s too hard. I can’t take it anymore!”

She grabs her crutches. “I’m gonna go summon a familiar. It’d be best for both of us.”

Sakura, you idiot! You know you have to be strong for her. You know how rash she is. Yet here you are, letting her know how much your life is upsetting you. “Don’t. It’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t care if it’s dangerous. If I can’t take a risk for my best friend, what kind of a friend am I?”

I set down my chopsticks. “This is your life we’re talking about.”

She slams her hand on the table. “No, this is yours. I don’t know why you’re so against it. And I don’t care anymore. Hate me if you want, but I can’t sit around watching you die, knowing I could have done something. I’m going to do it now, before I forget you even exist!”

I sink down in my chair. “What makes you think I’d hate you for something like that? If you did it, I’d think it a stupid move, sure. But I’m your friend. If you did something with my best interests in mind, how could I hate you? Think about it logically. Do you trust him?”

“Not really.” She grabs her ponytail in her hand and squeezes it tight. After all these years, she never let go of her nervous tic.

“His personality changed so quickly from arrogant to hopeful. He’s obviously hiding something.”

“Maybe he was frustrated with the situation and wanted us to understand.” She always tries to find the good in everyone.

“No. He wants you to summon a familiar for a specific reason. There’s something for him to gain in this. He’s using you as a pawn.”

“He wants to save your life! There’s good to be found in everyone, even someone as suspicious as him!”

I’m not getting through to her. “He has no reason to help us.”

Her anger turns to tears. “He had no reason to save your life either. But he did, didn’t he?”

“He had a reason. He didn’t want me to turn into a shade.”

“But why?” she asks.

The same question from last night. “He didn’t want any extra work.” I pop an octopus sausage into my mouth. A poor excuse, but I’ll take any excuse to keep Ayumi here. “Let’s give it some time and thought. We have a week to decide.”

Ayumi sits back down in her chair. Losing our tempers isn’t going to help us out of this situation. If only we had more time…

“I’m heading to the nurse.” Ayumi picks up her tray.

“Is it the knee?”

“Yeah. She’s going to help me develop a physical therapy program.”

“Do you want me to come with you? I have no reason to go to class.”

She puts her garbage neatly in the can. “I’ll be fine. If I’m not back in time, make sure to sign me up for the baking club!”

The afternoon speeds by. I spend the entire time sitting in the back of the room reading comic books while the teacher lectures about something I had learned last year. She calls on every student in the class at least three times apiece, including the still-missing Ayumi, but passes over me whenever it is my turn to solve an equation. Maybe there are a few benefits to this situation.

When the final bell sounds, Ayumi hasn’t returned. I pull out my phone and punch in her number.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hey, it’s Sakura.” I put my cheeriest voice on. “Was wondering how you’re doing, since you didn’t come back to class.”

Ayumi gives an awkward laugh. “I’m fine. I overexerted myself, so I need to rest in the nurse’s office a bit. Can you sign me up?”

I think I hear fans in the background. Does our nurse’s office have fans? “Yeah, sure. I’ll see you at the dorms after dinner, all right?”

“Of course! See you then!” The phone clicks, leaving me with a dial tone.

The club officers are still recruiting new students in the courtyard, but unlike yesterday, there are only two people in each booth. The rest of their corresponding clubs are already hard at work at their activities.

“Come join the baking club!” calls out a short girl with bright orange hair tied in two low pigtails and bright green eyes. She waves a flyer. “We have cookies!”

I try my best to avoid giggling at the last sentence. “I’d like to sign up if I can.”

Of course, they ignore my fading existence. “Bake the cake of your dreams!” Her dimples really stand out on her cheery face.

“Hello!” I yell.

The girl stops waving and turns her attention to me. “You don’t have to shout.”

If only she knew. “I’d like to join the club.”

She jumps with excitement. “See, Kyouko, I told you we’d find someone today!”

The purple-eyed girl, Kyouko, adjusts her blue tie. That makes her a third year student. Given her mature persona and well-defined jaw, she fits the role well. “You said you’d find two people today, Nami.”

Nami shrugs. “Well, I’m halfway there.”

I hold up a second finger. “Actually my friend, Ayumi, wants to join too. She’s recovering from physical therapy right now.”

Nami flashes a peace sign. “I win.”

“Have you ever baked before?” asks Kyouko.

“No,” I admit.

Kyouko undoes her long black ponytail. “Congratulations, Nami. You recruited a novice and a cripple. As your reward, you can bring her to the room.”

Nami grabs my hand and, after a brief comment on how cold I feel, leads the way to the club rooms. “Oh, you’re going to love our kitchens! We used our club funds last year to get a brand new oven, and it’s absolutely spectacular! No more dirty charcoal sort of a taste in your breads… Of course, the other ovens aren’t great, but it’s not like we use them all every day. What did you say your name was? I’m Nami. Never really liked my name too much, but my mom said it came to her in a dream. Did you know the school’s founder also dreamed about this school? To think, if he never went to sleep that night, we’d be somewhere else! But for him to think of an all-girls school is quite fascinating, do you think?”

And so it goes. For the entire trip, she never stops talking.

“Well, here we are!” Pleasant aromas of cookies, cakes, and confectionaries float out of the room, tickling my nose. “I better get back to the courtyard! If you need anything, just ask!”

“Sakura,” I say.

“Sakura? Do you need their flowers for a garnish? A bit unique, but I like it!”

“That’s my name. Sakura.”

Nami beams her priceless smile that never seems to leave her face. “Pretty name. Keep it.” She skips down the stairs and out of sight.

The club has about ten other girls working in groups of three or four. One group looks to be decorating a cake while another is cutting out cookies. I don’t have the slightest idea how to bake, but I’m here for Ayumi’s sake.

They all seem friendly, and I’m sure Ayumi will fit right in. She’s always talking about the newest recipe she found online, so I’m sure with all of these ingredients around she’ll be in heaven. I’ll introduce her and then fade away, letting her personality take over.

Of course, nobody is going to notice me. Best not fight it and catch up on some sleep. I lay my head on a table and close my eyes.

No way! I can’t sit around bored! I only have a few days to live, so I have to live life to the fullest.

I sneak over to a platter filled with freshly baked cookies. My stomach growls at their sweet chocolate aromas. They won’t miss one, right?



I reach over and wrap my hand around the delicious holy grail.

“What do you think you’re doing?” asks a girl covered in flour.

That’s obviously not directed at me. I pick up the cookie. “Hey, I’m talking to you.”

How can she notice me?

There are only two possible answers. First, all the events of today are coincidences, and people actually have noticed me.

The second, more likely answer, is I’ve gained some life force. Which would mean Ayumi did something horrible.

“Come on, if you want some cookies, bake some. I’ll show you how.” She pulls me away toward another oven and begins an explanation on sifting flour.

“I can’t be here. I’m sorry! My friend’s in trouble!” I sprint out of the room. I have to find Ayumi.

I fling open the door to the nurse’s office. The beds are empty, and the nurse is gone. A gentle breeze blows into the room, fluttering the curtains. There is no sign of Ayumi.

She must’ve returned to our room. I did tell her I’d meet her there after dinner.

I run out of the building and across the courtyard. Several students dodge out of the way.

My dorm room is like the nurse’s office—empty. She hasn’t come back.

I lie down on my bed, not knowing what to do. Ayumi could be anywhere in the world right now, or, she might already be beyond this world. I tuck my legs in my arms and bury my head. “You idiot.”

The door creaks open. “Anyone here?” asks a girl.

She comes through the entranceway, a nervous wreck.

“Who are you?”

“A-Ayumi.”

“No you’re not.”

She has Ayumi’s body, with her flat chest and thin arms. She even has her hair tied in the same cute little ponytail with the flower in the front. But her hair isn’t black. It’s silver, with hints of yellow throughout. And her eyes aren’t the same comforting sea blue. They’re blood red.

She kicks at the ground “I’m sorry I…I couldn’t bear the thought of life without you, so I made up an excuse and ran to the man in the cap.”

“I know.” I do my best to keep my voice level. I want to run up to her and hug her, thanking her for my life, but I can’t reward her for rash behavior.

“You’re not mad…are you?”

“Mad? No, not at all. You saved my life. I don’t know if I should hug you, thank you, or chastise you for acting like a big impulsive idiot. But beyond everything else, I’m afraid. Your hair and your eye color can’t have been the only cost.”

Ayumi grabs her now-bleached ponytail and gives it a squeeze. It’ll take some getting used. “You know I’m scared, too. But what could be worse than losing you? I was too afraid to go on alone. That makes me a coward, doesn’t it?”

“You risked your life for me. That’s not cowardly at all. But why didn’t you wait for me?”

“If I did, I might have forgotten you existed, or you might have talked me out of it.” She seems tired. “But now you have my life force flowing through you. Losing the lively colors of my hair and eyes is a pretty small price for the contract.”

“Contract?”

She shows me a small cut on her finger. “The contract to summon a familiar. The contract so you may live.”

I sit in thought for a bit. “Well, what happened, happened. We can’t turn back from reality and return from whence we came. We have to make our decisions based on what’s already happened.”

Ayumi taps her knee brace. “Like me not needing to waste time in physical therapy anymore?” There’s a silver lining in everything.

“Now, you summoned this familiar, right? Where is it? And what is it? A dog? A cat?”

A girl peeks out from behind her shoulder. It’s no wonder I didn’t notice her before. I can see right through her.

Ayumi moves aside. “Go on. This is Sakura, my friend. Go ahead, introduce yourself.”

The girl scurries in front of Ayumi, her hands shaking. “M-my name is H-Haruka. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
[close]

Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Rekindled Flame



The instant she finishes introducing herself, Haruka hides behind Ayumi again. I wonder if ghosts mature differently than humans. She has the body of a high school student, but acts like a kid.

“You summoned a ghost?” I ask.

Ayumi nudges her. “Come on, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Sakura’s very nice, and I’m sure she’ll be happy to meet you. Go on, let her get a good look at you.”

Haruka timidly steps back in front of her. When she stands upright, she’s taller than Ayumi. Her auburn hair is tied in a braid which she keeps over her shoulder, and her gray eyes stare blankly into space. All she’s wearing is a simple white peasant’s dress.

“Pleasure to meet you too, Haruka. Thank you for saving my life.” What else can I say?

Haruka’s hand shakes. When she can’t take it anymore, she asks Ayumi, “C-can I do anything for you, master? I’ll leave you two to talk while I make s-some tea, or t-take a walk, or something…”

Ayumi sits gingerly on her bed. “You don’t need to call me ‘master.’ I want to be your friend.”

Haruka shuffles her feet nervously. “What would you command me to do, ma—Ayumi?”

Ayumi pats her bed. “Take a seat. Join in whenever you feel like it.” Haruka floats over next to her.

Ayumi places a small plastic bag on her desk. “To answer your question, she’s not a ghost, she’s a familiar. We’re connected, though it’s not like I really understand any of it.”

“Why’s she transparent?”

“He said they all look like that.”

I don’t need to ask who he is referring to. “Tell me your story from the moment you left the cafeteria.”

Ayumi folds her hands. “I didn’t stop at the nurse’s office and instead followed my GPS straight to his office.”

“I figured as much.”

Haruka inspects our room, taking more interest in everything than a small child.

Ayumi bows. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to lie to you!”

“Stop apologizing. But promise you’ll never lie to me again. No secrets, no judging.”

Haruka scoots to the edge of the bed, and reaches for Ayumi’s closet. But she can’t make it and falls to the floor. In a fit of embarrassment, she scrambles back to Ayumi’s side.

“What happened next?” I ask.

“When I got there, he was in the middle of some intensive paperwork. He stopped the instant I walked in. He was Mr. Friendly again, calling me Ayumi and all.”

She holds up her finger with the pinprick. “He gave me this strange incantation to say and took the ‘blood offering to the first familiar.’ He gave me a bottle of black hair dye and colored contacts.” She holds up the bag from earlier. “I didn’t think about why I’d need those until it was too late. I said the words and felt tingly all over. A black void opened in front of me, and the girl you see now came out of it.”

Haruka crashes onto the floor again. Judging from her position, she had tried to reach for the closet again. She scrambles back to the bed.

“If you want to open it, stand up,” Ayumi says.

“But you told me to sit.”

“Use your head,” she says. It’s a bit of a surprise when Haruka casually pulls the door open. She takes everything so literally, I thought she would’ve head butted it.

I ask, “What happened then?”

“We introduced ourselves, and I told her why I summoned her.”

Haruka closes Ayumi’s closet. But when her eyes catch mine, she dives behind Ayumi.

Ayumi moves aside. “Sakura and I are together a lot, so you better get used to her.”

Haruka crawls out from behind her. “Do you mean, as in, you’re more than just friends?”

She’s not the first person to make that mistake. I say, “No, just friends. Nothing more.”

Haruka’s fear breaks, to be replaced with excitement. “Don’t worry, I’ll stay out of your way. You really are a cute couple. You’ll definitely go for a traditional wedding, with kimonos and stuff, and there’ll be lots of guests and flowers!”

Ayumi comes to my bed as Haruka fantasizes about our wedding. “Let her dream. Better this than scared.”

She grabs her ponytail. “I freaked out when I saw this. But Haruka assured me all necromancers have silver hair and red eyes.”

“Necromancer?” Quite a scary word to use casually.

Ayumi drops her hair back in place. “Well, I’m flirting with death to give you life, which is pretty much the definition of necromancy.”

“Isn’t necromancy evil?”

“I thought so too. But if it’s nothing more than summoning a new friend to save another, it can’t be.”

It’s still a scary word. Ayumi seems to think the same thing, as a tense silence falls between us.

Haruka is still in dreamland. “Ayumi should totally wear sea green to match Sakura’s eyes, though what kind of color is green for a wedding?”

That’s enough to break my tension. “Do you need help dyeing your hair?”

Ayumi folds her hands. “I think I’ll leave it like this. Sort of separates Kochi Ayumi from Tokyo Ayumi, don’t you think?”

I place my arm around her. “Thanks for what you did for me. But, please, don’t do something so reckless alone again. I’d have gone with you if you had asked. Do you have any idea how much my heart ached when I didn’t know whether you were dead or alive? I don’t think I could bear life without you.”

Haruka puts her hands to her heart. “That’s so adorable!”

“Not like that!” we exclaim.

I measure up Haruka’s body. “What size do you take?”

Haruka cocks her head. “Size?”

“Well, you’ll need a uniform to go to school with us.”

“Um, about that…” says Ayumi.

A sharp rap comes on the door and a young voice shouts, “Are you girls coming to dinner or what?” She must be part of the residence committee.

The door flings open. There’s no time for us to hide Haruka. We’re going to get in so much trouble for bringing an outsider in. More than that, we’re going to get so many questions about why she’s transparent.

The dark-skinned girl storms into the room, the bells in her hair singing with every step. Wasn’t she the one helping the student council?

She scrutinizes every centimeter of our room. When she passes Haruka, I nearly jump out of my skin. Yet she doesn’t pay her any more heed than our fish bowl and finishes her examination.

“Come on, you two. Up!” she lifts her hands. “The cafeteria’ll be closed by the time you get there!”

I lean over to Ayumi and whisper, “She sure spends a lot of time in our school for a kid.”

“What did you say?” She places her hands on her hips.

“Nothing.” When she verifies we’re up, she storms out of the room.

When the doors slams, I ask, “Two of us?”

“Most people can’t see Haruka. In fact, you’re the first person I know who can.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t think you would either.” Not wanting to risk the further wrath of that kid, we head to the cafeteria.

We sit at our normal table. “Do you want to go investigating after dinner? Like, you have to have some cool powers now, right?”

Ayumi squeezes her ponytail. “Not really. I’m just an ageless human.”

“Then how about we search for more shades?”

She turns pale. “I’d rather not.”

“What do you mean?”

“Shades are terrifying. I don’t want to deal with them again.”

“But how’re we going to get any more information about them if we don’t face them?”

She sets her chopsticks down. “We don’t need any more information about them. You’re alive because of Haruka, and I’m alive because I summoned her. Nothing else matters. So let’s enjoy high school and forget shades exist.”

I don’t know what to say. She’s not running away from her fears again, is she? Then again, she did confront death itself to save me, so who am I to judge?

***

When we return from dinner, Haruka is nestled in Ayumi’s sheets. Ayumi pulls a blanket over her body. “So even spirits need rest.”

Haruka bolts up. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Just conserving my energy for when ma—erm, Ayumi got back. What would you command me to do?”

“I don’t command you to do anything. You’re our friend.”

“As your familiar, I’m bound to do what you ask me. I am yours to command both now and forever. Anything will be done without question,”—she gives the slightest hint of a grin—“unless you command me otherwise.”

Ayumi undoes her ponytail. “If you need an order, fine. I order you to think for yourself, and tell me when you disagree. I order you to do what you feel is best, even if it’s different from what I want. I order you to never request an order from me. I order you to take anything I say as a suggestion, not a command. And I order, no, request you become our friend if you want.”

She has no way of refusing. “As you command.”

Ayumi throws a towel over her crutch. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take the first bath. I’ve had a long day.”

“Do you want me to wash your back?” asks Haruka.

“I’ll be fine. Stay with Sakura and get to know each other a bit.”

When Ayumi leaves, Haruka lies back on her bed and studies the ceiling. I wait for her to say something, but no such luck. I’ll have to start.

“Hey, Haruka.”

Her head bolts up. It’s still freaky how I can see Ayumi’s boy band poster through it. “Yes?”

“If you really want to wash someone’s back, you could always wash mine.”

Haruka waves me off. “I’d never take that right away from Ayumi. Oh, and if you want to sleep together tonight, I’m perfectly fine sleeping alone.”

I don’t feel like correcting her right now. “Never mind.”

After a brief silence Haruka asks, “Can you tell me a bit about Ayumi?”

“Didn’t she tell you anything on the way back from the office?”

“She more told me about you and how she’d do anything to save you. But I really want to know more about her. What’s she like?”

Haruka leans in like a small child waiting for an ice cream cone. Well, describing her can’t hurt. “She’s a little bit stubborn, and sometimes doesn’t think things through. But she’s fiercely loyal to the people she cares about, and wouldn’t leave them for the world.”

“I see. And what about her parents? Where are they in this picture?”

She traces the cracks on the ceiling with her finger. I have to be careful—these are dangerous waters. “She doesn’t get along with them. She’s much happier with them out of the picture for now. As for why, that’s not my story to tell.”

Haruka stops her finger at the end of a crack. “I see. I won’t pry any further.”

Ayumi hobbles back into the room a few minutes later. “Did you have a good chat?”

Haruka sits up. “Yeah, it went great. Sakura told me all about you and your parents and—”

She did what?!” Ayumi glares at me.

The blood’s draining out of my face. “You’re getting the wrong idea! I only told her you didn’t get along with them.”

A good ten seconds pass before Ayumi calms down. “Sorry. I should have known you wouldn’t do that.”

She collapses on her bed. “Even from nine hours away, they haunt my thoughts. I wish they were gone. I wish they were dead and buried, so I’d never have to worry about meeting them ever again.”

Even with all the horrible things her parents did, they don’t deserve to die. Every life is precious, even if we don’t know how yet.

Ayumi rolls over. “Go take your bath. The water’ll get cold.”

I grab my towel. “If you ever need to talk, I’m always here.”

When I return, Ayumi and Haruka are already asleep in her bed. Thankfully we have these wide beds, or Haruka might have wound up on the floor.

My thoughts race as I settle in bed. Her parents are the easy part. I just need to be the loving mom and dad Ayumi never had.

The hard part is everything else. I’ll have to give Haruka a tour of the school tomorrow. She doesn’t seem like a bad person. She’s just a little curious. Ayumi, on the other hand, I don’t know what to think. She’ll never walk again because of me. But that was her choice, so who am I to judge?

***

As far back as I can remember, when I slept, I dreamt. No, I should clarify. Every single night without fail, I would have a dream. My doctors called them lucid dreams, since I could control everything consciously. When I lived in the elementary school’s dorm, I’d rush to bed to get to sleep so I could ride on the back of a unicorn again. In middle school, I’d run in the Olympics. But in high school, so far, I have yet to have one.

One time I can excuse as chance. But to have this happen two times in a row, I have to conclude my days of dreaming are finished. The dead don’t dream.

“Good morning.” I stifle a yawn. Even if I can’t enjoy sleep anymore, I’m still tired in the morning.

“Ah, morning.” Ayumi is already brushing out her hair. My hairbrush is somewhere in my closet, as clean as the day I bought it. I’ll need to find a new excuse to avoid using it, since my old excuse of “runner’s hair” won’t hold up anymore.

“Where’s Haruka?” She doesn’t seem to be in the room.

Ayumi struggles through a knot. “Probably went for a walk or something. I’m sure she’ll be back after dinner.”

“You mean she’s not coming to school?”

“Nah. We decided it’d be best if she stayed behind.”

“Why?”

Ayumi finishes brushing and ties her ponytail. “So we can have some ‘alone time.’”

“I see.” We finish changing and leave, my hairbrush still untouched.

Ayumi hands me her token in the cafeteria. “I’d like an extra serving of rice if you could.”

“You’re gonna get fat.”

She makes air quotes. “My body’ll always revert to its original state.” Is that true? More importantly, do the same rules apply to me?

I’m able to walk right up to the serving line, thanks to how early we are. “What’ll it be?” asks the cook. My heart flutters. Being noticed is so wonderful!

I carry our trays back to our table, where Ayumi reads her biology book.

I pass her a tray. “So diligent. I was gonna wing it.”

Ayumi splits her chopsticks. “Have to keep my grades up. I couldn’t imagine what my father’d do if—”

Her chopsticks drop onto her tray.

I dig into my rice. “He’s nine hours away. Don’t worry about him, all right?”

Her hands shake as she picks them back up. “I’ll try…”

I try changing topics, but nothing changes her mood. I need something to bail me out here!

As if answering my prayers, the girl with orange pigtails skips to our table and waves. “Heya!”

After all the events of yesterday, I have some difficulty putting a name to her face—until I see her bright green eyes.

“Hey, Nami.” I take a celebratory sip of miso soup for getting it right.

She gives me a thumbs up. “Why don’t you come sit with us? You’re part of the baking club now, so no point in sitting alone! Bring your friend with the cool hair along, too. Is she interested in joining? I’m sure we can save a spot for her. And she’s so cute too, like a doll, Does she like nicknames? How about Sugar? It’d go with her hair.”

“Ayumi’s fine.” She props herself out of her chair. “And I’d be glad to sit with you guys, as long as there aren’t too many stairs.”

“Oh dear! What happened there?” Nami finally notices Ayumi’s knee.

She laughs it off. “My knee was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a tool cabinet collapsed. The doctors don’t know if it’ll ever heal, but I’m used to it by now.”

Nami pats her shoulder “Well, you’re part of us now, so follow me!”

Nami chats incessantly as we head toward the windows. “Look at the view!” Ayumi exclaims, seeing Kochi from a different angle. The foot of the Washio Mountain meets the water beneath us. To our left is the city center, where the buildings hug the Kagami River so tight, it’s a surprise they don’t fall in. The alleys are much closer, near the port.

To our right, the Kagami and Kokubu rivers merge into the Urado Bay, which then meanders past lush greenery and houses. Way in the distance is the Katsurahama beach and the ocean. It’s a bit too cold for it now, but come summer I’m sure we’ll make daily pilgrimages there.

“I know, right?” Nami takes her place next to the black-haired student—what was her name again? There are only the four of us at the table, but judging from the bags under the other seats, the other girls will be here shortly.

Nami pokes the black-haired student. “Kyouko, can you pass the soy sauce?” Oh right, that’s her name.

“At least say good morning,” she gripes before passing the bottle.

“So, tell me a bit about yourself.” Nami smiles, not acknowledging Kyouko’s remark. “What’re you good at, what’re you bad at, are you any good at baking, what’s your favorite thing to bake, who’s your favorite band, do you like guys or gir—”

Kyouko slaps her hand over Nami’s mouth. “What kind of a question is that?”

She takes a slurp of her soup with her free hand. “Sorry for my rambling friend here. She’s just curious. Can’t say I’m uninterested either. Tell us a bit about yourselves.”

Ayumi swallows her rice. “I’m Ayumi, and this is Sakura. We’re from Tokyo North Middle School.”

Nami breaks free of Kyouko’s hold. “Tokyo? Isn’t that really far?”

After the near disaster of the first day, I had rehearsed an excuse. “Of course it is. But this was the only school with a seaside view.”

Nami holds her hand out toward the window. “Everyone has their own reasons for choosing a school, so who am I to judge? Did you know the founder chose this spot for building a school for the same reason? Imagine, building a school on the side of a mountain. The costs had to have been enormous! But enough about him, we’re talking about our reasons. For me, I chose this school because it was close to home and—”

Nami’s mouth isn’t about to shut itself, so Kyouko’s hand does the job for her. Kyouko motions for us to continue as more students take their seats. “How long have you been baking?”

It’s Ayumi’s turn to answer. “Eh, as long as I can remember. We never really bought sweets in my house, so I usually had to make them myself if I wanted them.”

She knows my experience from yesterday, but I don’t want to feel left out. “I mainly ate what she made. I’ve never touched a wok in my life.”

Nami sticks her mouth through Kyouko’s fingers. “Well, not like you need experience. I wasn’t that great at it either. But you get the hang of it. Lesson one: You don’t use a wok for baking.”

Kyouko shuts the gap. “How about bands? Do you listen to any music?”

“Well, I’m a big fan of Silent Circular Infinity,” I say.

“Really?” Nami leaps out of her chair. “Me too! You have to come over some time so I can show you my alarm clock and—”

Ayumi knows to cut her off this time. “I like Johnnie’s Boys.”

Kyouko folds her arms and gives an approving nod. “But you better not be too into Kazuto. He’s my reserved property.”

Ayumi giggles. “You can keep him. I’ll take my chances with Makoto.” A stab of jealousy pierces my chest. Over Makoto? Nah, he’s not my type. But, then what am I feeling?

The other girls trickle in and join in our chats. But they all wear yellow ties. Ayumi and I are the only first-year students, so the rest are second-year students.

When we arrive at class, a third-year student calls for us before we can put our books down.

“Can I help you?” Ayumi asks.

“The student council would like to see you at lunch today.” As class president, that’ll probably become a normal thing. “And bring your freckled friend too.”

Wait, me? I’m innocent, I tell you! You’ve got the wrong girl!

I hardly pay attention in class as my mind stays on the meeting. What can it be? We can’t have broken any rules yet. Well, no, we haven’t been caught breaking any rules. I’m no closer to figuring it out when the bell chimes for lunch.

“What do you think they want?” I pick up Ayumi’s bag for her.

She carefully balances her weight on her crutches. “Probably wants a profile on the new members of the baking club.”

On the trip to the student council room, I help Ayumi prepare with suggestions like “Smile a lot” and “Let them hear what they want to hear.” But nothing could’ve prepared us for the room itself.

“What’s with all the butterflies?” The entire door is covered with cardboard cutouts, save for the sign in the middle which reads “Student Council” decorated with butterflies drawn with crayon. Didn’t the club booths have signs like this as well?

“They must get bored.” I tap on the door, taking care not to touch a single butterfly.

“Come in,” responds a soft voice.

When I open the door, I expect a table filled with girls wearing armbands signifying their ranks and neat stacks of papers in front of them. But life is never what we expect.

The room is mostly empty. There is a table with papers on it, but they seem to all belong to a single unorganized pile. Nobody is in the room, except a girl sitting at a computer near the window. Oh, she’s the kid I’ve seen around campus the past couple days.

“Where’s the student council?” This is a pretty normal room, with a clean chalkboard on the right wall mirrored by metal bookshelves on the left. Empty folding chairs are set up around the table, each with a name taped on.

“You’re looking at it.” the girl stops clicking around. “You must be Ayumi and Sakura, I take it? My name is Erica, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Charmed,” I say. “Now, where’s your sister? I’d like to get to lunch before the cafeteria closes.”

“Sister?” Erica cocks her head. “I’m an only child.”

“Then who bought your uniform?”

“I did.”

“Who brought you to school?”

“I woke up and walked here myself.”

“Whose job are you doing?”

“Mine.”

She’s good at this game. But it’s time for it to end.

“Who paid you to pretend to be a high school student?”

She slams her hand on the table and stands up, even if it doesn’t add much height for her. “The quotient rule is, the derivative of a over b is b times the derivative of a minus a times the derivative of b, all over b squared. The sine of x over 2 is plus or minus the square root of 1 minus the cosine of x over 2. The Black-Scholes model is the partial derivative of…”

My eyes spin from the bombardment of math. Is she even speaking the same language? My head hurts!

Ayumi, my savior, breaks up the evil onslaught. “We get it. You really are a student here. Sorry, you look kind of—”

“Young?”

We both nod.

“I know.” She sinks back in her chair.

Did we hurt her? “I’m sorry.”

“Do you think I could have made it this far looking like this if I let something like that upset me?” She leans back in her chair—the only swivel chair in the room. “Now, take a seat. The speech-makers won’t be joining us today.”

“But you said you were the entire student council.” I sit down in one of the folding chairs. These are really low to the ground compared to Erica’s.

“I’m the treasurer. The other members make their speeches, sign papers when I tell them to, and go home at the end of the day. I’d run the entire thing alone if not for the speeches.”

“Stage fright?” Ayumi suggests.

Erica mumbles, “I can’t reach the microphone…”

We both stifle a laugh. Erica slams her hand on the table again. “Enough of this! The reason why I brought you here is because of that.” She points at Ayumi.

“I have a name, you know.”

Erica slams her hands on the table yet again. “I mean, your hair! Why is it silver?”

So somebody else noticed it. Ayumi bites her lip. “This is my natural color.”

Erica folds her arms. “It was black yesterday.”

Ayumi is visibly shaking. “Um, well, um…”

“Hair dye,” I cut in.

“Excuse me?” Erica’s flabbergasted.

This’ll work. “She wanted to dye her hair black to blend in, but it washed out in the bath yesterday.”

Ayumi gives me a wink. “It’s so itchy when it’s in, too! I think I’m allergic to it. I’ll keep it like this from now on.”

Erica’s can’t argue that point. “I’ll let this incident slide, but you must promise to follow the rules. You will not leave the school ground outside of weekends again, and you’ll be back in your beds by curfew. Understood?”

“Wait. How did you know?” I ask.

A sinister smile creeps across Erica’s face. “By your confession.”

Ayumi blinks. “Confession? What confession?”

Erica’s bells jiggle when she leans back. “Sakura just said, ‘How did you know?’ That’s a confession. I don’t need any further proof.”

Did I really get outwitted by a quasi-ten-year-old? “Fine, you win. We won’t leave without permission. Do you need anything else?”

Erica reaches in her bag and pulls out a stack of boxed lunches. “Why don’t you stay here and eat with me? I made enough for three.”

“I don’t see why not—”

Ayumi’s grabs my sleeve. “I really wanted to eat the Katsuo Tataki on the menu today.”

Erica’s already setting out boxed lunches at three of the empty chairs. Her sunny face radiates her joy. She’s nothing like the girl yesterday, eating alone while a couple of first-year students made fun of her.

“They’ll serve it again. We might never get to eat in here again.”

Ayumi sits down. “I guess you’re right.”

We pick through our meals. Erica apparently has some sort of fondness for pickled cabbage, which takes up at least a fourth of our boxes. But like most kids, she saves her favorite for last.

She takes a sip of water before talking. “This doesn’t have to be the only time if you don’t want it to be. You seem nice enough. I could use some help here, so why don’t I nominate you for membership?”

Ayumi stares at me. Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking. “Thanks, but we already joined the baking club.”

Erica stabs a slice of her salmon. “I see,” she mutters to the table.

“By the way, we’re not going to go out without permission again, but why do you care? You’re a student too.”

She reaches into her bag again. “Because I’m also the head of the residence committee.” She pulls out an armband so large, I can’t help but giggle.

“What’s so funny?” she asks.

Now it’s time to show her I can do math too. “That armband makes your arm look like a twig! Its diameter is like double your arm’s radius!”

She groans and covers her face with her hand. “You know that means it’d fit, right? Two radii make one diameter.”

After we finish our lunch and spend a mundane afternoon in class, Nami introduces us to the baking club. Then she stands on a table. “I got word from the Tosa Retirement Home about their spring party on Saturday. They’d like cookies to feed two hundred, and I know just the girls to bake for them.”

We cheer and get to work. Well, most of us. Kyouko keeps her arms folded and frowns.

Ayumi and I are grouped with Kyouko and Nami. Nami hands out assignments. “I’ll make the batter, Kyouko can cut out the cookies, Sakura, you handle the oven, and my cute little silver-haired doll—”

“Ayumi.”

Nami sticks out her tongue. “Ayumi can decorate.” As long as Ayumi can stay seated, we’ll get this done no problem.

Kyouko hands me the first tray to put in the oven. “Is something wrong?” I ask as I slide it in.

“Oh, it’s nothing.” She rolls the batter out like a pro and presses her cookie cutter into it with her nimble fingers. But she remains as gloomy as ever.

I grab her new tray and place it on the other rack. “I know we barely know each other, but if you want to let something out, I’m a great listener.”

Kyouko jams a cookie cutter into a fresh sheet of dough. “Fine, I’ll let it off my chest. I wish we were doing this for an orphanage instead of a retirement home.”

Nami drops some more batter in the bowl and asks “Do you want to arrange another event?”

Kyouko scoops the cuts on a sheet. “No. To be honest, I don’t like the elderly. They have absolutely nothing left to contribute to society except their wisdom, and it’s always veiled in sarcasm and nastiness. I know I’m supposed to respect them, but it’s hard to when they always seem to treat me like dirt.”

“Ow!” I pull my hand back when I touch a hot tray fresh out of the oven.

Kyouko grabs my hand and thrusts my finger into a pot of cold water. “You can’t touch those directly!”

I wince at the pain. By the time I’ve been medically aided, I can’t remember what we’re talking about.

Kyouko’s blue tie reminds me of something. “Do you know a girl named Erica?”

“Erica?” She pauses to think for a bit. “Oh, the Filipino girl? Yeah, she was in my class last year.”

“So she really isn’t just a smart ten-year-old.” If I was outwitted by a real ten-year-old, I don’t know if my pride could ever recover. I take the now-cool trays off the stovetop and place them in front of Ayumi.

“No, she really is seventeen. Don’t let her looks fool you. She’ll be as tough as leather if you try to pull one on her. That’s why we elected her treasurer.” She hands me some oven mitts for future trays and then goes back to cutting out shapes.

“Oh my God!” Ayumi shrieks.

“What?” We ask. I half expect to see her in a pool of blood.

There’s no blood. Instead, there are only tears. “The poor cookies! They’re burnt!”

Today, I learned three important lessons. Lesson One: Never touch a hot tray with your bare hand. Lesson Two: If you don’t keep track of your cookies, they’ll burn. Lesson Three: Ayumi goes to tears over a burnt cookie.

After a quick dinner, we return to the dorm room. “I wonder if Haruka’s all right,” Ayumi asks.

“I’m sure she’s fine.”

“But she was by herself all day and we didn’t leave her anything to do.”

“Maybe she went exploring. It’s a large campus.”

I pull open the door to find Haruka lying prone on my bed with her feet in the air. She leans her head on one hand and flips through one of my manga comics with the other. “Welcome back.”

A high stack is piled next to her. How many volumes can you go through in a day? “Did you read all of this already?”

She flips the page. “Most of it. Never would have expected you to be the type to be into magical girls and—”

I jump on my bed and put my hand over her mouth. It goes right through her, but at least she shuts up.

Ayumi stifles a giggle.

“Seriously?” My blood’s rushing to my face.

“Who am I to judge? We said no secrets, no judging, right?” She turns to Haruka. “Though, you really shouldn’t go through Sakura’s stuff without her permission.”

Haruka closes my manga. “Fiiine. But, isn’t there anything else I can do? I’m bored.”

Ayumi puts her finger to her chin. “You like reading, don’t you?”

“Better than nothing.”

Ayumi pulls her tablet out of her bag. “There’s a service on here to read as many books as you want. My credit card should be saved in it. Sign up for it, and you can download anything you want.”

Haruka carefully holds the tablet and inspects every centimeter of the unfamiliar tool. “Thanks.”

I place one of my books on the shelf. “By the way, why isn’t the tablet going through you like my hand?”

She touches a button on the tablet and jumps at its response. “You initiated the touch. Only another familiar can forcibly touch me, but I can touch anything I want. Or not touch, for that matter.”

“Makes sense.” I place another book to the left of the first.

Haruka hits a few more buttons. “It says there’s no connection.”

“It’s a bit windy out, so maybe the Wi-Fi’s weaker inside right now. Try outside.”

Haruka leaves the room. Not even five seconds pass before Ayumi bursts into a fit of giggles. “Seriously, magical girls?”

I drop the book in my hand. “I wanted to see what the fuss was all about and got hooked. Is it so weird?”

She sticks her tongue out at me. “Let me borrow one of those books one day.”

The door slips open. “That was fast.” But when I get up to greet Haruka, I remember she’s still outside. Our homeroom teacher is at the door.

“Can I help you?” asks Ayumi.

“Would you mind coming to my office? I have something to discuss with you.” But she’s not angry. Rather, her wrinkles show concern.

Ayumi looks back. “Can Sakura come?”

The teacher gently places her hand on Ayumi’s shoulder. “This really is a private matter, and you can discuss it with her later if you choose to.”

“Go ahead,” I say. It’s best if she does what the teacher asks. No need to create a conflict when there’s none in the first place. She leaves the room, and I’m all alone.

I open my closet door and pull away a few dresses. Twilight lies there, untouched by any would-be thieves. Then again, who’d look for a sword in the back of a girl’s closet?

Despite that, rust marks are already appearing on the blade. If Ayumi hadn’t summoned Haruka, those rust marks would be my fate. Could I even look at it like this if it was?

Fifteen minutes later, Ayumi stumbles back in with barely a sign of life on her face.

I rush over to her. “What happened?”

She stares into space. “My parents died overnight.”

Silence.

I don’t know what to say. I doubt she does either. Her eyes are dry, remaining fixed on our window.

She doesn’t move. She hardly even blinks. She remains stationary, consumed by her thoughts. She can’t stay like this.

“I’m sorry.” But am I really sorry? I did say her life would be better without them.

She lifts her finger to wipe her eye, and stops when she makes contact. “Why? I should be crying now, so why are there no tears?”

I throw my arms around her. “You can cry on my shoulder if you prefer.” Even then, she doesn’t cry. She buries her head and lets me embrace her.

When she finally lets go, the setting sun has turned the room a bright orange. “Thanks. I’m feeling a lot better now.”

I stroke her ponytail like I used to do back in middle school on her bad days. Sometimes, it’s all she needs to calm down. “I know it’s hard, but remember, I’m here for you.”

We sit together on the edge of my bed. “I’m a horrible person, aren’t I? I can cry over a burnt cookie, but I can’t cry over my parents. I was their only child and I abandoned them.”

“Who could blame you after what they did?”

She grips my comforter. “All of it’s my fault! Yet here I am, not feeling the least bit sad they died. What kind of a selfish piece of dirt am I?”

“Stop.”

It’s enough to bring her out of her self-pity. “Sorry. I know I should be sadder. But I keep thinking how relieved I am. I don’t have to go back ever again. I’m free.” She starts to smile, but catches herself. “I’m a horrible person. I deserved to die in their place.”

There are no words between us, because we both know how wrong she is.

“How did they die?”

“Murder. They were on a walk in the park when some stranger stabbed them.”

The room darkens as the sun sets behind the school building.

“Did they catch the culprit?”

“No, and I don’t think they ever will. According to all witnesses, no one saw the culprit. My parents were walking, and suddenly they started bleeding from the neck.”

She coughs viciously—as if it’s the only thing she can do to not throw up.

Haruka bursts through the door with the tablet. “What’s your password?”

Her hair has gone rogue. In fact, is that a sakura petal trapped in her braid?

Ayumi grabs her crutches and gets off my bed. “I’m going for a walk.”

“But your password?”

“Forget about it. Come on, I want to see what Kochi’s like at night.”

Ayumi leads us to the roof. Now I can see why Haruka’s hair is so disheveled. It’s so windy!

The city sprawls out below us, with lights shimmering through hundreds of tiny windows. In the distance we can see the mountains which make up the rest of the prefecture.

Haruka runs to the railing. “Whoa!” Sakura trees run as far as the eye can see, coloring our world pink.

