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Days of Future Passed

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Maya felt the fresh breeze travel in and out of her lungs. In. Out. In again. Steady and rhythmically. Today she was waiting for Eve on the outskirts of a local park, as the two of them were planning to do some shopping together. Maya needed some more girl clothes, and as the resident actual model, Eve had a good idea of what to pick out for her. N-Not that it was a date! Sure, the thought of some alone time with Eve made her little lesbian heart flutter a bit, but she didn’t want to be… weird and make her uncomfortable or anything. She was still early on in her transition, after all, and still in the “experimenting with presentation” stage. She didn’t want to make anybody uncomfortable--least of all someone as pure and kind as Eve, who now bobbed up to her with the sprightliest of waves.

“Maya-san! Good morning!”

Maya huhehe’d softly as she approached. “Thanks for accompanying me today, Eve-san.”

“It’s no trouble at all! I always love spending time with you!”

Maya felt her heart pound at the statement--but it soon became awash with doubt and guilt. Surely Eve felt at least a little awkward about all this. She probably viewed Maya with more pity than anything else. It’d probably look like she was just trying to crossdress today, all things considered. That was the best she could do right now, after all--at this stage of her transition, “passing” was still just an idle daydream to her. One that she wasn’t even sure she wanted.

“Maya-san?” asked Eve, peering in close, oblivious to her inner dysphoria. “Is something wrong?”

“Hm? No, it’s nothing,” said Maya, attempting to shrug her doubts off. “Let’s get going.”

They set off into the park, hands brushing against each other as they strode. Maya thought about grabbing on to Eve’s hand before shaking off the thought--she didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.

“It’s a lovely day!” Eve chirped, looking up above towards the sky that was the same hue as her eyes. “Not a cloud to be seen!”

“N-Nope,” said Maya, matching her gaze. “It really is perfect. The wind feels nice, too…”

Just as she said it, it seemed to pick up out of nowhere. 

“Do you feel that, Maya-san?”

“Y-Yeah. Maybe there’s a storm coming on.”

No sooner had she said it than the sky turned a dark, violent, unnatural shade of green, and a buzz like a thousand thunderclaps sounded in their eardrums. Looking for refuge, they hid behind a nearby oak tree and weathered the sudden squall, clinging on for dear life.

“Goodness!” Eve cried. “What is happening?”

Maya never got a chance to answer--partially because the turbulence drowned out her voice, partially because a moment later a great a terrible tear seemed to sunder space right in two.

RIIIIIP

Maya had a hard time making anything out through the storm and thunder, but she could have sworn she saw a bronze sphere roughly the size of a queen-sized bed suddenly manifest in mid-air.

CRRAAAASSSHH

Which would mean the ensuing noise was probably the object crashing into the ground. The wind quieted as the sky began to lighten towards its previous blue hue. Maya and Eve still clung to the tree, even after the sudden storm had quelled and birdsong returned to the air.

“Are the mole-people attacking again?” asked Eve in a hushed whisper, hands reaching for a katana she didn’t have.

“Eve-san, that was just a movie...” said Maya, laughing as she tiptoed away from the tree trunk and towards the impact site. “We should make sure nobody got hurt, though.”

“Be careful, Maya-san!” cried Eve, leaping out in front of her. “This could be a hostile attack!”

Maya certainly had no idea what had happened, but an alien invasion was just about last on her list of possibilities. Even if it was still there, admittedly. Regardless, the two of them inched closer and closer to the bronze meteorite, which had left a basketball court-sized indentation in the ground. 

“Do you recognize it? Is it some sort of Japanese phenomenon?” Eve asked. “This sort of thing never happened in Finland…”

“I have no idea,” said Maya. “This definitely isn’t normal.”

Right as they got about a meter within the radius of the object, part of the side hissed open and steam billowed out, causing the two to freeze in place. Moments later, the hatch fully swung open, and a soot-colored humanoid stumbled out, muttering in Japanese to herself.

“Hoh boy, that was a test run! Ended up going with an actual jump earlier than expected, hehuhu.”

Recognizing that the survivor was 1) human, 2) non-hostile, and 3) injured, Eve rushed to her side at once, hoisting her on one shoulder. “Are you alright? Should I call for help?”

“What year is it?” the stranger asked. With the way their hair fizzled out and their goggles were stuck to their face, they seemed like the victim of some sort of comical explosion.

Eve looked over at Maya with concern, helping the stranger upright. “She appears to be confused, hold on a moment--I will find the closest clinic as soon as I can!”

“I’ll help,” said Maya, stepping over to take the stranger’s shoulder from Eve. The soot-covered girl was surprisingly light--even through all the dust Maya could tell she was a beanpole, tall and lanky proportionally.

“Um, do you remember your name?” asked Maya, right as Eve ran out of the crater to check her GPS.

“Do you remember yours?” questioned the stranger immediately. “Don’t mean to be rude, but..”

“My bad, said Maya, remembering that it was usually polite to introduce yourself first. “I’m Yamato Maya.”

“Age?”

“17.”

“What year is it?”

Oh goodness, she really couldn’t remember? “It’s 2018, last I checked.”

“Gotcha. Phew!” The stranger slapped her thigh lightly as if in disbelief. “Name’s Naomi, by the way.”

“Naomi… Nice name. “Maya hoisted her up a little higher. “You remember your surname?”

“Ah…. don’t worry about that right now,” said Naomi, waving dismissively.

A strange response, but Maya expected her to be a little discombobulated after… whatever had happened. What had happened? Might as well ask. “What happened? It looked like you got caught up in an explosion…” A cartoony one, really, Maya thought, keeping that thought private.

“If I told you the whole truth, you might have a hard time believing me,” said Naomi. “It was just a lab accident really. Testing out new equipment and it went kerplooey a bit. You know how that goes, right?”

“W-well, yeah…” but that just gave Maya more questions. What kind of lab accident had caused this? And how did Naomi recognize that Maya would be familiar with that sort of thing? Was she a Pasupare fan? Or…

“Maya-san!” called Eve from the rim of the crater. There’s a hospital only three blocks away!”

Well, that could all wait. Making sure Naomi was safe came first. “Can you walk?” asked Maya. 

“Yep, didn’t even twist my ankle,” said Naomi, lifting up her right leg as if in demonstration. “I can make it there no problem. Though I honestly feel fine.”

“Are you sure?” asked Maya. “You seem a little out of it..”

“I just need to clean up and rest for a bit, that’s all. If I’m still struggling then you can take me over.”

Maya wasn’t super convinced, but before she could reply...

“My house is nearby!” Eve said. “You may rest there if needed!”

“Thanks, äip--er, Eve-san,” said Naomi.

“You are welcome!”

Maya caught the slip-up instantly. Naomi was definitely about to call Eve something else--and why did she know her name in the first place? Maya hadn’t introduced her. This situation was growing more and more suspicious… even if Naomi didn’t seem malicious, Maya could tell she was hiding something. Not that it was in Maya’s nature to pry, obviously, but she was at least curious, if not outright suspicious.

“My mother will be excited to have a guest!” said Eve as Maya and Naomi stumbled out of the crater. “Although she’ll wish it was under better circumstances, I’m sure…”

“Don’t worry about it, äip--Eve-san,” said Naomi. “I’m sure mummo -- er, your mom will be accommodating.”

She’d made the same slip again, and this time Eve seemed to notice. “Did--Did you just call her mummo?

“S-Sorry, that slipped--”

“Do not apologize!” exclaimed Eve, suddenly reaching for Naomi’s hands. “Do you speak Finnish?”

“O-Only a little, I’m only a quarter Finnish--”

“That’s still more than anybody else I’ve met here!” Eve nearly did a little dance of happiness. “ Mitä kuuluu ?”

Hyvin. Ja sin?” Naomi replied, almost mechanically.

“Mahtava!” Eve replied. “You seem to be in good spirits, considering your condition.”

“Like I said, I just need a wash and a rest.”

“Well, we’re happy to provide!” said Eve.

Seeing her so chipper melted away some of Maya’s worries. Oh, Eve. Always so pure and genial. She would probably leap to their defense if they were about to be attacked or something. Although Maya would have to make sure Eve didn’t get scammed. She could imagine her giving out her credit card number quite easily...

“I’m home, äippä!” called Eve, opening the door as she waited for a response that never came. “She must’ve gone to the grocery store… or perhaps the restroom.”

“Let’s get Naomi-san to bed,” said Maya.

“No need,” replied the subject in question. “Just show me the bathroom so I can freshen up. Preferably upstairs--wouldn’t want to soil your carpet downstairs with soot.”

“Well, thank you for the consideration, but you take priority!” said Eve. “I’ll show you the way.”

Maya subconsciously handed the non-wobbly Naomi off to Eve who helped her up the stairs and towards the bathroom. Maya watched them all the while, trying to put down what it was about Naomi that struck her as so particularly uncanny--she didn’t like having that attitude towards strangers, of course, but something about this girl was making the little hairs on her neck stand on end. She wrung her hands the whole time Eve was showing Naomi to the sink, wondering whether she should speak up or not. She didn’t want to cause any undue drama, but there was too much about the girl that drew questions to her mind. How did she know the layout of Eve’s house well enough to know where the carpet was? What sort of experiment had she been conducting? Who was she, anyway?

“I’ll show you to our guest room,“ said Eve, making towards a door in the middle of the hallway. “You can rest as long as you need to.”

“I told you, I’m--”

“Rest is good!” Eve interjected, thrusting the door open. “I’ll make some soup for you. Maya-san will keep you company in the meanwhile. Is that alright?”

Both Maya and Naomi awkwardly nodded their heads.

“Good! Just lie down and let Maya-san if you need anything.”

Maya wouldn’t normally like playing nurse, but it was clear that Naomi was still downplaying her injury. Supporting her with one shoulder, Maya carted her into the nice, white-linened double bed.

Now that the soot had been wiped off of her, Maya finally got a good look at Naomi’s face. She had ashy-colored gray hair and similarly desaturated eyes of a pale-gray blue, covered with eyeglasses so thick and round Maya could’ve sworn they were taken from the bottom of coke bottles. Her attire was that of a disheveled lab coat, drawing Maya’s curiosity instantly. “Are you a scientist?”

“I mean, I’m only your age,” Naomi said with a tiny, nasally laugh, like her sinuses were clogged--Maya knew that feeling well. “But I’m hoping to be an engineer someday. I guess I just like this get-up...”

“Nice! What kind of engineer?”

“Electrical or mechanical. You like tinkering with sound equipment, right?”

“Y-Yeah...” said Maya. “How’d you know? And you knew Eve-san’s name without either of us telling you.”

“Er...”

“Are you a Pastel*Palettes fan, maybe?” asked Maya. “We’ve been in tons of magazines at this point. I mean, that would explain it…”

“Y-yeah, you could say that, hehuhu,” said Naomi. 

“Your memory sure took a bad turn, huh…” said Maya, looking at her with concern. “You sure you don’t want to go to a hospital?”

“That would just… complicate things,” said Naomi, looking away towards the window.

That drew one of Maya’s eyebrows. “Are you on the run or something? Involved in shady business?”

“I--”

“That’s fine if it’s true, just don’t get Eve involved. She has enough on her plate as is,” Maya sat down on the bed and sighed. “Even now, she jumped at the chance to make soup for you…. I should’ve probably volunteered instead. As it is it’s like I’m interrogating you….”

“No need to beat yourself up--I probably come across pretty shadily,” Naomi admitted, scooting back so Maya had more room near the end of the bed to sit. “Now, I can talk about myself if that’d ease your mind.”

