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Mamiya hates birthdays.

Yesterday, she never once was off her feet—checking with the people reinforcing the walls and hauling stone, leading the ladies' crossbow group in practice, even going through tending flowers in the gardens round the baths with Lin until her fingers were covered in scratches. Her shoulders still ache out into her back and neck, and she hasn't slept well.

Today, people mean well telling her to rest and wishing her well; a birthday is another year you've beaten the odds. But she's done that already, her own way, when she ran, when she came back here, when she took over her parents' work...hell, she's faced down omens of her own death and lived. What she can't face is her own village, full of smiling faces like it was two years past.

Two years since her parents. One since her brother, a new year already now. Why isn't she over it yet? They need her with them, not sulking like a petulant child. But Mamiya's birthday is the one day of the year she still lets herself wonder: How long? If not today, when will this world take them from me and from their loved ones?

And for one day, just one, she's neglecting her village and hiding on the roof.

Call it learning to be selfish.

She sits and picks at the faint rash on her arms left by yesterday's nettles, her resolution to throughly enjoy brooding doing little for either the itching or her soul. Though the view...that, she will admit, is fantastic.

The sun's starting to set, lighting up the horizon in wild reds and purples that cast everything round her warm pink; ruined buildings are like suncatchers, all glittering window edges and crumbling metal while fresh stone and wood walls work their way up around them. The light wind smells of rain, and the clouds gathering in the distance are thick enough it may not be a lie. That'll be a welcome present for once, because things grow after the rain.

A lady could be proud of that view, having helped build it (right down to the irrigation systems), but in her ill mood all that thought leads to is 'so why aren't you helping today?'

Hopeless.

She flicks a loose bit of shingle and listens to the satisfying clacks as it bounces its way down. The second piece, instead of clattering, clicks over the edge and then stops. There's a knock after it, hollow and echoing underfoot. Mamiya doesn't have time to answer before Airi pulls herself one-handed over the roof's edge, knees and flowing skirt following after in a neat bound.

"I thought I'd find you up here."

"Airi, what are doing? You're going to—"

"Who do you think got stuck fetching my brother back home?" Unfazed, Airi walks one foot in front of the other along the gutters and tosses Mamiya the shingle piece before she sits down. "I never told our mother, but he was always somewhere...well, up. After trees and telephone poles and that one time he was in the telephone wires like some kind of bird, roofs are nothing."

Mamiya blinks, and tries to picture this. She can't quite get there, and it ends in knots. "In the wires?"

"You got me, he said it was some kind of ki control thing. Probably gone wrong and he wouldn't admit it." Airi points to her feet, currently bare under all that finely-embroidered skirt, and wiggles her toes. The aster-blossom pattern on the edge shimmers in the pink light too, bouncing with them. "I'm still better at climbing. He fell, I never did. Broke his arm and whined it was my fault for weeks."

"My brother got stuck up a tree once too. Found a swarm of bees—"

"Rei 'found' bees a few times. And you should have heard him scream about the banana spiders in his hair when we were staying in Okinawa, and. And I'm interrupting. Sorry!"

Airi waves her hands apologetically, and Mamiya pushes the nearer one back down.

"—s'okay. You can never have too many embarrassing spider stories, ask me about what gets in helmets sometime. Anyway, Kou was up there all 'but but sis if I move they're gonna get me, poke them with a stick and they'll chase you so I can get down'. I said no way, how about I poke you with a stick so you fall down before they notice if that's such a great idea. We sat there fighting for ten minutes over poking bees, and then the branch broke and he fell anyway."

"Did the bees get him?"

"Not a single one. But he scraped up his knees pretty bad and cried all the way home. I felt so...guilty."

She chokes on the last word, and Airi takes hold of her hand.

"I didn't think you really wanted to be alone. I didn't when I...when I was remembering things."

"It's more everybody dies on my damned birthday, and it's one big anniversary of it being my fault. If I hadn't been so carefree, or if I hadn't been so caught up in fighting I missed my own brother leaving the village—"

"It's nothing you did," Airi says, and then more to herself, "At least you never gave up."

"You're here, right? Surviving's not giving up." Mamiya scoots closer and beckons Airi to do the same. She's no good at hugs, but for Airi, she'll try. The warmth as Airi huddles against her side and tucks an arm against her chest is welcome, the tears on her shoulder aren't. "You just had to wait longer for a chance, I got lucky. If you can call it luck when...never mind, I—"

"Don't worry about me." Airi's voice is firm even though Mamiya's pretty sure she's still being cried on, leaving her with permission to tell the part she's told no one.

