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The Scarlet

Chapter Text

He didn’t need to say anything to show he was serious. The flames licking at the palms of his hands were taking care of that. The inn’s guests and staff cowered behind whatever paltry cover the dining area provided, for all the good it would do them. Still, he supposed, fleeing bodies did make for prettier statues. He smiled, pleased that, once again, his models were all so compliant.

All, that is, except one.

“Thought I might find you here.” Her voice pierced through the gentle crackling of the fire. A girl, one, single girl, stood by the entrance, unfazed. Sharp pink eyes, raven hair with a single streak of red, and a sword at her hip, ready to be drawn. “Are you going to surrender now, or do I have to hurt you?”

The man’s smile only widened, before cracking open to release a mirthless laugh. “Foolish child! You should know better than to interrupt an artist at work! These people will have far more value as statues, preserved by my masterful flame, than they ever would as--”

He was interrupted by a sound he hadn’t heard in a very long time. It took him a moment to realise it was his own scream. The girl - she was upon him now, and - his left hand was impaled on her sword. A flame of rage burned even brighter in his right before suddenly being snuffed out, replaced with only a searing pain, shortly followed by the wet slap of bloody flesh against wooden flooring. He stumbled back, his left hand rendered useless by its gaping wound, and his right lying limp on the floor several feet away. The girl spoke again.

Now will you surrender?”

He looked into those pink eyes, their expression unchanged, as though she had done nothing more than squash a spider. Then he looked at her sword, caked in blood - his blood--

And then he fainted.

 

* * *

 

The reward money would be good for a month or two. Maybe even three, if she was smart with her spending. Either way, Ran Mitake knew she’d have to hunt another bounty eventually. It was an irritating necessity, but by the same token, it’s not like it was hard. Besides, being a hero came with certain advantages when it came to dealing with people.

The inn already seemed to be back to normal. People of all stripes bustling about, checking in, buying lunch as though a sorcerous serial killer hadn’t just been apprehended here. In just the few short hours Ran had spent collecting her reward from the Haneoka City Guard, it had been fully cleaned and fixed up to its state before the incident, which is to say, not particularly clean or fixed up at all. The blood was gone, at least. And so was the hand. “For The Thrifty Traveler” the sign outside proclaimed, and the place’s thrift was evident in every moth-bitten curtain, leaky pipe, and mouse hole it had to offer. No wonder the killer had chosen this place as his target - this place’s clientele didn’t have the kind of money or status for the Guard to bother doing them justice.

Ran’s musing was interrupted by the sudden realisation that she had been standing at the bar for several minutes now, seemingly unnoticed. So much for the advantages of being a hero. She coughed awkwardly, hoping to catch the bartender’s attention. A few moments passed. She tried again, slightly louder, and this time he finally glanced in her direction.

“Whaddya want?” he grunted.

“Oh-- I was, just, um-- I mean--” Without a proper target, her voice lost its confidence, falling to barely over a whisper.

“Hey, ain’t you that girl what did that murderer in earlier today?”

Finally. Something to start from. Now maybe she could actually talk.

“Yeah-- um, yes. That was me. I--”

“Alright, mate, fair enough. Guess I owe ya one. Want anything? On the house, ‘course.”

“Just information.” The bartender raised a bushy eyebrow. “A lot of people pass through here; I assume you hear a lot of idle gossip, rumours…?”

“Y’ain’t wrong.”

“Have you heard anything,” her glare intensified; she could almost smell her goal-- “about a man with a sapphire eye?”

The bartender narrowed his eyes and looked to the ceiling, as though the answer might be written up there. A few moments of consideration passed before he looked back at her, shaking his head. “Sorry, mate, can’t help ya. Anything else, or…?”

Ran sighed and turned away, her disappointment palpable. She’d felt so sure , this time, there had to be a lead here… if not here, then…? “No. That’s all.” Her back drooping, she slowly made her way out of the inn, out of Haneoka, back into the wilderness, all the while failing to realise that she was not alone.

 

* * *

 

The campfire was warm, and bright, fending off the oppressive darkness of night on the plains. Unfortunately, it was also small. Ran wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, doing her best to combat the bitterly cold winds. She looked back at Haneoka, about half a day’s walk away now, and at the enticing, hazy glow it seemed to emit. Maybe she should have just stayed at the inn, she thought to herself. Then she looked up, at the swirling, majestic, endless starfield above her, the infinity of tiny, blazing pinpricks of pure light, and remembered that they didn’t have stars in Haneoka. They certainly didn’t have stars in the inn. She supposed she had made the right choice after all.

All of a sudden, a gentle thud beside her.

“Hey~”

In a split second, she was on her feet, her sword was in her hand and at the newcomer’s throat - a silver-haired girl, around the same age, wearing elaborate black robes.

“Well, that’s rude.” She remarked, pouting, completely unfazed by the imminent threat of death.

“Who are you? Why are you following me?” Ran snarled, pressing the blade just a little harder against its target.

The new girl’s childish pout became a mask of exaggerated, mocking despair - still hardly an appropriate reaction. “Awwww, Ran doesn’t recognise me. My plans for a beautiful reunion, ruined… poor, lonely Moca…”

“Moca…?” Ran’s arms relaxed a little. The name rang a bell… “...Wait, Moca Aoba ?”

Finally, a warm smile as the sword lowered. “Hi, Ran.”

“I… What? How? How di-- what? How did you find me? It’s been-- god, I don’t even know... what are you doing here?”

“Aww, poor Ran’s confused~” teased Moca, ruffling Ran’s hair. “I tracked you with magic! Thanks for dealing with that serial killer, by the way. He was giving us dark mages a bad name~”

“Magic-- dark ma-- you’re a dark mage now? Since when?”

“It’s been ten years since we last spoke, Ran, not for lack of trying. I’ve had some time on my hands. Besides, doesn’t look like I’m the only one.” she gestured at Ran’s sword, lax at her side. “You were never that handy with a sword.”

Suddenly self-conscious, Ran sheathed her blade. “Had a good teacher.” She sat back down, and a decade’s worth of silence filled the air, broken only by the crackling of the campfire. After a minute or so, Moca removed a pack from her back, began rummaging around. She soon found what she was looking for.

“Bread?” she held a bun out to Ran. It looked remarkably good for something that had been rattling around in a backpack for at least half a day. Ran shook her head.

“I’m good.”

“Your loss. More for me~”

Ran watched as her old friend - ex-friend? - began eating the proffered bread. This was surreal. They’d been inseparable once, but they hadn’t seen each other in years, hadn’t spoken in even longer, and now here she was, sitting by her campfire, eating what was, by all appearances, plain bread. And she had magic powers. Moca was fully absorbed in her task - she never did let anything distract her from her eating - and Ran watched for as long as she could bear to. But she knew she had to put a stop to this. She muttered something under her breath, still scared to say it out loud, or perhaps just scared of the conversation that would follow.

“Hm?” Moca questioned, brushing the last few crumbs from her hands. Ran sighed. She had to put a stop to this.

“I said, why are you here?”

“Oh! To help, obviously!” she smiled, looking at Ran with too much love in her eyes. Ran turned away.

“I don’t need any help. Go away.”

“Oh, please. You obviously need help. You just don’t want it.” Moca frowned at her friend, still stubbornly facing the opposite direction. “You always did just want to do everything by yourself. You haven’t changed a bit.”

“You don’t even know what I’m trying to do.”

“You’re looking for the man who killed your father.” Ran snapped her head back around to face Moca, her eyes full of shock.

“How do you--”

“Oh, please, Ran. Any idiot could figure out your whole two-bit revenge quest schtick. And Moca,” she gestured at herself proudly, as though she were some amazing device she’d invented, “is a genius~”

Ran turned away again. “So, what? You’re here to talk me out of it? Don’t bother. I’ve heard it all before. From people a lot smarter than you.” Ran winced a little at her own harsh remark, but it had to be said. She couldn’t let anyone else follow her, especially not Moca of all people…

“Ouch. Mean.” Moca pouted again. “But, no, I told you. I’m here to help. I have a lead.” And Ran’s eyes were on her once again.

“What do you mean, a lead ?”

Moca smirked. “A contact, who can help point us in the direction of our quarry. We’ve arranged a meeting place, just on the other side of the Circle Woods. And I’ve already told her I may have a companion…”

Ran stared into Moca’s eyes for a moment, then down at the ground. She couldn’t let Moca join her… but… she needed to know…

She sighed deeply, and turned back to Moca.

“Fine. I’ll come with you. But only until I get the information I need, okay?” She lay down, pulled her cloak around her like a blanket. “Trust me, you don’t want any part of this.”

“Yay~! Ran and Moca, together again~! The dream team~” Ran heard Moca lie down behind her. If Moca was anything like she remembered, she’d be asleep pretty soon. Ran wished she could say the same. Morning couldn’t come quickly enough.

“Hey, Ran?” Moca piped up. She already sounded half-asleep.

“Yeah?”

“I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

“...Thank you.”

But Moca was already asleep.

Chapter Text

Legend has it that, hundreds of years ago, these lands were home to two rival lords, each said to wield a mysterious, unimaginable power, and each lord wanted the other’s power for his own. And so, a war was waged, a war unlike any that the world had ever seen. So great were the destructive forces at work that the oceans burst into flame, and the mountains fell into the sky. After years of untold destruction, the armies of each lord gathered at either end of a vast, unmarked plain, of such a size that it would take two weeks to cross on horseback. It was here that the war’s final battle would be raged. For over a month, mortal steel clashed and magical ordnance flew, churning the land, transforming the beautiful plains into a dread marshland piled high with the bodies of the fallen, a land left lifeless but for those who caused it, who seemed determined to fight until their very last lay dying. On and on the conflict raged, until finally, at the very centre of the battlefield, the two lords met, face-to-face, each determined to at last slay his foe and claim ultimate power as his own. As the two men glared at one another, sizing each other up, a hush fell over their men, such that it was as though they were the only two still living in all the world. Power gathered around each man, and it seemed certain that the world would end, right there and then. But before either man could launch his attack, something most peculiar happened.

At the point between the two men - the exact centre of the plains - a tree began to sprout, and it grew, and grew, and in seconds it was a mighty oak that seemed to have stood at that spot for generations. Birdsong could be heard from among the tree’s lush, green leaves, and from its roots, grass and flowers began to grow, spreading all across the dead mud and scorched earth that surely should have killed any plant, and before long, the plains looked just as they had at the battle’s dawn, beautiful, pristine. But even still, whatever mighty force was causing this was not done, for it was then that the dead began to rise. Not as vengeful spectres or shambling undead, but truly alive once again, their wounds healed and their faces as fresh and bright as they had ever been, until every one of the battle’s victims stood once more, met by the disbelieving, overjoyed tears of their comrades.

Nobody can truly say what went through the lords’ minds then, but, in the face of this impossible miracle, they must surely have known that they could not fight no more. And so, instead, they embraced, and they made an oath that they would each give up their power, and hide it away so it could never again cause such suffering. And then they led their armies, fatigued and battle-weary, back to their camps at either end of the reborn plain. And, reluctant to leave the ground that had surely been blessed by whatever gods or monsters that watched over us, there they stayed, and they built, until what once had been two humble, functional military camps were grand, beautiful cities, each one a testament to the oath sworn on that holy day.

And that is the legend of the founding of the twin cities of Haneoka and Hanasakigawa, and it is said that as long as that oak, out in the heart of the plains, stands strong, then each city will stand, and prosper, for all eternity.

* * * 

Haneoka and Hanasakigawa were closer than one might expect two cities of their size to be but that didn’t mean it was a practical route to walk. For Ran, this wasn’t much of a problem - she could live off the land if she had to, and she knew her way around the smaller settlements in between. Unfortunately, now she had a companion. Moca soon vetoed the idea of making the journey on foot, and so the pair found themselves as passengers aboard one of the express trains which would regularly ferry large groups of people between the two cities. And so, Ran had spent the past several hours in a cramped train car with her long-estranged best friend, who she had spent some considerable time avoiding, and an assortment of total strangers.

Wonderful.

“Budge up.” Ran looked to her left to see Moca brandishing an assortment of snacks, motioning for Ran to make room for her to sit back down. Grumbling softly, Ran tried to make room for her new partner-in-crime without bothering the passenger to her right, a pink-haired girl who had spent the entire journey gazing dreamily through the window. She failed, and her neighbour was finally disturbed from her wondering.

“Oh! Sorry, did you need to sit down?” she asked, looking up at Moca and shuffling closer to the window, giving the dark mage room to seat herself.

“Wow… she talks~” Moca smirked, dumping her snacks on her tray table. The stranger flushed bright red and extended her palm.

“I-I’m Himari. Himari Uehara.”

“Moca.” Moca responded, meeting her request for handshake with a sort of sideways high-five. “And this is my best friend, Ran.” She gestured at the girl in between them, who, since disturbing Himari, had given off the impression of a turtle retreating into its shell. “Say hello, Ran.”

Ran emitted a strange, gargling squeak, possibly an attempt at protest.

Moca smiled at her, then looked back to Himari. “She’s a badass loner, but only because she’s too awkward to talk to anyone. She really just wants to make friends~”

Himari, however, looked a little upset. “You shouldn’t make fun of her like that. It hurts.” Both Moca and Ran were looking at Himari now - Moca seemed a little curious, while Ran’s complete bewilderment was much more evident.

“How could you--” Ran began asking, slowly, before Himari cut her off.

“Oh! Sorry, that must have been weird, right?” She blushed, pressing her hands together awkwardly. “Um, I-I’m an empath. A-a light mage, actually! I can feel what other people feel, a little. Oh! A-and healing! So, if there’s anything you need, just ask!”

“Cool~” Moca said, and Himari grinned proudly. Ran just grunted noncommitally, returning to the important business of not acknowledging anyone else’s presence. A moment of silence passed before Himari spoke up again.

“So, what are you headed to Hanasakigawa for?” she asked, leaning in curiously.

“We’re on our way to meet with someone.” Moca explained. “For adventuring purposes.”

“Not an adventure.” Ran grumbled quietly. The others didn’t notice, or at least they pretended not to, as Himari’s eyes lit up.

“You’re adventurers? That’s so cool! I always wanted to go on an adventure…”

“Ah, it’s not all as fun as it seems… there’s the hunger, the bedbugs, the long, cold, sleepless nights…” Even as she complained, Moca couldn’t help but smile. For her, at least, it absolutely was as fun as it seemed.

“But you get to travel the world! Meet all sorts of people, perform amazing feats!”

Moca’s grin widened. “Yeah, the adoring fanbase is a nice bonus~” She chuckled at Himari’s puzzled look before continuing the conversation. “So what about you? What are you headed up this way for?”

“Oh! Oh, um, nothing important like you…” She  blushed and began gazing out the window again. “There’s just… someone I want to meet…”

* * *

All was quiet on the nighttime streets of Hanasakigawa, the lights of the city’s plentiful oil lamps bathing its elaborate, layered architecture in a warm, welcoming glow.

The quiet, however, was not to last.

The shrill shriek of alarm bells rang out, and in no time, a City Guard squadron was arriving at the Hanasakigawa Museum for Worldwide Treasures. The officers swiftly made their way through the museum, quickly and efficiently sweeping each room for evidence as museum security led the Captain of the Guard to the scene of the crime.

In the centre of the Special Exhibit Area stood a great plinth, and signage around the plinth boasted of its contents - the Shatterstar Diamond, a jewel of such astounding beauty that the mere sight of it had driven some to madness. All nonsense, of course, but the Captain of the Guard needn’t worry even if it weren’t, for the Diamond was gone. The old man’s eyebrow twitched and his tight lips curled into a snarl of rage as he saw what had been left in its place.

There, atop the plinth, lay a single red rose.

The calling card of the Phantom Thief.

* * * 

The train pulled into Hanasakigawa station around midday. Moca and Himari bid each other their goodbyes, Ran mumbling something in the pink-haired girl’s direction as they departed.

“Awww~ Ran’s making friends~” teased Moca, ruffling her counterpart’s hair before setting off into the city.

Hanasakigawa resembled a citadel more than a city, a vast, walled structure surrounding a monumental central tower, with tiers all built atop one another like an enormous wedding cake. The streets of every tier were filled with a seemingly infinite mass of people of all sorts, from hardened rangers to comfortable citizens, none paying any other the slightest bit of mind. Street vendors, entertainers and beggars jostled for space and, crucially, attention, each one hoping to attract some small amount of money away from the city’s many luxury boutiques. Around the walls of each tier was a shallow, fenced-off moat, where trash from the layer above would accumulate. Trash-waders could frequently be seen digging through the rubbish in the hopes of finding treasure, and they could even more frequently be seen being accosted by Guards for trespassing on City Council property.

“So where are we headed first, Ran?” Moca asked, when Ran managed to catch up.

“We’ll stock up on supplies for the journey, then we’re going.” Ran glanced through the crowds, her discomfort evident. “There’s nothing else we need here.”

“Aw, but think about the adventures we could have!”

“What.”

“Imagine! Two country girls, together again, here in the big city… who knows what kind of wacky hijinks we could get into!?” Moca announced, somewhat dreamily, as she clung to Ran’s shoulder. Ran stared back at her, squinting.

“...No. What? No. No… hijinks. We need to get going. We’ve got a meeting to get to, remember?”

“Ah, there’s no rush~ It’s not like we’re on a schedule. My contact will be there when we need her to be.” She paused for a moment. “Unless she’s dead.”

“...Is she likely to be dead?” Ran asked, suddenly concerned.

Moca considered before answering. “...No. No, I don’t think so. Hey, can we get some lunch? I’m hungry.”

The sudden change of subject bewildered Ran, but it also made her realise something: she was also hungry. She didn’t want to be in Hanasakigawa any longer than she had to be, but she still had to keep her strength up. You never know where danger could be lurking. “Yeah, fine.”

“Yay~” Moca smiled, giving Ran a hug, prompting a blush that went unnoticed. “Hey, I know this great café not far from here. Let’s go there, yeah?” She grasped her companion’s hand, tugging slightly in an attempt to lead her.

Ran looked at the bright smile on Moca’s face. She hadn’t seen anyone look that happy in ages. Anyone she cared about, anyway.

Or maybe she just hadn’t cared about anyone in ages.

Ran pushed such intrusive thoughts away before she gave her answer. “Fine.” The same monotone as always. Moca’s smile became brighter, somehow, and Ran let herself be led through the bustling city streets, making sure to never once let go of Moca’s hand.

* * * 

The two sat opposite each other at a small table beneath a veranda outside the packed patisserie. They ate in comfortable silence, Ran slowly picking away at a croissant as Moca gulped down a wide assortment of pastries, looking for all the world like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. She finished first, making a show of dabbing her face with her napkin, as though she had dignity. Ran, faintly horrified, attempted to avoid her gaze as she continued eating. It wasn’t long before Moca spoke up anyway.

“So what are you gonna do with this guy when you find him?” Ran looked back at Moca, trying to gauge the meaning behind the question, but the mage’s expression was blank, unreadable. Ran finished another bite of her croissant before answering.

“I’m going to kill him.” No point hiding it.

“Hm.” Moca nodded slowly, contemplating her response. “You ever killed anyone before?”

Ran’s eyes were locked with Moca’s, and she found herself unable to look away, no matter how hard she tried. “No.” She finally answered.

“Hm.” Moca nodded again, still not breaking eye contact. Ran wondered if this was some kind of magic, but she already knew it wasn’t. The grey-haired girl stared intently at her companion for what felt like hours, before finally looking away. “Fair enough.”

“What?”

“I mean, he killed your dad. Makes sense you’d wanna kill him. I ain’t judging.”

“Right. Um… I mean. Good.” Ran went back to her croissant, still only half finished. It didn’t seem to taste as good anymore, and the silence felt suffocating. Ran looked around at all the people silently judging her, and slouched in her seat, wishing they were gone. She closed her eyes, and she didn’t know how much time passed before she opened them again at the sound of someone clearing their throat. She looked up to find an officious-looking woman with shoulder-length dark hair and dull grey eyes staring straight at her.

“Ran Mitake?” the new arrival asked. Ran glanced at Moca, who shrugged, then back up to the stranger.

“..Yes?”

“I’ve heard a lot about you.” The woman said, extending her hand, which Ran hesitantly shook. As she did so, she noticed a strange, cute bear charm around the newcomer’s wrist. “You’re the one who took out Fireball in Haneoka the other day, yes?”

His name was Fireball? “Uh, yeah. That was me.”

“Excellent. In that case…” she reached into her coat and pulled out the badge of the Hanasakigawa City Guard. “I am Detective Inspector Misaki Okusawa. And I need your help.”

Ran looked over to Moca, her face a mask of confusion. Moca just grinned.

“Hijinks.”

* * * 

Hanasakigawa’s City Guard Headquarters were truly a beautiful piece of architecture, all grand gothic arches and intricate stonework that gave the impression of a monument that had been carved not by mere mortals, but by the gods themselves. It was a stunning demonstration of the sheer genius that made Hansakigawa the renowned city of the arts it is today, and absolutely none of this was evident from the situation room that Ran and Moca had found themselves being dragged to, which was dark, damp, ugly, and had a persistent odour of something not immediately identifiable, but doubtlessly very unpleasant. Her brow furrowed, Ran cast her eyes over the four other people gathered around the table in the centre of the room. On her right was Inspector Okusawa, who had lead them here in infuriating silence. Next to her was a stocky, mustachioed old man Ran recognised from previous dealings in the city as Captain of the Guard, some old money by the name of Tsurumaki. The final two occupants seemed even more out of place than Ran and Moca - one was a tall girl with multicoloured, pastel hair pulled up in pigtails and an oblivious smile on her face, while the other was a short, scowling girl with what appeared to be twitching cat ears atop her head. Which was odd.

The Captain cleared his throat. “Miss Mitake. Thank you for joining us.”

“Um.” Ran coughed. “Yes. Hello.”

“I’m sure Inspector Okusawa explained the situation to you on your way here?”

“Um. No.” Ran replied, shaking her head reflexively. Tsurumaki shot the Detective a look, which she pointedly did not return. The Captain sighed and began to explain.

“The Shatterstar Diamond was recently stolen from a special exhibition at the Museum for Worldwide Treasures. I’m sure you’ve heard of it?” Ran wasn’t sure if he was referring to the Diamond or the Museum, but nodded regardless, allowing the Captain to continue. “Good. We have reason to believe that this robbery is the work of the Phantom Thief, a criminal who’s been eluding our forces for some time now. I’ve had Inspector Okusawa here - our best detective - in charge of this case for over six months now, and still no progress. Needless to say, the higher-ups are getting restless.”

Ran cocked her head. “I thought you were in charge?”

“We all answer to someone, kid.” The Captain sighed again before continuing. “Anyway. So far she’s only been hitting private residences, taking the most valuable possessions of the rich and famous, and leaving only this in their place.” He withdrew a red rose from his pocket and tossed it onto the table. After a moment, “It, er. It was less beat up when she left it.”

“She?” Moca raised an eyebrow. Tsurumaki looked at her with a start, as though he’d only just noticed her presence.

“Um, yes, Miss… I’m sorry…?”

“Moca Aoba.” Moca responded proudly, as though her name were a prestigious title she’d earned. “I’m Ran’s best friend.”

“Hm. Well, yes, Miss Aoba, she. That’s what all the eyewitness accounts say. The Thief is frequently sighted by civilians following each incident.”

“Not this time, though.” Okusawa interjected, earning her a vicious glance from her superior officer.

“As I was saying, she is frequently sighted-”e

“And yet, you still can’t catch her.” An impatient voice spoke up. Ran looked to her left at the owner: the girl with cat ears. The Captain groaned wearily, probably louder than he’d intended.

“Miss Mitake, Miss Aoba.” He gestured to the strange girls. “This is--”

“I can introduce myself.” The catgirl interrupted, turning to Ran and Moca. “I am ChuChu. This is my assistant, Pareo.”

“Hello!” The pastel-haired girl waved enthusiastically.

Moca stared at the shorter of the two. “...Your name is ChuChu?”

“...Yes.”

“That’s adorable ~”

ChuChu flinched. “No it’s not. It’s cool . I’m cool.”

“You’re the coolest.” said Pareo, smiling warmly and scratching ChuChu’s ears. The room’s other inhabitants looked around uncomfortably, except Moca, who seemed to be struggling not to burst out laughing.

“I mean,” she eventually said, with the hint of a giggle in her voice, “it’s cooler than Fireball.” Ran snorted, attempting to hold back a laugh of her own, and Moca shot a smile her way. She seemed proud of herself.

ChuChu cleared her throat indignantly. “ As I was saying,” she continued, glaring at Moca, “I am a representative of one of the Museum’s directors, and he is very concerned about the competence of those assigned to this case.” Now Misaki fell victim to her glare. “As such, Pareo and I have been assigned to steer this ship in the right direction and return the Diamond to the Museum - preferably before the benefactor from which we loaned it sues us for all we’re worth. It was our idea to bring in further independent contractors, so you can thank us for your presence here, Mitake.” She didn’t seem to have and venom reserved for Ran, for which the swordswoman was grateful. This ChuChu girl was only half her size, but she gave the impression of someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

“So.” Announced Captain Tsurumaki, attempting to reclaim control of the conversation. “Miss Mitake, Miss Aoba. Thanks to your exemplary work bringing in bounties for us, and our comrades in Haneoka, you have been brought on to assist us in this case. Rest assured, you will be paid handsomely. As the officer in charge of the case, Inspector Okusawa will be accompanying you, and will provide you with any assistance you require. Any further questions?”

Ran looked around the room, at all the eyes on her. “...No.” she finally murmured as she got up and left, shortly followed by Moca and Misaki.

Tsurumaki looked over at ChuChu. “Miss Tamade. I hope you realise that if this plan fails, I’ll have to…”

“You’ll have to what?” the short girl glared at him. “My employer is a very powerful man, captain. You can’t touch me.” She motioned to Pareo to leave, turning back to Tsurumaki one last time. “You’d do well to remember who’s in charge around here.”

And then she was gone.

* * * 

“We have a plan, of course.” explained Misaki to the bounty hunters seated in her office.

“Hm?” responded Ran, just wanting to get this over with. She’d considered just leaving without helping, but getting into trouble with the law was the last thing she needed.

“We’ve been spreading rumours that Captain Tsurumaki will be out of town for the next few days, making his home the perfect target. We’ll be lying in wait there, of course, and then…” she sighed heavily.

“Then?” prompted Ran.

“I dunno. We catch her, I guess. Boom. Done.”

“You don’t sound very confident~” mused Moca, examining a map of the Phantom Thief’s crimes. As the Captain had said, the Museum was the only place she’d hit that hadn’t been a private residence.

“‘S’cause I’m not.” grumbled the detective, popping open a bottle of ginger ale and leaning back in her chair. “We’ve tried this before. Never worked. It’s like she knows everything we’re planning.”

A knock on the door.

“Come in.”

The door was opened by a nervous-looking blue-haired woman. Misaki stood hastily, straightening her hair and slamming the bottle of ginger ale down on her desk. “Ah! Um… Miss Mitake, Miss Aoba. This is Detective Kanon Matsubara. She’s my second on the Phantom Thief taskforce.” The new arrival waved awkwardly at the adventurers before standing to attention.

“Um, Misaki… I-I mean, I-Inspector Okusawa, uh, sir! Everything’s set up at the Tsurumaki mansion! W-we just need you on site.”

“Very good, Detective. Dismissed.” Matsubara nodded and left. Misaki immediately picked up the bottle and drained it in a single gulp. “Alright, come on.” She grabbed her coat off the back of the door before opening it, nodding towards Ran and Moca. “We’ve got a job to do.”

* * *

The Tsurumaki mansion was a grand, elaborate construction, practically a palace, borne from the same architectural stylings as the Guard Headquarters, albeit on a smaller scale. Situated on one of Hansakigawa’s highest tiers, it was not the type of dwelling one would typically associate with a Captain of the Guard. As Ran, Moca, and Misaki entered the grounds, they were approached by a Guard, who saluted Misaki.

“Report.”

The Guard nodded. “Everything’s ready, sir. It’s just a matter of waiting and hoping the target actually shows her face.”

“Good. Any complications?”

“We’ve arrested a trespasser. Detective Matsubara questioned her, but she doesn’t seem to know anything. Additionally, the Tsurumaki heiress was still on the grounds. We’ve got them both locked away with a Guard, to prevent them interfering with the operation.”

“Are you sure it’s wise to leave the heiress and the prisoner together?”

“As I said, sir, they’re with a Guard. Besides, I’m certain the prisoner’s harmless. Wrong place, wrong time is all.”

Misaki nodded grimly before gesturing to her companions. “This is Ran Mitake and Moca Aoba. They’re… external contractors. They are to be granted full access to anything that might allow them to assist us.”

“With respect, sir, I don’t think two bounty hunters are going to turn the tide here.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Take it up with the captain.”

The Guard nodded, then turned toward Ran and Moca. “Anything you need, or will you be staying out of our way?” she asked, clearly unhappy with the arrangement.

Ran was about to turn her away when Moca spoke up. “I’d like to speak with the prisoner.”

The Guard nodded. “Very well. Right this way, sir.” She started striding along the grounds toward the house, Ran and Moca following behind.

“Sir.” Moca giggled. “I’m a sir now, Ran. Finally, the respect I deserve~”

Ran looked at her curiously. “Why do you want to talk to the prisoner?”

Moca smirked. “Because I have a hunch I know who it is.”

* * * 

The Guard showed the pair through the house to a room that a sign outside assured them was “Kokoro’s Room [COME IN!!]” She unlocked the door, dismissed the Guard stationed inside with a grimace and a shrug, then turned to Ran and Moca.

“I’ll be locking the door and waiting outside. Knock three times when you want out. Although to be frank, I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Aw, I know you love me really~” Moca winked. The Guard shoved her into the room. Ran followed, and the door clicked shut behind her.

The room was huge and gaudily decorated, all bright colours and sparkling trinkets. Anything of real value, Ran assumed, would have been removed to bait the trap. The room’s two inhabitants were seated side by side on the enormous bed at the centre of the room. One was a blonde-haired girl staring at the newcomers with an innocent curiosity - Kokoro Tsurumaki, Ran assumed - and the other was--

“Himari!” Moca yelled. “Ah, old friend! It’s been too long~”

“...Moca?” Himari asked, her eyes narrowed. “We saw each other this morning…”

“...Wait, Himari?” Ran piped up. “The girl from the train? Why are you here?”

“Uh, I… W-why are you here?”

“I told you.” Moca smiled. “Adventure. We’re on the tail of the Phantom Thief. Same as you?” Himari blushed and looked away. Ran eyed her curiously, then turned her gaze to Kokoro, whose eyes were rapidly flitting between the other three as though she were watching a tennis match.

“I-I just wanted to see her…” murmured Himari. Moca looked over to Ran.

“Celebrity crush.” she said, as though that explained anything, before going to sit beside Himari, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Ran turned back to Kokoro once again.

“And you?” she began. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here!” Kokoro responded eagerly. Ran sighed.

“No… I mean, yes, but… why are you here right now? Why didn’t you get sent off somewhere else for this operation?”

“I was playing hide-and-seek!” she grinned proudly. “I’m the best at hide-and-seek.”

Ran sighed again. Obviously, she wasn’t going to get any useful answers out of her. She looked outside at the last rays of sunlight over the city’s spires. “We should get going.” she said, turning towards Moca. The other girl moved to get up, only to freeze at the sound of sudden yelling from downstairs, followed by glass shattering and metal clanging.

Ran’s sword was instantly in her hand as Moca sprang forward, the door bursting off its hinges at a snap of her fingers. She clenched her fists, engulfing them in black flame as she dashed out of the room, Ran close behind. The Guard who’d escorted them had her crossbow drawn.

“Is she downstairs?” Ran asked her.

“Not anymore.” a new voice responded, deep and smooth as velvet, somehow both comforting and sinister. The three whirled around to see its owner, stood in the middle of Kokoro’s room: a tall, pale woman, elaborately dressed in a pitch black suit with blinding white accents, a long cape flowing impossibly behind her. A top hat stood perched atop her purple hair, tilted down over her eyes, which were hidden behind a black-and-white masquerade, its colour split down the middle. A confident smile played across the Phantom Thief’s lips as she grasped Kokoro’s wrist tightly. Himari watched with awe from the corner of the room, beside the now wide-open window. Kokoro, at least, seemed fairly unfazed by the whole affair, her smile as wide as ever.

The Guard rushed through the doorway past Ran and Moca, pointing her crossbow directly at the Thief. “Let her go!”

The Thief cocked her head, smirking. “Shoot me then.” She pulled Kokoro closer to her. “By all means, go right ahead.” Her eyes darted across the room as Ran and Moca re-entered, settling briefly on the sword in Ran’s hand, and the flames in Moca’s, before turning back to the Guard. “It seems you have me outnumbered. Here - I’ll make things even easier for you…” In a single, swift movement, she pulled Kokoro tight against her, then twirled her cape around them both, obscuring them behind a sheet of darkness. When the cape settled behind her again, Kokoro was gone. “There. Now I don’t even have a hostage.”

With a yell of anger, the Guard launched a bolt at the Thief, who lazily waved a gloved hand, sending it shooting into the wall instead. As the Guard attempted to reload her crossbow, the Thief blew a kiss in her direction, and she collapsed instantly.

“Sweet dreams, my kitten~” she whispered, before turning her gaze on Ran and Moca. “Do either of you have anything you want to try?”

Moca raised her hands threateningly, refusing to look away from her charge for an instant. Ran, meanwhile, looked past the Thief to check on Himari, who was still staring, awestruck, at the figure before her. Noticing the break in Ran’s gaze, the Thief turned around.

“Ah! Exc--” she began upon seeing Himari, only to be interrupted by the loud thud of Ran jumping directly into the invisible barrier she’d cast behind her. “Excuse me, my dear.” she continued once Ran had hit the floor, “I didn’t see you there. You’re not with the guard, are you?”

Himari gulped. “N-no.” she croaked, shaking her head. The Thief extended a hand toward her. Her smile had changed - previously an arrogant mockery of her opponents, now it was warm, welcoming, as though she were speaking to an old friend.

“I’m dreadfully sorry about all this. I can make it up to you if you’d like. Tell me, would you care to come with me?”

Himari began to glow red, and after only a moment’s hesitation, grabbed the proffered hand, nodding quickly to make up for her newfound inability to speak. The Thief helped her stand, gently kissing her hand before pulling her close. Himari squeaked nervously as the Thief whirled around to face Moca and Ran, who was just now beginning to stand back up.

“Well, my kittens, it’s been entertaining, but now our fleeting encounter meets its end!” She locked eyes with Moca, who had an eyebrow raised. “I do hope we can meet again.” She twirled her cape again, and this time it simply disappeared into a vortex of itself, leaving behind only a single red rose.

* * *

“She took my daughter !?” Captain Tsurumaki’s eyes bulged as he slammed his fist on the desk, his face a dangerous shade of red. Misaki gulped, glancing over her shoulder at Ran and Moca for assistance. Ran looked oddly cowed by the captain’s volume, while Moca was seemingly preoccupied by her own hands.

“Y-yes, sir. And, um, Detective Matsubara and a civilian. Three hostages, in all.” she responded, desperately avoiding eye contact with her furious superior officer.

“I don’t care about them right now!” the captain screamed, punching his desk again. “I sent you to catch this Phantom Thief, and not only do you fail - again - but you let her kidnap my daughter! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t fire you right now!”

“Because I’d rather you didn’t.” came ChuChu’s voice from the corner of the office. Pareo still stood by her side, still with the same vacant smile on her face. “We don’t have time to be reshuffling staff over some petty grudge. The result would have been the same regardless of who was on the scene, I’m sure.”

Tsurumaki glowered at the girl, who stared back at him through bored, glassy eyes. He looked ready to strangle her, but after a tense moment, sighed and sat down.

“Out of my sight. All of you.” He glanced around at his desk, all case files and financial reports. “I have work to do.”

* * *

Sleep didn’t come easy to Misaki that night, or rather, it didn’t come at all. She’d failed. She’d failed before, obviously - probably more than I’ve succeeded , she often thought - but it felt so much worse this time. It wasn’t because of the captain - that didn’t help, obviously, but as long as he was out of earshot, Misaki really didn’t care what he thought. Kanon, though. There was a problem.

Kanon had been Misaki’s only friend for as long as she’d been in the Guard. She’d been there longer than Misaki, and had always been there for her whenever she needed a helping hand. Misaki had always felt guilty for being promoted above her - as a result of a case Kanon had helped with, even - and when she’d brought Kanon on as her second on the Phantom Thief taskforce, she’d felt guilty about choosing her own friend over anyone else. Right now, though, she mainly felt guilty about putting her in harm’s way.

All of which made sleeping rather difficult, but it did make Misaki’s second-favourite nighttime activity - wallowing in self-loathing - much easier. Before too long, however, she was interrupted from her depressive fugue by a persistent rapping at her bedroom window, which eventually bothered her enough for her to get up and do something about it. Stumbling out of bed, she clumsily yanked the window open to scare off the bird or whatever it was, then closed it again and turned around to see the Phantom Thief standing before her.

“Good evening, my kitten~”

Misaki yelped in fright, frantically looking around for some kind of weapon, but the Thief stood between her and the rest of the room. She raised her fists. She didn’t really need a weapon to fight. Did she?

“Now, now, there’s no need for that.” the Thief smiled, raising her hands. “I’m just here to talk. I abhor violence, in any case.”

“Where’s Kanon?” Misaki demanded, having found her voice again.

“Don’t worry, she’s safe. They’re all safe. I promise.” she eyed Misaki for a moment, attempting to gauge her reaction, before continuing. “I wanted to talk to you about the museum case.”

“What, you gonna give yourself up?” Misaki almost laughed.

“Of course not. And certainly not for a crime I didn’t commit.”

“What?”

“I’ve been framed. I didn’t take the Shatterstar.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Think about it. I only ever hit private residences, so why would I suddenly decide to rob a museum? And why were there no sightings of me on the night of the robbery? You know I love an audience. It’s pretty much all you do know about me.”

Misaki considered it. It made sense. Why hadn’t she seen it earlier? “So what are you doing here?”

The Thief chuckled. “It takes a thief to catch a thief, does it not? I want to know who’s impersonating me just as much as you do.”

“You-you want to team up? ” Misaki almost let her guard down for a moment as she contemplated the notion. “Is that why you took Kanon and the others? Insurance? So that I play along?”

For the first time, that confident smirk disappeared from the Thief’s face. “If that is what you think of me, then yes. But rest assured, no harm will come to them. I swear.”

Misaki eyed her opponent for a long moment as she considered her words. “...That’s an awfully long-winded way of saying no.” she finally responded. “Why did you really take them?”

The mask made the Thief’s expression difficult to read, but Misaki could swear it almost looked like pity. “You’re a good detective, Misaki. I think you can figure that out. I just don’t think you’re ready to admit it to yourself yet.” She turned away, looking over her shoulder to deliver her parting words. “We’ll be seeing each other again. Very soon.” And with a twirl of her cape, she was gone.

