Maya Yamato considered herself a very patient woman. After all, in her line of work, she had to be; a misplaced word or a frayed temper could spell doom for more than just herself. So, yes: she could wait, and she could listen, and she could go wholly silent and unnoticed the whole time.
“You know what I think?”
But even her patience had its limits.
“ Yes , Hina, I know what you think.” she grumbled, trying not to turn away from the stage equipment she was busy nailing together. “Over the past few weeks you have made literally every single thing you think abundantly clear. I assure you, I most definitely know what you think.”
Hina cocked her head and smiled. “I think you need to rest.”
“What? I...” she glanced up at the wall clock, her eyes unexpectedly heavy. “...yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” Of course she was right. That was why Chisato had hired her, after all. She was always right.
Maya sighed and stood, her shift backstage having long since ended without her noticing. “I- sorry. I shouldn’t have- what I said- ahem. ” She adjusted her glasses. “I’m sorry.”
“Mm-hm.” Hina acknowledged her apology with a smile and a nod, the kind that would have made Maya suspect that maybe she wasn’t listening. But she’d made that mistake before, and she wouldn’t make it again - as long as Hina Hikawa is nearby , she’d told Eve during one of their mentoring sessions, no matter what she may seem to be doing, assume she’s listening on tenterhooks to every word you say .
Eve got along with Hina far better than she did. That didn’t surprise her - Eve got along with everybody far better than she did - in fact, basically everybody got along with basically everybody else far better than she did - but something about those two together… uneasy wasn’t the word. Tetchy as she could get, she’d come to like them too much for that, even in the short time she’d known them. But they certainly had an… energy to them.
She really hoped Chisato knew what she was doing.
Speak of the devil.
“Ah! Miss Shirasagi!” Maya glanced around suddenly - she’d somehow made her way to the theatre’s entrance already… coat? ...Yes, she’d gotten her coat at some point, apparently… this always happened. She really needed to stop getting so lost in her thoughts, to pay more attention to the world around her…
“Ah! Miss Shirasagi!”
“You’re doing it again.” Chisato smiled, as ever, but this one seemed at least a touch more genuine than the usual.
“I, ah… huhehe … I know, I’m trying to work on it…”
“Honestly, Maya… you really must have your head in the game if we’re to pull this off.”
A nervous twitch of Maya’s brow. Had she forgotten something? “Pull what off?”
“The play, of course. What else?”
“...Of course! What else, huhehe …”
Chisato nodded, thereby declaring this part of the conversation to be at an end. “Now, about Eve. How is she adjusting to life here? I believe she’s staying with you until she can find accommodation of her own?”
“Ah… yeah. Yes. That’s right. She’s, ah, she’s adjusting really well, actually! She’s very enthusiastic, but, ah, that’s good! I think. I think that’s good, is… yeah. It’s going well.”
“That’s good to hear. And I trust you’re learning from her, as well?”
How to handle a sword, how to fight - that’s what she was getting at, right? “Ah… a little, here and there…”
“Excellent.” A tilt of the head - a command. “In that case, I have a job for you two.”
* * *
Tomoe grumbled impatiently as Himari waved her finger around in front of her face, the magical light glowing at the end of it almost painful in the darkened room.
“What’s the point of this, exactly?”
“Testing your senses.” Himari murmured. “One of the telltale signs of lycanthropy is enhanced… no, sorry, not enhanced, it didn’t say enhanced, it said… it said altered . It said one of the telltale signs of lycanthropy is altered senses. If you’re a werewolf, your eyes should react differently to this light to how they would normally.”
“...Well then, how would my eyes react normally? My normal, non-werewolf eyes.”
“...Hopefully the way they are now?”
“You don’t actually have any idea what you’re looking for, do you.”
“I- I thought I did! I thought… ugh . You’re right.” She sighed, snuffing out the light. “I guess I’ll--”
Ran opened the door without waiting for a response. “Hey, are you… why are you two just sitting in the dark?”