“O-Only if you want to,” said Maya. “I don’t want to be snoopy.”

Naomi laughed again. “Hehuhu, not at all! Other people would’ve thrown me out of the house by now. But you and äippä are so nice..”

“I heard Eve use that word earlier,” said Maya. “What does it mean?”

Naomi just stared at her for a moment with those stormy blue eyes, as if examining her soul. “Do you know about the Butterfly Effect?”

“Like in time travel stuff?” Maya asked back. “Yeah.. that’s where you can’t change like anything about the past because it might affect the future. Right?”

“Yeah,” Naomi continued. “So theoretically the smallest change--like interrupting your plans for the day--should jeopardize my existence. But I’m still here. So maybe it’s not as strong as I thought.”

“Slow down a second,” said Maya, rubbing her temples. “You talk like you’re a time traveller.”

“Well…” Naomi rubbed the back of her head bashfully. “I guess that’s one thing you can call me.” 

Maya nearly fell off the bed. She had said that jokingly, but she wasn’t expecting an actual answer along those lines. “You’re kidding.”

“You wanted to know my surname earlier, right?”

Maya still dazed, was only able to stare at Naomi as she continued.

“Well…. It’s Yamato. And äippä means ‘mom’ in Finnish. You can probably extrapolate the rest from there…”

Maya did fall off the bed this time when the realization finally struck. She wasn’t speaking to a stranger in the slightest. “Y-You’re my daughter from the future?!”

With no other course of action, Naomi nodded. “Sorry if that’s a lot to take in all at once..”

“W-Won’t telling me about you like poof you from existence though?” asked Maya.

“That’s what I was just talking about,“ said Naomi. “I guess it doesn’t work like those old stories. My two running hypotheses are that either this was predetermined to happen in my past--unlikely, given that you never told me about it--or that my presence here has created an entirely new timeline separate from the one I travelled from.”

Maya was still on the floor, clutching her head as she attempted to wrap it around what Naomi was saying. “H-Hold on, if you knew Finnish and were calling Eve mom, then--”

“Yes,” said Naomi. “In my timeline--which may very well be different from yours--you marry her about eight years from now.”

Maya would’ve shrunk back if her head wasn’t already lying against the bedpost. “No way. Me and--?”

Naomi nodded. Eve--presumably oblivious to all of this--was still away in the kitchen, unwittingly fixing up a warm meal for her future daughter.

“I don’t believe it,” said Maya.

“Told you you wouldn’t believe the truth,” Naomi replied.

“So that thing you stepped out of was--?”

“A time machine,” Naomi finished, “It was just supposed to be a prototype test run, but I guess I must’ve messed up one of the configurations…”

“Who made it?” asked Maya.

“Um…”Naomi scratched her chin awkwardly. “I did.”

“You did?”

“Hehuhu…” Naomi laughed nervously. “Beginner’s luck, I guess.”

“That’s the sort of thing you say to a first-time bowler landing a strike, not a high schooler who invented time travel!” Maya’s already dropped jaw had hit the ground and was now sinking through the floorboards.

“I-I just had help,” said Naomi. “You helped a bunch, and so did Auntie Hina... not to mention Momoka and Mirai helping me run the experiment--”

“Who?”

“That’s a long story all its own,” said Naomi. “Point is: I had help. It wasn’t a one-woman job.”

“Still… to do something like that at your age… I’m…!”

Maya stopped herself. She wasn’t sure what to say. Proud? Amazed? Incredulous? All were true to some degree--but coming to terms with this woman being her daughter would take some time.

Fortunately, the awkward silence was cut short by Eve entering with a piping-hot bowl. “I made lohikeitto --salmon soup. Have you had it before?”

“Many times,” said Naomi, Maya now understanding the hidden layer beneath her words. “It’s a bit of a comfort food, actually.”

Eve smiled. “Wonderful to know! My mother always makes it for me when I’m not feeling well.”

“Same here,” said Naomi.

“Ah! Are you half-Finnish as well, then?”

“Only a quarter, actually.”

“I see.” Eve only now noticed Maya, holding her head by the end bedpost. “Maya-san? Are you okay? Why are you on the floor? Do you need help?”

“I-I’m fine....” Maya didn’t want to occupy any more of Eve’s time. ”Just… thinking about something.”

She wondered if Naomi was going to spill to Eve too, but she was currently occupied with plaintively eating her soup.

“Do either of you need anything else?” asked Eve.

“I-I’m fine,” muttered Maya.

Naomi, mouth full, shook her head.

“Okay,” said Eve, stepping towards the door. “Then I shall clean up downstairs.”

She promptly left, leaving Maya alone with a soup-guzzling Naomi. “Is there a reason you didn’t tell her?”

“I was eating,” Naomi replied. “Besides, I know you two are different. She’s a bit more naturally... trusting.” She said it in that way where she was clearly intending to say ‘gullible’ but didn’t want to be rude.

“Doesn’t that mean she’d swallow your story more easily?”

“Maybe, but she’s more than accommodating already,” said Naomi. “No need to potentially muck up the timeline anymore.”

“Then why did you tell me?”

Naomi shrugged. “I could tell you were wary, and I wasn’t sure how far lying would get me.”

“Fair enough…” Maya rose to her feet. “So what’s your ultimate goal?”

“Like in life?”

“No, I mean--” Maya stopped as she realized she’d make that same mistake if somebody was addressing her. “Like, now that you’re in the present. Er, your past, I guess.”

“Oh, right…” Naomi sipped another spoonful of broth. “I suppose I should get back to the present. Er, future for you…”

“I get it,” said Maya. “But the thing you came in looked pretty banged up.”

“I’ll probably need some parts to fix it--hopefully stuff that’s already been invented,” said Naomi. “No idea how I’d replace a flux capacitor or a wormhole tearer in today’s time…”

“Do you actually have a flux capacitor?” asked Maya.

“We call it that as a Back to the Future reference,” Naomi explained, “but the actual technology is a lot more complicated than that. There’s quantum physics and atom desplicers and--” She cut herself off. “Sorry, that probably doesn’t mean anything to you.”

“Go on, if you want to!” said Maya, pulling out her phone’s Notes app. “It all sounds super interesting.”

“Are you sure?” asked Naomi. “I know this isn’t exactly your forte--and some of the science might’ve not been technically discovered yet--”

“Please, anybody would be interested in time travel,” said Maya. “Go on.”

Naomi explained the theory in broad terms over the next five minutes. Maya had a hard time keeping up, but surprisingly didn’t have trouble believing her--come to think of it, she hadn’t asked for any proof of anything, but just sort of naturally took her at her word. There probably would’ve been a hundred different ways to test it, but somehow she could just innately feel that Naomi spoke the truth. Maya wasn’t sentimental enough to believe in anything like a natural mother-daughter bond--maybe she was just more trusting than she thought. Or maybe the stuff Naomi was talking abou was so out there it paradoxically had to be true.

By the time Naomi reached the end of her explanation, she could tell Maya’s brain was fried. “Sorry… I had a feeling I’d lose you.”

“I-It’s okay,” Maya stammered, amazed that her social awkwardness was extending to this conversation with her own future daughter--although putting the situation back in context, perhaps awkwardness was fitting for once.

“Um… I can tell you other things about the future if you want,” said Naomi. “Stuff about you and äippä‘s relationship, for example.”

“Tell me about yourself,” said Maya, sitting back on the bed. “I mean, I’d like to get to know you, if possible. Assuming that wouldn’t mess with causality or anything.”

“I don’t think we have to worry about that at this point,” said Naomi. “Um… about me, huh.... Well, I told you I want to be an engineer…”

“I’d say you already are,” said Maya. “I mean, you’ve already done more than most people would in their entire lives.”

“Hehuhu, thanks.” Naomi blushed and slid down the sheets, her now-empty bowl drooping to the side. “Um… what else would you wanna know?”

“I dunno, hobbies, interests, that sorta thing? No pressure…” Maya shrugged.

“Oh… well, I like mecha I guess.” Naomi’s eyes started shining, just like when Eve started talking about the Sengoku Period. “Especially Gundam! I have tons of Gunpla at home… I even considered painting the time machine red, so it’d go faster.”

Maya’s blank stare communicated that the reference didn’t land. Naomi sighed. “We watch it all together as a family every weekend… I guess you’re not into it yet though, sorry.”

“I-It’s alright!” said Maya. “It sounds interesting. I’ve always wanted to give those a go.” Inwardly, she wondered if all parent-child conversations about niche interests were like this, considering she remembered the similarly befuddled expressions of her own parents when she started talking about amplifiers.

“Um… I guess I’m gay, too,” said Naomi. “No judgment from you there, right?”

“None at all--I mean, same,” said Maya. “Though I guess I feel a little awkward about seeing myself as a lesbian, still….”

“You’re still early on in transition, huh?”

Maya nodded shakily.

“Can I offer some advice, if that’s alright?” asked Naomi. “I mean, I don’t want to be intrusive…”

“Go ahead. You’ve got hindsight on your side and all.”

“R-Right.” Naomi cleared her throat. “I mean… I guess I’ll never know what it’s like for you exactly, grappling with those feelings, but… you’re so happy, in the future. So yourself.”

“Am I?”

Naomi nodded. “At first, as soon as I recognized you and äippä, I wondered if you were different people than the ones who raised me--and you are, in some ways. But I can tell that you’re Yamato Maya, down to your core. You just, er... don’t have boobs yet.”

Silence.

“Sorry, I just kinda blurted that part out--”

“Huhehe,” Maya laughed. “You’re fine, that was funny. Just processing all that.”

They sat in quiet for a moment, just looking at each other from across the bed. Maya could only imagine how surreal it must have been for Naomi to stare at her own mother some twenty-odd years in the past--for herself it was about the most surreal moment she’d ever experienced. Slowly she absorbed Naomi’s words, like a sponge. “I’m myself, huh…”

Naomi nodded, “You always said around this time that you were filled with doubt--about how you saw yourself, about how others saw you, about how äippä saw you. That you wished you could convince yourself they all saw the woman you dreamed of. So I guess I’m here to tell you that they did, all along. It just took you a long time to realize.”

Now for the first time, Maya felt in total disbelief. She could swallow the time travel stuff easily enough, but others seeing her as a woman? That just sounded like flattery to her right now.

“Do you not believe me?” asked Naomi. “I’ll say it again if I need to.”

“N-No, you’re fine,” said Maya, laughing as she thought about how Eve would say the exact same thing. “Thank you… Naomi.”

Naomi smiled. “See? Even like that you still say my name as warmly as you ever did. It almost makes me nostalgic.”

“Huhehe, that’s nice of you to say,” said Maya. Instantly her mind was flooded with questions--were she and Eve good mothers? Was Pastel*Palettes still around in the future? Did Naomi have any other reassurances to give her? But before Maya could say any of them…

“Maya-san!” cried Eve, suddenly bursting back into the room. “I need you for a moment!”

“Huh?” Maya was suddenly yanked to her feet by the wrist. “Wh-What is it?”

Naomi watched her go with a little wave and a smile.

Eve didn’t answer until they were out in the family room, a good few meters from the guest room door. “I was using a secret ninja technique to hide my presence--”

“You were eavesdropping?” asked Maya. “Eve-san, that’s not very bushido.”

“My apologies; I was weak.” said Eve, bowing. “However, the conversation between you and Naomi-san seemed very intelligent.”

“Intelligent?”

“Ahh, that is not the right word!” said Eve, cradling her head and nearly slamming it against the wall. “It sounds similar, but I cannot remember it.”

“Do you mean… intimate?”