Ayumi takes the spot next to her. “Quite the city, isn’t it?” She turns to me. “I’m glad you convinced me to come here.”

The wind ruffles Haruka’s braid. “But, you’re from Tokyo, aren’t you? Why’d you come here?”

I recite our line. “It was the only school with a view of the sea.” I point over the other railing to where Kagami River flows into the bay on its journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Ayumi sighs. “Tell her the truth.”

“Are you sure?” It’s not really my story to tell.

She leans on the railing. “I need to remind myself of it too, at times.”

I don’t like opening up old wounds, but I know this time, I have to. I admire the setting sun, recalling my room back in middle school, the day Ayumi came over.

***

I was sitting on the edge of my bed, waiting for Ayumi to finish her shower. The room had already sunk into darkness thanks to the dreary winter months.

The snow was really piling up fast out there. Maybe I could convince Ayumi to stay over for the night instead of braving the weather to get back home.

A cold wind blew through my broken window. I folded a blanket around my legs for some sort of warmth, but it hardly did anything.

The clock ticked, and with each passing minute, my heart beat faster. Did she really not want help? If she didn’t, should I force help on her? I had just laid my head down when my door slid open.

“S-Sakura?” Ayumi peeked in.

I picked my head off my pillow. “Turn on the light, will you?”

Ayumi flipped it on, and sat at my desk. “Look, I’m sorry if I overreacted. I give it a 9. But I’m being honest, it was nothing more than a fall off my bike and—”

“You know, I’ve lived in dorms since kindergarten, and even before then, I’d spend the entire day at a childcare center, only coming ‘home’ to sleep. Do you know why?”

Ayumi shook her head.

“They were siblings. My grandparents couldn’t let them raise me, but they weren’t willing to take care of me themselves. They hired somebody to watch over me at night and as soon as they could get me into a dorm, they locked me up.”

Ayumi’s jaw dropped. “What?” But her shock was ephemeral, and receded back into her stubborn crevices.

“I’ve decided I want no secrets between us. No lies. We’re friends, right? Don’t hide anything from me. I can support you if you tell me the truth, but if we keep lying, how are we supposed to solve our issues?”

Ayumi admired the busy streets of Tokyo below. “I think I’d like that. Yeah, I definitely would, if you’re all right with listening to me. Not like I could even keep a diary without my mom discovering it.”

I grabbed the withered remains of my attempt to grow a sea-lavender plant on my windowsill and plucked off its sole flower. “Here.” I affixed it to her hair. “This is a symbol of our promise. Always wear it as a reminder.”

“Won’t it wilt?” She touched it gently.

Oh, right. “We’ll need to get you a cloth one tomorrow.”

Her stubbornness seemed to be fading. “But, what about you?”

“I’ll wear my freckles.”

“Those came with you!”

I ran my fingers through my hair. “You know I can’t. I’d pull it out the first opportunity. Besides, I don’t want to spend an hour doing it up in the morning.” I stuck out my tongue at her, which at least made her laugh.

Then it was time to turn somber. “I want to help you. I know you didn’t fall off your bike, or you wouldn’t have come up here. Who did that to you?”

She grabbed ahold of her ponytail and gave it a squeeze. “My father,” she whispered, barely audible.

I took a moment to let it seep in. I had pretty much concluded it from her behavior, but hearing it from her lips hit me a bit harder than I expected. But I had to remain calm. It was the only way she could trust me. “How long has this been going on?”

Ayumi grabbed the hem of her skirt. “Ever since I entered middle school, when I joined the track club.”

“Why haven’t you told anyone?”

“Because I deserve every mark I have. He says I don’t put in the effort, so I can’t beat my fastest times. I go for the gold, but sometimes winning isn’t enough. If I’m a few hundredths of a second slower, what use is it? I’m not getting any better.”

I’d loved to have hugged her, but she might not take it the right way. “Nobody deserves what’s happening to you.”

She jumped up and clenched her fists. “What would you know? You’ve never had anyone there to criticize you or applaud you! You’ve never had to impress anyone in your life! You do what you want because you want to do it!”

“Do you think I wanted that?” It was hard to stay calm. I had to remember: she was the victim, not me. “Listen. Everyone should have someone to cheer for them. But if you want someone to cheer for you, let me. Don’t rely on him.”

Ayumi glared for a few seconds. But as soon as the fit of anger came on, it passed, and she sat back down. “Sorry. I said too much.”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much from you.”

She paused for a moment. “I want to get better, but it hurts.”

As much as I wanted to pretend she wasn’t going through this, I knew if I didn’t take her situation at face value, she’d never get better. “What are you going to do to make it stop?”

Ayumi squeezed her ponytail hard. “There’s nothing I can do, save grin and bear it.”

“You could always report it. They’d find a nice guardian to watch over you.”

That set her off again. “You think I want my parents thrown in jail? Don’t you know how they treat the children of criminals? Fuji South? Forget it! And forget any other high schools in Japan. I’d have to live as a sewer rat.”

As awful as it was, I knew she was right. There wasn’t much choice in the matter.

I sat in thought for a while. Well, if we couldn’t end the abuse, then the only solution was to lessen it. “Why don’t I come over to your place tonight?”

Ayumi seemed to be taken aback by my sudden question. “Come over? He wouldn’t really like a surprise visitor.”

I’ll have to work with the hand I’ve been dealt. “Then tomorrow. And every day after.”

“For what?”

I folded my arms to give off a strong appearance. “If I’m there, he can’t hit you.”

“He’d never let you come over for no real reason until I move out.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. “Don’t worry. I have a good excuse.”

“What?” She folded her arms to mirror mine.

I wasn’t about to lose to the situation. “We have entrance exams coming up, right? We’ll study until he goes to bed every night. I don’t know of anyone who’d say no to having a diligent student helping their daughter.”

Ayumi stifled a laugh. “You? Diligent?”

“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. Besides, it’s not like we’re going to be fooling around. We’re going to study for real.” I winked.

“You know, Fuji South’s entrance exam really isn’t hard.” It was intentionally created like that so all athletes could pass.

“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him.” I repeated.
[close]

Chapter 4
Chapter 4: Extinguished Flame

We’re back in Kochi, standing in silence as a cool evening breeze kicks up. Ayumi shivers, but I don’t think it’s from the cold.

“Are you all right?” I ask. She’s doing everything possible to stay upright.

She wobbles and her crutches fall with a dull wooden clunk. Thank God I catch her before she hits her head.

“Heh, sorry,” she says soft enough for a whisper. “It felt like I was there again.”

I check her forehead for a fever, but when I remember she can’t get sick anymore, I pull it back.

“Sorry, Haruka. We’ll have to finish this story some other time.”

Ayumi only needs a couple of minutes to recover. When we arrive in our room, Ayumi takes a seat at the edge of her bed. “Was it the right choice to come here?”

“Of course it was. You remember what he did to you.”

She folds her hands together. “He didn’t hit me hard. I was exaggerating.”

“Don’t lie. I saw your back.”

Ayumi flinches, as if she feels his cold hand on her. “But was it worth their lives? If I was there I could have done something. I could have warned them in time or blocked the blade or—”

“—wound up the victim yourself.” Haruka finishes her sentence and flops face-down on her bed.

“Are you all right?” Ayumi asks.

“Yeah, I’m a little sleepy. Had a long night.”

“Familiars get sleepy?” I wonder aloud.

“It’s not like we’re machines. Nevertheless, we’ll keep going so long as our masters need us.” She lets her hand go limp as she falls into a slumber.

Water collects in the corners of Ayumi’s eyes. I can’t tell if they’re from grief or her confusion over what she should feel.

“Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” I ask.

Knowing her emotions have betrayed her, she crawls into my bed.

I lie next to her, running my fingers down her ponytail, like I had done on her worst days months before. Ayumi grasps my other hand. “You know, my mom used to play with my hair when I was a little girl. Sometimes, it’d be the only thing that’d get me to sleep.”

“Do you want me to stop?” I don’t want to bring up bad memories if I don’t have to.

“No. Keep going. I want to remember the times when we were a family. The times before he turned into a monster…”

I don’t stop until I hear her voice replaced by the soft rhythmic breathing of sleep.

***

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I must have somewhere since the morning light now filters through our window.

“Good morning, sunshine.” Ayumi’s already finished putting on her uniform and is working on her hair.

She grabs a spare hair tie from her desk. “Need a tie?”

“As if I’d ever take the time to do my hair in the morning.” Her giggles are all I need to know she’s feeling better.

At the cafeteria, Nami has already reserved our table and waves. “It’s good to belong somewhere.”

In the corner of my eye, I spy Erica, sitting alone again, swaying her short legs in the air. A couple of second-year students pass by her table, glance at her, and giggle.

“Sakura?” asks Ayumi.

“You go ahead. I’ll be right there.”

I can almost see the question marks on Ayumi’s face, but she hobbles ahead and leaves me alone.

I take a seat across from Erica. “Don’t they bother you?”

She stabs a slice of salmon to put in her mouth. “I’ve lived my entire life with insults and mockery. They don’t bother me. Though I’ll need some excuse to cut their club’s funding now.”

She really is scary. “Do you want to eat with us? We’re sitting with the baking club and—”

“I’m on the student council. I can’t join a baking club.”

“You don’t have to. Club member or not, anyone can sit with us.”

“Pass.” She cleans up her tray and hops off her chair. “My ears can only handle so much rambling from Nami in a day.”

She darts out of earshot before I can counter.

Nami beams as I approach her table. “I was getting worried you’d stay alone over there.”

“Is there some problem between you and Erica?” I ask.

She cocks her head. “Not really. We’ve been in the same class since elementary school, but we never really speak to each other. We don’t hate each other, if that’s what you’re asking. We just have different friends. Well, I have different friends. She’s kind of a loner, kind of like the Japanese hare—only bothering to mingle when necessary. They really are fascinating creatures though. Did you know they’re like this reddish color and only socialize to mate? Not to mention…”

I dig into my rice and let Nami ramble all the way until the end of breakfast.

In class, the same third-year student as yesterday summons us. “Erica wants to see you again.”

I scowl. “Understood.” What rule did we break now? It isn’t against the rules to go to the rooftop, right? I pull out my student handbook and skim through the school’s policies. By the time I finish, the lunch bell chimes.

Ayumi can barely keep up with me as I storm through the butterfly-covered door. “We were back way before curfew, and we didn’t even leave the school grounds! And don’t even go on about the rooftop. There’s no rule against us going up there! What was so egregious that you couldn’t tell me at breakfast?”

Erica keeps her composure despite my outburst, and folds her hands. “Do you think I only wanted you here to yell at you?”

“Why else would you need us?”

Her eyes water. “You’re so mean.”

She wipes her face and shifts to Ayumi. “I heard about your parents. You have my permission to leave campus for their funeral. I’ll even come with you if you—”

“I’m not attending,” Ayumi interrupts.

Erica’s still as ice. It’s natural, of course, but Erica doesn’t know her story.

Erica claps her hands together. “Oh, you mean you’re not attending school while the funeral is going on. Don’t worry, I can arrange it with your teachers.”

“No, I’m not attending their funeral,” Ayumi counters.

Erica collapses in her chair, mumbling something to herself. I can only catch “Everyone’s different…not you…doesn’t have to love…”

I ask, “What? I can’t hear you.” Erica ignores me.

Ayumi taps her crutch on the ground. “I’d like to get to lunch before they run out of the good stuff.”

Erica cradles her head in her hands, deep in thought.

“Thanks for the concern.” I bow and follow Ayumi out the door.

“Wait!” Erica breaks her trance and runs up to us.

She really is a pest. “Now what?”

She grabs Ayumi’s arm. “Um, I made some extra food again. You’re welcome to have some if you want.”

Ayumi pats her head. “Sorry, but we promised the baking club.”

Erica tears herself away, obviously unhappy being treated like a child. “Then go ahead and have fun with your friends.” We close the door, leaving her to her mumbling.

***

After an incident at the baking club involving a milk spill, a bag of flour, and my shoes—obviously not non-slip shoes—Kyouko, Ayumi, and I rush down the courtyard toward the cafeteria in hopes of getting their famous curry rice.

I brush some flour off my uniform. “Give Silent Circular Infinity a try. I’m sure you’d like it.”

Kyouko coughs as a bit of the powder goes airborne. Oops. I better wash this. Kyouko clears her throat. “Do you think I haven’t? Well, I don’t listen to it willingly or anything, but Nami plays it all the time! That stupid alarm of hers picks a random song every morning.” She shudders. “To hear so much cute, high pitched squealing first thing in the morning…I swear, rooming with her is a complete nightmare!”

Ayumi nearly trips over a crack in the sidewalk. She steadies herself and asks, “Why don’t you move out then?”

Kyouko stops to put her hands on her hips. “I told you to come at your own pace. You’re hurt, so let me help you. Give me your dinner token. What do you want? Udon? Ramen?”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

Kyouko heaves a sigh. “You’re being a burden right now. Come on, let me help you. You’re a nice enough girl to deserve it.”

Ayumi’s furrowed brows tell me all I need to know about what she wants to do. Despite that, she reaches in her skirt pocket and gives Kyouko the token. “Curry rice, please.”

“Now answer my question. Why don’t you move to another room if Nami annoys you?”

Kyouko slips Ayumi’s token in her pocket. “Because she’s not a friend to me.”

I had sort of suspected that. “Why do you always volunteer to do things with a person you hate, then?”

“Hate? No, the exact opposite. She’s a lot more than a friend to me.”

It’s hard to believe. A girl liking a girl is natural, especially in this school. But most wouldn’t admit it in the middle of the courtyard.

“Why am I telling you this when she doesn’t know herself?”

Ayumi adjusts her blazer. “Maybe you wanted help. But if there’s anything we can do to help, let me know!”

A girl emerges from the school building “Oh, speaking of the devil.” I smirk. Nami, who had to leave the club early to fill out some paperwork at the student council, skips along the path toward the cafeteria.

“Hey, Nami! I’ve got something important to tell you!” Ayumi shouts, holding her hand over her brow to block out the setting sun.

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Kyouko snarls beneath her breath.

But Nami isn’t alone. Out of the shadows emerges another shadow, creeping close behind her. I can’t make her out in this blinding sun.

Nami stops to wave back at us, ignorant of the figure sneaking up to her. But when I see the figure more clearly, my tension breaks. It’s just Haruka.

Didn’t I tell her to stay in the dorm room? Ayumi wanted to give her a little bit more freedom to roam the campus, but it’s too dangerous. We don’t know enough about familiars to be comfortable with the idea yet.

Haruka tiptoes to Nami’s front and leans in. What is she doing?

And then she kisses her.

I drop my bag, and Ayumi puts her hand over her mouth. Kyouko waves at Nami and runs toward her.

Ayumi touches her lips. “I’m going to have to tell her about the sanctity of a first kiss.”

I reach down for my bag. Was my first stolen by a familiar too?

And then, in a flash of orange hair, Nami collapses to the ground.

“Nami?” Forget my bag. I run over to our collapsed club president. Kyouko kneels down and lays Nami’s head on her lap.

Kyouko brushes Nami’s hair aside. “You idiot. How many times have I told you to take care of your body?”

Nami chuckles lamely. “I’m fine, really.”

“You certainly don’t look fine.”

Beads of sweat form on her forehead and drip down her pallid cheeks. “Kyouko, I’m cold.” But even in the midst of an obvious fever, she’s still cheery.

“Don’t worry, colds come on quickly. They go away just as easy.” She flips Ayumi a dinner token. “I’ll take care of this idiot. You go to dinner.”

“But idiots don’t catch colds,” Nami laughs, before it turns into a cough.

“Is this the time to be joke around?” Kyouko demands. But Nami hasn’t stopped coughing.

“Seriously,” Nami manages between coughs, “I’m fine. It’s…it’s like all my energy disappeared.” She coughs again, and a clump of hair falls out. She closes her eyes and they seal together, as if there were no lids.

What the heck?

Wait. Hairless… Eyeless…

“Get away from her!” I grab Kyouko and pull her back. Nami shakes as if she is having a seizure, tearing at her clothes in the process.

Kyouko swats my hand away. “What are you doing?”

But Nami isn’t Nami anymore. Her skin is pale to the point where every vein is visible. Her smile has become a cold, dark abyss complete with spiraling rows of teeth.

“A shade?” Ayumi’s gasps.



“Shade?” asks Kyouko. She stumbles as the shade, formerly Nami, rises off the ground. “What is this? What happened to Nami?”

The shade’s takes menacing step after menacing step toward Kyouko. Horrified, she keeps her distance. “Nami, it’s me. Kyouko. We’re friends. Remember?”

She might as well be talking to a brick wall. Nami continues her approach.

“Who did this to you? I’ll take care of them for you, and then we’ll get you back to normal. I promise.”

The shade is way too close to her. Another step or two and she’ll be within scratching distance. She’ll become like me.

I throw my body between them. “You’re going to have to go through me, first!”

But the shade walks around me. It doesn’t notice me?

Of course it doesn’t. Shades feast upon life. I may have been given a second chance by Ayumi, but I’m still nothing more than an animated corpse.

Kyouko backs up more erratically. “No. No, no, no, no, no.” She doesn’t realize she’s heading straight for a lamppost. She crashes into it and falls on the ground.

The shade closes the distance between them. Kyouko’s cornered. It bends closer, only a hair’s breadth from destroying her humanity.

“Don’t go near her!” Ayumi cries.

The shade jumps away from Kyouko with the nimbleness of a cat.

“Wait, what?” Ayumi holds her crutch out like a weapon. Yet it doesn’t approach her, staying in its place.

“It wants an order,” says a voice.

Haruka has moved behind us without either of us realizing it.

Ayumi keeps her defenses up. “Order? Why would it obey me?”

“It’s your shade. Give it an order, and it’ll do what you want, if it can.”

“What do you mean, it’s mine?”

Haruka touches her lips. “It’s a gift for you to do with what you will.”

Kyouko struggles to her feet. “Nami…” She stares as long as she dares at the shade. But soon she reaches the end of her rope and flees.

Ayumi points at the shade. “I order you to turn back into Nami.”

Nothing happens.

“Its life force is gone,” Haruka states matter-of-factly. “It’ll never be a human again. Not even necromancy can save it now.”

Ayumi clenches her fist. “Then I order you to destroy yourself.” The shade bursts into blue flames—the same blue flames which engulfed those shades the first night.

“What’s going on?” I demand. “What happened to Nami? What do you mean her life force? She was perfectly full of it before. What happened to it?”

Haruka points to me. “It’s in you now. I took it from her for you.”

Ayumi collapses to the ground, her crutches beside her. “What? Haruka, I never…why would you…”

“Because you asked. You told me to save Sakura, so I did.”

Ayumi moves her mouth wordlessly, as she tries to grasp what happened. But I know.

I was right about Cappy. He tricked us.

Something cold trickles down my cheek. “Huh?” I touch my fingers to it, and it turns damp. It’s my turn to cry now.

I collapse next to Ayumi and let my tears fall. What am I crying for? Myself? Nami? This world?

Ayumi’s throws a crutch against the lamppost. “A life for a life, is it? Well then, thank you for your service. You’ve outlived your usefulness, so I order you to destroy yourself.”

“Don’t be rash,” I say. Last time she listened to her emotions instead of reason, I “died” and she became a necromancer. I don’t want a repeat of it.

Her eyes burn with the fires of hell. “Haruka seems to think human life is a tool. An object to get what you want. So, she’s the same to me. A tool. When you’re done with tools, you put them away.” She grits her teeth. “I’m done with her! Haruka, destroy yourself and take your pitiful existence off this planet!”

Haruka’s pleasure with herself disappears as Ayumi rants. “You’re not done with me yet, regardless of what you think.”

“What the hell do you mean?” Ayumi demands, pushing herself up on her remaining crutch. “You gave Sakura life, even if you tricked me and killed my friend to do it.” She nearly collapses as Nami’s fate becomes a reality to her. “Your job is done. Leave!”

It’s Haruka’s turn to be angry. “How was I supposed to know what you wanted? When you told me to save your friend, I thought you knew what it implied! I chose a random girl and did what you asked. And now you’re blaming me because it was your friend?”

She’s mere centimeters from Ayumi. “This is your fault, so take some responsibility for once in your life.”

“I thought I told you to destroy yourself.”

“You also told me to think for myself.”

“Then I’ll destroy you myself!” Ayumi swings her crutch while balancing on one foot, which obviously makes her fall.

Haruka scoffs. “As if you can even touch me. Familiars exist until another familiar or a magical artifact destroys them. But, no matter. I care about you. Everything I did, I was doing for your happiness. From getting life force for Sakura, to giving you shades to work with, to doing anything I could to make you happy. Why else would you think I took care of your parents?”

Ayumi’s jaw drops. “Took care of…”

“You said you wanted them dead and buried. So I killed them, and now you never have to deal with them again—neither in life nor as a shade.”

Ayumi can only glare at her.

Ayumi closes her eyes and turns away. “Go away. Don’t talk to me anymore. I don’t want to see you ever again.”

Haruka turns to the woods in back of the school. “Like I want to see you, either.”

She stops after a few steps. “If you include Nami, the life force I took from Ayumi forming the contract, and the sword, I’d say Sakura has eight days to live. If I were you, I’d spend it as best you can before losing her, too.”

She storms off toward the woods in back of the school.

My heart feels like someone has wrapped a thread around it and tied it tight. “A week?”

Ayumi crawls next to me and embraces me. I bury my head in her shoulder. Dark thoughts cloud my future. Darkness will take me.

It’s amazing how sometimes the role of the comforter and the one receiving comfort can switch. My mind goes back to those days in Tokyo, when our friendship changed.

***

Back then, it was Ayumi’s head nestled in my shoulder.

I played with her ponytail, as I had come to learn she enjoyed. “What’s wrong?”

When we first started studying together, she’d have these outbursts frequently. But each day we studied, the less she cried. She opened up more about her life, and even in the track club she became friendlier.

She sniffled. “I was thinking about what happens when we’re actually in Fuji South. We can’t say we’re studying for entrance exams.”

“We could say we’re doing homework.”

She pulled off of my shoulder, but her fears remained plastered on her face. “What about breaks? What about weekends? What about days we don’t have homework, or ones where we only have a little bit?”

I put up my hand to stop her. I had granted her a reprieve from her father. But how could we make this permanent?

“I’ll think of something.” It was the best I could offer, given the situation.

The answer came to me in a dream. The next day at school, I went to the teachers’ office to ask for a bit of information.

My teacher raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Didn’t you want to go to Fuji South?”

“It’s not for me.” The teacher seemed a bit perplexed why my “friend” didn’t come to see him herself, but he had no choice but to give the pamphlets I requested.

I jumped in front of her desk before class. “A-YU-MI!”

She went back to fidgeting with her hair. “Not even a one. No surprise at all!”

“Then this is a ten.” I dropped a pile of pamphlets on her desk.

“What’s this?” She picked one up and pulled it open. “Kochi Girls’ Private High School?”

“It’s a residence-style school down in Kochi.”

“Kochi? Isn’t that like nine hours away?”

I pull open an identical one. “Exactly. You could stay there during breaks and holidays, and it’d be too far for anyone to really visit you or anything. It’s perfect!”

Ayumi put the pamphlet in her bag. “Sorry, I can’t. He may be bad, but a life with no friends would be worse.”

There was no turning back from here. “I’ll come with you.”

Her jaw dropped. “You’d give up Fuji South for me?”

Fuji South was always my dream school. I really did want to go there, even as I gave Ayumi the pamphlets. But my dreams were dreams. Ayumi’s situation was real.

I searched the recesses of my mind for any excuse. “Yeah, but if I went there, I’d be average and maybe come in like 4th or 5th place every meet. I want to win. Besides, if it comes with the reward of being with you, why wouldn’t I?”

“People are going to think we’re lovers if you keep it up.” She grabbed the pamphlet out of her bag and gave it a closer read-through. “Application deadline tomorrow, exams on Saturday. But how would my dad accept this?”

It was as if her dad was always breathing down her back. Those days were over. I’d protect her and take responsibility. “He won’t need to. I’ll cover your application fee with my New Year’s money, and we’ll go down for the exams together. Tell your dad we’re going on a study retreat.”

The week flew by, and come Saturday, we were on a train down to Kochi.

Ayumi shook like a mess on the train. “I’m so nervous!”

I put my arm around her. “Don’t be. We’ve worked hard for this.”

“But what if I pass?”

“Don’t you mean fail?”

The train zoomed into a tunnel, blocking the natural sunlight. “No, what if I pass? How am I going to explain to my dad about wanting to go to Kochi instead of Fuji?”

I hadn’t thought of that. Lacking a real answer, I came up with some comforting words. “You’ll do so well, you’ll get a scholarship. He won’t have any right to make your decision for you.” She didn’t respond.

The exam didn’t seem hard. But when I got to the last section, I realized these were the same problems I had struggled with a month ago. The test wasn’t easy. Rather, our studying had paid off.

Ayumi and I boarded the train back home. “Well, how was it?”

Her beaming face was all the answer I needed. “I think I got every one right.”

The train zipped along as night fell. Ayumi and I fell asleep on each other’s shoulders as we traversed the country side.

By the time we woke up, we were at the far reaches of Tokyo. Ayumi pulled out her phone and a grin spread across her face. “I passed!”

I checked her phone and great weight lifted off my shoulder when I saw my number. “Looks like I did too.”

Ayumi scrolled through to her email. “And they’re giving me a scholarship!”

I hugged her, not even bothering to check to see if I got one too. This couldn’t have gone any better. I’d have to sell off most everything I owned to attend, but I really had no attachment to a couple of pots and pans. As long as I could be with Ayumi, all was right in the world.

Or so I thought. The Monday after, Ayumi limped into the classroom, completely distraught. Nobody would notice it but me.

“What happened?” I feared her answer.

“My mom found my train ticket.” She burst into tears.

Her mom? This was the first time I had heard her mention something about her.

The bruises this time were not limited to her back. She had worn thigh-highs to cover up most of the bruises on her legs, but there were marks on her neck, as well.

“We’re going to the nurse’s office,” I said loud enough for the class president to hear.

Ayumi backed away slowly. “No, if someone sees me there…”

I whispered, “There’s an empty classroom at the end of the hall.” She got the hint and held her stomach.

A minute later, I sat on the teacher’s desk. “So, what happened? Where does your mom come into this?”

Ayumi took out her hairband, but didn’t bother to retie it. “She was searching for my homework grades and found my train ticket. You can see the results.”

“She hits you too?”

Ayumi winced. “She does, but not as bad as he does. Her slaps don’t even hurt, to be honest. At least, not physically. But those aren’t the deepest wounds.”

“What do you mean?”

She buried her head in her hands. “When my dad came home yesterday, and she revealed it to him, he burst out in a fit of rage and hit her, calling her a lousy mother for letting me become like this. But then do you know what she said? She said ‘Do it to Ayumi! She’s the one who went there!’ And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. She always does this. If he hits her, she blames me. She never stands up for me.”

Tears leaked through her fingers.

“I can’t blame her for being so upset. She just wants me home. But is it because she loves me, or because she wants to use me as a shield against my dad?”

I had no words to say, so I wrapped my arm around her until she stopped sobbing.

“I’m to take the Fuji South entrance exam, and if they take me, go there. They left me no choice in the matter.”

I held her tight. “Did they make you reject Kochi?”

“My dad is considering it a fallback.”

I flicked Ayumi’s hair playfully. “Then it isn’t hopeless. You can study with me in the meantime and then we’ll intentionally bomb the exam.”

Ayumi didn’t even pick her head up. “There is no intentionally bombing the exam. This is Fuji South we’re talking about. Everyone knows they manipulate their entrance exam results so their recruits always get in. And do you really think my parents’ll let you in the house again?”

As much as I hated to admit it, she was right. We were top-ranked recruits. There was no way they would reject us.

The date of the exam approached, and with every passing day Ayumi withdrew a little more. I did what I could to spend time with her, but her dad always got in the way. At most, we could get an hour after school, with Ayumi pretending she had an off-season captain’s track practice.

And then one day…

“Hey, Sakura, can you get my history book for me? I left my history handout in it.” Ayumi asked as I closed the door to the maintenance shed on campus. We had adapted this as our temporary study room and a way to avoid her dad’s attention.

I put my hands on my hips and made an exaggerated stern glare. But nothing those days would cheer her up. “I’ll be right back.”

I was halfway to the school when I realized something was wrong. History handout? We didn’t have a history handout today.

Ayumi wanted me gone for some reason. That couldn’t be good.

I raced back to the storage shed and flung open the door.

Ayumi stood upright, holding a sledgehammer in her shaking arms.

“What are you…?”

She let the sledgehammer swing. It moved in slow motion like a pendulum until gravity took over and handled the rest. With a sickening crunch, it slammed against her knee. My lunch tried to escape my stomach as her knee contorted to a terrible, unnatural position. Ayumi crumpled to the ground with a horrifying shriek.

Ayumi!” I cursed my stupidity. She screamed and cried, a total sloppy mess, holding onto her knee as if to stabilize it. This was bad. Her knee swelled at a rapid rate, and some chips of bone had cracked through the skin. It didn’t even look human anymore, turning into some mangled lump of skin and bones. “The hell are you doing?”

She struggled to breathe. “That hurt more than I thought it would.” She tried to smile, but it didn’t last long as an obvious jolt of pain rushed through her body again.

“This is nothing to smile about! Why would you possibly think this was a good idea?”

She tried to sit up as if nothing was wrong, but fell down, screaming in pain. She took a deep breath of air to regain her composure. “At least now Fuji South won’t want me to run for them.”

“Run for them? You’ll be lucky to ever walk again!”

Ayumi was going pale. This was bad. I’d heard about shock in a first aid seminar I had taken, but I never thought I’d see my best friend going through it. I had to get an ambulance here, now. I grabbed my phone and dialed emergency services.

“Who are you calling?” Ayumi asked.

“Please state your emergency,” said the operator.

“Yes, this is Sakura, and I’m at Tokyo North Middle School’s supply shed. I need an ambulance sent right away.” Slower, Sakura. She can’t understand you if you panic. “My friend shattered her knee.”

“How did this happen?” the operator asked.

Ayumi shook her head vigorously. I knew what she was saying. “Don’t tell them I did this to myself.” She’d have to go through a lot of psychological help if they found out what happened.

“A cabinet collapsed,” I made up on the spot. “A hammer struck her knee.”

“We’ll be right there. Don’t move her until we arrive,” said the operator. “Can you stay on the line?”

“Sorry, she needs me.” I pressed the “end” button.

I grabbed the tool cabinet and pushed it, spilling its contents all over. It felt like I had become a framer in some mystery film.

“Thanks.”

“I did what any friend would do,” I said as Ayumi lost consciousness. “Even if my friend is a colossal idiot.”

She was rushed into surgery. Her parents came about an hour in, and when her dad saw me, he gave me a glare of death.

“What did you do to her?” he snarled.

I put my hands on my hips. He might have been taller than me, but I felt a lot bigger than him. “I did nothing. But maybe you want to tell me about what you do to her every night instead.”

“What do you mean?”

I smirked. “Don’t think I don’t know where those bruises on her back came from.” His glare turned to nervousness as he realized what I was saying, before renewing his glare with increased intensity. “So I’ll give you two choices. Either you’ll let her attend Kochi, or I’ll ignore her request and report you to the police for child abuse.” I’d had it. If a man could drive his daughter to do something like this, he had no right to be near her anymore.

The surgery went on for hours. In the end, they managed to stabilize the knee with a few screws, but it was going to be a long recovery period—at least two months for stabilization. After that, she’d still need another surgery to repair a ruptured ligament.

“How’re you feeling?” I asked as I peeled an apple for Ayumi. Her parents left after my threats, giving me some time alone with her.

“Awful,” she admitted.

I flicked her ponytail, as she seemed to like. “I talked with your dad. You don’t have to worry about him anymore. You’re going to live with me in my dorm room. You can take my bed, I’ll get a futon. We’re going to go to Kochi.”

Tears welled up in her face. Before I knew it, her head had found its home buried in my shoulder.

“Now, now, there’s nothing to cry about.” I put my arm around her.

“Please, let me stay like this for a bit…”

***

“Please,” I say now as Ayumi puts her arm around me, “let me stay like this for a bit…”

It has been months since she shattered her knee. After she broke it, I hardly ever saw her outside of school, since she spent almost all her free time in the hospital rehabbing. Come March, she returned to the hospital again for further surgery, and I didn’t see her again until the day I jumped out of the sakura tree.

A sakura petal falls down besides us—its time beautifying the world complete.

***

Kyouko isn’t at breakfast the next morning.

“Kyouko?” asks Yukine, a rather short and stocky second-year girl in the club. “You didn’t get her text? She has some emergency to take care of in town.”

“I see.” Grief takes all sorts of forms. If a little bit of alone time will help Kyouko get over Nami, it’s for the best. Considering how much I cried for Nami last night, even though I had only known her for a few days, I can imagine how much pain Kyouko has to be in.

“I miss her,” I say aloud.

“She’ll be back Monday.”

I gesture to Nami’s now empty seat. “I mean Nami.”

Yukine scratches her head. “Nami? Who’re you talking about?”

Ayumi nearly chokes on her food. “You know, our club leader?”

“Oh, right. She really needs to speak up more, or we might forget she even exists.”

The last thing Nami ever had to do was speak up. She’s just like me, then. Her life was drained from her, so people are forgetting she exists.

The bell rings, signifying the start of the school day.

For the first time all week, we get to enjoy a normal day of school. No introductions, no dealing with everyone forgetting I existed, and no pestering from Erica to eat with her at lunch. As a result, the day drags on with no end in sight. By afternoon, I’ve given up on paying attention and doodle on a piece of paper. My eyes grow heavy with every passing word.

Ayumi taps on my desk. “Are you all right? School’s over.”

I must’ve fallen asleep. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Hey, what’s that?” She reaches for the paper at my elbow.

I try and shove it into my bag before she can read it, but her hands are too quick. She reads the title: “Ten things I want to do before I die.”

“That’s private!” I grab at thin air in an attempt to retrieve my sheet.

She tosses the sheet back to me. “Why’s it blank? Well, besides these cute magical girl drawings.”

I jam the sheet into my bag. Let’s ignore the magical girls and get to what she really cares about. “Anything I thought of was either too grand or too boring. Nothing really special.”

She pulls up a chair and leans on my desk. “I’m sure there’s something. What was too grand?”

“Going into space.” I pull out the most ridiculous idea I had.

That brings a smile to her face. “Only a little. Though if you landed in front of me after falling from a spaceship, you’d definitely get a 10.”

But a bucket list is never an easy topic. She asks, “How about the boring ones?”

I might as well give them to her. “They’re nothing special. Stuff like wanting to look at the sakura trees in the park. Things we could do any time, any year.”

“No, they are special, because we only have a week to do them. We can’t do it any time, any year.”

She taps her chin. “How about we skip school for a week and do what you want?”

I slouch down. “When I first learned of my impending doom on Monday, I had the same thoughts. But right now, I’m a student who’s going to die. If you take out the student part, then what’s left?”

Ayumi’s furrowed brows tell me all I need to know about how much she disapproves of my plan. “I won’t push you any further. When do you want to go sakura viewing?”

I check the weather on my phone. “How about Sunday? It’s supposed to be warm.”

“I’ll search for a park after dinner tonight.”

I pack up my bags. “Does Kochi even have a park?”

Ayumi points to the sakura trees outside the window. Another petal detaches, floating down to the sidewalk below. In time, they will wither and nobody will remember them. “We live in a town filled with sakura trees. Worse comes to worst, we could walk around town and do the exact same thing.”

Ayumi and I walk right past the baking club, continuing on to the school library.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Ayumi holds her hand on the door, as if we are about to take the biggest steps forward in our lives.

“Aren’t you curious about Nami and the other girls in this school who might have turned into…those things?” I can’t bring myself to say their names anymore. “Come on, if nothing else, at least we could pay some respect to her memory.”

Ayumi silently turns the handle, as if in agreement. A bespectacled girl with hair in a tight black braid and tiny arms sits behind the counter, flipping through a book. All students know Kotori the librarian, whether they’ve met her in person or not. Some say she never goes to classes and spends all day in here, reading.

“Can I help you?” she asks.

“I’m Sakura and she’s Ayumi of class 1-7. Can we borrow last year’s yearbook?”

“Follow me.” She leads us to the reference section. As expected of such a giant school, the bookshelves tower above us, requiring a ladder to reach the top. She doesn’t need it, however, as the yearbooks are on the bottom shelf. “Here you go.” She hands us a bright blue book with a picture of a sakura on the front. “Put it on my desk when you’re done.”

We settle at one of the tables in the front of the library, where I flip through the pages. “Let’s see. Aino, Aizakawa, Cedori… Here we go!” We can’t miss Nami’s picture. Not many people have her bright orange hair, and nobody could smile as bright as her.

“What’re you looking at?” Kotori peers over our shoulders.

Of course she’d be curious. “We wanted to see what our friend looked like last year.” That was the truth. Neither Ayumi nor I could remember her as anything more than a horrifying creature, so we came here for a reminder of who she used to be.

Kotori points to a space in the yearbook. “I wonder why there’s a blank space here.”

She points to a picture of the student next to Nami: a blue-eyed, black-haired girl with a ton of baby fat still in her cheeks. I blink to make sure I’m not seeing things. “But there is a girl there. Rin Cedori?”

Kotori cocks her head. “Who? Never heard of her.”

Ayumi and I give each other a look. I flip the page for Kotori. “Do you see any blank spaces here?”

She points to various parts of the yearbook. “Here, here, and here.”

Each place has a picture of a girl Ayumi and I can clearly see, but Kotori cannot. They do seem sort of faded compared to the others.

“Thanks.” I close the yearbook and stuff it in my bag.

“Wait! Reference books can’t be checked out of the library.”

“Oh, we’ll bring it right back. Don’t worry.” I wave her off with my hand. “Tomorrow sound good?”

Before she can answer, we’ve already left.

We retreat to the privacy of the abandoned club room next door. “What does this mean?” Ayumi asks.

I flip through page after page of faded photographs interspersed with vivid ones. “Most likely they were more victims. But to think there were this many is frightening.”

Ayumi squeezes her ponytail. “I want to know more.”

I can hardly hear her. “What was that?”

She takes a deep breath. “I knew there’d be more to it than just summoning Haruka. But I was too scared to ask. I did what he told me to, believing everything would work out somehow. I mean, I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing you.”

Ayumi gets up so she can move around a bit on her crutches. “When you mentioned looking into shades and all, I got scared. What if necromancers and shades were connected in some way? I couldn’t bear the thought. But I never thought it’d be like this.”

The wind blows outside, breaking off another bunch of sakura petals from their branches. They pass along, dotting the air with tiny pellets of pink. “It’s not too late to start.”

“Start what?”

“Let’s find out more about these shades. If we know more, maybe we can stop people from turning into them. We’ll start with Cappy.”

I stuff the book in my bag. “Let’s bring him this book, too. Maybe he can explain about what happens to people when they turn. Let’s go on Sunday.”

“But what about your sakura viewing?”

That seems so trivial now. But some selfish part of me doesn’t want to become the only girl in the history of Japan to not take an afternoon to go sakura viewing. “I’m sure visiting him won’t take all day,” I say both to Ayumi and myself.

***

Saturday morning arrives, and we gather at the club room with our collection of cookies. The club really did a nice job making every bag look extra pretty, even going so far as to put glitter on the outer plastic.

“Everyone here?” asks Ayumi as the van from the retirement home pulls up to the door.

“Well, except Kyouko.” I take a mental roll call of the club members. I really need to learn their names better so I don’t accidentally call them “Tall girl” and “Birthmark-on-left-leg girl.”

“What do you mean, except Kyouko?” asks a familiar voice. Her hair is tucked under a perky chef’s toque, and she’s wearing pure black sunglasses like in the movies, but there is only one girl with that voice.

“Kyouko!” the club members throw their arms around her in a sort of flash group hug. My body tenses up, half expecting Kyouko to lash out at Ayumi and me for what happened with Nami.

“Where’ve you been?” asks Yukine.

Kyouko puts her arm behind her head and gives an awkward laugh. “Sorry, I was visiting the four universities around town. I don’t know why, but I had an urge to tour them yesterday.”

Tour universities? Why would she lie about grieving for Nami?

Ayumi cocks her head. “But there’re only three universities in town.”

