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defunct strings, cemetery things

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In the mornings, Mary eats her breakfast alone.

Dull lighting thieves in through the ceiling-high windows (fog in the forecast again, just like yesterday), steam curls from tasteless food pushed slowly across her plate, and the only sound save for the clacking of fork to porcelain is the second hand of the clock counting down to eternity. It’s not atypical, if not dreadfully somber, but that in itself has never seemed to be entirely out of the ordinary. William – ‘her father’, she amends, or ‘Dad’, maybe – leaves early, out into Seattle streets before the birdsong and the edge of dawn without so much as a slice of bread left behind in the toaster. What he leaves behind is the settling of the home, the shuddering of seemingly ancient wood. There is nothing living here but her breath and her heartbeat.

How long would it take for him to notice, she wonders, stirring Cheerio halves through sugar sweet milk, if she weren’t here? The neighbors? The school? The world? (Would they ever?)

It’s twenty minutes passed (too late to be on time for school now, even if she ran) when the floorboards creak and a shadow casts itself across the blonde’s shoes.

“Why are you here?” she asks.

His shadow flickers, cat-like. There is nothing living here. Mary considers sinking into wood, seamless, the dishes she would leave behind. Someone would have to do them eventually.

“… Please don’t worry about me.” She smiles at him sheepishly and raises with her bowl in hand. It can’t be called mechanical if she does it all with a grin. “I wasn’t really planning to skip. What if the teachers called home?”

What if?

 


 


First period has virtually finished by the time she slips in through the door, but all her teacher affords her is a weary look and a cold shoulder. Two years ago, when things like tardies and the detention it would bring still mattered, the powdery old woman had caught her crying two minutes after the chime (not about the time, of course, but it had been a convenient excuse); maybe she still remembers that red, baby-faced girl, seemingly upset by what meant nothing at all; or maybe it just means that little to them both.

Besides, what has she missed? Back row gossip is whispered louder than their instructor’s lecture, bleeding out from one class into the hallway clatter, then again into the following period, shifting always as swiftly as the weather.

At the start of the year, it had been all about the new ‘foreigner’ student and whether or not he’d even understand a lick of English, never mind the fact that he’d lived state-side, and against the Pacific coast, no less, for at least half a decade. After that was parental discourse – money laundering, the arrests that followed, the student who had the genes of a criminal. Mindless blather, the lot of it.

Today, the topic has found itself once again on the presumed promiscuity of the school’s Psychology teacher. For as little as the blonde cares, it’s harder to avoid it than raindrops on a stormy day.

Apparently, all you have to do is ask. Victoria – you remember her, right? – said she asked him last week on a dare, and he, like, barely even waited after school was out before they did it.”

“Why would someone like Dr. Wayne want to sleep with someone like Victoria?” came the unconvinced reply, only to be drowned out by a more receptive audience.

“Hey, didn’t Brianna say something like that, too? You know, before she...”

For once, the rumor mill beside her runs to a halt. What, exactly, Brianna did goes unspoken, but Mary knows as well as any of the girls to her right what happened. Of every holy ground that goes trampled by running mouths and wild imaginations, at least the names of dead girls aren’t pulled backward through the mud. … Mostly.

“You don’t think he, like… murdered her to keep it secret, do you?”

Oh shit,” says the tallest of the bunch, precisely one moment before her tilted desk chair comes crashing into Mary sitting next to her. The bruise that forms on her shoulder is no worse than the scolding that comes after (why she gets roped in with the ‘troublemakers’ despite being the victim, she’ll never know); one way or another, she doesn’t hear much more about Wayne and the high schoolers he may or may not have killed.

Her shadow trails her from a distance throughout most of the day, always too far away to spare a word to, had she ever the desire to. (She doesn’t.) Anyway, she knows he’s not really here for her. The fact that she attends school here isn’t even a pretense, because what does some(thing)one like that need pretense for to begin with? Wayne didn’t kill that girl, or any of the others, but Mary knows who did.

Still – still. Psychology is second-to-last in the day, cut short along with that which would come after in the name of an afternoon assembly. Her classmates shuffle through the door one-by-one, marching like drunkards toward the auditorium beyond, but the doctor lingers behind, and sat on the corner of his desk is a straggler: all limbs, no brain, decorated on top with a mop of uncombed, curly black hair. Nikki, her memory supplies after a few fumbling seconds. Nikki Strauss.