Eve nodded. “That is the one! Was there something going on between you two?”

Well, in one sense there was… though probably not the sense that Eve was insinuating. She’d missed the first part of the conversation, and with it, the bombshell that put it all into context. Maya instinctively shrunk back. “Oh, nonono! The two of us aren’t like that at all!

“Truly?” asked Eve. “You sounded quite interested in her…”

“I am! Platonically! She’s, er…” Maya had no idea how to even start explaining this to Eve. You don’t just tell somebody that the stranger in their guest room is actually their daughter from the future, whom you mother together. Hell, now that she repeated it back to herself Maya wasn’t sure how much of it she believed, either. “Um… it’s complicated.”

“How so?”

“If I tell you, you’d probably flip out.”

“Maya-san, please.”

“Well…” Maya squirmed around for the right words. “So she may or may not be our daughter from the future who ended up in our time by accident…” As soon as the words left her mouth she felt crazy for saying them. Eve’s immediate shock didn’t help.

“She’s…?” Eve mouthed, breathless. “Do you speak the truth?”

“Well, she hasn’t given me any reason to doubt her yet…”

“Was she going to tell me?”

“I-I think she didn’t want to worry you.”

“I was already worried about her!” Eve exclaimed. “Holding something just so others won’t worry… that sounds like you, Maya-san.”

“Huhehe… maybe I projected a bit…” Maya admitted.

“I need to hug her!” Eve ran towards the guest room at once. Maya, seeing no other course, followed.

She was only a second or two behind, but by the time she reentered the room, Eve had already tackled Naomi with a big, awkward, clumsy bear hug. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Naomi shot an inquisitive look in Maya’s direction, who shrugged as if to say I couldn’t keep it hidden long, sorry.

“You could have told me!” said Eve, squeezing harder.

“S-Sorry I was just nervous.. You’ve got potential time paradoxes on one hand and an awkward situation for you all on the other… gah!” Naomi cried out as Eve tightened her grip.

“I’m not sure what you said exactly, but things will never be awkward for you here, kulta.” Eve rubbed her on the back. “We’ll get you a warm meal and a bed for as long as you need to. You’re not alone, okay?”

“Tha-That’s nice of you to say,” said Naomi, reciprocating the hug. “You’re as sweet as ever, äippä…”

Eve said something stern in Finnish that Maya couldn’t understand. Naomi replied without missing a beat. They both wore tense expressions for a moment before bursting into tears and hugging each other tighter. Maya thought about asking what they said specifically, but the waterworks were loosened just watching them, and within moments, she’d joined them in their tight wad of hugging and crying.

“S-Sorry,” Naomi hiccuped through her sobs. “I didn’t want to burden either of you--”

“This is not a burden,” said Eve, now squeezing both of them tightly. “This is among the happiest I’ve ever felt. To think, I’d have a family here--one I can call my own...”

Maya wiped her face dry. “We’re here for you, Naomi. Whatever you need, we’ll help you out.”

“I haven’t even proved any of what I’ve said to you yet,” said Naomi, sniffling away the last of her tears. “How do you know I’m not making any of it up?”

“Hush,” Eve commanded, hugging her yet tighter. “I can tell by looking into your eyes--they’re clear, blameless, just like Maya-san’s.”

Maya wasn’t sure if that was true or if you could assess one’s character in that way, but she did trust Naomi. She didn’t think to place that on some latent maternal instinct, or something as simple as basic human empathy--she wasn’t sure she could pin down the source if she tried. But having heard everything from Naomi, she felt a certain responsibility well up inside of her: she had to at least see her daughter home safely, no matter what. Perhaps Eve felt the same--or maybe even more, considering her face was buried in Naomi’s collarbone.

“Forgive me!” she sobbed, raising her head just high enough to be audible. “I seem to be overwhelmed by emotion--I know that is not bushido--”

“You’re fine, äippä,” said Naomi, patting her on the back. “Let out as much as you need to. I know how much this probably means, which is why I was a little afraid of telling you…”

Eve pulled out a bright lavender handkerchief lovingly embroidered with the kanji for ‘samurai’ before blowing her nose into it. “I--I am just so happy!”

“Don’t cry, äippä… or do, just as much as you need to…” Naomi heaved a sigh. “Sorry, I’m not good at this...”

Watching Naomi console Eve with such understanding, a passing onlooker might imagine they were cousins or even sisters before mother and daughter. But that was just how strange Maya’s reality was at this point, wasn’t it? It seemed surreal that someone like her could join an idol group or be widely respected. This was only a step or two beyond that in ludicrousness, she felt. Maybe that was why she was able to take the situation a little more calmly than Eve was. Even if she was still freaking out on the inside. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever stop, honestly. But she figured that was at least warranted, given the situation. Though she was surprised by just how hard Eve was taking this. Maybe she’d always dreamed of having a child? Maya didn’t know her well enough to ask, considering that was a private question and the two weren’t even dating yet but they were supposed to get married. Good God. Her bandmate she’d just been crushing on was apparently her future wife. That was just an awkward conversation waiting to happen.

Eve appeared to finally compose herself, using her hankie to wipe her face as she stood up. “Is there anything else we can do for you, kulta?”

“Well, I should probably look at the time machine again,” said Naomi. “I need to figure out why it malfunctioned in the first place.”

“It’s only been a couple hours, you know,” said Eve. “There’s no rush.”

“I know… I guess I’m just a little antsy about time paradoxes, hehuhu…”

“M-Maybe taking her to check things out might put her at ease,” suggested Maya. “Just figure out a timeline for repairs and stuff.”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Naomi. “I don’t wanna end up here for half a year if I can help it.... N-not that I don’t want to see you both, it’s just--”

“You have your own time to be in, I understand,” said Maya. “Do you agree to at least check it out, Eve-san?”

“I...” Eve couldn’t hide the clear hint of reluctance in her voice. “Yes, I understand, Let’s help you back to the machine, kulta…”

The way she said kulta was now low and lonely, as opposed to the sheer vibrancy she exuded only minutes prior. Discerning her disappointment, Naomi rose up from the bed on her own. “Um… thank you for the lohikeitto. It was delicious.”

That simple platitude did little to dissipate the dark cloud hanging over Eve’s head. She sauntered towards the door quietly, lacking all of the vigor and enthusiasm she’d run in with. Maya ran up to her immediately. “Are you alright, Eve-san?”

“I will be fine,” she replied. “If she needs to go back to her time… then I understand.”

“But you sound so disappointed.”

“Is a mother having reservations about her daughter’s actions not common?” 

Maya didn’t have a reply for that one.

“I do not mean to appear so glum… my apologies,” said Eve. “We should return and apologize to her as well.”

Naomi was in the doorframe by the time they returned, wearing a bittersweet expression as Eve and Maya approached. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disappoint you both…”

“I’m not disappointed in you, kulta,” said Eve. “I would never be disappointed in you, after all you’ve done. I’m simply sad that our time together must be so short.”

Maya wasn’t sure whether Eve should’ve said that last part, but it was just like her to wear her heart on her sleeve, so Maya wasn’t sure if she should’ve stopped her. Naomi, at least, didn’t seem too guilt-ridden over it. “Well, right now I’m just going to check things out. I mean I have to assess the damage, but I’ll probably have to stay in this time a while. D-Don’t worry, I’ll find a hotel or somewhere else to stay--”

“Hölynpöly!” said Eve, which Maya would later learn meant ‘nonsense’ or ‘poppycock’. “You can stay here as long as you need to.”

“M-My place, too,” said Maya. She wasn’t sure how she’d explain this to her parents, but she was sure she could come up with some sob story about a classmate going through tough times who needed a bed for a little bit.

“You two…” Naomi sighed, taking off her glasses to wipe her face with one noodly hand. “I’m going to get emotional again.”

“If you need to, let it all out! We can go when you’re ready,” said Eve.

For a split-second, Maya thought Naomi really was going to let it out again right there in the doorway. Instead she appeared to compose herself and put her glasses on, head held high. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

Eve and Maya immediately shot each other a concerned look. Neither was the sort to bury her feelings well, but they’d each silently hoped that Naomi would have the strength to be emotionally honest in front of them--or maybe that was hard for any teenager to do before their parents. Either way, it wasn’t worth chastising her for it. “Do you need anything else before we head back?” asked Maya. “Tools? A snack?”

“I’m okay, thanks,” said Naomi, stepping past them and towards the stairs to the front door as naturally as if it was her own home--which, all things considered, was likely the case. Maya and Eve followed, each carrying their own kind of trepidation in Naomi’s wake.

The day was still sunny and peaceful--they’d only been indoors for maybe an hour, so there was little to break up the blue sky and brisk breeze. Maya and Eve kept an awkward distance behind Naomi as they made their way to the park, keeping silent the entire way. Even in such a frigid atmosphere, the thought of Maya holding Eve’s hand entered her brainspace--she quickly dispelled the gay, intrusive thought, but tried to not feel as ashamed about it for once.

You’re Yamato Maya, down to your core.

Maya unconsciously touched herself right in the solar plexus. What was her core? Who was she, really? The person that Naomi knew as her mother… was that really the same Yamato Maya? She imagined posing those questions to her friends. Kaoru would just laugh and tell her that all versions of her were her. Aya… probably would get confused. Hina would find the questions super interesting and want to know the answers too. Chisato would probably laugh it off and tell Maya to focus more on her work. Misaki might have some insight, given her work as Michelle. And Eve… well, Maya could ask Eve right now, couldn’t she? Before she could stomach getting her anxieties out there…

“We’re here,” said Naomi, stepping over the crater’s edge and down on the slope towards the time machine.”You two wait a minute, I can check it out by myself…”

“Are you sure that’s safe?” called Maya. “Nothing will explode or--?”

“I’ll be fine,” Naomi assured her. “No offense, but I don’t think you’d understand how anything works..”

That didn’t mean Maya wasn’t curious. Oh well--if she reverse-engineered anything she saw she might accidentally create a time paradox. And, needless to say, that was the last thing she wanted to happen. So for the moment, she could enjoy this quiet moment with Eve, watching from afar as their future daughter examined the damage to her time machine--

--Oh god, She was having a quiet moment with Eve, watching from afar as their future daughter examined the damage to her time machine. Maya could hardly imagine a more awkward situation if she tried. This wasn’t even their first date and already things were getting complicated. She remembered the loving but icily direct command Chisato had given her only a few days prior: “Idols don’t date. If you want to be an idol, you better stay single.” If only that was the least of Maya’s concerns right now…

“She looks to be working hard,” said Eve offhand, snapping Maya out of her thoughts.

“Y-Yeah,” said Maya, looking at the vague white-gray tangle of limbs work down below. “Amazing that she’s this smart.”

“It must be your side that made her so,” said Eve.

“Huhehe… I don’t know if that sort of thing is genetic so much as taught…” That was a bad time for Maya to remember that her own parents were also giant nerds. “But I’m proud of her no matter what.”

“Yes!” said Eve, “I only wish our time together could last longer…” There was a sad downturn in her voice as she said it.

“S-Sorry,” said Maya. “I didn’t realize having a daughter would impact you this much.”

“It is not having a daughter specifically,” said Eve. “It is having another family member.”

“Another family member, huh…”

“Maya-san, did I tell you of the first few years I moved here?”

Maya had never heard Eve broach the subject before. “No, you didn’t…”

“They were very lonely. My family and I moved here from Finland, and my mother and I didn’t speak a word of Japanese. She still doesn’t. I had to teach myself most of the language.”