Kyouko grabs some folding chairs to load onto the van. “Fine, you caught me. I was originally going to visit the shrine, but when I got there, I couldn’t remember why I was there. Since it was too late for school, I thought I’d tour the nearest university.”

“Because of Nami?” I suggest. Why would you remind her of that? It’s like you want her to get mad at you.

Wait. If Ayumi could forget me, why couldn’t the same happen to Kyouko and Nami?

Yukine shoves a box in the van. “You keep going on and on about this Nami person. If you want to make a club mascot named Nami, go ahead. But there are no Namis hiding amongst us.”

Kyouko enters a sort of a daze when I mention Nami’s name. “Yeah…”

“Kyouko?” asks the girl with the birthmark on her leg. Oh, right, she’s Nagisa.

Kyouko closes the back doors. “It’s nothing. Just a familiar name.”

“You knew this Nami person?”

“No. I had a childhood friend named Nami. Come on, let’s get going.”

We hop into the van, which drives off. “Can you tell us a bit about Nami?” Nagisa asks as she settles into her seat. “What was she like?”

Kyouko adjusts her sunglasses. “I don’t feel like having story time. Let’s play Shiritori instead. I’ll go first. ‘Sakura.’”

She points to me, indicating my turn. I’ll need a quick response if I want to change the subject. “Ra…ra…” She ended with ra, so what’s a word beginning with ra? “Radio!”

Ayumi understands my urgency. “O…o…Ayumi!”

“Ayumi doesn’t start with an O!” Yukine interjects, to our laughter. I relax, knowing the topic of Nami is out of the picture.

We somehow manage to keep the game going all the way to the retirement home. We’d have kept going if not for the nurse knocking on the window.

“Thanks for coming!” She pulls open the double doors at the back of the van. “Normally, we’d have asked you to ship these cookies to us, but they really like seeing young people when they can. If they ask you a question, please be friendly with them.”

She leads us past some empty rooms and down to the ballroom. Not like most of the residents here can actually dance—seeing how all but maybe four of them are confined to wheelchairs. I don’t know how many of them are even able to eat our cookies, considering they don’t have teeth.

The nurse closes the door and engages the electric lock, signaling for us to disperse around the room. “Let me know if you need to leave. I’m the only one with the code to unlock the door.”

We join the elderly at their table in pairs—two girls for eight seniors. “Thank you so much,” says one of the ladies as I hand her a bag of cookies. “I really appreciate you girls coming out here for us all the time.”

“It’s nothing. We’re glad we can be here.”

It’s a slow process to hand out our cookies, as everyone wants to talk with us. I’m talking to one lady about her fascination with cheese when Yukine shouts.

“Nurse! We need help here!” At her table, one of the patients is slumped over, his skin as white as snow.

“Over here, too!” Nagisa calls out from the next table over. She checks for signs of life in the limp body next to her.

The nurse makes no move to assist. Instead, she wobbles in front of the entranceway, growing ever more pale, before collapsing in a heap.

Everyone in the baking club not preoccupied with another patient runs to her aid. “Did you trip?” asks one of the girls.

“Are you all right?”

She pants. “I’m fine. It’s…it’s like all my energy disappeared.”

I’ve heard these words before. Don’t tell me…

The nurse closes her eyes, and my horrors return. Clumps of hair fall out of her head as she shakes. The girls back up, unaware of what’s happening. But it’s too late. The former nurse rises, her gaping mouth with its spiraling teeth begging for blood.

They all scream. The shade lashes its hand out, scraping Yukine’s back. By the dots of blood seeping through the rips in her uniform, I know she’s done for.

Nobody else fares any better. At each table, several elderly are moving around much better than when they were alive, spreading their death. I stifle a cry as two second years rise up and swarm the lady with the cheese fascination.

I run over to Ayumi, who is as still as the death around us. “What’s going on?”

“I…I didn’t…” Of course she didn’t. Haruka isn’t even here.

The screams die out—not because the horror is ending, but because most of the room has already turned. A shade approaches Nagisa, Ayumi, and I, trapped by a serving table.

“Stop!” Ayumi begs. “Come to your senses!”

“Do you really think you can command my shades?” A voice asks behind us. She steps in front of the table, revealing a wide grin spread on her face.

“Kyouko! We need to get out of here! It’s dangerous!”

She pulls off her chef’s hat and sunglasses. A long white ponytail cascades down her back. “I have someone I love who I want to bring back. These ancient wastes of space will be perfect food for her.”

Nagisa’s eyes tremble. “Who…who are you?”

Kyouko glares at her. “This is a private matter, and you’re getting in the way. Take her away.”

The shade grabs Nagisa’s arm and drags her away screaming.

Ayumi stares into Kyouko’s eyes, her beautiful purple eyes, which have been replaced by the fire red of a necromancer. “Do you think Nami would want this?” Nagisa’s screams die away, signifying her fate.

Kyouko tosses her hat and glasses away. “No. But I’m a selfish person. I want her back, so I’ll bring her back.”

Ayumi grips the handles of her crutches. “Come on, wake up already. We’re here for you. We can help you get through this. You don’t need to take innocent lives.”

Kyouko cackles. No, this isn’t Kyouko anymore. She has been replaced by someone broken to the point of insanity. “Like you did?”

“Haruka did it on her own. I asked her to save Sakura, not kill people.”

Kyouko slaps Ayumi across the face. “Lies, lies, and more lies. Tell me, why did you choose Nami? Was it because you wanted to become club president? Don’t think I didn’t hear you ordering the other members around this morning.”

She puts her hand to her brow and makes an exaggerated motion of surveying the ballroom. “Oh, look, nobody’s ahead of you now. They’re all dead!”

Kyouko taps on the table. “Come on, Chizu, it’s your turn. Sakura hasn’t turned yet, as planned. Go show Ayumi what it’s like to lose a lover.”

A girl slinks up from under the table. She brushes her hand past her blue bob of a haircut, which only accentuates her transparent bony shoulders. “With pleasure.” The familiar lunges at me and brings her mouth close to my lips. I try and push her away to no avail.

Kyouko gasps. “You can see her? But you’re not a necromancer!”

Chizu pulls away from me. “She’s an animated corpse. She has no life force to extract.”

Kyouko grabs a broken plate and throws it at Ayumi “You liar! How many thousands have you killed to bring her back?”

Ayumi barely dodges the throw. “Nami was the first, and will be the last, as well.”

Kyouko leaps off her feet, crashing into her. “Liar!

Ayumi slams into the ground, her crutches clunking on the floor. “How many have you killed already? How many hearts have you crushed? How long has this been going on? Why don’t you understand how I feel? Why don’t you understand how Nami felt? Why? Why?”

I grab Kyouko by the waist and tear her off Ayumi. It’s only for a moment, as she swats me away with an inconceivable force. I slam into a table.

Kyouko wraps her hands around Ayumi’s neck. She gasps for air and reaches toward me.



I pick myself up, ready to charge, but my legs give out on me. They are going to be so bruised tomorrow. Chizu blocks my way, eliminating any chance at another attempt.

Ayumi closes her eyes. “Haruka, please help me… Please… I command you…”

The air ripples, and Haruka materializes next to Ayumi. She’s confused as ever, but when she sees Kyouko strangling Ayumi, she knows exactly what to do. Kyouko smashes into a table from Haruka’s kick, breaking it in two.

Kyouko wipes a dribble of blood off her lip. “You finally showed up. At least I can see you now.”

Haruka pays no attention to her, and instead circles around the other familiar. “My name’s Haruka.”

The familiar circles her. “Chizu. Charmed.”

Kyouko throws a broken bowl at Chizu. “Don’t introduce yourself, you idiot! Kill her!”

“As you wish.” Chizu reaches above, where white light coagulates, forming a sort of portal. She draws a long sheath out of it, followed by a slightly curved blade. It looks almost like a katana, but most katanas aren’t perpetually on fire.

“Well?” asks Chizu. “Where’s your sword? I hope you’re not going to ask me to dishonor myself by killing an unarmed familiar.”

Haruka picks up a knife, holds it like a sword, and tosses it away. “I don’t have one.”

Chizu lunges at Haruka, who leaps out of the way. “Don’t be ridiculous. All familiars have one.”

Before Haruka can answer, Chizu lunges yet again with inhuman speed. Haruka jumps behind an empty wheelchair, and not a moment too soon, as Chizu crashes into it.

“If I had one, you’d be in two pieces already.”

“You’re a lot of talk. Fine, if you won’t pull out your sword, I’ll dishonor myself for the sake of my master.” Chizu summons a host of shuriken and throws them in one impossibly fast second.

Haruka’s eyes glow a cloudy white and sparks of electricity burst out of her hands, diverting the shuriken away from her body and into the wall.

Chizu’s dodges a bolt of electricity. “So that’s why you don’t have a sword. I thought mage-type familiars were nothing more than a legend. No matter. My master says you need to die, so you die.” She jumps onto a table, sending the centerpiece crashing to the ground, and lifts her sword high. Yet when she thrusts down, it sparks, hitting a blue barrier coursing with lightning around Haruka.

That doesn’t stop her. She hacks at the barrier, causing sparks to fly. The barrier flickers, weakening with every swing.

Haruka’s eyes glow again, and with one swift motion of her hand, she lets several bolts of lightning fly. Chizu jumps back behind a walker and lets it take the brunt of the attack.

“You can forget hitting me. I manipulate time itself, so your attacks are a snail’s pace to me.”

When the walker collapses, Chizu leaps toward Haruka, who jumps out of the way. Chizu laughs. “Oh, you’re good. Shame we couldn’t be allies. We could turn the entire town into shades together!”

Haruka darts around to dodge her blows. “Is that all you two want to do?”

“She asked me to bring back some girl named Nami.”

“Nami’s a shade, not dead. You can’t bring her back.”

Chizu smirks. “What do I care? I’ll obey my master, even if her request is impossible.”

Kyouko shrieks, nearly bursting our ear drums. I had been so absorbed in the fight, I forgot about her. She collapses to her knees and stares at her hands. “You’re lying. Nami’s not gone. She can be brought back still. She’s dead. He told me I only needed to collect the bodies. Nothing more, right? Right?”

The distraction is all Chizu needs. She cracks right through Haruka’s electric shield and teleports behind her. Haruka barely dodges the blow. No, she didn’t. She staggers a bit from a blow to her arm. Blue fire flashes out of the wound. “Too slow,” smirks Chizu.

“Or too fast.” Haruka fires off another fork of lightning. Chizu absorbs it yet again with her sword. She swings it down, unleashing the bolt. Haruka leaps away from the explosion on impact.

Haruka takes a couple of deep breaths. Chizu flicks her sword, sending a spark of fire off it. “Getting tired? Such a shame. I could go all day.”

Chizu lunges toward Haruka, who leaps over her. By the time she lands, Chizu’s armed and ready again.

“Haruka!” shouts Ayumi.

Haruka’s eyes glow. This time, instead of casting a bolt of lightning at Chizu, she casts it straight up. The ceiling cracks from the impact, making the room shake. The chandelier swings back and forth until gravity takes control and dislodges it. It crashes to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust.

What happened? Did it miss her?

The cloud clears to reveal Chizu inside the chandelier’s chains. “You idiot, I’m a familiar. Did you really think a physical object would hurt me?”

Haruka smirks. “No, but this would.” She lets out another bolt of electricity. Chizu throws up her blade to block it, but Haruka isn’t aiming for her. Instead, the electricity courses through the chandelier, right through the very chains still draped around her. Chizu lets out a sickening scream as her body turns into a light bulb, extruding a noxious smoke. The smoke replaces itself with a bright blue flame coursing through her body, consuming it to nothingness.
[close]

Chapter 5
Chapter 5: A Tiny Spark

I survey the carnage in the ballroom. Another ceiling tile collapses, shattering to pieces a few feet in front of us. Tongues of fire lick across the ceiling, originating from the chandelier’s old wires.

“We gotta get out of here!” I toss Ayumi’s crutches to her.

“We can’t! There’s still shades!” She’s barely audible over the tripped fire alarms.

“We can deal with them later! Let’s go!”

We dash toward the glass doors barricading our escape. Bloody handprints are smeared across the door, each a testament to some girl who couldn’t get out.

Something flashes in front of me. Ayumi screams as Kyouko lands on her and pins her to the ground. “You thought you could forget about me?”

“Kyouko, we can talk this out later. We gotta get out of here or we’re going to—”

“Die? What do I care? Nami’s dead, isn’t she? You heard her. There’s no way to bring Nami back. He lied to me. But what do I care? I got to get rid of some pesky ancient leeches in the process, and I managed to make your girlfriend’s life miserable in the process. Good luck finding somewhere you belong now, you piece of trash.”

Girlfriend? “It’s not really like that.”

“Shut up. You’re dead. Nothing more than a walking corpse. You don’t matter.”

She grabs Ayumi’s knee and, in a heart-wrenching moment, twists it, making her cry out. “Feels bad, doesn’t it? Now imagine that pain on the inside and—”

Lightning courses through Kyouko’s body. Haruka lowers her hands, the glow in her eyes fading. “Leave my master alone.”

Kyouko picks herself up. “Or what?”

“I’m not afraid to kill you too. I’ve done it before.”

Ayumi shouts, “No! Don’t hurt her!”

Kyouko spits. “Totally different story than Thursday, isn’t it?” She kicks Ayumi’s knee, who shrieks out in pain. Even more ceiling tiles crash, crushing a few shades in the process.

I take a timid step toward Kyouko, testing my sore leg. “Enough of this! I thought you were stronger than this. Look, I know you loved Nami. But think of her for once! Don’t take the wrong path just because it’s easier. We can help you navigate the harder one, no matter what your problems are.”

She glares at me. “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do, you incestuous swine!”

I back away from her, hand on my chest. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Kyouko saunters toward me. “You want to know what I really did yesterday? After I visited the man in the cap to summon Chizu, I went to the library to find out every way to make your lives as miserable as you made mine. It’s quite interesting what you can find by putting someone’s name into the internet. Did you really think you could run away from your family problems, Sakura?” She spits again. “Take the easy way out? Navigate the harder one? You could’ve stayed in Tokyo to find your parents, but instead you ran down here hoping your life wouldn’t follow you.”

“She did nothing wrong,” interjects Ayumi.

Kyouko glares at her. “Acting like little miss innocent, aren’t you? Yet the day after you formed your contract, your parents mysteriously died from an ‘unknown assailant.’ Was ordering their deaths really your first command?”

“I didn’t—”

Kyouko doesn’t give her a chance to speak. “People always called me strange when I told them I loved another girl. But after meeting you two, at least I know I’m not even brushing the tip of the iceberg.” She lifts her hands as another ceiling tile crashes. “Animatus. Gloria dia Bayonne. Gloria dia Nami. Gloria dia Arallia!

A circle forms beneath her, complete with intricate designs and patterns of letters.

“No!” Ayumi yells.

A hand reaches out of the portal. “Come on, my new familiar. Show these girls a lesson.”

And then its fingers wrap around her ankle. Kyouko glares at it. “Do you really need help coming out of there? You weak piece of trash.” She pulls at it with her leg.

But it doesn’t budge, causing Kyouko to trip and fall flat on her chest. The circle’s lettering spins faster and faster, until it is a complete blur of black.

“Let go of me!” Kyouko struggles to get away from it. But the hand is too strong, and pulls her in. She grabs fruitlessly at the ground, as if holding onto a cliff. “Stop! I don’t…I don’t…I’m scared! Nami!

She reaches out for help, but finding none, falls into the abyss. The circle fades, returning to the cracked floor from before.

Ayumi, Haruka, and I stand dumbfounded.

“What was that?” Ayumi reaches for her crutches.

Haruka taps her foot where the circle had been. “I have no clue.”

More tiles fall down. I ask Haruka, “Are you able to teleport?”

Haruka answers with a blast of electricity at the door lock. It explodes, and the door itself shatters.

Haruka lifts Ayumi off the ground, whose crutches clunk on the ground. “Sorry. We need all the speed we can get.”

I grab her crutches and sprint out of the inferno with Haruka. We aren’t a moment too soon, as the ceiling collapses behind us.

By the time we’re outside, the entire building is ablaze. Sirens howl in the distance, rushing to get here.

I gasp for air. It’s not like we can stop here. If we stop, we die.

“S-Sakura!” Ayumi points over Haruka’s shoulder to the retirement home.

Out of the remains of the ballroom, figures are crawling over the walls. Even from here I can make out their cavernous mouths. “If those get loose, the first responders are done for.” Not only them, but the city itself.

“Then Ayumi needs to command them to stop,” Haruka says.

“What?” Ayumi really seems uncomfortable, cradled in Haruka’s arms. “Those are Kyouko’s shades, and she’s gone.”

Haruka stops running. “The shades of a defeated familiar go to the victorious familiar’s master. They’re yours now. They’ll do whatever you ask.”

Ayumi motions for Haruka to put her down, and steadies herself when I give her crutches back. “Then I need to destroy them.”

“Familiars are able to destroy shades too, if you—”

“—No.” Ayumi holds her hand up. “These are my responsibility, so I’ll take care of them.”

Very few shades are recognizable anymore, due to the fire coursing through their bodies. But here and there is a checkered skirt hanging off of some poor girl’s tarnished body, or the remains of dentures resting in a cavernous mouth.

Ayumi stares down the hill. “These are our classmates. They did nothing to deserve this. Yet they must be punished for our mistakes. They’re left like this because of the girl who killed you, killed Nami, killed Kyouko, and killed all of them. All because she couldn’t face her fears of reality.”

She bows her head. “Please, find peace. Destroy yourselves, and let your spirits rest.” The orange flames of their bodies dissolve, giving way to a bright blue color. They blur through my tears—memories soon forgotten by all.

“I’ll remember them,” I say when the last flame snuffs itself out. “Even if I only have a week left, I’ll always cherish them, and know they did no wrong.”

Ayumi places her hand in mine. “Agreed.”

We grab a ride on a bus back to Kochi, but there are no words between us. It’s disrespectful to talk about the routine or the mundane. My thoughts turn to those girls and their families. What would life be like for them from now on?

Ayumi and I collapse on our beds back at the dorm. Haruka turns to leave.

“Where are you going?” asks Ayumi.

“I did what you needed. Your tool has served her purpose, so she’s going back into the shed.”

Ayumi sits up. “Wait.”

Haruka stands still and silent.

Ayumi gets on her crutches and hobbles over to her. “If I hadn’t asked you to save Sakura at all costs, would you have still done what you did?”

Haruka lets her shoulders droop as the tension leaves her body. “No. I wouldn’t have done anything to your parents, either, had I known. I should have been more straightforward. I’m sorry.”

Ayumi drapes her arms around Haruka in as much of a hug she can give to a person she can’t touch. “And I should have been kinder to you. I said a lot of things I didn’t mean. Can you forgive me?”

Haruka turns around to return the hug. “As long as you can forgive me.”

After they break their embrace, I place my hand on Ayumi’s shoulder. “What do you want to do from here?”

“What do you mean?”

“We can’t go back to the baking club, so what do you want to do now?”

Ayumi casts her head down. “All I’ve done lately is destroy people’s lives. Yours, Nami’s, the members of the club, the residents of the retirement home, and Kyouko’s. I know I’ve chosen this path, and there’s no going back. So why don’t I turn this dark and gloomy path into a cheerful one for anyone else who might pass by?”

She clenches her fists. “I’m going to make sure this never happens again. I won’t join another club. I’m going to devote all my free time to finding out about this world and put an end to shades.”

“Then I’ll join you, while I still can.” It still hurts to say it.

“Haruka, we’ll start with you. How much about all of this do you know?”

Haruka sits in Ayumi’s chair. “I only know what my instincts tell me. Like, the stuff about shades and all, and to who they belong; it sort of was like I knew it when you asked me, even though I never knew it before you asked.”

“Do you know what happened to Kyouko?” I ask.

She twirls a pen between her fingers. “It seemed familiar, but I don’t know anything about it.”

Ayumi returns to her bed. “Then we’ll have to ask the man in the hat about it.” She flips off the light and wishes me goodnight.

With Kyouko gone, we won’t have to deal with shades again. With any luck, Ayumi will find out those are the last shades in the world. But I know I’m wrong, as another thought sneaks in my head. “Who controlled those shades the first night?” I whisper.

As I fall asleep, I think I hear a bell jingle in the hallway.

***

Ayumi puzzles over some outfits in her closet. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

I stumble to my own closet. “If you call placing my head on my pillow ‘sleeping.’ I haven’t felt refreshed since I stopped dreaming.”

She pulls out a yellow sundress, takes one glance at it, and shoves it back. “Stopped dreaming? I thought you had a lucid dream every night.”

I reach my hand into my closet and pull out the first thing I find. A blue skirt and a white blouse with blue trimmings? Sure. “I used to, until I ‘died.’”

Haruka is slouched in my chair, reading one of my manga (of course, without my permission). Ayumi holds a yellow blouse with a darker yellow patch in the front, and Haruka gives an approving nod.

Ayumi pulls out a red skirt to match. “I always hated how bad this outfit matched my hair. But as a ‘silver-haired doll,’ it’s really not bad.”

She always worries about the silliest of things. “I thought it looked cute on you before.”

Haruka swings her legs in the air. “You have similar tastes.”

“Huh?” Ayumi brushes her hair. “Unlike Miss Reach-in-the-closet there, I actually care how I look.”

Haruka isn’t listening. “It’s like you two were meant for each other, bound together by the red string of fate.”

Ayumi and I shout, “It’s not like that!”

The three of us head into the city. As we pass by an electronics store, the local news flashes on the television screens: “Electrical fire burns down abandoned retirement facility.” It wasn’t abandoned. It had plenty of elderly, and school girls with them, passing out cookies. But they wouldn’t know.

“Is this the place?” Ayumi stops in front of a rather tall building.

She hikes herself up the stairs as best she can. “Oh right, it’s your first time seeing it in daylight. He’s on the third floor.”

But he doesn’t answer the doorbell, and his door won’t open. “It’s locked.”

“Maybe he doesn’t work on the weekends,” Ayumi says.

Doesn’t work? No, this isn’t a job. I slam my fists on the door. “I know you’re in there! Open up!”

“Shush!” Ayumi grabs my hand. “Somebody’s going to see us!”

That’s all I need to calm down. Anger won’t get us anywhere. “I’m not leaving without getting inside first. If he’s not here I want to confirm it.”

“Haruka, can you check?” Ayumi asks.

Haruka, who’s been examining a directory on the wall, springs to action. “Physical barriers mean nothing to a familiar!”

She passes through the door and into the room, as if she’s a knife passing through butter. The lock clicks and the door pushes open on its own—which would be eerie for anyone passing by.

“You didn’t need to open it,” says Ayumi.

Haruka beckons us in. “There’s something you ought to see.”

Her words could not have prepared us for what’s inside. “What is this?”

This room seemingly hasn’t been used in years. The desk I woke up on is completely clear of papers, writing instruments, or really anything we saw a few days ago. In its place are cobwebs so thick, they can’t have been made in a week. The shelves are empty of all their various reference books, instead hosting a small family of lizards. Despite the changes, everything else is laid out exactly how we had last seen it. Only older and dirtier.

Ayumi wanders around the room. “Hello? Is anybody there?”

A stray cat curled up in the corner of the room lets out a yawn.

“What’s that?” Ayumi jumps back.

How could I have forgotten the cat from the first night? But it did drag us into this, right?

But when I see its color, my tense body relaxes. “This cat’s white. It’s not the same one.”

“Was the cat the first night just a stray? It couldn’t have been.”

Of course it wasn’t. “More questions we need answers for.”

Haruka squats down to pet the cat. It shrieks, its head darting around in an attempt to find its assailant. “Shush, shush.” Haruka’s voice would’ve soothed the dead back to sleep. “It’s all right.” It couldn’t have heard her, but it seems to calm down and purrs.

While Haruka plays with the cat, Ayumi and I open every drawer, searching for clues as to where he could’ve gone.

“Forget when he went. Who even is he?” Ayumi pulls open yet another empty drawer. “I doubt he’s your everyday human.”

“A necromancer, maybe? He couldn’t have known about shades and familiars otherwise.”

Ayumi slams the drawer shut in frustration. “He gave me the incantation word for word. If he were a necromancer, it’d summon a familiar for him, but it didn’t.”

“What if he had one already?”

“We’re not limited to one, but he did warn us about how much strain even one puts on the body. A second could be fatal.”

I sort through an empty file cabinet. “What if he lied?” She can’t keep making excuses.

Ayumi flings her ponytail back around to the back of her head. “I know you’re right. But if he really is a necromancer, then those shades would’ve been his own. Why would he destroy them instead of telling them to stop? Wouldn’t he want your life force to bring back his most treasured person? I don’t get it!”

She has a point. “Those shades couldn’t have been his. Nobody would destroy scores of their own personal army to save one girl who’s practically dead.”

“Then why?”

We aren’t anything special to him. We’re a couple of girls who got involved in something beyond their understanding. I have to think like him. He’s not “just a nice person,” so there has to be another reason.

I close the file cabinet. “Was his only goal to make you a necromancer?”

“It’s possible, but what does he get out of it?”

“I don’t know. Those shades weren’t his, or he’d have ordered them to stop. But then, whose were they?”

We give up finding answers and grab a bus uptown. How did we leave with more questions than we had before?

The bus drops us off at the park. It isn’t exactly a big park, but what space it does have is filled with trees. We can see all the way down to the sea, thanks to its location on top of a hill.

There are plenty of picnics already set up, but it’s nothing like Tokyo. Back there, it was so crowded you couldn’t find a spot to put down a blanket. I tried going there a couple times with friends in elementary school, but we never could get a seat. More recently, I’ve been too lazy.

“Ah, here we go.” I place the blanket down under the shade of two trees. “Haruka, you have our sandwiches?”

Haruka hands over the small basket of food. Ayumi winces a little as she stretches out her leg.

“Are you all right?” Considering what Kyouko did yesterday, I’m surprised she got out of bed.

She waves me off. “It healed already.” I suppose he didn’t lie about her natural healing.

I open Haruka’s basket and ask her, “Other people can see this basket. But they can’t see you. So, wouldn’t they see a floating basket when you carry it?”

Haruka grabs a sandwich. “Whatever I touch follows my rules. Like, if I took off my gown they’d see it falling out of thin air.”

Ayumi giggles. “Yeah, let’s not. Though, do you have any other clothes?”

Haruka takes a bite out of her sandwich. “Not really. We’re supposed to dress like this to show our servitude.”

Ayumi folds her arms. “Well, I’m your friend, so I won’t have it. We’ll buy you a school uniform for tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to. I could wear something in your closet. Don’t waste money on me.”

“No, you’re going to wear the uniform. It goes hand in hand with going to school.”

“But I don’t go to your school. Wait, do you mean—”

Ayumi’s ponytail flutters in the breeze. “If we’re going to be in this, we’d better be in it together. I don’t want you to leave my side for even a second from now on. If you hadn’t heeded my plea yesterday, who knows what would have happened.”

A glimmer forms in Haruka’s eye. “I’ll be sure to do it.”

We finish lunch and sit back to enjoy the cool spring breeze. Even if I survive beyond next weekend, this is still the only day we can do something like this. The sakura petals are already past their peak, and their withered remains fall in droves as we eat. Next week, we’ll be left with green leaves.

I brush a couple petals off of my hair. “Haruka, do you ever need to eat? I don’t seem to recall bringing you anything before.”

Haruka, who has taken an interest in a particular blade of grass, perks up to attention. “Nope. I like to, but I don’t need to.”

A few kids run around the park, chasing a ball. Ayumi follows their legs—particularly their knees which bend at will. “I miss competing,” she says to no one in particular.

The cool breeze makes me shiver. Wasn’t it supposed to be warm? “I’m sure you could get into wheelchair sports if you wanted. You don’t have to stay on the sidelines.”

Ayumi pulls her good knee to her chest. “It doesn’t matter. It was my fault I wound up this way, and it’s going to be my fault I stay this way. I’ll leave wheelchair sports to the people who are actually unfortunate.”

“No. If you were born to a better family, you’d be competing right now. So stop blaming yourself, and look forward.”

Something jingles.

A Filipino girl runs along with a net, chasing a butterfly. With every step, the little bells in her hair dance. Her hair bounces around her dark-skinned neck.

She’s heading straight toward us, not paying attention to anything but the butterfly.

“Whoa!” Ayumi shouts.

“Huh?” That moment of hesitation destroys her rhythm. Her feet tangle up and she plummets to the ground.

I help her up. “Are you all right?”

She dusts off her skirt. “I’m fine, but look at my clothes!”



Ayumi’s mouth drops. “Erica?

I can’t believe it. “You didn’t realize it earlier? How many Filipinos do you know?”

Ayumi turns aside. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

Erica readjusts her suspenders. “Well, if it isn’t delinquent one and delinquent two.”

She’s still going on about that? “It was one night. We’ve been in bed by curfew ever since.”

If she wants people to see her as a high-school student, she should pick out better clothes. With a polka-dot top and a skirt held up with suspenders, it’s no surprise everyone’s confused at first.

“I’m kidding,” she says.

Ayumi pats a spot on the blanket. “Have a seat. We have plenty of sandwiches.”

Erica moves to sit where Haruka is lying down tracing clouds with her fingers. Haruka barely manages to roll off the blanket before Erica sits on top of her.

“What are you doing out here?” I ask. Haruka, displaced, wanders into the park.

Erica finds a sandwich she likes and takes a bite out of it. “Wa woufn’t I be ouf her?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Ayumi lectures.

Erica swallows. “Sorry. I mean, why wouldn’t I be out here? Just feel the warmth of spring!”

“Don’t you have student council work?”

She waves her net in the air. “What kind of a life do you think I lead where I can’t even take Sundays off to catch butterflies?”

Ayumi lies back. “It just seems a bit, well—”

“—childish?” She sure likes to complete our sentences. At least she’s aware. “Sure, it’s childish. Then again, there are a few advantages to being me.”

She stands up and spins around, giving us a full view of her body. “Who’d question someone in my youthful body for catching a butterfly? It’s fun, so I do it.”

I’m not sure what to make out of this. “Did you come with anyone else?”

“Nah, I never bother. Nobody’d agree, even if it was a normal high school activity.”

“That’s kind of—”

“—sad? I know, I’m a loner. So what? I’m happy with what I do, so does it matter if I have friends or not?”

“What about your parents?”

The smile is wiped off her face. “I can’t.”

“Oh, are they still in the Philippines?”

She fiddles with a blade of grass between her fingers. “We moved to Kochi when I was five. They died a few years later, so I’ve been living by myself ever since. Even my court-ordered guardian mostly stopped talking to me once I entered middle school.”

“Oh.” I’ve apparently hit a soft spot. “I’m sorry.”

She stops twirling the grass. “It was a long time ago.”

Ayumi jumps in. “If they passed a long time ago, and you moved here when you were five, how old are you exactly?”

I can almost see the vein popping in Erica’s head. “I said seventeen how many times already?”

Let’s not turn this into a fight. “Do you want us to walk you to the bus station? It’s really not safe at night.” I can imagine her catching butterflies until dark and then running into some immoral people.

She slings her net over her shoulder. “Sure, if you want. I won’t complain.”

Ayumi whispers to me, “Where’s Haruka?”

I jerk my head around. Where’d she get off to? “I’ll be right back.”

Erica puts her hands on her hips. “And skip on cleaning? Look at all these crumbs on the ground. You need to do your fair share, you know!”

“It’s important.”

She scowls. “Typical delinquents. Never want to pitch in and help.”

“You have the wrong idea,” says Ayumi.

“Then what could it possibly be?” demands Erica.

I say the first thing I think. “It’s my special time of the month.”

Erica’s mouth stops moving, and her dark skin shifts to a perfect shade of red from head to toe. “Why the hell would you tell me that?!

“Well, you did ask.” I thought only kids got embarrassed about that.

“Go,” is the only thing she can get out.

Haruka isn’t too far from our picnic area, playing with some withered sakura petals between her fingers. When we return, the sun has already begun to set. Erica gives a big yawn. “I can’t wait until it’s sunny in the evening.”

“It’ll be soon enough.” But not soon enough for me.

Erica points ahead. “Let’s go!” I give the park one last check before following her lead.

We take the bus back to the alleyways north of the school. Erica wastes no time navigating the streets, turning confidently from one alleyway to the next. With each step, the little bell in her hair laughs.

“Why do you wear your bells?” I’m finally curious enough to ask.

“Oh, this?” she touches a bell, making it dance again. “My mom gave them to me when I was little because I kept getting lost. They’d help her find me. I keep them in to remember her. Though I need to be super careful they don’t go off during ceremonies.”

“It’d also serve as a warning to predators,” I say to myself.

“What predator? Let me at ’em! I’ll take care of them.” She makes a tiny muscle with her bicep. “Bear, tiger, lion, they’re all no match for me!”

I don’t mean that kind of predator.

“You really seem to know where you’re going.” Ayumi struggles to keep up with Erica’s pace. “Do you study a lot of maps?”

“Nah. I spend a lot of time in these alleys, so I know all the shortcuts. Like see, here’s the little opening in the fence.” Erica pulls back a bush to reveal the opening. “And then we walk up the hill to get back to the school.”

I lean over to get a better view. “Amazing. We’d cut off at least thirty minutes on the road back.”

Erica winks. “You’ll know all these secrets by the time you graduate. Trust me.”

There’s no way Ayumi can make it through the fence with her leg. Not to mention, crutches really aren’t meant to be used on grass.

“I think we’ll have to take the long way around.” I motion to Ayumi. Erica understands immediately.

“Well, I’ll see you in school tomorrow!” she waves goodbye and runs up the hill.

When she’s out of sight, Haruka finally speaks up. “Did anything about her seem strange?”

“Besides the usual? Not really.”

Haruka peeks through the fence, even though Erica is long gone. “I thought she noticed me.”

Ayumi checks after her. “Probably a coincidence. She did almost sit on you.”

***

The following morning, my muscles are on fire. I try to sit up, but my body won’t let me. My head pounds, forcing me to groan.

“What’s wrong?” Ayumi helps me sit up.

The world spins as I get out of bed. “The date’s getting nearer. Nothing you can really do.” My strength returns as I put on my uniform.

“Now that we’ve gone sakura viewing, what else did you have on that list of yours?” Ayumi asks.

“Nothing much. Going to the beach, although it’s probably still a bit cold, seeing Silent Circular Infinity live, or having my first kiss…”

Ayumi walks over to me with a smile. Her soft lips draw close, locking them on mine, closing her eyes for just a second.

I jump back as soon as I realize what she’s doing. “A-A-Ayumi! What are you…?”

Her cheeks flush. “Now you can cross that off your list.”

“Ayumi, do you really feel—?”

“No. I’m a friend helping a friend finish her list.” But my heart’s beating fast. My brain races. Is there more to it? Or is it just a friend helping a friend?

Haruka bursts through the door, breaking my train of thought. “Looking good there.” Ayumi makes an “okay” gesture.

Haruka fidgets, adjusting the red tie of her new uniform. “Do I really have to wear these socks? They feel weird.”

Weren’t we saying the same thing last week? Most of the time I forget they’re there. “After going barefoot all the time, they probably would. Nobody’s going to see them, so if they’re uncomfortable, I don’t see why—”

“Nope.” Ayumi sticks her hand up. “Haruka’s going to attend our school, maybe not in name, but in spirit. So she has to wear the uniform—including socks. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

I know from her tone of voice not to argue.

***

Haruka takes a spot at the back of the classroom to watch the lecture. Our science teacher drones on about Mendelian inheritance, and how brown eyes are a dominant trait. I feel a nap creeping up on me. If I’m this bored, how bad must this be for Haruka? At least I gave her a sketchpad for entertainment.

“It’s recessive!” Haruka jumps out of her seat to answer a question. Of course, the teacher doesn’t hear her, so she returns to scribbling down every word in her sketchpad. At least she’s excited. But her vigor can’t possibly keep me awake through this lecture.

Ayumi taps on my desk, waking me up for lunch. “Hey, can you do me a big favor?”

I stretch. “Sure, what is it?”

“You see that big stack of papers on the teacher’s desk? Could you bring it to the student council for me? I really can’t with these.” She taps a crutch.

“Yeah, sure.” As I pick up the papers, Haruka runs over to Ayumi. “I never knew there were so many different types of people! Do you think I’m more recessive or dominant? Is auburn hair a dominant trait?”

These papers are heavy! Maybe nominating Ayumi as class president wasn’t particularly responsible. She’ll always need help for these kinds of tasks, and the vice president is a bit of a delinquent. Who’ll she ask when I’m gone? I don’t want to think about it.

I knock on the student council’s butterfly-covered door. “Pardon the intrusion.” I push the door open, knowing full well who’s on the other side.

Erica nearly jumps out of her chair to meet me. “Thank you so much! And thanks so much for the sandwiches yesterday. They really were something. I made some extra lunch for you and Ayumi if you’d like. Go get her, and we’ll have a great time!”

I have a feeling she would. Unlike Friday, we don’t have a baking club to eat with. To everyone else in the school, it never existed.

“I can, but Ayumi’d never make it in time.” Erica nearly jumps with joy as she pulls out the extra boxed lunches.

After calling Ayumi to let her know what I decided, I take a stab at my copious pickled cabbage.

“Do you usually eat—”

“—alone? Of course. Who else would eat with me?” She scoops some rice into her mouth.

“Did you have fun eating with us yesterday? We could save you a spot in the mornings.”

Erica thoughtfully chews on a grain of rice. “Yeah, I could. I have a meeting tomorrow, but maybe after? The two of you don’t annoy me like some other people in my class.”

Wait, wasn’t Nami the one who bothered her? Does she remember her? Then could she really see Haruka?

I’ll have to test her. “Sorry there wasn’t enough food for the four of us.”

Erica cocks her head. “Four? You, me, and Ayumi. Unless, are you saying you have two stomachs?”

My suspicions are alleviated. “Sorry, I miscounted. Math’s never been my strong point.”

“Want me to help you with it? It’s my best subject.” She raises her chin in pride.

The warning bell sounds for the end of lunch. “I’ll think about it.”

Math tutoring would really help, but I’ll never be able to take her up on that offer. I only have a few days left to live.

***

Ayumi types on her calculator, working diligently on her homework. Well, as diligently as you can while lying on your bed. She asks, “What do we do from here?”

Haruka perks her head up from my homework and raises an eyebrow. I feel guilty about letting her do it for me, but she kept insisting until I had to give in. A little extra time to play video games never hurts.

When she realizes Ayumi is talking to me, she returns to her, or my, work. I flip my game console closed. “We play it by ear. Like, maybe if we visit Cappy every day we can catch him.”

“You saw it yesterday. The place is deserted. It’s like it hasn’t been used in years.” She puts her pencil down. “Listen, you only have a few days left. Let’s focus on what you enjoy for now, and I’ll deal with this after.”

I box up my console and slide it in my desk drawer. “Come on. Are you going to let all their lives go to waste? Yukine’s? Nagisa’s? Kyouko’s? Nami’s?”

“All right, all right, already! I get it!” She throws her pencil at her closet. “I’m trying to be strong like you, but this is too much.”

“I’m not as strong as you think.”

“What do you mean? Here you are with a couple of days to live and yet you haven’t missed a beat.”

I put my hand on my closet door. “I didn’t just pull out the first thing I could yesterday because I was lazy. Simply put, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the sword.” My closet has turned into a thing of horrors for me since Nami passed. That sword serves as a constant reminder of how much time I have left.

Ayumi buries her head in her pillow. “I hate this. If only we had known about shades earlier, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

I have to agree. “If we had known about it earlier, we could’ve done something about it. Even something minor could have prevented a tragedy.”

Ayumi blinks.

“What? I’m just rambling.”

“You said something about a minor thing.”

I sit back down on my bed. “Yeah. I mean, I doubt it could’ve worked, but what good is life if you don’t try?”

“That’s it!” Ayumi jumps up on her bad foot and promptly falls back onto her bed with an “Ow…”

“Careful there. But what’d you realize?”

“You’re not doing anything right now, are you?” she asks.

“Not really. But why? What are you planning?”

Ayumi grabs her crutches and throws her blazer back on. “Trying.”

Ayumi doesn’t tell us her plan until we’re outside. “Haruka, I know you can take care of familiars. Can you take care of shades as well?”

Haruka raises an eyebrow. “I said I could before. But why?”

Ayumi nearly sprints—if you can call walking fast on crutches “sprinting”—straight to the front gates of the school. “A cat lured Sakura into the alleyway where she was attacked, right?”