Suddenly alone, Misaki lowered her fists. She looked down at her wrist, laying her eyes on the cute beat charm adorning it. Her eyes narrowed.

“Damn right we will.”

* * * 

Ran’s eyes fluttered open. She instantly knew it was still the middle of the night. Rubbing the bump on her head from her earlier humiliating pratfall, she turned her tired eyes to the other side of the hotel room to see Moca staring into her gently glowing hands, muttering to herself.

“...Moca?” she asked, her voice heavy. “What are you doing?”

“Shh.” the mage responded, not looking up. “Don’t interrupt Moca while she’s working.”

Ran sighed as Moca resumed her muttering. She already knew she wouldn’t be getting back to sleep tonight, so she figured she might as well get up, maybe take a bath. She didn’t really need to, but she found the experience relaxing, and liked to make sure she took the opportunity on the rare occasions it came up. Before she got the chance, however, she was interrupted by a sudden shout from across the room.

“Found her!” Ran looked over to see Moca standing, checking her equipment in preparation to leave. She looked at Ran. “You coming?”

Ran’s face scrunched in confusion. “Coming where? Found who?”

“The Phantom Thief.” replied Moca, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “She had a port-anchor on that cape of hers - she can use it to teleport back to wherever it’s anchored to whenever she wants. Of course,” she kneeled down to strap up her boots, “such magic leaves a trace, which a sufficiently skilled mage - such as myself - can track back to the anchor point.”

“...So you know where the Phantom Thief’s hideout is?”

“Yep.” Moca said, a smug grin spread across her face. “So, you coming?”

Ran sighed, sparing a glance over to the inviting tub in the en suite bathroom. “...Fine. But only because if you get yourself killed, I’m back to square one.”

“Aw, you do care~” Moca leaned on Ran’s shoulder, and Ran quickly shrugged her off.

“Let’s just get going.” Ran slipped into her boots and grabbed her sword from the hanger. “I want this done by sunrise.”

* * *

“We’re here.” Moca announced, after about twenty minutes of walking.

The pair found themselves stood outside a large house - nowhere near the extravagance of the Tsurumaki mansion, but still certainly on the more expensive side of things. Ran checked the plaque by the door. “Seta…”

“Seta?” Moca cast her mind back to Inspector Okusawa’s office, to the map of Phantom Thief incidents she maintained. “Oh, I remember this one! Kaoru Seta was the Thief’s first victim! She lost everything she owned. Just after her parents died, too.” Moca’s casual speaking voice did little to aid the gravitas of the story.

“And now the Thief’s moved in to her old house. Hm.” Ran narrowed her eyes. Something didn’t add up. Still, more important things. “You think she knows we’re here?”

Moca didn’t answer right away, instead walking right up to the door and banging her fist against it a few times. “She does now.” Ran rolled her eyes, joining Moca on the doorstep. Much as it pained her, there was little she could do to salvage this situation now, so she figured she might as well roll with it. Still…

“Don’t you think we should have waited for Okusawa?” Before leaving, Moca had sent a summons charm to find Misaki, which would then lead her to their current location. Ran figured she should probably be involved in the closing of her own case, after all. At the very least, it would make it easier for her to file the paperwork.

“She’ll catch up.” Moca shrugged dismissively. “Oh, here we go.”

It wasn’t long before the door was cracked open by a sleepy-looking woman with short, ginger hair. She looked at Ran and Moca for a moment before launching into a clearly-scripted spiel.

“Miss Seta thanks you for your concern, but has no wish to accept any gifts, or to entertain any suitors, for the foreseeable future. Please return home post-haste, and have a nice day.” Upon finishing, she stifled a yawn.

Moca smiled. “Well, if Miss Seta is indisposed, perhaps there’s someone else here we could talk to?”

The woman rubbed her eyes. “...Me? Are you talking about me?”

Moca shook her head before continuing. “The Phantom Thief.”

She suddenly looked a lot more awake, not to mention panicked. “Phantom-? Uh, n-no! I, er, I don’t know what you’re talking about, so, erm… go on! Off you go!” Ran and Moca exchanged looks, then pushed past their greeter to gain entry.

The drawing room, Ran assumed, was mostly empty, with only a few chairs and a table, although what was there was well looked after, at least. Kaoru Seta clearly lived a much more humble lifestyle than the exterior of her home would suggest. Just as Ran was thinking this, something rammed into her from behind, sending her crashing painfully to the floor. She probably would’ve been knocked unconscious were it not for the plush carpeting. Turning as she tried to stand, she saw the ginger-haired woman standing over her, her fists clenched. Stronger than she looked, evidently, although whether that was a consequence of magic enhancement or her loose nightgown hiding her physique was unclear, and until Ran could be sure, she couldn’t properly gauge what she was up against. Not that she needed to, it transpired, as ropes of black energy soon constrained her opponent’s limbs, courtesy of Moca’s magic.

“Kaoruuuuu!” the greeter yelled, not cowed by her restraints. “Visitors!”

Almost instantly, a door at the other end of the room opened, and a tall, purple-haired woman in luxurious red silk pyjamas stepped through. She surveyed the situation, a hint of recognition in her eyes as she saw Ran and Moca, then she looked toward the figure on the floor. “Thank you, Hagumi. Now,” back to Ran and Moca, “I believe explanations are in order.”

“No need!” yelled Moca, a note of triumph in her voice. “I know exactly who you are, Kaoru Seta, or should I say - Phantom Thief!”

Kaoru opened her mouth to respond, only to be interrupted by a vaguely familiar, much quieter voice from the room behind her. “Kaoru? What’s going on?” The voice’s owner emerged - a nervous-looking blue-haired woman in a comfortable pink nightgown. And there, beside the Phantom Thief, stood Detective Kanon Matsubara.

Ran and Moca exchanged another look, before Moca spoke again.

“On second thoughts,” she said, “maybe explanations are in order.”

* * * 

Seven people were seated around the table in Kaoru Seta’s dining room. The table was circular, and so didn’t have a head, but Kaoru’s position, or perhaps simply her demeanour, seemed to indicate dominance regardless. Opposite her sat Ran and Moca, glancing around awkwardly as they awaited some kind of explanation. On their right were the woman who had greeted them, since introduced as Hagumi Kitazawa, Kaoru’s self-described roommate, and Detective Kanon Matsubara, one of the detectives investigating the Phantom Thief. On their left were two more of Kaoru’s guests - Kokoro Tsurumaki and Himari Uehara, neither of whom looked terribly unhappy to be there. Himari waved at the pair sheepishly, and Ran, unsure how to respond, awkwardly waved back. Once everyone was comfortably seated, Kaoru finally spoke.

“Tea? Cake?” she gestured towards the tray of refreshments she’d set out in the centre of the table. Ran shook her head.

“I think,” she said slowly, looking over the strange crew seated around her, “I’d just like to know what’s going on.”

“Fair enough.” Kaoru smiled, pouring herself a cup of tea and sitting back in her chair. “Well, as you’ve plainly figured out by now - I am the Phantom Thief.”

“Duh.” said Moca, through a mouthful of cream bun.

Kaoru continued unabated. “The lovely kittens seated around you - with the exception of my dear Himari, whose delightful presence I have not known nearly long enough -” a red glow returned to Himari’s cheeks - “are my accomplices.” Ran looked over to Kanon, who immediately looked away.

“...Why?” she ventured, not anticipating a straight answer.

Kaoru’s smirk vanished as she paused. It did not return when she finally began her answer. “A year ago, my parents were killed.”

“I’m sorry.” Ran said, almost instinctively. Kaoru waved off her concern as she continued.

“The killer was apprehended within short order, of course. But at the trial, I learned something troubling.” She took a sip of tea. “My parents were not the killer’s only victims. They were simply his first of any wealth. He’d killed many others - left so many mourning behind him - and the Guard had done nothing, because the victims were too poor to bother avenging.” Another sip. “If the Guard truly stood for anything other than status, then my parents would still be alive.”

Silence hung heavy over the table, suffocating all sat around it. Even Moca had stopped eating. Eventually, Kaoru continued her story.

“It’s not just the Guard, of course. I soon realised that this whole city is built on the principle of keeping those at the top there, while making sure those at the bottom stay docile. I knew I had to do something. And so, the Phantom Thief was born.” She finished her tea and set the cup down. “I sold almost everything I owned to the trade caravans that meet just outside the town - almost completely untraceable once they leave Hanasakigawa - then claimed it had all been stolen by this mysterious vagabond. An impressive debut, I’m sure you’ll agree. Hagumi here - she’d been my maidservant before all this, you see - found channels to share the money from the sales among those who needed it, and after that - well, I’m sure you know the rest.” Her confident smile had returned, attempting to bring the room’s atmosphere to its prior state.

Ran contemplated the Thief’s tale. She’d never really known how to respond to things like this, so she decided to instead simply get back to business. “...So you,” she pointed at Hagumi, “sell what she steals, then share the money out to the needy?”

Hagumi grinned. “Yep! Well, my parents set it up for me. They run a shop on the lower levels! It’s really cool!”

“Hm.” Ran nodded, then looked between Kokoro and Kanon. “So what about you two?”

“Ooh! I wanna go first!” Kokoro near-shouted, raising her hand to the sky and bouncing up and down in her seat. Kaoru nodded in her direction. “Yay!!” She stared right at Ran, her expression suddenly serious. “Okay, so Kaoru tried to steal this old vase from my house, yeah? But I caught her in the act! I was gonna tell my dad - he’s the Captain of the Guard - but then she told me all about her story, and how she was trying to help people, and I thought it sounded really cool, and we never did anything with that old vase anyway, so I decided to help her steal it instead!”

“If I may take it from here?” Kaoru cut in. “Since then, Kokoro has been checking out potential future targets for me, making sure a repeat incident doesn’t occur, and that I strike at the optimal time. And, thanks to her father’s status, nobody suspects a thing.”

Ran nodded again, then turned to Kanon. “And you?”

The detective gulped. “I- er- I--” she stammered. Kaoru opened her mouth to speak for her, but Kanon waved her away. “N-no! I want to speak for myself.” Looking somewhat surprised, Kaoru leaned back in her chair. “Th-thank you.” she turned back to Ran and Moca. “I f-figured out what Kaoru was up to right away. She, er, wasn’t at all as good at this as she is now. I, er, offered t-to help her. C-Captain Tsurumaki had the Phantom Thief taskforce put together a-as soon as his own place was robbed, and M-Misaki made me second-in-command. So I’ve b-been providing misinformation t-to the taskforce all along.”

“Why?” Ran asked again.

“I-it’s like Kaoru said. There’s s-something wrong with this city. I-I wanted to help by joining the Guard, b-but… they’re part of it. S-so I thought, maybe this was how I could do some good.” Kanon looked away again. “B-besides, Misaki… would never suspect me…”

She didn’t seem proud of that.

“...Kanon?” came a familiar, despondent voice from the doorway. The detective looked up to see Misaki Okusawa standing there, the telltale glow of a summons charm floating towards Moca and dissipating. After a tense moment, Moca piped up.

“Haha, wow.” she said, looking around the table. “Couldn’t possibly have timed that any worse. My bad.”

Chapter Text

Most of the house’s inhabitants soon found themselves locked in the basement, their equipment confiscated, with only Misaki and Kanon remaining upstairs. Clearly, they needed some time to talk. In the middle of the cavernous, once-lush room, Kokoro and Hagumi sang an energetic, improvised song, Kaoru gently coaching their performance - in her element, it seemed to Ran. Looking over to see Moca making conversation with Himari, the swordswoman found a seat on an old sofa in the corner and closed her eyes, taking a moment to contemplate her situation.

Until now, she hadn’t cared much about this Phantom Thief affair. It had just been a meaningless distraction, one she had played along with to avoid making enemies in high places. But something about Kaoru’s story had struck a nerve. For a second, she wished that she’d been able to apprehend her earlier, before she’d had a chance to explain herself. Things would’ve been so much easier if she’d just been the bad guy.

She tried to find something else to focus on instead. Something like the dull, throbbing pain still aching through her skull from where she’d hit her head earlier. She resisted the urge to rub it, instead just letting it wash over her, envelop her in a cocoon of comforting, familiar pain.

“Ran?” 

Interrupted from herself, Ran blinked, looking up to see Himari’s concerned face.

“Do you want some help with that?” the mage continued.

“...Help with what?” Ran asked, tilting her head to one side.

“Your headache.” Ran opened her mouth to talk, but Himari pre-empted her question. “Empath, remember?”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing.”

Himari grimaced in disbelief. “It’s gotta hurt pretty bad if I can feel it.”

Ran pouted and turned away. A second later, there was a hand on her forehead, and the pain was gone, its comforting buffer from reality vanishing alongside it.

“I didn’t ask you to do that.” Ran muttered.

“You’re too hard on yourself.” Himari replied matter-of-factly, taking a seat beside Ran, who grunted dismissively. “Moca was telling me about you, you know.”

Ran’s eyes flickered upward. “Telling you what?”

“About when you were kids. She says you grew up together.”

“Long time ago.” Ran said quietly, slouching in her seat. “Not me anymore.”

“Hm.” Himari looked at Ran curiously. “I mean, you’ve changed, obviously. I can see that. But I don’t think that means you’re not still you.”

An awkward silence, before Ran attempted to steer the conversation elsewhere. She nodded towards Kaoru.

“Is she telling the truth?”

Himari considered for a moment. “She’s telling us what she believes, I can feel that much. And I know the people believe in her.”

Ran raised an eyebrow.

“I asked around to see what I could find out about her before I went to the Tsurumaki mansion. A lot of the people I spoke to… they really feel like she’s done them a lot of good, you know?”

Ran thought for a moment, through the vicious bounties she’d hunted, through to the moment all of this had started, through to the injustice she was trying to correct. “Yeah.” She looked over to Moca, entertaining Hagumi and Kokoro with some magic tricks, and wondered for the first time how long she’d been trying to help her. And then she wondered why.

 Himari smiled warmly. “She really does love you, you know.”

At that, Ran stood and began marching across the room, not sparing a glance back to either Himari or Moca. “Seta!” she declared, demanding the Thief’s attention.

“Yes, my kitten? What is it you wish to ask of me?” Kaoru asked, stunning red eyes piercing into Ran.

“Don’t-” Ran began, before sighing. “Whatever. How do we get out of here? Is there, like, a secret passage, or anything?”

“What would you want to leave for?” Kaoru asked, seeming genuinely curious. Ran stared in disbelief.

“Why would I- because I don’t want to get arrested! Obviously! As soon as Okusawa’s done with whatever it is she’s doing up there, she’ll come down here and cart us all off to jail!”

Kaoru smiled warmly. “Not to worry, my kitten. By the time Miss Okusawa makes her way down here, I’m quite certain arresting us will be the last thing on her mind.”

* * *

Misaki glared across the room at her… subordinate. For now, at least, she was just her subordinate, although apparently she’d never really been that either. It was just the two of them, now. The others hadn’t really resisted when she’d locked them in the basement, which would’ve made Misaki suspicious on any other day. Catching the Phantom Thief would’ve made her ecstatic on any other day, she always thought. Today, though, she had more important things on her mind. Questions whirled around her mind, each vying to be asked. Why did you do it? She’d just heard the answer to that one. Why did you lie to me? Well, that one was just obvious. Why am I more angry with myself than with you?

Hm.

Maybe a bit much.

Convincing herself that she was just interrogating another suspect, as she had so many times before, she decided to opt for a more practical line of questioning. Much to her surprise, however, Kanon spoke first - a rarity in the best of times.

“I w-wanted to tell you.” She sounded on the verge of tears. Misaki blinked in surprise, but otherwise tried to keep her reactions to a minimum. Just a suspect . “I-I knew I couldn’t, b-but… it f-felt so awful, h-having to keep a secret… from you…”

“Why should I believe you?” Misaki snapped. “You lied to me! About everything! For six months! It was your job to lie to me about everything for six months!”

“I-I know you d-don’t have any reason to t-trust me right now, but…” Kanon looked her dead in the eye. “P-please…”

Just a suspect .

“Why the fake kidnappings? Why go through all of this? Are you just--” trying to hurt me? “Why?”

Kanon took a moment to try and compose herself before answering. “W-when she was framed for s-stealing the Shatterstar… Kaoru thought we m-might be in danger… so we p-planned this. She’d take us… somewhere s-safe, until we could figure out w-what was really going on… then we’d…” She looked up guiltily at Misaki. “‘escape’... safe and sound.”

Misaki stared calmly down at Kanon. “She was trying to protect you.” She said quietly, more to herself than to Kanon. She turned around, trying to occupy her mind with an examination of some of the equipment she’d confiscated. She tugged nervously at the bear charm wrapped around her wrist, gently, careful not to break it.

“W-will you help us?”

Misaki whipped around to see Kanon staring at her once again. “What?”

“I-I know you can see it too! Y-you know the Guard should be d-doing more to help people!” Misaki just stared, shocked by Kanon’s sudden outburst. “Y-you have to see it… please…”

“I… I don’t…” Misaki thought of Captain Tsurumaki’s declaration that he didn’t care about Kanon, of his decision to found the Phantom Thief taskforce only after his own home was robbed, of how that ChuChu girl had just waltzed in and taken command of the situation with no credentials beyond a prestigious signature and a hefty bank account… that ChuChu girl… “So… Kaoru Seta was the Phantom Thief…”

“Huh?”

The wheels in Misaki’s head were spinning faster than ever, the mind that had gotten her to the head of the Phantom Thief taskforce hard at work. She began to pace up and down the room. “Kaoru Seta was the Phantom Thief’s first victim, or so we thought. But it turns out they’re the same person, so what really happened was…” Misaki snapped her fingers, spinning to face Kanon. For the first time in a while, excitement graced her grey eyes. “She staged the theft so we wouldn’t suspect what she was really up to!”

“Y-yes?” Kanon stammered. “I know…?”

Misaki began shaking her head quickly. “No, no, no, you don’t understand. Nothing was ever stolen! She staged the theft and sent us on a wild goose chase after a plausible scapegoat, because she doesn’t want us thinking about what she’s really up to!”

“W-what? What are you-?” Suddenly, realisation dawned on Kanon’s face. “Oh.” She stood up, putting a hand to her mouth. “ Oh.

Misaki grinned, the way she always used to when she cracked a case. It was an expression Kanon hadn’t seen for a long time. It was an expression, Kanon discovered, that she had missed. “Now you’re getting it! Ha! ” Misaki yelled, snapping her fingers again.

The final pieces fell into place in Kanon’s mind, the true identity of the culprit at last coming to her. She looked straight at Misaki, awestruck. The dark-haired detective turned away, basking in the glory of her own deductive prowess, and spoke breathlessly to nobody.

“Son of a bitch.”

* * *

ChuChu looked at the gleaming form of the Shatterstar on the desk before her, then at the uncomfortable, sweaty face of the researcher standing behind it. She glanced over her shoulder at Pareo before resuming her questioning.

“So what does it do?

The scientist gulped, dabbing a bit of sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “It, er, it doesn’t do anything. It’s - it’s a perfectly ordinary diamond. Just… very large, is all. Um, sir.”

The cat-eared girl snarled. “It has to do something . I put a lot of effort and our employer put a lot of money into this operation, and you come back with nothing? ” She tossed a scrunched-up ball of paper at the man, which bounced harmlessly off his cheek.

“I-I mean, he’ll understand, won’t he? It can’t be helped, after all… it’s not anybody’s fault …”

ChuChu sat back in her chair, grumbling imperceptibly, then gestured Pareo towards the scientist. “Get rid of him.”

“Okay!”

“W-wait, what!?”

Pareo began rustling around in a pouch tied around her waist, soon withdrawing a handful of marbles. She carefully selected one before replacing the others, then looked over to the scientist, who was quickly backing away.

“W-wait!” he yelled, shaking his head frantically. “I-I can still help you! You - you’re making a mistake!”

“Sorry,” Pareo shrugged, her smile never leaving her face, “but Mistress ChuChu never makes mistakes.” She playfully tossed the marble, and the moment it made contact with the man, he was gone.

“Hmph.” ChuChu grunted, picking up the diamond. “So what the hell are we supposed to do with this?”

* * *

An uproarious cheer greeted Misaki Okusawa as she marched the Phantom Thief, hands cuffed behind her back, pinned against her cape, through the grand entrance to Hanasakigawa Guard Headquarters. Silhouetted dramatically against the midday sunlight, she was flanked by her partner, Kanon Matsubara, and the captain’s daughter, both of whom had been kidnapped by the nefarious criminal just the previous night. Whispers soon began to follow them.

“...thought she’d never do it…”

“...is that really her, though? It could be anyone…”

“...dunno who that lady’s tailor is, but that suit’s an awful fit…”

Swiftly, the four of them were whisked to a situation room downstairs, where they were awaited by Captain Tsurumaki, along with the two mysterious museum representatives.

“You did it.” the captain breathed, his lips spreading into a rare smile. “My god. After all this time, you actually did it.” He turned to look at his daughter, whose seemingly-permanent smile, by contrast, had vanished. “Kokoro.”

She bowed her head. “Father.”

“Don’t let this happen again. Now, as for you…” he stood and strode menacingly over to the Phantom Thief, who glared angrily up at him. He considered her for a moment, then placed his hand over her mask and dramatically pulled it off, exposing the brown eyes beneath. A pause before he spoke again.

“Just some punk, huh? Ah, well. Dunno what I was expecting.” He tossed the mask onto the table and went to sit back down, but turned back to the Thief for a moment, eyeing the folds of her ill-fitting suit. “Tell you what, though. When… sorry, if you get out of here, you really need to find yourself a better tailor.” He sat down with a satisfied sigh. “Okusawa?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Get this bastard down to the cells.”

“Wait.” came ChuChu’s irritating voice from the corner. “Where’s the diamond?”

Misaki turned to her, her gaze cold as steel. “We have been unable to recover the diamond as of yet.”

“So you failed.”

“No. My job was to capture the Phantom Thief, and I have done so. Finding the diamond is up to those bounty hunters you brought on. Who, I might add, were no help at all.”

“Hmph.” the catgirl grunted. “And where are they?”

“Well,” Misaki wondered aloud, “I’d assume they’re hard at work.”

* * *

“Are you sure this is going to work? Because from where I’m standing, we look kind of conspicuous.”

“Relax, Ran. It’ll be fine~”

“Can you two be quiet? I need to concentrate…”

The blazing sun beat down on the Hanasakigawa Museum for Worldwide Treasures as Ran, Moca and Himari made their way round the back, to the staff entrance. Himari’s hands were splayed open, held out to her sides as she concentrated intensely.

“Are you sure you can do this?” Ran asked. “I mean, reading other people’s emotions is one thing, but influencing them?”

“Of course I can do it.” Himari pouted. “As long as I maintain the spell, everyone will think it’s normal for us to be here…”

With a subtle tap, Moca unlocked the door, and the three entered the staff locker room. A couple of people were in there with them, but sure enough, none of them paid the intruders any mind.

“Now what?” asked Ran. “What are we actually looking for?”

“We should find the most private, high-security area possible. That’s where I’d keep anything I was pretending to steal~” Moca replied dreamily, starting to wander off before Himari grabbed her arm.

“Don’t get too far away!” she warned. “The spell only works within a set radius. If we get separated, you won’t be protected.”

Moca smirked. “Luckily, Moca is a master of stealth.” she announced, before suddenly melting into Himari’s shadow, prompting both her and Ran to yell in shock, earning an irritated glance, but thankfully nothing more, from the room’s other inhabitants.

“What the hell?” Ran whispered once she’d regained her composure.

“Shadow-walking~” came Moca’s voice from the floor. “Dark mage power. It’s what Kaoru was using to get around at night.”

A moment of stunned silence passed.

“...So are we going?”

“Oh! Right, yes. Um… sorry.” Himari stammered, looking around for any promising exits. She soon spied a sign pointing towards the Directors’ Offices. “Looks good, yeah?”

“Yep~” Moca’s voice came, as Ran nodded. The three of them made their way through the museum’s backrooms, Moca riding as an invisible passenger in Himari’s shadow. After a few storage rooms, most of the space in this section of the building was devoted to offices and research stations, where archaeologists and academics carefully studied the artefacts the museum had come into possession of, hunting for wisdom in the ways of the past. Before long, they came upon a door labelled “DIRECTORS’ OFFICES [AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY]”

“Moca?” Ran tapped the ground with her foot.

“I gotcha~” came the reply, and Moca’s arm emerged from Himari’s shadow, tapping the door to unlock it before returning to apparent nonexistence.

“God, that’s unsettling.” Ran murmured as she cracked the door open.

* * *

The Headquarters’ holding cells were small, dark, and empty. Suspects didn’t typically stay long before being whisked off to custody of the courts, if they were lucky or wealthy enough to get a trial, or to a proper jail, if they weren’t. Most people weren’t. Kokoro having been left under her father’s wing back in the main building, six sets of footsteps could be heard echoing through the hallway. The Guard stationed at the cells - the keeper of the keys, as he was known - led the small procession to the end of the hall, where he opened one of the cells and beckoned the unmasked Thief inside. Glowering silently, she marched into the dingy room, the barred door slamming shut behind her.

“Well, exciting as this has been,” ChuChu announced, her ears twitching, “we have other business to attend to. Come along, Pareo.” Beckoning to her sunny assistant, she strode out of the building, Pareo waving goodbye as she followed behind. When they were gone, Misaki turned to the keeper.

“Detective Matsubara and I would like to interrogate the prisoner.” The keeper nodded and left.

The moment he was gone, a toothy grin broke out across Hagumi Kitazawa’s face. “How’d I do, Kanon?” she asked, bouncing around her cell excitedly. “How’d I do? D’you think we fooled ‘em?”

“Y-you did great, Hagumi…” Kanon said gently, a reassuring smile on her face. Hagumi finally stood still, basking in her comrade’s praise.

“Yeah, yeah, you did great. Now,” Misaki stated flatly, eager to get back on track. “are you sure you know what to do? I mean, no offence, but you seem kind of, er…” her voice faltered at Hagumi’s innocent expression, and at Kanon’s protective glare. She cleared her throat. “I just want to make sure.”

“Uh-huh! I just gotta use the cape to vanish back home. Then the Guard’ll be so busy looking for me, they won’t notice Himari and her friends breaking into the museum!”

“Okay, good. Now remember: you have to make sure that Guard at the front desk sees you again before you vanish, otherwise they’ll think we helped you escape. But you can’t let him see you in the act, otherwise they’ll know to trace the magical residue back to your house. Got it?”

Hagumi nodded enthusiastically, a blank smile on her face. Misaki grimaced.

“Beginning to feel like this plan could have used a bit more time in the oven.” A gentle hand on her forearm.

“It’s okay.” Kanon’s voice, as calming as it had ever been, even now. “We can trust Hagumi.”

Misaki’s doubts died in her throat as she nodded. “Okay.” She turned back to the impostor thief. “Good luck.”

“G-good luck.”

A thumbs up in response.

The two detectives made their way to leave, pausing briefly at the keeper’s desk. “Make sure to keep a close eye on her.” Misaki advised, gesturing towards the cells. “You never know what she might have up her sleeve.”

* * *

Eight doors lined the walls of the extravagant hallway the trio found themselves in, four on each side, one leading into the office of each of the museum’s directors. On each door was a portrait of the office’s occupant. At the end of the hall was a pair of large mahogany double doors, leading into the room where the entire board would convene to make executive decisions about the museum’s future. Ran took a glance around the bases of each door.

“No lights on. Guess nobody’s home.”

“Makes things easier.” Moca replied from the shadows. “Get me close to a door. I’ll slip under, scope the room for any clues.”

“Right.” Himari walked towards the first door to her left, which was decorated with a picture of an old man. Looking around, Himari noticed that every door was decorated with a picture of an old man. Still, close examination of the paintings at least showed they were nice pictures of old men.

“Back in a minute. Don’t move~” Moca announced, and Himari assumed she was gone after that, although she couldn’t actually tell. She turned to talk to Ran, only to realise all of a sudden that she was no longer behind her. She looked around in panic for just a second before noticing Ran examining one of the paintings on the opposite side of the room.

“Ran!” she half-whispered, half-yelled, but no answer came. But the bounty hunter was completely entranced by the image before her - another old man, with a thin, stern face and a patch over his right eye. “Ran! What are you doing?” she tried again. This time, she got a reply.

“This man…” Ran murmured, in horrified recognition. “I know this man.”

* * *

“So why’d you do it?”

Misaki looked up from the heaps of paperwork on her desk, an eyebrow raised. Kanon stood before her, wearing her best determined expression. “Pretty sure I’m the one who should be asking that.” she replied bluntly.

“I mean it. Y-you had Kaoru and… and everyone locked away, a-and you were going to take us all in. B-but then you figured out w-what was really going on, and suddenly…”

Misaki sighed. “I just figured I could use her help with the ChuChu thing, okay? I don’t know how many people are in on this. This doesn’t change anything.”

“W-why would anyone else be in on it?”

“I don’t know, Kanon, but for some reason I’ve had a bit of trouble trusting people lately.”

Kanon looked away, and Misaki tried to return to work without feeling too guilty. She tugged awkwardly at the bear charm around her wrist. “Careful…” Kanon murmured, and Misaki grunted in response and stopped. Kanon soon spoke up again. “S-so, when all this is over… w-what happens? T-to us?”

Silence reigned over the small office as Kanon’s words hung heavy in the air. Eventually, Misaki found her voice. “I… don’t know.”

Neither woman could meet the other’s eyes. “I…” Kanon swallowed, her thoughts catching in her throat, like they always used to before she’d met Misaki. “I think you do.”

Misaki looked up at Kanon, her eyes narrowed in curiosity. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I-I think the reason you n-never caught us isn’t b-because we were smarter than you. I think y-you knew exactly what was going on. B-but you d-didn’t want to stop us.”

Misaki again looked away, her brow furrowed. Contemplative. “Kaoru Seta…” she eventually murmured.

“Hm?”

“Her parents’ killer. That was us, wasn’t it? Who caught him. That was the case that got me promoted above you.”

Kanon nodded silently.

“God damn.” Misaki leaned back in her chair. “What is that, fate or something? Anyone else had caught her, they’d be in charge of this taskforce.” She looked into Kanon’s eyes. “And yeah. Kaoru would probably be behind bars.”

Kanon smiled. “I’m sorry.”

“Huh?”

“F-for lying, all that time. I-I really am sorry.”

Another sigh. “It’s fine.” Misaki replied, after some hesitation. “I… I understand. Everything.”

“Does this mean you’ll h-help us?”

“Don’t know if I’ll be in any position to after this fiasco.” Suddenly, a frantic banging on the door. “Come in.”

The Guard charged into the office, sweaty and panicked. “It’s the Phantom Thief, sir!” he cried. “She-she’s gone!”

* * *

Kaoru Seta knew why she had to remain at home. She wasn’t an idiot, after all. Everyone had their role to play, and right now, this was hers. She knew this.

But that didn’t mean she had to like it.

Impatiently, she paced up and down the hardwood floor of her bed chamber, keeping the stifling, unfamiliar silence at bay by loudly reciting some of her favourite monologues from her theatre days. But though her memory was as sharp as ever, her voice didn’t seem to fill the room like it used to, and she could tell her heart wasn’t really in it. After too little time, her speech drew to a close, and the silence closed in on her once more. She began hastily scanning her bookshelves, looking for further inspiration, when she was interrupted by a sudden whooshing sound. She turned to see the figure of Hagumi Kitazawa stood before her.

“Ah, Hagumi.” she addressed her companion, the smile returning to her face. “I trust all is well with the plan?” But one look at Hagumi’s wide, quivering eyes alerted her that this was not the case. “What’s wrong?”

Hagumi gulped, her customary swagger completely gone as she ripped off a purple wig. “I think they saw me.”

Kaoru’s face set into a grim expression Hagumi had never seen before. After a moment, the Phantom Thief spoke. “Get changed into something less conspicuous, then get as far away from here as you can. There’s no point in them catching us both.”

Hagumi stood and started towards her room before the significance of what Kaoru had said dawned on her. “You’re not coming?”

“We don’t have time to get far. If we both run, they’ll find us both. If I remain here, though, it won’t even occur to them to go after you.”

Hagumi grunted, her eyes darting about in thought. “I’ll get help.”

“Everyone who could help me will be among the Guard. They are my only hope now, I’m afraid.”

“But what about--”

Kaoru held up a hand. “No. You know we can’t trust her. Now go! We don’t have much time!”

Hagumi pouted, but did as she was told, shedding the cape as she dashed out the door. Kaoru sighed as she picked the enchanted garment up. A sad smile.

“Fleeting…”

* * *

Moca emerged from Himari’s shadow, a look of disappointment on her face. “Nothing in there… Onto the next-- huh? What’s Ran doing over there?”

“I don’t know!” Himari yelped as she dashed across the hall, Moca following at a leisurely pace. “Ran! You’re supposed to be keeping watch!”

Ran whipped around to face Moca. “It’s in here.”

Moca cocked her head. “What gives you that idea?”

“Just get in there!” Ran snapped, earning a reproachful glare.

“Was gonna do it anyway…” Moca muttered as she melted under the door, using Ran’s shadow as a bridge. Ran turned her gaze to the floor, her eyes practically boring a hole in the carpet.

Himari looked at the door for a moment, examining the painting. The plaque beneath identified its subject as General Goro Tamade. She turned to Ran. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Ran shot a venomous look at her. “You really hate this guy, huh?” Silence. “Who is he?”

“Can’t you do your little mind-reading trick to find out?” Ran murmured bitterly.

“I’m an empath, not a telepath. I read hearts, not minds. Very different.” Himari reflexively corrected her before realising the inappropriate tone of her words. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

No answer. The pair stood in awkward silence for a minute or so before Moca emerged. “Well?” Ran pressed, anxious for answers.

“Nothing. Sorry.” Moca shrugged coldly. Ran’s shoulders slumped, her mouth pursing into a thin line of frustration.

“Well,” started Himari, attempting to break the tension, “onto the next one, then! Still six rooms to check!”

A high-pitched clearing of the throat from the end of the hall. ChuChu and Pareo standing at the door. “Looking for this?” the smaller girl smirked, holding the Shatterstar in the palm of her hand.

Ran growled, her sword in her hand. Himari leaned toward her. “Do you know these children?” she began to ask, but received no answer, as Ran was already on them.

“Who do you work for?” she snarled, pressing her sword to ChuChu’s throat.

“My, my. How aggressive. That’s no way to talk to your betters.” There was an arm around Ran’s throat - Pareo. She’d forgotten about Pareo. “Now, what were you saying?”

A ball of black flame zipped just over ChuChu’s head, singing the tips of her ears. She looked past Ran and Pareo to see Moca, matching black flames in her hands. “The next one won’t miss.”

“Rude. Shut up, I’m trying to have a conversation here.” ChuChu commented, before continuing to ignore her. “Sorry about that. Now… Mitake, was it? You had a question for me?”

“Who do you work for?” the hunter choked out, trying to keep a grip on her sword.

ChuChu took a moment to decide whether or not to answer, and in that moment, Moca struck again, a column of dark fire colliding directly with ChuChu’s head, knocking the girl off her feet. Pareo yelped in surprise, dropping her prisoner to the ground and rushing to her companion’s side. “Mistress ChuChu! Are you okay?”

“That should keep her down for a week! Now come on!” Moca yelled from down the hall, waving for Ran to follow as she and Himari dashed for the double doors at the other end of the hall. Ran staggered and made her way after them, catching up just as Moca threw the doors open to reveal a wall of solid stone. “What the hell?”

“I thought I told you to shut up.” The trio turned to see ChuChu, standing as though nothing had happened. Her hand was extended towards them, some kind of red energy crackling around it.

“A week?” Himari yelled at Moca.

“I… I don’t understand…” For once, Moca seemed to be at a loss.

“Now, Mitake. Your question.” ChuChu stared at Ran, whose hand tightened around the hilt of her sword. “Pareo and I are in the employ of my father, Goro Tamade. Since you seem so interested, perhaps you might like to meet him?”

Ran steeled her nerves. She may not have known what she was looking at, but she knew what she wanted. “Oh, yes. I would like that very much.”

“What?” Himari shouted, exasperated. “Why? Who is this guy?”

Ran looked over her shoulder at her. “That’s the bastard who killed my father.” She began walking toward ChuChu. “And now I get to make him pay.”

* * *

The carriage jostled violently as it raced toward the home of Kaoru Seta, leading a convoy of Guard horses and carriages to the location of their charge. In the back, Misaki and Kanon clung on for dear life, desperately trying to think of a way out of their predicament.

“Do you think she’ll be there when we arrived?” Misaki asked Kanon, who was desperately clinging to Misaki’s arm.

“W-we have to assume she w-will be… and they’ll figure out it’s Kaoru now a-anyway…”

“Right. Not like we’d be lucky enough for everything to sort itself out that easily…” Misaki contemplated the charm on her wrist, prompting a nudge from Kanon.

“No.”

“Just as a last resort.”

“No! N-not even then! It’s t-too risky!”

“Nobody’ll be able to see that it was me.”

Kanon grumbled in displeasure, but didn’t argue the point further. Misaki wrapped an arm around her, taking a look out the window, where she saw something unexpected.

“Wait!” she yelled, loud enough for the driver to hear. “Stop the car!”

* * *

“Stop!”

Ran turned at Moca’s cry, her eyes cold.

“Think about this for a second, Ran! If this is the kind of power he has at his disposal… you don’t stand a chance! He’ll kill you!”

A pause. “Not if I kill him first.” And she was walking again.

Moca slapped her palm against her forehead. “For the love of… how can you be this stupid?” No response. Moca started walking, making her way into Ran’s path.

“Get out of the way.”

“No.” Ran’s eyes narrowed. “If you die now, Ran, then it was all for nothing. You understand? Everything you did will have been for nothing.” Her resolve seemed to waver. “You don’t have to do this now.”

“This is irrelevant.” ChuChu announced. “You’re all coming, whether you…” she sniffed. “Whether you want to or… or not…” She fell to her knees, sobbing, Pareo crying loudly beside her.

“What the…” Moca murmured, before Himari rushed past, grabbing the diamond from the ground by ChuChu’s feet.

“Come on! This won’t last long!” she cried, pushing the door open and gesturing frantically for the others to follow.

“Ran?”

Ran looked at the weeping forms of her opponents, and sheathed her sword. “...Fine.”

The trio raced through the back rooms of the museum, retracing their steps to the employee entrance they’d come in through. “What was that?” Moca asked as they barreled through the hallways.

“Little bit of emotional manipulation! Just made them really sad about nothing for a moment. Won’t last long, though…”

“Then we’d better make a quick getaway.” Ran said, bursting through the exit and onto the street just as a convoy of Guard carriages came clattering loudly up the road. Unexpectedly, the lead one pulled over, letting the others pass it, and Misaki Okusawa kicked the door open from within.