“Eve-san…”

“Even though I had a great interest in Japanese culture and making friends, the language barrier made it hard to do either of those things. So to finally meet somebody else who spoke my native tongue… who knew something of my home…”

Maya hadn’t realized how culturally isolated Eve had felt beforehand. Now the arrival and soon-to-be departure of Naomi took on a whole new light.

And she reminds me so much of you!” said Eve, grabbing onto Maya’s hands from the front. “She has your same wonderful laugh, and your brilliant brain, and I could feel the same strong passion from her while she was speaking!”

Maya was fairly certain the blush on her face could be seen from Mars. “I-I’m nothing special, really…”

“But you are! You’re one of the most wonderful girls I’ve ever met!”

Being referred to as a girl so casually sent prickles across Maya’s entire body. “Do you… really think of me as a girl?”

“Yes!” said Eve. “To be honest, I think I always sensed something like that about you--at first I merely thought it was my ninja senses being tuned strangely, but as soon as you told me it started to make a lot of sense! I hope it is not wrong to say, but you have always felt that way to me.”

Perhaps another person, at a different time in their self-view, might’ve taken some offense to a statement like that. But right now, Maya felt only overwhelming gratitude. “Eve-san… thank you.”

Without a word, Eve reached in for a hug. ”Of course. I am so glad to know you.”

“Um....” Perhaps it was a bad time, but Maya needed to get the question off her chest. “Do you feel weird about knowing we’re supposedly going to get married someday?”

“Weird? No. Only delighted! I’ll start a family! I’ll get to be Eve Yamato! Unless you feel strange about it.”

“I dunno,” said Maya, unable to maintain eye contact. “Fate is always a weird thing to consider, even when it tells you something good or neutral--”

“Well, then we don’t have to worry about it,” said Eve, pulling back her chest and thumping it. “A samurai always forges his own destiny! We’ll take our own just one day at a time!”

Instantly Maya could tell Eve was right. It was better to take their relationship as it came--for good and for ill--than to try and plan for some sort of determinate future. Maya may have been more about the details and the little worries, but she was honestly years off from having to worry about even the possibility of parenthood. There were much more pressing things to worry about right now. “You’re right, Eve-san. Thanks.”

Eve smiled before looking down towards the machine. “ Kulta! Is everything okay?”

“Yup!” said Naomi, already back to being covered with soot. With her lab coat and frazzled hair, she looked exactly like a stereotypical mad scientist as she wrenched disparate parts of the machine together--even if her grease-covered slouch as she crawled out was more like that of an auto mechanic. “Ok, I have goodish bad news and straight-up bad news. What do you wanna hear first?”

Maya’s pessimistic side generally made her more of a bad news-first person, but Eve jumped in before she had a chance to speak. “Goodish news!”

“Well… some key components are busted, so I’ll be here looking around for at least a month or two trying to fix ‘em--gwah!”

She was startled by the sudden embrace of Eve, who squeezed so tightly that Maya swore she heard some bones pop. “Is that true? Oh, I know that is sad for you, but at least there is time to learn about each other!”

Maya wasn’t ready to celebrate just yet. “What’s the straight-up bad news?”

Through the bear hug, Naomi still managed to bashfully rub her head, “Sooooooo, there may’ve been a mistake during the experiment that accidentally created a singularity that dragged a bunch of other people to the past…”

Maya blinked. “Huh?”

Naomi laughed nervously. “Hehuhu, Can’t invent time travel without breaking a few eggs, right? Or in this case, trapping several of your peers in the past with you...”

“Who?” asked Maya, starting to sweat.

“Let’s see..” Naomi started counting off on her free hand. “Momoka and Mirai were there. I’m pretty sure they brought their crushes to watch too… actually, Harumi-chan was throwing a barbecue to celebrate the test, so a bunch of our friends were hanging out... plus there were probably a few people on the surrounding streets… I wanna say somewhere between 15-20 people?”

Eve finally pulled back, wide-eyed. “Goodness, that’s quite a few! We must remember to apologize, kulti…

“I’m already drafting a speech internally,” said Naomi. “I’m not sure where they went, though--my cell service doesn’t seem to work in this time period, and I doubt any of our social media accounts exist yet.”

“Maybe they went to find their own parents?” Eve suggested.

“Well, I guess that’s a possibility… though I can think of at least a few that wouldn’t want to… or maybe they would, just to deliver a real tongue-lashing…”

Maya gulped. “Guess we should let people know. If they’ll even believe us…”

“That’ll take a bit to figure out how to tell them, hehuhu,” said Naomi.

...Wow. She really did laugh similarly to Maya…

“I can’t wait to tell Aya-san and everybody about you!” Eve gasped and covered her mouth. ”Unless that is supposed to be a ninja secret!”

“At this point, I think nothing’s really off the table,” Naomi admitted. “I mean, I haven’t faded from existence or exploded into dust or anything, so I think our timeline is secure. Maybe I should establish a more concrete time travel theory while I’m working on fixing the machine…”

Maya opened her mouth to offer to help before realizing that she’d know jack diddly about either the theory or the practice. “Er, if we can help in any way just let us know--”

“Giving me a place to stay and some company is more than enough,” said Naomi, giggling. “Thanks though.”

Eve reached down to grab Naomi’s hand. “I need to tell my own mother about this! We’ll have a feast tonight!”

“Oh boy… telling mummo about this is gonna take some work… hehuhu…” 

Maya reached over and grabbed Naomi’s other hand. “Well, we’ll take that one step at a time.” 

Right as she took one physical step forward, Maya took another deep breath. In. Out. In again.

That was right. They’d figure it out as they went.

Chapter Text

Deep frier sizzling, patties grilling, the omnipresent stench of grease and salt… yup, it was another day at the WcRonald’s. Which meant another day of Himari ignoring her fry cook duties to longingly stare at Tomoe’s muscles. She looks even more toned underneath the heat lamps, Himari sighed. If only she were a boy… then we’d have a perfect fairy-tale romance.

Tomoe, for her part, was actually focused on handing drive-thru customers their order instead of unintentionally sabotaging her minimum wage job like a certain puffy-cheeked, pink-haired admirer. Before Himari could get too swept up in her fantasies of (a male) Tomoe whisking her off into the sunset, however, their manager came by to tap her on the shoulder--and for once, it wasn’t to chide her for negligence. “Uehara, somebody’s here to see you. A family member?”

Himari blinked, taking a second to process the statement. A family member? Why would her mom or dad visit her at work? Maybe it was her older sister here to tease her… or maybe it was Moca pulling another one of her elaborate pranks. When Himari poked her head out towards the register, though, she didn’t recognize the woman on the other side of the counter.

She certainly looked like Himari. She had reddish-pink hair tied up in buns that hung round right above big hoop earrings. She had her arms crossed just below a big anarchist “A” on a letterman jacket, which--in conjunction with the giant pink bubble of gum she was currently blowing--showcased that she didn’t have time for this business, or anyone’s business. But as soon as she saw Himari her eyes flickered in recognition. “There you are.”

Himari stared dumbfoundedly at her for a moment, trying to recall if she’d seen this woman before. “Do I…? Know you?”

“I guess you wouldn’t,” the girl sighed. “My name’s Harumi.”

“Nice to meet you, Haru-chan,” said Himari. “How do you know me, though?”

“If I told you, there’s a 50% chance you wouldn’t believe me and a 50% chance you’d glomp me in public over the counter. I don’t like either of those, so just consider me a… fan for the moment.”

“A fan?” Himari parroted. “Oh! Like of Afterglow? Or my social media account?”

Harumi didn’t answer. “Just a quick question and I’ll get out of your hair. Are you dating Udagawa Tomoe right now?

“Whaaaaat?” Himari eked in disbelief. “No way. Tomoe and I are girls. Girls don’t kiss… right?”

“Oh my god, the comphet is worse than I thought.” Harumi facepalmed for a moment. “Look, I don’t wanna be pushy, but maybe you should think about it? My entire existence depends on it.”

“Hey now, no need to hyperbolize,” Himari retorted. “RPF isn’t good for you.” Himari had to learn that the hard way, after spying on one too many of Kaoru’s private dates with Chisato and nearly having her fingernails pulled off by her fellow bassist once caught snooping.

“It’s not--” Harumi started, before cutting herself off. “Look, you like Tomoe, don’t you?”

“Of course!”

“Maybe even love her?”

“Yeah! She’s my dear childhood friend for a reason! But it’s totally platonic.”

“Really? You’ve never dreamed about kissing her on the lips or being carried off into the sunset in her big, handsome arms?”

Himari gulped. “H-How’d you know about that?”

“Believe me, at some point you’ll never shut up about it.” The implications of Harumi’s statement flew right over Himari’s head. “Look, I’ll help you out. Be your wingwoman. Just invite her on a date somewhere and we can work it out from there.”

“A d-d-date?! Like a couple?” Himari spat out. “No way! Girls--especially those who’ve been friends for as long as we have--just go places together!”

“Okay, at this point, that’ll work too.” Harumi grinded her teeth together.  “Just… get the ball rolling.”

“What are you, my Fairy Godmother?”

“If that’ll convince you to follow my advice… sure. Let’s go with that.”

Himari was starting to feel a little indignant about this total stranger coming out of nowhere to tell her to start dating her bestie. But she hadn’t really said any lies in the end, so Himari couldn’t rebuke her. It was like arguing with Moca, only without the flippancy and barriers and shit-eating grin. So it wasn’t really like arguing with Moca at all. But Himari felt unable to put up much resistance either way. With a great big heave, she pivoted towards the drive-thru window and stomped in that direction. “Tomoe!”

“What is it?” she replied, in-between handing customers their Big Wacs.

“Do you… wanna go somewhere this weekend?”

“Sure. Where? When?”

Himari had no idea, and now Harumi was out of sight. She blurted the first place that came to mind. “The petting zoo! 11am on Sunday.”

“Okay,” said Tomoe with a nod. “Sounds good to me. We inviting the rest of the gang too, or…?”

“C-Can it just be the two of us?” asked Himari.

“Sure!” Tomoe, replied, as easygoing as ever. “You wanna see the goats or something?

“Yeah…” At that moment, Himari’s single brain cell combined Tomoe’s comment with her own idle daydreams of Tomoe dressing up in various animal pelts to imagine Tomoe as a big-horned goat, which only made her space out further. “It’ll be fun.”

Having achieved victory, she sprinted back to the front to tell Harumi of her accomplishment. “Done! We’re going somewhere this weekend!”

“Where?”

“The petting zoo! 11am on Sunday.”

Harumi’s face scrunched up as she pinched her nose. “The petting zoo? That’s not exactly the height of romance, is it?”

“Who said anything about romance?” Himari pouted. “We’re just going as gal pals, that’s all!”

“Right… ‘gal pals’...” a tiny snicker escaped Harumi’s lips. “Anyway I’ll help you coordinate things. Mind if we exchange LINE accounts?”

“Sure,” said Himari. She probably should’ve been wary about sharing that with someone she’d met about fifteen minutes ago, but she was too giddy about going out with Tomoe to think straight. “Here’s my code…” She slid her phone across the countertop. Moments later Harumi had entered her contact info and slid Himari’s phone back, showing they were now friends.

“You still have the default profile icon?” Himari asked off-hand.

“Sorry, I made this account like five minutes ago,” said Harumi, chewing through her gum. “Believe me, I know my way around social media.” As if to illustrate her point, her fingers rapid-fire tapped over to Twitter, where she sent out a message just out of Himari’s sight.

