Travelling from Nagataki to the United States was more exhausting than Akari had anticipated. They had flown from Haneda to LAX, where they spent several hours waiting for their passports to be stamped. From there they were whisked away into a limousine by a Sephiro Fiore employee, a looming American man who assured them that their luggage had already been sent on ahead. Akari wasn’t sure if this was possible, as she had never travelled before, but she was willing to believe that it was for the moment. Etia had warned her before they left to be careful around other Sephiro Fiore agents, but there was no reason for him to lie about this. It would be silly.
Etia had made arrangements for them to spend a night at a hotel before being taken to Sephiro Fiore’s American branch, or so the employee had told them. He did not sound happy about the idea, but Akari was delighted by it. A shower, real food, and sleep sounded wonderful after the long plane flight. Her pleasure buoyed her forward once they arrived, and lent her the energy she needed to haul her suitcase up to her room, wave at the other girls as they entered their rooms, and get ready for a shower. The water was hot and luxurious, and Akari felt more relaxed after it than she had in ages.
After showering, her hair still clinging to her neck in damp tendrils, Akari sat down on the bed. She promised herself that she would only sit down for a few minutes before going downstairs to see Ginka, Seira and Luna.
There were many things that Akari wanted to say to Luna before they arrived at Sephiro Fiore. She’d wanted to say them for days but there had never been time. The only other opportunity she’d had to talk to Luna had been on the plane and that seemed too public for the things she wanted to say. Soon, she promised herself. Soon, she’d go out and look for Luna…
She awoke and found that Luna was sleeping next to her, curled up into the space that Akari had left on the bed while not quite touching Akari. Asleep, Luna looked peaceful and gentle, her true self, without the miserable tension that had thrummed under her skin before she was turned into a Daemonia or the guilt that had threaded through her actions since.
Akari had longed to see Luna again in this way, sleeping easily by her side. She would be devastated if any of her friends had been remade into a monster. She would have fought on even while the flame of her sword guttered and dimmed, and tried to win them back. They were her friends, and they were dear to her heart. But it had been Luna who had been made into a hideous wolf-girl. It had been Luna who had fought her own bestial urges to protect Akari. It had been Luna that Akari had struggled on beyond her endurance to save. It had always been Luna.
She liked Seira and Ginka. They were very dear to her heart. But it was Luna that she loved.
As she watched, Luna stirred, opening her eyes sleepily and looking at Akari. She smiled, obviously still half-asleep, and then blinked several times in surprise. “Oh! Akari-san! I meant to wake you up for dinner.”
Akari looked out the window. The stars were bright in the true-night sky, their light twinkling like Seira’s arrows in the split second before they fell to earth in a cascade of ice. Her stomach growled, reminding her that food — real food, and not the food served on the aeroplane — had been in Japan many, many hours ago. She giggled, blushing, and Luna joined her in laughing.
“I’m sorry! I should get up, right? I don’t want to keep the others waiting!” Akari sat up, finger-combing her hair into place, and felt the bed dip as Luna sat up herself. She fiddled with her hair ribbon, trying to make it sit properly, and then stopped when Luna didn’t say anything in response. She waited.
“Akari-san…” Luna began carefully, as if each syllable of Akari’s name was precious to her.
“Yes?” Akari asked brightly, turning to Luna when she didn’t continue.
Luna was sitting on the edge of the bed, gloved hands resting in her lap. At first glance her hands appeared to be folded together neatly, like those of a well-mannered young lady, but Akari could see the tension in her forearms. She wondered whether Luna’s gloves hid the white-knuckled grip each hand had on the other. Luna was staring down at her lap, hair obscuring her face from view.
Akari reached out and tucked some of Luna’s hair behind her ear. Luna gasped, blushing brilliantly, glancing briefly at Akari. It was difficult to read the emotion in her gaze, other than to know that she felt it very keenly.
“What’s wrong?” Akari asked gently. “You can tell me.” She ignored the pang of guilt as she said those words, forcing herself not to think about Fuyuna saying that she always tried to force her way into other people’s hearts. It may be wrong for her to try and empathise with everyone she met, including Daemonia, but it was a wrongness she didn’t care about. Caring about people was just part of who she was, and she was stronger for it.
“I think, Akari-san, that I need to tell you why I became a Daemonia.” Luna said this to her lap, the grip on her hands tightening.
Akari waited, breath caught in her throat.
“I was so happy when you came to the manor. We did everything together, and you were so kind. You’re always kind and warm, like the sun, but this was a kindness and warmth only for me. I didn’t have to share it with Seira-sama or anyone else. Except that it wasn’t you. It was Cerebrum, looking like you. Acting like you.”
