Karen was never going to school again.
She'd made sure to tell Jiiya about it, too. He'd said she was being "exceptionally unladylike" and tried to convince her she HAD to go because she was in Japan (that was what "mandatory" meant, apparently). Well, that was no problem. She'd just have to go live somewhere else. Probably England, since it was a little island like Japan-if she went someplace really big like America, Mommy and Daddy might not be able to find her when they came home, and that would be terrible.
The hard part was going to be getting there. Karen wasn't big enough to drive a car yet, so she'd have to get Jiiya to take her to the airport, and he still thought she should go to school. It wasn't his fault, though-just he was a grown-up, and grown-ups thought school was fun. At least he was being nice and trying to cheer her up, taking her out shopping with him.
"Where are we going?" she asked, as she pushed the seatbelt strap out of her way. It was so annoying how it kept going in front of her face.
"To a very old store," Jiiya answered from the front seat, "that specializes in traditional Japanese sweets."
"Like the mamedaifuku from a few days ago?" That had been good. She'd been trying it for the first time, as something special to celebrate starting school...
"I'm not going back to school," Karen said again, folding her arms. Jiiya just didn't get it sometimes. "Not even if you give me all the snacks in the world."
"I understand, m'lady," he said back, smiling. He always smiled when she told him he was wrong. She guessed it was because when she told him how things really were, he learned something new. Karen liked learning, so it made sense that Jiiya liked learning, too.
The car stopped near an old-looking building. Well, he'd said it was old, right? "Here it is," Jiiya said. "Akimoto Confectionery."
Karen looked at the building as Jiiya got out of the car and walked over to open her door. The sign said Akimoto, all right. It was a lot smaller than her house or even the school, but stores tended to be pretty small anyway, since they only needed a few rooms. And anyway, it started looking bigger as she and Jiiya crossed the street together.
"Good afternoon, Sakamoto-sama!" said a loud voice from right in front of them as soon as the door opened. Before she knew it, Karen had grabbed onto Jiiya's leg and buried her face in the side of his thigh.
"Good afternoon, Madoka-chan. You're working in the store again?" Jiiya said. Karen turned to look at the person he was talking to. It was a bigger kid, probably at least ten, with short green hair.
"I'm just watching it for a minute and keeping an eye on Komachi," 'Madoka-chan' said. Then she looked at Karen. "Aww, she's so cute! Is this Karen-chan?"
Karen ducked behind Jiiya.
"M'lady hasn't been having a very good day." (You make it sound like I just scratched my finger or something, Karen wanted to say.) "Anyway, will your father be back soon, or-"
Madoka interrupted him. "I can help you!" she proclaimed, as if she was saying she'd learned how to fly. "I mean, uh, what may I do for you today?"
Jiiya walked over to the counter with the big girl, leaving Karen standing there in front of the door.
She was going to just stay right there, but she forgot all about that when she looked around the store and saw something interesting: another girl, sitting over in the corner looking at a plant. She had green hair too, but she was smaller than Madoka... about Karen's size, actually. She was coloring something, but Karen couldn't tell what.
So naturally, Karen had to ask. First, though, she'd have to introduce herself. She walked up behind the other girl, and said "Hello. My name is Minazuki Karen. What's your name?"
Maybe she couldn't hear very well. "Hello!" Karen said again, louder this time.
"Aah!" The other girl jumped up in the air, dropping her paper and her crayons. She turned around faster than Karen knew was even possible and said "I'm sorry! I didn't notice you were there!" almost as fast.
Karen could see the other girl's face now. She looked a lot like Madoka, except that she was littler and she was blushing a lot. She felt like she'd seen her before somewhere else, too. "You must really like that plant," Karen said. It was a silly thing to say and she felt stupid about it as soon as she said it.
"I was just thinking," said the other girl. "I don't notice things a lot when I'm thinking about something." She looked over at the counter. "Are you... Sakamoto-san's daughter?"
"Whaa?" Now, that was silly. "Jiiya isn't my daddy. Jiiya is Jiiya. He takes care of me when my mommy and daddy are away."
"Oh." That seemed to make sense to the green-haired girl. "I'm Akimoto Komachi," she said. "What's your name?"
"Minazuki Karen. Pleased to meet you." Karen held her hand out, and Akimoto-san shook it.
"So are your parents out shopping, or something?" Akimoto-san asked as she sat back down.
"They're on tour." Just like they had been since forever. "That means they go around to different places and play music for lots of people, and they're gone a really, really long time. They might not even get back until Christmas."
"Oh. Don't you miss them?" Akimoto-san asked, looking worried.
"So much. I wish they could be here right now," was what Karen wanted to say. She also wanted to cry. Instead, though, she said "I'm all right. After all, I have Jiiya," as she sat down next to the green-haired girl.
"You don't look-"
"Can we talk about something else?"
But then they didn't, and instead they just stared at each other for a little bit, before Akimoto-san finally came up with "I saw you at school today."
Was that why she looked familiar? Had she seen her at school? "I don't think I remember you," Karen said. "I'm sorry."
"That's okay. There were so many people, I don't think anyone remembered anyone."
"You remembered me."
Akimoto-san blushed again. "That's... 'cause I noticed you."
"Noticed me?" Karen blinked.