“Hey!” the detective yelled. “Come on, we could use your help!”

“Handy.” Ran said, dashing towards the inviting carriage. Once the three had piled in, the door slammed shut behind them. “Quickly!” Ran yelled, and they were off.

“Everything okay?” Misaki asked, her expression somewhere between concern and panic.

“You were right.” Ran replied breathlessly. “It was ChuChu, she had the diamond. And…”

“And some kinda crazy magic, too.” Moca interrupted, giving Ran the chance to catch her breath. “Like nothing I’ve ever even heard of before. Not in real life, anyway.”

“Oh! And I got the diamond!” Himari announced, holding the stone up proudly.

“Good work. I’ll see that the captain gets it. Now, we have bigger problems to worry about.” Ran raised an eyebrow. “They know Kaoru is the Phantom Thief. We’re now on our way to arrest her. For real, this time. Any ideas on how we can, er…” she paused as she tried to find the right words. “...not do that?”

“Hey, uh, not to be a bother or anything,” Himari began, glancing over her shoulder with worry, “but don’t you think the driver can hear us?”

Misaki shook her head. “I don’t think so, no. That glass is pretty thick.”

“I can, actually!” came a familiar, high-pitched voice from the driver’s compartment. Instantly, Misaki turned white as a sheet.

“Oh god.”

She pushed Ran and Moca to one side as she reached across the carriage, yanking the front window open and sticking her head out to see the driver. Sure enough, there was Kokoro Tsurumaki, grinning like an idiot as she urged the horses pulling the carriage on. “Hi Misaki! Are you on our side now?”

“Oh my god.” She withdrew back into the carriage, glaring at Kanon. “Did you know about this?” Kanon looked away guiltily. “Oh my god.” Misaki took her seat and stared grimly into space for a moment before speaking again. “Well, good news, everyone. We don’t have to worry about what we’re going to do when we get to Kaoru’s house.”

The others looked at her in confusion.

Because we will all be dead before we get there.

* * *

As the Phantom Thief surveyed her old home for the last time, she found herself oddly detached. She felt that there should be a sense of finality as she patrolled each chamber, knowing that she would never see it again, and yet nothing. Just the same dull, mundane familiarity she felt every day. She wondered idly if the reality of the situation hadn’t sunk in yet, or if she simply, truly didn’t care.

She supposed she would have to get her cape re-enchanted. Assuming she escaped, that is.

Assuming she escaped.

She smiled, and she did not know why.

A great clattering of hooves and of metal arose from outside, and she knew her time was up. The show was about to begin.

The Phantom Thief’s final bow.

* * *

The moment the convoy pulled up outside Kaoru’s home, Misaki hastily and stealthily shoved Kokoro into the carriage. “Do not move or touch anything.” She turned toward Kanon. “Why did you bring her along? She’s a child .”

“Sh-she’s actually a couple months older than you…”

“I refuse to acknowledge that. Also it doesn’t answer my question?”

Kanon shifted nervously on her feet. “She s-said she wanted to help… and she seemed… scared… of the captain… I d-didn’t want to leave her with him…”

Misaki sighed. That second point was reasonable, at least. “Fine. But we can’t just drag her around with us everywhere.”

“B-but…”

“We’ll talk about this more later. I promise. But right now…” She looked up at the house, silhouetted forebodingly against the twilit sky. She grimaced, and set off towards the others. “Ran! Moca! ...Other one!”

“It’s Himari .” The other one said as she turned toward her, pouting.

“Sure, cool. You all clear on what to do?”

“Nope~”

Misaki groaned. “What do you mean, no?”

“Well, no offence, but it’s not really much a plan, is it?” Ran replied. “We’re just trying to blend in while you do your… thing.”

“Why can you do that, anyway?” Moca asked. “Doesn’t really seem like your style~”

“I did a lot of stupid stuff when I was younger. Doesn’t matter why, the point is I’m stuck with it now. Himari?”

Thank you.” the empath muttered before answering. “I’m supposed to, er, ‘keep you under control.’”

“And you can do that, yeah?”

Himari’s face scrunched up in determination. “I can try.”

Misaki grimaced. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” she said, more to herself than to Himari, glancing at her bear charm. “Right. Better go give the men their orders. They seem to be getting restless.”

As the detective made for the head of the crowd of assembled Guards, Ran turned to Moca. “I can’t believe I let you get me into this mess.”

“Aw, you love me really~”

“Shut up.” Ran made her way after Misaki. Moca turned to Himari, a pleading look in her eyes.

“I’m staying out of this.” Himari, too, set off, leaving Moca standing by herself.

“Poor Moca… poor, unloved Moca~”

“I love you, Moca!” came Kokoro’s muffled voice from inside the carriage. Moca turned to face the source and bowed.

“Thank you, Kokoro. Your love will surely guide me through…” she turned to the house, her fist clenched in front of her. “...this harshest of trials…”

For a moment, all was silent, save for the sound of Moca’s cloak billowing dramatically in the wind. Then, at last, came a response.

“Yaaaaay!”

* * *

The door yielded easily to Misaki’s trained shoulder, and a swarm of Guards flooded in, headed off by Kanon, Ran, Moca, and Himari. They were met with only silence. Misaki held up two fingers and pointed, and the host immediately broke into five groups, each headed off to search different corners of the house for their charge. Misaki had placed someone she could trust in the midst of each group, in the hopes that they could prevent Kaoru’s capture long enough for Misaki to to enact her plan. Insomuch as it was a plan, anyway.

Covering the ground floor, Misaki briefly entertained the notion that perhaps Kaoru had simply fled. That would be the smart thing to do, right? The smart thing to do would be to not deliberately provoke the most powerful people in the city , Misaki thought. Sure enough, a shout from the floor above.

“Found her!”

Misaki grimaced. “All units, converge on their position!” she bellowed, hoping she could be heard throughout the building. She needed everyone to be together for this to work. Not that it would probably work anyway, but still, that just meant she needed all the help she could get. Her troops raced past her, Misaki herself deliberately holding back, claiming she’d bring up the rear.

She arrived in the upstairs, a gaggle of Guards blocking her path, all eager to get into the room where the Phantom Thief had been cornered. It sounded like she was putting up a fight, at least. The Guards before her were craning their necks, jostling around to get their shot at the action. Nobody was paying her any mind. Perfect. She grasped the bear charm on her wrist.

She paused, briefly to consider the total insanity of what she was about to do.

They’re never gonna see this coming.

And she ripped the charm off.

* * *

Moca’s hands crackled with a threatening energy as she faced off against Kaoru in the latter’s bedroom. Threatening, but completely harmless, of course. A few choice words and Moca had convinced her contingent of Guards that stopping a dark mage was a job that should be left to another dark mage - surely no mere mortal could withstand such magical might! As such, the two were now engaged in a very impressive-looking light show, each blasting beams of pure nothingness at the other in the hopes of keeping the Guard at bay. For now, at least, it seemed to be working, with Ran, Himari, and Kanon running interference in the crowd.

She ducked under a beam, stepped to one side, and dashed forward, grabbing Kaoru’s collar in one hand.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered, hopefully quiet enough that no Guards heard, “Misaki has a plan.” She pushed, and Kaoru leapt back as though pushed, an eyebrow raised. She was about to launch another volley, when suddenly, a great noise arose from the hall outside, yelling and… roaring? Some kind of animal?

“What the devil is that?” she wondered aloud.

Moca smiled. “The plan.”

As if on cue, the beast rounded the corner, pushing its way through the doorway, doing considerable damage in the process. The assembled Guards scattered, yelling in shock as it revealed itself - a bear. No ordinary bear, either - a huge, bright pink bear.

“What the devil is that? ” Kaoru yelled out again, taken aback by the sudden appearance of such a beast in her home.

“It’s Misaki.”

“What? No it isn’t. It’s…” she gulped. “It’s a bear.

“Who cares? Just run! ” shouted Moca, blasting the window open and gesturing through it. Still reeling in shock, Kaoru tore her eyes away from the bestial intruder and made for her escape route.

“She’s getting away!” one of the Guards started to yell, before being swatted to the floor by the bear. Kaoru leapt, her mind racing as she fell toward the street below. She’d quietly hoped that Kanon and the others would find some way for her to get out of this, of course, but… what? Why was there a bear? How was there a bear?

Still, she realised as she melted into the shadows of the street below, it didn’t really matter. The end result was still the same.

The Phantom Thief lived to fight another day.

* * *

“Well,” started Moca as she watched Kaoru dissolve into darkness, “that takes care of that problem.” She turned back toward the room, and was greeted by a paw to the face.

“Great.” called Ran. “Now how do we take care of this?

Chaos reigned. The beast roared as she bounded around the room, scattering the panicking Guards like pigeons in the square. Some tried to fight back, but the bolts from their bows served only to further enrage the creature. Pressed into the corner was Kanon, her eyes darting between racing combatants as she made a strange noise not unlike a steam whistle. With Moca still incapacitated, Ran leapt into action, jumping on the bear’s back and attempting to pacify her with a blow to the back of the head from the hilt of her sword, but the only reaction she got was being tossed to the floor. The beast loomed over her, growling ominously. Ran glanced past her to where her sword had fallen, desperately trying to think of an escape route, but to no avail. She closed her eyes, bracing for impact as the creature raised her claws, but the blow never arrived.

“Run! Go! We’ll take care of this!” Himari shouted from across the room, her arms extended towards the bear. With their foe seemingly pacified, a murmur arose among the Guards, some advancing menacingly towards her instead. Ran took the opportunity to scramble to her feet, grabbing her sword and running to Moca’s side.

“G-GO!” Kanon emerged from her corner, seemingly having found her courage. “That’s an order! W-we need you to take care of the wounded!” Dissatisfied, but unwilling to disobey a direct order from a superior officer, the Guards began to trudge out of the room, some carrying wounded officers on their back, or just giving them a shoulder to lean on as they attempted to hobble away on their own. Soon, the only people left in the room were Kanon, Himari, the bounty hunters, and Misaki.

No apparent trace of humanity remaining in her bestial form, Misaki slowly snapped and growled at the air, vacantly attempting to break free of Himari’s pacifying influence. It seemed to be working. Himari winced.

“I-I don’t think I can hold on much longer…”

Kanon slowly advanced, a serene smile on her face as she approached Misaki. “Stop.”

Himari’s eyes widened. “Stop!? But… I mean… she could…!”

“It’ll be fine.” Kanon reassured her, her pace not slowing. “She won’t hurt me.”

Her mouth pursed into a thin line, Himari took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and lowered her arms. Instantly, Misaki’s lucidity returned, the deadly glint resurfacing in her eyes, locked with Kanon’s. The detective gulped, hesitated for just a split second, but kept walking.

“H-hey.” She held her hands in front of her. “I-it’s okay.”

Misaki growled.

“Misaki.” There was no command in her voice, no threat, only a gentle reassurance. Misaki growled again, but made no further movements as Kanon came face-to-face with her. Slowly, cautiously, never breaking eye contact, she reached out a hand. Another growl, quieter this time, and a curious sniff. The hand made contact with the top of her head, and, when Misaki didn’t react, Kanon began gently ruffling Misaki’s hair. The bear closed her eyes, leaning into Kanon’s touch, and began making a noise that sounded rather like…

“Purring?” Ran said, helping Moca stand as the mage finally came to her senses.

“Do bears… purr?” Himari asked, a finger on her chin.

“‘Sa magic bear.” came Moca’s groggy response. “Acts more like what Misaki thinks a bear should act like than what bears actually act like. ‘Swhy she’s so big.”

Silence fell across the room as Ran, Moca, and Himari observed the strange scene before them. Quiet moments passed, and Kanon moved to say something, but was interrupted before she got the chance.

“Bear!” A new voice from the ruined doorframe - Kokoro’s voice. With this new element of chaos, the calm of the room instantly evaporated, replaced with stifling tension. Everyone stared at Kokoro as she stared back at Misaki, her eyes sparkling with glee. “Bear!” she yelled again, and dashed forward.

“No-!” Kanon yelped as Kokoro collided with Misaki, embracing her in a massive hug. The others tensed, braced for the worst--

But Misaki only tilted her head curiously at the new arrival, who laughed quietly as she cuddled the bear. “I’m gonna call you Michelle!” she announced, poking Misaki, who responded with a strange grunt.

“Uh… K-Kokoro?” Kanon nudged the blonde girl gently, attempting to ease her off Misaki. “I-I need you to find something for me…”

“Hmmm…” Kokoro pouted momentarily at having to give up her hug, but was immediately smiling again. “Sure! What is it?”

“Th-there’s this little… bracelet… with a bear charm attached to it…”

“Okay!” Kokoro dashed from the room before Kanon could finish explaining, eager to complete her new task.

“W-wait! ...Oh, never mind…”

“I’ll go too.” Moca announced, stretching. “Big house, probably easier for two people to cover than just one.”

“Me too!” said Himari, holding her hand up to signify her volunteering.

“Yeah, that makes sense.” conceded Ran, and the three of them set off into the house to begin their search.

Almost immediately, they returned.

“That was quick…” noted Kanon with surprise as Moca held up Misaki’s charm.

“Yeah, it was like, right outside. I’ve no idea how she missed it.” Moca explained, handing the enchanted jewellery to Kanon.

“O-okay… Misaki?” The bear tilted its head quizzically at Kanon as she wrapped the bracelet around her front right paw, and suddenly, the bear was gone, and there sat Misaki Okusawa, looking perfectly human and perfectly exhausted.

“Ugh…” she groaned, rubbing her head and looking around at the ruined room. She asked the same question she always asked. “Did I hurt anyone?”

“Of course not.” Kanon smiled. “You could never hurt anyone.”

“I dunno…” Moca began, “some of those Guards looked pretty--” she was cut off by two simultaneous elbows to the ribs from Ran and Himari.

“Are you okay?” Kanon asked, ignoring Moca’s interruption.

“I dunno. I guess.” Misaki sighed, looking at the charm on her wrist. “You’d think it’d get easier each time, y’know? You’d think it’d get easier. But it never does.”

Kanon wrapped her arms around Misaki’s shoulders, pulling her into a hug. “It’s okay. It’s okay now.” Once again, silence fell.

And, once again, it was interrupted by Kokoro’s arrival.

“Sorry, Kanon…” she pouted, clearly upset. “I couldn’t find it anywhere… huh?” She looked at Misaki for a moment, then all around the room, sadness immediately replaced by confusion. “Where’s Michelle?”

A beat. “...I know I’ll probably regret asking this,” Misaki sighed, turning back to Kanon, “but who the hell is Michelle?”

* * *

Dawn tinged the sky over Hanasakigawa pink as Ran and Moca stood at the gates, facing towards the Circle Woods.

“That,” Ran declared, “was the longest two days of my life.”

“You don’t regret it though, do you?” Moca asked. “We got some new info, performed some heroic deeds… what more could you want from an adventure?”

Ran shot her a look. “It’s not an adventure.” She looked out over the horizon. “...But no. I don’t regret it.”

“Awww… the cold-blooded Ran has a heart of gold after all…” Moca squeezed her arm gently. “My hero~”

“Shut up.” Ran muttered, blushing. Moca detached, a smug smile gracing her features. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“Hang on.” Moca pulled on Ran’s sleeve gently. “Looks like we’ve got company.”

“Waaaaiiiiiitttttt!!” A familiar voice floated through the calm early morning streets. A familiar, somewhat whiny voice. Ran squinted at the newcomer dashing towards them.

“...Himari?”

“Jeez, you guys…” she pouted when she reached them. “I thought you were gonna leave without me…”

Ran tilted her head quizzically. “...Why would we not?”

Himari huffed. “Moca said I could come with you guys on your adventure!”

Did she now. ” Ran glared at her partner, who smiled innocently.

“Come on, Ran, she can help~” Moca argued. “It’s always good to have a healer around. Besides, who could say no to that face~?” She pointed to Himari, who gazed up at Ran with tearful, pleading eyes.

Ran grumbled something inaudibly before speaking. “Fine.” she snapped. “But she’s your problem, not mine. And you’re only with me until we meet this contact of yours. Then I’m out.”

“Uh-huh.” Moca nodded, not really paying attention.

“I mean it, Moca. I’m doing this alone.”

“Sure you are.”

“I am!”

“Yep.”

“Hey!” Another new voice. Ran looked up to see Misaki and Kanon standing with them now.

“Uh… hey. How did you know we’d be here?”

“Oh, we just followed the sound of bickering.” Misaki explained nonchalantly.

“We were with Himari. She just r-ran ahead when she saw you at the gate…” Kanaon explained properly.

“Kanon didn’t want you to leave without saying goodbye.” Kanon blushed at Misaki’s words, but didn’t deny them.

“Oh. Um… goodbye.” Ran bowed stiffly, uncertain of how to act. She’d never really said goodbye before.

“Bye~” Moca waved, a smile plastered across her face.

“I’ll miss you!” Himari announced, sweeping the detectives up in a hug.

“H-hey!” Misaki protested. “Ease off on the hugging! We barely know each other!”

Himari broke off her embrace and turned to Kanon. “I think I’ll miss you more.”

“Hey!” Misaki yelled, and Himari and Kanon laughed.

“Kaoru sends her regards, too.” Kanon said, withdrawing a trio of letters from her pocket and handing one each to Ran, Moca, and Himari.

“What’s happening with her?” Ran asked as she tucked the letter into her bag.

“She’s staying at mine for now. She and Hagumi.” Misaki answered. “Kanon said she could work something out with a…”

“Mutual friend.” Kanon finished.

“What about ChuChu and Pareo?”

“Well…” Misaki scratched the back of her head. “There’s no real evidence against them, to be honest, and I don’t exactly have a high standing in the captain’s eyes right now, so…” She sighed. “Looks like they’ll be getting away with this one.”

Ran grunted, and Moca placed a hand on her shoulder. She spoke after a moment. “Fine. Means I get to deal with them.” And without another word, she turned and strode into the wilderness.

* * *

Backstage, the theatre bustled with activity, stagehands and actors all preparing for the night’s big show. Misaki glanced around awkwardly as Kanon led her through the hubbub. “Are you sure this is where we can find your and Kaoru’s… ‘mutual friend?’” she asked, as an extra dressed as some kind of extravagantly-coloured bird rushed past. “Seems kinda… silly.”

“She’s through here.” Kanon responded, leading Misaki down a less busy corridor to the right, ultimately arriving at a white door emblazoned with a yellow star.

“...Here?”

Kanon nodded. She raised a hand to knock, hesitated, and grabbed Misaki’s shoulders. “Misaki.” There was something new in Kanon’s eyes, or something Misaki hadn’t seen before, at least. It frightened her a little.

“Y-yes?”

“Behind this door is the most d-dangerous woman in the city, and quite possibly the whole world. So I need you to d-do exactly as I say. L-let me do the talking. D-don’t speak unless spoken to. And don’t take your eyes off her. Got it?”

“Uh… yeah. Got it.”

“Okay.” Kanon took a deep breath, and knocked.

“Come in.” came a polite voice from the other side, almost immediately.

The room’s sole occupant sat in a chair facing away from the door, hiding her appearance from the detectives, although she could see them through the mirror in her hand, which she was using to apply makeup.

“Ah, Kanon. I assume you’re here about our mutual friend? I heard what happened, of course. Terrible business.”

“Y-yes. I-I thought you might b-be able to help…”

“Certainly, my dear. Anything to help a friend. And you must be Misaki? Kanon’s told me so much about you.”

Misaki glanced at Kanon, looking for approval before answering. “Uh… yes. That’s me. Detective Misaki Okusawa, at your service.”

“My, my, there’s no need to be so formal! We’re all friends here, aren’t we?” She laid the mirror down on the desk before her and stood, turning to face the two of them. Misaki instantly recognised her, of course. Anyone in Hansakigawa would. The blonde hair, the purple eyes.

“My name is Chisato Shirasagi. I’ve no doubt you’ve heard of me.” She took Misaki’s hand in hers and kissed it gently. “I look forward to working with you, Misaki.” And of course, the famous iron smile.

Chapter Text

You’d think the shade of an armada of trees would make the woods less hot. Unfortunately, as Himari Uehara was discovering, this was not the case.

Uuuuuugggggghhhhhhhh… ” the light mage groaned, theatrically wiping sweat from her brow. “Why is it so hoooooooooootttttt …”

“You’re the one… who wanted to come…” gasped Ran from in front of her, failing to maintain her bravado in the face of the overwhelming humidity, even as her sword cleaved a path through the underbrush.

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. This is nice~” Moca’s slow voice floated up from behind them.

“Shut up, Moca.” the other two grumbled in unison, prompting a laugh from their companion.

“Good to see you two are getting along~”

Silence fell over the trio once again as they slowly made progress through the thick growth of the forest floor. It didn’t last long, however.

“God dammit! ” Ran cried, throwing her sword to the ground in frustration.

“What?” Himari asked, before noticing the problem, a distinctive, gnarled tree with three slash marks in its trunk. Ran had made the first mark on what she said was the third time they’d passed the tree, and the other two on subsequent passes. She picked up her sword and made a fourth.

“How long are we supposed to keep going around in circles?” Ran yelled to the sky.

“I guess that’s why they call it Circle Woods…” Moca mused.

“You! You led us in here, you said your contact was waiting on the other side! Where is the other side? How do we get there? You must have been through here before!”

“Oh, yeah… I had a guide last time~” Moca recalled.

“A gui-- so why didn’t you get us a guide this time?”

“I thought I’d remember the path.” she shrugged. Ran growled.

“Hey, hey! Let’s all just calm down, okay?” Himari placed her hands on Ran’s shoulders. Ran grunted and sat on a nearby log.

“You better not be doing your…” She made a wavy gesture around her head. “...thing.”

“Thing…? Oh! No, no. I only use that if I absolutely have to.” Himari assured her. “It seems kinda… invasive.”

“Hm.” Ran nodded.

“How about we just… rest here a bit? I’m sure we all need some time to cool down.” Himari suggested, taking a seat beside Ran. She detached a flask from her belt, only to find it empty. “Hmph.” she pouted.

“Hang on, guys... my guide said not to stay in one place for too long while in the forest…” Moca objected, although her voice betrayed no concern.

Ran cocked her head. “How come?”

“I dunno.” Moca shrugged. “She wouldn’t let us stay in one place long enough to find out.”

“Well, I guess we should be going then…” Himari conceded, her words filled with bitter disappointment as she stood back up. “Ran?”

Ran remained seated, her face a mask of concentration as she considered her options. They were lost, no doubt about that. Retracing their steps wouldn’t do them any good, even if they were able to. The trail she’d been carving through the underbrush certainly didn’t seem to last, else they wouldn’t be in this situation.

“Uh, Ran?”

A dull roar emerged at the back of her mind. Frowning, she rubbed her head. They really needed a guide, but how would they get one? There was a town somewhere in the heart of these woods, she knew that much, but it wasn’t like they’d be able to get to it. Maybe Moca could send a summoning charm to fetch a guide… but would that work in these woods? It certainly wouldn’t be much help if they had to keep moving…

“Ran!”

Himari’s sharp voice shook her from her stupor, and she discovered that the dull roar in the back of her mind wasn’t in the back of her mind at all. Before her stood an enormous centipede made from earth and stone, shoots and roots jutting out from its misshapen form, six misplaced eyes crackling with red energy trained malevolently on Moca, who was trying to ward the monster away with black flame, seemingly to no avail.

“...Huh.”

“Hey, uh.” Moca called back to her. “Not that I can’t deal with this on my own, but some help would be appreciated.”

Instantly, Ran was diving toward the beast, sword in hand. It turned its head to face her, too late to prevent the blade cleaving through its neck. No sound came from the creature as its head fell to the ground, shattering into dirt as it did so, its body following suit. By the time Ran’s feet hit the ground, there was barely any indication the monster had ever existed.

“Man, if I’d known it would be that easy, I woulda done it myself~” Moca pouted, kicking the ground where the head had fallen.

“See, this is why swords are better than magic.” Ran boasted, sheathing her blade. “No time wasted worrying about what kind of magic your opponent would be vulnerable to. Everything’s vulnerable to getting its head chopped off.”

“Uh…” Himari’s voice. “Are you sure about that…?” She pointed behind the bickering pair, to where an orb of that crackling red energy floated. Dirt and rock flew back toward it, combining and solidifying until the centipede stood once again, good as new, and with a renewed malice for its would-be killer, stone mandibles clacking menacingly.

Ran drew her sword once more and Moca’s hands caught aflame. “Together, this time?” Moca asked.

A beat.

“Fine.” Ran responded. “Together.”

An arrow flew from the trees, lodging in one of the creature’s eyes. The projectile seemed to disrupt the eye’s energy, gathering it into itself and causing some of the detritus comprising the creature to fall to the ground as it writhed in silent pain. The trio whipped their heads around, searching for the weapon’s source, and were soon greeted by a hooded figure falling from the trees directly between Ran and Moca. Within seconds of her feet hitting the ground, she had nocked another arrow, her bow pointing straight at the creature.

“Go away!” she yelled, her voice high yet commanding. “Stop trying to hurt these people! We don’t want you here!” The monster regarded her for a moment with its remaining eyes, and Ran, Moca, and Himari shared an uneasy glance, readying for combat. But, to their surprise, the beast acquiesced, its components falling to the forest floor in a messy hail of dust, leaving behind only that orb of energy, which soon sank into the ground, leaving behind no trace of its presence.

The danger gone, the hooded figure turned to face the trio, lowering her hood as she did so to reveal brown eyes and brown hair, cut into a neat bob. She eyed them for a tense second before a spark of recognition crossed her features.

“Moca!” she exclaimed, a smile breaking out as she swept the mage into a hug. “What are you doing back here? I thought I told you to keep moving while you’re in the forest! Honestly, what are you like? You’re lucky I was passing by!”

“Uh, hi.” Moca awkwardly returned the hug. “This is--”

The newcomer didn’t give her a chance to finish speaking, quickly breaking off the hug and bowing in the direction of the others. “Hello! You must be Moca’s friends? It’s so great to meet you! What are your names?” She spoke with a frenetic energy, like she was afraid something bad might happen if she stopped.

Ran’s mouth just flopped open and closed like a fish, leaving Himari to answer. “I’m Himari Uehara, and this is Ran Mitake. We’re on an adventure!” she smiled, happy to have someone new to talk to. “And, er… who are you?”

“Oh! I’m so sorry, I forgot to introduce myself! Where are my manners?” A nervous laugh. “I’m Tsugumi Hazawa. I’m a ranger!”

* * *

In a large clearing in the heart of the Circle Woods stood Circle Town. It was a humble settlement, consisting of around thirty houses, a town hall, and a general store, plus a few more businesses run out of people’s homes. Tsugumi led the wayward trio of adventurers up the sole path in and out of the town, which she had found seemingly effortlessly, much to Ran’s silent frustration.

“So what brings you three this way?” asked Tsugumi as they entered the clearing, attempting to break the awkward silence that pervaded the quartet..

“Gotta meet a friend on the other side of the forest~” replied Moca, walking alongside the ranger, Ran and Himari tailing behind. “Helping Ran on her epic quest~”

“Ooh, a quest!” Tsugumi echoed, turning to Ran with a sparkle in her eyes. “What kind of quest?”

Ran shot Moca a glare before answering. “I’d… rather not say.”

“Oh.” Tsugumi glanced uncomfortably at Moca. “Okay. Fair enough.” The awkward silence returned for the last few moments before they stopped in front of a house - Tsugumi’s, presumably. “So!” she piped up again, “The three of you should rest up in here for a bit - don’t worry, my parents won’t mind - and we can set off when I get back, okay?”

“When you get back?” Himari asked. “Where are you going?”

“Oh, you know, ranger business. Hunting, gathering, that sort of thing. You know?”

“I don’t, but okay.” Himari shrugged. Tsugumi giggled.

“If there’s anything you need, just send a summons charm my way, okay, Moca?”

“Will do~”

“Okay, I--”

“Heeeeey! Tsuuuuuuguuuuuuu!” A distant shout interrupted her. By the town’s exit stood two blue-haired girls - one with shorter hair, who was waving enthusiastically, and one 

with long hair, who was standing extremely still and extremely straight. The short-haired one continu+ed, “We gotta goooooooooo! Come ooooooooooooon!”

“Oh, um!” Tsugumi frantically looked between Ran’s party and the newcomers, shoved her bow into Ran’s hands, and ran off. “Gotta go! Bye!” She made it halfway across town before returning to collect her bow, her face bright red.

“That was weird.” Ran commented, once Tsugumi and the others had left.

“Don’t be mean.” Himari chided. “She was just nervous.”

“About what?”

Himari thought for a moment. “...Everything.”

* * *

“So who were those guys?” Hina Hikawa asked. Her bright, sparkling eyes and short blue hair made a sharp contrast with the grim underbrush Tsugumi led the trio through

“Hm? Oh, back home. Just some friends I ran into earlier. I’m going to help them get to the other side of the forest when we get back.” Tsugumi responded.

“Are you certain that’s wise, Tsugumi?” Sayo, Hina’s twin sister, asked. She looked a lot like Hina, but her hair was much longer, and her eyes, though the same colour as her sister’s, had an implacable sadness to them, and despite the perilous trail, they never seemed to leave Tsugumi. “Don’t you think you’ve been overworked as it is lately, what with all the shortages lately? Not to mention your tutoring duties. You don’t need to go offering your services to everyone who passes by.”

“I’m fine.” As usual, Tsugumi dismissed her concerns with a smile. “It’s not a problem to help those who need it. I like helping out. If we need supplies, then that can’t be helped. And I promise, tutoring you is no trouble at all.”

A slight blush blossomed on Sayo’s face. “I-I mean… it’s not just me though, is it? All the other young rangers look up to you, too. You know this forest better than anyone, and your skills as a hunter are second to none.”

Tsugumi smiled at Sayo, her own cheeks reddening now. “I’m not doing anything special.”

“You ought to have more pride in yourself.”

Tsugumi laughed, playfully nudging Sayo’s ribs. “You’re one to talk.”

As the feeling of Tsugumi’s brief touch lingered, Sayo considered saying something important. But as she gazed at the short brunette, smiling sweetly at the dangerous road ahead, she decided that now was not the time. She had waited this long, after all. She could wait just a little longer.

Just a little longer.

“So what’re we lookin’ for today, Tsugu?” Hina asked, playfully swatting a low-hanging vine out the way.

“I mean,” the ranger responded, a finger to her chin, “we’re short on basically everything, so just anything you can find, really.”

“I propose we organise our efforts thusly:” Sayo began. “Tsugumi, as the best tracker among us, shall collect meats. I shall focus on edible plant produce, and Hina will gather inedible supplies. Does anybody have any objections?”

“Uuuuuuuuugh… that’s boring …” Hina objected.

“Does anybody have any worthwhile objections?”

“Hmm.” Tsugumi wondered. “It makes sense in theory, Sayo, but we’re so short on everything… I feel like we should all just try and get everything we can. We’ve brought along enough bags that we can avoid cross-contamination, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Sayo considered for a moment. “Very well, Tsugumi. We’ll do it your way. After all, you have seldom steered us wrong in the past.” Tsugumi smiled at Sayo, and Sayo offered a rare smile in return.

“Alright then. Come on, let’s go!” Tsugumi started to make her way ahead again, leading the Hikawas to the closest fruitful hunting ground she could think of. Sayo stared after her for a moment, lost in thought, until an all-too-familiar voice snapped her out of it.

“Was that sarcasm?” Hina asked innocently.

Sayo glared at her. “What?”

“Oh! You don’t know? I’ve been learning about this thing called sarcasm recently; it’s really boppin’! It’s where--”

“I know what sarcasm is.” Sayo groaned. “What makes you think that was sarcastic?”

Hina shrugged. “It just... what you said. It sounded kinda like the examples I’ve been hearing, is all. Kinda... over the top, y’know?”

Sayo pursed her lips and glanced nervously over at Tsugumi. “Ah… Tsugumi?”

“Yes, Sayo?” the brunette responded, looking over her shoulder.

“I… um. I wasn’t… I meant. That. What I said, I wasn’t--”

Tsugumi laughed. “I know, Sayo!” A warm smile. “You’re sweet.” She turned away too quickly to see Sayo’s cheeks flush bright red. Silence fell as the Hikawa sisters stood still, letting their leader go ahead slightly.

“So.” Hina finally said. “You kissed her yet?”

“Shut up, Hina.”

“Okay!”

* * *

The Hazawas were a welcoming sort. They had instantly accepted Himari’s explanation of their circumstances, and were now bustling about their kitchen, preparing a hearty meal for their daughter’s friends, so they said. As Himari chatted with them, occasionally offering to help out here and there and being refused every time, Ran and Moca waited in the front room.

“Hmm.” Moca hummed, examining a framed picture of the Hazawa family.

She was concerned about something, obviously. Her usual attempts at getting attention were far less subtle. “What is it?” asked Ran.

“That magic centipede thing…” she began, before drifting off into her thoughts.

“What about it?” Ran prompted.

“The magic animating it looked like the same kind of magic that ChuChu girl was using back in Hanasakigawa…”

“You think it was her?”

Moca thought for a moment. “I don’t know. But it’s weird. I’ve never seen magic like that before, and now twice in one week… hell of a coincidence, is all~”

“Hmm.”

“What about you?”

“...No. No, I don’t think so.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, she’s got no reason to hide or send monsters after us. We already know who she is. Plus, she said she wanted to take us alive. That thing was trying to kill us.”

“You sure?”

“You get a knack for that kind of thing after a while.”

Moca pursed her lips and decided not to pursue the conversation any further. Not that she had to, since Tsugumi’s parents chose that moment to emerge from the kitchen, brandishing large crock pots of stew and mashed potatoes, closely followed by Himari with a stack of bowls and a handful of spoons.

“Ran! Moca! Please, sit down, make yourselves at home! There’s no need to be formal around here!” Mr. Hazawa loudly announced as he placed his container on the central table.

“Yes, yes! And please, help yourselves! I don’t know what Tsugu told you about any food shortages, but I assure you, we’re doing just fine!” his wife continued, depositing her own container as she looked expectantly toward her guests. Ran and Moca obligingly sat, taking bowls and cutlery from Himari as they did so before she sat down herself.

“Food shortages?” Ran asked, as Moca ladled a helping of stew into her bowl. The Hazawas shared a grimace. Tsugumi hadn’t mentioned anything of the sort, it seemed.

“Ah, it’s, ah, it’s nothing to worry about.” Mrs. Hazawa attempted to reassure Ran, though her tone was far from reassuring. “It’s just, er, a bit of trouble with the trading caravans… they’ve, ah, been having trouble finding their way here… lately…”

“But it’s nothing to worry about!” Mr. Hazawa interrupted. “We’ve got our little farms, and the forest provides for us, too. There’s plenty to go round, so please! Eat up!”

Ran shot a questioning look at Himari, who shook her head in return. “How long has this been going on for?”

Mrs. Hazawa floundered for a moment trying to come up with a response, until her husband cut in in her stead, his voice stern. “Now, we told you there was nothing to worry about. Please, just… don’t, okay? We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”

* * *

“So they’re hiding something.”

“Oh, yeah, definitely.”

Ran, Moca, and Himari had sequestered themselves in the Hazawas’ guest room, where three futons had been laid out for them. Tsugumi hadn’t returned, so it looked like they’d be staying the night.

“But what?” Ran wondered. She liked to stay out of trouble, sure, but she didn’t like being lied to.

“Maybe they’re cannibals, and they’re gonna eat us up in our sleep~” Moca whispered conspiratorially.

“Himari?” Ran asked, rolling her eyes and turning to the empath.

Himari shook her head. “I’m not picking up any malicious vibes from them. They seem more scared than anything.”

“You think they know more about these shortages than they’re letting on?”

“No doubt.”

“And the shortages must be connected to the monsters in the woods, like the one we saw earlier today…”

“Uh-huh.” Moca nodded in agreement. “Which means we should definitely stick around to try and figure this out.” Ran gave her a quizzical look. “That monster was made of the same magic as ChuChu was using, right? If we can find out more about that kind of magic, we might be able to figure out a way to beat it. And if we can beat ChuChu, I’m sure that Tamade guy won’t stand a chance~”

“Makes sense.” Ran conceded, but she didn’t seem happy about it.

“What’s wrong?” asked Himari, placing a hand on Ran’s shoulder.

Ran looked at Himari, and knew there was no point lying to her. “I just… I was kind of hoping to get through this quickly, y’know?” She sighed. “I guess I just didn’t expect things to be this complicated.”

“How were you expecting this to go?” Moca asked. She seemed genuinely curious. Ran sighed again.

“I dunno. Just, like… ‘Hey, you killed my father.’ Stab, die, done. And then I could…” She trailed off.

“Could what?”

A moment of silence passed uneasily before Ran stood. “We should press Tsugumi for information. She might be more willing to talk.”

The others nodded in agreement, neither wanting to push the issue any further. They had something else they needed to focus on right now.

* * *

Sayo Hikawa groaned under the weight of her packs, all now stuffed to the brim with supplies to be returned to the village. The sun had set just a few moments ago, and she, Tsugumi, and Hina had almost made it home.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help with that?” Tsugumi asked, gazing at Sayo with concern as she walked slowly on, keeping to Sayo’s significantly reduced pace. “I know you’re stronger and all, but I can carry my own…”

“I’m fine.” Sayo smiled weakly at her tutor. “You need to get home and rest for tomorrow. Don’t want to keep you up sorting through all this.”

Tsugumi smiled back, shining through the darkened path. “You need to start taking your own advice, Sayo.”

A sigh. “ Fine .” Tsugumi reached to take a pack, but Sayo waved her away. “You still need rest. Hina can take some.” she added loudly, attracting the attention of her sister, who had wandered ahead.

“Whuh?”

“I said, you can carry your own bag.”

Hina’s shoulders slumped. “ Fine .” She waited for the others to catch up, then effortlessly grabbed her pack from Sayo and trudged off ahead again. Tsugumi giggled.

“What?” Sayo asked. She hadn’t done anything weird, had she? And Hina certainly hadn’t, for once.

“You two.” Tsugumi replied. “You’re so different, but… there’s all these little ways you’re the same, you know? Like, how you both sulk when you don’t get your way.”

“I do not sulk!”

Tsugumi giggled again. “Yes you do. You’re sulking now.”

I am not!

“Yes you are. It’s cute.” Sayo didn’t respond to that. Tsugumi looked up at her, but she was looking away, a hand at her obscured face. “...Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Sayo said quickly, in a voice that didn’t sound quite normal. She coughed and returned her gaze to Tsugumi. “Well, we should probably head our separate ways now. Hina and I need to get these supplies to the town hall, and you should go get some sleep.”

“Oh. Um… okay. I guess that makes sense.”

Sayo nodded curtly. “Hina! Come on!” She gestured in the direction of the hall.