@Harumi092328 - Might sound crazy, but wingmanning your own mom in the past is about as surreal as it gets

@OkusawaMisaki - It can probably get weirder, no offense

@Harumi092328 - How did you find this account

@OkusawaMisaki - I exist only to vocalize my own suffering honestly

@Harumi092328 - Mood. Wanna grab coffee together sometime?

@OkusawaMisaki - I don’t know who you are

Harumi exhaled as she dimmed her phone screen, not wanting to explain how she ended up in this mess to anyone. One second she was grilling up hot dogs in Naomi’s backyard, next she ended up like over twenty years in the past. She may’ve had no idea where to find Naomi or how to get back, but she had seen enough time travel movies to know that if she wanted to keep on existing, she needed her parents to hook up. Although the act of doing so would probably leave her with secondhand embarrassment so bad she’d get a third-degree burn. The things she did to guarantee her own existence… “Alright. I’ll hit you up the day of. Get there like an hour early so we can plan, ‘kay?”

“A-Alright.” Himari wasn’t used to following else’s commands, but Harumi was a little too brusque to argue with. “See you then.”

“Uehara! Are you lollygagging with your cousin?” called the manager. “You’re holding up the line, and those potatoes aren’t going to fry themselves!”

“Coming!” Himari called back, sparing a wave and wink to Harumi before she ran. “Thanks, Haru-chan!”

“No problem,” said Harumi coolly, eyes already glued back to her phone. “Good luck with work.”

Himari wasn’t quite able to shoot off a ‘thank you’ before returning to the deep-frier.

 

Sunday came before they knew it. Himari waddled up to the front gate of the petting zoo in a big red overcoat and a matching plaid muffler, where Harumi was waiting in a deep purple cardigan and black trousers. “You look great!” Himari blurted out as she approached.

“Thanks,” said Harumi. “Fashion is one of the few things Mom taught me really well.”

Himari laughed off the comment, unaware of who it was really directed at. “Well, guess we should start looking…”

“I’ve been to this petting zoo a buncha times,” said Harumi, popping another bubble--Himari wondered if she ever stopped chewing. “I have a dozen little siblings and they all love it.”

“A dozen?!” Himari asked in disbelief. “What kind of parent has that many kids?”

“You tell me.”

Before Himari could piece apart that retort, Harumi had stepped past her towards the first enclosure--the pot-bellied pig pen. “Ok, er, from what I can tell , Tomoe is the sort of person who really likes being cool and reliable, so I’d say your best bet is to put yourself ‘in danger’ so she’ll rescue you. That’s your fantasy too, right?”

Himari gasped. “Are you psychic? Maybe you really are my Fairy Godmother…”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night.” Harumi leaned back against the low wooden railing, hands stuffed inside her pockets. “Now, who at a petting zoo is dangerous enough to potentially bite your hand off…”

“Isn’t the whole point of petting zoos that the animals won’t do that?”

Harumi ignored her, sizing up the variety of fuzzy creatures in her periphery. “Always thought the alpacas were kinda bloodthirsty… although pushing you into the porcupine pen is probably a surer bet.”

Himari swallowed. “I’m not going to end up in actual danger, right…?”

“Don’t worry. As soon as you get even close to trouble Mo-- er, Tomoe’s dog brain will only think about saving you.”

“You think…?” 

The two of them scouted out the park, eventually agreeing that the alpacas made the best candidates because they looked fluffy but it was easy to fake the scenario of getting bitten by one (while the actual chances of one biting her were exceedingly low). At 10:55, Harumi ducked out of the park while Himari waited at the designated spot to meet Tomoe, who was always the sort of person to show up exactly on the dot.

Sure enough, right at 11am, Tomoe’s bright red mane came into view as she bobbed up to Himari. “Yo.”

Himari felt her heart thump at just the greeting. “H-Hi.”

“Nice day.” Despite it being late autumn, Tomoe was decked out in a tropical shirt (sunglasses hung over the neck) and bermuda shorts, in an outfit that just screamed ‘Tomoe’. “Where do you wanna head first?”

Himari was about to blurt out ‘the alpacas’ before realizing that whenever she staged that little event their date--er, outing would probably end. “What do you want to see?”

“Do they have any wolves?” asked Tomoe. “I’d love to pet one… or even wrestle it.”

“I don’t think you can domesticate those.” Right as she said it, Himari’s one-track brain imagined Tomoe as a wolf--one of those hot lesbian werewolves, to be exact--sending her so deeply into a sapphic stupor that Tomoe had to wave her hand in front of Himari’s face.

“Hey? Earth to Himari?”

“Wha--?” Himari shook off her doggy daydreams. “Um… I guess we can go see the ponies? They’re Kaoru-senpai’s favorite.”

Tomoe nodded and chuckled. “Sounds like a plan! Do we have to sign up to ride ‘em, or…?”

“You don’t ride the ponies at a petting zoo, Tomoe!” Himari accented every syllable of her name with a literal slap on the wrist.

“Ow! You don’t have to hit me!” Tomoe retracted her hand. “Let’s just… check ‘em out and pet ‘em, I guess.”

She sounded almost disappointed. Without further comment, Himari followed her to the pony enclosure, where a couple of very fuzzy shetlands clomped around.

“I wonder what they taste like..” said Tomoe casually.

“To! Mo! E!” Himari pouted. “We are NOT going to eat the cute ponies!”

“I didn’t say we should.”

“But you implied it!”

The two continued to bicker as they wandered around the petting zoo, not really taking the time to actually pet the animals but enjoying them regardless. Eventually, whether by sheer coincidence or subconscious influence, they ended up by the alpacas. Tomoe had thus far spared these quasi-llamas any talk of how good they’d taste. Himari reached up to pet one right on the head.

“You know, these kinda remind me of you,” said Tomoe. “All big and fluffy and sweet…”

“Big?” Himari repeated mournfully. “Is that what you really think of me?”

“Huh? Is that bad?”

Perhaps on some deeper level, Himari realized there wasn’t anything wrong with her body size. But right now it still stung, and Tomoe at least had the awareness to tell.

“S-Sorry.. That was pretty rude of me.”

“N-No, you didn’t mean anything bad…” The awkwardness was beginning to make Himari feel worse than the comment. Fortunately, she knew just the way to clear the air--pretend that the completely docile alpaca she was petting was now attacking her. ”Oof, ow! What the--?”

Her performance wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy, but it was enough to draw Tomoe’s concern. “What’s wrong?”

She reached over to help, but right as she did, the previously harmless alpaca decided--for whatever reason-- to take a big chomp out of Tomoe’s hand for real. Her response was instinctive and immediate.

She decked the alpaca in the face.

In the face of the mighty himbo punch, the creature crumpled immediately, but Tomoe’s newfound thirst for vengeance wasn’t so easily satiated. She immediately hopped over the fence, grabbed the creature by the abdomen, and suplexed it into dirt. Upon only catching a glimpse of the move, the park handlers drew their whistle.

“Hostile! Sic her!”

Himari could only watch as a dozen employees tackled Tomoe off of the alpaca. Even with such a number advantage, they had a hard time pinning down her sapphic strength, one of her arms reaching up from the pile towards Himari, who remained frozen in shock the entire time.


 “So how’d it go? said Harumi a half-hour later. They’d met in a little park right behind the zoo proper.

“Tomoe got arrested,” Himari sighed. “Again.”

“Again?” Harumi parroted. “When was the first time?”

“This just sort of happens,” said Himari, kicking the dirt. “Especially with her punk attitude… this is maybe the tenth time.”

“Tenth?!” asked Harumi incredulously. “I had no idea… I thought you lived normal boring lives, not cool shit.”

“Well, we keep all that off our social media...” Himari explained. “We’ve argued about whether it’d bolster our punk image, but ultimately we agreed that we didn’t want the feds on our tail by any means, so we keep it hush-hush.”

“Damn. That’s actually punk.”

“Ehehe~!” Himari twiddled her hands around her back and struck a girly pose. “Thank you!”

“...Might have to retract that.” Harumi deflated for a second. “When’s she getting out of jail?”

“Usually Moca gets bail in the first couple days. Don’t know how she does it...”

“Some things are better left unasked and unexplained,” said Harumi, who Himari realized she still knew very little about. “Okay, so first date was a bust. How about I tell you where you try for the second?”

“Wh-Where did you have in mind?” asked Himari.

“I was thinking the aquarium. There’s nowhere more sapphic than the aquarium.”

“Sapph--? Hey! You’re making assumptions again!”

Harumi dragged a hand across her face. “Ok, let’s try a little experiment. How many times today have you thought of kissing Tomoe, Kaoru Seta, or any other girl?”

“Like… maybe a dozen?”

“Alright. And how often have you thought about kissing a guy?”

“Well, I’ve thought about kissing those two as guys a lot…”

“Nuh-uh. Doesn’t count. I’m talking about real, actual capital-G Guys.”

“Uhh, in that case I guess it’s zero,” Himari admitted. “I just haven’t found Mr. Right yet. I’m still straight I swear, I just haven’t found a guy nearly as good as the women I know.”

“Riiiight,” said Harumi flatly, sounding very convinced. “Well, here’s a thought--you could try dating Tomoe and if it doesn’t work out then you can try for a guy.”

“No way!” Himari protested. “That’d totally change our relationship, and we swore that we’d stay--”

“--’The Same As Always,’ right?” Harumi finished for her. “If there’s any phrase that’s been driven into my skull since the day I was born…”

Himari gasped. “How do you know about that? That’s our thing!”

“A woman has her ways.” That was all Harumi said on the matter. “Look, I understand you want to preserve your perfect platonic childhood friendship forever, but face it. At some point the relationship between you two is gonna change, whether you like it or not. Do you want it on your terms, or the universe’s?”

“I--!” Himari clenched her fists. “We already said we’re gonna change by staying the same! We promised!”

“Okay, analyze that for a hot sec. What the fuck does that even mean?”

“It--It’s not about making sense! It’s about emotion! You had to be there! And how do you know so much about our history, anyway?”

“What, do you not expect your Fairy Godmother to know something like that?” Harumi retorted.

“I expect her to be helpful, at least!”

“I’m trying to help! You’re just being stubborn!”

That word brought back hard memories for Himari. Memories of her parents calling her obstinate and not listening, and Afterglow lightly teasing her for the same thing. Immediately she pivoted around to hide the tightness in her face. “Maybe I am stubborn. Maybe that’s the only way I can get anything I want.”

She could tell by the awkward shuffling of feet behind her that Harumi regretted everything. “Sorry, I can be a little bossy. I was just giving tips--”

“Well, it felt like you were telling me what to do,” said Himari. “What are you, my mom?”

That one stopped Harumi in her tracks. “Look, I’m really sorry. You don’t have to do anything I say. I didn’t mean to be nosy about something this personal.”

Himari wrung her hands together. Even if Harumi’s attitude had been a little pushy, she did have good ideas. “I-I think the aquarium sounds like a nice place to visit with Tomoe. It’s just--not a date, okay?”

“Okay,” said Harumi, without a hint of her usual disbelief. “Just want you two to have a good time.”

Himari finally turned back around to face her. “Thank you, Haru-chan. Sorry for snapping earlier.”

“You don’t have anything to apologize for,” said Harumi. “I’m stubborn too, honestly.”

Himari smiled. “I’m still not sure why you’re so focused on this, but… thank you. I could use a little push when it comes to telling Tomoe how much I care about her.”

“Are you talking about a confession?”

“Only the friendly kind! No homo!”