“Sure.” She said flatly, stepping into the quarters, shutting the door behind her, and throwing open the curtains, letting the orange evening sunlight flood the room. “Anyway, Moca’s cleared to leave tomorrow morning, so we’re shipping out tomorrow morning, by which I mean you’re all getting kicked out and I’m sneaking out with you.”
“How?” Tomoe asked. “Like, I know we’ve only been here a couple days, but that teacher lady seems like she’d be kinda hard to get around. She’s… honestly?” She glanced around, checking for spies, “...I think she’s a little scary.”
“Don’t worry about it. She’s all talk. Besides, she can’t be in two places at once. While she’s seeing you off, I’ll sneak out the back.”
“Figuratively.” Ran cut Tomoe off before she could object. “We’ll meet back up at Tsukinomori, that’s not far from here.”
“And what about when they send someone after you again? What do we do then?” Himari crossed her arms, trying her hardest to look stern.
Ran shrugged. “We fight them off. We outsmart them. I mean, we could totally have taken Minato if Mad Dog hadn’t…” She trailed off, frowning. “Look, we’ll figure it out. We can do this. We don’t gain anything from just sitting around up here, right?”
“Good.” She nodded, moving to the door. “You two best get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
* * *
“I warned you that this was a possibility.”
Yukina didn’t respond, instead continuing to stare moodily out of the window into the encroaching night.
“And you call Mitake headstrong.”
“I am not headstrong. I am focused.”
“Focus?” Tsuzuki chuckled ruefully. “Focus brings clarity, and your mind is evidently as clear as soup. If you’d been focused, you would have heeded my word instead of dragging your lover off on this fool’s errand.”
“Whether there was a risk or not, I still brought Mitake back to our doors. I believe that to be worth commending.”
“I suppose.” She sighed, sat heavily behind her desk. “Drink?”
“No, no. It’s just apple juice. The fancy bottle’s for show.”
“...In that case, yes.”
Tsuzuki nodded, poured her a glass and took a deep drink from her own. “...Look at me, Minato. I’m old.”
Yukina didn’t know how to respond to that, and so simply didn’t.
“What was any of this for , really? In the end?” Drink. “I made warriors. Unmatched masters of the sword. Because that’s all I was good at, and I wanted to put something back into the world. But this?” She gestured all around her. “I’m beginning to think it was all a waste.”
“Your teachings have value. They have helped me find purpose in life, and I have no doubt the same is true of many others.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. But what about Mitake? She seems more lost than ever for having come here.”
“Her losing her way is in no way a reflection on you. It is not your fault if she lacks strength.”
“By whose definition?” She poured herself another glass. Yukina was still nursing her first. “Maybe we define strength too narrowly. I mean, look at Imai. She’s unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen here. Not in any qualitative sense, I mean, just… she’s not the kind of person who ever came up here. She’s the kind of person I would consider weak.”
“I saw that. You have something to say?”
“Lisa is not-”
“I know. That’s the point.” She drained her second glass. “Mitake, Imai… god, Wakana … I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe there’s no such thing as weak or strong . Maybe there’s just… different kinds of strength.”
“May I ask what brought this on?”
“Oh, a lot of things. Mitake’s the easy answer, I guess, but… a lot of things.” She carefully placed the stopper back in the bottle. “I’ve made some mistakes in my time. I want to know I haven’t just been training others to repeat them.”
* * *
“A necromancer!?” Eve gasped. It was fairly common practice to gasp upon learning one was to talk to a necromancer, although generally more out of shock or horror than… wanton excitement.
“Uh… yeah.” Maya nodded warily. Eve had a passion for just about everything that bordered on concerning - her eyes darted over to the heap of slashed-up straw training dolls in the corner of her room - but swordplay was one thing, necromancy… Maya had heard the tales. She knew full well to steer clear of that kind of magic, and most other kinds of magic for good measure.
