Hitoka arrived right as the sun set, which was really just her luck. First she got abandoned by her partner, then she had to leave most of her equipment behind because her horse got sick, and now she’s here, at the Niiyama Swamp, in the dark, no civilization in sight, and how did one even go about setting camp in a swamp, what if she steps into a pothole and breaks her leg, what if she goes to sleep near a sinkhole and gets sucked down in the middle of the night, why do swamps even have this many hole-related hazards, she should just go back and ask her mother for a furlough slip and study Exotic Species Relations for another year—
A twig snapped, somewhere to her left, and Hitoka definitely did not whimper. She clasped both hands to her torch to stop them from shaking, but now the entire torch was shaking.
The swamp is Cursed. Like, with a capital C. It’s really Cursed. Double-Cursed.
It’s the headquarters of the Niiyama coven, and they’re super territorial about it. Kind of rude, really, but they manufacture the best magic meals so nobody argues with them.
There’s a dragon in there! My wife’s aunt’s brother-in-law’s godson saw it just last week!
Not only that, but the dragon has a captive princess. I’m not sure where the princess is from, but like, she’s in there, definitely.
We’re having a sale, 50% off for anti-Curse—with a capital C—anti-Curse pendants, comes in four different colors—
Hitoka slapped her cheek with one hand and breathed out slowly. Focus. Panicking is good for some situations, but only after finding a reasonable solution. Maybe if she slept in a tree, she wouldn’t have to worry about swamp monsters or drowning or—
Leaves rustled, this time far closer, and Hitoka jerked. Relax, she had to relax, it was probably just a wild animal, they had those out here in the country, she had to relax she had to see the different possibilities she had to make decisions she couldn’t freak out now, this was her job, oh God she’s going to die and probably fail and get expelled—
There was a sound, right behind her, a tall, dark figure out of the corner of her eye, and Hitoka screamed.
See, here’s the thing: Karasuno Hero Academy was known for producing excellent Heroes precisely because of its experiential requirements. Every student, before they could be allowed to graduate and be licensed, had to first complete a Quest or perform a Heroic Deed (see definitions and criteria in Appendix B). If all it took to become a Hero was going to school, Hitoka’s mother had said, there’d be Heroes all over the place, there’d be a shortage of jobs and Heroes probably would no longer be subsidized by governments.
“You’d have Heroes on the streets letting people take pictures with their badges for five hundred yen,” she had said, shaking her head. Yachi Madoka had the kind of condemning head shake that petrified most people. Including Hitoka. “Back in my day, we didn’t have any kind of monetary compensation, you had to be really dedicated—”
“So breaking a curse,” Hitoka had said, scanning Appendix B in the thick student handbook. “Rescuing a princess—those count as Heroic Deeds? No matter what the curse is or what the princess is rescued from?”
Her mother frowned. “Princes work, too. The book’s a little outdated.” Then she huffed and folded her arms. “The definitions don’t matter, Hitoka. It’s about helping others. You’ll know when you’re a Hero.” She leaned on the table, in the way that made her naturally tower over Hitoka whether or not she realized it. “And you better be prepared. Joining this line of work when you aren't going to give it your all is the rudest thing you can do.”
“Leave it to us!” Hinata shouted, thumping a fist to his chest. “We can do it together, Yachi-san! We’ll be partners! We’ll have each other’s backs!”
Hitoka smiled, because Hinata’s confidence had always been contagious, had been one of the reasons Hitoka stayed in Karasuno, had made Hitoka feel like anything was possible. She could be a Hero. They could be Heroes, together.
There was no sign of Hinata now, and Hitoka was still screaming, mostly because she didn’t really know what else to do, and the woman stared back at her with wide startled eyes. The scream tapered off into a high whine, then something that transcended human hearing, and okay, this was really embarrassing, she should just let the swamp swallow her. Where were the sinkholes when you needed them?
“Are you all right?” the woman asked, her voice musical and smooth and concerned and oh God, Hitoka thought, she’s talking to me?
She’s talking to me?!