Coordinating a trip to the aquarium the following weekend was pretty easy. Tomoe called Himari the second she got out of the clink, and the two agreed to meet there in the early afternoon. Himari worried that having two private weekend excursions in a row might make the rest of Afterglow feel excluded, so she made her to spend the week hanging out with them, even offering to introduce them to Harumi, who declined, saying it’d “just complicate things more than they need to be.” Himari wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that.

Regardless, the two of them arrived at the aquarium around noon on Sunday, once again planning to scope out the place and make a plan. It turned out to be more simple this time--both agreed that the whole ‘Himari in danger’ schtick turned out poorly the last time, and would also be harder to pull off here short of jumping in the electric eel tank, so instead of concocting any schemes they decided to have Himari just wing it and have a nice time with Tomoe, maybe hold her hand if she felt particularly bold. Platonically, of course.

“We still have a lot of time before Tomoe shows up,” said Himari, right as they circled back to the main lobby filled with the big deep sea tank. “You wanna see anything? You already paid for your ticket, after all.”

“I’ve been here lots, actually,” said Harumi, somehow sneaking a lollipop past the front--Himari wondered if she ever stopped chewing on something. “My parents took me ‘n’ my siblings here like every month for five years straight. Loved it at first, but I found it kinda boring once I grew up a bit.”

“Aww…” said Himari, her mind reeling again at the size of Harumi’s family. “I’m sure your brothers and sisters loved it, though!”

“Yeah…” A wistful look passed over Harumi’s eyes. “Kenzan, Lala, Jojo, Sakurako, Micchi, Haku, Hiro, Marie, Shiro, Jun, Rio, and little Kiyori…”

“Those are nice names!”

“You better remember ‘em someday.”

Another cryptic comment that Himari decided to brush off. “Are you the oldest?”

“Yup,” said Harumi with a nod. “My parents are really sweet, but they can have their heads in the clouds sometimes, so I’m used to taking care of things around the house--cooking, cleaning, laundry… all that jazz.”

“Wow! But that’s not your responsibility, you know!” Himari barked. “Chores are fine, but it’s not your responsibility to do everything! Your parents should take charge of that!”

Harumi stared at her for a moment before breaking out in giggles.

“What? Did I say something funny?”

“Nah, it’s just--irony, I guess? But you’re right. Next time I see ‘em I’ll give ‘em a real piece of my mind.”

“Next time--?” A miniscule piece of the puzzle clicked together in Himari’s mind. “Have you not seen them for a while?”

“Er… I’m actually staying in a hostel right now,” said Harumi reluctantly. “Wasn’t kicked out or anything, it’s just… hard to go home.”

“Oh my gosh… did you have a fight?”

“...Sure. Let’s go with that.”

Himari covered her mouth in shock. “Oh, Haru-chan… I’m so sorry.”

“It is what it is,” said Harumi casually. “I’m fine, really. Shit happens.”

“Well, you don’t have to stay at a hostel!” said Himari. “You can sleep over at my place until you’re ready to go back home!”

“Sleep over, eh..” Harumi shook her head. “No thanks. Wouldn’t want to intrude… plus it’d be pretty surreal…”

That casual distance and consideration reminded Himari of somebody.

“Yo! Himari!”

A familiar husky voice sent her feet turning and her heart swooning. “Tomoe! Is it time already?”

“You bet!” Tomoe caught a glimpse of Harumi, backstepping away from the would-be lovebirds. “Who’s this?”

“Um…” murmured Harumi, starting to sweat bullets.

“This is Haru-chan, er, Harumi!” Himari ran over to cart her in front of Tomoe’s face like it was show and tell. “We became friends recently! She’s super cool!”

“Nice to meet you.” Tomoe extended a hand like she wanted to exchange a firm, manly handshake.

“Uh… likewise.” Harumi met it. Normally Himari could hear the bones popping whenever Tomoe shook somebody’s hand, but Harumi was apparently able to match her rhinoceros-like strength--another hidden side of her.

“You comin’ along today?” asked Tomoe, relinquishing her grip.

“Oh, no, I was just chatting Himari up about something real quick.” Harumi hastily waved. “I’ll get back to business now.” Without another word she ran towards the manta ray hall.

“She seemed nice,” said Tomoe. “Harumi… what was her surname? I didn’t catch it.”

Himari only now realized she had no idea. “What does it matter? Let’s go.”

They travelled through the low blue lights of the aquarium halls, coming to stop before the humpback whale exhibit.

“This brings me back,” said Tomoe. “Remember running around here with everybody?”

Himari nodded. “Tsugu kept getting antsy about seeing the dolphin show on time… Moca and Ran argued about whether an octopus or a turtle would win in a fight… you just wanted to see the sharks.”

“Still do,” said Tomoe, pulling out a folded-up aquarium map from her pocket. “I think they’ve got Great Whites now.”

Himari laughed. “You haven’t changed.”

“Neither have you.”

Feeling the pangs in her chest, Himari looked towards Tomoe’s hand, her two directives bouncing around her head. Hold her hand. Wing it. Hold her hand. Wing it.

Unfortunately her eyes happened to trail up to Tomoe’s chunky biceps at that very moment, causing her brain to short-circuit and do the first thing that came to mind.

She stood up on her tippy toes, leaned forward, and kissed Tomoe, silhouetted before the endless blue in front of them.


“So how’d it go?” asked Harumi, who met Himari on the street about fifteen minutes after Tomoe stumbled home.

“I kissed her.” Himari replied.

“Kissed her?! So you’re dating now?!”

“No, that was a homie kiss. Not romantic at all.”

Harumi cradled her head in her hands. “You could give her French and you’d just think of her as just a ‘gal pal.’”

“Oh, I did give her French. Was I not supposed to?”

Harumi’s stare bore holes into Himari’s face.

“What?”

“...Okay, wait, I know what’ll make you take this seriously,” said Harumi. “The damn rooftop.”

“What rooftop?”

“The one at Haneoka you all stare off into the distance from. The one you never shut up about.”

Himari gasped. “Rude! We only brought it up thirty-six times today! That’s like, lower than average.”

“...Right. Anyway…” Harumi clamped on to Himari by the shoulders. “Take her up there and tell her how you feel. If it’s really just friendship, that’s fine. But if it’s something more… then act on it. Okay?”

Himari hesitated before bobbing her head up and down. “When?”

“ASAP. I’m sure that kiss fried her brain so now’s the perfect time to lay it all out there.”

Himari’s index fingers pushed together. “I dunno…”

“C’mon, Ma--er, Himari!” Harumi jostled her around to accentuate her point. “You’re almost there! You’ve just gotta push a little farther and she’ll be yours!”

“M-M-Mine?!” Himari vibrated with every time Harumi shook her.

“That’s right. Your own fairy tale prince… except a lesbian, so like objectively better.”

The comment made Himari raise an eyebrow. “Sounds a little fetishistic… are you homophobic?”

“I’m gay.” 

“Don’t dodge the question.”

Harumi rolled her eyes and raised a fist. “Sure, equal rights, I guess, woooo.”

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic…”

“When you have the two most embarrassing lesbians in the world for moms, your sense of pride is a little different.”

Himari’s eyes grew wide and fawning. “You have two moms? That sounds adorable!”

“They spend half of the day just making out, no matter who’s watching. One time I walked in on them role playing. I have no idea how they raised me, let alone a baker’s dozen.”

“They must love you lots, though,” said Himari, concerns about the fight Harumi’d told her about simmering in the back of her mind.

“Oh for sure, but sometimes I wish I was one of the sibs who was adopted. Not that they'd gush about any me less for it… I just hope Disaster Lesbianism isn’t genetic.”

Himari couldn’t imagine being that embarrassed over any pair of parents. If anything, they sounded super sweet!

“Anyway, rooftop, tomorrow, sunset. Sound good?”

“Y-Yeah.” Himari didn’t have confidence, even if she did have a feeling that Harumi was right about the timing.  But was she right about Himari’s feelings?


She opened the door to the Haneoka rooftop at about 4pm the next day, hoping Tsugumi or Moca or anybody was around to be there with her before Tomoe arrived, but the entire place was empty and quiet, filled with only white tiles streaked orange by the sun and her own memories. Leaning out on the railing like this felt more natural than breathing to her, but without anyone else around… the sight wasn’t the same.

How much of herself was based around the people in her life? Without Ran, Moca, Tsugumi, or Tomoe here… how much did this rooftop really mean to her? If she lost them, what would she have left? If she really did pour her heart out to Tomoe here… they’d change. That modicum of stability she’d had would crumble.

Tomoe had been there for her through everything. Scraped knees and broken bones… her nightly worries about being a proper leader… becoming the girl she wanted to be… Tomoe hadn’t left her side for a moment through any of it. But if Himari told her she loved her… there was the chance Tomoe would reject her, right?

After all, it wasn’t natural for someone like her to like girls.

For those born as women, who didn’t have to try being women, Himari understood. But if someone like her liked women… well, who would accept that? She had to be a woman in all the right ways, right?  Or else people would view her as some sort of degenerate. If she wasn’t a perfect, stereotypical little girl who loved boys and fashion and all the other cliche things, then would she really be accepted as a girl?

No, said the raspy voice inside her head. Of course not. You have to meet all of their expectations.

And even if Tomoe did love her back… would she see Himari as a woman? Did anyone? Himari had a hard time viewing herself that way sometimes. Wasn’t she weird and creepy feeling the way that she did? If she wanted to love girls, why did she have to be a girl to feel right? If she felt like a girl, why didn’t she feel like a ‘normal’ one?

Right as her anxiety reached its apex, Tomoe opened the door to the rooftop.

Himari spun around, the two of them freezing as they locked eyes.

“Y-Yo, babe,” Tomoe uttered, lacking all traces of her usual chillness as her hands fumbled to do something.

Himari could tell how nervous she was to be there. And in her current panic, she could attribute it due to only one reason: She knows what I’m about to say, and she’s grossed out.

Her tears were immediately followed by her feet moving of their own volition.

“Wha--? Himari!”

Without a word she’d shoved her way past Tomoe and through the door, nearly tripping her way down the steps as she melted into a puddle right in the middle of the stairwell. She knew she was being stupid and weak and cowardly, and that Tomoe would probably blame herself for what Himari’d just done, but that just made her feel worse. Her face sank into her knees as she started bawling, overwhelmed by the crushing emotions that had swept over her.

Idiot. Crybaby. What kind of leader are you? she thought.

She felt a hand on her shoulder--at first she thought it was Tomoe’s, but soon recognized that the shape and texture were different. Softer, more pliant. Himari lifted her tear-stained face to see Harumi, smiling with sympathy as she held back tears of her own. “I was coming to see how it went… what happened?”

Himari shrugged off her hand. “It’s none of your business. Why do you care?”

“Oh, don’t give me that,” Harumi barked. “Mama taught me one thing, and that’s if you see someone hurting, you help them--especially if they don’t wanna admit it.”

Something about the stern tenderness of her words just caused Himari to cry harder. “I’m such a failure…”

“Shhh, shh, it’s okay.” Harumi wrapped Himari in her arms tightly and hugged--it was the softest hug Himari had ever felt. “No you’re not. I don’t know what happened, but you’re not a failure.”

“Y-Yes I am!” Himari hiccupped. “I-I’m supposed to be our leader, but *hic* I can’t even say anything to Tomoe! Or come up with a plan! You helped me out the whole way!” 

“Every leader needs a little help.” Himari felt something squishy and plush get pressed into her hands. “You don’t have to do anything alone.”

Himari opened her watery eyes to see a very familiar bear in her lap. It was the same mascot she’d made for everyone in Afterglow, only much older and more tattered. For a second, she thought it was from her own keychain, before realizing that was buried deep in her purse right now. “Where--?”