“That was you.”

Ayumi holds her hand up. “Not the point. That cat, and those shades, have to have been commanded by someone. Odds are, if they did it once, they’re probably doing it again. We can’t have anyone else go chasing after cats and getting killed.”

“Then what’s your plan?” I can barely keep up. What’s happened to my running legs?

Ayumi stops to let us catch up. “We’ll head into town and search for shades. When we do, we’ll get rid of them and make Kochi safer. And if we can find that cat, even better.” She flashes a peace sign at me.

“Do you realize how big Kochi is? Getting from one side to the other would take all night on foot.”

Haruka puts her hand on Ayumi’s shoulder. “She’s right. We need a strategy.”

Ayumi thinks for a moment. “Well, it’s a shot in the dark, but the alleyways aren’t the nicest of places. Maybe the necromancer placed his shades in seedy spots. How do the warehouses by the river sound?”

She really is ambitious. “There’s almost a hundred of them,” I say. “We couldn’t cover all of them in a night.”

Ayumi taps her bad leg gingerly on the ground. “And I’m slowed down by this, so it’s not like we can cover too much ground. I’m getting used to the pain, and I sometimes forget it’s injured, but it only takes one stupid move, like jumping up off of bed earlier, to remind me how bad it is.”

She lifts her chin up and turns to the city by the river. “But if this stops someone from dying, isn’t it worth it? Wouldn’t it matter to him or her?”

She always has been the kind of person to see things properly. This isn’t about solving the situation. This is about making a bad situation a little bit better.

She clenches her fists, but not in stubbornness. “I plan to do this every night when you go to bed. We’ll do something on your list while you’re awake, and then I’ll sneak out to patrol the streets at night. I don’t want to steal any of your last hours with me for this.”

She’s so determined, I can’t think of any idea other than to go along with her. “No. If you’re doing something like this, I’m not going to leave you alone.”

She winks, as if she expected that answer. “I appreciate it.”

I follow her out the gate. “We better get going, then. Haruka, you have any leads?”

Haruka raises an eyebrow at me. It’s like she’s just learned how, and is snatching every opportunity to do so. “Me? Why would I?”

“I don’t know; you’re a familiar. I was thinking maybe you had some sort of little radar telling you where the nearest shade is.”

Haruka thinks for a second. “I don’t think I do. It’d be cool if I did. But, no such thing.”

Ayumi speeds down the hill on her crutches. “Come on, let’s go.”

It’s dark when we arrive. Many stores have closed their doors, while a few shopkeepers clean up inside. The few people we bump into on the street hardly seem friendly. “It’s probably busier earlier,” I say.

We cross the alley where I had first been attacked. I half expect to see another hooded woman there, but lightning doesn’t strike twice.

The warehouses are a lot larger than any of us expected. Even a single one would take an hour to search. “Should we split up?” asks Ayumi.

I shake my head. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Dangerous? But I’m immune, you’re a corpse, and Haruka, do they even see you?” Haruka is too busy reading the graffiti on the walls to hear her.

I slide open the door to the first warehouse. “There’s more danger in this world than shades.”

“What do you mean?”

I point to her legs. “You might be a necromancer, but you’re also a girl on crutches. If some pervert saw you, do you think he’d pity you or see you as an easy target?”

Ayumi lifts the end of her crutch. “I’m also a girl with a weapon.” She swings it around like it’s a sword.

A bead of sweat forms on my forehead and I narrow my eyes. I can’t figure out the words to explain how wrong she is. “Yeah, no.”

Ayumi follows me into the warehouse. The waning moon doesn’t provide much in the way of light in here. “Do the lights work?” she asks.

I flip the switch, but darkness remains. “No electricity.”

Haruka lifts her head to the large lights hanging from the ceiling. “Electricity?” Before we can stop her, she shoots a bolt of lightning upwards. The lamp bursts into light, momentarily blinding me.

Ayumi trembles. “Careful. You already burned down one building this week.”

We search behind the various boxes for any signs of a shade. While the lamp above provides good illumination directly underneath it, it also creates giant shadows off each box.

“There!” Ayumi points down a hall lined with boxes for walls.

Like the first night, there’s a figure hunched over with their face obscured by a hood.

I have half a mind to run screaming, and take up Ayumi’s offer to spend my last days doing fun things. But the slight throb from the scratch in my right wrist reminds me why we’re doing this.

Haruka’s eyes glow, and sparks crackle around her. Give her another few seconds, she’ll roast the shade.

“Wait,” says Ayumi.

“Wait?” we ask.

Ayumi leans down. “We don’t even know if it is a shade or not. It could be some poor person in a hood.”

But when she falls over backwards, I know it’s not “some poor person in a hood.”

The shade rises from the ground, its cover blown. Ayumi’s hands shake, but she knows she can’t back off now.

“Do it,” Ayumi says.

Haruka’s eyes glow again, and lighting cracks around her.

“Wait,” I say.

Haruka stomps her foot. “Make up your mind already! Magic is tiring.”

Ayumi cocks her head. “Why did you want to wait?”

“We wanted to know more about shades, right? This is our time to find out about them.”

“How?” Ayumi backs up next to me.

“I dunno. Maybe we could test to see what their weaknesses are.”

Haruka shrugs. “That’s easy. They’re unable to do much more than run on autopilot unless they’re within range of the familiar who created them.”

Ayumi and I drop our jaws. “What?”

“Why didn’t you tell us before?” Ayumi demands.

Haruka tenses up from the accusations. “Actually, I didn’t know until I said it.”

“What are you talking about? How could you not?”

“I told you, I didn’t know anything when I came here. When I see a shade, it’s like I have instincts. Maybe if you prompt me with questions, I might have answers.”

I point at the shade. “What are its strengths?”

Haruka relaxes a little. “A shade, for the most part, is indestructible. Only its master necromancer’s command, a familiar, or total body annihilation can truly destroy it. It also gains superhuman abilities, like the ability to climb on walls and ignore injury.”

I think back to the first night. “So then when I smashed them with Ayumi’s crutches—”

“—you did nothing,” Haruka finishes. “Leave the shade hunting to me. You two enjoy your last moments together.”

“I refuse,” Ayumi says.

“Why?” I ask. “If we’re only going to get in the way, why bother?

“I’ll explain later.” Ayumi’s clenched fists tell me all I need to know about her stubbornness. We’ll deal with it later.

Seeing this topic going nowhere, I point at the shade. “Whose shade is this?” The shade has already settled back down. With no target, it isn’t about to attack.

Haruka taps on her chin. After a moment, she says, “I don’t know.”

Ayumi’s had enough. “I can’t take it anymore. Get rid of it.”

“You won’t stop me this time?”

“No. Do it.”

Haruka spreads her hands apart, and after a burst of lightning and blue flame nothing remains of the shade—not even ash.

Ayumi staggers for a bit. “Are you all right?” I ask.

She steadies herself. “Just a little surprised there are still shades this close to home.” She pokes around with her crutches to make sure it’s gone. “Let’s keep going.”

We check every corner of the warehouse, but there are no other shades. The next warehouse we search in the dark, since Ayumi has forbidden Haruka from lighting another lamp. But this shade is positioned right next to the entrance.

“Do you want to check if it’s a human?”

“No, I know what it is. Destroy it.” Haruka lets out the burst of lightning. But the lightning reflects off the shade, forcing us to duck.

“W-what is this?” Ayumi watches the shade rise.

Haruka checks her hands “Did I miss?” She puts her hands on the ground, causing tendrils of lightning fly out of the ground. They wrap themselves around the shade, which bursts into blue flame and disappears.

Each fight after becomes harder. What kills one shade doesn’t kill the next, and Haruka is forced to create new ways to destroy them. Before long she’s stuck having to physically fight them.

“Do many people come into these warehouses in the first place?” I ask as Haruka tries to catch her breath. Why are these fights getting harder?

Ayumi taps the ground incredulously. “I-I don’t know. But if they did, we’d have a pretty big problem on our hands.”

Haruka still hasn’t caught her breath. If she keeps fighting like this, she could injure herself—if such a thing is possible for a familiar. Hurt or not, I can’t let her continue. “Let’s head back.”

Ayumi taps her crutch faster. “And leave these things here? What if somebody came in here and got attacked? I can’t have their lives on my hands.”

I step up next to Haruka. “There’s only so much we can do. We have to sleep, or we can’t do this tomorrow. Or, judging by the time, today.”

Haruka struggles to her feet. “She’s right. There isn’t anyone around to attack. We’ll continue tomorrow.”

Ayumi clenches her first. But just when I think she’ll insist on going on, she throws her hands in the air. “Fine.”

By the time we get back to the dorm, it’s already two in the morning. Hopefully, Erica’s in such a deep sleep, she’ll never know we were missing.
[close]

Chapter 6
Chapter 6: A Fading Light

“What do you want to do today?” Ayumi cuts into her fried egg. We have taken to sitting at the baking club’s table, as if to honor their lost lives.

I poke at my omelet. “Aren’t we going shade hunting after school?”

Ayumi swirls the yolk of her egg. “You only have a few days left. Five, was it?”

Haruka, who has been nibbling off Ayumi’s rice, butts in. “In fact, the rest of the life essence will probably die out today, so it’s really the sword keeping you intact.”

The sword always comes up. Why can’t I avoid it and live a happy life? I do my best to ignore her grim analysis. “Aren’t you afraid they might do something?”

Ayumi puts her chopsticks down. “Truth be told, I’m always scared. But if they were to do something, I don’t think they’d do it in broad daylight.”

“Kyouko certainly did.”

“Kyouko was a different person. She was not only trying to bring back Nami, but also enacting her revenge. She attacked everything I cared about. You, our club, and our purpose. The person who controls these shades isn’t expecting anyone in particular. He’s probably like a spider: weaving its web and catching any prey unfortunate enough to fly into it.”

She hobbles up on her crutches. “Can you bring my books to class for me, Haruka? I’m stuck on morning duty today.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Ayumi exits. I never told her what I want to do today. Not like I have any sort of idea in the first place.

We barely get into class when that same annoying third-year student summons us again. She doesn’t even need to ask for us—we know who she wants.

She leans on the doorway. “Erica wishes to speak with both of you at lunch.”

When she leaves, Ayumi asks, “Do you think she caught us?”

“Doubt it. She’s probably lonely and wants someone to eat with.”

“We’ll have to see.”

I check over at Haruka, who has her head buried in our English novel. I lean to Ayumi and whisper, “Why didn’t you want her hunting shades alone?”

She whispers back, “There’s still a lot about her we don’t know. I don’t want to let something like Nami happen again.”

“So that’s why you wanted her at school.”

“I want her near me. Always.” The break bell rings, signifying the start of the day.

The morning passes by fast enough. Ayumi meets me by the doorway for lunch. “Hopefully this is quick. The cafeteria’s a long way from the student council.”

“This is Erica we’re talking about. As long as you like pickled cabbage, you’ll be fine.”

As usual, Erica waits alone for us, sitting in her swivel chair with her feet dangling.

“Ah, thanks for coming. How are you today?” Naturally, she doesn’t notice Haruka, who is studying the hundreds of butterflies on the doorway.

I don’t really care much for the small talk. “What did you call us in here for?”

Erica reaches into her bag and throws a couple of photos on the table. “Do these look familiar to you?” We lean over to check them out. There we are, in the dead of night, wandering around the alleyways.

“Th-these aren’t us!” Ayumi stutters.

Erica folds her hands and leans on them. “There’s only one girl who’d wear this school’s uniform, has your color hair, and use crutches. Don’t lie to me.”

How did she catch us? I made sure nobody followed us. “How did you get these?”

“None of your business. Why were you out there?”

“None of your business,” I mirror.

“Actually”—she attaches her residence committee’s arm band to her sleeve—”it is my business.”

Ayumi would fall to her knees and beg if she physically could. “We’re sorry! There’s a good reason why we were out there!”

“Which is?”

Ayumi wipes the sweat on her brow. “We can’t tell you.”

Erica puts her feet up on the table and leans back. “You won’t have to. I have eyes everywhere in this town, so I’ll find it out eventually.”

I slam my hand on the table. “What’s it matter to you? I’m sure we’re not the first students who broke curfew.”

“The residence committee is responsible for enforcing the curfew among students, and in cases of extreme misbehavior, recommend expulsion from dormitory privileges.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

Erica pulls her dangling armband back up. “I would if the need arose. But, I’m not the big goody two shoes you think I am. I only want you to help me out here.”

Ayumi stops her hysterics and steadies herself. “Help you out? What do you need us to do?”

Erica pulls a large stack of papers out of her bag and places them on the table. “I dropped all the student surveys this morning, and they’re all disorganized. I’ll be here until midnight fixing this mess. That is, unless a couple of delinquents want to make up for their transgressions so they aren’t expelled from the dorms.”

She’s sly as a fox. “You know you could’ve asked us before threatening us.”

“So you’ll do it? Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Ayumi throws her hands up. “Not like we have a choice.”

Erica’s stomach growls. “Well, I’m hungry, and I’m sure you are too, so we’ll do this after school, all right? And we’ll get to know each other so much better too!”

“After school?” Ayumi and I gasp.

Erica cocks her head. “When else would we? Not like members of the ‘going home’ club have much else to do. In fact, that offer to join the student council is still open.”

She pulls a couple of boxed lunches out of her bag. “Come on, let’s eat.” She doesn’t even ask us if we want to this time.

When the warning bell rings, Haruka darts back to the classroom. I’ve never seen anyone so keen to learn. As for me, I take the long way back to class with the complaining Ayumi. “She had hours’ worth of work there. Forget going somewhere fun with you, I don’t know if we can even go on our patrol tonight.”

I keep thinking about all those photos. They’re taken from so many different angles, they can’t be from the same photographer. “Would we even be able to, given our tail? She may seem young, but she’s dangerous.”

Ayumi ascends the stairs one step at a time. “We probably could if we disguised ourselves. Like, sure, the crutches are a dead giveaway, but I’m sure I’m not the only girl in Kochi on crutches. Maybe if I hid my hair she wouldn’t notice me.”

It’s a stretch. “I don’t think Erica cares about curfew. She only wants company.”

“But what about you? Are you sure you want to spend your last days doing paperwork?”

“Why not? You need a place to belong when I’m gone, so why wouldn’t the student council work?”

Then it dawns on me why I had been going to school despite my impending doom. “There’s only one thing I want to do. I want to make sure you’re happy even when I’m gone. A good place to start is having you belong somewhere.”

She wipes some tears away, but not before I see them. “Thank you…but I’m not sure if I’ll be all right without you…” She’s going to have to be, whether she wants to or not.

After a mundane afternoon, Ayumi and I race to the student council room. We can’t waste any time. Every moment we spend working with Erica is a moment we can’t spend hunting shades.

Bag upon bag of junk food lies on the table. “Ah, thanks for coming. I brought snacks.”



My stomach grumbles. After our hurried lunch, I’m glad to have some extra food available.

Haruka admires the layout of the room while we work.

“What kind of music do you listen to?” I try and strike up a conversation.

Erica thinks for a moment. “I don’t really listen to much. But I suppose I like classical.”

Ayumi holds up two surveys, looking back and forth between them. “How eloquent.” She puts the surveys down, grabs a Taiyaki from the table, and breaks it in half. When Erica returns to her computer, Ayumi holds the other half of it under the table for Haruka. She’s a familiar, not a dog. Then again, how else would she do it?

“What do you do for fun?” I ask.

Erica types along. “I collect butterflies.”

“Collect? You mean you raise them?”

“No, I collect them. You saw me with my net Sunday. The park is a nice change of view from the woods in back of the school. It’s so open and fresh!”

I think back to middle school biology. “Don’t they die young and then decompose?”

“Yep. So I preserve them and mount them. I told myself I was going to stop after one batch, but I couldn’t help myself. Right now I’m exploring using resin to make jewelry out of them.” She drops another stack of papers in front of Ayumi.

Ayumi puts her hands to her head in agony. We’ll get there, Ayumi, keep working. “Have you been doing it long?”

“Of course. Ever since my mom taught me. She knew I loved butterflies since I could talk—it was my first word, after all—but her paintings never did it for me. I wanted to see the real thing. We used to raise them in little mesh cages, but I’d get too sad when one of them died. So she taught me how to preserve them and display them.”

Erica’s face goes dark. “That was the last thing she taught me before she died.”

By the time we finish sorting through the papers, the sunset’s orange rays shine through the window.

Erica puts a staple in the corner of the last pile of surveys. “Hey, you’ve been a great help. And sorry about the whole blackmail thing. I wasn’t expecting you to be so willing to cooperate.” A low beam of light shifts her attention out the window. “Ah, darn, it’s already late. Cafeteria’s probably closed by now.”

“Yeah, we’ll grab some snacks for dinner. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Erica throws out her hands to block the exit. “No, I can’t do that to you. This is my fault, so I’ll have to compensate. How does a pizza sound?”

She won’t let us refuse. She pushes us to her dorm room with one hand, while with the other, she talks to who I presume is the pizza man on her phone.

As part of the residence committee, Erica gets a private dorm. While it’s significantly smaller than our room, it has a lot of extra floor space since she only has one bed and desk to fit in there.

But this room isn’t at all like mine. “You weren’t kidding about the butterflies.” The walls are filled to the brim with displays of all sorts of the creatures, each mounted perfectly and displaying a multitude of colors on their wings.

She carefully lifts up a paper with several drying specimens. “This is the one I’m working on now. I think it might be my best yet.” Where is she going to put it?

Ayumi checks out a wall hanging. “Have you tried selling them?”

Erica settles in her chair. “Selling? Why?”

Ayumi moves on to a hanging with a blue wing theme. “You probably could get some good money with this. Back in middle school, I had a friend whose father would pay close to ten thousand yen for something like this.”

“Oh no, I could never sell these.” But she won’t elaborate why. “Anyway, let me order the pizza.”

“What? Then who were you talking to before?” I ask.

She drops a pair of tweezers. “I wasn’t on the phone.”

“We saw you.”

Erica stammers. “It wasn’t anything important.”

Ayumi sits down on Erica’s bed. “Sakura and I keep a rule for friendship. No secrets, no judging. So who was it?”

She puffs out her cheeks. “Fine! I was telling my guardian I finally had ‘friends’ to hang out with after school!” She holds her breath until we respond.

“I’m glad you feel like that.” I check her clock. “You should get the order in soon.”

Erica leaves us alone for a bit. We pass the time watching Haruka, whose fascination with the butterfly collections is entertainment enough.

Erica comes back soon after, and we discuss her collections more. But every moment increases my heart rate. Seven at night already, and the pizzas won’t arrive until seven thirty. By the time we eat, it’ll be close to eight, and then we still have homework to do.

“Maybe we could skip homework,” I mutter.

“Did you say something?” asks Erica.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just talking to myself.”

She stands, and despite her short stature, really seems imposing. “I’m sure I heard you considering skipping your homework.”

I lean back. “Just an innocent thought.”

“I can’t have you skipping homework on my behalf.” She blocks the exit from her room.

Ayumi brushes it off. “I’m sure she wasn’t serious.”

Erica flips the lock. “You’re not leaving here until every last bit of homework is done. I’m not going to let you fall delinquent because of me!”

Ayumi and I both know what that means. “I’m just kidding. We’ll do it right after pizza.”

“You don’t want to stay with me?” It’s as if she drove a knife through my heart. It’s sad enough to hear a high school girl say those words, but to hear it from a quasi-ten-year-old is downright depressing.

Ayumi pulls out a textbook. “Fine. We’ll do our homework, and then we really have to get going, all right?”

Erica leaps for joy. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! Let’s see, Sakura, are you all right using the floor as a desk? Here, Ayumi, you can use my desk. Let me clear it off for you.”

I pull out my math problems, trying not to be distracted by Haruka. She sticks her fingers in the resin to examine it. But resin hardens, and before long, she’s desperately trying to get it off.

I refocus my attention. If we finish by nine, we can manage to escape and destroy a couple of shades.

I rush through my problems, and judging by Ayumi’s determined expression, she’s doing the same thing. Who cares if they’re right? If we can satisfy Erica and get away, I’ll count it as a victory.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Erica returns with the pizza and peeks over my shoulder. “What’s this?”

I cover my work. “You said to do homework, so we are.”

“You call this homework?” She grabs my notebook. “Look at all these mistakes! Why would you use a sine here? Why would you divide by two here? What’s with this sketch of a puppy?”

“I need to wait for the teacher to grade it.” I pull out my history book to save some time.

Erica tears out the page. “No way. We’re going to work together and get these things right. Leave it to me. I might not look like it, but I’m the top math student in my class. Like, number two here: sine (pi/2 – theta). Why’d you make it sin (pi/2) – sine (theta)?”

“You’re supposed to distribute, right?”

Erica puts her palm on her face. “No, you can’t. It’s a trig identity, and gives you cosine (theta). Study these until you have them committed to memory.” She points to the list of identities.

Ayumi and I let out a collective sigh, watching the minutes tick away on the clock.

When we finish all our homework to Erica’s standards, the clock strikes ten. “Aw, it’s curfew. Sorry I kept you here so long, but you’re going to have to stay over now.”

“Stay over?” we demand.

“Can’t have you breaking curfew on my behalf.”

Ayumi gets up off the ground. “You’re the residence committee. We did a lot for you today, so can’t you let it slide?”

Erica sniffles. “Was spending time with me that bad? You know as an only child and an orphan, I’ve been stuck in dorms for years. Nobody ever wanted to have a sleepover with me before. Night after night in this dark room with nothing but a teddy bear to keep me company…”

“All right already!” Ayumi throws her hands up, not for the first time today. “We’ll stay!”

Erica sniffles. “Really? Then Ayumi can sleep on the bed with her leg, and Sakura and I can share the spare futon.”

This can’t be happening. How can we lose an entire day to the routine and mundane? I think of someone following a cat like us and getting attacked.

“I don’t have my pajamas.” Please let us go. I’m out of excuses now.

Erica holds a hand out. “Give me the keys to your room and I’ll get them for you. It’s the least I could do for a friend.”

Our options disappear with those words. “I’ll be right back!” she says.

When the lock clicks, Ayumi grabs my hands. “Should we leave now?”

It seems too tempting. “We could. But how are we going to get in our room after? She has your key.”

Ayumi sighs. “Let me guess. You left yours in your desk like always, since you knew I’d be with you.”

Haruka continues her attempt to free her fingers from their resin prison. “I always could go in your place. Or I could unlock your door from the inside.”

Ayumi lays back. “No, let’s stay here. Erica will make us repeat this farce again tomorrow if we leave her.”

I hold up the resin bottle. “By the way, can’t you desolidify to get the resin of? You know, like what you did with Cappy’s door?”

It falls off Haruka’s fingers. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she cries.

Erica returns with our stuff soon after. There’s nothing else we can do but go along with the sleepover idea.

“Sleep well.” Erica flicks off the lights.

The last thing I hear before I fall asleep is the soft lullaby of the bells still tied into her hair.

***

I pick my bag up off Erica’s floor. “Thanks for the help last night. See you around.”

So many rays of happiness radiate from her. Maybe she really is just lonely. “Hey, are you doing anything after school today?” she asks.

Ayumi’s crutch strikes the ground a little harder than usual. “Sorry. We have something important to attend to.”

“What is it? Can I come along? I promise I won’t get in the way.”

Poor Erica. “You’d probably get bored.”

At breakfast, Ayumi and I really aren’t hungry (thanks to all of Erica’s food yesterday), so we skip the fancy foods in favor of strawberry jam and toast.

We’re sitting at the baking club’s table, as usual, when we hear some girls snickering.

“There’s that runt, sitting alone again.”

“Maybe if she didn’t treat us like kids, she’d have some friends.”

“Or she could go back to the Philippines where she belongs.”

I get up from my seat. “I never knew blackmail could lead to friendship.”

Ayumi follows suit. “Is there anything in particular you want to do after school?”

She’s not asking if I want to go to karaoke or an arcade. She’s making a suggestion. I couldn’t be happier. “Let’s help out Erica. She’ll appreciate it, and then you’ll have a friend after I’m gone.” I should be a little more afraid of my impending death. Haruka had given me just over a week to live, but there’s no way to know exactly how long I have. Well, no, there is. The sword looms in my closet, beckoning to me.

It doesn’t matter how little time I have left. It’s about what I do with that time. I need to make the most of it. And if the most I can make of it is doing paperwork to help Ayumi, so be it. She’ll be on the path to making a friend and staying happy long after I’m gone.

I sling my bag over my shoulder. “But we have to be straight with her. We’ll help until six, and then we’ll leave.”

“Yeah, we’re not losing another night.”

We head to Erica’s table. “Got a seat or two to spare?”

Erica’s cold wintery mood turns to a warm spring day. “Take any you like!”

Ayumi takes the seat next to her, and I take the one across. Haruka settles in next to me, making me jump. I hardly noticed her all morning. Given the bags under her eyes, her constant yawns, and how she drags her feet, she can’t have gotten much sleep.

Ayumi spreads some jam on her toast. “Now, we were talking a bit and decided we want to help you. Not only today, but every day.”

If Erica had been a warm spring day, now she’s a hot day in mid-July. “Oh, this is great! I’ll get you both on the student council, and maybe we could move into a room together! From dawn to dusk with my new friends, what else could I ask for?”

I hold my hand up to stop her. “No. We’d love to join you on the student council, but we can only be with you until six each day.”

“You don’t want to do homework with me?”

Ayumi swallows her toast. “If you help us with our homework all the time, how will we ever learn? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always learned by discovering my own mistakes and fixing them.”

Erica doesn’t back down. “What if we go to the library and do it there? I won’t barge in unless you ask me for help, but isn’t it more fun doing it together?”

I need to be firm with her. “Sorry. We really can’t.”

Clouds cover her sunshine. “Then there’s no real point.”

“What?”

“No, it’s fine. If we only have a few hours together, then I’ll have to enjoy the time we have. I’ve got morning duty today, so I’ll see you all after school.” She grabs her bag and scampers to the courtyard.

“Did we do the right thing?”

Ayumi finishes the last bite of her toast. “She’ll be fine. Wounds heal.”

After school, at the student council, Erica acts as if nothing has happened. She hands us a huge spreadsheet and points to the various headings. “This is a list of all the clubs in the school. I need you to note down all their expenses and incomes, and flag any strange expense. For instance, why does the theater club need to buy baseball bats?”

I give it some thought. “Do they need them as props?”

Erica circles the expense with a bright red pen. “Those kinds of excuses will drain our funds by summer. You need to be cynical about everything if you’re going to make it here. They’re extorting us until they prove otherwise.”

As promised, we work until six. She stops us right before we leave.

“You sure you don’t want to hang out? It doesn’t have to be for homework if you don’t want. How about a night at the karaoke parlor? Or what about the arcade and we get our photos taken at the sticker photo booth? Or what if—”

Ayumi doesn’t let her finish. “We can’t. End of discussion.”

Any friendly disposition disappears. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” She pounds away at her phone’s screen, as if to say she no longer cares about us.

For the first time in nearly two days, Ayumi and I are free. There’s no time to waste. We sprint to the cafeteria (which is more like a fast walk for me, given Ayumi’s crutches), scarf down some curry (Ayumi’s face from eating so much hot stuff at once is priceless) and skip changing our clothes before heading into the city. Won’t make much of a difference, since Haruka is the only one fighting.

***

“Haruka!” Ayumi yells as Haruka crashes into a tree. The shade runs in a serpentine pattern until it’s on top of her. It peels her off the tree and throws her in the air.

I can’t believe it. Last time we were out here, these shades were bumbling idiots. But now they’re almost as fast as her!

The shade leaps at Haruka, who kicks at it. Inertia does the rest of the work, and it smashes to the ground.

She jumps back and places her hands on the ground, sending lightning through the sidewalk. But unlike the last shade, this one rolls away and flies at Haruka, smacking her face. She lands hard, collapses to one knee, and pants to catch her breath.

“Forget the shade. Let’s get out of here!” yells Ayumi. The shade rises back to its feet.

Haruka grabs her shoulder. “I’m sure I can finish this thing off.”

Ayumi’s ready to bolt. But she lowers her crutch. “If you can without hurting yourself, give it one last shot. We’ll run otherwise.”

Haruka wipes her chin. Her uniform has several tears in it, and blue fire erupts from every injury she’s incurred. Even so, she’s as motivated as ever. Lightning courses around her body.

The shade charges at her, and she releases the built-up electricity. It shrieks in a high-pitched wail as the lightning covers its body. After an agonizing moment, the blue flame engulfs its body, consuming it.

Haruka crumples to the ground and gasps for air. Ayumi and I stand stupefied.

“What the hell?” I stare where the shade had been mere seconds ago. “How did they become so—”

“—strong?” asks an unfamiliar voice. My heart thumps when I hear its mocking tone.

Laughter fills the park. “So you’re the girls my master told me about.”

I can’t find the source of the voice. “Who’s there?” The park and the adjacent street are completely empty.

“Look up.” A girl stands on top of a telephone pole, her blonde curls blowing in the night wind. Her bare feet stay together with all the grace of a dancer, emphasizing her prepubescent body. Her yellow eyes shine against the moonlight, highlighting the rest of her rather transparent body.



“A familiar,” Ayumi concludes.

“Good. You might be dumb, but you’re not blind.” She jumps off the pole, flips in midair, and sticks the landing. Unlike my jump from the sakura tree, she doesn’t show any hint of pain.

“Don’t even think of touching Ayumi.” Haruka throws her arms in front of Ayumi. “I killed a familiar four days ago, so don’t think I won’t do the same to you.”

The girl flicks Haruka’s forehead. “Hurt me? In your condition? You really are as dumb as you look.”

Haruka glares, but this girl has already forgotten about her. “Sakura and Ayumi was it? It’s been a while.”

“Do I know you?” asks Ayumi.

“Oh, right, you’ve never seen me like this before. My name is Michiru.”

“What do you mean, like this?” Is she trying to make us lower our guard?

Michiru lifts her arms. “What’s she doing?” Ayumi asks.

She shrinks, and little black hairs poke through her skin. Her ears move upward, and her nose extends, sprouting black whiskers. She can no longer be confused for a human. She’s a black cat.

“Now do you recognize me?” she asks.

“You’re the one… The first night…” Ayumi grips her crutch.

Michiru returns to human form while we organize our thoughts.

“Yeah, sorry. With my master so close to her goal, I needed to lure you there. Considering you’re both teenage girls, I could get so much more life force out of you than those drug addicts stumbling around there. Not all lives are equal, you know.”

Ayumi clenches her teeth. “I can’t forgive you. You’re the reason Sakura’s dying.”

Michiru leans on the telephone pole. “I don’t need your forgiveness. All I need is for you to leave my master’s shades alone. She needs them.”

“Are you insane? These are human lives! Forget your master. I’m going to be out here every single night destroying her work. There’s no way I’ll let her succeed!”

Michiru holds her hands out. “I’m just a messenger. My master ordered me not to harm you tonight, so I won’t. But if you’re out here tomorrow, don’t think I’ll let you go so easily.”

She turns her back to us. “Piece of advice. If you want to destroy somebody’s shades, go for the familiar. You’re only making them stronger. What one of them learns, all of them learn.” She takes a step away from us.

“Wait,” I say.

“Yes?”

“Can all familiars transform?”

She smirks. “No, just me. All familiars come into this world with three things: Our dresses, our swords, and our special abilities. I’m sure you saw Chizu’s ability to manipulate time. My ability is to transform. Haruka’s, well, let’s just say mages are special enough.” She leaps up on a telephone pole and then out of sight.

Haruka, sensing the danger has passed, collapses to the ground.

“Are we really going to keep going?” I extend my hand to Haruka.

She ignores it and attempts to stand on her own. “I’m sure I can! Don’t worry about me.”

Ayumi shakes her head. “I hate to say it, but we better head back. Save it for fighting Michiru tomorrow.”

“Are you sure—” I stop myself. She’s her own person. She can make her own decisions. Haruka’s attempts at standing fail, and she collapses again. “Do you really think you could take her on?”

Haruka takes my outstretched hand, initiating contact, since I can’t touch her on my own. She’s so cold. “I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t tell how powerful another familiar is. All I know is this one seemed different than Chizu and me. She seemed old.”

“Old? She can’t be much older than twelve.”

Haruka steadies herself on her feet. “I don’t mean her appearance. Familiars have a sort of freshness to them. This one wasn’t like Kyouko’s, fresh and ready to go. She’s experienced, probably a matter of years.”

I survey the park. “It’d take quite some time to get so many shades.”

Ayumi takes off after Haruka. “Well, let’s leave tomorrow for tomorrow and get a good night’s rest.”

By the time we sneak back into our rooms, it’s already after two in the morning.

“Wow, I’m beat.” I collapse on my bed without bothering to change into pajamas. Even though I didn’t do much, the cold sapped the energy right out of me.

“Do you think Erica’ll blackmail us again?” Ayumi diligently undoes her hair and slips out of her uniform.

“Why would she need to? We’re de facto student council members already.”

I check my phone for messages, and catch the date. “Thursday, eh? Hey, Haruka, do you know how much time I have left?”

“I couldn’t say,” Haruka mumbles into Ayumi’s pillow.

Ayumi brushes her hair while sitting on the edge of her bed. What’s the point? It’ll tangle again the first time she turns over. “Is it like a certain amount of time granted per life taken? Like, you took Nami’s life, so does she get exactly three days from it?”

Haruka rolls over. “It depends on the person. You heard Michiru, not all humans are equal. With a girl full of life like Nami, Sakura’d get a couple of days. But with someone like those elderly patients, she wouldn’t get much more than an hour. In any case, Sakura used her time earlier today. She’s only living because of her sword now.”

Haruka stares blankly at the ceiling. “Listen. There’s plenty of dirty rotten people out there. Rapists, murderers, kidnappers, you name it. I’m sure if I went to the local prison, I could get her some more time.”

“No,” I say, definitively. “I’m not going to have anyone else die on my behalf. I don’t care who they are, they’re still a person. There is a value in every single life, even if we can’t see it yet.”

Ayumi lies down in her bed. “She’s right. We can’t judge people without knowing the full story. As much as I want her to stay with me, I’m not going to turn into Kyouko.”

“But what about—” Haruka sits up.

I wave her back down. “It’s all right. I’m prepared. I’m happy. Don’t worry about me.” I understand my fate. Death comes to all of us eventually. “Though I do wish I wouldn’t have to get all ignored again.”

I place my hand on my closet’s handle.

“What’re you doing?” Ayumi asks.

“You’re brave enough to live without me and face up to the shades by yourself. It’s time for me to face up to my own fears.” I pull the door open and see Twilight’s hilt in the far back, poking through those ugly dresses. Well, I said I’m not afraid to die. Let’s meet death face to face.

I pull the sword out for everyone to see. Ayumi cries out, and Haruka holds her hand over her mouth.

The sword can hardly be called a sword anymore. It’s a bundle of rust attached to a handle.

My lips quiver as I meet my doom face to face. When I touch the tip, a piece of it snaps off and crumbles to dust. I definitely won’t make it to the weekend.

This must be how someone feels when they see a scan of the tumor growing inside of them. Even though they feel fine, it’s physical proof there’s something horribly wrong with them.

I want to cry. I want to fall into despair. I want someone to come over here and comfort me.

But no. I have to be strong. I can’t show weakness to Ayumi. She needs me. She needs—

Her arms wrap around me. I don’t know when she got out of bed and over here, but somehow, she’s behind me, embracing me. “Shh. It’s all right. I’m here for you.”

So much for staying strong. “Is it really all right?”

“Let it go.” Ayumi holds me tight, and I let my tears flow.

I wake up some hours later, and Haruka’s already up and pacing. I check the time on my clock. Yeah, Ayumi should probably get up by now, but I can probably give her a few more minutes. “Stay strong, Ayumi,” I whisper, “because it seems I no longer can.”

Haruka stops pacing to look out the window. “Hey, Haruka,” I whisper.

“Yeah?” she whispers back.

“Ayumi’s always been rather special to me. I wanted to do a lot more with her. We were supposed to enjoy our life by going to the movies together, going to the beach, doing each other’s hair, and enjoying each other’s company. But I’ll be gone, and you’ll be all she’ll have left. I know it’s going to be a bit awkward. But can you take my place? Let her know there’s somebody out there who truly cares about her, maybe as a bit more than just a friend.”

Haruka gives me a soft smile. “I’ll do my best.”

Ayumi wakes up a few minutes later as I button up my blazer. “What are you doing?”

I stop mid-button. “We have school today, don’t we?”

She gets out of bed. “You look hideous.”

I don’t know what to say. I’ve been called many things in my life, but never ugly. “Thanks for the compliment.”

Ayumi pulls out a handheld mirror. “Look at you! Your hair’s a tangled mess, your tie’s crooked, and your blazer’s full of dust. It’s like you don’t care.”

Oh, she doesn’t mean my body. “Nobody’s going to notice.”

“Not allowed. Sit down, and let me take care of you.”

I don’t have the energy to resist. Ayumi tears through my hair with her demonic hairbrush, every knot sheer agony, and uses a lint brush on my jacket. It’s like I’m a little kid again, when the elementary dorm mother used to do this to me.

After her torturous routine, we make our way to breakfast. Judging by the scowl on Erica’s face, she’s not pleased.

“So your important thing was to go out into the streets and break curfew again? What are you doing, and why can’t you tell me about it?”

So she did find out. We’ll have to be straight with her. “Look, as much as I want to tell you, I can’t. You’d be in a ton of danger if you knew.”

Erica stabs her salmon with her chopsticks. “Then that’s even more reason to tell me. Friends stick their necks out for each other.” She examines the back of her hand for a second before putting the salmon in her mouth. “‘No secrets, no judging,’ right?”

I hate when people use my own words against me. “This is different. It’s far too dangerous.”

She isn’t buying it. “Then let me guide you. I know the city far better than you, and you’d be safer with me.”

“She said no.” Ayumi takes a bite of her breakfast, closing the conversation.

Erica’s face goes dark. She ignores us in favor of her breakfast, not wanting to argue the point any further.

After school, Erica waits in the student council room alongside another mountain of work.

“Good afternoon,” I cheer.

“Hey.” She doesn’t even look up from her computer to acknowledge our existence.

The silence is deafening. We take our seats and get to work on the various forms slotted for approval.

I attempt to strike up a conversation. “Do you like magical girl manga? I have one you might like.”

“Sure.” I swear the temperature dropped five degrees from her voice.

Ayumi slams her hand on the table. “Look, I’m sorry we can’t stay past the meeting. But we’re doing something very important. Don’t you want to have fun with us when we’re here? When you can?”

Erica stops typing for a moment. Is that a glimmer of hope? Even if it is, glimmers are always ephemeral. She returns to her computer. “This is the student council. It’s work, not a game. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.”

What’s going on? Yesterday, she talked about wanting to spend the entire evening with us, and now she wants us to leave?

An idea pops in my head. “What if I spend the night with you?”

Ayumi’s hands tighten around a form.

I whisper, “You need to go, but I think it really is important for me to stay here tonight.”

Her hands shake from how tight she’s holding that form. But when I give her a reassuring smile, her grip relaxes. “It’s for the best.”

Erica keeps typing. “It’s fine. I believe you. You don’t have to tear yourselves apart for me.”

I stand up. “Stop being so stubborn. Do you really want to be alone? Am I not enough to keep you company?”

Erica stops typing. “That’s not—”

“Erica!” we shout.

Erica slams on her keyboard and grabs her bag. “Suit yourself. You know where my room is.” She storms toward the door.

“Where are you going?” asks Ayumi.

“I have to check on a few clubs. Have a nice night.” She slams the door behind her.

Ayumi shakes from the slamming door. “Did we make the right choice?”

“I think so. You handle the familiar. I’d really only get in the way. Besides, you need to get used to working with Haruka some more,” because I won’t be here in a few days hangs in the silence between us.

We finish our work, and Ayumi sets off with Haruka. “I’ll meet you in front of the main building tomorrow, all right?” Ayumi asks.

I tap the flower on her head. “It’s a promise.” If Michiru manages to stop Haruka, will she do something to Ayumi, as well? Without Haruka, Ayumi can’t hunt shades, so Michiru shouldn’t care. Then again, Ayumi could always summon another familiar.

At the cafeteria, Erica’s already found a seat. But even though she’s sitting alone, she doesn’t seem lonely. She stares into space while thoughtfully chewing some curry.

“Mind if I sit here?” I ask after I grab my meal.