But, well… if Miss Shirasagi commanded…
“I have heard tell of necromancers, but I have never before spoken to one! This is so exciting! I cannot wait!” She bounded up, pulling Maya into the kind of rib-crushing hug she’d been having to become accustomed to.
“Yeah… well, ah…” she pried herself away from Eve, “apparently there’s one living out in the plains a little way past Circle Woods. Seems that trade route’s cleared up lately, so Miss Shirasagi wants us to head out there and bring her this.” An unmarked envelope, sealed with anonymous wax. Eve cocked her head.
“What is that?”
“Dunno. A letter, I’m assuming. Letter or a curse. Maybe a letter about a curse? I… am getting off topic. The point is, she wants me to deliver it, and you to come along for protection.”
“Of course!” Eve nodded enthusiastically. “My very first proper mission! I am so excited! Aren’t you, Maya?”
“Uh… I guess?” She shrugged. “I mean… it’s weird that she’d send me to do it, though. I’m just supposed to be a stagehand?”
“Maybe she wants you to get some fresh air! You do spend an awful lot of time cramped up in that little backstage space…”
“I like being cramped up back there.”
“But it is important to get out once in a while, is it not?”
“...Yeah. Yeah, I guess.”
“Excellent! Then I shall go and prepare!” Eve darted out of the room, off to do whatever exactly ‘preparing’ meant to her in this instance, leaving Maya alone with the letter. She frowned, gently brushed her fingers against the wax seal. Shook her head, put it down. There was no room for doubt now.
Miss Shirasagi had her reasons.
* * *
A soft layer of snow was beginning to twirl down, flakes dancing among themselves, smearing the window Tsugumi stared out of. She’d left Ran to rest back in the room - she couldn’t sleep herself, and didn’t want to risk disturbing her. So she sat alone, in the cold hallway, watching the snow go by.
“Whoa! Sorry, I-”
“God! Where the… heck did you come from?”
Rei raised a hand, took a judicious step back. “Just… wandering. And wondering! What you’re doing up.” She nodded to herself. “Sorry, that was… that felt forced, didn’t it? Like it seemed natural in the moment I was saying it, but like, in retrospect it didn’t really... work at all...”
“...Sorry, what are you doing up?”
“Just… can’t sleep, is all. I have trouble falling asleep in unfamiliar places. New thing I’m learning. Which is… exciting.”
“You know, I don’t claim to be an expert on quests and the people who go on them, but you must be the least enthusiastic quester I’ve ever met.”
“Uh… sorry…?” Tsugumi offered haphazardly.
“No! No, I’m… I’m not judging you. I’m not… I’m not judgy . It’s just… a little odd, is all.”
“I know, I know. I just… I want to go home. Really. More than anything. But I can’t. Not yet.”
“You don’t enjoy travelling with these people?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Rei tilted her head just slightly at the speed of her response. “Is that denial, or protectiveness?”
“I… I’m not denying anything.” She stood firm, unintimidated. “I don’t like to tell lies.”
“Well, that’s certainly admirable. Perhaps…” She trailed off, her eyes wandering to the window over Tsugumi’s shoulder. “Perhaps…”
“There’s someone outside.”
Tsugumi turned, squinted through the glass. “How can you tell? I can’t see a thing…”
“I have very good night vision.” She moved over to the window, trying to get a closer look at the figure - figures? - moving outside, moving closer. “Is that--?”
DOOM DOOM DOOM
Heavy knocks, echoing through the school. Silence responded.
“I’ll get Master Tsuzuki.”
“What should I do?”
“Well, if that’s who I think it is… you should probably hide.”
* * *
Tsuzuki grumbled as she trudged to the front gates, pulling her cloak tight around herself in a rather futile effort to stave off the cold of the bitter mountain night. Even with her limited visibility, she’d already taken careful note of the four people standing across from her - their heights, builds, stances, any information that might be of use in a fight. Short with cat ears, stick-thin with pigtails, tall and blonde. Most of her attention, however, was focused on their apparent ringleader, a tall, skinny man, well-dressed, holding a briefcase.