“My Mama gave it to me,” said Harumi softly. “She said if I ever feel sad or alone or scared, to squeeze on tight, and remember that she loves me. Even after… er, we fought, I still hold on tight each night. So you hold on tight too, and remember how much your friends love you.”

Another wave of feeling overcame Himari. She drenched the plush in her face, too wrought to ask where Harumi’s mother got the bear or why it resembled her own hand-crafted charm.

“Let it all out, Mama.. it’s okay.”

Himari was still too stricken to realize what Harumi had just called her--or that Tomoe’s clomping feet had stopped at the stairwell above. “Er, are you okay?”

It was a question with such a numbingly obvious answer that Himari almost wanted to laugh. Harumi glared above. “Give her a sec, will ya?”

“A-Ah, my bad,” said Tomoe, taking a step back. “I’m not good in these kinds of situations…”

Gradually, Himari’s sobs subsided and she was able to stand up. “S-Sorry, Tomoe… I kinda panicked and--”

“It’s all good. Do you wanna talk about why you called me up to the rooftop, or...?”

Part of Himari wanted to duck the issue entirely. Another recognized that it was now or never. With clenched fists she started stepping up the stairs towards her childhood dearest. “Tomoe!”

“What is it?”

Himari righted her balance and shut her eyes tight. “I--I like you!”

“Oh? Awesome. I like you too.”

“N-Not just as friends!” Himari squeaked. “But as a girl! A girl who likes other girls!”

“Ah.” Tomoe sheepishly rubbed her head. “Was wondering about that since you kissed me with tongue yesterday.”

“D-Do you see me that way?” asked Himari. “As a girl who likes girls, I mean.”

“What, you mean like a lesbian?” asked Tomoe. “I mean, yeah. You’ve asked me to dress as a sexy vampire for Halloween for like, three years. I figured you were into girls in suits at least a little.”

”Tomoe!” Himari huffed, her cheeks pinker than her hair. “This is serious!”

“What? Was I wrong?”

Himari crossed her arms and stuck her nose up. “I can’t believe you sometimes.”

Tomoe scratched her head. “I dunno what I did wrong... But you’re a girl, babe. Always have been, as far as I’m concerned.”

“But.. do you like me?” Himari asked. “Like, like like?”

“Yeah, of course,” said Tomoe. “At some point all your gushing about Kaoru-senpai started to make me feel weird. I worried I was being homophobic at first, but then I realized I’m gay. For you.”

“Oh, babe--!”

Himari leapt up to snog her on the lips. They’d been making out for half a minute before she thought to thank Harumi for consoling her. But as she swirled around, the bunned-girl was nowhere to be seen.

“I guess she left,” Tomoe muttered. “She was a friend of yours, right?”

“No,” said Himari, smiling. “She was a Fairy Godmother, or maybe even a Guardian Angel.”

“What does that mean?”

Himari wasn’t fully sure herself. She’d never figured out how Harumi knew so much about her and her feelings. Maybe she was a mind-reader. Or a prophet. Or maybe, considering all the signs, she was their time-traveling daughter from the future come to help get her parents together.

...Nah. Himari wasn’t an idiot.


“Gawd, they are so embarrassing,” Udagawa Harumi muttered to herself, shielding her eyes as she stumbled across the sidewalk. “They didn’t even wait for me to duck away before they leapt into each other’s mouths.”

She groaned at the sight burned into her retinas as her phone buzzed. She pulled it out to see one single LINE message.

Uehara Himari: Thanks for all your help Haru-chan! See you soon! <3 <3 <3

Despite her previous cringe, Harumi felt her heart warm up as she texted back.

Harumi: See you soon. Take care. <3

Chapter Text

Ah… the arcade. A dark sanctuary in a world of blinding light. Ako didn’t have to worry about the prying eyes of normies here, in the company of her gamer brethren--she was free to feast on all the Cool Ranch Doritos and Code Red Mountain Dew she desired. Assuming the arcade manager didn’t see.

“Mwahaha! Another victory for the Dark Empress!” she chortled to no one, having once again beaten the CPU in a round of Tekken. “I am still the Queen of this Arcade!” It was true--nobody could defeat her in any game here, except Taiko Drum Master, which her sister would always find a way to win. But when it came to any and all beat-em-ups, rail shooters, and classic fighters, she was unconquerable. A fiendish empress lying upon a throne of digitized skulls.

!!!!!

A dark presence so ominous it felt downright supernatural crept across her spine. She swerved towards the escalator up to this floor, where an unimaginably cool looking woman was just stepping off. She was dressed in tattered jeans and a lacey button-up blouse the color of midnight, adorned in wristbands so spiky that just looking at them prickled Ako’s skin. She wore a black choker adorned with a crescent moon pattern, matching the deep raven color of her feathery mane, so long it trailed right against her hips. But that--or her sharp cheekbones or half-dozen ear studs--wasn’t half as intimidating as her eyes, ruby red and pointed enough to kill a man with one glare. Hers was an abyssal presence, so overwhelmingly murky that she seemed to leave shadows with every step.

Ako, needless to say, had found a new idol.

“Wooooooooooah…!” She mouthed unconsciously before running up to her newfound inspiration. “Excuse me! Do you wanna play something together?”

The stranger looked at her with barely concealed disinterest. “Begone. I have no time for idle play. I’m waiting for someone.” Every word carried the gravitas of a life-essential mission.

“Well, I’m waiting for Rinrin, soooooooo…” Ako motioned towards the Tekken machines with her hands. “Might as well have fun in the meantime.”

“Fun? There is no fun here,” said the girl. “Only bitter stenches of loneliness and defeat, lost NEET souls drifting in listless agony…”

Holy cow! Ako barely understood what she was saying, but she said it so low and dramatically that it was automatically the coolest thing ever. She was growing more admiring by the second. She might’ve found someone even cooler than Yukina and Sayo! “Awesome…”

“There is nothing awesome about this decrepit den of stale soda and money eaters,” said the girl. “All that is found here is Gaming--sin itself, manifesting in society’s fallen: the Gamers.”

“Why are you here then?” asked Ako. “Do you not like games?”

“They are all I’ve ever known,” the girl muttered. “I am Shirokane Yoruko. I was born with a joystick in one hand and emptiness in the other. I bleed, sweat, and cry in the name of proving my existence the only way I know how: ranking in global leaderboards.”

Shirokane?! Ako felt ready to faint. This girl was related to Rinko?! Wait, maybe that made sense--they were pretty much the two coolest people Ako knew, after all. But she didn’t remember Rinko mentioning any relatives… especially anybody named Yoruko. Maybe she was a long-lost cousin or something. Either way, her course was now clear. “Okay, if you know Rinrin then we have to play.”

Yoruko eyed her with slightly more regard this time. “I suppose I can whet my appetite for victory upon your puny corpse.”

“P-Puny?!” Ako somehow wasn’t expecting such a proud, majestic figure to make a low blow like that, even if she was at least a half-meter taller than her. “I-I’ll show you who’s the, um,  Queen of this dark place! Yeah!”

“There are no monarchs or gods here, only crude mortals,” said Yoruko, clutching at her face with one bony hand. “If you have delusions of grandeur, then my righteous hand will return you to utter humility.”

The challenge was on. Ako marched to the closest pair of Tekken machines, Yoruko following with aloofness so overbearing that it felt like the very air was growing icy. They ended up in front of opposite facing machines, Ako’s cursor moving over to pick (of course) Devil Jin. Yoruko chose the same. A mirror match. Fitting for two patrons of this darkscape! ...Right?

“Mwehehe! Prepare to meet your match!” Ako gloated.

“Your defeat shall come swiftly. Perish.”

Even as the countdown to fight appeared on screen, Ako wanted to eek over how effortlessly cool Yoruko was. She used big words and dramatic phrases like it was second-nature to her! She didn’t trip over herself like Ako always did… she had to rely on Rinko for making sure her dark phrases always sounded right. But Rinko, dark angel that she was, was always there for her…

Ako was so lost in gay thoughts that when the match started Yoruko was able to start up a cheap combo without resistance, taking off a fourth of Ako’s health and snapping her back to attention. Ako’s neutral wasn’t as strong as her punishment game, so she tried to compensate by putting pressure on her opponent, but swung just a little too big--leaving her open to little jabs and one-twos from Yoruko. Each time that they reset to neutral, Yoruko played expert footsies, luring in Ako to strike before catching her with blows on the wind-down. The first round ended with a Perfect, the machine and noises hiding Yoruko’s quiet satisfaction from view.

Ako’s cheeks puffed up in fury. She hadn’t encountered a challenge this tough since she’d trans’d her gender, and she wasn’t going to fall so easily. Remembering little bits of advice that Rinko had given herself the last time they played, Ako forced herself to slow down and be patient, using quick strikes without frame windows of vulnerability instead of heavy attacks and specials, trying to draw Yoruko in just as she had done the last round. By shifting around on stage a lot, she was eventually able to establish a pace that Yoruko got lulled into, slowly whittling down her health while focusing on keeping up her own defense. Eventually Ako achieved a boring, if practical victory by a small margin.

“Booyah!” she cheered, pumping both fists.

“Hmph,” Yoruko grunted. “Perhaps there is fire in you yet.”

Encouraged by her victory, and wanting something a little more exciting, Ako opened up the Final Round with aggression, driving Yoruko back into the corner and putting on the pressure. Unfortunately, she lacked the careful spacing and safe moves of the previous round, leaving herself vulnerable to a cautious Yoruko’s deadly punishes. In overusing Devil Jin’s laser and flight mechanics, Ako left herself open to those same moves from Yoruko, and while Ako knocked off about half of her opponent’s health with some good juggles, she ultimately succumbed to Yoruko’s patience.

“Aargh!” Ako yelped upon watching her health bar drain to zero. She put up a solid 2-1 fight… but even so, getting Perfect’d and read as hard as she did felt bitingly shameful. Her Gamer pride was bleeding all over the squiggly carpet.

“Fool,” said Yoruko, looking down on Ako as she strode back around the machines towards her side. “Let this humiliation serve as a lesson to never venture into the realm of Gaming. All that lies there is endless torment. And also homophobes.”

“Mrgrgr…!” Ako’s cheeks puffed up in anger as she searched for a retort. “Well, you…!”

Before Ako could find the proper comeback, her ever faithful wordsmith appeared like a ghost behind her. “Sorry I’m late…!” Rinko huffed, clutching her purse strap tightly. “The train got delayed…”

“Rinrin!” Ako had to stop herself from running into her arms. “I’m so happy to see you!”

Yoruko, meanwhile, glared at the newfound presence. “Rinko… Shirokane Rinko…”

Rinko took Ako into her loving embrace before glancing up towards the demonic aura. “Do I… know you…?”

“No, but I know you better than God knows Eden, and the Devil, Hell.” Yoruko pointed dramatically in her direction. “I’ve come here with one sole purpose--to defeat you in video games, and thereby prove my existence.”

Rinko blinked. “How would… beating me... prove your existence…?”

Yoruko bit her lip, fists trembling with emotion. “I don’t expect you to ever understand. But this is the only chance I have. If I wait any longer, you’ll become far too powerful.”

“Too… powerful…?” Rinko shook her head. “I mean... I like games… but I’m not particularly good at them…”

“Don’t mask your savage skills with false modesty.” Yoruko’s voice was strained to the point of breaking. “You and the Atramentous Titan are all that stand in the way of making a mark upon the world.”

“A-Atramentous Titan?” Ako gulped. That was the coolest title she’d ever heard, and she didn’t even know what the first word meant.