“Are you lost?” the woman continued, stepping closer. She held a lantern by her face, and the light was shining on her black hair, glinting off her wire-rimmed glasses, playing on the shimmery fabric of her black robe, and what even was the proper protocol for encountering strangers in swamps? Hitoka came in here expecting mud and magic slime and massive predators; she was not prepared for this.
But wait. What if the woman wasn’t real? What if the swamp was trying to trick her? What if this was one of the Niiyama coven’s defensive spells to deter outsiders? What if a swamp fairy was making her hallucinate so that she’ll be led in circles and eventually become so dehydrated that she’ll drink poisonous swamp water and die?
Swamp fairies are a thing, right? Hitoka remembered them being mentioned at the tail end of chapter three.
“It’s dark, you shouldn’t be out here so late,” the woman continued, still looking worried, and Hitoka abruptly remembered that a.) she just spent two entire semesters practicing magic detection, so at this point even a mild enchantment should catch her attention pretty quickly, and b.) she also just spent two solid minutes screaming at this poor woman for no discernible reason, so maybe she should fucking say something.
“I apologize for my unprofessional behavior!” Hitoka shouted. She bowed low, ninety degrees, so quickly that the weight of her armor nearly threw her to the ground. “I’m Yachi Hitoka, prospective graduate from Karasuno Hero Academy! Please let me know if there is anything I can help you with!”
She looked up to see the woman’s expression clear. “Oh, you’re a Hero!”
“In training,” Hitoka quickly corrected. “I really am sorry! I didn’t mean to scream at you, I thought you were a witch or a dragon—I mean, I don’t know if you’re a witch or not, but I thought I was going to be attacked—not, not that there’s anything bad about being a witch, I know that’s a stereotype—”
The woman shook her head. “It’s al—”
“A-are you a witch? Are you with the Niiyama coven? Oh no, you probably are, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to insult witches, I know I’m not supposed to cross into your territory but I couldn’t afford the map at the Cursed Swamp Tourist Center—”
“It’s all right!” The woman smiled at her gently. Hitoka was momentarily stunned by how lovely she was, which gave the woman enough time to continue. “It’s fine, I understand completely. The coven’s far less uptight about trespassers nowadays, it’s no big deal.”
“That’s good to hear!” Hitoka, after a long day of freaking out, finally had some good news. “So you are a witch?”
“In training,” the woman corrected, her lips quirked up in a half-smile. “I’m Kiyoko, I’m… working on my thesis.” Suddenly, that half-smile became a full smile. “Would you like some help finding your way?”
Hitoka practically sagged with relief. “Oh God, yes, thank you.”
“I see,” Kiyoko said. She had invited Hitoka back to her house for dinner so that she could lend Hitoka a waterproof map, and had even offered to guide Hitoka past the Niiyama coven’s booby traps. As Hitoka got over her disbelief that this pretty lady was still talking to her and had invited her over for dinner, she managed to explain her Quest requirements. “So you’re looking for the princess. To rescue.”
“Only if she wants to be rescued, of course!” Hitoka quickly added. “Heroes serve people. I just have to—to prove that I can do it.”
“I see,” Kiyoko repeated. “My place is right around the corner, here. Why did you choose this princess, specifically?”
Hitoka tried to think back. “Well, it was originally my partner’s idea,” she admitted.
“Your partner?” Kiyoko looked back over her shoulder. “You have a partner?”
“I had a partner,” Hitoka corrected. When she found Hinata again, they were going to have words. “He’s now, uh, otherwise occupied. But he heard about the princess in the Cursed Swamp when we visited Kitagawa—that village to the north?—and he was immediately set on it. He really likes dragons, he’s always wanted to meet one in person. Plus, it’s pretty close. So I guess I just went along with it.”
“Here we are,” Kiyoko said, as they rounded the bend and stopped in front of the small cottage. Most of the trees were tall and thick and loomed over them ominously, but the ones here seemed to lean in, bending their leafy branches down to conceal the house so that Hitoka wouldn’t even have seen it if she wasn’t looking for it. The walls and roof were painted completely black, vines climbed over every inch, the moonlight seemed unable to penetrate the foreboding shadows, and overhead a bird cawed cooperatively.