“Master Tsuzuki!” he said, smile sanguine. “It’s been too long. You know, you haven’t aged a day…”
“Minato. You look like shit.”
“And as charming as ever too, I see.”
“The hell are you doing here?”
“Why, I’ve come to visit my daughter, of course. What else?”
“What’s in the case?”
“Oh, nothing important. Why do you ask?”
“I hear you keep pretty unsavoury company these days. And your cronies don’t exactly look too friendly.” The cat-eared girl practically snarled at that.
“Pay my friends no mind. A man of my standing needs protection in climates like these, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I suppose you are precisely pathetic enough to hide behind children.”
A dispassionate, empty grin. “Are you going to let me in?”
She gauged her options. She could probably take the four of them - probably - but it was unlikely they were acting alone. If she sent them packing, violent and unprovoked, they’d just come back with more. A smarter tack was required. More subtle.
“Very well.” She stood aside. Minato flashed a vicious grin.
“Thank you.” His voice dripped with so much sincerity it could only be insincere as he and his followers filed past Tsuzuki through the gates. Tall and blonde paused beside her at the back of the line, her comrades continuing past her undeterred. Her brow was set in a permanent scowl, but her eyes lacked malice.
“Thank you.” she nodded, so simple and blunt she could only have been sincere.
Tsuzuki responded with only a wary eye as she followed them inside, casting just the briefest of glances above as she closed the doors.
And above, perched on the roof, Rei grimaced.
* * *
“Why have we stopped here?” Maya asked, standing awkwardly next to her horse, parked in the quiet forest town.
“I agreed to deliver this on Hina’s behalf!” Eve chirped, brandishing a small, unmarked envelope, not unlike the one Chisato had entrusted to Maya.
“She just said, ‘the boppin’ house!’”
“Bop… what the heck does that me-”
“Ah!” After a moment’s deliberation, Eve dashed off to one of the houses, not particularly distinct from any other to Maya’s eyes, and hammered on the door. Maya hung back with the horses, trying to avoid any potential awkward glances from the locals.
A tallish, teal-haired woman answered, her bespectacled eyes widening faintly as Eve thrust the letter towards her. Maya would recognise that hair colour anywhere - she must be that sister Hina was always going on about. Saya? No, Sayo. She was too far away to make out what they were saying, but they didn’t talk long, Sayo smiling faintly and bowing as she closed the door, Eve skipping back over.
“Come on. We should get going.”
“Ah, but I would like to stay for a brief snack…”
“Sorry, Eve.” Maya grimaced climbing back onto her horse. “Don’t think it’d be a good idea to keep Miss Shirasagi waiting.”
Eve gave the briefest hesitation. “I suppose not. Let us continue onwards, then! To the necromancer!”
The word sent another jolt of apprehension through Maya’s heart. “Yeah. Onwards.”
* * *
“Yeah, I’m comin’, I’m comin’...” Ran grumbled, trudging towards the furious knocking on her door far too late at night. Tsugumi, wide awake, stood awkwardly to one side, having been rebuffed by Ran upon her own attempt to open the door.
“You need to leave.” Rei commanded, pushing her way in and shutting the door behind her the moment it opened.
“...Yeah, I know, I was…”
“No.” Rei shushed her. “You need to leave now. They’ve found you.”
Ran’s gaze sharpened. “Who’s found us?”
“Homunculus…?” Ran frowned. “...You mean that girl from Hanasakigawa?”
Rei nodded. “She’s here, now. I don’t know if she knows for certain you’re here but you need to be gone before she sees you.”
“Right.” Ran was already gathering her things, gesturing for Tsugumi to do the same.
“I’ll-” she started, before being cut off again.