She doesn’t notice me.

“Erica?”

She breaks her trance. “Ah, sorry. Um, yes, feel free.” She returns to her meal and pays no attention to me whatsoever.

Little beads of sweat drip down her face. I can’t discern whether they’re a reaction to the spicy food, or something else. “Did something happen?”

She scoops up another bite. “No, it’s nothing. Just worried about a friend of mine.” She has a friend?

I sneak in a bite of her curry. Nope, totally mild. “What’s going on?”

Silence.

“I won’t push it if you don’t want to tell me. But sometimes it’s better to let it all out.”

She stacks her plates together. “It’s really nothing. I’m being stupid. She’s in a little competition tonight for her club. I’m sure she’ll win. She’s always won before.”

So we’re in the same situation. At least Erica’s friend is only playing a game. “I’ll pull for her. Can we watch? I’m sure she’d be happy if we cheered her on.”

Erica watches the sun set outside the window. “She’s off campus, or I’d be there with her right now.”

We take care of our dishes and head up to Erica’s room. This time I make sure to grab my pajamas before we go inside.

Erica has hung up yet another butterfly display in the room, this one filled with red wings. Even more are drying on her desk.

“When’d you catch these?” I pick a butterfly up between my fingers to examine it.

Erica slaps my wrist. “Don’t touch that!”

“Sorry.” I gingerly return it to its proper place.

“To answer your question, I get bored during breaks and go outside with my net.”

Breaks aren’t long enough to catch anything. But to each her own. Erica sits down, spreads out a dried butterfly and expertly pins it to a sheet.

She’s so passionate. She takes so much care not to damage the wings as she locks in the pins. Her walls show her progression over the years. Some of the lower and more out-of-view specimens have small tears and smudges. But when you get to the more visible ones, like the ones over her bed, they are so perfectly symmetrical and undamaged, you’d think a professional made them.

“You can get good at anything if you do it enough.” There aren’t many spots left on her walls for more.

Watching Erica’s passion may be entertaining, but it’s hardly interactive. “Do you want to do anything?” We should try to be friends for my last day or two.

Erica puts her tweezers down. “Don’t you have homework?”

“I suppose.” It seems stupid to do homework when there’s no way I’ll last past the weekend. But maybe we can do something fun after I finish.

I crack open a book. Two pages into the assignment, I’m already bored.

I lean my elbows on her bed and kick my legs in the air. “Say, how did you get those pictures of us?”

Erica dips a wing in resin. “What good does it do you?”

“It doesn’t. I’m just curious. It does no good for you to keep your methods secret, either. You already have enough evidence to blackmail us the entire year. I’ll keep it a secret.”

“Why should I?”

“Because we’re friends, and friends let each other know their secrets. No secrets, no judging, right?” Why did I repeat that? Now she’ll remember us hiding our shade hunting from her again.

Just when I think she’ll bring it up, she puts down her tweezers. “Fine, but you can’t tell anyone, all right?”

“Pinky swear.” I hold out my pinky.

Erica scoffs. “How old do you think I am? Ten?”

She slides open a drawer and pulls out a laptop. “I have cameras set up throughout town to keep tabs on delinquents. All their feeds come to this screen.”

I crouch behind Erica as the computer boots up. She pulls up a program, and a multitude of views from all over the city populate her screen.

“How many cameras do you have?” She flips through several pages, showing not only the alleyways, the warehouses, and the park, but also the houses on the other side of the hill.

She flips to another page, changing views to a different set of streets. “About three hundred.”

“Three hundred? How could you possibly afford all of this?”

Erica taps the screen to change to another set of cameras. “We’re a private school. We have a lot of money to spare.”

In a corner view, I find Ayumi and Haruka. They’re laughing it up as if they don’t have a care in the world.

“I guess they won,” I conclude. From Haruka’ slight limp, I imagine it wasn’t an easy battle.

“Who won?” Erica’s hand slips and falls on a drying butterfly, which splits in two. She bites her lip, and in a fit of frustration rips the butterfly up and throws it into the trash.

I whip out my phone and come up with an excuse. “I was looking at a sports score.”

She returns to her laptop. They’re in another view, still joking around. Erica sniffles.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

Erica breaks out of her daze. “Oh, huh? Sorry, it’s my contacts. Must’ve left them in for too long.”

“You wear contacts?” I remind myself how not all of us are blessed with perfect vision. “Well, take them out.”

“It’s fine. I’m blind without them.”

“Don’t you have glasses?”

She jumps out of her chair. “I said it’s fine. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. I-I need to wash my eyes out. You finish your homework!”

Erica flees to the bathroom sobbing. She really is a strange girl. Then again, maybe she’s the person Ayumi needs in her life to replace the strange old me.

“I wonder if she ever uses her desk for homework.” Given all the newspaper clippings, pins, and broken butterfly wings about, she couldn’t possibly fit a textbook on it. Though Ayumi used it a couple nights ago, so maybe she clears it off every night.

I notice Erica left a drawer open when she took out her laptop. I make to close it, but when I lean over, I catch some yellowing newspapers inside. Curiosity overcomes me, and I pull them out.

The papers seem random, turned to specific pages with articles circled. This article is about a bus crash twenty years ago. A whole bunch of girls in our uniform stand around crying.

I’m about to put it away when I see something, or rather, someone. It’s only a passerby, but he’s wearing a baseball cap to cover his slightly graying hair.

No, that can’t be Cappy. His hair had been slightly graying a week ago, so how could it be the same back then? “Just a coincidence, right?”

I turn to the next paper. This one is from forty years ago with an article about a tsunami. Standing behind the mourners is the same man in a baseball cap, again with slightly graying hair.

I pull out the next article. This one’s about a mass murderer, and he’s surveying the carnage. Next one’s about a bridge collapse, and there he is again. It doesn’t matter what year the article comes from. Each one has a disaster, girls in our uniform, and the guy in a baseball hat focusing in on one of them.

Erica runs in while I read an article about a train wreck. “What are you doing?” She grabs my wrist.

I wince from her grip. How is such a tiny girl this strong? “I was just curious.”

Erica snatches the papers from my hands and shoves them in her drawer. “Don’t go through somebody’s things without permission!”

Her reaction only mounts my suspicions. “Are you somehow related to the man in the hat?”

“What man in the hat?”

“The one in all the articles you circled.”

Erica shuts the drawer. “I had to do a report on Kochi’s history last year. That’s all.”

She pulls open another drawer filled with games and DVDs. “Let’s play some cards.”

“Cards?” She’s dodging the topic too quickly. “But what about those news—”

When I see her scowl, I know the conversation is over. I’ll have to let Ayumi know about them tomorrow. We may have our first clue.

“Are your butterflies finished?” I don’t know how they can be. One was only half pinned up.

She deals our cards. “They don’t matter anymore.”

We play until the clock strikes midnight, chatting about Silent Circular Infinity. She hasn’t heard anything they’ve ever written, so I pull up a few songs for her to listen to. It might be me, but she seems to enjoy them.

Before we go to bed, I check her cameras one last time. Ayumi and Haruka are nowhere to be found. They have to be back by now anyway.

She pulls out a futon and grabs her teddy bear. “I’ll be gone early tomorrow, so you take the bed. Don’t want to wake you up.”

“I’m a heavy sleeper. You sure you don’t want to sleep together again?”

“No, it’s fine.” Something’s bothering her. But if she doesn’t want to talk about it, I know better than to press the issue.

I lay my head on my pillow. “Good night, Erica.” As I close my eyes, a scary thought crosses my mind.

This might be my last night. If I manage to survive tonight, there’s no way I can survive past tomorrow. What if I die at three in the morning? I want to be awake to at least say goodbye.
[close]

Chapter 7
Chapter 7: Inferno

Erica’s gone when I wake up. My life force is probably so weak, she didn’t even notice me lying in her bed.

I slouch in front of her mirror. “Wow, I’m a mess.” Memories of Ayumi’s lectures come to surface. My hair has managed to tangle itself into a ball, and my eyelids droop so low, I might as well still be asleep.

I could trudge my way to class like this, as I’ve done every day thus far. But this is the last day I’ll ever see Ayumi. She likes to see me prim and proper, so why not look good for her?

I wash off Erica’s brush by the sink. “Sorry, Erica, I’ll be borrowing this.” She probably won’t even notice.

Ten minutes later, I’m checking out my body at different angles. Pulling my hair back in a neat ponytail really doesn’t take much work, and it does look good. When I move, the two bells I attached to my hair tie rings out. I promise I’ll return them when all’s done, but again, I doubt she’ll notice.

When I get to my dorm room, Ayumi is lying on her bed. Her cute chest rises slowly with every breath.

“Ayumi~” I shake her.

She grumbles. “I don’t even give it a one.”

“Even though it’s my last day?”

She lets a small smile creep onto her face. “Specifically because it’s your last day.”

We laugh ourselves to tears, causing the bells in my hair to dance.

Ayumi flicks one to make it dance even more. “They look good on you.”

At breakfast, I don’t even bother grabbing the cafeteria worker’s attention and leave our food tokens in front of her. She, like everyone else, doesn’t notice me anymore.

“So, what happened last night?” I ask as I down my double serving of rice.

Haruka answers. “We handled the problem. Nothing else matters.”

Ayumi gives Haruka a light bonk to the head. “You did a good job out there. You don’t have to be so humble.” Ayumi’s brows lower. “It was a hard fight. Michiru turned herself into a swarm of hornets and attacked Haruka from all angles. Not only did Haruka have to find the queen, but hornets are naturally resistant to electricity.”

“I’m just lucky I hit the right one early.” Haruka takes a bite out of some toast. “Though, even as the blue flames consumed her, she wouldn’t name her master.”

I finish my rice and get to work stacking my plates. “Going out again tonight?”

Ayumi’s furrows her eyebrows. “You know, it’s most likely your last night. Are you sure you don’t want to do something special? Maybe a dinner and a movie with me?”

Haruka perks up from her food at the suggestion of a date, but she knows better than to play matchmaker now.

“What could be more special than making other people happy? I’ll keep Erica happy, and you’ll keep people alive. I’m sure she’d be happy to leave the door open for you.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Her heart isn’t agreeing with her mouth. I know she wants to spend more time with me, but there are more important things to do today.

We had the entire last day planned. But plans can change by something as small as opening a shoe locker.

“Wh-what is this?” Ayumi stares inside it. She double checks her name to make sure it’s hers.

I pull on my shoes and take a peek in. “An envelope. All pink and glittery with hearts on it.”

“I have eyes. B-but what does it mean?”

“It means you have a lover.” My heart clenches, thinking of Ayumi with another girl. This isn’t jealously, is it?

Ayumi turns bright red. “But how? I barely even know anyone here! Are you pulling some sort of prank on me?”

Would it be a prank if I did it? “No, I had nothing to do with it. Go on, open it.”

Ayumi pulls it out with shaky hands, turning redder by the second. She reads, “Ayumi, I have something important to tell you. I’ve wanted to for a long time now, but I can’t hold myself back anymore. Please meet me after school in class 2-10. Please come alone. I want you, and you alone, to know my true feelings.” She looks up at me. “It’s unsigned.”

My heart beats faster. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a girlfriend.”

Ayumi drops the letter. “I-I can’t accept something like this! It’s from another girl!”

“What’s it matter? You had no problems kissing me the other day, so it should be fine.”

Ayumi leans down to pick up the letter. “That was different. It was to help you.”

I’m not sure why my heart hurts so much. Why am I feeling like this? Why is it beating so fast?

Ayumi stuffs the letter into her bag. “Besides, I know you! I have no idea who this person is, and to be honest, I don’t like it. If they can’t sign their name, then they’re obviously too shy to be with me.”

“Why not? You’re shy too.”

Ayumi turns one shade of red darker. “So what? I already have someone I like.”

That catches my attention. “Oh? Who is it?”

“It’s a secret.”

“No secrets, no judging, right?” I wink.

She’s as red as a fire engine. “That doesn’t apply here!”

Students pack the halls on the way to class. “Well, it’s your choice. You’ve come a long way since I first met you, so I’m not going to interfere in your decisions anymore.”

“Don’t say stuff like—”

I put my finger on her lips. “It’s a fact of life. We have to accept it as it is. But I will say this. I think you should see her, even if it is just to say no. She’ll be waiting for you, and it’d be cruel to leave her hanging.”

Ayumi sniffles.

“Oh, Ayumi.” A tear drips down my cheek. No, you have to stay strong for her. I fling my arms around her not only to comfort her, but to hide my own anticipation of death. “It’s all right. I’ll be here for you as long as you need.”

“But what about tomorrow?”

“Forget tomorrow. Think of me when you’re at a crossroads in life. Think about what I would do. If you do that, I’ll always be there for you.”

Ayumi runs her fingers through my ponytail as we embrace each other. It’s a long time before we let go. “Wow, your face is a mess.”

I wipe my tears away. “Speak for yourself.”

Ayumi settles in her seat. “So then you’ll go?” I ask.

She pulls out her notebook. “Yeah, and I’ll do what the letter asked. She wants me alone, so I’ll answer her feelings alone. It’s only right. I’ll meet you two in the student council room once this is all done.”

“No,” Haruka says.

She has been waiting patiently for us, leaning on a wall. “No?” Ayumi asks.

Haruka folds her arms. “Ever since the retirement house, I promised myself I wasn’t going to leave Ayumi’s side for a single moment. It’s a dangerous world out there, and she needs me to protect her.”

Ayumi waves her off. “Look, it’s only for a few minutes. She doesn’t want any sort of awkwardness, so it’d be rude to barge in and—”

“How do you know it’s not a trap?”

“A trap from who? You’re the only familiar around here.”

Haruka isn’t having it. “It’s too risky. Unless you command me not to, I’ll be there. Don’t worry, I won’t pay attention to what you’re saying.”

Ayumi realizes she isn’t going to get anywhere with her. “Fine, you win. Not like she’d see you anyway.”

It has to be someone in the class. Nobody really knows Ayumi outside of here. “Asaka maybe?” I wonder.

“Who?” asks Ayumi.

“Oh, I was thinking maybe Asaka is behind the letter. She puts all those glittery decorations on people’s phones.”

Ayumi leans on her elbow. “She also has a boyfriend. I’m guessing Hana.”

“Hana? But everyone knows she’s in love with Yume from class 3-4.”

“It might be a prank anyway.”

“I kind of doubt a prank would put so much glitter on and—” The teacher arrives, forcing me to scramble to my seat.

Ayumi and I don’t discuss the letter again until the end of the day. Every time I bring it up, it gets too awkward.

When the day ends, Ayumi checks in with me. She’s visibly shaking. “Wish me luck.”

I put on my best coaching face. “You don’t need luck, you need confidence.” Ayumi leaves class dazed, but amused.

I pack my books in my bag and wait around until the students on duty come in with their mops. Once I’ve given it enough time, I tiptoe to class 2-10. I won’t miss this, even if they want to be alone. If I can’t be with Ayumi forever, I want to know who’ll take care of her from now on.

I position myself outside the door. I can see Ayumi clearly, but the confessor is out of my line of sight.

“Surprised?” Wait, I know her voice. Oh, so that’s why she’s been all fidgety these past few days.

Ayumi hesitates. “I didn’t think it’d be you.”

I lean by the door to get a better view. “Then you received my letter, I take it?”

Ayumi folds her hands. “Well, it did catch me a bit by surprise to find you here. And I appreciate your feelings, I really do! It’s just, I can’t accept them. There’s someone else I like.”

I can’t figure out who her secret crush is. It’s someone in her boy band, I’d have to assume. But even she knows those are dreams.

The other girl doesn’t cry. Not even close. Instead, she laughs. “Doesn’t matter. The important thing is I asked you to come alone.”

“I did come alone! See, it’s just me!”

“No, there’s someone else. Send her away.” How does she know I’m here? Can she see through walls or something?

“Sakura, if you’re out there, go away!” yells Ayumi. Did the bells in my hair go off? I knew they’d be a problem! It’s too late. She knows I’m here.

“Sakura?” she asks. “She’s here too? No, I mean your familiar.”

My jaw drops. She can see Haruka? Then she’s a…

I peer in a little further to see what’s happening. She sits on a desk with her legs crossed. It can’t be.

A bell jingles in her hair.

“Erica?” Ayumi steps back. “How can you see her?”

Erica hops off her desk and approaches Haruka. “Because I’m a necromancer. How else?”

“But I’ve never seen your familiar.”

“Yes you have. You saw her as a cat and as the third-year student asking you to come to my office. You killed her last night. You and your stubborn insistence on destroying my shades killed my only true friend in this world.”

Ayumi narrows her eyes. “So you are—”

“Yeah, I’ve been the one creating shades in the back alleyways for the past ten years.” She lifts her chin proudly.

“Erica, those are people! Why would you possibly kill other people?”

“Because butterflies weren’t quick enough. Two hundred butterflies or one human? The choice should’ve been obvious. Besides, you don’t get shades when you attack non-humans, and you need shades to create a body for the resurrected.”

Ayumi’s slams her fist on a desk. “They’re people! They’re not food for you. They’re people with friends and family!”

“You mean the scum who hang out in the back alleys? The murderers, the rapists, the delinquents, and the drug addicts? Do you really care about people like them?” She paces around the classroom. “Sure, there were a few slip ups, and I’m truly sorry about what’s happened to your friend. But those are the sacrifices we have to make to get what we truly want in this world.”

Ayumi stares hard at her. “Every life is precious, even if we don’t know how yet.”

“Oh, really?” The red of her eyes almost peek through what I now know are blue contacts. “How about Ryuu Osaka, the man who raped and murdered my mom right in front of me when I was ten? Mind telling me how his life has any value?”

Ayumi stays somber. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Erica hops back on the desk. “It’s fine. He’s a shade now, and his sacrifice will bring my mom back tonight. Funny how the world works.”

Ayumi keeps her head bowed. “Then, did you only call me out here to reveal this?”

“You’re really stupid, aren’t you? What’d be in it for me to reveal everything?” Her bells jingle as she adjusts her position on the desk. “I’m here to make a deal. I’ll forgive you for hunting my shades and killing my only friend, and you stop your little ‘patrols.’”

Ayumi and Haruka check with each other and realize they’re thinking the same thing. “We refuse,” Haruka says.

“Then you’re favoring the rapists, murderers, and thugs over the victims. I’m disappointed in you. I thought you might’ve been different.”

Despite her aura of confidence, Ayumi’s hands shake. “No. I’m favoring innocent people like Sakura over somebody who died ten years ago. Besides, if you have all the life force you need to bring her back, why would you still have shades hunting people?”

Erica leans back on her desk. “I’ve never had a normal family. My mom was murdered, and my dad died before I was born. If I could bring back my dad as well, maybe we could live a happy life. But with your meddling, I better start with my mom before you destroy everything.”

Ayumi clicks her tongue. “Why do you care about your parents so much? What good are parents when all they do is hurt you?”

Erica grinds her teeth. “Hurt you? My mom loved me!”

“Oh, maybe she did when times were better. But when things get hard, watch her cast you aside for her benefit. Watch her tell your father to hurt you instead of her. What good are parents when they do nothing but cause you pain?”

“Don’t you dare!” Erica screams. She jumps off her desk and grabs Ayumi by the collar. “She’s a loving mom who’d always care for me! She’s going to be happy about what I did for her! She’s going to love me more than anyone ever could!” She wipes her hand across her eyes, removing the contacts to reveal her true red irises. “And now you’ve got me all worked up. Forget it. It was a mistake trying to talk reason into you. Come here, I command you.”

Quick as a bolt of lightning, something flashes into the classroom. I can’t take any more of this. I run in and thrust my arms in front of Ayumi.

“Sakura?” she shrieks.

“Sorry. I was too curious.”

Someone stands next to Erica. She has a long black ponytail and purple eyes. It’s a familiar, obviously, but more than that, it’s familiar to us.

“Kyouko?” we ask simultaneously.

Erica wraps her arm around Kyouko’s waist. “Oh right, you did know each other. That’ll save time on introductions.”

Her sword flashes, shining the setting sun in my eyes. “She was our baking club leader. Why is she a familiar now?”

Erica smirks. “You really are new to all of this. Where do you think familiars come from? This is the fate of a necromancer.”

Ayumi drops a crutch. “No!”

Erica whisks a stray hair off her face. “It’ll happen to both of us some day. Eternity is quite a long time. You’re bound to summon another familiar one day. Maybe you’ll find one like I did here. But one day, you’re going to try and summon one when there’s none available. And then you’ll be the one donning the peasant’s gown and obeying your master.”

Kyouko approaches Ayumi. “Pleased to meet you.” She flicks the sword in her hand in threat.

“Stop!” I thrust myself between them. “We were friends, remember? You don’t have to listen to her!”

“You think she remembers you? Familiars forget everything about their former lives. All she remembers is she needs to do what I ask. Right?”

“Of course,” she says without so much as a hit of emotion.

Erica points at Haruka. “Now, take care of that pesky familiar so we can deal with her master.”

“No!” Ayumi shouts, but Kyouko’s too fast. She charges at Haruka. She can’t even react before Kyouko’s sword slashes through her waist. Haruka staggers back, clutching at the point of contact. Horrified, I wait for the blue flames to erupt through her.

But they never do. In fact, it’s as if Haruka wasn’t touched.

“Did she miss?” I can’t figure out what happened.

“I don’t know,” Haruka replies.

“Please, fight back!” Ayumi begs.

“Oh, right.” Haruka puts her hands toward Kyouko to fire a bolt of lightning, but not even a spark comes out.

“Haruka?”

She falls to the ground, unconscious.

Kyouko checks Haruka for signs of life. Erica grins in satisfaction. “Enjoying Kyouko’s ability? It’s called Familiarslayer. It removes any other abilities from familiars, and slowly drains them until they disappear.

“Though, I have to admit it is a bit annoying. Michiru used to be able to kill familiars instantly.” The mention of Michiru makes Erica tear up. “Such is life. We’ll have to wait a few hours for Ayumi’s shield to go down.”

“Shield?” I ask. “What shield?”

“Don’t you know anything? So long as Ayumi’s familiar exists, nothing can kill her. But, doesn’t matter. It’ll be gone in a few hours. Then we can kill her, and we won’t have to worry about her killing our shades anymore.”

I clench my fist. “I’m not going to let you do what you please!”

Erica lifts her chin up. “Not like you have a choice. Kyouko, take us away. We’re done here.”

“Where to?” asks Kyouko, grabbing Haruka under one arm and holding on to a struggling Ayumi with the other.

“The place with all the butterflies.” Erica grabs onto Kyouko’s shoulder.

Kyouko’s eyes flash. A wind gusts through the room, blowing the blinds haywire and throwing papers everywhere. I lunge forward, but they’re already gone. Ayumi’s crutches crash to the floor with a clang.

My hands shake, and I drop down to my knees. How could this happen? How could I have been such an idiot to think there wasn’t anything suspicious about Erica? The bits and pieces of the past couple of days are coming together. She didn’t want us helping her with student council work at all. She wanted to keep us from going shade hunting. She set up her cameras around town to keep tabs on her “collection.”

I want to wallow in despair. All I’ve done for Ayumi’ll be gone. Haruka’ll disappear, Erica’ll kill her, and I’ll be dead by the end of the night. What’s the point of all this? Why did I even try to make Ayumi happy, if this is how it ends?

I stay there for what seems like hours, trying to make sense of everything. Yet hunger breaks through my despair, and I force myself to the cafeteria.

It’s not like I can figure out where they’ve gone. The place with the butterflies? Where would that be? Besides, even if I find them, what can I do? Haruka had said that only a familiar can fight another familiar.

“Yakisoba bread, please,” I say at the serving line. The person behind the counter doesn’t respond to the sound of my voice. Of course she doesn’t. Nobody even knows I’m here anymore. I grab a piece of bread myself and leave my token at the cashier.

I wonder what’ll happen at the end of all this. I’ll die, and everyone’ll forget about me. My grandparents would’ve stumbled across some extra money, and my parents would happily be brother and sister. No, they’d be a lot more, and there might be more abominations like me in this world.

I return to the dorms eating my bread. I take a peek in Erica’s carelessly unlocked room in case she means the butterflies on her walls, but of course, she wouldn’t choose somewhere so obvious. Where can she possibly be? In fact, since when can familiars teleport? Haruka certainly couldn’t teleport us out of the retirement home. But she had to teleport in to get to Ayumi, right? I trudge back to our dorm with these thoughts in my head.

I examine my drained face in the mirror. What was the point in all our efforts? Why did we try so hard these past two weeks if it’s going to come to this?

There’s no hope. Ayumi’s lost, and she’ll be killed soon enough. Even if I knew where she is and get there in time, there’s no way I can save her. There’s no point to trying.

My own words from the start of the week echo in my head, as if to answer. “What good is life if you don’t try?”

“That’s it!” Ayumi had shouted, before she jumped on her bad foot.

“But why?” I had asked. “What are you planning?”

Ayumi had acted so nonchalant about it back then. She replied to me with one word. “Trying.”

We had been so motived back then. Yet here I am, moping about my situation. What kind of an idiot am I? Ayumi wouldn’t stand here moping if something happened to me! I might be an idiot, but I’m a friend first!

The first thing is to find Ayumi. Where’s the best place to start? If I were to hide someone, where would I go with butterflies? No, let’s forget the butterflies and think in general. I’d want somewhere hidden from view, yet close enough to the rest of society to divert suspicion. A place like those abandoned warehouses.

No, those are where Erica’d expect me to search, and there are no butterflies there. The park? That’s too open. She did say she caught butterflies on breaks. The school grounds are too busy to catch them, but what about the woods behind the school?

It only makes sense. The woods are thick enough for her to be completely obscured, and close enough for Erica to walk back to school when it’s all done, even if something happened to Kyouko. I can start there, and check the warehouses after, if my hunch happens to be wrong. That’s assuming my sword survives that long.

“Well, no use waiting here.” I pull open my closet and grab a coat, which reveals the remains of my sword.

I pull it out by the hilt and examine what’s left of the pathetic blade. Save for a rusty sliver, it’s all gone. But, when I touch that sliver, it seems sturdy enough. It flakes, sure, but it won’t collapse if I breathe on it.

I put it back in the closet. “Guess this is the last time I’ll see you or this room, Twilight.” But I’m not sad. What I’m doing will be for the best. I’ll either die fighting a familiar or from the sword falling apart before I can even reach my goal, but at least I’ll have tried.

As I put it down, I hear Haruka’s voice in my head. “Familiars exist until another familiar or a magical artifact destroys them,” she had said days ago.

I pick the sword up again. A magical artifact? Could this be one? Normal swords don’t keep people alive.

I stuff the sword in my jacket. Maybe I’m being stupid, but what does it matter? I only have one chance left to be stupid.

I run out to the woods. I don’t really have so much as half an idea where they might be, but nothing fazes me anymore.

After half an hour of searching, I can’t find anything. Of course not. Erica’s too smart to hide where I can find her in half an hour. She’ll want to hide somewhere nobody could ever find, unless they were lost and stumbled upon it.

Of course! I’m trying too hard to find them, and not hard enough to lose myself. I’ve kept my general bearings the entire time, but that’s my downfall.

I close my eyes and spin myself around and around until I’m too dizzy to spin anymore. When I open them, the world keeps spinning.

Sakura trees are all around me, most of their beautiful pink replaced with green. They’ll be all green tomorrow. But they don’t really matter. The important thing is I have no idea how to get back to the school now.

I hum happily as I wander into the woods, the bells in my hair bouncing to the tune. Maybe this is insanity. Losing everything and, instead of panicking, you hum and take strolls in the woods. I hardly notice as stray brambles and branches rip into my clothes, leaving patches of bare skin exposed to the air.

I keep wandering, not really hoping for much. I’m about to give up when I hear a rustle from a bush.

“Caught you.” I throw my jacket off and hold my sword out.

The bush spreads, and out emerges a creature I’ve seen far too much of these past few days—a shade. It seems to be a bit more disoriented than the ones I’ve seen before. I steady my sword, ready to fight, but it passes me by, as if it doesn’t realize I’m here. Of course it doesn’t; I have no life force.

I think about destroying it right now to see if my sword will work, but then I’ll lose my only lead. Instead, I stalk it, moving slow so as to not catch any unwanted attention.

More and more shades appear in the corners of my vision with each step, all going the same general direction. My blood flows with anticipation. They have to be going where I want to go. There’s simply no other explanation.

There’s a small clearing ahead, where the shades congregate. Meter by meter we approach it until, finally, we burst through.

The entire clearing is crowded with shades, all moving toward a large rock in the center. At the base of the rock, a black portal spirals into a dark abyss. One by one, the shades walk into it, causing it to shudder and expand ever so slightly. On top of the rock, Kyouko holds on to Ayumi, though I highly doubt she could escape without her crutches in the first place. Haruka lies unconscious next to them, and Erica stands over them, watching the unfolding events.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” she asks. “All these shades are at my beck and call. Tonight, they’ll give up their existences to create a body for my mom. Pretty neat, isn’t it?”

Ayumi keeps her fists clenched. “Your mom wouldn’t want this! She’ll kill herself as soon as she finds out what a terrible thing you—OW!” Ayumi’s words are cut short as Erica kicks her bad knee.

“Didn’t you learn to not talk bad about my mom?” Erica snarls. She points down at Haruka. “How much longer does she have?” she asks Kyouko.

She makes a motion as if checking a watch, despite not wearing one. “I’d say ten more minutes.”

“Good. Make sure to take care of Ayumi as soon as possible. I can’t have her interrupting my mom’s return.”

I have to get to the rock. But there are so many shades all over the place, I can’t get through. I charge at their blockade, but they don’t budge. They stand in line to enter the portal, completely ignorant of me. Well, it’s more of a horde than a line.

“Well, here goes nothing.” I steady my sword, prepared to slash my way through. Gripping it with all my might, I slash at the nearest shade.

It erupts in blue flames, as I hoped. But at the same time, the sword suffers the recoil. The little bit of rust remaining cracks and falls onto the ground, leaving me with nothing but the hilt in my hands.

A great faintness spreads over my body. Unable to support myself, I fall with the sword hilt lying next to me.

Is this what death feels like?

“Sakura?” Ayumi notices me. My vision blurs, but through the fog, I can see all the shades turn and stare at my pathetic body.

Erica hops up off her rock and heads toward me, the shades moving out of the way for her. “Sakura, Sakura, Sakura. Why’d you bother coming here?” My vision grows darker. “You could’ve been happily in bed now, maybe still alive, reflecting on all the good things in your life. You could’ve spent your last moment listening to your stupid idols while reading about your stupid magical girls. But you chose to die in the woods, surrounded by the dead. And it was all for naught anyway.”

She stops a few meters away from me. I can barely see her anymore, much less think. It’s like I’m floating, losing connection to this body. My vision turns to black as my muscles lose their strength.

“It wasn’t for naught,” Ayumi shouts down from the rock. She tries to break free, but Kyouko’s grip is too strong. “She came, so I’m happy. Nothing else matters.”

A light flashes ahead of me. Is this the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? I reach for it. My time has come, so it’s time to go.

But when I wrap my fingers around it, they instead feel something cold.

My eyes flicker open.

Erica backs up. “It can’t be. Why would he give you that?”

My strength returns to my limbs as my vision clears. I’m still holding onto the sword, but the blade’s no longer rusted, missing, or even metallic. Instead, it’s forged with a silver fire, which courses along its edge.

“I’m alive?” I flex my hand to verify my life.

Erica shakes. “Why do you have Shadebane, the sword which turns death into life for the user?”

I stagger to my feet. “Cappy gave it to me. You know, the man you circled in those newspapers.”

Erica stays petrified.

“So tell me. Who is he? Why did he want Ayumi to become a necromancer so badly? Why did he use this sword to keep me alive?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know?!” she screams. “He turned me into this thing and then abandoned me! Why do you think I’ve been searching for him all these years?”

She jumps back up onto her rock. “Don’t stand there! Kill her!” she shouts to the shades below.

The shades creep toward me. It’s like I’m in the alley again. I have the weapon, and they have the numbers.

I separate my feet to make up a fighting stance. I take an unstable swing with Twilight, which causes three of them to burst into flame. Who needs skill? Twilight slices them like a hot knife through butter.

I swing the sword around again, carving a path to the rock. I have to get to Ayumi and protect her like I did the first night.

“Behind you!” Ayumi screams.

A horde of shades close in behind me. My sword’s too heavy! I can’t get it around in time!

“DON’T HURT HER!” Ayumi shouts.

And to everyone’s disbelief, they stop dead in their tracks.

“What are you doing?” screams Erica. “I told you to kill her, so kill her! Don’t listen to this—”

“—Master.” This time, I finish her sentence.

“What do you mean master? These are my shades. I’m the master here!”

Ayumi smacks her forehead. “How could I be so stupid? When a familiar kills another familiar, dominion of their shades passes to the victor. Since Haruka defeated Michiru, they’re mine.” She points at the horde of shades. “I command you all to destroy yourselves.”

“No!” yells Erica. But Ayumi’s right, and they burst in flame.

The entire clearing empties so that not a single shade remains. The portal shudders, emitting a horrifying shrieking noise before collapsing on itself. Erica falls to her knees. “Mom… I was so close and then…she…”

She clenches one of her hands into a fist and points at me with the other. “Kyouko, take care of her!”

Kyouko drops Ayumi and, in the blink of an eye, jumps off the rock. She charges at me, sword in hand. I barely get my own sword up in time to block it.

“You’re really not a sword fighter, are you?” she sneers. “Let me teach you something before you die. The right hand goes on top.” She breaks contact with my sword and takes a jab from the side. I nearly tear a muscle when I reposition my sword to block it.

I don’t take her advice. “Look at me. It’s Sakura. We were friends, remember? We baked cookies together.”

Kyouko doesn’t listen and takes another hack. “You’re a person my master told me to take care of. Nothing else matters.”

I block her sword again. “Really? Do you not care at all about who you were when you were alive?”

She moves faster with her attacks. “Nope. All I care about is this girl who won’t switch her hands properly. You can push a lot harder than you pull. See, I strike, you block. But I expend a lot less energy because I’m pushing with my right while you’re pulling with your left.”

I spin around and swing at her sword. She’s pushed back by the force of my blow. “Or I can continue to hold my sword like this because I’m left-handed.”

Kyouko repositions herself. “Oh? I see. In any case, I don’t know what you mean by alive. I’m a familiar. I’m in this world to serve my master. If something happened before then, I really don’t care about it.”

“So you don’t care how we were your friends? We would’ve been there to support you, no matter what happened. We could’ve helped you through your grief. We couldn’t replace her, no, but we could’ve at least softened the blow a little bit.”

“Who the hell are you even talking about?” She takes a swing. “Replace who?”

I block her blow. “Her name was Nami. You loved her.”

Kyouko staggers for a bit. An opening! I swing my sword with all my might, but somehow she manages to parry it in time. As she dodges, I notice the same pulling motion I had used.

Of course! When a leftie fights a righty, the one on attack is at an advantage. So long as I’m the one swinging, she can only block.



“Nami? I didn’t know a Nami.”

“Really? You didn’t know the girl who ran the club with you, roomed with you, and recruited with you? You didn’t know the girl who’d talk incessantly, but would always listen when you had something to say? You didn’t know the girl you loved? The girl who loved you?”

Kyouko staggers again. That gives me enough time for my sword to hit its mark. Kyouko goes flying and drops her sword on the ground near my feet. Blue flames erupt from her side as she collapses to the ground.

I kick her sword away. “If you still can’t remember her, it’s fine. But at least say you would’ve liked her. Let her memory be happy.”

Kyouko bows her head. “I-I would’ve liked her. No, I did like her. I did love her.”

“What are you doing?” Erica jumps off the rock and races to give Kyouko her sword back.

The blue flames spread through Kyouko’s body. She smiles. “Thank you, Sakura. I’m going to meet my love, now.” The flames consume every bit of her body until she disappears.

“Kyouko,” Erica murmurs.

I turn to face Erica. Haruka sits up and stretches on the rock, as if she just awoke from a long nap. Ayumi crawls toward her, every centimeter a struggle.

My sword’s blaze casts shadows on Erica’s face. She narrows her eyes and says, “Well, stop beating around the bush and do it. You’ve ruined my plans, and now my mom is never coming back. You might as well get it over with.”

I stare into her red eyes. “Don’t you care about anything else?”

She fumes. “Of course not! You never knew my mom. She was so caring, so kind. She knew everything! I don’t care what I have to do, and if you don’t kill me now, I’ll do it again. I’ll keep killing until I reach my goal. Hell, I’ll even set off a catastrophe in the middle of the school day. Wouldn’t that be fun to watch?”

“There’s so much more out there.” I turn my head up to the glittering stars in the sky. “This is a wide open world, filled with hopes and dreams. Maybe I don’t know what I want to do now. But when you almost lose everything, you realize what you could’ve lost. There’s so much more to the world than the past. Let your mom go, Erica.”

Erica clicks her tongue. “Easy for you to say. At least you’ve had more people care about you. Nobody’s come close to even talking to me before!”

“Before us?” asks Ayumi, cradled in Haruka’s arms.

“You? How the hell did you care about me? All you did was kill my hopes and dreams!”

“So I chose to spend my last night with you instead of shade hunting with Ayumi because I didn’t care about you?” I ask. “Because I wanted to see you suffer?”

Erica has no words.

I put down the sword and hold out my hand. “Let us help you. We’ve all lost family, and we’ve lost quite a few friends as well. We know what you’re going through. We can’t be your family, but we could at least be a shoulder to cry on, and an ear to listen. Beyond all that, can’t we at least be friends?”

Erica looks at both of us, her lips quivering like a child who had been caught stealing a cookie. She reaches out, not sure whether to take my hand or swat it away.

And then she clasps onto it.
[close]

Epilogue
Epilogue

“I can’t take it anymore!” groans Ayumi. “Seriously, Erica, why didn’t you tell us this would be so much work!”

I sort through what seems to be the thousandth paper of the day. “She kind of did.”

Ayumi pulls on her new armband signifying her rank in the student council. “But what do we even get out of it? It seems like all I get for doing this is more and more paperwork!”

Erica stops typing to let out a laugh. “Don’t worry, soon enough you’ll go insane and enjoy it.”

“Do you think I’m some sort of masochist?” Ayumi slams her fist on the table.

“Sure you are. You volunteered for this job.”

“I hate my life.” Ayumi squeezes her ponytail.

I place yet another survey in class 3-1’s pile. “Been a while since you did that.”

“Did what?”

I flick her ponytail. “Squeezed it.”

Ayumi freezes in place. “Why are my hands up here?”

I blink. “You mean you didn’t know you do that every time you get flustered?”

Ayumi drops her hands. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” she cries. Erica and I burst out in laughter.

The warm breeze of late April blows in from the open window. The sakura trees ruffle their leaves—their pink petals nothing more than a memory. For when a sakura petal falls, it’s not meeting its death. It’s starting a new life.

Erica checks the clock. “Looks like you’re in luck, in any case. We’re out of time for the day.”

“Oh, thank gosh.” Ayumi grabs her crutches. “I’m absolutely starving! Sakura, can you get me an extra serving of rice?”

“Again?” I grab her meal token.

“I’ll take one too.” Erica flips me hers as well.

“Get your own food!” I toss it back at her, to laughs all around.

After the incident in the woods, life has calmed down, becoming a routine of school, student council work, and homework with Erica most every night.

Erica, for her part, came all out to us about everything she had bottled up for her life. After she had been given some time to cry, she went into a rambling confession back in the woods.

“I was ten when I became a necromancer,” she had said. “Though you probably figured that much out, seeing how my body hasn’t aged a day since then. My mother died, and I was the only one at her funeral, outside of a friend and the man in the baseball cap. When I thanked him for coming, he offered me the chance to bring my mom back. Of course, lost in my emotions, I agreed to his terms without question.”

She had lain back to look at the stars. “I don’t know much more about him. I found him in those newspaper articles, sure, but like you, I’ve never been able to meet him since. But I didn’t care. If I could bring my mom back, that was all that mattered. Soon, I was using my familiar and my shades to attack everyone who made my life miserable.”

I waited for her to finish. “What are you going to do from here?”

“I think I’m going to find your ‘Cappy’ and give him a piece of my mind. And if more shades pop up, I hope you won’t mind me tagging along to help you destroy them. I know a bit more about them than you.”

“It’d be an honor.” I had reached over to her, which made the bells in my hair ring out.