Akari stared at Luna, dumbfounded. She had known that Cerebrum could look like other people, because he had done it to her. She had known that Cerebrum had an uncanny gift of identifying the very form that would make someone susceptible to him, because he had done it to her. He had taken the form of a little grieving girl, looking for her deceased mother, to try and pull a promise from the orphaned Akari.
She knew this, and yet hadn’t envisaged that he would take her face to lull Luna into complacency. She felt a flash of sick, furious horror at the thought of Cerebrum using her face to make Luna smile, using her voice to trick Luna. Using her to hurt Luna. How dare he hurt someone so dear to her this way?
And how strong and brave Luna must be to look at her and not see the person who trampled on her precious wonderful feelings? Luna was truly amazing. Akari wasn’t sure that she would have the courage to do that.
Luna’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “I thought it was you. I confessed, thinking it was you. I’m sorry that I was so weak that I didn’t see it wasn’t you.”
That, Akari thought, was the worst part of all. She had suspected that Luna had loved her too. Hoped, perhaps, might have been the better word. It should have been a beautiful moment, because she would have returned Luna’s feelings. It was awful that Cerebrum had done something so horrible to Luna, and made her think she was weak for falling for it. She was one of the strongest people Akari knew.
She couldn’t change the past. But she could make the present better.
“Luna-chan…” Akari said. She placed her hand over Luna’s clenched ones, letting it rest there. “Will you try again?”
At this, Luna’s head snapped up and she gazed at Akari with wide eyes. This time Akari could read the emotions that roiled behind her gaze: guilt, love, longing, need, and shame. She swallowed convulsively. “Akari-san … I like you. No … I love you.”
Akari had hoped that this was what Luna was going to say, but now that the moment had come she was unable to get out what she wanted to say in reply. She didn’t know the words to use to show Luna how much her confession meant to her, and how much she meant to Akari.
Luna, interpreting her silence as rejection, looked down at her hands. “It’s okay if you don’t share my feelings. Even if you loved the old me … you don’t have to love me now. I don’t look like it now, but I am part Daemonia. I always will be. And …”
Akari didn’t need to hear Luna say it. She could infer what she would say next: I’m a monster. She shook her head, overcoming her uncertainty. She didn’t need to say the right thing. She just needed to try. “No, that’s not true. I do share your feelings.”
“You do?” Luna looked impossibly hopeful, lips parted and eyes wide.
“Of course!” Akari said firmly. “And you’re not weak. You’re so strong, Luna-chan. Cerebrum hurt you really badly, and you still fight. You can love me, even though Cerebrum used my face to hurt you. You’re strong and gentle and kind, and just because someone hurt you doesn’t mean any of that changed.”
Luna shook her head slightly, more in bewilderment. “You’re … really okay with me being part Daemonia?”
“That doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that you’re here with me.” Akari took a breath to steel herself. This was the other thing that she needed to tell Luna about. “Besides … you’re not the only one who’s part Daemonia.”
Luna blinked in shock. “What?”
“My father … he was infected with Daemonia when he and my mother were together. That’s why I can hear the Daemonia’s voices when we fight them.” Akari smiled, tilting her head. “So if you’re bad for being part Daemonia, then I must be more so.”
“No!” Luna said emphatically. “You’re not bad. You’re wonderful.”
“Then you must be too,” Akari said.
Their faces were very close together. Akari steeled her courage and reduced the distance to nothing at all. Luna’s lips were soft and pliant as Akari kissed her, her mouth tasting like the green plants that both Luna and Akari loved so much.
“You taste like how the sun feels,” Luna breathed, pulling away reluctantly. Her tongue darted out and licked her lips. It was very cute, especially coupled with the secretive smile that Luna wore afterward.
Akari giggled. “I thought you tasted like plants! I guess that’s what happens when Elemental Tarot users kiss.”
“At least I didn’t taste like wet dog! That wouldn’t be very romantic at all.”
“I’d like it, because it was you,” Akari said earnestly.
“You’re so strange, Akari-san,” Luna said fondly. “But that’s what I like about you, I think. You are always so honest with what you feel.”
Akari could feel her blush creeping up her cheeks. “I’m glad you were honest with me about what you felt.”
“When will we tell the others?” Luna wanted to know.
“Soon,” Akari said. “I don’t want to keep it a secret.” Her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been many hours since they had eaten. “Or now. We can tell them over dinner.”
She stood up and reached out a hand to Luna. “Let’s go find some food.”
Luna took her hand and smiled.