“ I’ll go tell the others.” Rei interrupted pointedly. “Don’t worry, your friend in the infirmary already knows, you can rendezvous with her at the south exit once you’re prepped. You need to be getting ready too. If they want Ran, then they’ll want the rest of you too by association.”
“Right. Yes. Yes, of course.” Tsugumi nodded, still hesitating.
“Don’t worry.” Rei smiled serenely, her hand on the door handle. “You’ll make it out. You all will.”
* * *
“No, you need to-”
“No, it’s- really, come on, it’s fine!”
Dr. Ohta stepped back, too busy to argue further, letting Moca limp off to gather her possessions.
“How’s Ran doing?”
“I don’t know.” Ohta said simply, shuffling files and tools to make sure anything of value was hidden, just in case. “I’m sure she’ll be up for you shortly.”
Moca didn’t respond, just grunting uncomfortably as she hoisted her bag off of the floor and onto her shoulder.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Course.” Moca nodded, adjusting the strap, trying to take a little of the pressure off. “Course I am.”
“Great. Now wait here for your friends, we can’t have you being spotted.”
“Nah, nah.” Moca waved her hand dismissively. “She said south exit, gotta get there quick. And don’t worry, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve~” she winked, tugging on her cuff.
“Moca.” Ohta turned, face set, voice stern. “You can’t be using too much magic right now. That whole business took a lot out of you, and-”
“Okay, okay~” Moca chimed, already melting into the shadows. “I won’t~”
And then she was gone, moving invisibly among the darkened shadows of the school, leaving Ohta to grumble by herself.
* * *
“I assume you want to be taken to my office.” Tsuzuki grunted dismissively as she marched her guests through the halls of her school.
“Not at all. Well, not myself, at least.” Minato grinned, waving his hand about irritatingly. “I assure you, I just wish to visit my daughter. My associates have some questions for you, I believe, but… well, they may prove far too impatient to wait for so formal a setting.”
“If you keep talking all flowery like that I’m gonna lamp you.”
He stepped back. “I’ll just get out of your hair, then. If you would…?”
She pointed wordlessly to a side hallway, and Minato swiftly disappeared down it. She waited a moment until he was completely gone. “And as for you two?”
“Where is Ran Mitake?” the short one snarled.
Tsuzuki paused only a moment before answering. “Mitake was a student of mine some time ago. As for her whereabouts now, I’m afraid I have no idea.”
“Cut the crap, old lady. We know she’s here. Now tell us where before we tear this whole place down.”
“Go ahead.” Tsuzuki shrugged. “You won’t find her.”
The small girl growled again, then stalked off. She waited another few seconds.
“And you. ”
She turned on her heel, ready to interrogate the blonde, and found she had already gone. Snuck away.
She’d managed to sneak away from her.
“ Shit. ”
And for once, she was genuinely impressed.
* * *
Yukina Minato hummed idly to herself, alone in her quarters, polishing her most favoured blade. She knew who had arrived by now, knew he would be visiting soon, but she paid it no mind. If she harboured any complicated feelings regarding her father’s infrequent visitations, she had buried them so efficiently beneath years of clinical training that even those closest to her could not detect them, no matter how much they may suspect.
How much she may suspect.
The knocking came, polite and rhythmic as ever, just as she finished eradicating a lone, stray fleck of rust, right on the edge of the cross-guard. She did not lay down the sword as she called for him to enter.
Yusei Minato opened the door, a smile warmer than he allowed others to see crossing his features. “Yukina.”
“Father.” Yukina bowed her head stiffly, her expression unchanged.
Yusei sighed softly through his nose. “Are you alone?”
“Good.” He checked the hallway - nothing but shifting shadows as clouds passed over the moon. Satisfied, he closed the door behind him. “Here.”
Yukina set the briefcase handed to her down on her desk, clicking it open to find a large stack of documents, drawings, all sorts of paperwork, very little she could decipher. “What is this?”