“Okay! Bye, Tsugu!” Hina yelled, waving energetically.

“Bye, Hina.” Tsugumi waved back. “Bye, Sayo.”

“Goodbye, Tsugumi.” The two stood awkwardly for a few more seconds before Tsugumi slowly began to make her way in the direction of her house, Sayo and Hina heading in the opposite direction. The pair walked in silence before Hina spoke up.

“Maybe you should try sulking more.”

“Shut up , Hina!”

* * *

The lantern outside her home was on as Tsugumi approached it. Her parents had gone to bed. As quietly as she could, she cracked the door open, shedding her cloak and discarding her equipment in the entranceway. She crept through the house to her room, gently pushing the door open and slipping inside before closing it again. With a flick of a switch, she turned on the lamp.

“Hey Tsugu~”

“GAH-!” Tsugumi yelped, catching herself almost immediately. Moca stood by the doorframe, calmly chewing on a plain bun. “Moca?”

Moca nodded, swallowing another bite of bread before replying. “Ran and Himari are here too.” She pointed across the room, where, sure enough, Ran and Himari plainly stood.

“Hey.” Ran raised a hand in greeting.

“Sorry, Tsugu!” Himari said. “We didn’t mean to scare you, it’s just… well, you weren’t paying much attention…”

I meant to scare you.” Moca murmured, speaking more to her snack than to Tsugumi.

“Yeah, I guess I’m… kinda tired… what are you all doing in here? The guest room’s next door…”

“We need to talk.” Ran stated plainly. Tsugumi narrowed her bleary eyes.

“...About what?”

“Well, Tsugu,” Moca responded, polishing off her bun and clapping a hand on Tsugumi’s shoulder, “ that is the question…”

* * *

Finally home. Sayo Hikawa slumped down on her armchair, groaned loudly, and set to work. Gathering supplies was all well and good, but really, administrative work was just as important if the town was to keep running smoothly. First things first, then: personal records. She grabbed her logbook and made a note of her most recent outing, its time, her companions, and anything out of the ordinary that had occurred. She wondered for a moment if her interactions with Tsugumi that day could have been considered “out of the ordinary,” but decided that her logbook was an improper place for such musings in any case. She finished the entry by noting the corresponding page of the town’s official inventory record.

“Volume 57… page 113…” she murmured, squinting as she tried to bring the pages before her eyes into focus. She could swear writing never used to be this much effort. Closing the logbook, she sighed, allowing herself a moment’s rest before moving on to her task. For Hina, it was a moment of opportunity.

“Sayoooooo~!” she yelled, barging into her sister’s room. “You gotta come see this!”

Sayo groaned, wary of the prospect of delaying work. Procrastination wasn’t something she could condone. “See what?”

“I made you a present!” She seemed awfully proud of herself.

“Hina, I…” Sayo paused, attempting to find the correct response. She wasn’t ungrateful for the gifts her sister would regularly bestow upon her, nor did she doubt the technical prowess displayed in their creation. It was just that Sayo was a very practically-minded person, and Hina’s inventions were rarely anything you could call useful. She glanced to her closet, where most of Hina’s previous gifts had ended up gathering dust - a machine for blowing bubbles, a machine for projecting images, a machine for reproducing recorded sound. Impressive, yes. Interesting, perhaps. But useful? Certainly not as far as Sayo was concerned. She turned to Hina. “Can’t you just bring it in here?”

“Uuuuuugh… But that’s no fun…” Hina pouted. 

Sayo sighed. There was no point even trying to win this. “Fine. Yes. Fine. It’s not like I have anything important to do.” She grumbled, standing from her desk.

“Yaaaay! Come on, come on!” Hina beckoned broadly as she dashed out of the room, completely failing to pick up on Sayo’s sarcasm now that she’d actually intended it. Typical, Sayo mused. After all, most trees were better at reading social cues than Hina Hikawa.

Hina’s room was a complete mess, as usual. Books and mechanical parts were scattered all around without rhyme or reason, and Sayo found herself having to carefully tiptoe across the floor to avoid stepping on anything painful. Eventually, she made her way to Hina’s workbench, where Hina was already waiting. “So what is it this time?” Sayo asked, unable to discern anything of note amongst the clutter.

“Here!” Hina grabbed a box from the desk and thrust it towards her. Sayo unclasped it carefully, opening it to reveal…

“Glasses?” she asked, removing the spectacles from their case, making sure not to smudge the lenses.

“I call them See-Boosters!” Hina declared proudly.

“...You shouldn’t.”

She seemed nonplussed. “Why not?”

“They’re called glasses, Hina. You didn’t invent them.”

“Fine.” Hina conceded, grinning mischievously.

Sayo rolled her eyes before examining the glasses more closely. “...Why?”

“I heard you saying that your eyes hurt after reading or writing for too long, so I went up to Hanasakigawa and asked around, and I went to the library, and I figured out how to make these. I think they should help?” It wasn’t a question, but she said it like it was.

“...I don’t need these.”

“Yes, you do. I mean, they probably need adjusting a bit, because I haven’t been able to examine your eyes properly, but since you just need them for reading, they should be more or less fine.”

“I don’t need these.” Sayo repeated. “My eyesight is fine. Strain experienced when reading is a minor issue which does not affect my ability to complete my work. Thank you for the thought, but this is completely unnecessary.”

Hina sighed in her best imitation of her sister. “Sayo. It literally hurts you to read. Just take the damn glasses.” She placed a hand on Sayo’s shoulder. “Accepting help isn’t the same thing as losing, you dork.”

“...You’re right, of course.” Sayo finally replied. “Thank you.” Hina smiled and removed her hand.

“Plus, I bet Tsugu’ll think they’re really cute!”

“I’m leaving now.”

“Okay she loves you though!!”

Good night, Hina.

* * *

“Your parents are hiding something.” Ran accused.

“Now, we’re not accusing anybody of anything,” Himari countered, “we just think it might be important.”

Tsugumi eyed her guests warily, unsure what to make of the situation. She’d never been interrogated before, but she was quickly learning she didn’t appreciate it. But still… they didn’t really mean any harm, did they? They probably had perfectly legitimate reasons for doing this. She didn’t know everything about them, after all. But she didn’t know what they could be talking about! What could her parents be hiding!?

Unless…

“...This isn’t about the adoption thing, is it?”

A pause. “Adoption thing?” Ran echoed curiously.

“Yeah, um… I’m adopted?” Tsugumi said, holding her hands up. “Everyone around here already knows what happened, but my parents still don’t like talking about it, ‘cause… people get weird about it, y’know?” She laughed nervously. “Anyway, that’s probably it, right?”

Ran and Himari glanced over to each other, unsure what to make of this. Before they could say anything, though, Moca piped up.

“I don’t know what happened.” She said, her hand raised as though she were in a classroom. “Could you tell me?” Himari flinched at Moca’s insensitivity, and Ran seemed about ready to kill her on the spot, but Tsugumi just seemed used to it.

“I guess. But only if you promise to go to bed straight after!” she decreed, like a mother agreeing to read her unruly children a bedtime story.

“Sure, okay.” Moca shrugged. Tsugumi took a deep breath as she prepared to tell her tale.

“So about twenty years ago, there was this huge wildfire that ripped through the forest. Almost destroyed it entirely, in fact. My parents were rangers at the time, so they were at the head of the effort to contain the fire, to stop it from reaching the town. And that’s when they found me.” She swallowed, processing the strangeness of a chapter of her life too far removed for her to remember. “A baby, just… lying there, in the middle of a burning forest. They saved me, and they tried everything they could to try and find my birth parents, but…” she shrugged. “Nothing. Not a trace, not a whisper. So they took me in, gave me a name. Raised me. And, er… well. That’s all there is to it, I guess.”

Moca nodded thoughtfully, but Ran’s eyes narrowed, her curiosity sparked. “Twenty years ago? The forest seems to have recovered awfully quickly. And it sure looks older than twenty.”

“Oh, yeah! That’s the weird part.” Tsugumi continued. “The next morning after the fire, everyone woke up expecting to have tons of work to do clearing up, but… nothing. The entire forest had grown back overnight. And not new growth, either - the exact same trees had all grown back. Like a miracle. No one ever figured out how it happened.”

“Hm. Well.” Moca responded. “Pretty wild when finding a random baby lying around is the least weird part of a story~”

“Yeah.” Tsugumi nodded wistfully, only half paying attention, before she snapped out of it. “But come on! Bed! We’ve got a big day tomorrow, and we all need some rest!” She began hastily ushering the others out of the room.

“Wait, wait, wait! One more question!” Moca requested as she headed out the door.

“What is it?” Tsugumi sighed, frustrated, but never one to turn down a request.

“Those monsters, like the one you saw off earlier today. How long have they been around?”

Tsugumi shrugged. “Long as I can remember. My parents still talk like they’re recent, though, so maybe try asking them?”

Moca nodded. “Okay. Thank you. You’ve been very helpful, Tsugu~”

And off she went, closing the door firmly behind her.

* * *

“Tsugu’s right, guys. We should get some sleep.” Himari said, laying down on her futon.

“You two do that.” Moca replied, sitting up against the wall. “I gotta think about some stuff.”

“You don’t think Tsugumi was lying, do you?” Ran asked. “Because I really don’t think she knows anything.”

“Oh, I agree. But just because she doesn’t know anything, doesn’t mean she isn’t hiding anything. Important distinction.” Ran opened her mouth, probably to protest, but Moca cut her off. “Relax, guys, I couldn’t hurt our little Tsugu~” she reassured her compatriots, anticipating their concerns. “And if I’m right, then I mean that quite literally…”

* * *

Mid-morning sunlight shone down on Circle Town, a warm, pleasant atmosphere greeting the four people preparing to depart. As she checked her bow, Tsugumi couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched, and when she looked behind her, she saw Moca hastily looking away. She opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, when she felt a sudden hand on her shoulder.

“Tsugumi.”

Somehow unsurprised, she turned to the new arrival. “Sayo! What are you doing here?”

“I wish to accompany you on this journey. I feel some extra assistance may be of use to you, given your charges’ number and…” she was interrupted by a sudden yelp of pain, as Himari accidentally nicked her hand on the hunting knife she’d been given. “ inexperience .” she finished.

“You might be right.” Tsugumi nodded, grimacing as she walked over to Himari, Sayo following close behind. “Are you okay?”

“Hm? Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” Himari responded, lightly touching her wound, sealing it instantly. Fully recovered, she looked up at Sayo. “Who’s this?”

“Sayo Hikawa.” The blue-haired girl answered, extending her hand. “And you must be Himari Uehara?”

Himari nodded as she accepted the handshake. “How-?”

“Tsugumi told me about you and your companions on our hunt yesterday. She spoke rather highly of you.”

“Really?” Himari looked at Tsugumi, almost guiltily. After a few seconds, she spoke again. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Sure!” Tsugumi chirped. “Sayo, you should probably introduce yourself to those two.” she said, gesturing to where Ran and Moca were whispering conspiratorially. Nodding, Sayo made her way over to them, leaving Tsugumi and Himari alone. “What did you want to talk about?”

“Last night.” Himari admitted sheepishly. “I-I’m really sorry about that. Ran’s kinda… intense about her whole… quest, and Moca’s… well. You already know Moca. But, I mean… I should’ve said something, I know, and that whole situation was so stressful for you and… I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have done that.”

Tsugumi contemplated the apology for a moment. “...It’s fine. I guess I don’t really know much about her, but Ran seems like she has reasons to be suspicious. I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm.” Silence fell as the two of them watched Sayo talking with Ran and Moca. She seemed somewhat agitated.

“So, um…” Himari began awkwardly, “I mean, I don’t wanna assume anything, but are you two, like…” she pushed her fingers against each other a couple of times as she tried to find the words, “together?”

“Hm? Me and-- oh! No, no. No, we’re not.” Tsugumi replied, blushing.

“Oh! I mean-- okay, yeah, no, that’s fine. I-I mean, it just kinda… felt like it, is all, but okay! Okay, cool. Cool.” The silence returned, even more awkward than before, as Tsugumi stared at Sayo, beet-red. “I’m gonna… go. Stand… over there.” Himari said, attempting to escape the hole she’d dug herself.

“yeah okay cool you do that” Tsugumi murmured, still staring at Sayo. The wind picked up, whipping harshly across her face, and the very ground beneath her feet seemed to be churning, but nothing could distract her from her thoughts.

What the hell does that mean!?

* * *

“What are you planning?” Ran asked as Moca turned away from Tsugumi.

“Nothing~” Moca claimed, her attention suddenly focused on the hunting knife she’d been given, just in case, Tsugumi had said.

“I don’t believe you.” Moca looked at Ran, curious. “Last night you said she was hiding something, and you haven’t said a word on the subject since. You’re up to something, and I want to know what.”

“Why?”

“So I can stop you if I need to.”

“Ah, Ran, always so suspicious. Can’t you trust in the ingenious Moca just this once? Have I ever led you astray?”

“You spent all of yesterday morning literally leading us astray.”

Moca sighed. “Look, I’m just gonna keep an eye on her, okay? Nothing nefarious. I just need to observe her in her natural habitat to determine the veracity of my hypothesis~”

“...Just watching? No tricks?”

“Mm-hm.” the mage nodded. “So just keep quiet, okay? I can’t have anything affecting my subject’s behaviour, after all~”

Before Ran could respond, she was interrupted by the arrival of a new voice. “Ran Mitake and Moca Aoba?”

“That’s us~!” Moca responded cheerfully. “And who might you be?”

“Sayo Hikawa. I shall be accompanying your party on this expedition as additional support.” She extended her hand for a handshake, which Ran begrudgingly accepted and Moca ignored completely. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Of course not.” Ran replied, slightly too quickly.

“Definitely not.” Moca added, even quicker.

Sayo eyed the pair suspiciously. “What were you talking about before I got here?”

“We were talking about… um…” Ran faltered, realising she didn’t have a suitable lie prepared.

“Battle plans.” Moca covered. “In case we get attacked by one of those big rock monsters or whatever~”

“I see. And don’t you think such plans would be better discussed with Tsugumi, seeing as she has the most experience with the threat we will be facing?”

“Yes,” Moca admitted, “but I wanted to talk to Ran. We have a rapport.”

“A rapport won’t do you much good in a combat situation.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Sayo~” Moca booped the blue-haired girls nose, and offered no further explanation. Ran failed to hide a laugh, earning her a venomous glare.

“You are ridiculous. I’ve had enough of this. Tsugumi!” She called the more experienced ranger, who seemed oddly distracted.

“Ah! Um, yes? What is it?”

“I think we ought to be headed out if we wish to make it back here by sunset.”

“Oh! Right, yes, of course!” She hastily made one last check of her bag and bow before calling out to the party. “Come on, guys! Let’s go!”

* * *

Uuuuuugggggghhhhhhhh… ” Moca groaned, theatrically wiping sweat from her brow. “Why is it so hoooooooooootttttt …”

“Are you okay, Moca?” Tsugumi asked, gently placing a hand on the mage’s shoulder. “You didn’t have any problems with the heat last time…”

Moca shook her head. “Moca needs to rest before her legs give out from under her…” She caught Ran giving her a suspicious look, and made a showy sigh.

“If you want this journey done today, then we don’t have time to rest.” Sayo declared from the front of the group. “Besides, it’s barely been an hour since we set out. You couldn’t possibly be that tired yet.” Moca responded only with another dramatic sigh.

Ran turned questioningly to Himari, who shrugged and shook her head. “She’s up to something.” the swordswoman whispered.

“Should we tell the others?”

Ran thought for a second. “...No. We need to find out what’s going on with Tsugumi. It could be important. And I don’t think Moca would really do anything to hurt anyone.” She paused. “Right?”

“No, no. Of course not” Himari reassured her. “Although she is kind of hard to read…” Ran pursed her lips. Suddenly, the sound of soft footsteps through the underbrush was broken by a dramatic WHUMP, and Moca had hit the floor.

“Moca can’t go on…” she whimpered pathetically. “Leave me… save yourselves…”

“Get up, Moca.”

“Get up, Aoba.” Ran and Sayo spoke in unison.

Tsugumi bounced from one foot to another, visualising her internal debate for all to see. Eventually, her right foot won. “We should stop and rest for a bit, guys. Moca clearly needs it.”

“What!?” In unison again, though only Sayo continued. “If we stop, one of those monsters will approach! We have to keep moving, for our own safety!”

“It’s okay, Sayo. I can deal with any monsters that might show up.” She said, helping Moca to her feet and walking her to a nearby log. “We just need to give Moca a moment.”

“Fine.” Sayo grunted. Tsugumi smiled at her unintentionally adorable indignation, then began blushing furiously instead. Himari flinched, and didn’t fully understand why.

Once Tsugumi had taken up her position as a guard, Ran took a seat on the log next to Moca. “Just observing, huh?” she muttered, irritated.

“In a variety of situations, Ran.” Moca replied quietly. “Some of those situations need to be artificially induced.”

“The hell does that mean?”

“I need to see her fight one of those things off again.”

Ran nodded slowly. “I guess that makes sense.”

Tsugumi shifted nervously on her feet. Not because she was worried about any monsters coming - she hadn’t been lying when she’d said she could deal with them - but rather because of other things on her mind. She kept glancing at Himari, trying to catch her attention, but Himari was trying to strike up a conversation with Sayo, so looking at Himari meant looking at Sayo, and looking at Sayo made Tsugumi feel weird, so she turned away again. After a few minutes of this, she finally decided to just give up on subtlety.

“Himari?”

The light mage looked over to her, seeing her gesturing over with her head. “Excuse me for one second.” she said to Sayo, beginning to head over.

“Of course.”

Tsugumi waited impatiently for Himari to make her way over, anxiously and endlessly going over her questions in her head. At long last, Himari arrived at her side, and Tsugumi found herself already talking. “So, um, I know you’re, like, a light mage and stuff, and you’ve got those, um. Empath powers, and everything, but, ah, I was wondering…” Her mouth flopped open and closed helplessly, like a fish starved of oxygen.

“You were wondering…?”

“...I was wondering… when you said… about me… and Sayo…” she began nodding inexplicably, “...what that meant exactly.”

Himari’s face froze for a second. “Ah… um… haha! Yeah, sorry about that, um… boundaries! Sorry!”

Tsugumi grabbed her shoulders. “Himari. What. Did. You. Mean .”

Himari stared into Tsugumi’s surprisingly intense eyes for a second, and her resolve faltered. “...I mean… you just seem to love each other a lot, is all.”

Tsugumi’s arms dropped, and her gaze slid past Himari to Sayo… and then past her to the approaching beast.

“Sayo! Look out!” she cried, giving her mentee the wherewithal to duck the thick, dirty arm that came swinging at her. The monster was tall - eight feet, at a guess - and wide, with long, bulky arms and three spots of red energy on its misshapen head, like some horrid parody of a face. Ran, Sayo, and Tsugumi drew their weapons, preparing for combat with the lumbering creature of earth before them.

But before any of them could make a move, Tsugumi collapsed.

“Tsugumi!” Sayo yelled, her focus instantly shifting away from the monster to the other girl’s prone figure. Ran’s focus, meanwhile, shifted instead to Moca.

“MOCA WHAT THE HELL” she roared, seeing her partner’s hand still raised from her spellcasting.

“I needed to test something.” Moca shrugged casually.

“Moca, you idiot! ” Ran hissed. “She’s the only one of us who knows how to fight that thing!”

“What thing?” Moca asked, looking past Ran. With a confused glare at Moca, she turned to find that where the beast had stood just a moment ago, there was now just a pile of dirt and twigs.

“What the hell…” she breathed, turning her gaze to where Sayo knelt over Tsugumi’s unconscious body. For her part, Sayo barely seemed to have noticed what had happened, wrapped up as she was in Tsugumi’s wellbeing.

“Looks like I was right again~” Moca chimed, hopping up from her seat. “Come on, let’s head back to town.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Sayo demanded, standing with Tsugumi in her arms. “Just what exactly is going on here?”

Moca sighed wearily, as though her plan wasn’t completely inscrutable. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“No!” Sayo cut in.

“Your little ranger friend’s been making these monsters.” Moca explained, ignoring Sayo’s interruption. “And we’re gonna go find out why.”

* * *

There was darkness, and nothing else.

Then there was something in the darkness. It was something she didn’t quite understand, but it was something compelling, something that drew her toward it.

Then there was a name.

“Tsugumi.”

That’s right. That was her name.

“Tsugumi.”

The darkness was gone, and Sayo Hikawa stood over her, smiling through concerned eyes.

“Good afternoon.”

She rubbed her eyes. “After- Sayo?” She sat up, taking in her surroundings. They were in her bedroom? “What happened?”

Sayo’s smile became a little more strained. “I think you’d better come with me.”

* * *

Five people were already seated in the front room when Tsugumi arrived - her parents, Ran, Himari, and Moca, sat by herself. Tsugumi attempted a cheery wave, and soon discovered that this was not a cheery wave sort of situation. She looked up at Sayo, stood at her shoulder, and saw her staring at Moca with the kind of venom she usually reserved for monsters.

Definitely not a cheery wave situation, then.

“Hey, Tsugu~” Moca greeted, standing and stretching. “Take a seat.”

She took another nervous look around, attempting to gauge the mood. Himari looked just as anxious as Tsugumi felt, Ran’s face was set in a grave, immobile expression, and her father had a comforting arm around her mother, who seemed close to tears. Moca was as unreadable as ever.

She sat down. Moca remained standing.

“What do you know about the monsters in the forest?” she asked slowly, giving each word time to sink in.

“...I told you last night. Nothing.” Tsugumi replied, confused.

“Hm.” Moca turned. “Himari?”

Himari shook her head. “She’s telling the truth.”

“Thought so.” Moca said, facing Tsugumi again. “Got some bad news, Tsugu. Oh, but…” she looked at Tsugumi’s parents. “Perhaps you should be the ones to tell her?”

Her mother coughed, and her father just stared.

“Alright, I’ll do it. If you insist~” Moca crouched, placing a hand on Tsugumi’s shoulder.

“Moca…” Himari started, but was cut off by a raised finger.

“Don’t worry, I’ll say it gently.” She looked Tsugumi directly in the eye, and for a second everyone in the room waited with bated breath. And she finally spoke. “So those monsters we were talking about?”

“...Yeah?”

“You’ve totally been making them.”

Tsugumi almost laughed at the absurdity of the accusation. Nobody else did. “What?” she asked, after a few seconds of silence.

“So here’s what I’ve pieced together so far.” Moca explained, standing and pacing. “You’ve got some kinda crazy magic power that I don’t know what--”

“This is ridiculous.” Sayo cut in.

“I’m not done.”

“Well, I am! I have had enough of your absurd accusations! There is nothing out of the ordinary about Tsugumi!”

“Let her finish.” Tsugumi, her eyes narrowed. Sayo pursed her lips but digressed.

“Thank you.” Moca bowed slightly before continuing. “As I was saying. Whoever left you in that forest did so because they were scared. They started that fire to finish you off, but the fire couldn’t touch you. The forest growing back overnight? That was you too, and since then the entire forest’s been infused with whatever that power inside you is. The forest’s like an extension of your body, and those monsters are antibodies, trying to fight off intruders. Or at least, that’s what I figure.”

“Why…” Tsugumi looked down at her open hands. “Why would I do this?”

“Dunno.” Moca shrugged. “I mean, you aren’t. Not consciously. I reckon it’s probably your power acting out on its own, trying to protect you, maybe.”

Tsugumi took one look at her parents, and they told her everything she needed to know. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked quietly.

“We were trying to protect you.” her father admitted, his voice a mere croak.

“Wait, no, hold on.” Sayo demanded. “Are you insinuating… that this... nonsense Aoba’s been spouting… are you saying it’s actually true?

“To the best of our knowledge. Moca’s come to the same conclusions as us.” he admitted. “We don’t know any more. I promise.”

Moca turned a questioning glance to Himari, who gave a slight nod. “They’re telling the truth.”

“So… all the shortages… the destroyed caravans… they’re… my fault?”

“No!” her mother cried suddenly. “No, no, of course they’re not. There was nothing you could have done.”

Tsugumi swallowed, and stood. “I’m gonna go outside for a moment.” She was already gone before anyone else could respond.

A heavy silence filled the room, and for a moment everyone was too afraid to break it. Moca was the one to do so, of course, clapping her hands together loudly. “Well! All things considered, I think that went about as well as it could have.” Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, spinning her around, then a fist in her face, knocking her to the ground.

“I’m going to go and talk to Tsugumi.” Sayo announced, not even sparing Moca another glance. “I would advise you all to remain here.” And then she, too, left, and the silence returned. It was Ran who spoke this time.

“You deserved that.”

* * *

Sayo found Tsugumi just outside the town’s borders, shooting fruit out of trees with her bow. “Impressive.” she declared.

“I’m only doing what you taught me.” Tsugumi responded quietly.

“Maybe,” Sayo conceded, taking a seat on the ground against a particularly large tree, “but I was never able to put my skills to use like you have. This,” she gestured at the pile of ripe fruits on the ground, “is all you.” Another shot, and the harvest grew. “Besides, you’re the one teaching me now.”

Tsugumi sighed wearily, downing her bow and sitting herself down beside Sayo. “So what am I supposed to do now?”

“Carry on.” Sayo said. “Keep teaching, keep hunting. Nothing has to change just because of some magical nonsense.”

Tsugumi smiled sadly. “You know that isn’t true. You know I can’t stay, not as long as…” The end of the sentence caught in her throat.

“I know. I know that’s the only decision you could ever make. I suppose I was just being selfish.” She turned to the other girl, seeing her head tilted in curiosity. “I want you to stay with me.” She gently moved her hand over Tsugumi’s, and Tsugumi took it.

“You could come with me.”

“No, I couldn’t.” Sayo countered. “You wouldn’t let me.”

“I…” Tsugumi tried to deny it. “...I don’t want to hurt you. And… as long as I’m… like this… I don’t know what might happen.”

“I knew you’d say that.” Sayo breathed, her words drifting away on the breeze. The two of them sat in silence for a moment, communicating only through the tightening of their grip. But the moment had to end.

“Come on.” said Sayo, standing, taking Tsugumi with her. “You’ve got a quest to join.”

“You… think I should go with them?” Tsugumi asked, faintly surprised.

“I’d… feel better if you weren’t alone. And I suppose those three are… competent, at least.”

Tsugumi giggled. “You’re a real sweetheart, you know that?”

“Only for you.”

* * *

“What the hell was that?” Ran demanded, jabbing a finger in Moca’s bruised face.

“I really don’t see how I’m the victim here.” the mage responded, leaning against the guest room wall.

“Gently, you said. Gently! I know I’m not the most socially adept person around, but even I could tell that that was about as gentle as-- as--!” she raised a fist in punctuation. “Godammit, You’re lucky Sayo already decked you, or else I would.”

“Charming.” Moca muttered, dabbing her cheek with a wet cloth.

“That was-- it was insulting, is what it was! And that business with your little plan? ‘Observing’ her? What was that all about? And why didn’t you just tell me what you were planning?”

“Gee, I dunno.” Moca drawled. “Maybe it’s because of your tendency to flip out for no reason, maybe that has something to do with it.”

Ran inhaled sharply, willing herself to keep calm. “Would it kill you, Moca, for once in your life, to just maybe consider how your actions affect other people? Just once?”

“Oh, that’s rich, coming from you.” Moca snorted. “Hey, uh, how many people did you tell before you decided to pack up your whole goddamn life and go on your stupid revenge quest? Oh yeah, that’s right, none . You just up and vanished one day, not a word to anybody, least of all your best friend, because why tell her anything? Not like she matters, is it?” Moca noticed suddenly that she was crying. “Do you have any goddamn idea what you put us all through? Any at all? We all thought you were dead! ” she spat, and let her words hang in the air for a moment before a quieter voice returned. “I thought you were dead.”

Ran stared at the tears in Moca’s blue-grey eyes, searching for a response, and turned sharply away when she failed to find one. She moved for the exit.

“Where are you going?”

Ran stopped at the door, and didn’t look away from it as she answered. “We have a deal. You take me to your contact. I find out what I need to know.” She turned to face Moca. “Then we never see each other again.”

Moca bit back something rising in her throat. “Fine by me.” she said, and then Ran was gone, leaving her alone once more.

* * *

Himari didn’t need empathic powers to sense the tense atmosphere as the sun set at the edge of Circle Woods. Ran and Moca stood at opposite ends of the group, separated by herself, Tsugumi, and Sayo, who had insisted on fulfilling her original promise of helping to guide them, and had also held Tsugumi’s hand for a remarkable amount of the journey.

“This is as far as I can go.” she declared, looking over at Ran. “I have to return home. With Tsugumi gone, Circle Town will need all hands on deck if we are to stay afloat.”

“With Tsugumi gone?” Ran asked, her voice flat.

“Indeed. She-- ah. But perhaps I should let her explain?” She turned to Tsugumi, who squeezed her hand just a little tighter before letting go.

“I want to come with you!” she announced, her voice a rush. “I-I know I don’t have experience like you do, b-but! I need to learn how to control this power, a-and I think you three can help me! I-I mean… I need your help!”

Ran’s expression remained unchanged as she surveyed Tsugumi. “Fine.” she eventually said, and immediately began walking away.

Tsugumi blinked in surprise. “O-oh! Okay, um… great! Thank you!” She was taken aback by a sudden hug from behind.

“Yaaaay Tsugu!” cried Himari, her arms wrapped tight around the ranger’s shoulders. “I’m so glad you’re coming along, it would’ve been so awkward with just those two…” she grimaced, jerking her head in Moca’s direction.

“I can hear you, you know…” Moca muttered, setting off to leave before being stopped by Sayo’s hand on her arm.

“Aoba.” she said, her already-stern voice somehow carrying with it an extra edge. “I believe I have made my opinion of your behaviour towards Tsugumi clear. Just so you know, if you continue to act in this manner, I will skin you alive.”

Moca paused to take in the words, then shook her arm free and started walking away in silence.

“I’m, ah, gonna make sure those two don’t kill each other.” Himari said, running after them and leaving Tsugumi alone with Sayo.

“Well.”

“Well.”

“...I should probably be getting back.” Sayo turned to the forest.

“Wait.” Tsugumi gently placed a hand on Sayo’s arm and turned her so they faced each other. Her face was bright red. “There’s… something I have to tell you before I go.”

“What is it?” Sayo asked, leaning in from curiosity, and then suddenly Tsugumi’s lips were on hers, and she froze. After a second that felt like a blessed eternity, Tsugumi pulled away, resting her forehead on Sayo’s.

“I love you.”

“I-” Sayo began, but then Tsugumi’s finger was on her lips.

“Don’t say it back. Not yet.” Tsugumi whispered, the tears in her eyes evident in her voice. “Say it when I get back. Say it when I’m home again, and we can be together.”

Another endless moment passed, and Sayo nodded and remained silent.

They took one last, long look at each other, and Sayo pressed something into Tsugumi’s palm, and then they said their goodbyes, and Sayo was watching her walk away with three unfamiliar faces. Her heart twitched slightly in her chest, a pang of longing, but it soon passed. She’d return soon, she knew, and all would be well.

She’d return soon.

* * *

The streets of Hanasakigawa were alive with activity, chatter and hustle and bustle, but the brown-haired girl sitting at the café would have no part of it. She simply sat, drinking her coffee and patiently awaiting her companion’s return. She wouldn’t be waiting long.

“Lisa.” The new arrival, a tall woman with long, greyish hair, slamming a sheet of paper down on the table. “Look at this.”

Lisa raised an eyebrow, but obliged nonetheless. The sheet seemed to be a wanted poster for one…

“Ran Mitake… wanted on charges of grand larceny, obstruction of justice, and assaulting a city official…” she read.

“I knew this would happen. I warned her. But she never listened, and now I’m right. Again.”

“Yukina…” Lisa sighed, taking another sip of coffee. “I just… don’t see what this has to do with us? I mean, just because we all had the same teacher doesn’t mean we’re, like, bound together for life or anything.”

“Have you forgotten what she knows?” Yukina asked, all business as ever. “She has no patience, no discipline, and a lot of very dangerous information. This has everything to do with us.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“We find her, and we bring her home.” Yukina checked her sword, fastened securely to her hip. “Before she gets us all killed.”

Chapter Text

Raaaaaan~ ” Moca whined, gripping tightly onto her best friend’s sleeve.

“What?” the black-haired girl laughed, playfully pushing her away.

“I’m scaaaared~ ” she whimpered, glancing around at the darkened trees surrounding them.

“You were the one who wanted to come out here, remember? You said you had to show me something super-important.”

“It could’ve waited till tomorrow…”

“You said it couldn’t!”

Uuuuuugh … I was lyiiiing so you’d coooome …”

Ran sighed and ruffled her friend’s silver hair. “Do you wanna go home?”

Moca nodded, opening her eyes as wide as she could and sniffling loudly. Ran gently took her hand and led her back through the forest, retracing their steps to find the way home. Her other hand rose to her chest, clasping the locket around her neck for comfort.

As they approached the edge of the forest, an unfamiliar red glow emerged on the horizon. “What’s that?” Moca asked, pointing ahead.

“I don’t know.” Ran answered, quickening her pace all the same. The wind blew in their faces, bringing with it the stench of something burning.

They walk turned into a run, their grip on each other’s hands almost impossibly tight.

Finally, they broke through the treeline, the sight before them fully unveiled. Smoke drifted towards them, and Moca’s hand slipped from Ran’s as she began to cough. The other girl just stood for a moment, barely able to comprehend what she was seeing. Then she took off running towards the fire.

Towards her home.

* * *

“Ran.” Moca said, walking a few feet behind her colleague.

“What?” the black-haired girl replied tersely, barely sparing a glance in her direction.

“I’m tired. We should rest.” she complained, surveying the twilit plains surrounding them.

“You’re the one who led us out here, remember? You said your contact would be waiting around here somewhere.”

“She’ll still be here tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to wait that long.”

“Uh… Ran?” Tsugumi tapped her shoulder. “I… um. I do think we should probably make camp for the night.”

“Yeah, me too…” Himari chimed in, stifling a yawn.

Ran harrumphed. “Fine.” She tossed her pack to the ground and sat, bringing the group to an awkward halt. “You,” she pointed at Moca, “send out a summons charm. Bring her to us.”

“Don’t think that’ll really help, to be honest.”

“Just do it.”

Moca set her jaw, but obliged, beginning to construct a white light between her palms.

“Are you sure this is the best place to make camp?” Tsugumi asked, looking around. “We’re kind of exposed.”

“Good a place as any.” Ran responded. “Haven’t heard much tell of bandits around these parts.”

“I know, it just… might get kind of cold, is all.”

“You’re welcome to try and find your own place.” Ran said, lying herself down on the bare grass.

Tsugumi sighed, sitting herself down next to Himari, who had welcomed the opportunity for rest. “Do you know what happened between them? I mean, I know I don’t know them very well, but they definitely used to seem… friendlier.”

Himari shrugged. “Dunno. They’ve been like this ever since Sayo decked Moca.”

“Sayo decked Moca?”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“We were kind of focused on, um.” She blushed. “Other things.”

“Ohhh.” Himari nodded. “Finally hooked up, huh?”

“Wha-? We did not hook up!

“Hmmmm?” Himari hummed, smiling slyly.

“We just kissed, okay?” Tsugumi huffed, crossing her arms and pouting sulkily.

“Awww… little Tsugu’s first kiss…” Himari teased, ruffling the ranger’s hair.

“Stop that. And how do you know that was my first kiss, anyway?”

“Mainly from literally everything about you.”

Tsugumi huffed again. “I don’t know what you’re teasing me for. Have you ever even kissed anyone?”

“I don’t need to. My empathic powers allow me to experience romance vicariously by being around others.”

“Oh, is that why you hang out with those two?”

A moment of silence.

“No.”

Tsugumi nodded, not quite convinced. “Probably for the best. Can’t imagine that’d be going well for you right now.”

“Yeah…” Himari winced. “I’m getting some pretty confusing signals from them right now. Seriously, it’s a good thing you tagged along, or else I’d probably have bashed my head against a rock by now.”

“Well, I’m glad to be of service.”

“Done.” Moca announced, sending out an orb of white light from her palms. “If she decides to follow it back to us, she’ll be here in… some time, I guess. I don’t know.”

“Thank you, Moca. Very helpful.” Ran said dryly, not turning her eyes from the stars that were beginning to glitter above. Moca nodded and say herself down, withdrawing a bread bun from her pack and not offering one to anybody else.

Tsugumi sighed and shrugged. “Good night, I guess.”

Himari looked over to Ran and Moca, staring pointedly away from each other. “Good night.”

* * *

Himari was awoken from fitful sleep by the sound of footsteps. She instantly sat bolt upright, scanning the surroundings to try and spot the source of the sound.

She didn’t have to, as the source of the sound then walked right into her.

“WHAAAAAA!” There was somebody collapsing on top of her, loudly and painfully. She instinctively pushed herself away from her assailant, lighting her hands up with what little offensive magic she could muster.

“Oh my god I am so sorry I didn’t see you there oh my god oh god are you okay??” The light illuminated the face of a young woman with flame red hair and sea blue eyes, babbling a series of breathless apologies.

“I-I’m fine, I--”

“What’s going on?” Ran’s voice cut through the night, shortly followed by a burst of flame from Moca’s hand, lighting up the area much better than Himari’s paltry glow.

“Oh! Hey! Friends!” the new arrival laughed nervously, leaping to her feet with her hands up. “I, er, got a summons charm here! From… hey! Moca! Long time, no see!”

Moca sighed, dropping her offensive stance. “Guys, it’s fine. This is my contact.” With a blast of heat, she re-lit the previous evening’s campfire. “Hey, Tomoe.”

This is your contact?” Ran asked incredulously, lowering her sword.

“Uh,” Tomoe started, reflexively scratching the back of her neck, “technically I’m her contact’s contact…”

“What.”

“I, uh. I’m supposed to take you to her. She said she couldn’t come herself because she was, uh. ‘Rejuvenating her dark essence,’ or something.”

What. ” Ran glared at Moca.

Moca shrugged. “Told you the summons charm wouldn’t help.”

Ran shoved her sword back into its scabbard. “Fine. Let’s get going.”

“...What’s going on?” asked Tsugumi, only just waking up.

“We’re going again.” Himari sighed heavily, gathering up her things.

“...Now?”

Himari just groaned in response, tapping her headache to make it go away.

“Guess we’ve got a long night ahead of us, huh?” Tsugumi chirped, standing and rolling up her bedroll.

“Hey, you need any help with all that?” Tomoe approached them. “I can carry some stuff for you, if you like?”

“Can you carry me?” Himari asked, her legs prepared to give out from beneath her.

“I mean, yeah, probably.” Tomoe shrugged, and immediately swept Himari up in her arms. “Yeah, I reckon I can get home like this. Not that far.”