Hitoka glanced up just in time to see a black bird take flight, swooping low close to their heads for effect. If Kiyoko wasn’t here, she probably would’ve screamed, but now— “Do crows live in swamps?” she wondered.
Kiyoko laughed and pushed the door open. Hitoka didn’t know what she was expecting, but she was surprised anyway—the inside of the house was filled with warm light and cozy furniture. It almost blinded Hitoka.
“I’m renting this place from the coven,” Kiyoko explained, closing the door behind Hitoka. Locks slid into place automatically. “They’ve got really nice amenities, including automatic water purification. Please, take a seat, I’ll make tea.”
Hitoka made her way to the plump orange couch, basking in the heat from the large, crackling fireplace. Behind it, on the windowsill, were a couple of crows, nested together comfortably, looking up at her with beady eyes.
Well, that answered one out of the approximately five million questions Hitoka had.
“Are—” Hitoka paused. She didn’t know what might be rude to ask; the last thing Hitoka wanted, after all her help and after finally getting out of all that humidity, was to overstep boundaries and make Kiyoko uncomfortable. She had to imagine that people who willingly lived in swamps probably valued their privacy, so she settled on something neutral: “Do you know the princess? In the swamp, I mean.”
Kiyoko set the kettle on the stove. “Sure,” she said. “What kind of tea do you like? Sencha? Hojicha? Oolong? I still have some gyokuro, from the last time I went to the Fukurodani fair.”
“I’m really not picky,” Hitoka said, thinking of the smuggled boxes of powder under her bed. “The princess—was she captured by a dragon, like the rumors say?”
“Oh, no,” Kiyoko said, snorting a little. “I really don’t know how that started. It’s not true at all.” She finally turned, and her face was unreadable. “What would you do? If this princess doesn’t need help? Would you have to go back?”
“No! Of course not.” Hitoka shook her head. “It was just the first possibility of a Heroic Deed that we heard of, that’s all. If nobody needed our help, we were going to pass through and visit the Nekoma Forest. Fukurodani’s just south of there, too, and they have an agency specifically for helping Heroes find work.”
“Oh, okay.” Kiyoko relaxed, turned back to reach up into a cupboard for a pot. “Do you have to rescue a princess?”
Hitoka shook her head again. “We just need to complete a Heroic Deed. It can be for anyone. The definitions are a lot more flexible now.”
“So if I rescued a cat from a tree,” Kiyoko started, and Hitoka laughed.
“One of my classmates tried that. Apparently, it might have worked if the cat had been able to fill out the experiential credit survey.” She remembered Tsukishima, pointing out the loophole in the rules and saying that rescuing princesses is a pretty saturated market, and then Hinata had to look up what saturated meant. “Stories about Heroes working for princesses are just more widely publicized, and,” she added, since Tsukishima was on her mind, “It’s a good idea anyway to establish relationships with royal families. That kind of sponsorship goes a long way in this career. So I’ve heard.”
“Makes sense,” Kiyoko agreed. “Is that what they teach you at Hero school?”
“That’s just the money management symposium,” Hitoka quickly said, and Kiyoko laughed. “We actually learn how to do things, too!”
“Of course,” Kiyoko said. It was getting a little easier to tell when she was joking. What she said next, however, was serious: “Can I ask you something a bit personal?”
Hitoka blinked. “Sure, of course.”
“Why did you decide to attend Karasuno?” Kiyoko asked, still turned away from her.
Hitoka considered it. “At first, it’s just because my mother’s the headmistress, so I get a discount on the tuition,” she confessed. “But then—I saw my classmates working hard because they believed so hard in being a Hero, because they were so passionate about helping people. I wanted to do that, too; to really devote myself to something. Somebody once told me that anyone, even a normal villager, can fight for something, and I thought—oh! Do you need help with that?” She jumped up when the kettle started whistling.
“I’m sure you’ll do great,” Kiyoko said. She smiled at her, eyes crinkled up, and set a hand on Hitoka’s shoulder, and somehow this small gesture, this one sentence, held more weight than all of Hinata’s daily confident hollering.