"Yeah." She counted out two reasons on her fingers. "I noticed you first because of your blue hair. Then I saw you, and I thought you were pretty, so I remembered you."
Karen already knew she was pretty. Jiiya told her all the time, and so did her parents. But she still felt her face get hot. "Thank you."
"I also remember you looked scared."
"Of course," Karen said, folding her arms again. "It was scary." But she couldn't look at Akimoto-san anymore. Somehow it was embarassing to think this girl knew she was scared.
Akimoto-san blinked. "How was it scary?"
Wasn't it obvious? "There were too many people. They just kept talking at the same time and sometimes shouting. Some of them suddenly ran up at me out of nowhere. It was like everyone was crazy."
"Do you think I'm crazy?" Akimoto-san asked, looking sad.
Karen realized she'd said something that didn't sound like what she meant. "No, no!" she said. "You're not crazy. You're nice."
"Thank you." She blushed again. Akimoto-san sure blushed a lot. "But isn't it normal for people to talk a lot when there are lots of them?"
Karen hadn't thought about that. "I guess it makes sense." Now she was blushing again. She felt silly. But... why would she feel silly? "I just didn't expect it. I never really saw a lot of people at once before, so I didn't know how it works."
"That's all right, Minazuki-san. It's all right to not know-" Akimoto-san stopped talking even though it didn't sound like she was done. Had she just figured something out? "I used to be scared of Sakamoto-san."
"You what?" Scared? Of Jiiya?
"When he first started coming here. Most of the customers didn't really pay attention to me. But Sakamoto-san would always come up and talk to me when he saw me, and then he would talk to Mommy or Daddy about me. I thought he was going to buy me and take me away."
Karen wondered if maybe she could buy Akimoto-san, and have her come live at her house. Maybe for her birthday. "Jiiya wouldn't buy you! He's already got me, and he says I'm quite a handful."
Akimoto-san blushed yet again. "But I didn't know that."
"So when did you stop being scared of him?"
"Well, I talked to Daddy about it. He said I shouldn't be scared of the customers taking me away because I had him and Mommy and Madoka-neesan to protect me, and that Sakamoto-san was a nice person and I just needed to get used to him."
"Oh." Of course, that made sense.
Akimoto-san smiled. "So maybe you just need to go to school some more and get used to it."
It made sense, but... "But I don't have anyone to protect me, like you do. I have Jiiya, but he doesn't come to school with me."
"Hmm." Akimoto-san thought about this for a second, then grinned. "I'll protect you, Minazuki-san!"
"Yeah!" She stood back up. "If anyone tries to do something bad to you at school..." She pointed off at the wall. "In the name of the Moon, I'll punish them!"
Karen giggled. That just sounded silly in real life. But Akimoto-san said it really well, didn't she? "That was good!"
"Thanks." Karen wasn't surprised to see she blushed again.
"Well, your family won't be at school with you either, right? So I'll protect you, too."
More blushing. Karen wondered if people sometimes thought she just had a red face. "But, um, Minazuki-san?"
"You can just call me Komachi if you want. Especially since Madoka-neechan is here too. It would be confusing if you kept just saying Akimoto-san."
"All right." Komachi-san it was, then. "Well, you can just call me Karen, then, so it's fair."
Komachi-san smiled. "Okay, Karen!"
Karen had meant she could call her Karen-san, but she didn't say anything. There was something nice about how it sounded when she said "Karen" all by itself. She guessed that meant she could call her just Komachi, too.
"So what were you drawing, Komachi?" Karen asked, trying it out. It was kind of a weird feeling-there wasn't anyone she just called their name by itself, not until now. It felt good, though.
"Oh!" Komachi looked surprised-had she forgotten about the drawing? She squatted down and picked it up, then sat back down next to Karen and showed it to her. There was a big green shape with lots of little stick people on it. "It's the little people who live on the plant."
Karen looked at the plant. "I don't see any little people on the plant."
"They work hard every day to keep the leaves clean. When bugs land on the leaves, it's so they can take away the trash from cleaning the leaves."
"Huh." Karen looked at Komachi. "That's a good story."
"I like to make up stories," Komachi said. "I think I could write books someday."
"That's a good idea."
Suddenly, another voice cut in-Jiiya's voice. "M'lady, I am truly sorry to interrupt, but we must be going now."
"Already?" Karen wanted to stay and talk to Komachi some more.
"What I came here for is done now, and has been for some time," Jiiya said, smiling for some reason. "And I think we should leave before I cause young Madoka-chan any more trouble." He looked back over at the counter, where the cash register was going crazy printing a really long receipt. Madoka was panicking and hitting different buttons to try to stop it.
Well, that was that, then. "Okay." She turned to Komachi. "I'll see you at school tomorrow."
"Okay! Bye!" Komachi said, smiling and waving.
After they walked out, while they were walking back across the street to the car, Jiiya asked, "So who was that?"
"That was Komachi," Karen said. Shouldn't he know this already? "She's really nice, and she likes to make up stories."
"I see." Jiiya smiled again. "And did I hear you say you would see her at school tomorrow?"
"That's strange." Jiiya was still smiling as she helped Karen get into the car. "I thought you were never going to school again."
"No, of course I'm going to school! Otherwise how would I see Komachi again?" Karen said, folding her arms. Jiiya just didn't get it sometimes.