“Blueprints, mostly.” Yusei murmured, frowning at his own handiwork. “I barely understand them myself, and I drew the damn things. He’s got me designing all sorts of things - weapons, as far as I can tell, but they’re-”
“Unless you have an unfathomable amount of power… yes.”
“So has he-?”
“Not yet. He’s just making sure he’s ready when he does.”
“I see.” Yukina nodded, regarding the blueprints grimly. “Thank you. I am certain we will be able to make use of this information.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Who’s we?”
“I… am aware of somebody who may be able to decipher these blueprints. I will make certain it is relayed to them.”
He stood for a moment as Yukina closed the emptied briefcase.
“...I suppose that’s all then?”
“Unless you have any further information to share, yes.”
“Right. Right, yes. Alright then.” Yusei nodded as he rambled over to the door. “I’ll be seeing you, then?”
“Yes, I’m sure you will.”
He paused for a moment, the door open just a crack. “I love you,” he said.
Yukina nodded, hummed slightly in acknowledgement, and he left without another word, seemingly alone with those documents on her desk.
“Interesting~” Moca Aoba hummed to herself, slinking out among the shadows under the door.
* * *
“ To-mo-eeeee~! ” Himari hissed, a little more forcefully than she’d intended, as she attempted to sneak out of their room. “Hurry up! ”
“I’m sorry! I’m almost there, I-” she grunted, making sure the straps holding the tent to her bag were as secure as could be. “It’s kinda tricky to get this attached--” She gritted her teeth, gave the straps one last tug for good measure, and slung the bag over her shoulders. “Alright, let’s go.”
“Finally…” Himari muttered, quietly jogging forward a little before Tomoe’s long strides caught her up. “Come on, let’s get going. Can’t let ourselves get spotted.”
“You sure you know where you’re going?”
“South exit, Tomoe. It’s to the south, it’s not that hard to figure out.”
“And you know which way’s south?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a magic compass in my brain that always tells me which way I’m facing.”
Tomoe’s eyes widened with wonder. “Wow, really?”
“ No , Tomoe.” Himari sighed. “Rei gave us directions, you just weren’t paying attention because you were playing with your tent.”
“Oh, right.” she nodded. “Sorry.”
“...Sorry.” Himari echoed.
They walked in silence for a few moments.
“...You get kinda snippy when you’re stressed, huh?”
“I do not!”
“I mean, it’s not - I don’t mean it in a bad way, or anything! I just… noticed, is all.” She paused. “There’s nothing, like… wrong with that, or anything.”
“Okay.” Himari huffed, trying to calm herself down. “Sorry.”
“Hey, don’t apologise! Like, I just said… it’s not a problem, I don’t mind. We all react to stuff in different ways, y’know?”
“I guess…” she mused. “You seem pretty laid back…”
“This kinda stuff just doesn’t get to me so much, I guess.” she shrugged, continuing her walk with a small, dumb smile on her face that she didn’t quite notice.
“ HEY! ” A new voice from down a side hallway. They froze, whirled to face its source-
Both Tomoe and Himari tried to stand in front of the other, acting as a shield for them, ending up just sort of crossing their arms together. Masuki pointed only at Tomoe, barely seeming to register Himari’s presence. “You.”
Tomoe glanced around, as though there might have been someone else she could have been pointing to. “...Yeah?”
“I bit you, didn’t I?” She took a step forward. Tomoe could feel Himari’s arm tense. “I’m sorry.”
“So.. what?” Tomoe shrugged, her fist clenching tight. “You tracked me down so you could apologise?”
She shook her head, carrying on like she was reciting a script. She might well have been. “I can’t just let you walk around like that. Not with what’s in your blood now.”
Himari flinched. “You got a cure, then?” Tomoe called, bracing herself for battle.
“God, I wish.” Masuki laughed remorsefully. “But trust me, there ain’t no cure for this.”
She drew a knife from her pocket.
“So I’m gonna have to put you down.”