“I’ll do my best,” Hitoka squeaked.
Hitoka didn’t remember falling asleep; she remembered the soup, snippets of conversation and laughter, spilling tea on herself twice when she was staring at Kiyoko because surely, surely it’s not just in her imagination that Kiyoko was glowing? She didn’t remember drifting off, but when she woke up, there was a blanket tucked over her, and Kiyoko was nowhere to be seen.
She glanced around. The fireplace was empty. There was a cup of tea on the nearby table, holding down a folded piece of paper and a note. Here’s the map I promised to lend you, it said. I’ll be out hunting, I packed you lunch in the basket on the counter.
Hitoka stared at the note, reality washing over her. As nice as it was to sit in a warm cabin and chat, this was just a pit stop, and she needed to move on now that this potential Quest turned out to be nothing. Hinata wasn’t here to drag her around, so all she had was their original nebulous plan of southward, but that would have to be good enough.
Sighing, Hitoka got up, tidied up around herself, and opened the door, coming face to face with a brilliant white dragon with a dead, unidentifiable animal in its mouth.
The dragon reared back in surprise. Hitoka shrieked and slammed the door.
“Yachi-san?” Kiyoko’s voice called through the door.
“Kiyoko-san?” Maybe Hitoka was hallucinating. She probably just had dragon in the brain, and now she’d just slammed the door—Kiyoko’s own door!—in Kiyoko’s face, oh God, that was so rude, Hitoka should retire her unborn Hero career and become a hermit in the mountains—
“I apologize for surprising you,” Kiyoko said. Now that Hitoka thought about it, her voice seemed deeper somehow. “I thought you’d have left by now.”
Hitoka blinked. “Kiyoko-san?” she repeated, a little hesitant.
“Yes,” Kiyoko replied, to probably all of Hitoka’s questions. “I suppose I should’ve introduced myself properly,” she added, after a pause. “I’m Shimizu Kiyoko.”
Hitoka choked. “Shimizu… as in the Shimizu family that rules Karasuno?”
They stood, on opposite sides of the door, silently contemplating this turn of events, and all Hitoka could think was: she definitely should have seen this coming.
She came into the swamp expecting to meet a witch, a dragon, hopefully a princess; as it turned out, Shimizu Kiyoko was all three. It made sense, anyway. If Hitoka had paid even a shred of attention to Kiyoko’s concerned questions last night, if she hadn’t been so caught up waxing poetic on the meaning of being a Hero, she would’ve guessed at least some of this situation. She imagined Tsukishima raising one eyebrow and commenting something in a flat voice, like this is a very efficient arrangement; she imagined Hinata’s jealous uuoOOOoaaAHHH, his MIND BLOWN hand gestures mimicking explosions by his temples; she imagined Yamaguchi scrambling for his textbooks, trying to find some kind of precedent, shouting time out! time out! as though they were in a match.
But none of them are here right now. This was Hitoka’s Quest.
“I apologize for my unprofessional behavior,” Hitoka said, when she opened the door. She took a deep breath, took in Kiyoko’s full dragon form—about twice as tall as her human height, majestic and ethereal but with that same sharp light in her eyes—and smiled. “Please let me know if there is anything I can help you with!”
Kiyoko looked down at her, surprised; after a moment, she dropped the dead animal into one paw and returned the smile. “How about you help me set up for breakfast?”
“I really did not know that the Shimizu princess can turn into a dragon,” Hitoka said, around a mouthful of cheese-and-unidentifiable-mammal sandwich.
“The rumors never got very far,” Kiyoko said; she was sprawled on the swamp floor, next to the picnic blanket, eating some kind of roasted swamp fowl. “It just seemed too out there, I guess. And it’s not, uh.” Kiyoko picked at her food with a claw. “It’s not that I can turn into a dragon. I just do, every sunrise. I can’t really control it.”
Hitoka stared. “What? Really? Is it a spell? A curse?” She’d never heard of a curse that worked that way before, but she supposed that the curse industry would have a quick rate of innovation, in order to keep getting past new defensive measures.