"Yuda was easy enough to flatter and slip away from, but his men, I couldn't. Too many of them. And it's easier to get a knife off a man when he's spent and drowsy." Mamiya buries that memory in favor of the part she could control and grits her teeth, and Airi squeezes her hand again. She returns the grip tight, crushing fingers so she can ignore the wrenching feeling in her gut and keep the resolve to speak. "I figured they'd be cowards and I was right. When I stabbed that first bastard they all got spooked, said it wasn't fun anymore and left me to starve and their own buddy to bleed out from his throat and...from his throat and from his nether regions. I hope the birds ate them first."

"You stabbed him in the—um—"

"After the throat! He was already down, but I was terrified and angry and I wanted to be sure and...it sure worked to scare the rest of them." Mamiya finds herself laughing, nervous release after so long, and Airi mouths something about crows fighting over nuts and then starts giggling herself. It's such inappropriate humor for two women to share, and Mamiya would dare the world that played such a cruel joke to take it from them.

"Did you feel...bad at all, for killing someone? Even someone like that?"

"Airi..." And now, Mamiya worries again. "Why, do you?"

"No," Airi admits. "It makes me a little scared sometimes, but I don't."

"I'm not sorry either. Never will be."

"Good." Airi still holds on to Mamiya's hand, but backs out of the hug enough to better speak. "Though I'm not cut out to be a real fighter like you. Just remember, you've got me as backup, right? All of us." That last bit's punctuated with a poke to the head as Mamiya starts to slump.

"You're braver than I am," she says. "You didn't even have anger, and you held on. And even remembering it all, you're more worried about me?"

"You're my friend. You might as well be family too, after this long."

Mamiya promised herself way early this morning she wouldn't cry. She isn't going to. Not on her birthday. She hiccups instead, and swallows until it more turns to snot than tears. Sneezing on your birthday is more acceptable, and Airi offers her a handkerchief before things can get worse.

"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry again! I was only trying to...well, you don't see me dying today. All right?"

"I always kind of wanted a sister," Mamiya says, and sneezes again. "And I'd be honored to consider you mine."

"So did I. Instead I got a brother. They're such a pain, aren't...weren't they."

"Yeah. Yeah, I miss him too." Maybe she is crying, but it's happy, right?

There's a crash from down below, and she takes the opportunity to rub the tears out of her eyes as she and Airi scramble to the roof's edge.

"I don't care if you baked it, it's not for you!"

The thonk and whining sounds like Bat being fended off with flatware. Mamiya looks to Airi for explanation, because Airi is already burying her face in her free hand.

"I said to wait. I even suggested tomorrow, but...they wanted to do something. And if you've ever tried to keep kids away from sugar—"

"It's not a birthday without cake, and if Miss Mamiya's gonna sulk up there forever, I'm gonna eat it! Ow, Lin, stop hitting me!"

Mamiya sighs, but she's smiling as she shakes her head. "We'd better get down there before someone gets a spatula to the eye."

Silence is making a point of filling the balcony by the time they reach it, and it's never good when children are Suddenly Quiet. Mamiya looks to the tile, and sees why the cake is no longer an argument. She looks to the kids, and Bat and Lin point at each other.

"No. No, I don't want to know."

She sits down in front of the cake, hiding her face, and lets the both of them squirm as she inspects it. Strawberries, they remembered those, even cut them into little strawberry-roses. The top, most of which is plastered to the floor, looks to once have had her name written on it.

"There's always tragedy on my birthday, and here you've gone and murdered my cake." Mamiya says it deadpan and peeks between her fingers, and Lin looks so wobbly she can't hold back long; not tears, but laughter, especially as Bat starts making excuses ending in:

"It's only half-ruined. A little...upside-down."

"That never stopped me when I was five," Mamiya agrees, and takes her fingers to the cake where it lies. Airi joins her, and Lin looks on in disbelief as they eat with their hands. The grownups are being weird again. Bat, well...

"Ew, you can't lick the floor!" Lin holds a piece she's sliced from the uncrushed end protectively, like it's going to catch cooties.

"It's covered in whipped cream, how can I not?"

She's missed having a family, Mamiya thinks, and grabs another strawberry before Bat can get to it. Birthdays, those she'll work on.