“Uh, I…” Himari stammered, somewhat startled by the newcomer’s sudden show of strength. “I was joking…”

“...Oh! Right, yeah. Course you were. Haha!” she rambled, swiftly placing Himari back on her feet and picking up her bag instead. “I’ll just, uh… take this and go on ahead, kay?” With that, she jogged over to where Ran waited, impatiently tapping her foot. Himari watched her go for a moment, before Tsugumi entered her field of vision, a broad grin on her face.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

What?

“Nothing!” Tsugumi insisted, turning to join the others. “Now come on. Gotta get going before Ran leaves us behind.”

* * *

After about an hour’s walk, the five of them arrived at a moderately-sized house, looking remarkably out of place in the vast wilderness.

“The hell is this place?” Ran remarked, her eyes drawn to a light in one of the windows.

“Our house!” Tomoe grinned proudly. “Our parents built it out here for us when we were kids, to escape the crowding in the city.”

“Our?”

“Me and my sister. She’s who you’re here to see.”

“Where do you get, like, food and stuff?” Himari asked. “There’s nothing around for miles except the woods, and… well. You know.”

“Well-placed teleport anchors. Now come in! You’ve got a meeting to attend.” Tomoe said, opening the door.

“What’s a teleport anchor?” Tsugumi whispered to Himari as they entered.

“It’s a pre-set point you can use an enchanted item to instantly travel to. One item per anchor point.”

“Huh. That would’ve been handy back home.”

Himari tilted her head in consideration as Tomoe led them through the house. “They’re kind of inconvenient to set up, so they don’t see as much use you’d think. You know,” she continued, her tone suddenly brightening, “I read once that it’s theoretically possible for a mage to teleport on their own, without anchors or items.”

“Really?” Tsugumi said politely.

“Yeah! But it’d take so much power, nobody’s managed it.” She took a look around and realised they were being led into a basement. “Hey, should we be worried about this?”

Tsugumi shrugged. “You’re the empath.”

Himari nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s probably fine.”

The party was brought to a stop at the bottom of the stairs by a door, which Tomoe knocked on. “Hey, Ako? You’ve got visitors.” Immediately, the door creaked open, and a booming voice spoke from within.

ENTER.

Tomoe nodded inside, and Ran led the way into the cavernous basement, stuffed with strange books and magical paraphernalia and lit by flickering torches. The room was dominated by a perfectly circular pool at its centre, around the width of a person lying down, behind which stood an elegant woman with long, dark hair, her eyes closed in meditation. Sat on the floor between her and the pool was another, smaller woman, who stared up at Ran with bright red eyes. Ran opened her mouth to speak, but Tomoe silenced her with a raised finger.

“Greetings, travelers.” said the smaller woman, in a slow, deep voice which was clearly rehearsed, “What favour would you ask of the great Ako Udagawa, fabled necromancer of the… um…” she faltered, her voice moving to a more natural-sounding high pitch. “of the…”

“Crystal abyss.” whispered the taller woman, remaining completely still.

“Of the crystal abyss?” Ako finished, her confidence renewed. Ran glanced over at Moca for a moment, who grinned back, before turning to the necromancer.

“She brought me here.” She jabbed a thumb in Moca’s direction. “She said you knew something about my father.”

Ako nodded, considering her words. “Ah, you’re Ran, right?” she asked, her voice now completely normal again. “Yeah, Moca told me about you.” She stood and stretched, finally prompting the woman behind her to open her eyes and take a step back, glancing nervously at the people around her. Ako quickly, gently took her hand, and she soon calmed down, closing her eyes again.

“So what is this?” Ran demanded, taking a step forward. “What do you know?”

Ako stared up at her contemplatively, examining her expression. “You’re pushy.” she eventually said. Ran set her jaw defiantly, prepared for an argument, but a swift elbow from Moca silenced her before she could get started.

“Hey, Ako.” Tomoe called, and Ako spun to face her, suddenly smiling.

“Yeah?”

“I’m gonna take these two upstairs for some tea.” she said, pointing to Himari and Tsugumi. “Should I put some on for you, too, or…?”

“Awww.” Ako pouted. “You don’t wanna help out down here?”

“Ehhhhh, this kinda magic’s never really been my thing. Besides, this meeting feels kinda… private, y’know? I just don’t think we should intrude, is all.”

Ako glanced briefly up at her partner, then nodded. “Fair enough. Don’t put any on for me, I’ll get my own later.”

“I want tea~” Moca announced, earning her a retaliatory elbow from Ran.

“Alright, come on.” Tomoe made for the door, nodding for Himari and Tsugumi to follow, which they did, albeit with some reluctance on Himari’s part.

When they were gone, Ran spoke again. “Can we get this over with now?”

Ako held up a hand. “Calm down, I gotta talk this over with my partner. Just wait here a minute, ‘kay?” She snapped her fingers, and before Ran could protest further, a curtain of eerie blackness descended from the ceiling, cutting the room clean in two.

* * *

On the other side of the curtain, Ako led her partner over to a plush armchair, letting her sit down before crouching down in front of her. “Hey, Rin-rin.” she said quietly, brushing her hand gently against the other girl’s cheek. “You okay?”

Rinko’s purple eyes slowly fluttered open as she held Ako’s hand to her face. She nodded slightly, and Ako smiled.

“You wanna stay back here while I deal with these two?”

Rinko shook her head. “N-no, I can… I can help.”

The young necromancer tilted her head sympathetically. “Are you sure? I don’t want you pushing yourself too hard…”

“I’ll be fine.” Rinko assured her, holding her hand tight. “I’ll be fine… as long as you’re here…”

Ako laughed softly at the compliment, then leaned up, slowly, and kissed Rinko. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

For a moment, they held each other in silence.

“Alright.” Ako declared, standing back up and extending a hand to help Rinko do the same, “Let’s go explain the hell outta some necromancy.”

* * *

“You’re sure you don’t want any help?” Himari asked, poking her head around the kitchen door.

“Nah, I’m good. ‘S’just tea.” Tomoe said, leaning against the counter next to the stovetop, atop which a kettle sat on boil.

Himari nodded, but remained where she was.

“...Is there something you wanted to talk about?”

Himari hummed. “Not really. Tsugu fell asleep, so I figured I’d get out of her hair.”

Tomoe nodded. “Right.”

A moment of silence.

“So, uh… what exactly is going on with you lot? Moca said she’d bring a friend, but… I mean, there are three of you. And, no offence, but you don’t exactly seem like friends to me.”

“I don’t know what happened!” Himari suddenly exclaimed, as though she’d been holding it in for a while and had finally found an excuse to vent. “Everything was fine until just before we left Circle Town, and suddenly they’re at each other’s throats! I don’t get it!”

“Whoa, whoa, hey!” Tomoe raised a hand, taking a step forward. “You seem real worked up about this, but it’s not your fault! Right?”

“I know it’s not my fault,” pouted Himari, “but I should be able to tell what’s going on! I’m an empath, Tomoe! Literally! With magic! It’s, like, my entire thing! But if I can’t figure this out, then… what’s even the point, y’know?”

The kettle began to whistle, and Tomoe quickly took it off the stove.

“Yeah, I get that.” she said, taking a pair of cups from a cupboard. “You can’t just rely on magic to solve everything for you. You gotta put in the work.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well, it’s like me with my magic. I can use magic to boost my strength exponentially. It builds on my natural strength, enhances it, but it works better because of all the work I put in without magic.” She explained, filling the cups with boiling water and stirring. “So for you, I guess it’s like… you have to get to know them normally before your powers can help you understand them on that deeper level.” She handed Himari one of the cups. “Does that make sense? I know I’m kinda making this all about me…”

“...No, I guess that makes sense.” Himari conceded, accepting the drink. “Thanks, Tomoe.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Himari took a sip from her drink and immediately gagged.

“Himari!? Are you okay?”

“Tomoe,” she groaned, “did you remember to put any tea in this…?”

Tomoe’s eyes flickered over to the pile of bone-dry teabags sitting out on the countertop.

“...I knew I was forgetting something.”

* * *

“Necromancy?” Ran hissed at Moca as the pair awaited Ako’s return.

“What about it?”

“It doesn’t work, Moca! You can’t raise the dead! You know this!”

“You have a very narrow view of what constitutes necromancy.”

Before Ran could offer any further retort, the curtain opened, revealing the two necromancers. “Let us begin!” Ako proclaimed with a dramatic flourish. “Tell me, weary travellers, what knowledge so you seek?”

“For the love of god just tell me whatever it is you know so I can leave.”

Ako stared at her with cold eyes for a moment. “You don’t know why your father was killed, do you?”

“No. Do you?”

“No. But I’m certain he does.”

Ran groaned. “Listen, I don’t care about whatever ‘spirits of the dead’ snake oil you’re selling, so if you don’t have anything useful to say, I’m out of here.”

“Wait! You misunderstand my art. Allow me to explain.”

Ran glared, then looked over to Moca. She seemed disappointed. Ran swallowed. “Five minutes.”

Ako smiled and nodded. “Rin-rin?” Behind her, Rinko nodded and raised her hands. Before them, the pool began to glow, and a featureless humanoid figure rose from it. Within the figure’s cranium, orange lights danced. “Throughout our lives, we accumulate knowledge.” Ako explained. “Every day, we learn something, until the day we die. This information can guide us, shape us, but it is not part of us - it is something we carry. As such, when we die, it does not die with us.” The figure collapsed, dissolving into nothing, but the orange lights did not go out, instead scattering through the air. “This information can be accessed by a skilled necromancer through a realm known as Sanctuary.”

“Sanctuary?” Ran echoed. “Is that like… the afterlife?”

“It is one of the realms some people may refer to as an afterlife.”

“Very helpful.”

“You’re welcome. Now,” the orange lights pooled together, “usually, all this information is just an incomprehensible mess of conflicting thoughts. However,” the lights began to shift again, not scattering this time but rather stretching out, “once entering Sanctuary, a person will be able to coalesce the information of someone they were close to - someone with whom they share a lot of memories - into a form they can understand.” The lights finished shifting, taking on a humanoid form reminiscent of the one they started out inside of.

Ran eyed the figure curiously. “So you’re saying I go into this Sanctuary place, and search my father’s memories for the reason he was killed?”

“Basically, yeah. But it’ll be very dangerous.”

Ran cocked her head to one side. “How so?”

“Sanctuary is a metaphysical realm of pure information. It is fundamentally incompatible with the physical matter of our world. As you remain there, your body will be slowly eaten away until only your memories are left, becoming part of the fabric of Sanctuary.” As Ako explained this, another white figure appeared beside the orange one, and as it slowly disintegrated, the orange lights stored within its cranium joined the rest. “There are certain protections I can cast upon you to delay this, and it helps if you don’t go in alone, but there’s nothing I can do to prevent it entirely.”

Ran nodded slowly. “If - if - I were to enter Sanctuary, how long would I have?”

“Probably half an hour, at most.” Silence fell, and Rinko’s illusions soon evaporated, leaving the chamber bathed only in the light from the torches on the walls. “So will you do it?”

“Give me some time to think it over.”

Ako nodded, and recast the curtain dividing the room. A moment of quiet, only the soft flickering of flames to break it. “So what do you think?” Moca eventually asked.

“I don’t know. If this is true - if this works - then…” Ran sighed. “I’ve just been wandering for so long now. To finally get some answers…” she swallowed. “But I don’t know if I can do this. It feels… wrong . Like walking on somebody’s grave.”

“There’s no shame in backing out.”

“But if I back out, I’m back where I started. Directionless. Alone.”

Moca tilted her head back. “You don’t have to be alone.”

Ran glanced over to her, watched the light dance across her silver hair, and for a moment it was as though nothing had changed. Moca smiled, and Ran’s gaze hardened.

“Come on.” she commanded, standing stiffly. “We should go tell the others.” With that, she marched toward the door, pointedly looking straight ahead. For a moment, Moca just watched her go, her smile fading. Then, eventually, she too stood and left.

“Stubborn.” she muttered affectionately. “Same as always.”

* * *

Tsugumi’s eyes slowly fluttered open to the sounds of quiet discussion. Sitting on the sofa across from her were Himari and Tomoe, chatting softly about nothing in particular. She smiled and began to sit up.

“Tsugu! Good morning!” Himari said, swiftly distracted from her conversation.

“G’mnuh” Tsugumi murmured blearily, her mind still trying to catch up with the rest of her. “What time is it?”

“You’ve only been asleep a few minutes.” the light mage chirped affectionately. “The others are still downstairs.”

“They’ll probably be up soon.” Tomoe added. “It doesn’t usually take Ako too long to do her exposition thing.” Sure enough, the door to the basement creaked open almost immediately, Ran emerging first, followed by Moca. “Speak of the devil. Everything good?”

Ran grunted in response, sitting herself down on the last available chair. For a moment, she just sat quietly, her eyes shut tight in intense concentration. “I have to go into Sanctuary.” Tomoe nodded knowingly, Himari tilted her head questioningly.

“Why?” Tsugumi asked.

Ran looked up at her. “You know about Sanctuary?” Tomoe asked, a hint of surprise in her voice. “Didn’t take you for a necromancer.”

“I’m not. Hina- a friend of mine used to be interested in necromancy. She told me about it. It’s like a repository for the memories of the dead, right?”

“Basically, yeah.”

“So what do you need from in there, Ran?”

She observed Tsugumi quietly for a moment, studying her expression carefully. Himari winced. “My father’s memories.”

“Oh.” she breathed, her pleasant smile breaking. “Oh, I-I’m sorry, I didn’t--”

Ran cut off her condolences with a raised hand. “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

“It is dangerous.” Tomoe noted. “It’s easy to get lost in the visions down there. But if there’s something you really need out of it, I say go for it.”

Ran eyed her curiously. “So what exactly do you get out of this?”

“What?”

“I mean, I can’t imagine you’re all doing this out of the goodness of your hearts. What’s my end of the bargain?”

“I mean, it costs money.” Tomoe admitted nonchalantly. “We gotta eat, after all. But Moca already paid up front. You don’t need to worry about anything.”

Ran looked up at the dark mage, who casually avoided eye contact. “...I still think it feels wrong.”

“That I can’t help you with.” Tomoe shrugged. “If that’s why you don’t wanna do it, I ain’t gonna try and convince you otherwise.”

An awkward silence filled the room as Ran contemplated her options. Options. She knew there was really only one, though. She couldn’t just go back to wandering aimlessly, not when she was so close to finally getting some answers, finally getting one step closer to the closure she’d sought for so long. She’d already made so much progress since she’d joined up with…

“I’ll do it.” she announced quietly.

“Right.” Tomoe nodded. “You’d better choose a partner and head back down, then.”

“A partner?”

“Did she not tell you?” Ran just stared blankly. “Guess not. She won’t send you in alone. It’s too dangerous. You have to bring someone else with you, to boost your chances of survival. And before you pick me,” she added with a smirk, “she won’t let me risk it. I’ve asked.”

Ran nodded, pursing her lips and looking around the room at her companions. “Tsugumi.”

“Me? Um… I’d love to help, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to get involved in anything too magical until I’ve got a better handle on my powers… sorry…”

“...Fair enough. Himari?”

“Ah! Um… I…”

“How about Moca?” Tomoe suggested, stepping in front of Himari. “She’s known you the longest, so she’d be best suited as protection.”

“Just to be clear, I was never actually going to get to choose, was I?”

“Nope.”

Ran sighed and began wearily heading for the basement. “Come on.” she reluctantly beckoned for Moca to follow.

“You go ahead, I’ll catch up in a second.”

* * *

“Are you sure you’ll be okay up there on your own?”

“I won’t be alone…” Rinko answered quietly. “Tomoe knows what to do… if I start to panic…”

Ako nodded. “You can stay here and help out if you like. I promise I don’t mind.”

“You need to concentrate… on maintaining the link to Sanctuary… I’d just get in the way…”

“You wouldn’t though!” Ako pouted, clinging tightly to her partner.

“I’d feel better about it… if I was out of the way.”

“...Okay. But I think you’re being too hard on yourself.” the necromancer conceded, releasing Rinko from her grip.

“Is everything ready?”

“Yeah, we’re good. Guess I should probably get out there.” She paused, then leaned in closer. “Kiss for luck?”

Blushing, Rinko planted a gentle kiss on her partner’s lips, earning a happy squeak. After a quiet moment, Ako waved her hand, dismissing the curtain and revealing Ran and Moca waiting on the other side.

“Finally.” Ran muttered, kicking at a loose pebble. Moca stared vacantly into the distance, her eyes following Rinko as the illusionist hurried up the stairs to join the others. “Can we get started now?”

“Of course.” Ako nodded, business face on. She turned to Moca. “Will you be accompanying her?”

“Ran just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving me behind~”

“Shut up. Tomoe wouldn’t let me leave her behind.”

Ako smiled. “As she should. Er, shouldn’t. It’s dangerous to go alone, after all.”

“Whatever. Can we just get this over with?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll need a few moments to draw the necessary enchantments to prevent you from dying instantly as soon as you enter Sanctuary.” From her robes she withdrew a calligraphy brush and a jar of what Ran hoped was red ink. “Roll up your sleeves, please.” Ran obliged, and Ako set to work drawing a series of strange symbols on Ran’s skin all along both her arms, doing the same to Moca when she was done.

“Now what?” Ran asked, as Ako stowed her brush and walked back to the other side of the pool.

“Step into the water.” she said casually. Moca did so immediately, Ran a touch more warily. It came up to about halfway up their calves. “Now just wait. And be on your guard - entering other realms can be pretty disorienting the first few times.” She placed her hands on the surface of the water and began muttering something. A glow began to appear beneath her palms, slowly spreading out across the pool. Ran watched as the light expanded, soon illuminating the pool’s entire surface area.

“I don’t under--” Ran began, then the floor vanished from beneath her feet, and she was gone.

* * *

“Everything good down there?” Tomoe asked as Rinko emerged from the basement.

“Y-yeah.”

She cocked her head. “Are you good?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Ako’d kill me if anything happened to you while she was busy.”

Rinko’s eyes met Tomoe’s, and found a curious sadness in them. “...She loves you too, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m just messin’ around.” She instinctively moved to clap Rinko on the shoulder, then remembered who she was talking to and stopped herself just in time. “C’mon, I’m sure the others are dyin’ to meet you. Oh, um… unless you…?”

“No, no. It’s fine.”

Himari and Tsugumi waited in the front room with bated breath, their eyes instantly whipping over to Tomoe the moment she entered the room. “All good!” she grinned, “They should be done in about half an hour.” The pair breathed a synchronised sigh of relief and leaned back in their chairs as Tomoe and Rinko sat down. “This is Rinko, by the way. She’s Ako’s partner.”

“N-nice to meet you…”

“Hey!”

“Hello.” Tsugumi bowed politely.

Silence.

“...So! Anyone for tea?” Tomoe asked, hastily getting to her feet.

“I-I’ll get it!” Rinko interjected, following suit.

“No, no, you just relax! I can do it.”

“Not from what I’ve seen.” Himari said quietly from her seat. Tomoe looked at her with faint annoyance, and sat back down.

“Fine.”

Rinko laughed softly and started heading for the kitchen. Before she could make it out of the room, however, she was stopped by a knock on the front door. She whirled around to the source of the sound, then locked eyes with Tomoe, who was looking at her with a mix of surprise and concern.

“Were you expecting anyone?”

“N-no…”

“Neither was I.” she grimaced, making her way over to the door anyway.

“Wait! It could be dangerous!” Tsugumi warned, leaping up in concern.

“For them, maybe.” Tomoe replied, and pulled the door open. Behind it stood a tall woman in tattered robes, dark hair and determined eyes.

“Is Ran Mitake here?” she asked, her voice cold and demanding. “I need to speak to her.”

Tomoe regarded the newcomer suspiciously for a second before answering. “She’s indisposed at the minute. But anything you have to say to her, you can say to us.” The woman looked past Tomoe, surveying the other inhabitants of the room until her eyes settled on Himari.

“Himari Uehara?”

All eyes were on her. “Uh… yes?”

“My name is Rei Wakana. And you are being hunted.”

* * *

She was falling, and that was all she knew. Her name, her cause, her life, all gone in the face of the incomprehensible vortex she had descended into. Their were visions, things passing by her eyes, but she couldn’t make sense of them. There was a tower before her, stretching infinitely in every direction, and its walls were made of things she’d seen out of the corner of her eye. Somewhere was a house made of whispered secrets, and somewhere was a colossus formed from screams of rage, and she found that she knew them, although she could not see them. She closed her eyes, desperate for escape, and heard two voices, both familiar, both painful in different ways, and both saying the same thing.

“Ran.”

She knew that word, but she couldn’t quite place it. Maybe whoever was talking had some answers. She focused on one of the voices, the deeper of the two, and willed herself toward it, hoping against hope that somehow, she could find it.

“Ran.”

She had stopped falling, and her mind came back, and she soon forgot that she had ever lost it. The voice was so clear now, and so gentle. She opened her eyes to see her father. Middle-aged, a stern face, but with kind eyes peering out from behind small glasses. He smiled, and she felt some sad thing pull at her heart, and she didn’t understand why.

“Are you okay?”

“Where’s mummy?” Her voice was high, and young, and she was a little surprised at the fact that that surprised her.

He paused, and placed a hand on her shoulder. That was definitely unusual, no doubt about that. “She’s gone.”

“When’s she coming back?”

“I’m afraid she won’t be.”

She sniffled. “‘S’not fair. I want mummy.”

“No. No, it isn’t fair.” he sighed, and reached inside his black robe. “Here. Your mother wanted to give you this before she left.” In his hand was a locket, a stylised hawk embossed onto its cover. In the hawk’s eye was a small, red gemstone.

“What is it?” Her voice was distorted by the tears stinging her eyes.

“She made it herself, just for you. She wanted to give it to you when you were older, but.” He stopped, and his voice cracked in a way she’d never heard before. “But I suppose she never got the chance.”

She took the locket, and held it tightly to her chest.

“Come on. Everybody’s waiting for us. It’s a long walk down to the village.” She took his hand, and he led her outside. There was a silver-haired girl there, achingly familiar, yet try as she might she couldn’t remember her name. She was crying, though, and behind her stood a silver-haired woman. The woman spoke.

“Ran.”

And she realised that the woman was not there, and then she was falling again.

* * *

Rei had taken a seat at the head of the room, Tomoe standing close by in case she tried anything. Everyone’s eyes were drawn to the sword at her hip. “I’m not here to fight.” she reassured them again. Tsugumi glanced at Himari.

“I think she’s telling the truth. I’m not reading any hostility from her.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, I’m still not convinced.” Tomoe declared.

“Reasonable. You don’t have any real reason to trust me, after all.” As she spoke, Rinko quickly left the room.

“Excuse me.” Tomoe followed, shooting a warning glance back at Rei before she left.

“Are you okay?” She asked Rinko, finding her in her bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed and breathing heavily. She nodded quickly, keeping her eyes shut tight. “No, you’re not. Ah…” she looked around frantically, wishing, not for the first time, that Ako was here to help. She’d know what to do. She always knew what to do.

“I-I’ll be… fine…” Rinko stammered, even slower than usual. “I… just need… some space…”

Tomoe grimaced, reached out to hold her but thought better of it. She glanced anxiously in the direction of the front room, her thoughts darting back to the mysterious, menacing stranger they were playing host to. “I-I promise I’ll be right here if you need me, okay? I promise.” She reluctantly hurried back down the hall and into the tense silence she’d left earlier, all three of the front room’s inhabitants remaining still and silent.

“Are you ready to hear what I have to say now?” Rei inquired, arching an eyebrow.

“Why are you asking me?”

“Well, you’re the only one who’s shown any initiative. I assumed you were in charge

“Um.” Himari piped up, raising a hand. “You said I was the one being hunted…?”

Rei nodded and reached into her cloak, pausing when she saw the rest of the room tense up. Slowly, she withdrew a trio of sheets of parchment - wanted posters, one each for Ran, Moca, and Himari, who took them curiously.

“Grand larceny, obstruction of justice, and assaulting a city official?” she read. “What the hell?”

“You, um. Didn’t think to mention any of that when we first met?” Tsugumi asked.

“Yeah, I mean, I got no love for the city governments, but I don’t wanna be harbouring criminals. We don’t need that kinda heat.”

“Because it’s not true!” Himari protested, tossing the papers aside. “She’s lying!”

I’m not lying.” Rei corrected, a finger raised. “I’m just alerting you to the fact that someone in power is lying, and that these lies are going to attract bounty hunters.”

“Bounty hunters?” Himari echoed quietly.

“Hmm. And for the price on your head, I’d imagine quite a few of them. Count yourself lucky that you’re wanted alive.”

Himari contemplated this revelation for a moment, then stood. “Okay, well, thank you! I’ll be sure to pass your message along to Ran! You can leave now! Goodbye!”

“Wait, wait.” Rei protested calmly, waving her hands in front of her. “I didn’t just come here to warn you about some bounty hunters. Hell, if Ran’s anything like I remember, I should be warning the bounty hunters about her.” She smiled at her own joke. Nobody else did. “No, no. Trust me, compared to who else is after you, bounty hunters are the absolute least of your worries.”

* * *

She’d stopped falling again. Wherever she’d landed, it was warm. She opened her eyes to orange light streaming through the windows. Her father was hunched over his desk, glaring down at the work surface with intense concentration.

Raaaan~

She looked to her left and found the silver-haired girl by her side. She thought she looked older than when she last saw her, but that would be weird, because she’d last seen her yesterday and she hadn’t gotten any older since then. She searched her mind for her name, and once again failed to find it. Frustrating. “Come oooon , it’s your turn~” she whined, gesturing at the arrangement of cards on the floor between them.

She looked down at the cards, trying to remember how to play, or what they were playing. She looked back to her father, unmoving and unerring, and she stood and walked over to him. “Ran?” the silver-haired girl called after her.

“Hang on a second.” she called back half-heartedly, keeping her eyes straight ahead. She reached her father’s desk. “Dad?”

He looked at her suddenly, as though he had been awakened from a trance. “What is it?” His tone was gentler than his words.

“Can I have my necklace back now please?” They both looked at the open locket laying on the desk, a small piece of tattered paper next to it. He hesitated, then sighed.

“I suppose I’m not really getting anywhere with it.” he said with a rueful smile, folding the paper back up and sealing it inside the locket again. “You take good care of it now.” He pressed it into her palm.

“I will!” She smiled and turned back to her friend, and saw the silver-haired woman standing by her side once again.

“Ran.”

And again she fell.

* * *

“I don’t understand.” Himari said, looking around the room at a series of equally confused faces. “Who is Yukina Minato?”

Rei observed her for a moment before answering. “Has she not told you?” Himari shrugged and shook her head slightly. Rei nodded, her eyes darting to the floor as she considered Himari’s answer. She leaned forward and spoke again. “Eve Wakamiya. Lisa Imai. Tae Hanazono. Rei Wakana. Yukina Minato. Ran Mitake.” As she listed these names, she searched her audience’s faces for any signs of recognition, and saw none until she reached the end. “We are, or were, all students of a renowned swordmaster in the Northern Mountains. Yukina was the fiercest of us all. She completed every trial our master assigned her without question and without fail. None of us ever managed to best her in the arena, even once. She was fully devoted to her training, and yet…” she paused, carefully considering her next words. “When you match swords with a skilled fighter, you get a sense of who they are. You feel their passion, their identity, through each clash of the blade. But not Yukina Minato. She had no passion. No pride. She conquered all, again and again, and did it without a hint of satisfaction. She just did it.”

“So she’s, what? Some kind of automaton or somethin’?” Tomoe scoffed dismissively. “Anyone who fights without passion can’t be that tough. Maybe y’all just aren’t as great as you think you are.”

Rei cast a withering glance her way before continuing. “I don’t know why she wants to find Ran, but I do know that she will not stop until she succeeds. She is cold, relentless, and above all, she is merciless.”

“So how do we stop her from finding us?” Tsugumi asked nervously.

“You can’t.” With that, she stood casually. “Well, that’s all I have to say. Pass my message on to Ran; I’m afraid I must be going.”

“Wait, hang on!” Tomoe commanded, taking a menacing step forward. “You can’t just tell us all that and then leave! How do we beat her?”

“I’m sorry, I thought she couldn’t be that tough? In any case, I’ve taken her element of surprise. That’s the only advantage I can give you. Make the most of it. Remain vigilant.” And before anyone could protest further, she was gone, lost to the wind and rain once more.

* * *

Fire.

Her home was burning. She ran, as fast as she was able, faster than she’d ever run before, but it wasn’t enough. She knew it wasn’t enough.

She knew because this had happened before.

The adrenaline coursing through her system brought with it some sense of her purpose, some instinct, and she ran faster, leaving herself behind as she made for the place where she had grown up.

At the end of the path stood her house, and three figures nearby, two men and a horse, slowly coming into focus. The path blurred, and skipped, and suddenly she was there, jarringly unable to move, but able to hear every word of her father’s final conversation.

He was on the ground, his glasses knocked to one side, glaring up at his attacker.

Goro Tamade smiled pleasantly, the aged lines of his face crinkling in a way that suggested he didn’t do so very often. A patch covered his right eye, and one hand remained cautiously at his hip. She flinched at his voice.

“Now, now, Mitake.” He spoke slowly, quietly, his tone gentle and condescending. “The ruby, my dear boy. All you have to do is tell me where it is, and I’ll leave your miserable little life forever. You just need to help me with this one tiny little detail, and then we’ll both have what we want. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve already told you everything I know.”

He shook his head, tutting. “But you haven’t told me anything. So that means either you’re lying, or I’m wrong. And I sincerely doubt the latter is even possible.” He crouched down, bringing their faces level. “Now, last chance. Tell me what I want to know. Unless, of course, you’d rather be happily reunited with your wife?”

A pause, tension punctuated by crackling flame. Her father suddenly lunged, grasping at Tamade’s face, ripping off his eyepatch and casting it into the fire as he made a break for it. He had barely gotten to his feet before a tendril of earth whipped around his ankle and brought him crashing down again.

Tamade stood over him, grasping his right eye. His smile was gone. “I know you think I need you alive, but I promise I don’t. I have any number of ways of getting this information.” He moved his hand, exposing his right eye - or rather, the gleaming, perfect sapphire that took its place. “And even more ways of killing you.” He grabbed her father by the throat, snapping his ankle from the earth’s grip, and tossed him back towards the burning house. “But you’ve always been something of a traditionalist, haven’t you?” He pulled his sword from his scabbard, slashing it menacingly through the air. “I can respect that.” The blade plunged down.

She fell to her knees, unable to move, unable to scream, and she shut her eyes tight. When she opened them, she was running down the path again, knowing she was already too late but unable to change course. After all, the voice in the back of her head realised, she wasn’t real. She was only a memory of herself. She already knew what happened next and so knew she was helpless to prevent it.

Almost at the house, she stopped, staring through eyes full of tears and smoke at a stranger. He stared back at her with an eye of malice and an eye of stone, his sword drawn and bloodied. For a moment, time stood still. Then, without a word, he sheathed his sword, mounted his horse, and rode off into the night.

She ran to her father’s side, choking on her words. There was a hole in his robe, and around it was stained with blood. Her father looked at her with glassy eyes.

“Ran.” One word, short, sharp, like it hurt him to say it. He clasped her locket with both hands and stared at her, pleadingly, trying and failing to choke any more words out. His eyes never left hers as they closed.

She couldn’t tell how long she held onto his body. Her mind was blank; all she was aware of was the crackling flames, her own ragged sobbing, and his slowly-fading warmth. Eventually, or perhaps quickly, they were joined by something else. A voice, calling out from behind her.

“Ran!”

She held on tighter.

“Ran!”

There was a hand on her shoulder, and with an instinctive shout she pushed it away, but it was persistent. She turned, attempting to strike its owner, but failed, blinded by smoke and tears and grief. She blinked and saw the silver-haired girl once again. Always there. Why was she always there? And why couldn’t she remember her name?

“Ran…”

Her hand was extended, and she saw that she was crying, too. She spoke, an alien voice not her own.

“Moca…”

Of course.

She let Moca pull her away into her arms, and she cried onto her shoulder.

“Ran.”

Another voice, older, and she looked up to see the silver-haired woman.

Of course.

She was Moca, too.

“We have to go.”

She looked up at Moca’s outstretched hand, and she looked down to see the child who was her, crying in Moca’s arms, and she saw Moca, staring, shaking, horrified at the wreckage before her.

She found she was on her knees, too; she was crying, too. She tried to speak and failed. Orange lights danced before her eyes, her mind falling blank, and she knew with certainty that she was dying, and she found she couldn’t summon the will to try and prevent it.

There was a hand grasping hers.

“Please. We have to go.”

She shook her head. She couldn’t go. She couldn’t go on. How could she, after this?

The hand gripped tighter.

“I won’t leave without you.”

She looked up, saw tearful, blue-grey eyes staring into her.

“But you’ll die too.”

“I know.”

She looked back down at her young self, saw the way Moca was holding her, saw the way they hurt.

“...Idiot.”

She grabbed Moca’s other hand, and suddenly they were falling again, but now with purpose, conviction. They held onto each other, knowing only that they couldn’t let go, and they fell, speeding through endless unknowable nothingness until suddenly there was water, and rock, and they crested the surface of the pool and hit the floor, hard, still refusing to let go.

Ran lay on the ground, safe, crying into Moca’s shoulder. She could hear, she could feel, frantic words being whispered at her side.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, I love you, I’m so sorry…”

* * *

“You’re really going?” Ako watched from the doorway as Tomoe packed her things, slim fingers of dawn sunlight peeking in from between the curtains of her bedroom.

“Hmm.” Tomoe nodded, placing another neatly folded shirt in her pack.

“Why?”

Tomoe set her jaw, unable to meet her sister’s eyes. “I’ve been thinking. For a while now, actually. We’re going down different paths, aren’t we? I can’t do what you do. And I can’t help you anymore, either.” She packed another shirt away and paused. “I couldn’t even help Rinko.”

Ako looked away.

“Is she okay now?”

“She’s fine. She’s asleep.”

“Tell her I’m sorry.”

“Tell her yourself.”

Tomoe rifled through the contents of her pack one last time and, satisfied, sealed it. “I’ll come back. I promise. I just don’t think this is the life for me.” She grabbed a rolled-up bundle of canvas from the corner and attached it to the top of her pack. “You… you’ve found something you love, and you’ve dedicated your life to it. And you’ve found someone who loves you to share that life with. And me… what am I doing? I don’t have any of that.” She hoisted the pack onto her back and stood up straight, eyes finally meeting Ako’s. “So I’m gonna go find it.”

Ako nodded, slowly, a little sadly. “Okay.”

“Thank you.”

“So what are you doing? Are you going with them? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I hear one of them saying Ran was breaking up the group.”

“Yeah, I dunno about that.” Tomoe shrugged. “Seems Ran’s had a change of heart.

* * *

Dawn light spilled out over the horizon, the blazing yellow stinging Moca’s eyes a little as she leaned against the wall of the Udagawa household. She didn’t care to look away.

All of a sudden, a gentle thud beside her.

“Hey.”

She spared the briefest of glances in Ran’s direction. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ve said.”

“This was a mistake. We should never have come here; I should never have put you through that. I’m sorry.”

A brief pause.

“Yeah.”

A longer pause.

“So what are you going to do now?”

“You said you wanted me gone, yeah?” She stood, turning to look Ran in the eye. “So I’m going.”

“You don’t have to.”

She cocked her head curiously.

“Earlier, before we went into Sanctuary.” Ran began, seemingly changing the subject completely, “You hung back upstairs for a bit. Why is that?”

“I was grabbing a snack.”

“Liar.”

Moca set her jaw, a little surprised.

“I spoke to Tsugu. She says you apologised to her.”

“...Yeah.”

“So why didn’t you just tell me that up front?”

“I didn’t want to look like I was trying to win you back or anything. You want me gone. I’ll respect that.”

“I don’t want you gone.”

Moca huffed. “I can’t stay with you anymore. Not after what I just put you through.” She turned away, looking once more to the horizon. “I just wanted to be with you again, and now I’ve ruined everything. I’m sorry.”

“You keep saying that. You really wanna make it up to me?” Ran stood, walking around Moca to face her again. “Then stay with me. Help me, like you always have.” Suddenly, Moca felt arms around her shoulders and in her surprise it took a moment to realise that Ran was hugging her. “I promise I won’t leave you behind again.”

Moca hesitated for a moment. Then, slowly, she raised her arms and hugged Ran back. The two of them stayed that way for a moment, relaxed in each other’s embrace.

“What’s next?” Moca said eventually, still not breaking the hug.

“I’ve got some ideas. We’re being hunted, apparently, so we should probably deal with that. But what’s important is we do it together, yeah? The five of us.”

“Five?”

“Yeah, Tomoe’s coming too.”

Moca stepped away, smiling. “You really have changed, huh?”

“Maybe. I dunno. I think maybe before, when I was alone… maybe I was lying. I think maybe I’m just…” Ran sighed, the words lost on her. “Maybe I’m just the same as always.”

Moca watched her oldest friend smile in a way she hadn’t seen since they were children, and slowly, subtly, outstretched a hand, which Ran took without even looking. “Same as always.” she echoed, and together, the two of them stared out into the dawn.

Chapter Text

Tsugumi flinched as another peal of thunder roared across the sky, rain pounding against the walls of the party’s tent. She was grateful to Tomoe for bringing it along, of course, and she supposed it was better than the alternative, but she still couldn’t help but wish for something a bit sturdier.

A flash of lightning, and the thunder rolled again, louder this time, and Tsugumi yelped in fright.

“Tsugu…? You okay?” came a quiet voice from beside her.

“H-Himari? You’re awake too?”

Himari sat up, stretching. “I’m amazed the other three can sleep through this.” she said, gesturing to the trio of sleeping forms opposite them. “Seriously though, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. It’s just a little thunderstorm, nothing to be--” she was cut off by another roar, and she suddenly found herself diving for Himari’s arms.

“You’re not fine. You’re terrified.”

Tsugumi whined in response.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

The ranger sighed wistfully, shaking her head. “Sayo always used to keep me company through storms…”

“They didn’t bother her?”

“No, no. Hina always used to say that the storms were scared of her .” She laughed softly, eyes staring off into nothing. Her smile slowly faded as she listened to the harsh downpour outside.

“You really miss her, huh.”

Tsugumi nodded softly.

“I’m sure she’s thinking of you right now.”

She smiled a little, and closed her eyes. For a moment, she fancied she could almost see Sayo, hunched over her desk, working as diligently as ever, but the image soon faded, lost to the recesses of her sleeping mind.

* * *

Sayo grumbled at the sound of yet another roar of thunder. With Hina around, it was hard enough to concentrate at the best of times, and this storm certainly wasn’t helping. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, letting the scratching of her pen against paper overwhelm the lashing rain outside her window. Simple record-keeping, inventory tracking and the like. Things she’d been taking care of her entire life, things she could understand, to distract her from the things she couldn’t. A click, and the creak of her door opening.