“Seems to be,” Kiyoko agreed, sighing. “It’s why I came out here to study magic; I’m working on designing a countercurse that’ll fix this.”
“Are you close?” Hitoka asked. “If you need help with anything—”
Kiyoko shook her head. “It’s still in the research phase. I’ve tried all the traditional countercurses, but none of them worked, so I’m back on square one. I need an accurate model of the curse’s structure and function, but it’s a bit slippery.”
“I’m so sorry,” Hitoka said. “This must be difficult to deal with.”
“Oh, it’s not too bad.” Kiyoko shrugged one shoulder; the motion made light ripple along the scales down her back. “It’s been this way all my life, I got used to working around it. Mostly I take naps during the day, when I don’t need to hunt. Plus, it’s far easier to travel as a dragon.”
“Takes less time to visit your family, right?” Hitoka said in an attempt to be encouraging.
“Oh, I don’t really…” Kiyoko seemed startled by the idea. “We write letters, mostly.” She looked down at her meal for a bit, then exhaled roughly and glanced back at Hitoka. “Enough about me. You said that you’ll be passing through the swamp to the Nekoma Forest?”
“Right! Yes!” Hitoka had to put down her plate, her hand fluttering to explain their reasoning. “One of my classmates is from around that area, and he said that there’s always something going on.” More accurately, Tsukishima had said that for some reason, the place is like a magnet for idiots and trouble. “We—uh, I figured that I might run into someone who needs help there; I could get to them faster than if I waited for missing person news to get to me.”
“I have heard that there’s a sizable population of hedge witches in the area,” Kiyoko said thoughtfully. “I suppose it’s easy for travelers to get lost, too, with the amount of magic involved. I’d be happy to give you a ride there.”
Hitoka almost dropped her sandwich. “Oh, you don’t have to! You’ve been so kind and helpful already!”
“Please, I’d really love to help,” Kiyoko insisted, leaning forward earnestly. “Let me escort you to the south edge of the swamp, at least. It takes a week to reach it by foot.”
It sounded like a fantastic idea, and walking in the swamp was not doing her new armor any favors. But Hitoka hesitated. What if Hinata was trying to catch up to her? If she moved too quickly, he wouldn’t be able to find her. Going to the Nekoma Forest had been Hinata’s idea, too; it seemed strange to be jumping into it so quickly without him.
Then again, a dragon was literally offering a ride. Hitoka was going to ride a dragon.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” Hitoka relented, and Kiyoko grinned.
They cruised about five meters above the tree canopy; although the wind sometimes made it a bit hard to hear, they were able to hold a conversation. At Kiyoko’s prompting, Hitoka described the classes she took, the old Heroes coming back to lecture on combat etiquette and high society dress code, all the swordsmanship practice that she and Hinata did until their hands were covered in calluses and they were bruised all over. She talked about cramming until four for exams on how to identify magical creatures and different interpretations of curses, about how they would add three-in-one coffee packets to contraband energy potions and then start seeing sparkles and purple slime in the edge of their vision. Kiyoko laughed when Hitoka made deeply unfunny jokes and hummed in appreciation when Hitoka mentioned the good pizza their cafeteria had once a week and asked questions about the kind of homework Hitoka was good at, the kind of animals Hitoka worked with in her magical husbandry class, the kind of weapons they tried out before picking a specialty.
It was so nice, after being friends with Tsukishima “Heroism is a social construct and I’m only here for the financial aid check” Kei and Hinata “if we’ve got time to sit then we’ve got time for physical conditioning” Shouyou for most of her academic career, to just talk to someone who was interested in the same things.
(Of course she had Yamaguchi, but so often their conversations derailed into what’s the worst case scenarios for all events in the next three months and how much do we need to freak out about it and it usually got very stressful very quickly.)
“No way,” Kiyoko said. “They teach you opera singing?!”
“It’s an elective!” Hitoka said defensively. “It’s just—you never know what skills might be useful! One time a baker received a Hero license because his muffins were so good they convinced two rival kingdoms to make peace and sponsor a culinary school together.”