That had brought Erica’s attention to my new hair tie. “Hey, Sakura.”

“Yes?”

“I don’t recall ever giving you permission to use my bells. Give them back.”

Back in the student council room, I touch the ribbon I’ve started to use as a hair tie—sans bell. It’s cute, but just not the same.

Even with Erica’s change of heart, she refused to give up most of her habits. The bells in her hair still sing, and she still spends a lot of time with her butterflies.

But it’s not like Erica hasn’t changed at all. For one, she stopped dyeing her hair. Her dye has washed out to reveal a pristine silver—even more than Ayumi’s. She also stopped pinning her butterflies up, focusing entirely on dipping them in resin and fashioning them into jewelry. To top it off, even her room’s changed.

“Oh, looks like I sold another one.” Erica glances up from her phone, takes down one of her butterfly collections, and places it on the stack labeled “to ship.”

I tap the now-bare wall. “It’s really looking better in here.”

“Because of the Silent Circular Infinity poster?” Ayumi gestures to the poster I bought for Erica, hanging on the wall.

I place my hand on it defensively. “It adds to the room, to say the least.”

Erica giggles. “I can’t help it. After Sakura lent me a couple albums, I was hooked.”

Ayumi throws her hands in the air. “You’ll never understand me.”

But our banter is interrupted by Haruka.

“Shade sighting in town.” She points at Erica’s laptop.

We break off what we’re doing and rush to the screen. On one of Erica’s cameras, we spot the shade waiting for its next victim. They never hide themselves as well as Erica’s used to, but any shade is still a threat.

“Which camera is it?”

“The zoo. It’s about two kilometers from here. It’ll take about an hour on foot,” replies Haruka.

Erica groans. “If only you could teleport other humans like every other shade I’ve met.”

Haruka places her head on Erica’s desk. “No sword, no special ability, and no teleportation ability. Why do I have to be special?” None of us have the answer. It’s something we’ll ask Cappy if we ever find him.

I pull open Erica’s closet and grab Twilight. “Eh, getting a little rusty again.”

“Well, it has been a week since you last used it,” Ayumi says. When we asked Erica about the sword, she had explained to us all she knew about it. It was an ancient blade of unknown origins, appearing time and again in history. It killed the undead without exception—so shades would never learn how to avoid it. If it was used against undead, it would absorb the magic used to create the undead and recreate itself. But if it were to be used on a human, they would become its new master. The sword and its master were intertwined, such that neither could live if the other died.

I thrust the sword into the sheath Ayumi had sewn into my blazer. “Since we have a new shade, I suppose that means we have another necromancer to deal with.”

Haruka gets up from the computer. “Can I destroy one? It’s so boring watching Sakura do everything.”

“Well, she’s good at it,” Ayumi says.

“But I can be good at it too!” she whines.

I put my hand on Haruka’s shoulder, at least where it would be if I didn’t go through it. “We need you to fight the familiar. Shades’ll become harder to deal with otherwise.”

“Come on, we have to run!” Erica races to the door. “It’s waiting for us!”

We all know she’s right. We set off for our next task together. For in the road of life, sometimes, there are paths you cannot turn back on. But if you follow it, you’ll never run into a dead end, so long as you don’t believe it to be one. For there is always a tomorrow.
[close]

Back Cover Chibi
[close]

7
Create n' Share / Hyperspace National Novel Writing Month
« on: October 03, 2017, 01:11:25 am »
November 1st begins one of my favorite times of the year - National Novel Writing month. The official goal is rather simple - write a story, or collection of related stories, which total 50,000 words or more. The rules are very much up to you - some people write 5,000 words describing a toaster to reach their word counts - but in the end so long as you're telling a story in 50,000 words or more, it's a win. The only steadfast rule is the timing - you cannot write anything you started before November 1st (Outlining is fine, but not writing!), and cannot count any words after the 30th to your count.

I'd like to do this with a couple of Hyperspace people if they're interested. Please let me know here and we'll have a good old time~ 50,000 may seem like a high goal, but it's 1,667 words a day - maybe 40-50 minutes of concentrated writing.

You can sign up at nanowrimo.org. If there are enough people interested I'll host word wars and online write ins and stuff~ I could probably even get Timmy to join. My name is Meliran on there.

Let me know if you're interested in this thread~

8
Create n' Share / Another day at the beach (A Mavia Story~)
« on: August 10, 2017, 09:37:17 pm »
So, this is a fanfic about a... "mission"... for Maho and Sylvia to a "beach." AKA, it's a blatantly excuse for fanservice. Enjoy~

No idea how long it'll be.

Part 1
After a hard morning of training, the only thing I can think of is dinner. My stomach is completely spent, but I know better than to let it grumble. It’s hardly ladylike to allow such horrible noises come out of it. An Etoile d’Avignon has to always watch her manners and stay ladylike, even when nature says she should let it all out.

Sylvia packs away her giant gun in its case and lets her stomach run free. “Oh, sheesh, it’s been quite a while since breakfast. But we’ve really improved today, haven’t we?”

I suppose she has improved quite a bit, but that is all since our Maid Day. I’m not sure if my abilities as a Maid have particularly improved as of late, especially when dealing with Joyeaux. It is a very natural extension of my abilities, but I don’t seem to be getting any better at it.

How can I live up to my family’s expectations if I can’t get any better?

Sylvia flings her arm around me. “Oh, cheer up, Maho! You know I hate seeing you down. It’s like your happiness radiates to me, and that’s all I need to keep going through the day.”

I flash her a smile. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” I can worry about these sorts of things later. For now, I need to be cheery. A Maid always goes about her work happily, no matter what her circumstances.

The cafeteria is a large bustle of activity. Several Maids are in the process of setting up long tables for us to sit on, while others are decorating them with tablecloths, doilies, and candles. It seems so much like home every time we come in here, even for a simple meal like lunch.

“Excessive as always,” Sylvia clicks her tongue. “Come on, we’re on food prep today.”

There are quite a few Maids who don’t like this long activity of creating a pristine environment for our meals from scratch. But, as Yuki Minase reminds us, we are still Maids, so we should honor the ancient traditions when we would serve a master instead of the entirety of Akkierens. And that means ensuring proper settings for meals, keeping the rooms and campus clean, and answering to every need and request with a smile.

The kitchens, as usual, are filled with stainless steel surfaces and plastic boxes stuffed to the brim with types of food. The lunches for the day are pretty simple to make, but a Maid always must perform even the simplest tasks with care. For the majority of Maids, we will have a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread with a pickle on the side.

As always, Yuki Minase chose the perfect meal for a hard day’s training. We have to eat reasonably, as no Maid can properly protect Antiope if she has extra pounds on her thighs. But at the same time, we can’t always diet, or we’ll not have the energy for our missions.

But I’m on the special meal – the one for those with glucose allergies. A tossed spinach salad with walnuts and a drizzle of olive oil. I pull on my gloves, grab some greens, and start the fill the plates with precision. I have to be perfect. I wipe the slight oil drip on the side of the plate and place the walnuts perfectly symmetrical around the dish. Of course, the Maids will probably swirl this around to get better coverage of the oil, but that is not my concern.

Something crashes to our left. Every Maid jerks her head to the side to see what’s the matter. One of the Junior Maids, Sophie I think her name is, dropped a pan on the floor. It’s not of particular importance, but several Maids rush over to make sure she is all right nonetheless.

“I do wish people would be more careful.” I return to grabbing into the bin and pulling out spinach greens. But when I do, I realize there is something wrong.

I peer over the edge of the bin. I had been taking evenly from all sides of the bin so that if somebody were to look down into it, they would see a clean line on top. But there is now a small canyon in the middle of the bin.

I tap Sylvia lightly on the shoulder. She peers up from her work to listen to me. “Somebody took some of my spinach.”

She cocks her head. “How do you know?”

I point in the middle. “I never would make such an unsightly hole such as this one.”

She stops to check her stack of bread. She points at each slice and counts in her head, until she comes to the last piece. “Thirty-five!” she says. “There’s an odd number!”

We look at each other, and then back at the exit. A silhouette outlines the arched doorway separating the kitchens from the rest of Lyceum.

We don’t need to ask. There is a food thief in our midst, and she’s getting away!

We drop our tools and, after properly washing our hands and signing out of course, run out of the kitchen to chase the culprit.

She is still too far to see clearly, especially with the sun blazing off the crystal clear lake in the middle of the Lyceum. She skitters along the path, clearly not thinking anyone is in pursuit of her.

“We need to seem natural.” Sylvia locks her arm around mine.

I feel myself getting hot. “Sylvia, this isn’t proper. This is what lovers do, and we’re both girls.”

She giggles and leads me on. “There’s nothing wrong with two girls being in love. It happens all the time with Maids. But as I said before, we’re only trying to seem natural. Plenty of Senior Maids take walks around the lake at lunchtime, preferring to eat their own specially prepared meals.”

So together, we take our walk down the path surrounding the lake. The girl’s silhouette becomes much cleared, and we can see her two well defined pigtails on either side.

There aren’t many girls with pigtails like hers, which narrows down the possibilities to only a handful of Maids. We approach closer, and the bright pink of them shines through – much brighter than could ever be a natural hair color. I know it’s actually blonde beneath, but she dyes it to match her eyes, apparently.

But I would never have expected Pluto to engage in such criminal activities such as stealing food from the Lyceum! Maybe there is some truth to the rumors, then. Since she doesn’t talk much, we have to learn a lot about her from what other people say, and some say she once ran away from home, drank, took drugs, and stole precious artifacts at gunpoint. It seems a bit extreme for such a mild-mannered Maid, but then again, so is stealing food.

“Come on little buddy,” she pushes against a bush. “Don’t be shy.”

Out of the bushes pops the head of a tiny bunny rabbit. My heart nearly melts from seeing it, and from the way Sylvia grips my arm, hers does too. It’s old enough to go out on its own, but it’s still tiny, much like the girl squatting down next to it.

She holds a spinach leaf out to it, and it nibbles on it. Pluto scratches between its ears while pulling out yet another leaf.

I think I know why she’s doing this sort of thing. Only last week, the Lyceum grew frustrated at the constant raiding of its gardens by animals, so it moved all gardens into an enclosed glass facility. Since then, there have been no crops lost to creatures such as this rabbit, but at the same time, there has been a significant reduction in taste.

But I never thought of the unintended consequences. Without the food from the gardens, so cute creatures like this bunny rabbit will ultimately die. Pluto really is doing what is right.

“You know,” I say. “Nobody should ever break the law. But maybe there are times where the law itself is wrong. Maybe we should work to try and change the law to allow for things like this.”

Sylvia pats my shoulder. “That’s a sign you’re growing up. Kids see the world as a bunch of rules which must be followed. Adults understand humans make laws, and they should always be questioned if they are right or not.”

I seem to recall hearing something about that in a psychology class in a past life.

The bunny bounds away back into its bush, and Pluto gets out of her crouching position. She heads down the path a bit further to the fountain.

“Well, let’s get back to the cafeteria,” I say. “She’s doing the right thing.”

Pluto studies the fountain a bit, and then checks at the lake, where a bunch of duckies waddle along cheerfully.

“Oh, you want some too?” Pluto rips off a piece of bread and tosses it to a duck, which greedily gulps it down. “These were meant for the birdies, but I suppose they’ve found food elsewhere. But you deserve to eat as much as any other animal.”

Sylvia stops and glares at the girl feeding the duckies. “How dare she?”

I blink. “How dare she what?”

“How dare she steal our food for those things!”

She lets go of my arm and sprints down the path to Pluto, who picks up her head in sudden realization. I chase after Sylvia, doing my best to keep my steps as graceful as possible down the path.

Sylvia points a finger at the girl. “Pluto, I Sylvia Cross am placing you under arrest for stealing food from the cafeteria. You will report with me to Yuki Minase, or you shall be labelled a fugitive.”

Pluto goes pale and backs up a bit, nearly falling into the lake. But she knows better than to argue. Or, maybe saying enough words to warrant arguing is beyond her capabilities of speech. I’d never know for sure.

“What about being above the law?” I ask Sylvia. “All she did was feed some starving duckies.”

Sylvia nearly falls over. “Duckies? Do these look like ducks to you? These are geese!”

Geese, ducks, they’re all the same thing. But Sylvia has always held a special place in her heart to hate geese, so I suppose I can see why she’s so mad at Pluto.

Pluto simply quakes in her shoes, not sure what she’s going to do, or what’s going to happen to her.

Yuki Minase accepts us into her room almost immediately. For more important matters, we go straight to the Headmistress, but for a minor crime such as stealing food we have to go to the most Senior of Maids.

“Can I help you?” she asks. She always reminds me of a fox with her pinkish hair and sly smile. But she isn’t exactly a trickster – and is the first person to remind us how looks can be deceiving.

Sylvia sits Pluto down in the seat in front of Yuki’s desk. “We found this girl stealing lettuce and bread from the kitchens to feed the local wildlife.”

Yuki sits in silence for a pregnant second which seems to last an hour. She finally says, “…and?”

“And?” asks Sylvia. “This is against not only the rules of the Lyceum, but it’s against the law. She needs to be punished so that such a thing can never happen again. We cannot let our foods go to thieves like her.”

Yuki bows her head. “If that is what you insist, I suppose I have no choice.” She pulls her Holonet in front of her and types away. “Pluto, for your role in this thievery, you are sentenced to start dinner preparations five minutes earlier than the rest of the Maids, which will come out of your free time.”

Sylvia blinks. “That’s it?”

Yuki stares at Sylvia. “I don’t know why you think she should need any more. That is more than enough to repay the food cost. And if she wishes to come in an extra five minute earlier every day after today, she’s more than welcome to and feed as many animals as she wishes as her payment.”

Pluto speak not a word, but give a polite bow and leaves the office. We turn to leave as well, our job complete, but Yuki calls for us to stop.

“If you will, I’d like a word with the two of you. Please take a seat.” My mind races. This isn’t good. No Etoile d’Avignone has ever been told to sit in front of anybody related to discipline here. How can I ever live this down? How can I face my family, knowing the Yuki never asks anyone to sit for just a pleasant chat?

Sylvia has no qualms about taking her seat, yet I can barely get my rear in the chair with my hands shaking so much. Stay calm, Maho. You must stay calm. How can you be perfect if you can’t face your problems head on?

Yuki folds her hands and leans on them. “Tell me. Why do the laws exist?”

I raise my hand politely to answer.

“This isn’t a class, Ms. Etoile d’Avignone. You can speak when you feel like it.”

Sylvia giggles. I lower my hand slowly and say, “For the good of Akkierens, and the world in general. That is why the Maids need to defend each and every law.”

Yuki pulls out a Holonet. “If we lived by your world, we’d have a freed populace of zero. Everyone breaks the law in some way, shape, or form every single day. For instance, did you know hanging your socks out to dry on your balcony is a violation of City Ordinance 13:45-1?”

I cover my mouth. How can I consider myself a Maid anymore? I’ve done that every day since I came here! The horrors! How will my family ever take me back?

Yuki flips through the Holonet. “Of course, the spirit of the law is what matters the most. For instance, you caught Pluto stealing food from the cafeteria. I think almost nine out of every ten Maids will do such a thing by the time they graduate. I’ve done in, the headmistress has done it, and yes, even Sylvia has done it.

I turn to Sylvia and cover my mouth. She fidgets with a cross in her hair, attempting to channel out some of her embarrassment from the stares. “It was a hard day of training, and I was hungry! It was only one apple…”

Yuki flips another page in the Holonet. “And you’ve never been punished for it, because it’s not within the spirit of the law. We have the law against stealing food so that no Maid can grab pounds of food and sell it on the street for a profit, but to break the law for a personal need or even, in Pluto’s case, another’s need, is natural and ignored.”

I’m not sure if I agree with her. Every law needs to be followed, or we’ll devolve into anarchy. If there’s a problem with one, it must be changed.

Sylvia bows. “I’m sorry, Miss Minase.”

“So formal,” chuckles Yuki. “Yuki’s fine. Now, where is that offer?”

“Offer?” I ask. Something in my internal clock is ticking, getting dangerously close to an important time.

Yuki flips through some more pages. “Every day, we get hundreds of requests for Maids. Of course, we can’t answer all of them, so I have to select the most relevant to the safety of Akkierens. For instance, this one is about a jewelry store being robbed. Sure, it’d be nice if we could find the culprit, but we should leave such things to the civilian police. A man trying to earn some quick cash for Dust is no real threat.”

She stops on a page and turns it to us. “But, for Junior Maids like you two, I think this might be a perfect task. It’s nothing too dangerous, and it should give you a bit of experience in dealing with the law versus reality.”

I stare in at it and take a sip of my tea. “The Ocean? What is that?”

Yuki’s mouth drops. “Maho, would you mind explaining how you got that tea? I don’t even have a kettle in here.”

I take another sip. “It’s two in the afternoon. I have to have my tea.”

Yuki stares at me for a moment before shaking her head. “Never mind. There’s more important things to deal with. Sylvia, have you heard of The Ocean?”

“It’s the body of water surrounding other planets,” she says. “Antiope doesn’t have one, but it is theorized we may have once in the distant past.”

Yuki zooms in to reveal a large watery area. “Yes and no. That is the ocean which The Ocean is based on. But The Ocean is a large resort under Akkierens stretching over a hundred square miles, imitating a real ocean right down to the salt and sand. They’ve requested a Maid for assistance.”

I sit up in my chair, careful not to show too much excitement. A mission? We’re going to have an actual mission?

Yuki scrolls down to the assignment. “The owner, Mr. Briggs, has requested a pair of Maids to investigate the cause of his resort, The Ocean, losing its salt content. Apparently it used to be three percent salt, and now it’s 2.9%.”

Sylvia blinks. “But isn’t salt cheap?”

Yuki scrolls down. “Much cheaper than the amount he’s willing to donate to the Lyceum if we find the culprit and put them on trial. But, it’d be a good break from your training, and I think you two need to see the world firsthand. What do you say? Do you want to go?”

“How soon can we leave?” I place down my emptied tea cup and raise the corners of my lips ever so slightly like mom had taught me how to do in the past.

The Zephyr docked to transport us is one of the more rustic models. It’s not quite a second generation, but it’s one of the oldest third generations in the fleet.

“Here is your mission book and per diem.” Yuki has to shout over the roar of the engines. “It’s a bit larger per diem than we usually give, but the owner insisted you two blend in. His resorts are pretty expensive, so don’t go blowing it all in one place!”

Sylvia can’t yell louder than a Zephyr, and it is simply unladylike to shout, so we only wave and board the ship.

Yuki salutes the captain, and we close the door. Once inside a Zephyr, everything is so much quieter and calmer. I pat the padded walls, happy for the soundproofing inside.

“I never dreamed the Lyceum would approve something like this. They barely let us spend any time in the pool!” Sylvia stretches, as if to release all the worries of the world off her shoulder.

“We have a pool?”

Sylvia nearly collapses again. “Yes, on the fifty-fourth floor. You’ve never been there?”

“Oh, I thought that was a billiards hall.”

She only shakes her head. “Well, we’re going to need to get you suited up once we get there. Having us walk around in frills and furls is going to be a dead giveaway of our identities.” She pulls out a pack of cards. “For the meantime, let’s kill some time.”

The Zephyr trip isn’t too long – the entrance to The Ocean is only on the other side of the city. But since Lyceum insists of Zephyrs being used for all trip further than a mile, we get a nice aerial view of the city.

The entrance to The Ocean is a relatively unassuming place – not much more city space than a room filled with elevators. But it is a particularly busy place, with hundreds of people crowded around each elevator and waiting for their turn to go down.

When we enter, some kids point at us, and several heads turn to stare at us.

“Is there something going on?” I hear one of them ask.

Another whispers, “If there are Maids here, there’s got to be something. It could be dangerous.”

“What if they’re looking for some time off too?”

“Are you willing to take that chance? Sorry Flo, Arriens, we’re going to have to come back another day.”

The woman’s kids whined, but there would be no debating with her. She, and several others, march past us and out the room.

“Are we really that scary?” I ask.

A rough hand grips into my shoulder. I turn and see a rough guard smoking a cigarette, wearing sunglasses despite being indoors. “Mr. Briggs would like to see the two of you. Now.”

He leads us out of the room and across the street to a big corporate office, complete with a boutique on the bottom floor for passersby to shop at. We enter the elevator, and it shoots up to the ninetieth floor a lot quicker than any of the elevators at the Lyceum.

“So,” growls Mr. Briggs, “you ignored my command to not cause a scene.”

I cock my head. “Begging your pardon, sir?”

He grabs the book out of my hand, and flips it to the fourth page. “Did you even read on your way here? You are not to enter the main hall until you’ve met with me and found yourself a civilian suit. You lost me quite a couple hundred already with your carelessness. Consider this strike one against you.”

My heart splits in two. There’s no way anyone in my family had strikes against them. Everyone else had been perfect! Why couldn’t I? Why did I have to be the black sheep in the family? This is all so awful!

He slams the book shut. “I’d advise you spend your free time tonight catching up on your reading. Sheesh, to think they would send me the two most incompetent Maids for this job.”

The remains of my heart fall to the floor. Incompetent? How can I live? My entire purpose of life has been ruined!

Sylvia holds my hand. “We will make up for it,” she says. “We will find your salt thief by the end of the week.”

“You better!” he growls. “Nobody steals from me!”

We curtsey and leave the room, still shaking.

“Pleasant man,” says Sylvia.

“Really? I thought he was quite rude.”

“That was sarcasm.”

We flip through the pages of the book, painfully aware of how much our lack of preparation cost us. I had thought the book was nothing more than a guide with the mission briefings. But every part of the mission is down to a T, highlighting where we are to be at what time, and what we’re supposed to be doing.

“So much for some free time at the beach,” mumbles Sylvia.

The boutique is filled with all sorts of clothes, from elegant and formal to some things I’d never be caught dead in. How can anyone wear such little clothing and present themselves as a woman?

Sylvia drags me by the arm to the changing rooms.

“But I haven’t found anything to wear yet!” I complain.

“I know you better than you know yourself. You’re going to spend an hour debating between the corset and the camisole.”

I fold my arms. “I was not.”

“Then what were you debating between?”

“Would a white ball gown or a yellow evening gown go better against the white sand?”

Sylvia chuckles. “Place your clothes in the bin. I’ll hand you some stuff to try on.”

A public changing room is a totally new experience to me. Jristen used to buy me clothes from special designer magazines and present them to me – always with a bow on top – and push me to try them on in my room. At Lyceum, we had been measured for our uniforms and wore them almost exclusively, save for the balls. But here, anyone could peek over the edge.

It takes more than a little effort to take off my clothes and drop them in the bin.

“Are your clothes off?” calls Sylvia.

“Yes.”

“Your undergarments too?”

I can feel my cheeks getting hot. “Do they really need to go off?”

“All of it.”

I suppose Sylvia knows best. She’s been in places like this before. I slip them off – taking extra care not to rip my socks when I slide them down, and stand shivering in the nude.

A hand reaches under my door and before I can stop it, pulls the bin away from me.

I cry out. “A thief!”

Sylvia laughs. “It’s just me. Don’t worry, you’ll get them back once you try on some stuff.”

“Wh-Why would you do that?”

She tosses in two small pieces of fabric. “Because you’re either going to try that on, or you’re not getting your clothes back.”

I can’t believe it. She threw over two pieces of cloth with might as well be rags! They’re not much bigger than my undergarments – in fact, the bottom piece is even smaller, only held together on the sides by a piece of string! And this bra thing really has all the design wrong, tying behind my neck instead of going over my shoulders.

I stare at the two pieces. “Can you throw in the rest of the outfit? It’s not proper to walk out in my underwear in public.”

Sylvia giggles. “That is the outfit! It’s called a bikini. Go on and try it on. I’ll be waiting.”

My jaw drops. “How lewd are these people?”

“It’s not really lewd. It just gives great tan lines.”

“I refuse to try this on! I am a d’Etoile Avignon! I cannot be dressed in something so shameful!”

Sylvia whistles. “Then I suppose you’ll have to come out in the nude and fight me for your uniform back.”

How could I let this happen? Stupid Maho, stupid! This isn’t a Maho victory. This is a Maho annihilation! And on the losing end!

I have no choice but to give in to the devilish woman outside. The suit slides on fairly easy, but almost every part of my body is exposed. I can even see a little bit of my rear end poking out through the back!

I hold my hand on the door which rattles from my shaking.

“Well?” asks Sylvia.

“There’s too much Maho showing!” I cry.

“Come on and let me see. I’ll be the judge of that.”

I push my hand only enough to click the lock open. Sylvia takes care of the rest and flings the door open. She studies my body up and down and nods approvingly. “White really does suit you. Get it? Suit? Bathing suit?”

She’s not the only eye on me. A couple men in the store have their eyes trained on me, studying all my curves which are overexposed by this type of underwear.

“I-I want to change back!” I cry. “Give me back my clothes?”

Sylvia yawns. “Oh, about that. I had a bodyguard lock them away for the next week for you. You won’t be needing them.”

“The next week?!” I cry.

“That’s the mission timeframe.”

“B-But… my uniform…”

She points at the skimpy clothes over my body. “This is your uniform now. You can call it the uniform of the sea. You better get used to it.”

Tears drip down my cheeks, but I know it’s best to hide them. Ladies cry in private, after all.

Sylvia doesn’t take anywhere near as long as I did in the changing room, and she has no problem strutting out in the uniform called a bikini. She went with a purple one to match her hair, and if I was any dirtier of a woman, I would have said she looked very pretty. But this is how we should look in the bedroom when we change into our pajamas, not in public!

Sylvia jumps around the boutique, grabbing several other items and throwing them into a brightly colored bag. She tosses me a pair of sandals, which I gracefully slide on – but it feels weird to wear them without socks on in combination.

The elevator room is the same bustle of activity, but this time nobody in particular notices our entrance. Sylvia and I lift our newly bought sunglasses to rest on our bangs. I flip open the book labelled “Sightseeing” which is really a cover for our mission.

“Ten AM, Day 1. Take the elevator down and check in at the hotel. Your reservation is under the name ‘Lewd.’”

“Lewd?” I ask.

Sylvia shrugs. “He made up the names, not me.”

It takes nearly twenty minutes for us to get into one of the elevators. Though in front of each elevator, there are plenty of people in simple tees and sandals, there are also plenty dressed like Sylvia and me.

“Are there really this many people happy to stand around in their underwear?” I ask as a woman with a rather large bosom walks past. “It is absurd and embarrassing!”

Sylvia slaps my bare shoulder. “Of course they are! This is what you wear to the pool, the beach, or anywhere! Some people even wear it outside to catch a couple rays on the rooftop.”

“People wear this in public?!” I gasp. Such horrors! Who could ever live with themselves strutting around with their belly showing like this?

The elevator finally opens, allowing the two of us in. “You have a lot to learn about this world, Miss Maho~”

The elevator descends into a tunnel only lit by the occasional light. “According to this,” I read from the book, “Mr. Briggs was unable to secure any land in Akkierens itself for this project. It simply is too big. So he had to build it below Akkierens, at least two miles down, as Akkierens claims ownership up until that point.”

“Two miles?” Sylvia moves next to me to peek at the book. “This must’ve been some expensive project.”

“It apparently cost him every penny he inherited from his father to build it. All wealth he currently has, he earned himself.”

The Briggs were well known as having so much money, they’d never go broke. But to risk everything for a place like this is absurd!

The elevator breaks out of the tunnel, giving us the first full view of The Ocean. As far as the eye can see is water and blue sky. The water meets the sky in the distance, creating a beautiful ending. Waves lap up from the water itself, splashing onto a large collection of sand. The beach itself isn’t too large – maybe a couple hundred feet wide, going in a near perfect circle to make an island. And in the middle of it is a collection of small motels with grills and pools and all manners of wonderful entertainment.

“Wow!” I press on the glass. The salty, and slightly fishy, smells of water waft into the elevator and tickle my nose, while a seagull flies around and snatches a little girl’s sandwich. A bright sun shines overhead. “It’s like we’re really on another planet!”

Sylvia flips a page in my book. “Well, it’s still only an imitation. Every part of this place is manipulated to a science, going so far as to manipulate the sources of heat to create a fake sun on an LCD screen above, and actually emitting ultraviolet radiation to give it the right feel. Which means, of course, we’ll have to put on a ton of sunscreen to keep our skin pure.”

She leans next to me, peering at the horizon. “Though it’s amazing how lifelike everything is. I wonder if we ever will see something like this on the surface.”

“Not with the Wastes being as they are.”

She can only nod.

The elevator arrives at the bottom, and we disembark for the hotel. He hasn’t picked out the best place for us – this one only has two floors and a rather small pool, but it’ll fit. We open the door to our room using a rather rusty looking key instead of our keycards, and Sylvia flops on the bed.

“There’s only one bed?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Is sleeping with me a problem?”

“Well, I don’t think so.” In fact, something inside me wants to in the first place. I’ve slept in the same bed as Cordi plenty of nights – especially during lightning storms – but I’ve always wanted to share a bed with Sylvia. That is, if she’d ever let me fall asleep. The one time we had a sleepover, she kept me up all night with her ghost stories!

Sylvia checks through the room. “Seems like all the necessary provisions are in place.” There is plenty of food in the refrigerator, towels in the bathroom, board games and puzzles in the drawers, and anything we could ever possibly need – even down to a tea kettle in the kitchen.

“What’s next?” I flip to the next page of the manual while Sylvia brings up the Holonet. “Twelve noon – Have a quick lunch and head down to the beach. Remember to bring plenty of sunscreen as the ultraviolet radiation is turned to maximum capacity in the afternoons.”

Sylvia whips out a bottle of the gooey stuff from her bag. “Do you want to do it here, or on the beach?”

In ways, it’d be a lot more convenient to do it up here. But after what Sylvia pulled on me in the changing room, I’m not sure if I trust her to do it properly up here. I might be exposing even more Maho when we reach the water’s edge!

“Let’s do it on the beach.”

We enjoy a wonderful lunch of egg salad and chocolate chip cookies before heading down to the water’s edge. The fake sun’s rays really are hot. I can almost feel them burning into my skin from the short walk.

Sylvia sets up a large umbrella to give us some shade while I lay out our towels on the sand.

“We could always use Joyeux,” I suggest as Sylvia struggles to drive the umbrella into the sand.

“No. Joyeux is a weapon, and we have to leave all weapons in the motel.” She struggles to drill the umbrella into the ground, so in the meantime, I squirt out some of the gooey white stuff and dab it on my skin.

My pale skin gets even paler as I run it in. The sun has no right to shine in some of these places, but since it’s a uniform, I have to protect it! I couldn’t imagine the frustration if I got a sunburn between my cleavage. Any move I make would irritate it. These parts should only be exposed for balls, complete with a fancy gown!

When I finish rubbing my legs, Sylvia takes the bottle from me. “Turn around. I’ll do your back.”

I follow her instructions and lie face down. Sylvie grabs the tie of my suit and starts to undo it.

“Sy-Sy-Sylia? What are you doing?”

She blinks. “You need to get some on your back, right?”

“Why are you untying my uniform?”

She sighs. “Call it a swimsuit, bikini, or bathing suit. Nobody calls it a uniform. But, you need to be protected under there. It’s the worst place to get burned, or you’ll be feeling it all week.”

I reach up. “I-I’ll handle it myself then and…”

She giggles. “You really are cute.” Despite my protests, she doesn’t let me handle my back myself. She places her soft hands on my back and rubs ever so gently to spread the sunscreen around. It caresses every curve of my back, digging deeper and fuller than I ever imagined possible. How could sunscreen feel so good? Jristen should learn a thing or two from Sylvia.

She runs her fingers down my spine, which makes me nearly jump up. But with my bikini on the towel, this is a dangerous proposition! I’d be shamed for life!

Sylvia giggles and lies down. “Now it’s your turn to do me.”

Sylvia has no problem undoing her straps. She spreads her arms out and allows her breasts to push subtly into the sand. I lather my hands with the sunscreen and dot her back with it.

“Ooh!” she gasps.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No, it’s just cold.”

I suppose the worst is over. I move to the top of her shoulders and massage my hands around, making sure to get the stuff in the deepest pores. I can’t have her getting hurt out her after all.

“Oh, wow Maho,” she says. “You’re really good at this.”

I try not to listen to her and move down to her shoulder blades. Her breathing quickens, and she groans a bit.

“Am I hurting you?” I ask.

“Not at all! Please, keep going.”

I’m not sure if she’s telling me the truth, but I continue nonetheless. The further down I go, though, the more she moans.

“Oh, right there,” she mumbles. “Wow, Maho, you’re so good at this! I need it right there. Please, touch me some more!”

Part of me wants to stop. She’s being far too lewd. But then again, I kind of liked hearing her make such noises. So I keep going down, continuing to the base of her spine.”

“Oh God, Maho!” she shrieks. “Right there! Yes, yes, yes!” She gasps for air and convulses, before finally falling into a peaceful rest.

We have to wait a few minutes for Sylvia to recover from her sunscreen ecstasy. A soft breeze blows in from the ocean, gently fluttering the umbrella, and giving some relief from the radiant heat seeping up from the sand.

All of a sudden, Sylvia jumps up off her towel and points her finger ahead. “I’m going in! Catch me if you can!”

Ooh, a competition. I gracefully stand up and readjust my bathing suit to try and cover as much exposure as possible – an impossible proposition. “I won’t lose.”

The two of us race across the sand. Of course, I stand no chance against Sylvia, as she is willing to lean down to scramble. A proper lady can’t stick her rear end out like that, of course, so I lose a lot of speed.

The water is rather warm and calming as it laps around my feet. The waves come ever so high up my legs despite how far back I stand, and then when they pull back out, they barely touch my ankles.

“Hey Maho, I have something to show you.” She beckons me further in, where she is already up to her thighs, with the low portion of her bathing suit wet from the lapping waves.

I twirl my toes in the sand. “Can you bring it to me? I’m quite comfortable here.”

She does not accept my excuse, and comes back to me to grab my wrist. “Come on, we’re at the beach. You have to get wet!”

She drags me back out to where she had been standing before. “What is it?” I ask.

And then flurry of water splashes at me, drenching some of my long perfect curls of hair! The horrors!

Sylvia giggles, fluttering her hands back and forth to send water my way. “It’s a water butterfly!”

There is no helping it – I am absolutely drenched from head to toe. I can’t believe she would trick me like this! “Then I suppose I’ll have to pay back the favor!” I spring from my feet and wrap my arms around Sylvia’s chest. The two of us tumble beneath the waves, all hope of keeping our long hair dry out the window. Yet I don’t care in the heat of the moment. This is rather fun!

We burst up out of the water a bundle of laughs. Sylvia turns around to meet my eyes, and then her eyes go wide.

“Sylvia?” I ask. “What’s the matter?”

She points down. “Your top!”

I lower my eyes and gasp. I quickly cross my arms to hide myself, as there is no longer a top on me. I am suddenly in a scandalous position with hundreds of people around!

Sylvia scans the area. “There it is!” She points deeper in the water, where my top floats out and away from the ocean.

I waste no time and swim out through the waves to retrieve it. I am so thankful for those lessons on how to swim in the family bathtub, or I’d be in real trouble here.

“Maho, you can’t! That’s beyond the safety line!” she calls.

But I do not care about safety when my purity is at stake. I cannot let anyone see my body in such a shameful state!

My top floats even further out, but ever stroke I take is a stroke closer to the goal. Something fast is swimming behind me.

I turn around, and a blur of purple hair zooms by. I can only watch as she grabs my top and pops out of the water. “Seriously Maho, there are a lot more important things in the world than a top. We could have wrapped a towel around you until we got back to the motel.”

I retie it, this time making sure the bows are nice and tight. “Thank you Sylvia.”

She shrugs, treading the water. “Still, we’re quite a ways out. We better start heading back.”

I hold my hand up to my eye, and see exactly what she means. The shoreline is a really far way away. I don’t know how I managed to swim all the way out here, but I have no idea how I’ll ever make it back in one piece.

As if to answer us, a black crack forms in the ceiling. Two inflatable tubes drop out and land next to us, color coded blue and purple to match our hairs – with the purple one having a bunch of cross designs all over it.

Sylvia giggles. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to float in. I do recall reading how every inch of this place is monitored for our protection.”

The process of floating in is slow, as we have only our hands to push us.

“Sorry for being such a nuisance,” I complain.

“A nuisance? Aren’t you having fun?” asks Sylvia.

I paddle a bit more. “Well, yeah, but aren’t I causing you a bunch of problems?”

“No, not really. We aren’t supposed to do much of anything today but experience the beach in its fullest.”

I take a sip of my tea. “Well, I suppose we should be doing something other than paddling back to shore then.”

Sylvia’s mouth is wide open.

“What?” I ask.

“We’re smack in the middle of the ocean! Where did that tea cup come from?!”

I take another sip. “Well, it’s two in the afternoon. Why wouldn’t I have one?”

“But, like, did you just whisk it out of the air or something? Tea just doesn’t magically appear when you want it to!”

I drain the cup ever so eloquently. “You can’t worry about such nuances in life. There are far more important things.” We continue to paddle to the shore, making it back into the range of the breakers, and back onto the shore.

After our little adventure, I’m utterly exhausted, and lie down on my towel. It really is comfortable, even in this heat, to lie back and enjoy a couple of rays from the sun. Sylvia, of course, is not interested in such things and instead piles a bunch of sand together.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

She pushes more sand together. “Well, there’s this thing called a sand castle, but I don’t really want to build a castle right now, so I’m more going to make some sand art instead.”

“Sand art?”

“It’s where I create a picture out of the sand. I can’t color it, but it should come out cute.”

She begins to cut away at the mound of sand with her hand, forming various shapes. On the bottom end she carved out a shape of a sort of flat tail, connected to a long curved back. In the middle of it, she cuts out a fin, combined with a flipper.

It doesn’t take long for me to recognize the animal she’s making – a dolphin. They’re only creatures of legends from the time when Antiope had a real ocean on the surface, but that doesn’t make them any less cute. I can totally see Sylvia lying in bed and snuggling one of them one day.

“Ice cream!” shouts a woman pushing a cart. “Get your ice cream here!”

That pricks Sylvia’s ears up. “Hey, Maho, can you get us a pair of ice pops? There’s some money in the bag.”

After all the craziness of the day, I would love something cool and refreshing like an ice pop. I grab some bills out of her bag and take a moment to admire her artwork. It is really such a nice dolphin, with details all the way down to the texture of its skin and its perfect bill-shaped mouth. Shame I don’t have my camera with me, or I would definitely take a picture.

It doesn’t take too long for me to buy our ice cream – maybe 20 seconds down to the cart, 20 seconds to buy it, and 20 seconds back. But when I return, I nearly drop the ice pops.

“What happened to the dolphin?” I gasp.

Sylvia cocks her head. “Dolphin?”

I hand her the ice pop and point to the finished work by her feet. “You were making a dolphin out of the sand, but now there’s a bear here!”

She peels off the wrapper and wraps her soft tender lips around the red part of the fruity bar. “It always was a bear.”

I must be going insane. I had only been gone for a minute, and that perfect dolphin had morphed into an entirely different animal! I’m sure it had such a cute fin and flipper and tail and nose and…

The heat must be getting to me. I lie down on the towel to rest and enjoy my ice cream.

We spend a while lying on the towels, reading through the instructions we had been given. “Apparently,” says Sylvia, “the sand extends about six feet deep. Beyond that is a glass barrier to prevent any water or sand from seeping into the actual soil.”

I spread the sand. “Do you think we can reach it?”

“They chose six feet specifically so nobody could reach it without machinery. You’re best of taking the book at its word.”

I push the sand back together and lean over to her side.

“They say that the beach is a fun and pleasant place for families and groups alike, but also to be very wary of the extreme heat. The temperature is kept at a constant 87 degrees, so there is a significant risk of heatstroke or hallucinations if you don’t hydrate yourself properly.”

Is that what the dolphin had been? Well, I don’t want to worry Sylvia, so I won’t tell her about it. It’ll be my secret dolphin from now own. “What time are we supposed to be down here until?”

Sylvia scans the book. “It doesn’t give an exact time. All it says is we’re supposed to experience the beach like a normal beachgoer today, so as to get a good idea of our surroundings.”

I peek around. “There isn’t much really to get an idea about. The beach is pretty much the same in all directions.”

Sylvia shuts the book. “Well, then I’ve had enough. Do you want to head up to the motel room?”