“Sayo?”

Hina. Of course. Inevitably. But she seemed… off. Too cautious, too low-energy. She was holding a piece of paper. Sayo narrowed her eyes. “What have you done now?”

“Nothing. I just need to talk to you about something.”

Sayo raised a cautious eyebrow, and Hina raised the paper. “What’s that?”

“A letter. Well, more of an invitation. To spend some time in Hanasakigawa.” She handed the document over to Sayo’s analytic gaze.

 

Dear Ms. Hina Hikawa,

I hope this letter finds you well. Forgive me if I am being presumptuous, but I have heard rumours around the city of a young woman from Circle Town with rather a talent for inventing, engineering, and all sorts of things really. Am I correct in believing this to be you?

I am a figure of some renown in various circles in Hanasakigawa, and I am intrigued by what I have heard of your work. I would very much like to meet you, and, if I may be so bold, to invite you to stay here in the city so that I may provide more proper funding and resources to your endeavours.

Please come at your earliest convenience. Everything here is ready for you, so there is no need to contact me in advance - I shall be happy to see you whenever you decide to arrive. Drop by the Pastel Playhouse in the Theatre District and, if I am not there, show this letter to a stagehand by the name of Yamato. She will direct you to me.

Yours sincerely,

 

“...Chisato Shirasagi?” Sayo finished aloud.

“I think she’s an actress or something?”

Sayo folded the letter up and passed it back to Hina. “Seems suspicious. How could she know who you are?”

Hina shrugged. “I had to go into the city a lot to get stuff for my inventions. Maybe people talked about me!”

Sayo nodded. Made sense. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Her sister shifted awkwardly on her feet, guiltily avoiding eye contact. “...I want to go.” She paused for Sayo to respond. She didn’t. “I mean, it sounds kinda boppin’, y’know? To be able to spend more time on my projects… but…” She stumbled on her words a little. Very unusual. “...I don’t wanna leave you here alone.”

Sayo regarded her with cold eyes, her expression unchanging. “Alright.”

“I could stay…”

“No, no, don’t let me get in the way. Go on ahead, by all means. I won’t be alone here; I’m not the only person in town.”

“I--”

“Go on, off you go. You’d better start packing if you want to get there as soon as possible.”

Slowly, awkwardly, Hina edged out of the room, her eyes darting indecisively between her sister and the door. “I promise I’ll write.”

“Hrm.”

Alone again. She turned back to her logbook, found the words blurring together even despite her glasses, reached up and felt the tears in her eyes. The voices in her head bickered, some chastising her for such dismissive cruelty, others blaming Hina for abandoning her, like their parents, like Tsugumi--

She stabbed her pen into the desk, suddenly, violently, desperate to drown the voices out. She wasn’t abandoning her, and they hadn’t, and how could she think that? Honestly, it’s no surprise they’d abandon you if that’s how you think of them .

She grabbed the pen again, began hastily scratching out records again, working, doing something, anything--

A whoosh and a crackle behind her, and she whirled around to see, for a split second, the ghostly image of a prone figure, lying just above the floor. It was gone by the time she’d finished blinking. She stared for a moment, bewildered, until she was shaken by another mighty roar from the storm. Just a trick of the light . She turned back, not to her logbook, but to her window, gazing out into the night. Tsugumi had always been afraid of storms. Sayo smiled, reminiscing of nights spent holding her, wondering desperately whether or not to tell her. She supposed she wouldn’t get the chance now. Not now that Tsugumi had--

She closed her eyes for a second, gathering her thoughts.

It wouldn’t be a confession, now. Not now that Tsugumi had said it first. But she still hadn’t said it, still hadn’t told her. But she would. When she got back, and they could be together. That was the promise she’d made.

And no force in the world could stop her from keeping it.

* * *

The spires of Hanasakigawa looked strangely beautiful, framed against the bleak skies of the storm as they were. Chisato Shirasagi took another sip of tea as she admired the view from her penthouse window.

A knock on the door. She sighed, smiling through gritted teeth as she moved to greet her guest. Tall, purple-haired, standing in an eminently punchable manner.

“Hello, Kaoru. Let’s make this quick. I’m sure if there’s one thing we still have in common, it’s that neither of us wants you to be here.”

“Ah, Chisato. I see our time apart has done nothing to diminish your charms.” Kaoru smiled, closing the door behind her.

Chisato ignored, instead picking up a newspaper from her coffee table. “Care to explain this?”

Kaoru took the paper, taking a moment to read the headline:

 

PHANTOM THIEF KIDNAPS TSURUMAKI HEIRESS

 

“Well, it’s a touch harshly worded, but I can’t deny the gist of it.”

Chisato’s smile grew wider, and her eyes colder. “Our arrangement, in case you’ve forgotten, was for me to assist in your theft of petty trinkets. It did not include kidnapping the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the state.” She took a seat, and another sip of tea. “Explain yourself.”

A moment of hesitation. “Since that business with the Shatterstar, her father has had her under constant guard. She confessed to me that she no longer felt safe in her own home.”

“I don’t care.” Chisato responded immediately. “I have worked very hard to get where I am today, and I will not have you jeopardising my position at the whim of some spoiled child chafing under an overprotective parent.”

“Still as ambitious as ever, then?”

“My only ambition is to see justice served, and right now you’re getting in the way of that. Return this girl to her father, or I will cut away your entire operation. You’re hardly vital to my goals, after all.”

Kaoru regarded her for a moment through grim red eyes. “I know you’re not as cold as you want us all to think.”

Chisato scoffed. “And I know you know appealing to my compassion isn’t going to work. If you want to keep the girl, convince me she can be useful.”

The Phantom Thief wavered, her expression hardening as she considered her options.

“If you’ve nothing more to say, then leave.”

“...She can be used as a bargaining chip. And a distraction.”

Chisato nodded, already putting the pieces together. “Explain.” she said anyway, curious to see if Kaoru’s plan matched her own.

“As long as the threat of harm befalling Kokoro is present, Captain Tsurumaki is compromised. He won’t dare move against us if he thinks I’ll hurt her.”

“I’m not convinced that’s true, you know.”

Kaoru continued. “He will devote the entire force of the Guard to this case. While I have Kokoro, you’ll be able to make much bolder moves right under his nose. I’m sure you’re tired of playing the long game…?”

“And if they find you, and trace you back to me?”

“Do you have so little faith in your own abilities that you think they’d be able to?”

“That’s not what worries me. It’s your little gang. They don’t exactly seem the brightest bunch, after all. I’m sure they’d let something slip if they were to get captured.”

“Misaki and Kanon still work within the Guard, and I know you have a number of agents among them as well. Their official influence may have been lessened, but their ingenuity hasn’t. They’ll be able to plant false evidence leading the team astray for as long as necessary.”

Chisato bobbed her head as she considered Kaoru’s case. “...Very well.” she eventually decided, placing the cup back on its saucer. “You may keep the girl. For now. But you had best be very careful.”

“Thank you.” Kaoru sighed with relief, bowing slightly as she did so.

“Now have you made any more messes for me to clear up, or will you be leaving now?”

With a lingering glance, Kaoru made for the door, but paused as her hand brushed the handle. She turned back. “You know, I...” she began, slowly, quietly, the confidence of her dramatic bluster completely gone, “I miss you. I miss the you who didn’t need an ulterior motive to do the right thing.”

“Well, sorry for growing a spine. Now you run along on your little feel-better quest with the best friends brigade. Some of us actually have important work to be doing.”

“...I really did love you, you know.”

“I can assure you the feeling was never mutual.”

“Telling yourself that isn’t going to make it true.”

Even now the smile never left her face. “I think you’d better leave now.”

Kaoru vanished under the door, and Chisato let her eyes linger on the spot where she had been for a moment, before looking down to see her reflection in the tea. Her smile finally vanished.

She stood quickly, knocking her chair backwards, and hurled the teacup at the door, where it smashed into irretrievable shards. She turned to face the window again, staring out at the rain-lashed towers of the city. The city that would soon be hers.

It would all be hers.

Or it would all burn.

* * *

“What is this?”

ChuChu’s father stared across the desk at his daughter through his one heavy-lidded eye, gesturing towards the documents she’d just placed on his desk. She glanced up to Pareo, who smiled down supportively, before answering.

“The identities of those responsible for the Shatterstar affair. I’ve taken the liberty of having bounties placed on their heads.”

“Hmph.” he grunted, picking up the papers. “I was under the impression you were responsible for that mess. And its resounding failure.”

“With respect, sir,” Pareo began, taking a step forward and standing extremely straight, “the Shatterstar affair failed because the diamond never held any power in the first place. Mistress ChuChu cannot be held responsible for that.”

He didn’t look up. “Chiyu, keep your pet quiet. Just because I let you keep her around doesn’t mean I want to hear her talk.” She stepped back, her eyes meeting the floor. ChuChu glanced up at her, biting back the urge to speak, then quickly turned back to her father, who was looking curiously at one of the papers. “Mitake?”

“...Yes.” ChuChu responded, somewhat relieved to be back on track. “She seemed to be the ringleader. She also mentioned something about you, ah…”

“Killing her father?”

“...Yes.”

He nodded slowly, placing the documents back on his desk. “Interesting. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” He looked up at her, and she shifted on her feet. “You can go now.”

The halls of the Tamade mansion were bright and lavish and cold and empty, and the pair’s footsteps echoed. ChuChu’s hand brushed lightly against Pareo’s, but neither made any further movement.

“Sorry about that.” ChuChu spoke quickly and clearly, as though trying to divorce her words from the emotion behind them.

“It’s fine.” Pareo responded, her usual sunny smile returning.

A few seconds of silence, broken only by the sounds of the girls’ onward march.

“I know he’s a little abrasive, but he took me in when nobody else would.”

“I know.”

“And he really has vision, you know? If he’d just--”

“ChuChu. You don’t have to make excuses for him.”

She sighed. “I just want him to say something nice every once in a while.”

The taller girl pulled her into a hug, gently stroking her feline ears and planting a kiss on the top of her head. “I know.” The two stood like that for a while, one enveloped in the other’s comforting warmth, until she suddenly pushed her away.

“Anyway!” she declared, immediately regaining her officious composure, “Enough standing around. We’ve got work to do.”

“Mistress ChuChu?”

“He wants to find Mitake, right? I know just who to go to…”

* * *

Lisa Imai lay curled in the exact centre of the hotel room’s double bed, skimming through some old reference book and humming to herself to try and drown out the sound of the storm outside. At a click behind her, she turned to see Yukina emerging from the en suite - fully clothed, she noted with a little disappointment. Nevertheless, she rolled over to make room, winking suggestively at her companion.

“‘Sup, bae.”

Yukina stared at her, nonplussed. “...Bay?”

“Bae!” she repeated, grinning proudly and pointing out a specific passage in the reference book. “It’s a word of the Old Tongue. It means ‘ one loved most deeply .’”

“Seems rather anachronistic.”

“What can I say, I’m feeling old fashioned.”

Yukina smiled, so quickly and so subtly that it would have been entirely imperceptible to anyone but Lisa. “I’m going out.”

“What? In this weather? Why?”

“I can’t think cooped up in here. I need to go for a walk.”

Lisa nodded, a sly smile spreading across her face. “Oh, still thinking about Ran, huh? Should I be jealous?”

“Of course not. My interest in finding her is purely a matter of security.”

“Uh-huh. You’re sure it’s not because of your little rivalry?”

Please . Rivalry implies a degree of challenge. The only thing Ran Mitake has ever challenged is my patience.” Lisa laughed as Yukina pulled her coat on and fastened her sword to her hip, just in case. “Would you like to come with me?”

She looked out the window, grimacing at the unceasing downpour. “I’d love to, but unfortunately, I’m actually allergic to adverse weather conditions.”

“Really?”

“No, but my hair is.”

“You ought to put less stock in your appearance and more in your training.”

“Aw, don’t you like the way I look?” Lisa pouted, staring over at Yukina with puppy-dog eyes.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You look beautiful.”

“Aww! Thanks, bae!”

“Please stop saying bae.”

“Never.”

* * *

Much as Yukina appreciated getting out of that stuffy hotel room, she was forced to concede that maybe Lisa had had the right idea. Out here, the roar of the thunder was positively deafening, and the rain lashed against her skin so hard it almost hurt. It wasn’t weather amenable to deep thought. Still, the hotel was within sight now. Almost there.

“Yukina Minato!”

For a moment, she thought she was just hearing things, until she saw the voice’s owner - a short, redheaded girl, several years her junior, with strangely real-seeming cat ears emerging from her head. She stood in the centre of a dimly-lit back alley, hands on hips, with what would be a commanding presence were it not for her diminutive stature.

“A moment of your time, if you please.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have any.” She continued walking.

“Regarding Ran Mitake.”

She stopped, turned, walked over to the alley. The cat-girl wore a confident smirk as she watched her approach. “What do you know?”

“Well, that got your attention. My name is ChuChu, and I have a proposition for you.”

“What do you know?” Yukina repeated flatly.

“I know that you and I have a common goal: we both want Ran Mitake. I propose we combine our forces.”

“I see. Not interested. Goodbye.”

“Wha- wait! If you work with me, I can see to it that you’ll be rewarded very handsomely.”

“Don’t care.”

“Why not? You could have anything you want, and all you have to do is what you’re going to do anyway!”

“What I want is to find Ran Mitake. As for why , that does not concern you, but I would wager that our motivations for doing so are very different.” She stepped out of the alleyway. “I shall find her on my own. If I catch you following me, I will kill you. Goodbye.”

“If you knew what I knew…”

“I do know what you know. That is why I will not work with you.”

As she made for her destination, she heard more impotent yelling behind her, but she paid it no mind. Still, this encounter was troubling. She was right: other people were after Ran, and not just for some petty misdemeanours. This was something far bigger, far more dangerous. And yet, even as she gripped the hilt of her sword - just in case - she couldn’t help but smile as she dared to hope that maybe - just maybe - this could be the challenge she’d been looking for.

Chapter Text

Still soaked from the storm the previous night, the grass shone like gold under the dawn sunlight. Tomoe Udagawa, however, didn’t get to see the transient scenery, concentrating as she was on stirring the pot of oatmeal in front of her.

“Hurry uuuuuuuuuuuup~ I’m hungryyyyyyyyyy~ ” Moca groaned, leaning her head on the other woman’s broad shoulders.

“It’ll be ready when it’s ready.” she responded, shrugging the dark mage off. “There’s no rushing these things.”

“She’s right.” Tsugumi said from the rock she was perched on. “You don’t want an undercooked breakfast.”

“Why can’t I just have breeeeaaaad…

“Moca, since I’ve been travelling with you, I have seen you eat literally nothing but bread. Seriously, how are any of you even still alive? You didn’t even have a tent before I got here! Tsugu’s the only one of you with a lick of sense.”

“Mean. Raaaaaaan , back me up~”

“No.” the swordswoman stood some distance away from the rest of the party, idly yet intently carving patterns into the ground with her blade.

“Hmph. Where are we even going? We’ve just been wandering around the plains for a week now~”

Ran didn’t respond for a moment, instead examining her handiwork - a symbol carved into the ground, seemingly calligraphic in nature but not corresponding to any language anybody else was familiar with. “Alright. We’re not far from Shirayuki right now; we’ll head over there and see if we can find anything out. If we’re quick, we should make it by early afternoon.”

“Yay~” Moca grinned, pleased that her pestering had finally produced results.

“Moca?” A hand on her shoulder; Himari’s. “Can we talk in private for a moment?”

The mages glanced surreptitiously at the others. “Sure.” she replied in hushed tones. “What about?”

“...You know more about all this magic stuff than me, yeah?”

“Aw, hey, don’t sell yourself short. But yes.”

“Okay, well, last night, while you were all asleep, Tsugumi… she kind of…” she bobbed her head back and forth, searching for the right word, “... ghosted .”

“Ghosted?”

“Like, for just a second, she almost vanished? Like, she turned transparent, and I could barely feel her anymore, but then she was back like nothing ever happened, and she fell asleep right away.”

“That is weird.”

“I know! She was having such trouble falling asleep before that!”

“...Yeah, that’s the weird part.”

“So, do you know what that could’ve been? Have you ever…?”

“No, no. Never heard of anything like it.” The two of them peeked over at Tsugumi, who was chatting merrily with Tomoe over the now-finished oatmeal. “We’ll have to keep an eye on her.”

* * *

Aya Maruyama was going to change the world.

At least, that’s what she’d always believed. She knew that someday, somehow, she’d find the story, the truth, the dirt that, when exposed, would bring this whole rotten system crashing to the ground, making way for… well, something better. That was for someone else to figure out. She’d just clear the way for them. Yes, someday, Aya Maruyama would change the world.

For now, though, she was stuck writing celebrity profiles.

The reception desk at the Pastel Playhouse was short enough to be friendly but tall enough to make it clear who was in charge. Behind it sat a tired-looking middle-aged man, heavy-lidded eyes peeking out over thick, square glasses. He seemed engrossed in a newspaper. Aya stood before the desk for a moment, hoping to catch his eye without making a fuss, but eventually gave up and rang the bell.

“Hm?” the receptionist grunted, barely looking up from his reading.

“Ah, um, hello! Sir. I’m, ah, Aya Maruyama! I’m a journalist with the Hanasakigawa Daily Press,” she nodded, she hoped subtly, to the newspaper he was reading, “I’m here for an interview…?”

“ID?” He held out his hand.

“Oh!” Aya hastily began rummaging through her handbag, searching for - “Here!” - a small sheet of paper affirming her identity, signed by both the newspaper’s editor and its owner, who also happened to be a prominent figure on Hanasakigawa’s city council.

The receptionist nodded, handing the paper back. “Who are you here to see?”

“Chisato Shirasagi.”

“Oh. Her .” he drawled, finally downing his newspaper and turning in his seat towards the door behind the desk. “ YAMATO!

A clattering from the backroom, and soon enough a bespectacled and slightly bedraggled young woman emerged, greasy brown hair framing a pasty, nervous face. “Yes?”

“Some journo here for your boss.”

The woman, Yamato, adjusted her glasses and squinted over at Aya. “Right! Right, yeah, okay. Come on.” She made her way out from behind the desk and down a hallway headed backstage, beckoning for Aya to follow. For a moment, they walked in a silence that Aya found stifling.

“...I’m Aya, by the way. Aya Maruyama. What’s your name?”

“Hm? Oh. Maya Yamato.”

“Do you work here?”

“No, no. I’m Miss Shirasagi’s personal assistant. Wherever she works, I work, helping out backstage and stuff to make sure everything’s to her liking.”

“Is that necessary?”

“It is to her. She likes to make sure she has some control over the direction of things.”

“She sounds a bit hard to work with.”

“Well, I… no. No, hang on, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be interviewing her, not me. She’s the star, nobody’s gonna care about what I have to say.”

“I, um… I just think that getting to know the people around her will help me understand her. I don’t want to write some puff piece. I want to help people get to know the real Chisato Shirasagi.”

Maya laughed, a strange yet endearing laugh. “I’ve heard that before. Trust me: if you wanna get to know the real Chisato Shirasagi, you’ll need a lot more than a plucky attitude and a pretty smile.”

Aya nodded, no less determined. “So what will I need?”

“Well, a purple wig and another few inches of height might work, but it also might get you beaten half to death. I think these days, if you want anything from Miss Shirasagi,” they stopped outside a white door emblazoned with a yellow star, “you’ll need something to offer her in return.”

* * *

“Another one?”

“Looks like. Pretty fresh, too.”

“What does this one say?”

Lisa examined the symbol etched into the ground closely, looking at it from a few different angles. “Xal. It’s the name of an old trickster god. But why would she…?”

Yukina hummed gravely as she stared out across the plains. “I don’t like this. She’s obviously leaving a trail for us, begging us to find her. But why? And how does she even know we’re after her?”

“Maybe it isn’t Ran. Maybe it’s that ChuChu girl you told me about.”

“I don’t think so. These glyphs were carved into the ground with a sword, and I sincerely doubt she - or anyone on her payroll - has such skills. No, this has Mitake written all over it.”

“Technically, it has Xal written all over it.”

Yukina almost laughed at that. Almost. “We’re close to Shirayuki right now, yes?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“Then that’s probably where she’ll be headed. It’ll be easier to separate her from her companions in town.”

“It’s weird to think of Ran having companions. She was always such a loner.”

“Indeed. I, too, thought she knew better than to trust outsiders. But I suppose if there is one thing Mitake excels at, it’s finding new ways to disappoint me.”

“Outsiders? Jeez, Yukina. You’re worse than Master.”

“You know what I meant. If what she knows…”

“Fell into the wrong hands, yeah, I get it. But I don’t think that means you get to call people who aren’t in our little sword club untrustworthy outsiders.”

“...You’re right, of course. I apologise.”

“No worries. Just be more considerate in future. To Shirayuki, then?”

“Yes. I believe that is where we shall find Mitake.”

“And you don’t think we’re walking into a trap?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Lisa.” Yukina said, already striding purposefully toward her new destination. “Of course we’re walking into a trap.”

* * *

Shirayuki may only have been a modest market town, but to Tsugumi it was practically a metropolis. The hustle and bustle between the stalls, manned by yelling shopkeepers, was unlike anything she’d ever seen, and she found it difficult to tear her eyes from each new, exciting thing they settled on.

“Oi, Tsugu! Shift it!”

“Coming!” She accelerated her pace to match Tomoe’s, taking up the rear of the party. “Sorry, it’s just… a lot. Where are we headed?”

Tomoe shrugged. “Moca said she knows a good place to grab some lunch, so wherever that is, I guess.”

“Oh, okay.”

“...Look, I don’t wanna pry, but is there anything I can do to help? With your quest, I mean. The… powers. ‘Cause we mainly just seem to be going along with whatever Ran wants to do at the minute.”

“Oh, no, no, it’s fine. I left home because I… because I had to, but I don’t really know where to go. But they mentioned they’d met someone with similar powers to mine, so I figure sticking with them’s probably my best bet.”

“Fair enough. I wouldn’t really know what to do either. Hell, my situation isn’t half as messy as yours and I still don’t know what to do.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find something!”

“Yeah. Yeah, I sure hope so.” Tomoe sighed wistfully, gazing out over the crowd. “‘S’weird to think about you having all that power, though. Like, no offence, but you’ve got more of a ‘protect me’ vibe than an ‘I can flatten a city with my mind’ vibe.”

“...Thanks?”

“Uh. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“In here~” Moca called lazily from the front of the party, beckoning them into a shop to their left.

Tsugumi stopped at the doorway, taking in her new surroundings. The bakery was small and well-lit, specialties on display behind a gleaming glass counter with about a half-dozen tables neatly arranged around the space, all of which were unoccupied except for a single customer eating a slice of cake in the corner. The smell of freshly-baked bread wafted in from the kitchen, filling the room with its calming aroma. It was, without a doubt, the best thing Tsugumi had ever seen.

“Here we are~!” the dark mage announced, throwing her arms wide. “Yamabuki Bakery - the finest eatery this side of Circle Woods!”

“I thought we were supposed to be getting lunch.” Ran muttered. “This place only seems to do desserts.”

“Ah, Ran, you poor, uncultured soul~” Moca chided, wrapping an arm around her friend’s shoulder, “We have arrived here too late for lunch, and so I humbly offer an alternative proposal: afternoon tea. Come, be seated, and I shall guide you all through its many pleasures~” With a wave of her hand, she pushed a couple of tables together and sat down, the rest of the group following suit. They were soon joined by an affable goateed man, who took their orders and left them to their own devices, chatting merrily about nothing until suddenly-

“Ahem.”

A sixth figure stood at the end of the table - the sole other customer, having apparently finished her meal. She was tall, broad-shouldered, with golden hair and eyes and eyebrows so sharp you could cut yourself on them.

“Ran Mitake?” She pointed to the swordswoman.

“Yes?”

She nodded. “Moca Aoba?”

“Present~”

Another nod. “And Himari Uehara?”

“Um… that’s me…”

“Nice to meet you.” Her eyes told a different story. “My name’s Masuki Satou.”

Moca tensed, Ran’s hand flew to her sword, Tomoe pushed her chair out slightly. The slightest of smiles graced the newcomer’s face.

“Oh, you know me. S’good. Now, we can do this the easy way, or the fun way.”

“Oh, definitely the fun way.” Tomoe snarled, moving to stand until Himari placed a hand over hers.

“Wasn’t talking to you. Don’t care what you do. Now,” she held up one finger, “easy way, you come with me now, nice and quiet, nobody gets hurt. Fun way,” a second finger, “you get till nightfall to prepare, run, hide, whatever. Then I find you, beat the crap outta you, and deliver you to whoever wants you three bad enough to pay 50,000 keel each .”

Ran glanced over to Himari, who responded with a bewildered shrug. “...We’re not going anywhere.”

Masuki shrugged. “Fair ‘nuff. See you tonight.” With that, she left.

“What was that about? Who was that?” Tsugumi asked the moment she was out the door, her eyes darting between her companions.

“Mad Dog.” Ran spat.

“Mad Dog?”

“A bounty hunter, like me. She’s brutal. Relentless. Never thought I’d actually meet her…”

“I heard she once single-handedly took out an entire clan of vampires.” Tomoe muttered conspiratorially.

“And now she’s after us?!

“Uh… guys?” Himari raised a hand. “Like, obviously she is after us, I’m not questioning that, but… I didn’t sense any hostility from her the whole time she was here. Hell, I didn’t sense anything . It was like she wasn’t even there.”

“So, what, she’s a mage? I never heard anything about her using magic…”

“I mean, she must do. How else could she have beaten so many vampires?”

“Something tells me that one isn’t actually true, Tomoe…”

Relax~! ” Moca declared, snapping her fingers. “We’ve got hours before nightfall. With that much time to prepare, there’s no way she’d be able to beat all five of us. Let’s just have some tea, then find somewhere to hunker down and make a plan, yeah?” An affirmative, if unenthusiastic, grunt passed around the table. “Good. Trust me: this’ll all blow over before you even know it…”

* * *

“Come in.”

Aya creaked the door open, entering the dressing room. It was remarkably spacious; a wardrobe to her right, a coffee table in the centre, a vanity to her left. A bright-eyed, blue-haired woman with a heavy backpack perched atop the coffee table, and taking one of the seats by the vanity was her target: Chisato Shirasagi.

“Ah… I’m, ah… Aya Maruyama, from…”

“From the HDP, yes, I remember.” She returned to the room’s other occupant. “We’ll have to continue this later.” The other woman nodded and jumped up, making for the door but stopping by Aya’s side.

“...Yes?”

She looked her up and down, her face uncomfortably close, before winking with a click of the tongue and leaving, closing the door behind her.

“Sorry about her, she’s new. Take a seat.” She gestured to the unoccupied chair next to her own, which Aya gladly accepted. “How are you?”

“Hm? Oh, I’m… I’m fine!” she answered slowly, searching her pockets for her notes and pencil.

“Excellent. Drink?”

“Ah, no thank you.” She finally withdrew a notebook from inside her jacket, but no pencil.

“Here.”

“Oh, thanks.” Aya said, accepting the proffered pencil.

Chisato smiled and nodded. “I must say, I was quite surprised when I saw your name in the HDP’s celebrity byline.”

Aya blinked. “Wait… you… remember me?”

“Of course I remember you. I never forget a pretty face, after all. It was around two years ago, was it not? At a fundraiser for one of my parents’ little crusades?”

“Y-yeah!” Aya nodded enthusiastically. “I was there on work experience, and--”

“And you mentioned that you were training as an investigative journalist. You seemed very enthusiastic about it, raving all about how you’d break the biggest stories and change the world. Left quite an impression. So, tell me, what’s a girl like you doing writing celebrity puff pieces?”

“They… said I needed some experience before I could move onto more serious topics…”

“Well, you won’t get any relevant experience if they won’t give you relevant work.”

“I know! But it’s like… wait. Wait, wait, hang on, I’m supposed to be interviewing you here.”

The actress laughed sweetly. “Oh, I must apologise. I do have rather a commanding presence, don’t I? But do go on.”

Aya cleared her throat, flipping through her notes until she found the page she was looking for. “Miss Shirasagi. Ever since the overthrow of the old system of blood-hierarchy, your family has been at the forefront of Hanasakigawa’s politics. What made you decide to give up that life in favour of acting?”

She was clearly expecting the question. Of course she was, you idiot, it’s probably the first question she gets asked in every interview . Nevertheless, she answered with the same plastic smile as ever. “Well, I’m afraid it’s likely nothing so dramatic as you’d hope. Politics bored me, acting seemed exciting, so I decided to make a change. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled, let me tell you…”

* * *

“What is this place, exactly?”

Not far outside Shirayuki there stood an abandoned barn, a remnant of a farm that had since been eclipsed by the town’s expansion. Despite its age, it was in remarkably solid condition, sturdy doors holding fast at either end. The only outward indication of its disuse was the shattered glass in many of the windows.

“This, Tsugu,” answered Moca, removing the padlock from the entrance with a single tap, “is where we shall make our stand.”

“Stand? Why? Why can’t we just go?”

“She’d find us. Trust me.” Ran declared, striding into the barn to examine its interior. Mostly empty, plenty of straw and presumably-empty crates lying around, and stairs leading to an upper level that took up the back half of the building, and further up from there onto the roof. “You and Tomoe can go, if you like. She’s not after you.”

“Like hell.”

“Yeah, I… don’t think I could do that.”

Ran nodded. “Good. We’ll stand more of a chance if we’ve got you two on side.”

She was soon joined in her examination of the barn by Himari. “Ran.”

“Hm?”

“What’s up?”

“Nothing. We’ll hole up in here till nightfall, fight Mad Dog off, then carry on as normal. Everything’s fine.”

“Okay but what’s actually up though?”

Ran looked up at her, with something between surprise and suspicion.

“I mean, you’re obviously worried about something. And I have a feeling it’s to do with those weird symbols you’ve been drawing at all our campsites.”

She sighed. “Since visiting Sanctuary, I’ve had an… idea of what I have to do next. And, unfortunately, I’ll need Minato’s help to do it. Those symbols are words of the Old Tongue; they’ll lead her straight to us. But…”

“You’re worried she’ll catch up to us tonight?”

“I have a plan. If she shows up now, she’ll get in the way and ruin everything. Again. Just like she always did. I can’t deal with her and Mad Dog at the same time.”

“We’re here to help, you know.”

“No. Not with this, not with her . I’m the one Mad Dog’s after, and I’m the only one who knows Minato, which means I’m the only one who she’ll listen to. If she shows up before we finish dealing with Mad Dog, we’re screwed.”

“Is she likely to?”

“If I’ve got my timing right, then yeah. That’s why I took us to Shirayuki. I figured she probably wouldn’t make as much of a scene in a public place.”

As much of a scene?”

“Oh, she’d still make a scene. She makes everything a scene. She acts like she’s all cool and above everything, and then she’s all drama central the moment things don’t go her way.”

“Wow, I can really see why you wouldn’t get along with her.”

“I know, right? She’s ridiculous. She’s a ridiculous person.”

“...Would she also happen to be kind of dense?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe. Why d’you ask?”

“Oh, no reason.”

* * *

The rest of the interview went about as Aya expected, and although she knew that was really the best she could’ve hoped for, she still felt disappointed. It was all standard celebrity gossip and witty bon mots , with none of the deep, true insight she’d been vainly chasing. Ah, well. Maybe next time , she thought, carefully shutting the door behind her as she left Chisato to her preparations.

“Hey!”

“AAH!”

The blue-haired woman from earlier, standing right outside the door. Her backpack lay open on the floor, and on her head she wore a strange, metallic contraption that somewhat resembled a particularly uncomfortable pair of earmuffs, and which was connected by a taut wire to a metal disc stuck to the wall next to her.

“What are you doing? What is that thing?”

“Aya.”

“...What?”

“That’s a nice name. Like, it’s kinda… pretty, y’know? It suits you.”

“I… thanks…? People seem to keep saying that today...”

“My name’s Hina. Nice to meet you!”

“Ah… nice to meet you, too.”

“Look, look! Check this out!” She removed the device from her head and quickly placed it on Aya’s.

“Ow!”

“It’s a listening device I made! Listen carefully!”

She did, and she could hear something - Chisato, presumably - moving on the other side of the wall, as clearly as if she had been in the room herself.

“Pretty neat, huh?”

“Yeah I-- wait. Were you eavesdropping on that whole interview?”

“Mm-hm, yeah.”

“What!? You can’t do that, that’s--!”

“She was lying to you.”

She said it with the same old bright smile on her face, like she didn’t even realise what she was saying. “What?”

“I mean, those anecdotes and stuff were probably true, I dunno, but she’s got something else going on. Don’t you wanna find out what?”

“How do you know this?”

She put a finger to her chin and looked up at the ceiling, her eyes glazing over as she thought. “...It’s her smile. Like, back home, whenever my sister or Tsugu or whoever smiled, it was always really boppin’, y’know? I always loved seeing them smile. But when she smiles… when she smiles, it’s different. When she smiles, it’s scary.”

“...Huh.”

“Also I’ve been doing a lot of eavesdropping.”

What!?

“She’s got some very interesting friends in this city. D’you wanna meet ‘em?”

“What do you mean, interesting friends?”

There was a sparkle in Hina’s eyes, dangerous and enticing. Aya couldn’t look away. “I mean the Phantom Thief.”

* * *

Twilight over the fields around Shirayuki. The barn, quiet, but too tense to be peaceful.

“She’s here!” Himari, running down the stairs from the roof.

“Where?” Ran, guarding the front door.

“Northwest!”

Tomoe, on the upper level, rushing to the nearest window. “I don’t see her.”

“I swear she was there!”

“Where could she have gone? There’s no cover out there!”

“Maybe she’s shadow-walking?”

“No, it’s too dark. Need light to create shadow~”

A harsh knock on the eastern wall.

“How-!?”

“Doesn’t matter. Defensive positions! She’s coming in!”

Silence.

Knocking, scratching. Scratching?

“What is she doing out there?”

More knocking, more scratching, louder, more frequent, more frantic. Then--

A howl split the air, a noise of sheer, ungodly terror, ear-splitting and too, too close.

“Oh.” Ran’s eyes widened in realisation. “Mad Dog.”

She dodged out of the way just in time as something burst through the wall, something both human and not. The scratch of monstrous claws against the floor as it landed, preparing for another attack. Shaggy, golden fur coated the beast’s entire body, blowing gently in the breeze as a low, menacing growl emerged from a muzzle filled with jagged teeth. Ran, alone in her head, steadied herself, desperately reevaluating her situation, but not quickly enough.

The werewolf bared her fangs and struck.

* * *

“Why would she come out here? If she was gonna set a trap for us, wouldn’t it make more sense to do it in a more public place?” Lisa groaned as she trudged across the derelict fields towards the faintly-illuminated barn in the distance.

“Both the townspeople’s testimony and your tracking skills indicate that this is her location. As for why , well. Mitake’s mind is difficult to understand, despite its simplicity.”

“Mean.”

“Accurate.”

“Eh.” Lisa shrugged. Her eyes narrowed as she drew closer to the barn, focusing in on the dilapidated building’s wall. “Hey, is it just me, or does that barn have a hole in it…?”

Light spilled out the gap in the side, and Yukina could just about make out shadows moving frantically through, violently intersecting and twirling around each other. Signs of a struggle.

“Idiot.” she muttered.

* * *

Tomoe ducked, an orb of onyx flame exploding onto the wall behind her as she threw her opponent to one side.

“Bloody hell, be careful!”

“Sorry! I was aiming for the wolf!”

I was holding the bloody wolf!

A snarl of rage, and Tomoe was saved by Ran smashing the butt of her sword into the side of Masuki’s head, knocking her to the ground momentarily.

Focus!

“Sorry.”

“Himari! Can you do your…” She waved her free hand around her head. “Thing?”

“It doesn’t work on werewolves!” the light mage shouted back from her position at the edge of the room.

Why not? ” The wolf lunged again, but was stopped by an arrow from Tsugumi’s bow glancing off her hip. She whipped her head to face her, growling threateningly, and charged.

“No you don’t!” Before she could reach Tsugumi, Tomoe leapt forward, attempting to tackle her but ending up clinging to her back. The creature, distracted from her target, bucked beneath her, leaping up and smashing her back against the ground. “Unf!” The wolf rolled over atop her, pinning her to the ground with her claws and roaring with rage. Tomoe opened her eyes just in time to see a flash of gleaming teeth.

A searing pain in her shoulder.

“No!”

A burst of light and a yelp of animal surprise as Masuki was thrown off her. Grasping her wound, attempting to stem the bleeding, Tomoe summoned the last of her strength to look up and see Himari, her hands glowing with power, poised for battle.

Then the world went black.

* * *

“The Phantom Thief? Like, the Phantom Thief? Kaoru Seta? That Phantom Thief?”

“Yeah, unless there’s some other Phantom Thieves running around I don’t know about.”

Aya bit her lip, a sparkle emerging in her eyes. She could meet the Phantom Thief! She could interview the Phantom Thief!

She could interview the Phantom Thief!

“Where?”

“Dunno!”

Aya instantly deflated. “You said you knew!”

“No I didn’t.”

“You implied it!”

“Did I?” The question seemed innocent, like she genuinely didn’t realise the implications of her words. Aya sighed.

“So, another dead end, then. Ugh…” She turned and trudged away, accepting with grim resignation the loss of yet another incredible opportunity.

“Where are you going?”

“Back to work. I gotta write this stupid interview up…”

“Why?” Aya turned back to face Hina. Again, she seemed genuinely puzzled. Aya began to seriously wonder about her intelligence.

“Because I have deadlines?”

“But why not try and find the Phantom Thief?”

“I--”

“You’re an investigative journalist, aren’tcha? Investigate! C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

“But… the Guard has been searching for weeks and they haven’t found anything…”

“But we’ve got a lead! We know Chisato’s connected. They probably haven’t even considered that. And if Chisato’s connected, then some ~one else here must know some ~thing. So what are you gonna do about it?”

Aya pursed her lips, considering her options. She needed to meet her deadlines, sure… but this was too good an opportunity to pass up, wasn’t it? She couldn’t just let it slip through her fingers. Not again.

“Alright! Let’s go! Aya Maruyama is on the case!”

Silence. Hina’s grin seemed broader than ever, and the sparkle in her eyes grew brighter.

“...What?”

“Do that again!”

“What!? N-no!” Aya blushed, suddenly extremely self-conscious.

“Aww… it was boppin’, though!”

“I don’t know what that means!” she yelled, marching away.

“I’m coming too!” Hina announced, following after.

“Fine! But no more making fun of me!”

“Aww… it’s so much fun , though…”

“Hina! I mean it!”

She giggled. “You know, you’re a really interesting person, Aya!”

* * *

“Tomoe’s down!”

“I noticed!”