“I thought that was just a meme,” Kiyoko said, and they both started laughing. When Kiyoko took a breath to continue, Hitoka whispered the muffin man and they broke down giggling again.
“The Academy actually has an exchange program with that school,” Hitoka finally managed, after spending five minutes trying and failing to pull herself together. “I’m on the waitlist for next semester. It’s got great reviews.”
“I think the coven has one of those, too, actually,” Kiyoko said. “I guess cooking’s a pretty important skill for a witch to have. The potions industry is so competitive these days, flavor really makes a huge difference.”
“Can you bake potions into a muffin?” Hitoka asked, and they lost it again.
Around noon, Kiyoko landed in a clearing so that they could have lunch. Hitoka unpacked the lunch basket and set up the picnic (the blanket seemed to be magic, or at the very least waterproof) while Kiyoko went off to see one of the coven witches that lived nearby. When she came back, there was a young woman with her, wearing the same kind of black robe that Kiyoko had on last night.
“This is Amanai Kanoka,” Kiyoko said. “Kanoka, this is Yachi Hitoka, she’s a Hero.”
“In Training,” Hitoka added, because her law class last year had spent two weeks on the importance of legal disclaimers. “It’s nice to meet you! I apologize for intruding on coven territory.”
“Ditto,” Amanai said, as they shook hands. “Don’t worry about it, no one’s been killed over trespassing for, like, months.” She plopped down onto the blanket without hesitation and snatched one of the rolls out of the basket. “Not to be rude,” she continued, to Kiyoko. “But should you really be flying around right now? Have you made any progress on your thesis?”
Kiyoko groaned, flopping over on her back. “I’m trying,” she grumbled.
“You could always apply to change your thesis topic,” Amanai pointed out, mouth full of bread. Hitoka took a roll for herself and tried to be as invisible as possible. “You don’t have to work on your curse now, you’ve got plenty of time later.”
Kiyoko remained horizontal, and Hitoka thought that was where the conversation would end, was startled when Kiyoko spoke up. “It’s what I came here to do,” she said. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever focused on. If I’m not working on that, then why am I even here?”
Amanai shrugged. “Can’t really answer that for you, Kiyoko.” She tossed a roll, and Kiyoko snatched it out of the air lazily. “Maybe that should be your research question.” Before Kiyoko could respond, Amanai turned to Hitoka, eyes bright. “You sword is awesome, by the way. Does it have any spell functionality?”
There was significantly less conversation that afternoon. Amanai had given them a few more bags to carry, grumbling that you only ever drop by when you want my food, anyway, so out of consideration for the extra weight Kiyoko was carrying, Hitoka kept her mouth shut and focused on the wonderful view from the air.
Yeah, no. She was definitely keeping her mouth shut because the mood had changed.
“Sorry that lunch got awkward,” Kiyoko sighed, when they finally landed, as the sun set. “Kanoka just keeps bringing it up, but—I don’t know what I’m doing, either. The way the coven keeps talking about it makes it feel like I’m running out of time.”
The last slice of the sun vanished over the horizon; there wasn’t a noticeable change to the light, but Kiyoko took a few steps away and said, “You might want to look away.”
There was a bright flash. Hitoka quickly squeezed her eyes shut against it, and when she opened them again, Shimizu Kiyoko was standing in front of her, in her human form, wearing that same black robe and her glasses, still.
“Please don’t mind anything you heard today,” Kiyoko continued, as though nothing had changed. She moved back and started rooting through one of the bags. “It’s nothing to worry about; I’ll get through this eventually.”
“Of course.” Hitoka watched as Kiyoko took out two of Amanai’s prepackaged meals. Amanai had been very proud of them, blushing for the first time since Hitoka met her as she explained how all it took was a shot of magic for the food to be hot and ready to eat, described fine-tuning the dormant spells to ensure safety and quality. Kiyoko activated them now, and the tops popped open with puffs of steam. “Thank you,” Hitoka said, when Kiyoko handed one to her, and bent her head over it, determined to mind her own business, give Kiyoko the space she asked for, find some different fun topic to talk about—
“Um,” Hitoka said, because the words have been burning her inside out and if this was the last real conversation she was going to have with Kiyoko, didn’t she have an obligation to make it count? “Somebody once told me that it’s not what you’re doing that matters, it’s why you’re doing it.”