As much as I’d love to stay down here, I agree. The heat is certainly an issue, but not only that, I’ve seemingly grown used to wearing such little clothing! I should be in a constant state of agony at having this much Maho showing at one time, but it’s as if I’m wearing my full uniform down here. Is Maho secretly becoming some sort of exhibitionist? I would forever be a shame to my family if I ever corrupted that far!
[close]

9
Create n' Share / Murder, She Wrote (A TOTALLY Canon MaidRPG Story~)
« on: July 15, 2017, 01:19:19 am »
My entry to Arraxis's contest, which may be a bit... evil. :)

Warnings: Graphic Violence, minor genderbending

A 2 day 2 part story~

PART 1
My feet pound on the track, making every effort to exert my full stamina. My dress flutters behind me, with its white lace and sea blue elegance floating behind it. A Maid must always give her all in what she does. So as a Maid-trainee, I must aspire the same.

The students of the sub-Lyceum struggle to keep up with me. In some ways I feel guilty for their struggles, as I already have an unfair advantage on them. But then again, the sub-Lyceum believes any woman with latent abilities can activate them simply through hard work and dedication, hence our grueling physical routines every day.

I cross the finish line and chug down my water bottle.

“Mirai, that was amazing!” Yukine taps my shoulder. “How do you run that fast?”

I let out a girlish giggle. I have to overexaggerate everything to make it seem believable. “I suppose training and practice. We can all run fast one day.” My vocal chords hurt any time I talk, but I know this is something I’ll have to deal with the rest of my life. Surgery doesn’t come without its side effects, no matter how much is paid into it.

The students filter away from the track to hit the showers and prepare for our evening meal of drug-laced salmon and potatoes. Of course, they never informed the students about the drugs they placed in our food, but a select few of us who worked in the cafeteria knew the darkest secrets.

“Maids are feminine,” our head chef told us. “So by adding a few hormones into the recipe, we can develop a potential Maid’s body into a perfect female, and she’ll have a higher chance of awakening her powers. It’s not fool proof – but our rate of awakening is about three percent compared to the two percent rate of the general populace.”

I touch my chest, which has grown a little bit over the past few months. I’ve even had to start wearing a real bra instead of the training bras I used to put on to fit in with the others.

I suppose there’s no going back. I had entered this school on a whim, but I’m going to either become the first Maid of my kind, or have to find a low-pay job for the rest of my life. There aren’t many other options for a high school dropout who went to the sub-Lyceum.

“Are you coming, Mirai?” Yukine shouts from the shower room.

I wander over to the fence separating the sub-Lyceum from the Lyceum. “I’ll be there in a bit. You know I need to cool off outside first.” That would be the easy explanation. I’ve used it for years as to why I cannot shower with them. But I know there’s a lot more than that to it.

I grip on the fence and stare into our dreams. Several Maids walk by, most of whom I’m unfamiliar with. There are a few we all fangirl over, but I’ve never really been into Cordelia or Sylvia. For me, my heart belongs to someone considered far too rich and noble for us. Maho.

She appears from behind a tree carrying her trust parasol. I believe she calls it Joyeux, and I never see her without it. But her parasol is simply an accessory. Rather, I care about her beautiful long curly hair, her elegant and perfect legs, her slender frame, and the two small breasts on her chest. She is everything I ever want in life, and everything I will never become. She is the reason why I became a Maid. I will one day be on that side of the fence with her.

“There you are!” laughs a girl with purple hair, wielding a long red spear. “Come on, it’s almost dinner!”

Maho stops abruptly and put her mouth over her mouth. “Oh my, did I forget again? Thanks for the reminder, Sylvia.” Sylvia leads her away from my point of view. A flash of pink hair and brown skin runs after Sylvia, taking every effort to avoid detection.

Sylvia will be a challenge. Every day I see her close and friendly with Maho, doing such things as hugging her arm close, sneaking glances at her when Maho is unaware, and taking any opportunity to touch her as possible. When my Maid powers awaken, I will be sure to make Maho like me more than Sylvia. I have a tongue of iron, as my friends have long claimed, and the power to woo anyone to my side.

But this requires an impossibility – awakening of my Maid powers. For any other girl in this school, they have a hope of this happening, be it they came from a long line of Maids, or they put in extra hard training and effort. For me, however, the issue comes down to biology.

A man can never be a Maid.

Of course, nobody here knows my secret. I’ve kept my sea-blue hair long and wavy, covered my male parts at all times while binding my waist for the female body shape, and taking pills to keep my muscle tone low despite our intense constant workout. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t switched my medical reports with the girl with actual potential when I had applied, but those were only seen by the doctors by confidentiality laws. All they could do is tell the school, “Mirai has potential.”

The girls leave the shower, allowing me my opportunity to clean off. I still fasten a towel around my waist in case somebody were to walk in. They can think me modest for all they care. For me, I need to safeguard this secret as being a man is an automatic cause for suspension.

When I drape up my Maid uniform and leave the shower room, Miss Nanase – our Dorm Mother – is waiting for me. “Late for dinner again, Mirai,” she grumbles.

I curtsey – a skill which I took a long while to learn and perfect. “I humbly apologize. I got caught in a daze again.”

She puts up no flack for my excuses. “Then you can daze all you want cleaning the kitchens tonight. A Maid must be prompt in everything she does! So even if you may never awaken your powers, you must learn how to serve a master so you shall have a job after our training is complete.”

If only life were that simple. Becoming a domestic maid instead of a Maid of Akkierens requires a physical checkup. I’d never pass it, so my options are total success or failure.

The kitchen is a total mess when I come in. It is as if the Maid-trainees on duty had made every effort to splatter flood and grime on the walls for me to have the hardest job possible.

“It’s not going to get done by staring at it,” I tell myself. I squat down and in the process feel my small breasts bounce against my chest. It’s enough to be annoying, but not enough to truly make me a girl.

I hate this life. I’ve thrown away everything I’ve had to pursue something impossible. Even if I manage to make it to Maho, she’s never going to love me. After all these days of watching her through the fence, she’s never even noticed me. To her, I am simply another Maid-wannabe instead of a potential love interest.

My scrub brush hits a jar clumsily left on the ground. I pick it up and recognize the substance without any effort. This pink powder is the drug they feed us with every meal to make us more feminine. It’s never a lot – maybe a tablespoon to feed the entire class of a hundred. But if I have developed a little bit of a breast by now, it is enough to make a difference.

I check its poison label. I don’t know why they even bother complying with laws when this substance is made in house and never sold or used elsewhere. “Caution. Do not consume in doses over an eighth of a teaspoon, or may be fatal.”

I know at that moment what I must do. I have failed. I am never going to be a Maid. I am never going to meet Maho in person, much less date her. And I have no other choice. I have to end it here. Maybe then Miss Nanase will understand how she shouldn’t mess with a girl’s body without her consent. We wanted to be Maids, not subjected to this stuff.

I take a measuring cup out of the dirty dishes – apparently having been used for chocolate. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my time here, it is how Maids love their chocolate. Maybe it’ll make the stuff taste better.

I pour the pink dust inside the cup and open wide. “Down the hatch,” I mock, letting the foul slightly-chocolate stuff down my throat.

The effects are almost instantaneous when I swallow. My throat burns from its passing, and my body tingles all over. I collapse on the ground, unable to support myself anymore.

I wait for the darkness to overtake me. Death will wait for me as a friend, not something to fear. It will always be better than this life I’ve been forced to live.

And then the nausea hits me. Despite my desire to keep everything down, my body doesn’t let me. As if it is no longer my choice, I run to the bathroom and hurl an unbelievable amount of fluid into the toilet. I take a few deep breaths, and then hurl again.

It isn’t for a good three minutes until I can stand up and look at myself in the mirror. My face seems to be a bit thinner. I suppose that’s to be expected from vomiting that much in such a short period. But not only that, but my waist feels a bit more comfortable in my wrappings, although the bra feels tighter. I knew these things make rapid changes in hormones, but I didn’t expect it to be that fast. I thought I’d be dead before then.

Something cracks. I look back to see if anyone has followed me, but I’m still alone. That crack must have come from my own body. Another crack comes from my back.

Is this the toxicity? Is this how it kills me – literally breaking my back?

But it’s nothing of the sort. The mirror rises in front of me. No, that’s impossible. Rather, I’m shrinking? How am I going to explain this? I was always considered a tall Maid-trainee, and now I suddenly lose all this height? I must be a good six inches shorter now!

I stand on my tiptoes, which seem to be longer and thinner, and place my hand on my cheek to check my temperature. Despite not having a temperature, my cheek is startling. There is no hint of whiskers there at all! I did shave twice a day to keep my appearance up, but by now there should have been something.

I suppose a megadose of a feminizing product will feminize a person rapidly. I don’t care. It should be striking my heart soon and killing me.

Wait. The other things made sense. But what about the shrinking part? The human body can only grow taller. It shouldn’t become physically smaller.

I tear off my uniform, trying to figure out what is happening. My muscle tone, despite being small because of the drugs I’ve been taking, is no longer there. I have smooth arms and legs, and my entire being is becoming softer and curvier. Even my panties seem to be a bit smoother against my crotch.

My eyes widen. “It can’t be…” I surmise.

I pull off my panties. I’m still a man, but just barely. I’ve never been this small before, and I’m still shrinking. I think about reaching and trying to stop the process, but my mind stops me. If this is the real deal, I want it to happen.

With a pop, my sex switches. Cramps spread through my lower abdomen as my organs rearrange themselves, my hips expand, my butt expands, and my prostrate dissolves. But they are only momentary, and before long, I’m back in normal comfort.

Despite my best efforts, I did not die. Rather, my body changed to match my uniform. I stare at myself in the mirror, trying to make sense of this miracle.

I never really cared either way whether I could be a boy or a girl – only if I could be a Maid. But my actions have decided it for me. Nobody could ever think a girl with obvious C-cups and the proper plumbing could ever be a guy. So this means after graduating from the sub-Lyceum, I could serve some rich guy and fix his literally plumbing when he clogs it up. I can make his meals while eating crap myself, and wake myself up several times in the middle of the night to care for his kid as a wet nurse.

I don’t want that either! I want to be a Maid! But this darned mirror is only showing me a girl! This stupid mirror, why can’t it show me—

The mirror cracks. Despite not touching it, it has a sharp split in its center, distorting my body. The door is closed, so maybe it was just some time. Or maybe it is…

“Skadia?” I ask aloud.

The mirror cracks again this time, with me putting a bit more conscious effort into it. I pinch my cheeks to see if I would wake up. But the answer is resonating in my head. Somehow, this overdose instead of killing me has granted my wishes to me.

The doctors the following day agreed. “She’s fully clear to move to Lyceum,” says a doctor. “She’ll be a great Maid, although she should be careful. She has very low Spirit, so she’s prone to stress explosions. Her Aldeister stress explosion appears to be incurable brain cancer, so if she’s not careful, she’s in for a long and painful death.”

I am prepared for this fate. A long and painful death is much preferred to a long and painful life separate from Maho. I can’t believe I’ll be able to meet her in person. I wonder what she’ll be like. Will she fall for me at first glance?

When given an opportunity to privately ask the doctor questions, I ask him the biggest one on my head. “Am I a real girl, or a guy in a girl’s body?”

The doctor sorts through his papers. “Unless you want to go into transsexualism, you’re a girl. You don’t have a penis, do you?”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean, you have my genome. Do I have two X’s, or an X and a Y?”

The doctor sighs as he pulls out a chart. “You’re a girl inside and out, as far in as the microscope can see. So if you’re asking if you can have unprotected sex and never get pregnant, the answer is no. I’ll leave some literature on a girl’s life on your nightstand in Lyceum.”

My Maid day is a miniature affair. Only a few students with nothing else to do show up as I select my engine. It winds up being a simply bracelet which changes color when I use it. But knowing my low spirit, I don’t dare test out my usages. I need to make sure I only use my devastating Skadia abilities when absolutely necessary. Demonstration are no time to use it – only missions.

I scan the audience in hopes of finding Maho there. But to my disappointment, she doesn’t even notice my acceptance in the school. But how could she? She had never seen me looking through the fence before, so she would never know my existence. I’ll have to introduce myself.

If there is one thing Maho will never do – it is miss her tea. At the end of my ceremony I check the close – 1:55 in the afternoon. She’s always at that café sipping her tea at 2, so if I run, I can make it there in time. But a true Maid never needs to rush, so instead of running, I choose to skip. The Lyceum enjoys seeing us happy everywhere we go, so this is my best option.

Maho is right where I want her – next to that same purple haired girl from earlier, Sylvia. The café is otherwise empty, save a pink-haired girl sitting a few tables away. Is that a camera she’s flashing up every so often? But Sylvia and Maho don’t seem to notice her and eat their scones while sipping on some Dajeerling.

I hold my hands on my chest. I suppose people born as girls are used to their chests since they develop gradually, but this sudden weight and size is really a surprise to me. But I can’t concentrate on that. I need to concentrate on Maho, my love.

I take deliberate steps to their table.

“And then the guy totally fell for the other guy! He was the cutest thing!” laughs Maho.

So it’s not just girls I have a challenge with. I’ll take note of that.

Sylvia laughs along. “You know you shouldn’t read stuff like that. It’s dirty.”

“I know. I must be perfect! I must be pure!”

Her voice is like an angel’s, even if her words are not. She’s so perfect in every way. I must make her mine, no matter what it takes.

“Hi!” I spout out.

The girls look up from their tea at me. “Hi,” says Sylvia. “Anyways, as you were saying, Maho…”

I don’t like this girl already. She could have at least asked for more out of me.

I tug at the collar of my uniform. “My name’s Mirai. I’m a big fan of Maho’s, and I hope we can be great friends!”

Maho lowers her tea and stares into my eyes. “A big fan?” she asks. “I’m sorry, but I do not believe we’ve met.”

Everything in my world has fallen apart. She doesn’t know me. She’s never noticed me. She’s never loved me…

“Why don’t you take a seat over there,” Sylvia gestures to an empty table. “The waiter will be with you shortly. I’d advice a tea to calm your nerves.”

Maho doesn’t seem to notice and goes back to her chat with Sylvia. I don’t have a choice but to sit alone at the table as the waiter brings out a lemonade for me. Despite being a Maid, I never could really get into tea. But I’d be glad to do so if it means getting Maho’s heart!

The girls don’t seem to even notice me when they get up to leave. The skies open, and a wet rain crashes down to the ground.

What were all my efforts for? Maho and Sylvia are together nigh on constantly, and I’ll never be able to get between them. So now I’m in a body which isn’t mine, training in a talent which may kill me one day, for a girl who will never love me. I don’t know what the purpose of this all is. I don’t understand.

“You can always admire her from a distance,” says a voice.

The lightning cracks, highlighting her face. She has a caramel colored skin and pink hair, and most of all, red eyes.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met,” I say. “I’m Mirai.”

She smiles. “April. Charmed.”

I tap the seat next to me. “Would you like to join me for a while? Maids should never eat alone.”

She chuckles. “Reciting your lines, I see. No, you can skip the formalities. You and I want different things in the same way.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw you watching Maho, even when you were a guy on the other side of the fence. And don’t think I don’t know your secret – I am an expert in understanding a person inside and out. But it’s not like it matters, since you’re one of us now.”

I gulp. “I-I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize about. If you had been watching and desiring Sylvia, I’d have a problem. But no, you want to separate her from Maho, just like I do. I have no plan how yet, but you’re welcome to watch from a distance if you wish.”

Separate Sylvia from Maho? Yes, I suppose I’ll need to do so. But how can I do that? Locks and chains are only temporary, unless they lead to death. And death can only be…

This girl’s right. That is my answer. I have to resort to murder. The crocodile chased after Captain Hook endlessly until either he died or Hook died. If Hook, or anyone else, had simply shot the crocodile, he would have survived.

I grin. “I suppose you’re right.” I get up out of my chair. “It was nice talking to you Miss…”

“April,” she says. “And don’t forget, Sylvia is mine. If you fall in love with her, we’re going to have a real problem.”

That night is my first ball. For the other girls, it is at least their third, but that is no matter for me. What does matter is Maho is there, happy as the light of day.

Maho beams while holding arms with Sylvia. “Can you believe it? We’ve already been to three balls already! Though, what is this one for?”

Sylvia shrugs. “Does it matter?”

Maho chuckles in her typical princess fashion. “Of course not! Come on, and let’s dance the night away.”

My heart is at my feet. This ball is in celebration of my entering Lyceum as one of their sisters. But to that bitch Sylvia, it is nothing more than a chance to dance. Maho is obviously falling under her sway, and I need to eliminate my rival as soon as possible.

But Sylvia, despite her innocent looks, is not an easy target. For a first timer, I have to find someone to practice on. Someone rather easy. I stroke the butcher’s knife hidden in my dress and waiting for its first kiss.

We walk down the path from the ballroom to the dorms. Sylvia giggles with Maho, both of them a little tipsy from the scoundrel who spiked the punch bowl.

“Oh, seriously, Maho, you’re such a tease!” giggles Sylvia.

“What? I’m only hot. Why do I have this clumsy dress on?” She pulls on her straps in the middle of the public!

Sylvia pulls them up. “Because we’re not in my room yet. We’ll do whatever you want there.”

“But I want it now~” Maho groans. She really can’t take her alcohol well, can she? I’ll need to remember that for when we’re dating.

Sylvia draws Maho in and locks her lips on hers. Maho gratefully wraps her arms around the purple-haired bitch and shares a moment of pure passion.

I grip my knife even tighter. One day I will drive this through Sylvia. But I know tonight is not the night.

They leave via the path. April hops tree to tree following them from above, leaving me alone in my white dress. Yet, I can tell I’m not alone.

Another girl with dark blue hair cut short stands not in hiding, but on the path a little higher up. Her hand covers her mouth. “Maho…” she says. “I love you. Please, love me back. Please, love your Jane.”

Another rival? Well, she doesn’t seem to be much of a threat. Her limbs are tiny, and she seems pretty timid. I could leave her alone, I suppose.

But then again, I need practice.

“Hello,” I say, popping out from behind my tree.

She jumps back and nearly trips over her dress. She doesn’t seem like the type of girl who should be wearing dresses. Leather and lace might fit her better on the streets.

“You’re Jane, right? Do you have something going on with Maho?”

Jane’s teeth chatter, and her lips move, but no words come out. She’s fully unable to speak. It’s as if she’s simply shut down.

“Answer me!” I shout.

But she only backs up, trying to avoid confrontation. Whether she wants it or not, a confrontation is what she’s going to get.

I pull out my knife. “If you won’t answer, I’ll make you answer.”

Her engine engages, and she dodges before I can thrust it into her chest. “Aevum, huh?” I ask. “Interesting element there.”

She doesn’t speak and instead charges at me with inhuman speed, driving her foot into my knee. I cry out from the blow, but know nothing’s broken in it. I wore guards on my body for a reason, after all.

I brandish my knife again, and force her to use her abilities to dodge. So the fight continues, until she finally runs out of Spirit.

I smile at the completely exhausted Maid. All those days at the pre-Lyceum taught me how to endure amongst all other difficulties. She had no chance to beat me with Aevum abilities.

“Why?” she asks as I approach her. It is the first word she uttered all fight. She’s visibly shaking from head to toe.

I shrug. “It’s fun.” I can’t explain my love for Maho to her.

“I won’t let you!” she shouts. She closes her eyes, and her body glows purple as her spirit replenishes. Albeister Stress?

And then she screams. She collapses on the ground, writhing in pain. But the more often she moves, the worse she screams.

I rub a finger on my chin. “Osteoarthritis?” I ask.

She doesn’t respond. Curious, I kneel down and bend her elbow. She screams uncontrollably, and a wet mark forms in the front of her dress. I suppose my theory was right.

I drop her arm. “My apologies,” I say. “It’s nothing personal, but I’m the only one who can love Maho.” I drive my knife between her breasts, right into her heart. Beautiful bright red fluid bursts into the air, splattering my dress. What a selfish bitch, ruining this dress of mine! I take another stab in revenge of her selfishness.

There is no life left in her eyes, but I continue to stab, taking pleasure with every motion of the knife piercing through flesh and into her internal organs. I can’t help but laugh from the actions, a craze taking over me. I’ve never felt so alive before!

But everything which has a beginning has an end. The euphoria dies, and I am left with a badly mangled corpse. Now what do I do? I can’t really drag it anywhere, or somebody would see me. I can’t really bury it with my bare hands, and eating it is out of the question. Even throwing it in the lake wouldn’t work.

I’m such a fool. My element is Skadia. I can destroy anything non-living. And the instant my knife went through her heart, she became an object instead of a person.

I call upon my engine, and she crumbles to dust on the path. There is no blood markings anywhere – save on my dress which she selfishly ruined. Well, blood is a crime, and I can’t be caught red-handed like this.

I tear off my clothes and shove them in the nearest trash incinerator. I wipe my knife on my dress to clear off the last remnants of blood and walk naked and laughing back to my dorm. Sylvia doesn’t stand a chance when it is her turn.

The funeral is held the next day. Without a body to bury, and police still investigating the crime scene, there is no need to delay. As per tradition, Headmistress Eli stays back and lets Yuki Minase give the eulogy.

“Jane was a pride for all of us. Despite being new, she was pure and true, and had a bright future ahead of her—”

I really wish funerals would be optional. If you ignore how boring they are, this black dress just does not go with my hair at all! I should be in brighter colors with my blue locks, not black!

Maho sobs the entire time. Sylvia rubs her head and holds her close to console her, but even that has no effect. Of course it doesn’t. Her true love is halfway across the room in a black dress which really doesn’t go with her hair. A little bit of grief now will save her years of grief if that girl would up falling in love with her. I’m the only one who can date her and make her happy, after all.

The girl next to me is staring that direction as well. “Poor Maho. She’s always thinking of others. Who would do such a thing?”

The girl next to her is in tears as well. “And Jane was so innocent too. Bea, it just doesn’t make sense.”

The girl clenched her fist. “I, Beatrix Orunitia, swear I well bring this criminal to justice. On my family honor, he or she shall not live to see the first light of the New Year. I swear it on my feelings for Maho.”

Feelings for Maho? Do that many people in Lyceum harbor romantic feelings for her? Well, it’s no matter. If I have to kill every Maid here to get to her, I will. Soon enough she’ll have no shoulder to lean on, and will have to lean on mine.

But for now, I need to focus on the target beside me. She seems like a fairly strong girl, as if she could wield a sword in one hand and a teacup in the other. But I know better than to attack her here.

The night comes, and I return to the scene of the murder. The police had roped off a portion of the pathway where they assumed Jane had died. But they really know nothing. She died much closer to the ballroom and up the path.

The area is deadly silent. No Maid is daring to come near this place – even going so far as to avoid it during the day and going the long way around the lake. It’s the decent thing to do, of course.

But, as I suspected, the girl from before, Beatrix, has chosen this exact place for her evening walk. She’s looking for clues, even if she will not find any. My Skadia element is absolute. Unlike the other Maids who have a secondary element, there is no pollution in my abilities. Maho is like that too. It is as if the two of us were made for each other! Now if only she would notice me, we could start a true loving relationship together. I think of our days out in the sunny porch with tomatoes growing outside in the garden and sipping tea. I don’t particularly like tomatoes… or tea for that matter… but I would work my hardest to make Maho happy. She’s all that matters in this world, and there is nobody better for her than me.

Beatrix draws out her sword and taps on the ground. “Mr. or Mrs. Murderer, I know you are out there. Please come out to meet your justice.”

As polite as they come. She stands still by the crime scene, holding her sword at her side. She will not charge at me if I step into the scene. It is simply not honorable.

I hop out of my tree in my red shirt. I know from yesterday how awful people can be. I have to compensate for her blood, to say the least.

She stares into my eyes. “The girl standing next to me at the funeral,” she says. “I suppose even the people closest to you can be your biggest threat. But I shall not kill you or turn you in.”

“And why not?” I laugh. “Because I’ll kill you first?”

She holds her hands to her heart. “There is good in every person. I do not know why you did what you did, but if you learn the Code, you shall realize the error of your ways. You can become a productive Maid still, and fill in what we lost with Jane. Please, come back to the light.”

She holds out a hand for me. She’s really a goody two shoes to fight for what is just. “You said you’d punish me for your feelings for Maho.”

She blinks. “Of course. For Maho and Jane.”

“Then you love Maho. You and your silly like Code must die. Nobody will stand between us!”

She grips on her sword. “Love? I don’t love Maho. I’m her friend. And I’m sure that was all Jane was too. But why would you kill someone over love? Do you think that makes Maho happy?”

I grin. “Because when she has no shoulder to lean on, I shall be the one she’ll take. You can take your petty lies about not loving Maho with your stupid Code and shove it up your butt. They belong with the crap it spews.”

Her eyes flash. “You dare insult my Code? You dare insult my Maho?”

“Of course.”

“I challenge you to a duel! I don’t care if I die as a result. I cannot see you hurt my Maho as such!”

She steadies her sword and her breathing. “Save the King shall end you,” she says.

“You named your sword after a stupid saying? How dumb are you?”

She opens her eyes and takes several deliberate steps toward me. She is no novice in the art dueling. This is not going to be as easy as Jane.

She swings her sword, and I have no time to block. It cuts into my arm, causing my own blood to splatter on the ground. I try to stop myself from crying out, but it’s useless. I fall to a knee.

Beatrix lowers her blade. “And with one swipe, the battle is decided.” She stands over me with her perfectly black Maid uniform fluttering in the wind, along with her mostly black hair – save the few red strands. “You will have one last chance. I shall bring you in, but only for a curfew violation. You shall swear to do no more evil, and shall become a model Maid. Agreed?”

I smile, knowing my defeat. “Oh course, my mistress.” She is far too strong to beat in a fair fight.

She beckons to me. “Then rise. I shall bring you in and you shall probably have to serve a day of dorm arrest. During that time, reflect on your misdeeds and come to me. I shall teach you the ways of the Code and life. You shall never be a blight on this school again.

I rise on her command. But just as I reach he skirt line, I take my knife and jam it up her skirt, through her panties, and into the slit which probably never had anything penetrate it before. The pain from that sensitive area is more than she can bear. She shrieks and drops her sword, which I promptly kick away. Trails of red drip down her thighs and toward her shoes.

“I thought you were a bit bitchy,” I smirk. “Why didn’t you tell me it was that time of the month?”

She cannot respond through the pain and rapid blood loss. I pull out my knife and think of where to strike next. I could always end it with a quick jab between the breasts like with Jane. But that wouldn’t be fun. Instead, I take my knife and start to carve out Sylvia’s name on her stomach. Let’s frame her for all the good it does.

She shrieks with each letter I carve out, taking care to puncture vital organs, but not ones which’ll kill her instantly. I’ll keep her alive as long as I can. I want to see her suffer. All those who love Maho shall suffer for breaking her heart and mine. They are the real criminals here!

And then blood splatters on my face. How? I wasn’t anywhere near an artery.

Beatrix lies dead with her sword through her heart, and her own hand gripping the hilt. I see. Death would be preferable to torture.

But, I suppose she’s right. Knives can get dull quickly. I throw her body in the trash incinerator and let the flames lick it. This’ll save a usage of my Skadia element. After seeing Jane’s arthritis, I know how dangerous overusage can be.

After covering up the blood on the path with some water taken handful by handful from the lake, I return to the dorm and plot my next attack. Beatrix was a bit of a diversion from the plan, but since she targeted me, I had to target her first. I suppose now I can target the primary goal – Sylvia. I will relish in her death most of all. But again, knives are boring. There must be some better way to deal with her. There must be a way to have some fun with murder, all for the love of my beloved Maho-senpai.
[close]

PART 2
The funeral the next day is as well attended as Jane’s, but the atmosphere is different. Yesterday’s had everyone sad and depressed. Today, in addition to grief, there is an overwhelming feeling of fear. Everyone knows the Jane incident is not isolated. There will be more murders of Maids, so long as they do not catch me. Until I can bring my beloved Maho with me together in marriage forever, I will not stop eliminating all and any threats.

The girl next to me keep her head bowed the entire ceremony. Her bright pink pigtails are so unnatural against the rest of the audience, it’s sickening. It’s like she wants us to think she’s cotton candy or something. Not only that, but she carefully avoids eye contact with anyone and everyone around her, while a few Maids embrace each other to share their grief and fears.

I nudge the girl to my left, and as a result my elbow hits something hard and metal. I have to stuff a dangle of my ribbon in my mouth to keep from crying out.

The girl stares down at me. “You don’t want to touch there,” she says in a cold and calculating tone. “It’s a prosthetic.”

The tingling in my arms stops, and I take a few seconds to wipe the tears out of my face. It’s amazing how a slice to my arm from that girl, Beatrix, barely hurt during the fight; yet hitting my funny bone on some other girl’s arm can cause me to almost wet my pants. Or, uniform, as the situation holds right now.

“What do you want?” asks the girl. It’s hard to see who she is, since she is wearing an Anastasia dress which covers most of her body. I can barely see her blueish hair through the hood. An Anastasia dress doesn’t necessarily seem like a Maid uniform, but then again, I don’t think this girl is the type of person to listen to the rules even if they are clearly stated.

“Well?” she grumbles. “If you have nothing to ask me, leave me alone.”

I gulp. This girl is not to be trifled with. “I was just wondering if you knew who the girl on my left is,” I say in a hushed voice so the pink-haired girl won’t see me. She holds her hands folded together, as if to pray for the murdered Maids.

The girl chuckles. “Curious, huh? It’s Pluto. But why do you care?”

“It’s nothing.” Pluto, huh? So my next victim will be a girl named after a planet. Well, the planet no longer exists, dead and buried in ancient astronomy books, so I suppose I’ll do the same to her.

The headmistress taps on the microphone, which creates enough reverb for us to need to cover our ears. “Attention, Maids!” She is steady and severe. “There is no doubt in our minds that these two incidents are related. They both have one thing in common – The Maids in question were walking alone. From this point on, no Maid shall be permitted to leave the dorms unless accompanied by a buddy. I will not take any exceptions for this. If you are walking alone, you are either aiming to do evil, or are unnecessarily clumsy. I will not accept either from one of my Maids.”

I suppose this makes it slightly more difficult to carry out my plans. Not to mention, how am I going to leave the dorms anymore? I don’t really know anybody here, save Maho who doesn’t even notice me.

The girl at my side nudges me, with her prosthetic arm hurting a little as it drives into my arm’s flesh. “I suppose we’re best pairing up. Not like anyone else will want to pair up with me.”

I blink. “How do you know?”

She smirks. “Let’s say I know a bit more about people than you realize.”

The Headmistress cancelled everything scheduled for the day – classes and missions – to assist the police in their attempts to find the perpetrator. I sit alone in my room, spinning my knife around. This is bad – really bad. I didn’t do anywhere near as good of a job disposing of Beatrix as I did Jane. What will a little water do to a blood stain on the path? What if they find blood from my wound? What if they see my still healing wound on my arm? I had wrapped a bandage around it and tucked it under discreetly, but there’s no saying what may happen. Anyone could find it.

A fist pounds on my door, sending a sound reverberating throughout. “Open up!” shouts the female voice on the other side. “This is the police!”

I grip hold of my knife. This is the end, isn’t it? My window won’t give me any escape from my fifty-third story room, and there are no secret passages left. My options are simple: Arrest, Fight, or Die. All three most likely end in the third option, and my question is simply how long it’ll take until I reach it.

A foot kicks at my door, and the lock breaks from the assault. I hold my knife tight, ready to defend myself and fight.

But the police don’t stand at the door. Instead it is the girl in the Anastasia dress from before. She slams the door behind her. “Put that stupid knife down. What are you going to do – fight against bullets with a 6-inch long piece of metal?”

I keep it up.

“Don’t try me. I’ve killed far more people that you have. And I don’t mean enemies on mission. I mean cold-blooded murder.”

I lower my hands a little. “How do you know?”

She sits on my bed and grabs the knife out of my hand. “I told you, I’ve killed before, so I know a killer when I see one. But your reaction to my fake police stunt is all the proof I need. I won’t turn you in, but I have to ask. Why?”

I grip the knife. “I have no reason to tell you.”

“Reporting you to the police isn’t reason enough? Don’t test me. I have very little patience.”

I understand my threat. Getting discovered is bad, and this girl is dangerous. “They want to take Maho away from me.”

“Maho?” she asks.

I grit my teeth. “I love Maho. But she won’t even notice me.”

The girl bursts out laughing. “Oh, that’s great! A beautiful reason to turn to murder – a forbidden one-sided love. Yes, yes, I think I can use this.”

“Use this?” I ask. “What do you mean?”

She looks aside. “The name is Lola. Yours?”

“Well, it’s Mirai. But what do you mean by use this? Are you going to do something to me?”

She sizes me up. “Well, you’ve got a good enough body, but no, I’m not interested. Listen, you want Maho for yourself, but you’ve got the wrong idea. You’re attacking the wrong people.”

“What? But Jane loved her, and so did Beatrix.”

She hit my head with her other hand – which still has a couple of metal fingers on it. “Jane, yes, but that’ll do nothing to split her up from Sylvia. It’ll make her sad. Beatrix, you’re out of your mind. She was Pluto’s love, not Maho’s. Maho and Beatrix are casual acquaintances, not lovers. And let me guess, you were inquiring about Pluto, so she was going to be your next target?”

She’s on to me. I cast my eyes aside.

“Listen, you need to split her from Sylvia, not make her sad or kill random people. And the best way to split them up is to pull them apart. Make them both sad. You will comfort Maho, and I’ll comfort Sylvia. All will be right in the world.”

So this girl likes Sylvia too. Why would anyone like that bitch? I try to think like Maho, but even through her ever-pure and ever-righteous eyes, I can’t find a single redeeming quality of her. Telling me to sit alone at the café… pah!

“So what do I do?” I ask.

“First, you learn how to properly dispose of the evidence. Cleaning up after you last night was a nightmare. You have your Skadia, so use it!”

I cast my eyes aside. “But I’ll get brain cancer if I use it too much.”

“If you live your life in fear of such a thing, you’ll die from something else first. It’s not like we’re unaware of our bodies giving out on us. So don’t worry about that and worry about your mission. Do you think Maho loves someone afraid of Albeister Stress?”

She’s right. Sylvia doesn’t seem to fear hers, so I must not fear mine.

Lola pulls a map out of her pocket. “See this room? This is where Katherine and Andromeda live.”

I take a look at her map and figure out their location.

“Katherine is a tiger-girl, which Andro is a human. It’s pretty easy to tell them apart. But Katherine is going to be baking with Pluto tonight, leaving Andro alone. She should be your next target.”

I grip my knife. No, knives are boring. I need to be creative with her. But, the thing is… “Who is she, and why should I care about her?”

Lola leans back on my bed. “Sylvia has a number of potential love interests. Myself and Maho are the two you know about. But I once tricked her and Andromeda to have some spiked tea. The resulting events were, well… lewd. Something built up in me, but I didn’t know what I had been. One night in the showers, I saw her and true lust broke through me. I needed her. I want her body. I want to feel her caressing by curves and shoving her fingers deep inside me. But I had already started the spark of Andromeda, and Maho already was a thing after that dance at the first ball. And then there was Katherine. I don’t even know how that happened, but it did. So I need you to kill everyone close to her.”

I hold my hands on my beating heart. “Why not kill both Andro and Katherine at the same time?”

Lola winks. “In a way, you are.”

I wait for the night to set. A tiger girl skips down the hallway with a girl with pink pigtails. The coast should be clear.

I crawl into the heat vent and pull myself through, careful not to dirty my uniform. A Maid must be clean, after all. It isn’t long until I’m over the target room.

The girl, Andro, lies on her bed, breathing softly. She’s asleep by the looks of it. I have a backup if all goes wrong.

I push the grate open and drop my rope. The floor is pretty damn near the bottom of the rope, so I don’t make a sound. Andro continues her gentle breathing.

I grab another rope out of my apron and hold it carefully over her chest. I lift it towards her head, and then in one swift motion I wrap it around her neck.

Her eyes bolt open the instant the rope is around her neck. She flails against the strangulation, trying to see her assailant. But no, nobody who keeps me from my love deserves that right. They deserve death.

I tighten the rope, pushing her spine to the brink of breaking. She’s blue in the face, unable to breathe or speak. It’s only a little more. Just one more tug.

Her neck snaps. A flurry of pain flies through her eyes, and then they see no more.

This couldn’t have been easier. Ropes are pretty fun, but they’ll get boring soon anyways. I’m glad my hands are gloved, or I’d be a DNA mess in this.

I pull out my trusty knife and slice through the soft flesh of her neck. The head separates quite easily through the body now that the neck is broken. I incinerate the body with my Skadia element, and move over to the other bed.

I lay the head on her pillow, taking care to let the blood pool on her sheets. I grip my knife and in one cheek cut out an “S” and in the other a “C.” Hopefully the investigators pursue this lead and find Sylvia. With the room mostly prepared, I finish my work and return up the heating vent.

Katherine doesn’t take long to return with a tray of cupcakes in her hand. She shuts the door behind her and locks it. “Why is the closet open?” she asks. Of course, it’s so she closes the door before she sees the murder. She pushes the door aside, and then drops the cupcakes, shrieking at the top of her lungs.

“Andro!” she shrieks, running over to the bed. “Andro, why? Why? WHY?!” Tears pour out of her eyes. “I… I… I don’t get it! This doesn’t make any sense. This thing… this life…”

Then her eyes catch the chair. Above it dangles the rope I placed, expertly tied into a noose. Her eyes go blank as she sees it.

She steps on the chair and slips the noose around it. “Maybe I will make sense of it,” she says. She kicks the chair away and falls.

As if she regrets her decision, she kicks frantically for the chair and tries to undo the noose. But it is too late. The fall snapped her neck, and she goes limp.

It’s exactly as Lola said. She’s highly susceptible to trauma. By simply giving her a suggestion and a trigger, she’s bound to end it. Not only this, but it looks like a murder-suicide. My hands are clean.

I crawl back to my room and sit on my bed, proud of myself. I heat up the tea and pour it out, waiting for my guest to arrive.

She knocks on the door. “Come in, it’s open,” I call.

Lola walks in and locks my door behind her. “Did it work?”

I nod. “They’re gone.”

She sighs with relief. “It’s not like I hated them or anything, but at least you did it properly. Sylvia will be mine.” She takes a teacup and drains it in one gulp. She chuckles. “You didn’t spike this, did you?”

I pick up a teacup of my own. “Nope, of course not. I decided to leave the alcohol to you.”

She chucks down another cup of tea. “Too bad I don’t have any. Did you store any in this room?”

I shrug. “Nah. I only have the poison I used in the tea.”

Lola drops a cup on the floor. “The… what?”

Sweat pours off her, and she collapses to the ground, holding her chest. She tries to take deep breaths, but there’s no hope of her even recovering. Silandi Poison is so fast-acting that there has never been a known cause of survival once ingesting.

“You… bitch!” She tries to reach up to attack me, but she no longer has the strength. She crashes to the ground and starts convulsing. The sight of her writhing out of consciousness is so ecstatic, I can barely contain my joy. The dampening of her Anastasia coat around her groin informs me that it’s over. She’ll get in my way no more.

Funny how she calls me the bitch. I’m not the one trying to interfere with my plans. I can kill whoever I want, damn it. So if it is the pink-haired girl, Pluto, then so be it! My only regret is how I had to waste the night. I could have taken care of both Katherine and Pluto instead of whoever that Andromeda person is.

I send my Skadia after Lola, who disintegrates. I take care to leave her coat, as soiled as it is. I could use a new coat in my wardrobe, to say the least.

But then I get a weird urge. I pull off my clothes and drape her coat around me. It feels so snug and comfortable, save that wet spot by my groin. But then again, it feels warm and comforting. It feels like…

It’s not only hers.

That’s right. Not only am I killing people, but it’s turning me on. I am so wet right now, it’s unbelievable. This ecstasy cannot be matched. But I can intensify it.

I slip my hands into Lola’s coat – no, my new coat – and find my flower. I close my eyes and picture all the girls I’ve murdered, and fantasize about their bloody corpses all heaped together. The rush flows through me, and it isn’t long before I climax into the coat.

I take a few minutes to relax and bathe in the ecstasy. I get off the bed and head to the mirror, when I look at myself.

“Nah, it’s an ugly coat anyways,” I grumble. With a simple burst of Skadia from my engine, it disappears, along with any evidence of Lola ever being in my room. I crawl naked into bed and fall into a gentle sleep, with my blood rushing through me.