A single swipe from Masuki’s paw sent Himari tumbling to the ground, Tsugumi’s next arrow hitting its target just seconds too late, driving itself through her wrist and staining her golden fur with rich red blood. Frantically, she grasped the weapon in her jaws, yanking it out and tossing it aside just in time to be smacked in the torso by a blast of magical energy from Moca’s palms. Before she could stand, a swift, powerful kick to the ribs from Ran’s boot, knocking her into the wall, then the tip of a sword at her throat.

“Stay.”

Moca moved in beside Ran, looming threateningly over Masuki, who glared up at the two of them with furious eyes. Behind them, Himari stumbled to her feet, rushing to Tomoe’s side, joined by Tsugumi.

“No, no, go help them…

“But--”

“It’s just a scratch, I can deal with it! Go help them!”

Glancing back, Tsugumi hesitantly dashed over to the others, leaving Himari hunched over Tomoe’s prone form.

“Come on, come on, come on…” she whispered, running her fingers gently over the wound, stemming the flow of blood, keeping her safe and stable. For now, at least.

Ran glanced over to Moca for a split second, reluctant to look away from the captive. “Can you bind her?”

“I can try.” She flicked her wrist, a thick cable of black energy materialising around the wolf. “Werewolf magic’s tricky, though. That might not hold her for long.”

“Hm. Can you understand me?”

Masuki growled, fruitlessly struggling against her bonds.

“I assume so. You’re obviously intelligent, or Himari would be dead, wouldn’t she?”

Biting at the air.

“Did someone hire you, or did you just follow the posters?”

More growling, more biting, nothing helpful.

“I mean, take your time. I’ve got all night.”

“I’m sorry, are you trying to interrogate a werewolf?”

A new voice behind them. New, but coolly familiar.

“And here I thought you couldn’t disappoint me any more than you already had.”

Ran turned, and had all her fears confirmed. Too-long silver hair, lifeless golden eyes. The arrogant flash of a skilled blade. Even Masuki fell silent as the commanding new presence announced herself, her cold features surveying the scene as a pathologist might examine a corpse before an autopsy.

Yukina Minato had arrived.

Chapter Text

“Mitake.”

Ran stepped forward at the sound of her name, fist clenched around the handle of her still-sheathed sword, blazing eyes set dead ahead.

“Minato.”

Yukina did the same, but her eyes retained the same lifeless, dull sheen as ever.

The two squared off for a moment, standing equidistant from one another, each waiting for their moment.

“Begin.”

Instantly, their weapons were drawn, wooden blades clashing against each other. Yukina was slightly faster, slipping down and out of the initial deadlock before thrusting up, the blow glancing off of Ran’s hasty block. Her opponent swung broadly, aiming for her body as she’d been taught. She parried effortlessly, ducking past the blow behind Ran and smashing the hilt of her sword into the nape of her neck, knocking her to her knees. She pushed herself upward and spun around, only for her throat to meet the tip of Yukina’s sword.

“Enough.”

Both pairs of eyes turned to their master, watching from the sidelines.

“Minato. Assess Mitake’s form.”

She lowered her sword, allowing Ran to fall to the ground. “She was too slow drawing her weapon, she left herself open with too broad a swing, and she failed to anticipate my counterattacks despite how clearly they were telegraphed.”

“Good. And an excellent self-assessment, too. You need to be more subtle, or you won’t stand a chance in a real fight. Mitake,” she turned her weathered eyes to her other charge, “do you have anything to say for yourself?”

She did not.

“If I may.”

Their master eyed Yukina for a moment, then nodded for her to proceed.

“I believe Mitake’s prodigious errors stem from poor motivation. She is weak because she fights only for herself.”

“I fight for my father.” Ran spat, almost instinctively, from her position at Yukina’s feet.

Yukina glanced dispassionately down at her defeated opponent. “Ah, of course. Then you fight for dust.”

An animal roar as Ran leapt up, swinging her sword straight for Yukina’s head, almost too fast to be seen.

But still not fast enough.

No contact was made, the hilt of her sword swinging straight past its target, the disembodied blade clattering to the ground some distance away. Wide eyes looked up to see her master standing by her side, her own sword drawn, glaring down with tranquil fury.

“You will return to your room immediately. You will remain there until I have spoken to you. Am I understood?”

A faltering, pathetic glint of steel. “Yes, Master.”

She ran from the arena, trying and failing to avoid the nervous glances of her few fellow students, all the way back to her room, sparsely furnished, a futon, a small desk, a rack upon which hung numerous robes of varying colour and identical cut. She ran to her desk and grabbed the locket that lay atop it, gazing for a moment into the glittering eye of the hawk before clicking it open, removing the tattered paper from within. She unfolded it quickly, though not so quickly as to damage it further, and stared down at the strange script it held. She could not understand it, but it calmed her all the same, her mother’s handwriting.

Gently, she folded the paper back up and replaced it before moving to the futon, laying down. Her mind laid out the long road ahead of her, her training, her quest, her victory, and then…

And then nothing, she realised.

Not nothing, surely. There couldn’t just be nothing. There would be something left. There had to be. She turned on her side and closed her eyes.

She did not sleep well that night.

* * *

“Minato.”

Yukina’s blade flashed up to a menacing point. “You need to come home, Mitake. Master’s wondering where you’ve been.”

“Still playing lapdog, then?”

“I have my own reasons for seeking you out.”

“Aw, were you worried about me?”

“Well, I can’t just let a child run around with a sword. Who knows what damage she’d cause.”

Ran glanced back at the subdued wolf behind her. “Listen, Minato, I’ll come back when I’m done here, yeah? And my friends are coming with me.”

Moca’s eyes turned to Ran for a split second.

“You’re in no position to be making demands, Mitake. Here’s what’s actually going to happen: you’re going to come with me, alone, right now, and your friends can deal with this little mess you’ve made.”

I’m in no position to be making demands? You’re outnumbered three to one.”

“Oh, and now you can’t even count.”

“AH!”

Ran turned at the sound of Himari’s yell to see her in the grasp of another familiar new arrival - Lisa Imai. “Sorry.” she said, a little sheepishly, but her grip did not loosen. She addressed Yukina once more.

“She’s not a part of this. This is low, even for you.”

“I’m only doing what’s necessary. Now stand down. I’d hate for any harm to befall your new friend.”

Ran’s eyes locked with Yukina’s; Himari’s and Lisa’s flitted back and forth between them; Moca and Tsugumi trying to keep an eye on both the woman and the wolf simultaneously. Ran looked to the floor gravely

“You’re not bluffing, are you? You’d actually do it.”

No response.

Ran smirked.

“But Lisa wouldn’t.”

Yukina’s eyes widened as Ran instantly leapt from her passive stance into a forward thrust, blocked just in time. For a moment, Ran was on the offensive, pushing Yukina back with quick, ferocious blows, but Yukina quickly reversed the situation, taking advantage of the weight of one particularly clumsy swing to push back with her sword and throw her opponent off.

The two feinted at each other repeatedly, neither following through on any strike their foe could block, but eventually Yukina managed to break through with a forward thrust, forcing Ran onto the defensive. The hunter steeled herself against the blow and tried to use Yukina’s trick against her, forcing it back to reclaim her advantage, but she anticipated it, twisting in the opposite direction to force Ran’s limbs slack, sending her to her knees and her sword clattering to the floor a few feet away.

Ran stared at the impassive ground beneath her, trying to piece together the details of the battle, figure out where she’d gone wrong, but she was interrupted by the sensation of cold, sharp metal against her chin, forcing her head up until her eyes locked with Yukina’s dominating glare once more.

“Pathetic.”

* * *

“Target acquired.”

Poking her head around the doorframe that led backstage, Aya followed Hina’s line of sight to identify the supposed ‘target’ - Miss Shirasagi’s bespectacled assistant, hefting a couple of boxes of props around.

“Miss Yamato?”

“If she’s been working for Chisato for as long as she says she has, then she must know something, yeah?”

“I guess… but it seems kind of mean to just suddenly grill her like that… I mean, she’s just an assistant…”

“Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.” Hina said with a grin. “Come on!”

“Hey! Hina-!” Aya protested too late, Hina already off like a shot towards the unsuspecting stagehand.

“Maya~!”

“Huh? Ah, Hina-- ah! Miss Hikawa! Uh, what is it?” Maya laughed nervously, as though she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t have. Aya eyed the box of props carefully as she walked over, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

“I told you to just call me Hina! And Aya wants to talk to you!”

“She does?”

“I do? Uh, I mean- I do! I was wondering… about… Miss Shirasagi’s relationship with Kaoru Seta!”

“...Why would you ask me about that?”

“...W-well, ah… I heard their relationship became, ah, a little rocky, and what with, ah, recent… revelations about Miss Seta, I felt that asking might make her a bit… uncomfortable? But, ah, you’ve been working with her for a long time, so I thought… maybe you might know something…?”

Maya blinked. “So you’re worried about making her uncomfortable that you won’t ask her directly about her personal history… but you’ll still publish it in the city newspaper?”

“...No?”

Behind her, Hina failed to stifle her laughter.

“So why are you asking?”

“I… thought… that… having a bit more background might help me in framing the interview sensitively?”

“Well, I guess that kinda makes sense…” Maya said, tapping her chin, “but not enough that I’m going to tell you anything.”

“Uhhhhh…”

“What shows were they in?”

“Huh?” Maya looked past her interviewer to Hina.

“They were in a few shows together, right? Which ones? That’s nothing personal, that’s public record.”

“Oh! Um, well, I guess I can answer that then… just let me think for a moment…” Maya’s speech turned into indecipherable mumbling as she closed her eyes and began gesturing to herself, by turns seeming to either be flipping through an imaginary file cabinet of having an argument with a nonexistent partner. Aya raised an eyebrow and looked over to Hina, who was watching, rapt, with the same grin as ever.

Maya’s eyes snapped open. “ The Gentleman’s Hand , By Xal’s Will , Forgetful Rain , and A Rose’s Name in a Transient World . Not as many as you’d think, really.”

“Uh, well…” Aya began.

“Thanks! That’s all we needed! We’ll be going now! Come on!”

“What, but…? Uh, okay… bye!” Aya waved awkwardly as she followed Hina back to the hallway, leaving Maya alone and, it seemed, quite confused. “What was that about?” she asked when she caught up.

A Rose’s Name in a Transient World . Chisato and Kaoru played the leads in the original run of that play, in the Madderland Theatre - which is the only theatre they performed in together which has since closed.”

“...If you knew all that, what did we need to ask Maya for?”

“Needed to jog my memory.” She tapped her forehead. “Got a lot of stuff up here, it gets muddled up sometimes. Besides, I wanted to see how you’d do in an interrogation!”

“You did?”

“Yeah! You were really boppin’!”

“Oh, uh… thank you…?”

“I’ve never seen anyone struggle so hard to come up with so lame an excuse before!”

“...I didn’t think it was that bad…”

Hina giggled.

“...Anyway, what are we supposed to do now?”

“Well, the Madderland’s our next stop. The place is still abandoned, so there might be some clues there! Or maybe the Phantom Thief herself!”

“Doesn’t that seem kind of obvious?”

“Yep! So obvious that it’s probably the first place the Guard looked, which means that she could’ve just laid low and waited until they’d left to move in!”

“...I see.” Aya lied.

Suddenly, Hina grabbed her hand. “Come on, come on, hurry up! We’ve got a mystery to solve!”

* * *

“All these years and you haven’t learned a thing. Still just a blind fool, same as always.”

Ran said nothing, her voice blocked by the point of the sword at her throat.

“You’ll be coming with me now. I’m certain whatever nonsense you’ve set into motion out here is better off proceeding without you. Lisa?”

With a hint of a guilty grimace, Lisa rejoined her companion, leaving Himari to tend to the still-unconscious Tomoe.

“Now, do you have anything you’d wish to say before--”

“LOOK OUT!” Moca cried out a warning as she jumped to safety, Masuki bursting from her bonds and leaping onto Yukina, fangs bared. Ran found herself thrown to the floor, Yukina on top of her in a protective stance as the beast’s claws met Lisa’s sword.

“Get off me!” Ran hissed, struggling fruitlessly beneath Yukina’s weight.

“Be quiet. Lisa!”

“Yeah?” Lisa said, as casually as possible considering the mighty paws swinging at her.

“Can you handle this?”

“Uh.” She ducked another swipe and elegantly sidestepped a stray arrow from Tsugumi. “Yeah, probably.”

“Excellent. Farewell.”

“Wha--” Ran’s cry of protest was cut short by something cold and metallic pressed against her cheek, and suddenly there was light, and silence, and she was somewhere far away and all too familiar.

Yukina stood, sheathing her sword in the safety of their new surroundings. Ran scrambled to her feet, her head not acclimatising nearly so well. “Wha- how- you made your sword into a teleport anchor?”

“It’s the only thing I’m always liable to carry with me. It’s useful in a pinch.”

“So you’re a coward now, too?”

No response. Ran took a moment to finally examine her surroundings. Everything was exactly as she remembered it: the angular, symmetrical architecture, hewn from pale sandstone; the light dusting of snow serving as a warning of the dangers farther up the mountain, and of course, the measured, cane-accompanied footsteps echoing from inside, getting closer and closer with each step. Yukina kneeled, a sign of respect, and Ran had to fight her instinct not to do the same as Shifune Tsuzuki emerged into the cold.

Blue eyes as cold as the summit above bore into Ran for the longest few seconds she’s ever experienced, but she stood her ground nonetheless.

“Mitake.” She sounded unimpressed. “You left some things behind.”

* * *

“...I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

“I thought you were a journalist.”

“What does that have to do with anything!?”

Hina was too focused on trying to pick the lock on the theatre’s back door to answer. Aya shifted on her feet, glancing around nervously to make sure nobody was approaching.

Rattlerattle.

ChuCLICK

“Aha!”

Aya flinched as the door creaked open, much too loudly for her liking. Hina flashed a grin back at her and beckoned for her to follow.

“Hina- wait-! ...Oh, whatever.” With a sigh of resignation, Aya entered the building.

The hallway they found themselves in was dusty and plainly abandoned, and Hina was already halfway to the other end.

“Aya~! Come on, come on! We have to look for clues!”

“Hina, I really don’t think there’s anybody here. It’s probably a dead end, and we’ll just get in trouble, and it’s not worth it. We should go.”

Hina tilted her head. “You were acting like it was worth it earlier.”

“I was caught up in the moment! Like, yeah, it’d be nice to find something on the Phantom Thief, but that doesn’t mean I want to be done in for breaking and entering!”

“Well, you should probably have thought about that earlier. Before, y’know. You actually did it.” Another voice from behind her. Instinctively raising her hands over her head, she turned to see a black-haired Guard staring at her through heavy-lidded grey eyes. A voice in the back of Aya’s head told her she seemed a little familiar, but her immediate attention was drawn to the mini crossbow strapped to her hip. “You didn’t even close the door behind you, come on.”

“Come on! What’s the hold up?”

Even through her fear, she couldn’t help but feel a little exasperated. “I’m being arrested!”

“Oh, okay! Hang on, I’ll come help out!”

The Guard raised an eyebrow. “An accomplice?”

“...I guess?”

Hina’s footsteps came hammering down the hall as she rejoined Aya, looking the Guard over with a glint in her eye that the newcomer didn’t seem to notice.

“Alright, well, if you two’ll just follow me off the premises, we can just forget this ever happened…” The Guard sighed, turning around and gesturing for them to follow.

“You got here really quick!”

She raised an eyebrow at Hina. “...I was on patrol in the area. And you weren’t exactly subtle. Now come on.”

“On patrol?” Hina put a finger on her chin. “You don’t look like a beat cop.”

She nodded slowly, then turned back to face Hina properly. “And what do I look like, then?”

Hina shrugged. “I dunno. Not a beat cop.”

“...Misaki Okusawa.” Both pairs of eyes turned to Aya. “I saw your picture in the paper. You used to lead the Phantom Thief taskforce, didn’t you? But you were demoted… and now you show up here, while we’re looking for the Phantom Thief…”

“I don’t like what you’re implying.”

Misaki’s sharp voice jogged Aya from her calculations. “Oh, ah! I-I’m not implying anything, I just--!”

“She’s implying you’re working with the Phantom Thief!”

“...That’s ridiculous.”

“Yes it is! That’s why I wasn’t implying it!”

“Yes you were!”

“Everyone just shut it!” Misaki yelled, her patience evidently worn thin. “Now, come on! We’re leaving, and you’re lucky I’m not dragging you back down to the station.” Her hand clasped around Hina’s wrist and she started pulling her back to the exit, Hina’s feet dragging along the floor as she made no effort to either resist or assist, as though she were simply curious as to whether Misaki had the strength to move her.

“Chisato Shirasagi!” Aya blurted.

Misaki stopped. “What about her?”

“We’re… uh, that is, we, er… we work for her!”

“Prove it.”

“We’re here for Kaoru Seta.” Hina said simply.

“She isn’t here. We already checked.”

“Chisato said you’d say that.”

“Miss Shirasagi wouldn’t let someone who works for her call her by her first name.”

“So you work for her."

“You looking to get arrested?”

“We’re looking for Kaoru Seta.”

Stalemate.

Aya sheepishly raised her hand. “Ah… Officer Okusawa…?”

“Yes?”

“I… I’m sorry. I lied. I’m, ah… I’m Aya Maruyama. I’m a reporter for the HDP, I… I just wanted to get an interview… sorry…”

Misaki tilted her head. “Aya Maruyama?”

“Yes…?”

She looked at the girl in her grip. “Then you must be Hina Hikawa.”

“That’s me!”

With a weary sigh, she let go, standing herself up straight again. “Wish you’d bloody said that earlier.” She pushed past the two of them, beckoning them to follow. “Come on. We’ve been expecting you.”

* * *

“Little help!?”

“You were gonna kill Himari!”

“I was bluffing! Ran said so!”

Lisa’s blade was fast, certainly, but the ferocity of the wolf was unmatched, and she found herself struggling to keep up with its vicious blows. The occasional arrow from Tsugumi attempted to help, but from her form Lisa could clearly tell she used her bow for hunting, not combat. Moca, meanwhile, just stood and watched.

“This is what you get when you threaten my friends. Say, if you’re not too busy, could you tell me where that asshole friend of yours took Ran? Thanks~”

“If you- ngh- help out, I can take you there!

Rrrrrrea~llyyyyyyy~? ” Moca asked, a taunting pout growing on her face.

“Yes! Just- gah- help me get her away from the wounded!”

Moca looked down at Himari, who had her hands clasped over Tomoe’s wound and was muttering intently, so engrossed she didn’t even seem to notice the werewolf fight going on right behind her. “ Welllllll… alright.” Instantly, a pillar of black flame erupted from her palms, slamming Masuki into the floor. As the wolf recovered, she ran for the exit. “Hey, doggy!”

Masuki’s face whipped towards her, lips curled away from her fangs.

“Maybe if you catch me, you could afford to get some dental work done, yeah? No offence, but your breath stinks .”

Masuki started running.

“whoop”

Moca started running, too.

“Moca-!” Tsugumi called after her, making to run but stopping, turning back to Himari. “Uh…” The white mage, not stopping her incantation, nodded towards the exit, and with a final “Sorry!” Tsugumi left to assist Moca.

Lisa hung back for one more second. “Uh, sorry about… holding you hostage, and stuff.” And with that, she left too, and Himari was alone with Tomoe’s unconscious body.

A few seconds passed.

Air rushed into Himari’s lungs as she finally stopped her calming chant, letting herself relax now that the danger had passed. She placed a hand on her chest, trying to calm her racing heart, but it would not be quelled so easily.

She looked down at Tomoe, and her heartbeat slowed just a little. She looked almost tranquil lying there, as though she were just having a nap. The scar on her shoulder put paid to that notion, though. Himari really didn’t want to wake her.

She took another deep breath.

Unfortunately, they had something to discuss.

* * *

Little within the school had changed on the path between the entrance and Ran’s old room, the dim nighttime lighting casting an eerie glow over the pale walls and hardwood floors. Ran walked silently behind Tsuzuki, her mind too fogged by failure to fully appreciate her return. It was supposed to have been triumphant. Everyone was supposed to be there. And with Yukina dismissed to whatever it was she was normally supposed to be doing, she didn’t even have anything to focus her ire on. This was just humiliating.

A futon. A small desk. A rack of robes of varying colour and identical cut. All now caked in a thick layer of dust. Ran’s room had remained entirely untouched since the day she had left. Her eyes fell on the desk.

“You could’ve redecorated. Not like I’d’ve minded.”

No reply. Tsuzuki turned around, a silent demand for eye contact. Ran couldn’t help but comply.

“Why did you bring me back here?”

“Why did you leave?”

“You know why.”

“Before you were ready. You should have waited.”

“This place was wasting my time. He’s still out there, and you know what? I was right. He’s planning something, and the longer I’m stuck here, the more people he’s gonna be able to hurt, so if you’d just let me get my things and go, that’d be great.”

Tsuzuki’s glare remained unchanged. It was like talking to a snowman.

“All that’ll happen if you confront him now is you’ll get yourself killed. And besides,” she took a step closer, and Ran steeled herself not to take one back, “that’s not the reason.”

It took all the strength Ran could muster to maintain eye contact over those long, silent seconds. Mercifully, Tsuzuki spoke before she could show her weakness.

“I don’t care about your little revenge quest, Mitake. Do as you will. But don’t pretend there’s anything noble about it.”

She couldn’t take any more of this. “He’s evil! He’s evil and I’m the only one doing anything to stop him!”

“Even if you are - which I doubt - can you honestly say you would care if this weren’t the man who killed your father? Can you tell me that, without any vendetta against this man, you would still crusade against his plans?”

Her withering gaze, an engine of atrophy.

“Of course not. You would be sitting at home, making nothing of yourself, and General Tamade would still be doing as he pleases.”

Ran found her voice wanting.

“You fight only for yourself, Mitake. That is why you fail.”

And with that she was left alone, in the darkness of the place she’d left behind.

* * *

The halls immediately behind the stage were coated in signatures of long-gone performers, posters for shows that would never be performed again. Aya felt a little uneasy under the frozen gaze of the printed people that Misaki led them past, eager to get out of this particularly unsettling area, but Hina required constant reminders of their purpose to prevent her from scrutinising each and every one of them. Unfortunately for Aya, Misaki stopped before reaching the end of the hallway.

“What--” Before Aya could finish her question, Misaki reached towards one of the posters, grabbed at nothing, and pulled the wall open. “What!?” The Guard beckoned them through the door, not bothering to answer. Fortunately, Hina did so in her stead.

“It’s a tautology cloak! The door only exists if you already know it exists! Nobody else can perceive it!” She laughed, as though that were the funniest thing in the world. “That’s so boppin’! No wonder nobody could find them here!”

Aya raised an eyebrow as she stepped into the darkness. “How do you know all this stuff?”

“I always had a lot of free time.” Hina shrugged.

The door led to a very long set of stairs, set in the midst of a cavernous room Aya wasn’t entirely sure could logically exist in the space it seemed to be. All around her were hung props, backdrops, costumes, all sorts of theatrical paraphernalia dancing in the air on their ropes. Misaki, walking a few feet ahead of them, seemed used to it, not paying anything the slightest glance as she descended. Hina, on the other hand, was even worse than she had been in the hallway.

“Hina, come on.”

Hina didn’t even respond this time, her eyes darting between the room’s impossible decorations, with a “Whoa!” and an “Ooh!” and a “Zappin’!”

“Hina, come on! ” She grabbed her hand. That got her attention. Aya managed to lead her down a few steps before she spoke.

“Your hand’s all sweaty!”

“Shut up!”

“Kaoru! Your guests are here!” Misaki called as she reached the bottom, Aya and Hina arriving not long after. Aya pulled her hand from Hina’s grip the moment they did. “She’ll just be a minute.”

The place at the bottom of the stairs seemed, at first glance, like the living room of a house, but closer inspection revealed it to be off - there were no carpets or rugs, the furniture all seemed to be facing in the same direction towards the stairs, and the walls were thin, rickety, the doors seeming to be only painted on. They were not in a house, but rather, on a stage set to resemble a house.

One of the painted-on doors opened.

“In there.” Misaki nodded.

“Are you not coming with us?”

“She wants to talk to you, not me.” Aya still looked a little nervous. “Trust me, she isn’t dangerous.”

“Come on!” Hina grabbed Aya’s hand again and dashed through the door, the hapless journalist in tow.

The door slammed shut behind them.

The room on the other side seemed much more real, for want of a better word, proper wooden walls lined with bookshelves and a nice, plush carpet. It was dominated, though, by its occupant - Kaoru Seta, the Phantom Thief, lazily examining a bookcase. She flashed a smile that almost brought Aya to her knees.

“Miss Maruyama. Miss Hikawa, Please, take a seat.”

Aya sank into the proffered chair, suddenly realising just how long she’d been standing. Hina sat sideways on her seat.

“Chisato told me all about you two. She said you seemed… well. Useful , as she put it.” She leaned against her desk, crossing her legs casually. “I’m sure you’re aware of our, shall we say, history?”

Aya nodded. “Yep.” Hina said.

“She and I… we had a vision. A vision of a bright future. But, alas, circumstance intervened, and we were torn apart, and forced together again. This space you are in could not exist without the benefaction of Chisato Shirasagi.” She smiled a smile from a long time ago. “You must stay away from her.”

“What?”

Hina raised an eyebrow.

“She is dangerous. She cannot be trusted. I do not know what she has planned for you two, but I am quite certain that you want no part of it.”

“That sounds fun .” Hina grinned. Kaoru’s smile lost a little of its lustre.

“I cannot make you heed my warning, but I beg you to consider. There is no telling what she might have you do.”

“I…” Aya fumbled over her words for a second, trying to gather her thoughts into something that made sense to her. “Miss Seta, I… since I spoke to Miss Shirasagi this morning, I’ve… heard all these things, I’ve… I’ve met you , and… there’s something really big going on here, I know it. And… I always dreamed, someday, I’d get to find something like this, find some way to change the world, and… I know it’s dangerous. But I can’t just turn my back on it.”

Kaoru nodded slowly, her gaze meeting the ground before switching to Hina. “I see. And you?”

“This all seems boppin’.” she grinned. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Kaoru sighed. The door opened. “Very well. You may go now, if you wish. I shan’t keep you.”

“Thank you, Miss Seta.” Aya bowed slightly as she stood, while Hina just leapt from her seat and rocketed to the door. As Aya made to follow, though, a frown crossed her face, and she turned back. “...How did you know we’d find you?”

The Thief shrugged. “I didn’t. I simply had faith that you would.”

“But… you only know about us from what Chisato told you, so…” The first two pieces of this grand new puzzle clicked together in Aya’s mind. “...if you had faith in us, you must still have faith in her, too.”

The words hung in the air for a second, as though they were waiting for Kaoru to collect them, to make sense of them. Eventually, she smiled. “You’re an insightful one, aren’t you?” She uncrossed her legs, began pacing the room, running her fingers along the spines of the books that lined the walls. She stopped before long, withdrew the volume her hand had landed on. “She has lost sight of our vision. Something blinds her, but I believe it still lives on in her heart. I have tried to make her see again, but- ha. Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d .’” She laughed, a low, quiet chuckle of regret. “I make it all sound so grand, don’t I?” She placed the book back on the shelf, her hand lingering on it for a second. “In truth, I just wish to see her smile again.”

“...She smiles constantly, though. It’s a little creepy, to be honest.”

Kaoru shook her head. “No. No, that isn’t it. That’s… I don’t know. A performance, I suppose. No, when she smiled… when she smiled it was like…” Her voice stumbled a little. “It was like falling in love with her all over again.” She sighed, collecting herself. “Maybe, if you remain by her side…”

“...Maybe what?”

“...Nothing. Idle foolishness. Now go on, off you go! I’m quite certain we all have work to do...”

* * *

Index and middle fingers held tight together. The ideal position for the transmission of an awakening charm. She cautiously moved her hand towards Tomoe’s face…

...And, for what must have been the twentieth time that night, pulled away at the last second. She leaned back on her hands, taking a few more deep breaths. Come on. She couldn’t keep doing this. It had been hours, the others would be back soon… hell, it’d be daylight soon…

But she really, really didn’t want to have this conversation.

She looked down at Tomoe’s sleeping face and groaned.

But she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t.

Slowly, firmly, Himari pressed her fingers against Tomoe’s forehead, the slightest jolt of energy passing between them.

For a second, nothing happened.

Then, with a strangled cry, Tomoe sat bolt upright, her hand flying to the wound on her shoulder. “GAH!”

“Whoa, whoa, Tomoe! It’s okay, it’s just me, she’s gone now! She’s gone now.”

“...Himari. Hey.” Tomoe murmured groggily, a dazed smile passing across her face for a moment before she began massaging her shoulder again.

“Are you okay?”

“...She bit me. She bit me! Who does that!?”

“...Werewolves, Tomoe. Werewolves do that.”

“...Right. Right, no, yeah, that makes sense.”

A moment of silence passed as Tomoe reacclimated to consciousness.

“So, Himari.”

“Y… yeah?”

“You know that thing they say about werewolves? And, ah, what happens if one bites you?”

Himari nodded, words not quite able to form at the minute.

“Is that true?”

Himari winced. “...Yes.”

“Well, goddamn.”

“Ah! Ah! No! It’s okay, I-I fixed it!”

Tomoe leaned back on her uninjured arm, tilting her head. “You fixed it?”

“Yeah, yeah! There- there’s this charm, it- it can stop the curse spreading if it’s used quick enough! I used that on you!”

Tomoe breathed a sigh of relief. “...So, I’m not a werewolf. Good, good…”

“Maybe.”

She tensed up again. “Maybe?”

“I… I mean, I’m not… great at healing magic, and I’ve never really had to use this spell before, so I… might … have done it wrong?”

“Okay, so we don’t actually know if I’m a werewolf or not.”

“No.”

“You realise that is the absolute worst possible scenario.”

“Yes.”

With a groan of effort, Tomoe got to her feet, Himari awkwardly extending her arms in some pointless gesture of assistance. “Well, I don’t wanna risk it. Tell the others what happened, I’m outta here.”

“Wait!” Before Tomoe could move, Himari grabbed hold of her sleeve, fruitlessly attempting to hold her back. Tomoe stopped anyway. “Don’t go!”

“...Himari, I have to. If we can’t know for sure if I’m a threat, I can’t hang around you guys anymore. Sorry.”

“But we can know!”

Tomoe raised an eyebrow and turned to face her fully. “...How?”

“You remember earlier, when we met Masuki in the bakery? My empathy magic didn’t work on her! It doesn’t work on werewolves, Tomoe!”

“...Is it still working on me?”

Himari squinted, trying to get a read, and quickly broke out in a smile. “Yeah! Yeah, it works fine for now! And if it stops, then you can head off, yeah?”

“...I guess that does make sense…”

“And I… I don’t want you to go!”

“Huh?” Tomoe blinked.

“I mean, I…” Himari let go of Tomoe’s sleeve, her arms suddenly glued to her sides. “You, and Ran, and everybody else have all these big… reasons for being here, for doing this, and I… I don’t. I’m just tagging along. But you’re… you’re out here, trying to forge your own identity, aren’t you?”

“...Yeah, I guess…”

“I wanna do that too!” Himari’s cheeks puffed up in a determined pout. “I… I never really had an idea of what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be, but… and I know this is weird, because we’ve really only just met, and tonight has been really stressful, but when I’m with you - all of you - I feel… okay. Comfortable. And I… I don’t wanna lose that.” She sniffled, reached up to her face and found, to her mild surprise, a tear rolling down her cheek, and once she’d found it another came along, and no matter how fast she tried to wipe away her tears more just kept on coming, and suddenly something was pulling her along and she found herself trapped in a powerful embrace, and it took a moment for her to process that Tomoe was hugging her.

“Okay.” She whispered, resting her head atop Himari’s. “I’ll stay. And we’ll find each other, yeah?” She held Himari away a bit, looking her straight in the eye, and Himari smiled, sniffed, nodded.

“Yeah.”

Tomoe pulled her back in.

“We’ll find each other.”

* * *

Tsugumi didn’t know how long she’d been going, or how far from the barn she’d strayed. She did know that she’d ended up in a small patch of trees - big enough to get lost in, but not big enough to be called a forest - and that she could see the first slightest hints of sunrise peeking up over the horizon.

It occurred to her that she hadn’t slept all night, and she was faintly disturbed by how not tired she was. Was that because of her powers, or was the adrenaline coursing through her veins keeping her awake? Either way didn’t sit well with her. If it was the latter, then she was surely due for a crash soon, and if the former… well, she didn’t really know what the consequences would be there, but she felt pretty confident it wouldn’t be good.

Snap

She whirled around, knife at the ready, to come face-to-face with… that sword girl.

“Whoa, whoa, hey! It’s just me!”

“Oh! Um, sorry…?”

“Lisa. I’m Lisa.”

“Tsugumi.”

...Business, right? They should stick to business.

“Any sign?”

Lisa shook her head. “No, but I don’t think it’s bright enough for her to have changed back yet. She’s only after Moca, right? You weren’t on those posters.”

“Yeah.”

“...Hey, where is Moca?”

BOOM

Both of them spun towards the sound of the explosion, a few yards away to their right.

“That way, I reckon.”

A mad dash towards the source, leaping over jutting roots and past broken branches. Tsugumi’s element, and, from what she could tell, not Lisa’s, although she was adapting remarkably well. She could almost keep up. Tsugumi still arrived at the source first, though.

Trees had been uprooted, the ground shredded, and in the midst of the carnage stood Moca Aoba, completely unscathed.

“‘Sup.”

“Moca!? What happened?”

“Knocked some trees over so our friend here could get some sunlight.” She gestured to the ground a few feet away, where Masuki, now in human form, lay sleeping. Lisa walked over to her, kneeling down for a closer examination. “She’s fine, don’t worry.” Moca reassured her. “Werewolfing takes a lot out of you.”

“Well, we can’t just leave her here like this.” Lisa muttered, removing her cloak and wrapping it around Masuki before hoisting the unconscious woman up on her shoulders. “Come on, let’s get her some clothes and get her into town.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“...Are you okay, Moca?” Tsugumi asked. “I mean, this is… this would take a lot of power to pull off all at once.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m good. Don’t worry about me, I’m always good.”

Then she collapsed.

* * *

Aya’s flat, embedded into the wall of one of Hanasakigawa’s lower levels, felt even colder and emptier than usual that evening.

Kaoru Seta.

Hina Hikawa.

Chisato Shirasagi.

Three names reverberated in her mind as she paced up and down her room, slowly chewing on a cold ham sandwich.

Hina had left her shortly after they’d left the Madderland - back to Chisato, presumably - and Aya had gone back to work, made her excuses, done her chores, and clocked out at the usual time. A standard, routine day, apart from all the completely insane things that had happened.

She didn’t know what to do next. That hadn’t really been a problem before - she’d just followed her plan, worked hard every day, secure in the knowledge that surely, one day, it would get her where she wanted to be, but now…

Chisato Shirasagi .

She’d wanted to get to know the “real” Chisato Shirasagi, yeah. That had been the whole point of the interview. But now her dreams were in front of her, and enticing as they were, she was now realising for the first time that they were dangerous, too.

Something at the door.

Setting her paltry meal aside, she stepped out of her room, looked over to her front door. She couldn’t see anybody standing behind the frosted glass, but there was a letter on her doormat. She picked it up, examined the impeccable handwriting with which her name had been inscribed upon it, then checked the seal on the back, a thistle cast in rich, rare purple wax.

Aya already knew who it was from. Hell, she had a pretty good idea of what it said.

And suddenly, she knew exactly what she was going to do.

* * *

Masuki’s eyes snapped open.

The inn was familiar. She’d slept there before; not in this specific room, but the view from the window was similar enough for her to get her bearings.

That didn’t mean she appreciated waking up there, though, not when she had no idea how she got there.

Last night had been a full moon. That meant she’d gone wolf mode, which meant she was in search of a bounty. The previous day - yes. Ran Mitake, Moca Aoba, Himari Uehara.

They’d gotten away. How had they gotten away? No-one got away from her.

She thought further. They’d had some other friends, hadn’t they? Some cute little ranger, and…

Oh.

Oh, no .

Without warning, she barged out of the room, dashing through the inn and out the door with only one, terrible thing on her mind.

She’d bitten someone last night. That was gonna be a problem.

Unless she put them down first.

* * *

“Just some mild magical exhaustion. She just needs some rest.”

Tsugumi breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing Himari’s diagnosis. “And you?” she asked Tomoe, “Are you doing okay now?”

“Hm? Oh, yeah. Himari got all that werewolf gunk right outta me, yeah?”

“Sure did!”

“Hey.” The three conscious members of the group turned to find Lisa standing in the doorway, looking rather out of breath. “I got her back into town. She’s fine. Is Moca okay?”

Tsugumi nodded. “Yeah.”

“Alright. Well…” Lisa walked toward them, drawing her sword. Tomoe and Tsugumi instantly leapt to battle stations.

“Hey!”

“Whoa, no, it’s okay! My sword’s a teleport anchor, it’ll take us where Yukina took Ran.” She extended the blade slowly, about as non-threateningly as one could point a sword at somebody. “Now someone grab Moca and everyone hold on.”

Tsugumi grasped Moca’s arm in one hand and the sword in the other, gently gripping the blade between her thumb and forefinger so as not to cut herself.

Ba-dump .

A heartbeat later, and the five of them were in a beautiful, snow-dusted garden, the morning sunlight almost blinding after the long night behind them.

“They’re not supposed to be here.”

Yukina, of course, was waiting for them. Lisa laughed nervously as she stowed her weapon. “Well, I had to strike a deal to get rid of that werewolf…”

“We can’t just bring people here, Lisa. We have these rules for a reason.”

Do we, though?”

Yukina raised her eyebrows without widening her eyes, and sighed. “No matter, They’re here now.”

Hey!

Tomoe stood, marching towards the impassive swordswoman.

“The hell is this place? And what’s your problem with Ran, anyway?” She jabbed an accusing finger twice into Yukina’s chest, nudging her backward slightly. Still her expression remained unchanged.

“This is the school where Mitake and I trained. I brought her back here because she abandoned her training.”

“Pfft.” Tomoe grunted. “Man, everyone made you sound all badass and intimidating, but you’re just some kinda boring rules nerd, huh.”

“I have no desire to continue this conversation. Lisa, if you would rather remain here for the time being, I understand. Master is unlikely to be as lenient as I am with your little… stunt.”

“...I should get Moca inside. She needs some rest.”

Yukina’s eyes finally set themselves upon Moca’s unconscious form. “The dark mage? What happened?” She raised a finger before anyone could respond. “Don’t answer that. I don’t actually care.” With that, she turned around and began to head inside, followed by Lisa hoisting Moca up on her shoulders.

“Man, what is your problem? ” Tomoe grumbled after her, not really expecting her to hear. Yukina stopped anyway.

“...We all have our own reasons for fighting.”