Tsukishima said that. Tsukishima was always unexpectedly full of wise sayings that he used to insult Hinata.
When Kiyoko looked up, Hitoka couldn’t see her eyes; the glasses had fogged up from the heat of the soup. But Hitoka went on anyway: “It’s like—you know, there’s no wrong way to do something, as long as you’re doing what you believe you should be doing.” She paused. “Unless you believe that you should set things on fire. Then don’t do that.”
Kiyoko snorted. She finally smiled, her first real smile since lunch, and Hitoka smiled back, and soon they were both laughing again. “Thank you, I’ll—” Kiyoko started, but then looked up. Hitoka followed her gaze, and gasped when she saw a shooting star arcing across the clear night sky.
She’d never seen a shooting star before, although she certainly knew of them. When she was studying at Karasuno, the lights of the town ensured that she could never see the stars, and anyway she didn’t spend a lot of time looking up, always too busy organizing her notes or making sure Hinata didn’t fail his core classes or making sure Hinata and Tsukishima didn’t get into a fight (Yamaguchi, usually reliable, was entirely useless in that respect). It was so bright, but so brief, and Hitoka wanted to rewind the moment, bring it back and savor it.
“I heard that shooting stars land in the swamp a lot,” Kiyoko said, in the ensuing silence. “Apparently they contain very powerful magic. Sometimes treasure hunters camp out here in the hopes of catching one. They sell for upwards of a billion yen. Did you make a wish?”
“Did I—” Hitoka stuttered, still trying to process the fact that there was a market for burning meteors that land in swamps. “N-no! Was I supposed to? Is it too late?”
Kiyoko smiled. “It’s just something people do. I’m sure there’s no time limit.” She took another sip of her soup. “There’s no telling if the stars listen to it.”
Hitoka looked up at the sky. The image of the shooting star was seared into the backs of her eyes. She didn’t think she’d ever forget it. Please, she started, then hesitated. Don’t be selfish, her mother had told her over and over. Being a Hero is not about you. It’s not about becoming popular, or being liked and respected, or making people proud of you. It has to be about making the world a better place. Do you understand?
“I think I might save this for later,” Hitoka said, faintly, her mother’s words still ringing in her mind. It’s too stressful right now.
“Sure,” Kiyoko said. At least she seemed herself again. “Take all the time you need.”
The next morning, Kiyoko led her to where the swampland solidified into a proper forest, with dirt instead of mud and air instead of thick sticky mouthfuls of not enough oxygen. They stood on the border, Kiyoko’s dragon form high above Hitoka’s and draped with bags.
“Thank you for everything,” Hitoka said.
“Be sure to let me know how your Quest goes!” Kiyoko said, smiling. The cheerfulness felt strained, somehow. “Send any letters to the Niiyama coven, they should be able to direct it to me as long as it’s got my name on it.”
“Of course!” Hitoka said. “I’ll keep you posted.”
They stood there. Hitoka suddenly had no idea how goodbyes worked.
Finally, when it got awkward enough that Hitoka had to do something, she quickly bowed and said, “Thank you again!” and spun around to head into the forest. She was on her own now. She couldn’t rely on Hinata or Kiyoko; she had to make this journey by herself.
Behind her, there was a shuffling—it sounded like Kiyoko was turning to head back—Hitoka refused to look back—
And then: “Yachi-san!”
It only took about four steps for Kiyoko to catch up with her, but she still seemed out of breath somehow when she asked, “Would it be okay if—would you mind if I—” Kiyoko stopped, took a deep breath, and looked Hitoka in the eyes. “May I come with you?”
Hitoka stared; there were so many things that she wanted to say that all she could manage was: “You can call me Hitoka.”
Kiyoko beamed, and Hitoka couldn’t help but smile back, as wide as she could.