Lola is right, even if she had no right to tell me what to do. Pluto can wait until I get Maho by my side. For now, I need to worry about the primary objective – Sylvia. Hopefully the police will take her away for questioning after seeing Andromeda’s head tomorrow. But if not, at least I have another plan to get rid of her.

My plans work. The Headmistress cancels all activities the next day. There is no funeral held, which I suppose is partially because the event would be cheapened with so many held in such a close time, and because the Lyceum would want to honor all victims together. But that is not to say no Maid cares anymore. They sob all day long, and nigh on constantly. I’ve been around girls long enough to understand their emotional instability. So knowing a girl as sheltered as Maho, she must be a total mess right now.

“What are you taking me away for?” cries a familiar voice. “I didn’t do anything!”

I peek out my peephole. Two cops hold a purple haired student, leading her down the hallways. I can only smile. I suppose they’re taking away anyone with the initials of SC today for questioning. It’s not as incriminating as writing her name at the scene, but at least it gets her away for a time.

I wander the hallways after her, knowing she’s going to be going somewhere I’ll want. And sure enough, at the base level of Lyceum, Maho waits and presses her hand against the glass door, looking out at the fields of the campus.

Maho takes a hold of Sylvia’s hand. “Stay strong,” says Sylvia.

Maho can only nod.

They separate, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, the path to Maho is open to me. Mirai Victory! No, that’s Maho’s line. Still, it will be a Maho Victory. She’s going to be so happy when she’s together with me. I’ll do everything for her. I’ll make her happy, whether she likes it or not!

She stares out the door and bows her head, letting her tears fall. “Jane… Beatrix… Andro… Katherine… Lola…” she lists the names of her falling comrades. “Why? Why would anyone be so cruel?”

I walk up next to her. “Need a shoulder?” I ask.

She stares up at me. “I… I…” she gets out. She wipes her tears, but it’s no use. There’s been too much grief to hide as of late. “Yes, I think that’ll be nice.”

She lays her head on my shoulder. Gently – so gently she probably cannot feel it, I run my fingers down her long silky cerulean hair. She sniffles and together, we stay like that for a few minutes.

“I… I suppose I should that you,” she says. “You’re the new girl, right? The one who we had the ball for two nights ago?”

My heart races. So she does know why we had that ball! “You’re so sweet,” I blush. “Remembering me like that…”

She keeps herself nestled in my shoulder, looking out at the raindrops. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. “I’m so worried. Not only about myself, but what about all the other Maids here? What if this person does something worse? But most of all, why? What did we do so horrible to them? I’d be the first to apologize if I could have done something. They don’t need to keep doing these horrific acts of violence because of a grudge.”

I wish she understood. Without these murders, we’d never be together like this now. We’d never share in this moment.

Sylvia rushes back, cutting our moment together too soon. Maho breaks apart from me. “Sylvia, what happened?” she asks. “Are you all right?”

The rain dampens both of their hairdos, but they don’t care. Sylvia simply adjusts the crosses in her hair, as if that’ll change her mess. She thinks she’s so cute with her stupid crosses all over the place because it’s related to her name. Maybe once I take care of her, she’ll start thinking about life differently.

I clench my fist and Sylvia stares into Maho’s eyes. “They wanted to ask me about Lola,” she says. “And apparently, a horrific carving on Andro’s… her… her…”

“I know.” Maho hugs her close and strokes her hair. “You don’t need to say it.”

Sylvia sobs. “They found my initials on her cheeks, so they’re bringing in any girl with my initials for interrogation. I was so scared! I didn’t do it, but what if they find me guilty? How can I live up to my expectations? How can I live up to you?”

Maho holds her cheeks between her hands. “By trusting in me, like you always have. You’re a wonderful person, Sylvia. You’d never do something like this. I won’t ever let you take the blame.”

Sylvia sniffs. “If only that would hold up in court as an argument.”

“I won’t let this get to a court. I’ll protect you to the end, because I love you.”

And right in front of me, they share a kiss. Heat rises through my body. Absolutely unforgiveable. I cannot let them do this. I cannot let Sylvia defile her like this! I need to end this.

They break their embrace and stare into each other’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” says Sylvia. “I was such a fool.”

“You can’t be a fool for worrying. You’re only sweet and tender.”

Sylvia giggles. “By the way, who’s that?” She gestures over to me.

Maho smiles at me. “A sweet girl who offered me a shoulder to lean on when there was none other.”

Sylvia examines me, and her eyes pop wide with recognition. “Wait, I know you! You’re the girl from the café!”

I turn around. “I suppose I should go.”

She grabs my wrist. “No, no, no. I thought you were some weirdo back then, but you’ve shown yourself true. You really care about Maho.” She gives a faint smile. “How about we all have dinner in your room tonight, Maho? With Lola being… being…”

Maho hugs her again. “Don’t force yourself.”

She sniffles. “All right. But I’ll bring a few microwave meals and tea. I’ll even spike the tea a little. Lola would have appreciated that.”

I need to make sure to avoid the tea. “I’ll bring a dessert.”

I rummage through the kitchen for some sort of thing to bake. That little pink haired girl is there as well, trying to make a Boston Cream Pie. Every move she makes irritates the crap out of me. It’s like she’s doing it as small as possible, and is trying to avoid any contact with me. Like when I use the sugar, she simply waits for me to finish and put it away without even saying a word. Before long, I’ve had it.

I check around for any security cameras or hidden measures. Finding none, I pull open an oven and pull out the grates. I turn the temperature up to max, and grab my cupcake batter.

The girl peers inside curiously. “Oh, right,” I laugh. “How am I going to cook cupcakes without a rack?”

I grab the girl and shove her it. She cries out as the 500 degree coil touches her bare skin. Burnt flesh smells poison the room, and I can see the black marks lacing against her legs. But I only laugh. “I suppose I’ll have to cook a little girl instead.”

I force the door closed and lock it. Her screams are muffled through the oven, and she pounds against the door – even though her hand must burn from the effort. It is only about 20 agonizing seconds until her cries die down, and her life fades away.

“Now, let’s take care of those cupcakes.” I open up another oven and get to work.

I can’t be happier with how this turned out. Each cupcake is perfectly frosted and decorated, and I think I even managed to get the burnt flesh smell out of them. I really worried when smoke started to come out of the oven, but that was when I realized it was Pluto’s oven which was burning. Fire engulfed her body and while it would’ve been nice to let it finish its job, it’d be really bad if she set the fire alarm off.

What’s with these selfish Maids? Don’t they know to not set the fire alarm off when they burn?

So, I use my Skadia to destroy the rest of her body and hum silently to myself as I put the last sprinkle on. I think I’ll go with a blue dress. After all, Maho and I belong together with our shades of blue hair. Purple is not allowed.

I head up the stairs. Maho and Sylvia are happily chatting behind closed door, but I know I have a more important task to do than spend some time chatting with them. It’s time for me to get rid of this Sylvia problem for good. It’s time for me to claim Maho as my own both now and forever.

Sylvia’s room is empty, of course. I drop down with my rope and begin to set up my plan. As I suspected, she really does have a thing for crosses. Her entire side of the room is decorated with the stupid things. Just because it’s her last name doesn’t mean she has to get so into them. The things are terrifyingly morbid.

I tighten the last knot and tuck it under her bed. This is perfect. I dust off my gloves and erase the last possible fingerprint before returning to my room.

The sirens go off midway between our dinner. The intercom signs on, and Yuki Minase reports, “All students are to return to their rooms immediately. I repeat, all students are to return to their rooms immediately.” I suppose this means they discovered about Pluto.

I sigh. “Such a shame,” I say. “Well, let’s do this again tomorrow.” I eye the empty bed in Maho’s room. I wonder if they’d let me move in with her after all of this. I mean, she has to be living alone, right? Nobody could make their own bed that neat. We need to be neat for our masters, not ourselves.

I return back to my bedroom and hope everything will magically resolve itself overnight. I pray to those stupid crosses that one of them will grant me my wish.

The funeral catches everyone but me by surprise. Maho stands next to me, unable to stop sobbing. She clutches at her chest, since her heart has been torn asunder.

I almost feel sad myself. Everyone in the school loved Sylvia, yet there she was in a solemn casket on stage to be buried. Somewhere off to the side was a casket for a girl named April who apparently had been following her around campus for the past few months.

The matter of death was fairly simple. Sylvia had always had a cross dangle over her at night because it was pretty. It was a light and harmless thing which would float down and tickle her if it fell.

Of course, that wasn’t the case last night. For I had swapped that light hollow cross for a solid iron one with a pointy tip. It was only held up by the thinnest of threads, such that the instant a girl of any real weight – such as Sylvia – flopped on the bed it would snap and the cross would fall. She never stood a chance.

The only thing I had not calculated was her stalker running in and impaling herself on the cross before Sylvia could fully die – at least according to the coroner. I suppose it serves that bitch right. She lived keeping Maho away from me, so she can die and be buried with someone she had tried to keep away from herself. Justice can be poetic at times.

I put my arm around Maho, who gratefully accepts, looking up at the stage as Yuki Minase gives her eulogy. That girl acts like all these girls were so perfect in their lives. She gives tribute to each and every one of them with the same sort of passion, but it’s obvious who the schools favorites are. They didn’t do anything of the sort for Lola, Katherine, and Andromeda. They only cared about keeping them aside so as to not cheapen the experience. Yet this girl apparently is soooo important, she gets her own funeral immediately.

I clench my fist furthest away from Maho. This girl deserved to die. She’s a horrible, horrible selfish person. But I need to put the past in the past. I need to look to my happy future with Maho. There’s nobody else she can pair up with now other than me.

“This wonder girl, Sylvia,” says Yuki Minase, “was a blessing to us all.”

I’m irritated beyond belief. Maybe I have a bit more to take care of.

I head up to the top floors of the dorm after the funeral to Yuki’s room. There is somebody else inside. I knock on the door, waiting for a response.

“Oh, sorry,” calls Yuki. “I’m a bit busy now. Can you come back later?”

As polite and cordial as always. The girls used to always fawn over her in the sub-Lyceum. But I don’t really care about her wants anymore. I only care about her.

I push open the door to see her room – a total masterpiece. As one of the top ranking maids, she has the privilege of the president’s suite – an elaborate dorm room with pure glass on all sides. Even the floor is glass. But of course, we’re not able to see people below, since the dorm juts out here. Instead, we can see all the way down to the beautiful parks and flowers which adorn Lyceum.

“I said I’m busy,” she repeats. “Who even are you?”

She sits in a chair with another girl with a pad of paper and a pen across from her.

“I apologize for Yuki’s rudeness,” says the other girl. “My name is Michiko, and I am a reporter for the local news. I was here on Maid Day, but I don’t seem to think I got your name in my interviews that day. Were you here?”

Nobody notices me. I wasn’t here on Maid Day, no, but she never came here for my Maid Day either. She was probably with the high class elites sipping her tea and causing all sorts of problems.

“… die,” I grumble.

“I’m sorry?” asks Yuki. “I don’t think I got that.”

I shriek. “I said die!” The glass beneath them cracks, and together they fall. Their screams rise up tens of stories, unable to use anything to break their fall. I watch them crash in a splatter of blood on the sidewalk.

That was too easy. Maybe I’m simply getting used to murder. Nothing is as fun as the time I poisoned Lola anymore. I can’t get the same sort of thrill anymore. Maybe I should retire from murder now that Maho is mine.

I skip out of the room and down the stairs, humming with every step. I suppose it’d be safe to the school for us to all sleep in pairs now. After all, everyone who has died recently has been alone in their rooms or the kitchen. It’d be awful if something happened to Maho because she was alone! But of course, I won’t let anything happen to her. She is the only one for me.

I burst into her room, and try to hide my smiles and joy. I don’t need to let her know about my involvement, or anything else. I only need to be a shoulder for her to lean on, and a light in the darkness.

But Maho isn’t in her room. Instead, there is a girl in heavy armor and holding a giant axe on the other bed. Her long white hair is tied back in a ponytail.

“Who are you? Where’s Maho?” I ask.

The girl rises up from the bed. “Maho’s in Kurumi’s room, letting out her feelings from the past few days. They’ve been rough for her, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

Kurumi? I suppose that’s another name to put on my list. Am I last in the world for this girl?

The girl smiles. “As for me, I am Cordelia. I am Maho’s roommate. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Roommate? Does that mean she’s… No! Maho can’t have a roommate! I have to move in with her!

I kick the door closed and pull out my knife. “I’ll have to kill you too, then,” I grumble.

She stares at my knife with realization. “So you’re the one who’s been murdering everyone on campus these past couple of days?”

I smirk. “So I am. And what are you going to do about it? Report it to the discipline committee?”

She clicks her tongue. “You bitch. I am the discipline committee.”

I don’t know how she moves so fast, but the next thing I see is her axe swinging in a wide arc and cutting skin and bone off my neck. It also is the last thing I see.

---

Police Dossier 101-5

Subject: Mirai Hannity

Sub-Lyceum, this letter is to inform you of the dangers of your patented item to attempt to feminize your subjects in an attempt to make them more likely to awaken. It has not been tested sufficiently, and it is very likely that extreme doses will awaken extreme violent tenancies in people when they consume sufficient doses. We found very high levels of the drug in Ms. Mirai Hannity’s bloodstream, and besides that, her brain function seemed to be normal before her death. Please send your drug to the nearest research facility for further testing before continuing use.

Sincerely,

Lt. Commander Sean Hill
[close]

Mirai
[close]

10
This is a little Maho x Pluto story I wrote today which is a bit lewd~ OK, a lot lewd. But, enjoy!

Tried to format it as best as I could. I attached a pdf if you prefer to DL it as I see it~

Part 1
The sun shines down on Lyceum on a beautiful summer day. It seems only yesterday I became a Maid and had my first Maid Day, but it’s actually been closer to a month. After countless balls, and even more missions, my body is wearing down.

I lie on my bed and read through my textbook. The font seems to grow tinier every time I pick it up. But I know it’s still the same time. I adjust my glasses, hoping nobody will bust through my door and see my shame. They must think everything is all right with me. I am their little sister, not somebody to cause them fear.

One day, using these powers is going to leave me blind, if not dead. But I know that is the price I have to pay. I agreed to it when I became a Maid. If it means helping other people, then so be it. Their lives are worth so much more than mine.

A chime rings through my room from the loudspeaker. From the darker tone, I understand this is an official important announcement, not one of the students from the radio club playing music for us to relax.

I take out my ear buds to listen. “Attention, Maids. There will be a required meeting for all Maids at the atrium at sixteen hundred hours. Failure to attend will be considered insubordination and may lead to dismissal.”

An announcement from headmistress Elidia herself! Usually she only gathers us for something of mass importance, so I know not to lollygag in my room if I can help it. She’s going to be waiting for me there along with all the other Maids, so I suppose that nap I had planned for this afternoon is out the window. I tie my pigtails back in place, wipe the dust off my uniform, and run to the atrium.

Hundreds of Maids gather below the headmistress’s platform. Several of her subordinates walk through the aisle and take inventory of the students, making a little check in their books. The subordinate responsible for me hardly needs to take any time to determine who I am. It’s best she knows so I can keep my mouth shut.

“Maids, I have an important announcement,” says the Headmistress. “As of late, we have found many Maids in possession of illicit substances – most notoriously, the compound known as ‘Dust.’”

A hushed whisper spreads between the Maids. I see, this is one of her famous drug speeches. I reach in my pockets for my ear buds to tune her out.

“We’ve managed to trace the origin of these drugs to a woman and two men, although we’re wont to give their names lest they understand their danger. As such, we have decided to give a warning to all Maids instead. You are not to partake in these substances at any cost. Involvement in Dust from this point on will result in the Maid’s dismissal. Do not approach this woman and two men should you see them, as they are to be considered armed and dangerous.”

My heart races. A woman and two men distributing Dust? Could it be Beth? Ken? Jack? No, they’re not here. They’ve moved out with their families and are living a life they’ve dreamed of, so long as they didn’t squander it away with their addictions. Yet at the same time, a part of me long suppressed awakens. My heart is calling out for Beth again. It wants to hear her call me “Sweet Pea” and bake pancakes for me and play video games all day long. It’s like I’m in the beaten and run down house again with them, with naught but a worry of when my next meal would be.

I know I have to pursue this lead. Even if it means running away from my new home, I’m going to have to pursue it.

I wait until nightfall and put up a hoodie. This isn’t so much avoiding detection from others so much as it is to hide my hair. While my body has not matured a day since the day we left, Beth might not recognize me. My eye color changed the day my powers awoke, but I don’t know if she knew me by those. But she knew me as a blonde. She might not recognize me with my newly dyed pink locks. She’d think it cool to see me as a rebel with this hair, but I only did it to match my eyes.

At the bottom of the stairs, I see the Maid I knew would be on the prowl – Cordelia. If the word “danger” is mentioned, she is certain to be on top of it. She grips her axe and storms out the building, her heavy armor shaking the ground as she walks.

I creep behind her. She turns a corner and reaches in a bush, pulling out a hiding Maid. The Maid drops a small package and quakes in her boots.
“Where did you get that?” she demands.

The Maid bursts out crying. “Please! Please! Don’t tell the Headmistress! I don’t want to be sent home!”

“I have no intention to tell her anything unless you keep your lips sealed. Where did you get that?”

The Maid’s skirt gets dirty with moisture. Cordelia rightfully earned her status as one of the three most dangerous girls in the school. Why I’m ranked number one, I’ll never know, for Cordelia quakes me down to my bones.

“Th-The fountain!” she says. “They’re by the fountain!”

Cordelia drops the druggie Maid with a thump. “The fountain, is it? Bounty, here I home!” She charges away from the dorm to the center of the Lyceum.

But I know Beth wouldn’t wait by the beautiful pewter fountain in the middle of the Lyceum. She’s lived her entire life running and hiding where nobody else could see. The girl isn’t referring to that fountain.

Rather, she’s referring to a water fountain. And there is only one water fountain I can think of so out of the way, Beth would hang around there.

I curl around the dorms to the atrium. In the front is the large area the Headmistress gathered us and gave her speech. But in the back is a rather ill maintained area containing a storage shed, a few spare outfits, and yes, a water fountain. It’s mainly meant for when we wish to participate in Maid sports and the like.

The grass brushes high against my socks and some of the naughtier grasses brush into my skirt. I kick them aside to push to the water fountain. There is somebody waiting there for me, and I cannot leave her waiting.

She stands there, a blur under the moon with my poor eyesight.

“Beth!” I call. “It’s me, your Sweet Pea!”

The woman approaches me. Her hair has gotten quite long in the three years since we’ve left – almost curling down to her feet. Beyond that, she’s taken to dying it a crisp cerulean, so she almost looks like…

“How do you get ‘Beth’ out of ‘Maho’?” she asks. I hold my hand to my chest, realizing my mistake. The girl steps closer to me, showing her face in earnest. Her crisp hazel eyes sparkle against the blackness of the night, and she has a perfect smile across her face.

For the girl ranked the second most dangerous in the school, she certainly doesn’t seem too scary. She never seemed anything more than average on our missions, and her demeanor outside missions certainly did nothing to add to that allure.

She stuffs a manga with two men in her coat and pulls my hood back. “I never would have expected my little sister here. Why are you looking for them? Are you looking to take them down on your own? Or are you looking for their Dust?”

I cast my eyes on the ground, not daring to speak a word. Maho and I have always been on casual terms, but it’s not like I can tell her everything here and now. She’s a girl who doesn’t bully me, and nothing more.

Maho ruffles my hair. “I suppose you’re not going to tell me in any case. Come on, I’m taking you back to my dorm for the night. It’s too dangerous for you to be alone out here.”

I want to tell her about my own dorm, but she won’t listen. She is the type of girl who charges forward, no matter what the situation, keeping her eyes on her goal. Beyond that, she always does it with such elegance and grace, well deserved of the Étoile d'Avignon name.

Her room is very much the same as mine – a pair of four poster beds with a desk and a nightstand. But unlike mine, there are several plushies on her bed.

“Go on. They’re comforting,” she says. I lie on her unfamiliar bed and sort through her plushies in hope of finding something normal. Yet then I find—

Maho grabs the pink-haired plushie out of my hands. Her quick reaction confirms my suspicions. “Plushies are cute, all right?” she asks. “And you’re cute. So you can’t blame me!”

I stifle a giggle. This girl really might not be so bad after all.

She places the plushie of me on her desk and pulls open her mini-fridge. “Do you want anything? I have milk, water, and soda.”

It has been years since I last drank a soda. Ever since Beth’s house, I tried to stay away from it lest it bring back memories. But tonight feels different. Tonight, I want to remember her.

Yet I can’t inconvenience Maho, so I keep my mouth shut. She gives a knowing smile and pulls out a can of orange for me.

“Tell me,” she says. “Why were you out there?”

This is bad. She’s pushing me for answers. I hold my hands tight, hoping for the situation to somehow go away. Let her roommate come in and ask what she’s doing with me, or have her decide I’m not worth it.

She sits next to me on my bed. “Do you not trust me?” she asks. “Or is it a secret that you’re trying to hide? Don’t worry, even if you were there to buy dust, I won’t tell on you.”

My mind races. Maybe I can run out of here without a problem. I always manage to run away from my problems, so why can’t I run away from this one? She won’t be able to chase after me.

Maho smiles. “How about we make a trade then? I’ll tell you a secret of mine, and you tell me whether you were there to get the drugs or to chase the perpetrators. Does that sound like a good idea?”

A secret from Maho? Something seems tempting about the prospect. I don’t know what else I can do but agree. I can always lie to her somehow about it. But I want to know more about this girl known as the second most dangerous in the school. I want to become closer to her.

She leans in close to my ear. “I love you.”

I almost faint on the spot. I thought she’d be telling me something about something she does rather unrefined, or something she did in the past which shames her to this day. Yet for her to confess to me, a girl she’s barely talked to, drives me wild. And to add to it, it sends my heart aflutter.

Has she already replaced Beth? No, nobody can replace her. Beth is so much more to me. But I can’t help but gaze into Maho’s eyes and get entranced by them. She’s so tempting and frankly gorgeous, I don’t know how I can ever refuse her confession.

She is blushing a little as she pulls her lips away from my ears. “There, I said it. I don’t know why, but ever since I saw you on Maid Day, I knew we were somehow connected. And every part of your mannerisms spoke to me. I need you in my life, Pluto. I love you. Please go out with me.”
[close]

Part 2
I don’t know what to say. My mind keeps returning to Beth. Even though it’s been three years, I still think of her. I loved her, that much is certain. But did she really want me to become like this? Did she want me to live the rest of my days only thinking of her when she has Ken in the first place? No, she always wished for more for me. She always wished for me to become more than her.

I never really thought of Maho as much more than a person who had a lot of energy and elegance. But I suppose I could try it out. Maybe I could grow to love her, and let my feelings blossom. I lean in and touch my lips to hers. It is for no more than an instant, but it answers her question definitively.

Maho holds her hand over her mouth. “I suppose that’s your answer. Thank you, Pluto. I’m happy.”

I stare at the floor. “Sweet Pea,” I mumble.

She leans in. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?”

“Please call me Sweet Pea.” Ever since Beth left, I can’t help but feel an attachment to the name. If I’m going to love her, she is the one who should use the name.

Maho ruffles my hair again. “Then Sweet Pea it is. Now, for your part of the bargain?”

After what she admitted, I cannot tell her about Beth. I don’t want to hurt myself, and at the same time, I don’t want to hurt her. She needs to believe everything is all right.

“Were you there for the Dust?” she asks.

I can only nod and lie.

Maho shakes her head – not in disappointment, but in sadness. “I cannot let my little sister, or erm, my Sweet Pea fall to evil. I’m glad we’re together, and tomorrow I will show you the joys of life.”

I hold my chest, not sure what to think. A day around Lyceum with Maho? It is a day off, but I’m not entirely sure if I can muster enough energy to keep up with her pace.

“Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” asks Maho.

It’s a bit much to ask for a first night, so I shake my head and take my leave. It is only after I’m halfway down the hall I realize she didn’t mean anything sexual by it.

I pull off my Maid uniform and crawl in bed. It’s not like anyone else is going to come in here any time soon. I have the entire night to myself to do what I please.

My body tingles all over. To think I would have a girlfriend when I place my head on a pillow really gets my blood pumping. I allow my hands to move as they please, feeling whatever part of my body they want. Only by experimenting do you learn what you really like. For instance, my upper thigh on my left leg is really ticklish and I always squeeze it when I feel down on my luck.

But nothing can prevent my hands from wandering between my lips to find my sweet spot. Ever since that first night on Beth’s bed, I don’t think I’ve skipped a day. It’s as if I cannot sleep without it. Despite all the other girls thinking I’m innocent and pure, I’m really a naughty girl to do something like this.

I stuff a sheet in my mouth as the pleasure builds, hoping it’ll stifle my moans and gasps. The tingling spreads well past my thighs and makes a bridge to my undeveloped chest.

Unlike the past million times I did this, I don’t picture Beth. She’s not my love anymore. Maho is my love. I imagine her crawling on top of my in naught more than a teddy, running her fingers up my thigh. I can’t control myself anymore as her fingers slide up, and everything comes to a climax.

I collapse on my bed gasping for air and barely able to keep my eyes open. I reach for a tissue to clean off my fingers and barely manage to place it in its proper container before I fall fast asleep.

Despite my exhaustion from the night before, when I wake up at five in the morning I cannot get back to sleep. I clamor out of bed and throw my uniform on. I probably could use a bath, but at this time in the morning I don’t know if the water even runs. I pull out a novel, put on my glasses, and flip through the pages. Even to this day I enjoy stories of princes rescuing princesses. But why can’t Maho be my prince besides her gender? Or more than that, why can’t a princess rescue a princess?

“Good morning, Sweet Pea!” The door slams open and Maho stands there with a smile beaming on her face. I jump from the sudden motion, making my glasses slide down my face.

My glasses! She doesn’t know about them! I can’t let her see them. I whip them off and stuff them in my pillowcase.

“What is that?” she asks. Too late! She saw them.

I hold up my book to give an answer. But she doesn’t seem to buy it.

“In your pillow, you stuffed something away.” She lowers her eyes. “It’s not dust, is it?”

I tremble at the thought of her discovering a secret this big.

As if through an epiphany, I stop. She broke through all her barrier yesterday to admit her undying love to me. Why can I not give her the truth of something like this? She’s my girlfriend no matter how I slice it, so she should know these types of things.

I pull out my glasses, and heave a sigh. I didn’t crush them. I put them on my face to give Maho her answer.

“You wear them?” She smirks. “It looks cute on you.”

I shake my head and fold them in their proper case.

Maho shrugs. “Well, we all make choices. And I choose to get you all prim and proper before our big date.”

What does she mean prim and proper? I’m in my uniform already. I’d wear a gown, but such behavior is not allowed today when we have visitors on campus.

She pulls me away before I have a chance to resist.

My thoughts about skipping a bath are dashed by Maho. She wastes no time hanging up an alternative color uniform for me and throwing off my old one. Somehow, being naked in front of her doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Yet she’s a bit slower to remove her own clothes and reveal her more developed body to me. Even naked, she’s refined.

“Have to be clean for a date!” Maho laughs. She pulls me to the bath and won’t even let me wash myself. Her slender fingers rub the soap along my curves, and wipes it down as soon as it sets in. As she slides along my collarbones, I can’t help but close my eyes and enjoy the soothing sensations through my body.

“Sweet Pea?” Maho asks in the distance. “Sweet Pea, are you there?”

I flutter my eyes open. Maho is out of the bath and in a uniform with bright red buttons and long black sleeves. Did I fall asleep?

I pull myself out of the bath, at first a bit surprised by my own nakedness. Maho cannot help but laugh at my situation.

“Come on, let’s get you dried off.” She rubs the water off my body with a soft pink towel. I am ever thankful she lets me put my own uniform on. It’s different than the usual pink one, with extra ruffles in the sleeves and blue lace crossing the front. I haven’t worn something this refined since I lived with my parents. This is what Beth would have called “expensive clothes.”

Maho pulls me back to my room and turns me away from her. It is there I see the clock. 11 in the morning already? How long had I been asleep?
But Maho doesn’t seem to mind. She whips a thick hairbrush out of nowhere and gives me a handheld mirror. “Oh, my, your hair won’t do at all! Look at all these knots.” She runs her brush through my loosened hair, taking care of every last swapped strand. With her elegant hands she ties a pair of black ribbons in, making them more cute than I’d ever dare. Feeling her fingers so close to me really sends my heart aflutter. I need to calm down. There’s nothing special about this at all. She is only having fun. Seeing her cheery expression in my mirror shows me the truth to my madness, but I still can’t help but feel something more.

I love her, and she loves me. What more can there be than that?

When Maho approves of my dress, hair, and body, we leave the dorm hand in hand. She carries her parasol – I think she calls it Joyeuse – with her as we descend the steps to the Lyceum proper.

Maids are all out and about, enjoying their day off. A few have even started up a game of cricket. While I never understood the rules, I would enjoy sitting in the distance to watch them play. Yet today I’m with Maho, and that makes all the difference.

We settle down at a café. “Order anything you like.” She pulls out a credit card. “And don’t worry about the price. My dad is paying for this.”

I remember another time when I used my dad’s credit card without permission. But Maho has full permission, I’m sure. She’s from a rich and noble family, after all.

I settle for a plate of fresh salmon and Maho goes for a chicken breast. She leans on her hands and stares in my eyes. “So tell me a little about yourself.”

I freeze up, unable to speak. What is there to tell about me? I’m no more than a simple Maid who once ran away from home. I shake my head, completely blanking on what I can say to her about it.

The waiter saves me by stepping in with our food. As I had requested, he brought me a soda despite his insistence of pairing a glass of milk with it. Maho had no such trouble with water.

She swirls her glass before taking a sip, as if she is tasting a fine wine. “Impeccable.” She lifts her utensils with perfect manners and eats exactly like I would expect a fine lady to eat. She’s everything my mom had ever dreamed me to be and then some. But she wouldn’t care even if I became her.

I shouldn’t think such sad thoughts right now. There are more important things in this world, like the fine lady in front of me now.

Maho takes another bite. “I understand. There’s nothing really remarkable about me either. I need to be perfect, so that’s what I strive to be. But being perfect can be remarkably boring.”

She places her utensils down and smiles. “But don’t worry. We’re going to have a lot of fun this afternoon. Tell me, do you drink tea?”

I have, but it’s not exactly something I find too exciting. It’s not like beer or soda. Tea is simply boring, and that is all there is to it. I shake my head to give the best answer I can.

Maho smiles. “Then you can come join me for my tea time at two. It helps to try some new things once in a while. And then maybe tonight we can drink something you like together. I have plenty of soda, if that is what you wish.”

I don’t know what to say. I suppose that would make a lovely evening. I nod along, and she rises from her seat. “For now, I feel like a walk through Lyceum with my princess. Does she care to join me?”

I take her outstretched arm and follow her lead. Lyceum has many pathways which seemingly lead nowhere. Their official use is to train us for navigating caves and tunnels, but on a day like today, they are a pathway of love. Several couples join us in our meander through the pathways with no aim, and only being happy to be in each other’s company.
[close]

Part 3
Maho checks her watch as we round the bend. “1:50. I suppose it is time we return to the dorms for tea.”

She is surprising precise with this. I suppose I’ll have to deal with having tea today. It’s not that I hate the stuff – it’s just not my drink of choice. But if Maho wants it, I am more than willing to oblige. I’ll do anything to make her happy.

Something charges up to Maho, with her silver hair flowing behind her. Cordelia slams the butt of her axe on the ground. “Maho, I think I have a lead on the dealers around campus! We have to leave now if we want to catch them.”

Maho curtsies. “My apologies, but you’ll have to apprehend them yourself. My tea is calling me.”

“This isn’t the time for tea. We have to do our duties as Maids and defend this world from evil! We have to apprehend the criminals!”

“And I’m sure you’ll do a marvelous job with it. Now, if you excuse me.” She steps aside to move past Cordelia, but Cordelia isn’t having it.

“Don’t think about it,” says Cordelia. “Your tea can wait.”

“No it can’t. It’s almost two.”

Cordelia grabs Maho’s arm. I don’t think she even knows I exist. “I’ll drag you there if I have to.”

Maho narrows her eyes. “You dare get between my tea and me?”

“I do when there’s a good reason.”

Maho holds her parasol out. “Unforgiveable! You must be punished!”

I learned two things from that confrontation. First, the reason why Maho is considered the second most dangerous person in the school, and not Cordelia. Second, how nobody shall ever get between Maho and her tea.

I check Cordelia’s pulse to verify she’s still alive before following Maho to the dorms.

Almost like clockwork, Maho takes her first sip of tea when the cuckoo clock jumps out to signal it is two in the afternoon. I don’t know how she managed to get back to the dorm and make it in time even with the delay, but she never rushed once. We kept a leisurely pace befitting a noble lady and her partner.

I take a hesitant sip of the tea. Earl Grey? I suppose it’ll have to do. I half expected someone like Maho to try some sort of exotic herbal teas which would cause me to hallucinate.

Maho fades into her own world and loses focus of everything else surrounding her. She reaches in her bag and pulls out the manga from before with the two men on it. I squint to read the title, since it’s too far to see without my glasses. Two sausages in a party? That sounds a little too risqué for me.

It is nice to relax a while after all the excitement from earlier. Maho takes another sip of her tea and the minutes pass by.

She ends her ritual at exactly 2:30. “Well, now that we’ve had our fun, let’s hit the streets.”

I cannot tell you how many fun things she showed me that afternoon. Between rowing a swan boat through the lake to eating from the same swirl of cotton candy to taking photos of ourselves in a photo sticker booth, the two of us did it all.

We laugh as I sort through the stickers.

“Why aren’t you smiling in any of these?” she asks.

I simply didn’t feel like smiling, that’s all. There’s nothing to smile about to a camera which doesn’t react or understand your emotions. It’s an inanimate object.

A few policemen pull a trio of people past us. Since the bruised Cordelia is following them, I can only assume they are the drug dealers. To my despair, they are not the two men and one woman I had hoped. These three are much older and much closer to death than those three ever had been.

“You look sad,” says Maho. “Do the drugs really mean that much to you?”

I shake my head. It’s better for her to believe a misconception than to know the truth. Everything is much better that way.

We return to my room where Maho lies on my bed. “Well, a deal’s a deal,” she says. “I promised to drink anything you wanted me to, so here I am. Pop your toughest bubbly on me!”

I walk up to the refrigerator and reach in for one of the cans of soda I kept in reserve in case I ever decided I wanted to try it again. But as I wrapped my hands around it, I realized I wanted to do more. I didn’t want to sit around drinking soda with Maho. I wanted to let her know just how much I love her, and how much I used to love Beth.

When I had the motivation to show Beth my love, it was the only time I had ever directly consumed Dust. The dealers had been arrested, but it still is a mind altering drug. If I alter Maho’s mind in some way, maybe we can show each other our true feelings that much better.

I close the refrigerator and open my closet. In the back is a pair of bottles, given to me from my dad when I entered Lyceum. He had said, “We probably will not see you again, so this is for when you graduate and retire. Please don’t use them until you’re old enough.”

But I never obeyed him before, so I don’t know why I would now. I took out one of the bottles of wine as well as a tall tumbler – since I never bought a wine glass before. The deep purple liquid fills up the sides of the glass, and I smile as the sweet aroma fills my nostrils. Beer had been awful, but maybe wine would taste a lot sweeter.

Maho nearly jumps when she sees the glasses of wine in my hand. “Sweet Pea! You’re far too young for that.”

But I do not stop and lay her glass on the nightstand.

She stares at it, realizing my unspoken words. “Well, aren’t I an idiot for promising to drink anything you wish. But, a lady must keep her promises, so if this is what you want, I shall do it.” She closes her eyes and gracefully lets the liquid drip flow out of the cup and down her throat. I try to mimic her, but it’s really difficult. It is as if she has practiced drinking wine for years. I feel almost guilty for making her drink it out of such a plain glass instead of a goblet.

Wine really is so much better than the beer from that house. It tastes much better, even if it does burn a bit more. It’s not long until it hits me, and my world gets a bit fuzzier than usual.

Maho holds my hands. “Maybe the wine was a bad idea, but don’t you see now?”

I cock my head, unsure what she’s saying.

“You don’t need Dust in your life. As long as you have someone you love, it is all the drug you need. You’re too pure and innocent to use those sorts of things. So I hope when you find someone who loves you, you’ll remember our practice session today.”

She gets off the bed and walks to the door. She’s halfway there when I realize the weight of her words.

“Wait!” I shout.

She wobbles a bit before turning around. “Yes, Sweet Pea? Or I suppose I should call you Pluto now.”

My eyes moisten faster than I can imagine. “That’s it? It was nothing more than a practice session? We were faking it the entire time? No, I can’t accept that.” I get off my bed and grip my chest. “My love for you is real! Maho, I love you, and I want to be with you forever.”

Maho drops her hand. “You mean you never realized it was fake?”

“It wasn’t fake. It was real. You loved me too. You wanted the best for me, and wanted to take me around because you love me. If I’m wrong, please, leave my room so I can cry. But if I’m right, I don’t want to be alone tonight. I want to be side by side with the girl who washed my back and took me on such a romantic walk.”

Maho sways a bit. “Oh, who am I kidding?”

She runs to me and practically tackles me on the bed. If there were a competition to get each other’s clothes off, we would be gold medalists.

“You know you’re beautiful,” says Maho.

But I don’t respond, and instead lock my lips on hers. I let my hands slide to her breasts – far more developed than my own, and play around with them. I take every chance I can to brush past the nipple. Maho’s eyes widen a bit when I do, but she can’t say anything because I won’t let her mouth go.

Moisture forms between my legs, but that’s not all. Something drips on them. Maho’s really enjoying this, isn’t she? Despite all her ladylike mannerisms, she really is a dirty girl in the end, and has needs like all the rest of us.

I let go of her lips, and she blushes. “Please, it’s my first time.”

I run her thigh. “It’s mine too. But it should feel much better than doing it to yourself.”

She averts her eyes. “That’s not proper. I’ve never done it to myself either.”

Some devil awoke in me. “Then you don’t know what you’re missing out on.”

I plunge my finger deep inside her. I ignore all her protests and tear away at the barrier keeping her from true pleasure. Feeling her juices around my fingers is almost enough to put me over the edge alone, but she won’t let me climax on just that. Her soft finger run across the part of my thigh I love so much and dives inside me. I muffle a moan and play around inside her.

It isn’t long until I realize what’s happening. What I do to her, she does to me. For the first time in my life, I am the leader, and she follows. It feels strange, but at the same time, it feels so right.

We sweat together in each other’s arms, and before long we can no longer hold our voices back. I would not be surprised if the entire of Lyceum heard us screaming in a backbreaking climax a few minutes later, happy together at last.

I wake up the following morning with a bit of a headache, but I can ignore it because of the sleeping beauty next to me. Her long cerulean hair covers most of her features, but it’s not a big deal. I can see them any time I want from now on. She is mine, and I am hers.

Maho opens her eyes as soft and elegant as the princess she emulates. “Good morning, my Sweet Pea.”

I break down in tears, but these are tears of joy. Maho isn’t going to leave me after all. It wasn’t the alcohol that made us do what we did. She is really mine.

She stretches. “Do you know why you are considered the most dangerous girl in school?” she asks.

I shake my head. If anything, I’m a bit below average. Compared to Maho’s rampage or Cordelia’s axe, I’m nothing.

She brushes the hair out of my face. “Because you have the power to bend anyone’s heart as you choose. That alone is strong and more dangerous that tea, axes, or the like. Look what you did to me!”

I hold my hands together, a bit nervous. It’s like she’s accusing me of something terrible.

She looks in my eyes. “Do you regret it?”

I don’t need to think about it. “No. I love you.”

Maho smiles. “I figured you say that, because I do too.” We wrap our arms around each other and share another long and happy kiss that not even Dust can replace.
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11
Introduce Yourself! / Your cookies are mine.
« on: June 21, 2017, 07:56:12 pm »
Hiya. I like to go by the name of Megan, though I am a MtF transsexual, so if you prefer to call me a "he" until I get the surgery, that's totally cool.

I'm a writer, and I might, or might not, post some random things here and there. You can see a lot of what I write at http://meliran.deviantart.com/ (Warning: Lots of male to female genderbender stories~)

Came here knowing Revo, and hoping to have some fun~

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