I’m gonna be a little girl, all the way home.
Yuki sighs, fingers splaying to smooth down her dress one more time as the sea breeze tries to kick it up. She looks out across the water, at the wake of the ferry as it disappears into the endless sea, and thinks that she is a very long way from home indeed. Not that it matters; she’s grown, now, and has years of practice at being a little girl behind her. She can still feel the wolf, and doesn’t doubt that she could reach that primal place within herself in the space between heartbeats if she wanted. It’s just been a long time since she’s let herself want that.
Souhei had understood, and she thinks that maybe, just maybe, in the end that’s why she had to leave. Once upon a time she’d thought that maybe having shared that part of herself with him, she’d bound herself to him, leashed herself, and so she tried so hard to be the little girl everyone else seemed to see, to want. She didn’t want to break his faith in her. Souhei argued with her about it, a lot, but the older they got the less they argued, and then they never spoke of it.
And then she left, and found herself paying for passage on a ferry to a quaint little town called Koriko, with a pair of suitcases that carried everything she owned. She posted a letter to her mother, who still lived among the rolling hills and wild fields in which she’d grown up with Ame, with a postscript letting her know not to reply, since she couldn’t leave a forwarding address, and she didn’t plan to wait long enough to a letter to come back.
The ferry docks, and she disembarks, putting down her suitcases just long enough to ask the ferryman for directions to the nearest inn. He obliges her, and makes small talk by asking her whether this is her first time visiting, whether she has family here, what she plans to do.
Yuki’s polite, and he’s given her his help, so she replies: yes, this is her first time visiting; no, she has no family here. The last question is a little more difficult to answer, because in running away she’s given very little thought to what, if anything, she ought to be running toward. She chews on her lip a little and studies the dock beneath her feet while she thinks.
The ferryman must sense her hesitancy, for he doesn’t press her. Instead he puts his hands into his pockets and, without looking at her, suggests that perhaps her first stop ought to be the bakery on the top of the hill, rather than the fancy hotel on the main thoroughfare to which he’d initially directed her. She can see a soft trail of smoke rising from what must be its chimney when he points it out. It’s a fair distance from the dock, a cosy little building on a grassy little hill that she can cover with her thumb from this far away. The ferryman flags down a pedicab for her, and packs her off with a tip of his hat and a mysterious sort of smile.
The pedicab driver is a chatty young man, more than pleased to be able to introduce his quiet passenger to his fine city. He calls out friendly greetings to many of the people they pass, all of whom seem to recognize him, and has a story to tell about nearly every street and building that they pass: here is the park where he flew kites as a child; here is the clock tower whose bells chime the hour; here is the hill he and his friends raced down as children, riding on the handlebars of each other’s bicycles.
Yuki’s trying very hard to listen, but it’s a bit much to take in, and with the wind in her ears as they speed along it’s far too tempting to just sit back and relax. So she does, and watches the water and the world go by. Quite a lot of this part of the hill overlooks the sea, which pleases her immensely. She’s spent so much time in big cities, cooped up in tidy apartments and cramped into university desks - it’s lovely to be able to hear the gulls crying and to catch the faint, salty scent of the water as they ride. She wonders if maybe there isn’t someone near here with a room to let.
The pedicab comes to a stop, although the driver keeps up his litany as he cheerfully escorts her and her bags into the bakery. A bell tinkles as the door opens, and a little black cat leaps gracefully onto the counter to greet them. Yuki tenses up, expecting to be recognized and summarily hissed off the property. To her surprise, though, the cat only peers at her closely before leaping down again and sauntering off through a door behind the counter. She’s left to stare after it in some confusion, only noticing her mouth must be agape when a round-faced and cheerful young woman comes through the same door, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Hello, and welcome to Gutiokipanja!” she calls out, her voice warm and her smile genuine in its welcome. “What can I get for you?” Before Yuki can reply, she spots the pedicab driver, and immediately calls him over to her, ruffling his hair and pulling him into a hug before admonishing him to head upstairs and say hello to his mother.
She turns back to Yuki with a laugh. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be so rude! Osono worries, is all.”
Yuki finds her voice. “Osono?”
The woman smiles. “She and her husband own this bakery, but they’ve let me take over a good deal of the actual baking, and I’ve even come up with a few new recipes! Here!” She ducks behind the counter and into the pastry shelves, returning with a small pastry bun decorated with stripes of icing and slivered almonds. “These are my newest creation - butter horns! Would you like to try one?”
Yuki accepts one, her eyes lighting up as she takes her first bite and the pastry melts onto her tongue. “Wow,” she says, appreciatively, “these are delicious!”
The baker’s son - the pedicab driver - Yuki really must get his name - comes flying back down the stairs, pressing a quick kiss to the woman’s cheek and shouting a goodbye to Yuki before scurrying out the door.