“Come,” Yoruko said, beckoning with one veiny hand towards Rinko. “Let us do battle on the virtual fields.”

“Why… should I...?”

Yoruko smirked. “I defeated the puny normie currently shrinking behind you. Does the motive of revenge now fill your soul?”

“Hey!” Ako shouted. “Calling me puny is one thing, but don’t you dare call me a normie!”

“Do you imagine yourself a Gamer?”  Yoruko scoffed. “You lack the bloodlust. The inhumanity. The sheer vitriol that pours from the mouth like water from a river. You are unblemished by their foul ways.”

“Are you calling me a child?!”

“I think she’s saying… you’re not a Gamer…” said Rinko.

“That’s even more insulting!”

Ako’s rage must’ve been partially contagious, because now Rinko stared at Yoruko with a quiet fire. “I don’t know why you’re so fixated on defeating me… but nobody insults someone I love and gets away with it.”

“Rinrin…” Ako sniffled. “That was so cool!”

Yoruko didn’t seem intimidated. If anything, she seemed to relish in Rinko’s newfound determination. “Yes! Let the vengeance drown out all other desires! Be consumed by the demon within you--the spirit of a Gamer! Let her toxicity fuel your every combo!”

“Rinrin will never give in to her dark side!” Ako screamed, despite thinking that if Rinko did do that it would be incredibly cool and maybe just a little hot.

Rinko stuck her arm out before Ako, signalling to stay back. “I don’t know who you are... but I won’t back down. And I won’t give in to the Gamer inside of me, either.”

Yoruko laughed--it was dry and hoarse, as if she would start coughing up blood at any moment. “Deny yourself all you want. That venomous swill flows through your veins, just as it does through mine.”

The hidden implications of the comment went completely unnoticed. “Then we’re on equal footing… aren’t we?”

“You think Gaming is your ally? You merely adopted Gaming. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t see the real world until I was already a woman, and by then it was nothing to me but boring!”

“Are you saying…” Ako’s voice grew hollow. “Your parents were both Gamers?" Impossible; no two Gamers could find a date together, let alone have a child.

“Oh, they were.” Yoruko laughed madly into her palm. “The two strongest Gamers the world had ever seen. They taught me all that I’ve ever known. All they’d ever known. Yet I was never able to surpass them.”

Woah… Ako was getting invested in Yoruko’s tragic backstory. “But what does Rinrin have to do with that?”

Yoruko clamped down on her jaw. “That’s none of your concern. Especially once I defeat her.”

“As if!” Ako stuck her tongue out and poo poo’d her. “You’re gonna be sorry!”

Rinko said nothing, instead calmly taking her seat at the Tekken cabinet--she’d let her joystick do the talking. Yoruko ignored Ako’s taunting, sitting down at her own station with a confident leer. She picked Devil Jin again, while Rinko went for Kazumi. The stale air of the arcade grew both frigid and fiery as they loaded into the stage. Ako busted out her proprietary Roselia Rinko glowsticks and fantowel (she’d convinced Yukina to start making/selling the products by saying the money made would be for the good of Roselia, but really she just wanted official merch to cheer Rinko on with) and shouting at the top of her lungs.

“WOOOOOOO! YEEEEAAAAAH! LET’S GO RINRIN!”

Rinko couldn’t even spare a smile as the round began--her Gamer Focus had been activated. Leagues of matches with her comrade Sayo Hikawa had given her a new approach to fighting games--analyze the opponent in the first round before downloading them in the latter two. She wasn’t around to watch Ako’s narrow defeat, but Rinko could figure out Yoruko’s playing style with enough scrutiny. Yoruko maintained her patient, baiting pace, focusing on safe moves and footsies above pressure or aggression. Kazumi’s range for combo starters was poor, and soon the staring contest turned into a battle of attrition. Rinko, eventually realizing that if she wanted to win she needed to push more, started throwing out test jabs, observing Yoruko’s spacing and combos, intentionally whiffing in order to get a sense for her playstyle. In the end she was timed out, neither side giving their all and risking getting trapped in the other’s pace.

For round two, Rinko wasted no time. Kazumi was an offensive-oriented character, and so she used an aggressive series of pokes to push a startled Yoruko into the corner. Once there, Rinko utilized command grabs and unblockables to chip away at Yoruko’s health little by little, never giving her an opportunity to push Rinko back or collect herself. There was little room for resistance, culminating in a decisive Rinko victory.

In Round Three, for whatever reason, Yoruko played more aggressively, losing the laser-sharp focus she had in the first round as she came out with arms swinging. Rinko deftly adapted, baiting Yoruko with delayable strikes and establishing the pace single-handedly, calling out Kazumi’s tiger for some expert juggles.

“Rinrin… your punishments are so poggers!” Ako squealed.

In the midst of her final, decisive combo, Rinko leaned over with pining, Monster-flavored lips, which Ako enthusiastically leapt into. In the midst of making out, Rinko finished Yoruko off with the tiger, metaphorically fleecing the meat from her bones whilst embroiled in an act of passionate lesbianism. It only made sense--she always played best when she was being gay, after all.

Ako didn’t pull away until the VICTORY screen had run its course, starry-eyed and heart-filled. The amount of Pog filling her was… well, poggers. Yoruko, for her part, looked vacantly at the screen, processing her defeat. Before Rinko could deliver a fist bump and her “GGs,” Ako blew her tongue out at Yoruko. “Shows you! You’ll never beat Rinrin in a million years!”

“Now, now,” said Rinko, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Good sportsmanship is important.”

“But Rinrin… that’s not how a Gamer acts!”

“No it’s not… but maybe it’s how we should.” Rinko rose from her stool and walked over to a dazed Yoruko, extending her pale fist in goodwill. “That was… a good match… I would… love to play again sometime…”

Yoruko’s fists balled around the edge of her seat. “...ot fair…”

“Huh....? I’m sorry… I didn’t hear you…”

“IT’S NOT FAIR!!” Yoruko suddenly burst into tears, her feet stamping against the floor. “You ALWAYS beat me! ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS! Why do you never hold back against me, Mama?!”

“...What?”

Yoruko kept bawling, thick mascara beginning to run down her face as her whinging turned into an incomprehensible mess. Rinko, paralyzed by the sudden transformation and what Yoruko had just called her, stood in stunned silence. And Ako stared on with wide eyes, realization smacking into her brain all at once.

“Oh my god… she really is a Gamer.”


An hour later and the three of them were situated in the diner down the street. Rinko and Ako had ordered a milkshake with two straws while Yoruko--cleaned up and back to her previous brooding aura--was clutching her own Oreo-flavored concoction as she waited for her chicken nuggies to arrive at the table. The other two sat quietly--typical for Rinko, rare for Ako--as they attempted to process what Yoruko had told them just a short while previously.

“You’re our… child… from the future?” Rinko asked, to reconfirm the fact for the third time.

Yoruko nodded coolly. “I didn’t recognize Mom at first, since she’s so short…”

Ako pointed at herself. “Are you talking about me? Am I way taller in the future?”

“Taller than me, at least.”

Given that Yoruko was close to pushing a full two meters, Ako’s fangy grin was on full display. “Woah-ho! Do you hear that, Rinrin? I’m gonna be tall enough to princess-carry you!”

Rinko didn’t reply--partially because she was still processing Yoruko’s existence, and partially because the thought of a buff Ako carrying her stopped her gay little heart.

“You still act much the same at least,” muttered Yoruko, pensively sipping her milkshake. “You still cackle and play everything up for dramatism. Not to mention the utterly exaggerated way in which you speak.”

"Hey!"

“But regardless, I was able to defeat one of my two mortal nemeses.” Yoruko smirked, wiping off her cookies ‘n’ cream mustache with a napkin. “Today was a great victory.”

“Um… when you say mortal nemeses… you’re talking about us, right…?” Rinko asked.

“Indeed. You two, who have plagued my life, and turned me into the very demon I am now…”

Ako’s eyes grew watery. “Are we… bad parents?”

Yoruko crossed her arms and huffed. “Bad? You never let me win! Even when I was four-years old playing Super Smash. Bros you would three-stock me!”

“...Wow, really?”

“Day after day, game after game… you would trounce me time and again implying if not stating that I needed to ‘git gud.’ Eventually I recognized games as my life’s purpose. My reason to exist. To be an Alpha Female Gamer… that is why I was born. But you two would harp on and on about ‘going outside’ and ‘eating healthily’ and other distractions that would pull me away from the very games that you weaned me on! That sustained my existence!”

“That sounds… just like… we were concerned about you…” Rinko noted.

“I dunno, seemss morally gray,” said Ako, hand on chin. “I mean… a true Gamer just needs Dewritos and a controller to keep living.”

“Exactly,” said Yoruko.

“But if you are our kid…” said Ako, adopting a voice of surprising maturity. “I must ask you to turn away from the path of the Gamer.”

Yoruko scowled. “What?”

“A True Gamer is one who hates women and minorities. And you are at least one of those things. I don’t want you to hate yourself… or to look at another woman walking down the street and have your mind scream out ‘forced diversity.’”

“Perhaps… she can be a Gamer… without being a bigot...?” Rinko suggested.

“If she could, then her powers would be truly incomprehensible…” Ako uttered in awe. “Is it even possible to be a Gamer like that? Without vitriolic hatred, a Gamer would just be… someone who likes video games.”

Yoruko gasped at the suggestion. “Are you calling me a normie? You’ll rue this day… your ancestors frown upon your impropriety.”

“Aren’t they your ancestors too?”

“Silence!” Yoruko leapt from her seat, billowing a cape that didn’t exist. “Now that I understand the true nature of your current playstyles, I’ll be back to wreak revenge--to surpass the Tenebrous Raven and Atramentous Titan that raised me. Even if the Titan is more of a shrimp now…”

“That part wasn’t necessary!” Ako cried.

With dripping sneers and a lurching posture, Yoruko sulked off. “Farewell--until the next day we meet on the battlefield.”

Ako and Rinko watched her slink off, unsure of what to say as a waiter dropped by their table. “Hold on!” Ako called out. “What about your nuggies?”

Yoruko didn’t stop to respond.

Internally, Ako hoped Yoruko had eaten some elsewhere earlier. A Gamer would die within a week without nugs. But on another level, she was too giddy to worry. “Rinrin! Doesn’t this mean we’re gonna get married at some point?”

Once again, Rinko’s little sapphic heart had stricken her silent.

“That’s--” Ako caught herself short of saying ‘poggers’, feeling as if she’d used up her quota for the day, instead relying on an older internet classic. “Epic! The most epic thing I can imagine! It’ll be like that NFO wedding we had, only without the dragons and black flames, so… not as cool, I guess.”

Rinko shook her head. “It’ll be even cooler… because it’ll be real and with you, Ako-chan…”

Ako’s Love stat was maxing out. “Rinrin…! We’re kinda young to be thinking about this stuff though, huh?”

”Just a little… but in the meantime…” said Rinko. “Do you want to get married on our smurf accounts?”

Ako was so excited she started producing gibberish. “KHKHJKJHKJJJKHJJJH! YES! Can we invite the rest of the band?”

“Assuming that Minato-san doesn’t accidentally spam the Sneer emote again… yes…”

“Yay! Can we oppress Gamers afterwards?”

Rinko giggled. “Of course.”

After devouring the nuggies themselves to replenish their mana and finishing off their shake, the two walked out of the diner, crumb-coated hand in crumb-coated hand, unaware that it was, in fact, possible to be an Unproblematic Gamer--because two of them were in love.

And that, dear friends, is the true essence of Pog.