And then she was gone, and they were alone in an unfamiliar place. By all accounts, a hostile one.

And from the shadows, dark eyes were watching them.

* * *

How many weeks had it been? Two, three? Maybe more? It was impossible to tell in here. The Shatterstar incident seemed so long ago, now.

It wasn’t his fault. He’d told them! He’d said it wasn’t his fault, but they’d sent him here anyway. Not a word of warning, either! Just a sudden zap and suddenly he’s in an isolated cell for god knows how long.

Footsteps outside. He stood, walking towards the door to retrieve the oncoming meal. Which one was this? Lunch? That sounded about right. It was hard to keep track.

The slot did not open. But something did. A new noise, one he had not heard before.

For the first time, the door opened, and behind it stood a man. Tall, handsome, dark haired. Early 40s at the oldest.

“Doctor,” he bowed slightly, “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting for so long. They wouldn’t let me just come and get you, or even talk to you, but I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve arranged not only for your release, but for a transfer to a nice, well-paid job at our Research & Development department. Good news all round, eh?”

The doctor stared, dumbfounded. It had been so long since he’d heard anybody else’s voice. “What… who… who are you?”

“Oh! Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. How rude of me. I’m the head of General Tamade’s R&D team.” He extended a hand, clasping the doctor’s in a firm shake, and flashed a winning smile.

“My name is Yusei Minato.”

Chapter Text

The locket felt far lighter in her hands than she remembered. It was important; she was certain of that much, and yet she did not now how, and its unfeeling red eye held no answers. The words inside - a poem, she knew that much, but its precise nature remained as elusive as ever.

Why had she left it behind?

It had been so clear to her, then, but now she barely recognised the person who had made that decision. How long had it been since that day? She could scarcely remember. Each day of the hunt had simply blended into the next, a vague miasma of disappointment and violence.

But now she was close. She could feel it. Since meeting Moca and the others, she’d made such progress, she’d finally discovered precisely who she was searching for. Her enemy had a name, a job, a life . And now that she had a measure of who he was, she could prepare for her next move.

She pocketed the locket.

“Ran?”

“Tsugumi!?” Ran blinked in surprise at the sight of the ranger at her door. “H-how did you get here?”

“Lisa brought us here in exchange for helping take Masuki down.” She seemed nervous - likely a product of the unfamiliar setting, Ran assumed.

A wicked grin crossed her features. Maybe she could turn this around after all. “Where are the others?”

“Ah, I think Tomoe and Himari are still in the courtyard, and Moca is…” she gulped, “Lisa took Moca to the infirmary.”

“...What?”

“She’s fine! Just a little exhausted…”

Tsugumi’s reassurances went unheard. “Oh my god, I… I gotta go, I’m sorry…” Ran darted out of the room, giving Tsugumi a slight clap on the shoulder as she passed.

“Oh-- that’s fine!” Tsugumi called after her. “...She’s your friend, after all.”

* * *

“I don’t see why we have to stay here…” Tomoe pouted, grumpily kicking a pebble away with the tip of her boot.

“I just think since we’re kind of, y’know, intruders, we should probably just… wait for someone to come get us? Like, I don’t wanna get in even more trouble than we already are by wandering somewhere we shouldn’t…” Himari explained.

“You let Tsugu wander off.”

“That’s different! She had to get Ran. And besides, that’s Tsugu . Nobody could ever get mad at Tsugu.”

“...Fair point.” Tomoe conceded, taking a seat on the low wall beside Himari, who was examining the plants that grew in the little grove it bordered. She watched her for a moment, her brow furrowed a little in concentration, and she smiled. “Potatoes.”

“Hm?” Himari looked back to her with a start.

“They’re potatoes. The plants. They’re growing potatoes.”

“Oh.” She looked back at the nondescript greenery. “How do you…”

“We used to do a little farming back home. We, uh, kinda stopped after we got all the teleports figured out, though. Didn’t seem much point anymore.” She took a leaf in her hand, careful not to pull it off. “My parents moved out a little after that.”

Himari nodded, a little unsure how to respond to that. “Ah… I’m… sorry…?”

“Huh? Oh! Nah, nah, it’s fine. They were just getting tired of the whole isolation thing, and we were old enough to take care of ourselves by then, plus with Rinko moving in it was getting kinda crowded anyway… it’s fine, y’know? It’s just a thing that happened. Not a bad or a good thing, just, like. A thing.”

Hesitantly, Himari reached out, placing her hand on Tomoe’s shoulder. She didn’t really understand why, but it felt kind of nice, so she left it there. Tomoe didn’t seem to object.

“Excuse me.” A voice from indoors - a pale woman with long, dark hair,gazing out into the garden. “I think the both of you should come with me.”

Himari examined the newcomer for a moment, until a flicker of recognition crossed her face. “...Rei?”

“Rei?” Tomoe echoed. “That chick who came to my house and accused y’all of being criminals?”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve never met you before in my life.” Rei said with a smile and a wink.

“... Ah… ah, of course, stranger!” Tomoe announced loudly as she entered the building, “I must have had you mistaken for somebody else!”

Rei’s smile became a little strained. “...Alright, don’t overdo it.”

“So, uh…” Himari ventured as she joined the two of them inside, “what exactly is going on with… us…?

“Master is aware of your presence, and, since you seem to have the trust of some of her students, you may roam the premises freely. I’d, er, probably try to steer clear of the woman herself, though. She’s still kinda mad.”

“Alright! Hell yeah!” Tomoe pumped her fist in the air. “Come on, Himari! Let’s go find Ran and the others and get back on the road!”

“Ah… you go on ahead! I’ll catch up in a bit, yeah?”

She looked a little crestfallen. “Oh. Uh, okay. I’ll, uh, see you later then?”

“Yeah.” Himari smiled.

Tomoe nodded, turned, and dashed down the hall. “Oi! Ran! Where are you?”

“Hey! Don’t… run in the hall… or shout…” Rei tried to call after her, her voice faltering as Tomoe quickly ran out of earshot. Himari’s smile quickly faded as she watched Tomoe leave.

“Excuse me, uh…”

“Yeah?” Rei sighed.

“Do you have, like… a library or anything?”

Her eyebrows raised a little. “Yeah, actually. I can show you the way if you’d like…?”

“That’d be great, thanks!”

“What are you looking for? If you don’t mind me asking, that is…” Rei said as she set off down the hall in the opposite direction to Tomoe, Himari by her side.

“Oh, nothing much! I just wanna do some reading on, ah…” she glanced behind for a split second, “...supernatural creatures.”

* * *

Where--?

“Mitake.” Master Tsuzuki barely let her finish her first word before interrupting. “Your friend is right here, which you would have noticed had you stopped to observe your surroundings before maken brazen demands. And, to answer your next question, she’s perfectly alright. She’s exhausted, but her spell wasn’t complex enough to cause any lasting fatigue.”

Ran’s eyes fell to Moca’s prone body laid out on the table. Her breaths were slow, deep, steady, and Ran sighed with relief.

“Imai informs me that she brought some other friends of yours along, as well. Ones who were present when Minato found you. Tell me, what were your intentions in bringing these people here?”

“I didn’t--”

“No, but you nevertheless intended to. So tell me. What were your intentions?”

“...I was just coming here to get something I left behind. You wouldn’t be able to keep all five of us from leaving.”

Tsuzuki snorted. “You underestimate me. I alone am more than capable of taking on four untrained children.”

Ran grunted.

“And don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to get reacquainted with whatever item you came here to retrieve. Now go. I assure you, your friend shall be cared for until she is fit to leave.”

“...One last thing.”

“Don’t test my patience, Mitake.”

Ran ignored her. “Where are Hanazono and Wakamiya?”

Tsuzuki pursed her lips, regarding Ran with a wary curiosity. “...Hanazono reached the end of her training and moved on,” she eventually deigned to answer, “and as for Wakamiya… she got a job.”

Ran blinked.

“A job?”

“Hm.”

“...Where?”

* * *

“Who’s that?”

Aya squinted at the distant figure, mingling with the crowd at the other end of the vast, crowded hall. “...That’s the finance minister.”

Ooh. And who’s that he’s talking to?”

“I think that’s the defence minister?”

Damn. Chisato got some big names at her party, huh?”

“It’s not her party, Hina, it’s her parents’. And they kind of are the big names…”

“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Hina gasped excitedly, tugging on the sleeve of Aya’s dress.

“Hina! You’ll--!”

“Who’s that!?

Aya’s gaze followed Hina’s to a young, white-haired woman in an eccentrically-coloured suit, a patchwork of whites and blues and purples, an empty scabbard clipped to her belt. She sped gracefully around the room, wide, icy eyes taking in every little detail with utmost wonder. Aya watched her for a moment as she grabbed a handful of canapés from a passing waitress.

“...I have no idea.”

Boppin’.

“Hina--!” The by now all-too-familiar sensation of Hina dragging her along by the sleeve, and Aya found herself sincerely hoping that the place she’d rented this dress from wasn’t too harsh when it came to damages.

“Hey! Who the hell are you?” Hina asked when they reached their target, and Aya flinched. That scabbard may be empty right now, but anyone who carried a scabbard around with them had to have some other tricks up their sleeve, right…?

“Ah! Hello! People of my own age!” She bowed her head slightly, for perhaps a bit longer than was strictly necessary, and Hina’s grin twitched just slightly from exuberance to curiosity. “My name is Eve Wakamiya. What are yours?” Wide eyes flicked between the two of them, a smile completely oblivious to Aya’s obvious discomfort.

“Hina, Aya.” Hina answered, hastily gesturing to match her introductions. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yes! Yes I am! I just moved down here from Scarlet Mountain. I have never seen a city so large before!”

“Pretty zappin’, right? I’m from Circle Town, but now I live up here full-time with Aya!”

“Ah! She means, ah, she doesn’t live, like, with me, she just also lives in the city that I live in, we don’t live, like, together, or anything, haha…” Aya stumbled through her explanation, desperate to avoid any misunderstandings with the tall, sword-wielding stranger Hina had decided to antagonise. And…

“...Wait. Did you say you came from Scarlet Mountain?”

“Hm? Oh, yes! I trained there for some time, although prior to that I lived in a small town on Vallata Plain. My father spoke of this place often, and I always dreamed of some day visiting it!”

“Vallata?” Hina tapped her chin, nodding in vague recognition. “...Oh, yeah! My parents--”

“Eve!” A vaguely familiar voice called from nearby, muffled by the intervening crowd. “Eve, wh-- there you are!” Maya Yamato, face red in mild panic, emerged from the mass of people around them, breathing a sigh of relief as she spotted her target. Even with her suit on, she still looked as scruffy and unkempt as ever, a few disapproving murmurs following her. “Eve, we were told to wait outside-- oh, hey! It’s you guys!”

“Uh, hi…”

Maya laughed nervously. “Uh, sorry about this, huhehe … Eve here’s a new employee of MIss Shirasagi, and I’m supposed to be looking after her, but, ah… she’s… kind of a free spirit…”

“A free spirit! Yes! I have always been told so!” Eve declared proudly.

Ha! Me too!” Hina announced, whatever she’d been saying beforehand evidently forgotten already.

Huhehe , well, Eve, if we could just… head back out, before Miss Shirasagi…”

“Before Miss Shirasagi what?” A calm voice behind her. Maya froze as Chisato walked between  the four, smiling as icily as ever. “Aya, Hina. Good to see you two here.” Aya practically withered away beneath her gaze. “And Eve.”

“Miss Shirasagi! Hello!”

“Eve. I appreciate you are new here, but if you wish to remain in my employ, it seems I must make one thing clear.” She leaned in close, somehow seeming intimidating even despite Eve’s comparatively colossal stature. “When I tell you to do something, I expect it to be done . Do I make myself clear?”

Eve blinked. “Yes, Miss Shirasagi.”

Chisato settled. “Excellent. Maya, if you could escort Eve back outside…”

“Ah-! Of course!” She tugged awkwardly on Eve’s sleeve, and with a slight mutter of “Come on…” vanished once more into the crowd.

Chisato turned to the other two. “Apologies. I recently hired Eve as a personal security attendant on my behalf, but as Maya has been discovering, she is rather… difficult, at times.” Her perfect smile briefly flattened into a grimace, before quickly reverting back. “Now, what about you two? Are you enjoying the party?”

“Ah… yes!” Aya answered, louder than intended. “I, ah, haven’t really had the chance to just attend a party like this… well, ever, really, so… thank you, Miss Shirasagi!”

“Why are we here?” Hina asked. Chisato tilted her head curiously.

“...In general, or…?”

“At the party.”

“Call it an employee benefit. I like to make sure those in my employ are treated well. I suppose that might be a little unusual of me…”

“You employ an unusual range of talent!” Hina said, and something about her tone, something implacable, set Aya on edge.

“Hmm.” Chisato hummed. “Enjoy the party, Hina. Aya. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid I have business to attend to.”

* * *

Even through thick gloves, the feeling of sloppy, semi-decayed kitchen scraps, potato peelings and carrot ends and tomato stalks, was deeply unpleasant to Lisa, and the warm pressure of the goat’s snout eating the stuff out of her hands was just the icing on a very unfortunate cake. She sighed, her breath crystallising before her eyes.

“Alright, that’s enough. Shove it.” she muttered, nudging the goat away to allow a smaller specimen to eat instead. The larger goat bleated angrily, continuing to hover nearby in the hopes of snatching another bite. “You’re big enough.” She eyed the creature, sizing it up. “Could be next, actually.”

Lisa wasn’t really cut out for this type of farmwork, or perhaps she just didn’t like it, or perhaps the first fact led to the second. She was more than happy to help with cooking the animals after the fact, and the slaughter was an unfortunate necessity, but one she was certainly capable of. This, however, was cold, thankless, and downright miserable, especially when doing it alone. Still, having help would rather defeat Master Tsuzuki’s purpose in assigning her the job. That’ll teach her for bringing in outsiders blah blah blah.

“‘ Outsiders… ’” she grumbled, watching the little goat cram the last lump of vegetable mass down its throat, then reaching down to grab another handful from the sack. “Well maybe if you ever went outside you’d get some damn perspective…”

Heavy footsteps approaching, and not ones she recognised.

“Oi, Ran! You out here?” The new arrival burst outside with remarkable speed - sure enough, one of the people Lisa had brought here earlier. “Oh! Ah… Lisa, right?”

“Yep!” And this was… the one who had been unconscious. Moca? No, no, that was the one who was unconscious now , this was… “Tomoe?”

“Yeah, that’s me. Hey, you seen Ran anywhere?”

Lisa shook her head. “Haven’t had much time to look around since I got back. Straight to getting chewed out by Master, then straight out here. She’s probably holed up in her room, though; I could give you directions…?”

“Might help, I…” She tilted her head, peered behind her. Grin, point. “Goats!”

“Hm? Oh, uh, yeah. Goats.”

Tomoe jogged forward, joining Lisa at the fence. She raised her hands to that belligerent larger goat’s head, scratching behind its ears enthusiastically. “We used to keep a couple goats back home. Not this many, though…” She looked out to the small flock in the field, mainly gathered around Lisa’s hand, waiting for their turn at the leftovers. One chancer was trying to reach the sack through a small hole in the fence, but no luck. Tomoe chuckled. “Haven’t seen a goat in years. Takes me back…”

“Well, er. Drink it in, I guess.”

Tomoe extended a hand to the bag on the floor. “You mind if I…?”

“Well, I’m supposed to be doing this as a punishment, but by all means, go ahead.”

She reached in and grabbed a wad of essentially compost with her bare hand. Lisa winced. “Punishment?” She stuck her hand over the fence, attracting a few of the goats gathered around Lisa over. “You not a fan? Of goats, I mean.”

“It’s not that I don’t like them. I’m just not good with them. I’m good with people.” Her hand was empty again. She grabbed another handful. “It’s like… with a person, if they’re still hungry, or if they’re full, they’ll tell you. And if they don’t, there’s still ways you can figure it out, y’know? Little tells you can learn. But goats… they don’t do any of that. They can’t. They’re just… animals.”

“Ain’t that easier, though? No nuance, no grey areas. They just eat till they don’t.”

“No. No, I don’t think it is.” Lisa looked into the eyes of the animal eating garbage from her hand, at those strange, elongated pupils that may as well be dead for all the emotion they held. “Not for me.”

* * *

“If you’re looking for information on supernatural creatures, then, as you can see, we’ve got a great selection.”

The wall of books towered over Himari, consuming her field of vision with a monumental array of titles and spines. The library was by far the largest room she’d seen inside the school so far, and was absolutely packed with colossal bookshelves hewn from rich, dark pine, covering, she assumed from her brief glances around, every topic she’d care to imagine. She’d probably be even more amazed, she thought, if she actually liked reading, but Rei looked satisfied enough at her reaction regardless.

“Wow…” she whispered, mainly for emphasis.

“I spend most of my time here when I’m not training. It’s peaceful.”

Himari looked over to her host, staring up at the shelves with a calm smile. “Isn’t this whole place pretty peaceful?” Not quite the word Himari would have chosen on her own - empty , more like - but she found it was safer to follow precedent. She wasn’t sure how Rei would react, after all.

“Well, I mean… because it’s so big, it just feels more peaceful. You can hear your footsteps echoing, and the natural light can’t get in very far, so it feels…. I dunno. Intimate, or something.”

“Sure.” Himari nodded, unsure what she was getting at.

“Anyway. Enough about me. What were you looking for in particular?”

“Oh! Um… nothing much. Just browsing.”

Mhm .” Rei nodded. “You’ve got a friend unconscious in the infirmary and another unaccounted for somewhere in this building, clearly taken here with hostile intent, but you’ve come down here to browse .”

“Uh…”

“So what are you looking for?”

Himari swallowed. Given the circumstances laid out, she figured it would probably look a little suspicious that she’d urgently need information about werewolves. Might raise some questions that were better off unanswered. She cast her mind around, looking for another answer, one that was perhaps not technically true, but also not necessarily false…

Ah-ha.

“Ah, well… to tell the truth…” she looked around suspiciously, as though searching for prying eyes she knew wouldn’t be there, “we’re being hunted.”

“...I know. I told you that.”

“...Right, yes. Well. The thing is, see, back in Hanasakigawa, we had a run-in with someone… weird .”

“Weird how?”

“Well, she had cat ears…”

“Not that weird.”

“...and also could use massively powerful telekinetic spells without seeming to experience any fatigue.”

Rei nodded thoughtfully. “That is.

“So, ah. Any ideas?”

“...There is… there is one thing, but… it can’t be…” Suddenly, she turned on her heel and strode purposefully down the shelf, Himari jogging to keep up. She grabbed a book, scrutinising its cover carefully before passing it to Himari. “Here.”

On the cover, there was emblazoned a single word, carved out in gold against a blood red backdrop. It was a word Himari knew, one she recalled hearing in hushed whispers, fearful and awestruck and curious, from her teachers. It was a word that sent a shock through Himari’s heart, as though the very letters before her carried with them the terrible power of that which they symbolised, as though the name itself was as impossible as its bearer.

Homunculus.

* * *

The barn was still in a right bloody state from when Masuki had last left it. She figured she should probably at least apologise to the owners, maybe swear vengeance on those responsible, since she was hunting them down anyway. Actually, did the barn have owners? It didn’t seem to be occupied, and there sure weren’t any crops growing nearby. She could probably get away without apologising to anyone this time.

She hummed, trying to get her mind back on track. More important things to worry about.

No tracks that she could discern nearby, outside of the ones from last night’s failed hunt, and that meant no other tracks at all, which, in turn, could only mean one thing. She stood at the barn’s centre, sniffing the air. A cocktail of stenches - the faintly rotting wood from which the building was constructed; the ground beneath her feet, cold and dry and barren; the blood of the girl she’d bitten, mingling with that of others, but hers stood out the strongest…

There . Beneath it all, that faint trace of a smell not quite like any other, a smell like charred water, or dead metal. The smell of magic.

God dammit . Teleport. Now she was gonna have to find a mage she could have trace the signal before it vanished and ugh getting other people involved slowed her down so much .

Ugh. ” She groaned, kicking a chunk of shattered wood clear across the room.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” A new voice, unfamiliar, small yet demanding. She turned wearily to meet its source - two girls, teenagers, it looked like, one with cat ears and one with weird hair and a pouch at her hip. Kinda cute, but more annoying.

“You the owners?”

Hmph . What would I need with a place like this? ” The cat-eared one spoke again, sneering at her surroundings as thought they’d done something to offend her. “I am ChuChu, this is my assistant Pareo--”

“Hello!” Pareo waved cheerily.

“--and we have come to investigate an incident at this location which we believe to have involved a number of miscreants upon whom we have placed a bounty.”

Masuki blinked. “...Yer the ones who placed the bounty on those guys?”

“You know them?” Suspicious eyes.

“Was huntin’ ‘em. ‘M a bounty hunter.”

“So this,” she gestured around the barn, “was your doing?”

“Ehh.”

Hmph . Well, no matter. Consider yourself relieved of duty. We’ll be handling this from here.”

“Yeah, that ain’t happenin’.”

Pareo cocked her head, remained quiet. Masuki kept a close eye on her.

“And why ,” ChuChu asked through gritted teeth, “might that be?”

“Let’s just say it’s personal.” She cricked her neck. “Tell y’what, though. I ain’t lookin’ for any o’ the ones you’re after. Just one o’ their friends.”

“So?”

So I don’t see any reason why we can’t help each other out. No need t’fight or nothin’.”

ChuChu sneered. “What could I possibly stand to gain from you?

“Well, no offence, but it kinda looks like you could use the extra muscle.”

“I’m more powerful than you could possibly comprehend.”

Masuki looked her scrawny figure up and down. “...Sure.” she said. “Anyway, the group teleported from here, so if you could just trace that and we can get on our way…”

Raised eyebrow. “You’re a mage?”

“Just got a good sense o’ smell.”

Pareo pulled a marble from her pouch, examined the swirling colours within. “...She’s right, Mistress ChuChu! Someone did teleport from this point recently!”

“...Hmm.” She nodded thoughtfully, eyeing Masuki. “Maybe you do have your uses.” She marched forward, Pareo hurrying along behind, and came to a stop beside Masuki. Not to address or assess her further, though - instead, she closed her eyes and stood completely still, her harsh expression fading into something serene, meditative.

“Is she--?”

“Shh!” Pareo hushed. “Mistress ChuChu is tracing the teleport.”

“Right, yeah, that’s what I was… whatever.”

They waited for a few minutes in silence, Masuki awkwardly pacing around, kicking pebbles about, Pareo simply watching in wonder. Masuki found her slightly unsettling.

“Got it.” ChuChu said eventually, eyes snapping open.

“Thank god…” Masuki muttered.

“They’re at that school on Scarlet Mountain.”

“God dammit , how the hell are we supposed to get there? That could take… that could take months , they’ll probably be gone by the time we get there…”

“I can follow the teleport.”

Masuki stopped. “You have an anchor?”

“No.”

“You don’t- then- no. Not possible. You can’t teleport without an anchor, no one can. Especially not over that kind of distance, are you insane?

“No. Simply powerful. Now hold on.

Pareo grasped her partner’s arm tight; Masuki begrudgingly placed a hand on her shoulder. No harm in humouring the idiot for a moment until she came to her senses, she figured.

...She could feel something. A dull buzz, on the back of her neck, through all her skin, like a blunt electric shock. A smell… the smell of magic.

She gripped ChuChu’s shoulder a little tighter.

She could hear her grunting, struggling as her face scrunched up, saw the worry in Pareo’s eyes. The buzz built, sounds of crackling, fizzing all around them, growing to a mighty, cacophonous crescendo--

and suddenly falling flat.

ChuChu gasped for breath, collapsing forward, caught by Pareo. Masuki grunted, stuffing her hands back into her pockets.

“Mistress ChuChu, are you okay?”

“Nnghm… fine …” she grunted, steadying herself on Pareo’s shoulder. “Thought I… had it, that time…”

Pareo brushed a hand through her hair, cat ears twitching at the contact. “It’s okay. Next time.”

“Yeah, yeah, great.” Masuki waved a hand through the air, as though trying to waft the sentiment away. “So what’s plan B, genius?”

“Hrrr… I do know someone… with an anchor to that place…”

A sigh of relief. At least they wouldn’t have to try and actually climb that damn thing. “Well, why didn’t you just tell us that in the first place?”

ChuChu pushed away from Pareo, standing herself on shaky but firm legs. “Didn’t want to get him involved.” she huffed. “He tends to cause just as many problems as he solves…”

* * *

Sayo Hikawa…

Tsugumi had seen her that night, she could have sworn. She hadn’t said anything to the others, of course - she didn’t want to be thought mad, after all - but she knew, Sayo Hikawa had been right there, in front of her, clear as anything.

She sighed, leaning her head against the unfamiliar wall of Ran’s former(?) room. Or maybe she was just mad, seeing visions of her love in the storm. She hadn’t realised, back then, how much she would miss her.

Maybe this had been a mistake.

“Who are you?”

She looked up with a start to see Yukina Minato looming over her, golden eyes glaring down. “A-ah! I--”

“One of Mitake’s lot, I assume.” Yukina continued unbidden.

“Uh… y-yes!” Tsugumi answered, scrambling to her feet. “Tsugumi Hazawa!” She bowed, rather stiffly, an action to which Yukina did not react. Both just stood there for a moment, the silence slowly beginning to suffocate Tsugumi.

“Ah… did you want something?”

“I’m looking for Mitake.”

“Oh… well, I, ah, sent her off to the infirmary a little while ago, so…”

“No. She will return here, and so I shall remain here.”

“Oh… okay…”

“What about you?”

“Huh!?” She yelped, not expecting Yukina to continue the conversation. She eyed her curiously, stood straight, cross-armed, in the middle of the room.

“What are you doing here?”

“Oh… well, I, ah… I was just wondering that myself, actually…”

“How odd.”

“Odd how?”

“To be so far from home without purpose. Tell me, where exactly are you from?”

“Circle Town…”

Yukina nodded. “I’m familiar. Why did you leave?”

“It’s… complicated…” Tsugumi looked down at the palm of her hand. “I had to go, but… I had to leave someone behind. And I…” She brushed her fingers against her cheek, and found it to be wet. “I don’t know that I’m strong enough to go on without her.”

“Hmm.” Yukina nodded. Thoughtfully? It was hard to tell what was going on in that head. “How strong was this person?”

“What? I mean, er… Sayo…” she swallowed, “Sayo is the strongest person I know. She… she always know what to do in a crisis, she’s so calm and smart and… she taught me everything she knew, and I… she always said I taught her, as well, and I… I miss her. I miss her so much.”

“I see.” Yukina said. “She sounds like quite the remarkable individual.”

“She is…”

“Was your relationship romantic in nature?”

Tsugumi choked. “ What!?

“Ah. Apologies.” She bowed slightly. “Lisa has informed me that some people may find such questions rude. I am… simply curious, is all.”

“I… you don’t… I mean, it’s fine, I…” She breathed, gathering her thoughts, and answered. Her heart wouldn’t settle, so she decided she must speak clearly to be heard above it. “Yes.”

A slight pause.

“...It was. Romantic, I mean. Sorry, I… don’t know if the conversation’s moved on, or…”

“You are lucky.” Mercifully, Yukina cut off Tsugumi’s rambling, sombre voice cutting though her words to the silence beneath.

“Hm?”

“You say you understand each other, yes? That you teach each other. I…” Tsugumi looked into her eyes and found them no longer cold, or impassive, or demanding. Instead, she simply seemed lost. “My relationship with Lisa has… also become romantic in nature of late, but… I worry I do not understand what that means. I do not… I do not know how our relationship is supposed to change, or… how she wants it to change.” Her forehead creased slightly. “I have always preferred to keep my affairs simple, and very few things have ever appeared so complicated to me as this. And yet… I find I do not want to lose it.” She paused, seeming to consider the words she just said as though it was the first time these feelings had ever occurred to her. “I… apologise. This must make little sense…”

“It makes perfect sense.” Tsugumi said immediately, just loud enough for Yukina to hear, and, cautiously and clearly, she reached out, and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

And then, the strangest thing happened.

Yukina Minato smiled.

“Thank you, Hazawa.”

“Ah--” she removed her hand, “ah, really, it’s nothing, haha…”

Minato!

And suddenly, the moment Ran Mitake entered the room, all the warmth and vulnerability vanished from Yukina’s face, and the stoic swordswoman returned once more.

“What the hell are you doing in my room?”

“I was looking for you.” she said simply. “I need to know if you have told anyone.”

Ran frowned. “Told anyone what?”

“Come now, Mitake. We both know what I’m referring to. Perhaps I should summon a necromancer so I can examine your memories myself?”

“Oh, trust me, you don’t wanna do that. And I seriously have no goddamn clue what you’re on about.”

Hmm .” Yukina hummed. “Hazawa.”

“Y-yes!?”

Yukina looked straight at her, eyes commanding full attention. “Has Mitake informed you of any information regarding a certain gemstone?”

“Uh… you mean the one embedded in that guy’s eye…?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I refer to its opposite.”

“Opposite?” Tsugumi and Ran said in unison.

“You mean there’s another one of those things!?” Ran asked, voice on edge. Yukina paused, regarded her for a moment.

“...You really don’t know.” she realised. “But… that doesn’t… you were…” Her eyes narrowed, turning to the ground. “I must go. I… hope I can speak to you again sometime, Hazawa.”

“Ah… yeah! Me too…” Tsugumi responded, as Yukina turned and strode back down the hall. Ran frowned.

“What was that about?” she grumbled, before putting a hand to her forehead. “Whatever. Doesn’t matter. What about you? Did she… I dunno, attack you, or something?”

“No! No. She didn’t. We just talked.”

“Well, that must’ve been riveting. Real conversationalist, that one.”

You’re one to talk , Tsugumi would have said, were she ten percent meaner. As it is, she simply said, “She’s… I think she’s quite nice, really.”

Ran raised an eyebrow. “You make a habit of seeing the best in everyone, huh?”

Tsugumi smiled, like she’d realised something. “...Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.”

* * *

“Homunculus…” Himari read, hushed voice.

“Familiar?” Rei asked.

“Vaguely… but I don’t remember much.” She walked over to a nearby desk, took a seat. “I was never really good at the theoretical stuff…”

Rei joined her, sitting opposite. “Well, it’s a theoretical concept. Unless your story is to be believed, that is.” She traced her finger along the desk, making abstract patterns in the dust. “An artificial human soul, born of magic…”

“Oh, are you a mage too?”

“No. I said I spend a lot of time here, remember? What do you think I do, brood?”

“Ah… sorry.” Himari blushed. “I… don’t suppose you could maybe give me the gist? I’m kinda short on time, I think, and this book looks pretty lengthy…”

“Sure.” Rei shrugged. “Like I said, a homunculus is a human soul created from pure magical energy, and, as such, would be capable of extraordinary magical feats, even without any formal training. Of course, the amount of power it would take to actually create a homunculus would be impossible to realistically channel, but anyway…

“Once the homunculus is made, it needs a body to bond with, or it will die. Most people’s minds would immediately go to the creation of a new, soulless body created specifically for the homunculus to inhabit, but this is not the only way. A homunculus could also take the body of a living person, bonding itself to their existing soul. That person’s pre-existing personality would likely remain dominant in such an event - since the homunculus would not have one of its own.”

She leaned back in her chair. “Of course, again, this is all purely theoretical. It’s all good and well to talk about making a homunculus, but if anyone ever actually did it, well… there’s no telling how it would develop or react in either of those circumstances. Mentally or physically.”

Himari breathed in deeply.

“And you really think you met one?”

“I… I don’t know… I don’t know what else she could have been… my powers worked on her, so she must have been human…”

“Your powers?”

“Empathic magic.”

“Ah, of course. That kind of thing doesn’t work on near-humans, does it?”

“No, it…” she blinked, and looked at Rei. “...doesn’t…”

That night. That night they’d first met.

“Something wrong?”

She hadn’t read any hostility from her, had she? No, no. But she was distracted. That wasn’t quite right.

“Uh… no, it’s nothing…”

She hadn’t read anything from her full stop.

“Are you sure? You look quite worried all of a sudden…”

The whole time she’d been here. Distracted. Idiot. Pay attention. Can’t read her, can’t feel her. Means one thing.

“No, really, it’s nothing! Now, I really have to go find the others, tell them about this…”

Rei Wakana is not human.

“...You’ve noticed, then.”

Her blood ran cold. “I…”

“No, no. I knew you’d figure it out eventually.” Rei sighed, got to her feet. “That’s why I don’t get out much. I can’t recognise empaths, but they can recognise me for what I am. And most people really don’t like what I am.”

Himari watched her carefully. She knew nothing about the person in front of her - was she a threat? What could she do? What did she want to do? The answers, usually so easy to intimate from a simple glance at a person’s feelings… eluded her.

So she simply asked.

“What are you?”

Rei smiled, a little sadly. “My kind is known by many names. But I suppose you might know me best as…” She grinned mirthlessly, baring her teeth - no.

Her fangs .

“Vampire.”

* * *

“So what’s the play?” asked Tomoe.

Together again - well, four of them, at least.

“I still need to talk to Moca.” Ran said, leaned against the doorway, keeping watch up and down the hall for prying ears.

“What about?”

“...”

“You know, there’s no shame in admitting you just want to talk to her, Ran.” Tsugumi assured her. “She’s your friend.”

Ran grunted. “...What about you guys? Are you all okay? I know I kinda left you hanging there…”

“It wasn’t your fault!” Tsugumi interjected immediately.

“Yeah, it was that Minato creep!” Tomoe yelled.

“She’s not…”

“Okay, okay, it doesn’t matter. The point is I couldn’t help out, and…” she sighed. “I dunno. It sucks. But did you guys make it out okay? Tomoe, I seem to recall you got bitten…”

“Oh, yeah! Nah, no worries. Himari patched that right up.” She clapped a hand on the mage’s shoulder, causing her to yelp in surprise.

Wha-- oh-- yeah! Yeah, I did, ah… I did do that. I did that. It’s fine, she’s fine.”

Ran raised an eyebrow. “You okay? You seem kinda distracted.”

“No, no. It’s fine.” She scratched her neck absently.

“Hmm.” Ran hummed. Tomoe frowned, wrapping an arm around Himari.

“But, like, what are we doing? Did you get what you wanted to come here for?”

“Yeah.” Ran nodded, clutching the locket in her pocket. “Barely know why, though…” she added under her breath.

“So, what, we wait for Moca to recover and then bust on outta here?”

“Might not be so simple. They don’t want me to leave. Saying I need discipline . Pfft. ” She kicked the ground. “Whatever. I’m gonna go see if Moca’s awake. I--” she paused at the door, turned back to the others. “I’m glad you’re all safe. Really.”

She walked down the halls rather too quickly.

* * *

Moca blinked her eyes open, heavy as they were. The room was unfamiliar. Bad start. She slowly tried to push herself up, exerting far more effort than she’d like.

“Whoa, hey, hey, careful!” Hands on her shoulders, a face slowly materialising in front of her as her eyes adjusted - a woman, somewhere in her thirties, short red hair and sharp features. Moca’s day was improving already. “You’ve been out a while now - big magical exertion - you’ll be fine, but you should rest a bit longer, yeah?” She gently lowered Moca back down onto the bed.

“Pretty lady…”

She grinned. “Flattered. Name’s Yoh. I’m a doctor, been lookin’ after you.”

“Moca?”

Now that voice… that was familiar.

“Ran…?”

There she was, poking her head round the door. She smiled when Moca said her name, and Moca, wholly involuntarily, smiled back.

“Hey, kid.”

“Doctor Ohta.” She stepped into the room, bowed slightly. Moca hummed curiously. “Are you…?”

“Nah, it’s fine. Just don’t keep ‘er awake too long, don’t let ‘er get out o’ bed, and don’t let Shifune catch ya ‘fraternisin’ with an outsider’ or whatever.” She walked away, towards a door at the back. “I’ll be in my office if ya need me.”

Alone. Ran took a seat beside Moca’s bed.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. What about you?”

“Of course I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine, I-- you’re the one in the hospital bed, I mean--” she cleared her throat. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

A pause. Ran’s hand brushed against Moca’s. She didn’t pull it away.

“I… heard about what you did. From the others. The… the magic thing, I mean.” She nodded awkwardly. “Uh… pretty impressive.”

“Not really?”

“Huh?”

Moca shrugged. “I mean… I guess I get it. Big show of… what, strength? But it’s not… I mean. It doesn’t take skill, or… refinement , or anything like that. It’s just a big, dumb explosion.”

“I mean. It was a big explosion…”

“No, no, you’re not getting it…” Moca shook her head. Her hand squeezed Ran’s a little. Too bold? Whatever. “I… all I did, there, was tell some particles to move apart. Which is what they would have done anyway , given time. I just sped it up. But doing something like… creating something, or… or fixing a wound, healing … that’s the opposite. That’s reversing entropy. That’s impressive.”

“...Huh. Guess I never really thought about it like that…” Her brow twitched slightly. “Himari…”

Hmm .” Moca hummed in agreement. “It’s easier to destroy than it is to create. That’s why I’m a dark mage, I guess. Because it’s easier.”

“...Why are you telling me this?” Ran asked. A wry smile crossed her lips. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to teach me something…”

Ha. No, no. It’s just…” Moca swallowed. Ran’s eyes bore down on her, and she looked deep into them, examining each little movement and pigment as though it were another novel she’d never understand. “There’s… there’s so many things I want… I need . To tell you, but… I can’t. And I don’t know why, but I can’t. Not…” She almost choked on her voice. “Not yet.”

Somehow, their eyes remained locked, and Ran’s… Ran’s remained an enigma. There was a sad little buzz in Moca’s mind.

“It’s okay.” Ran said eventually. “We’ve got time.”

“Do we?”

That terrible silence again.

“...Yeah. Yeah, course we do.”

Ran squeezed Moca’s hand back.

The idea of a word left Moca’s mind, unsaid once more.

Maybe tomorrow , she lied. Maybe tomorrow .

It would be nighttime soon.

Chapter Text

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.

Bastard.

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.

“Maya.”

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…

“Maya.”

“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.”

* * *

“Bored now.”

“Hold still.”

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.”

“Different how?”

Himari blinked.

“...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--”

NOK NOK

Ran opened the door without waiting for a response. “Hey, are you… why are you two just sitting in the dark?”

“No reason.”

“Brooding.”

“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.”

“The--”

“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?”

“...Right.”

“Guess not.”

“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?”

“You-?”

“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.”

“I disagree.”

“Oh?”

“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.”

Yukina flinched.

“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.”

“...Master?”

“Hm?”

“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.

“Hey-”

“AAH!”

“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...”

“Er…”

“...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…”

“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.

“Should we…?”

“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.

“To whom?”

“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?”

“The homunculus.”

“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.”

* * *

“I can-”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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-”

“Unworkable.”

“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.”

“I see.”

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-

Masuki Satou.

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.”