“Oh! I hadn’t paid him,” Yuki says, dismayed as she realizes. “He brought me in here so quickly and was gone again so fast -”
“Don’t worry about it,” the other woman says, flapping a hand. “He’ll be back! And I see you’ve got bags with you. Were you staying at the hotel downtown? How’d you end up here?” She comes out from behind the counter and takes a seat at one of the worn wooden tables, pulling out a second chair and inviting Yuki to sit and chat.
And so Yuki does. She begins to explain, haltingly at first, but the other woman’s face is so open and honest that she can’t help but warm up to her. She’s easy to talk to, Yuki realizes, and before long she’s telling her about Souhei and even Ame and her mother. She’s not confessing everything, though: she doesn’t say that she is a wolf. No amount of openness in a stranger’s face will make her give up her most closely-guarded secret.
The cat comes back, staring at Yuki all the while, but approaches the pair of them and leaps right up onto the table.
“That’s not an ordinary human,” he says conversationally as he licks a paw and cleans his whiskers.
Yuki glares. “And you’re not an ordinary cat,” she says automatically, snapping her mouth shut a half-moment later when she realizes she probably ought to have pretended not to have heard.
The cat is staring at her now, along with the other woman, but instead of the hostility Yuki expects, she sees only interest and surprise. “You can hear him?”
Yuki hesitates, but nods.
The other woman leaps to her feet, and takes Yuki’s hands in her own. Her hands are pleasantly warm and smooth - from kneading all that dough, no doubt - and excitement shines in her eyes. “Oh, how wonderful! I’ve never met another witch!”
“She’s not a witch,” says the cat, still casually grooming himself.
Yuki nods. “But I take it you are?” she asks.
There’s a pause, and the other woman shakes her head suddenly, the bright red bow in her hair bobbing merrily with the motion. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have made an assumption. But if you can hear Jiji - you’re still the only person I’ve met who can, although I think Ursula may be close. What’s your name?”
“I’m Kiki,” says Kiki, with a smile. “And this is Jiji. He can be very rude sometimes, so you mustn’t mind him.”
Jiji sticks out his tongue.
Yuki looks between them both, uncertain. Not of her welcome, that is, as it’s clear that Kiki at least is very pleased to have made a new friend. Yuki’s never met anyone like Kiki before, and she can’t help but resent that it’s taken her all these years to find her. She squashes the thought before it can take root and grow, knowing it to be unkind and, well, dishonest. The real trouble is that, for the first time in a very long while, Kiki’s very existence gives something Yuki thought she might never find: hope. She can’t bring herself to trust in it. She has so many questions and all of them seem too impertinent to ask.
Kiki’s smile falters a little in the face of Yuki’s small frown. “Come on now,” she says softly. “I don’t know who you are, or what you are, but I’m sure we can be friends. You can trust me.”
Yuki’s not sure what to say. “I’d … I’d like that,” she says slowly.
Kiki smiles, and her eyes come to rest on the luggage Yuki’s brought in. “Look,” she says suddenly, “Why don’t you stay here for the night? You can share my room - we have the attic - and then in the morning you can have a lie-in while I bake. Ursula’s due to come into town tomorrow. She’s an artist, and spends the summers living in a cabin out in the woods.”
Yuki can’t help that her interest piques noticeably at the mention of a forest. She hadn’t seen one from the ferry, but oh it would be nice, to have the trees surround her again, leaf litter under her paws.
Kiki sees that she has Yuki’s attention, and smiles broadly again. “I’m sure she’d be willing to let you some space in her cabin, if you’d like. She spends a lot of time painting. She’s very creative, you know. I spent a few weeks with her there when I was a girl and it was - transformative.” She slants her eyes toward Yuki again.
“You’re being a little heavy-handed, you know,” Jiji says.
“I’m only trying to help, Jiji!” Kiki protests.
“She just got here! Give her a little space, you’ll scare her off.”
Kiki harrumphs and crosses her arms at the little cat, who glares back before grooming himself at her. Yuki’s unexpected bark of laughter interrupts their little tableau, startling Jiji’s fur into hackles, and he turns his glare on her before settling back to lick the fur back into place.
“I’m sorry,” she says, still chuckling, “truly. And I do appreciate your offer.” Collecting herself, she adds, “It’s a lot to take in, that’s all. I’ve spent my whole life hiding who I am - what I am. And I’m not - I’m not even sure who that is, right now. I need to think about it.”
Kiki nods, and Yuki believes her when the baker says she understands. “Well, in that case, I should probably get you to your hotel,” she says. Her eyes twinkle as she looks Yuki over. “Ever travelled by broomstick?”
Yuki’s nose wrinkles. “I - no.”
Kiki’s grin is definitely mischievous. “Afraid of heights at all?”
Yuki grins to match, baring her teeth just a little. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
And it’s a lie, Yuki knows it’s a lie. There are so many things that frighten her, but all of them come back to her fears about herself, and in the face of that, she’s not about to let a little bit of flying hold her down. She can see that Kiki doesn’t really believe her, either, but the other woman only gives her a raised eyebrow and proffers the broomstick that she’s pulled from behind her - and that makes Yuki think that, just maybe, she’s found a real friend after all.