The blonde’s never noticed before now – not really – but what strikes her is that the image of them there, heads bowed too close together, doesn’t seem all that unfamiliar.

 


 


The assembly is the expected response of a school system faced with the inexplicable deaths of members of its student body (was it murder? suicide? something else? what is left behind when the soul itself dies? dishes in the sink, bodies in the caskets), which is to say, little of value. Her principal urges them to come forth to adults – the very same who tend not to listen until things have already gone too far – with anything suspicious, to – to value their individual lives and the lives of those around them. See something, say something.

Mary thinks of alleyways where nervous breakdowns make the anxious into murders. She thinks of concrete rooftops and ocean sprayed docks where the miserable go to see no more. Last of all, she thinks of teenaged faces, no younger or older than her own, showing themselves in places they have no business being, playing powerful when a child is all they have ever been.

She used to think the lucky ones were those who left something behind: soulless husks to remind the world that, even if only for a short while, they were someone. They were there.

(Now, she wonders what becomes of those that don’t – lost forever within wards, labyrinths.

(It must be so much less messy that way.)

 


 


“Are you coming with me tonight?”

William – ‘her father’, she corrects again in her head – is not home tonight, wrapped up in his work at the church just as seemingly every night that has passed before, but neither is his renegade daughter. Now, haloed by the porch light and sunset behind, Mary’s is the shadow that casts, stretching out across cobblestone and white fur. Kyubey is little more than red eyes on a black face in the dying shades of twilight; he watches her impassively, and she pretends not to be unsettled.

“No,” and, oh, if part of her doesn’t wilt at that. “I think I’ve stayed here long enough. It’s a shame what happened to the others, but no one with their potential has shown up to take their place.”

“So you’re leaving Seattle?”

Even to her own ears, the magical girl sounds devastated. It’s not that she likes Kyubey particularly, or even at all; above everything else, she can’t stand a liar, and his attempts at feigning care or emotion when he’s made it clear that he can feel neither leave a sour taste in her mouth. He is, however, the closest thing she has in the city to a ‘friend’. Beyond the parent she never sees, he’s the only one to acknowledge her, the only one to greet her in the morning, to warn her of a spawning witch or when her soul gem needs cleaning. The thought of her empty breakfast table, devoid even of the shadow to remind her to go to school for at least one day more is almost too much to bear.

“There’s no one else here to make a contract with. Why would I stay?”

Mary bites her lip to keep herself from saying something that won’t do her any good. “Oh,” is all that comes out, instead, and she can’t help but curse herself for her lack of skill with words. It’s what’s gotten her into this mess to begin with. If only she knew how to open her mouth, to say what people wanted to hear. Maybe then she wouldn’t be so – “Maybe someone else will turn up. Seattle is pretty large.”

“Maybe.” The Incubator runs his tongue over a paw, then his paw over his ear, cleaning at the feline-like part rather than the tail that protrudes from it. There’s a but in his tone that she doesn’t like one bit. She doesn’t need him to spell this out to her, but, well – it’s not as though she’s ever lauded him for his tact. “If they do, I’ll come back. But waiting here won’t make new magical girls, Mary.”

Despite the fact that she could swear she’d cleaned it just last night, when the blonde calls her soul gem from the ring around her finger, its green glow seems no clearer than it had after her last fight. It had been a difficult struggle, one she’s certain she wouldn’t have made it out of alive without the white-furred creature’s snap-shot advice amid the heat of battle; already, her gem is hunting down bigger prey, harder battles, exactly the sort she has never felt less prepared for. “Can you come with me, just for tonight? Please,” she tacks on, not having to try to look pleading. “In case I don’t get to see you again.”

Pleading, of course, has never worked on someone without empathy. “It’s better if I leave as soon as possible. I’ve wasted enough time here already, I think. You’ll be fine on your own, won’t you?”

(Will she be?)

But it’s selfish to ask for him all to herself when there is a whole world full of miserable girls whose hearts cry out for a miracle, never mind what has become of her own magical girl’s journey. If she falls tonight, who has she to blame but herself?

“I really did enjoy our time together,” he says. (Liar.) “Good luck with your hunt.”

“Bye, Kyubey.”

Mary blinks, and in the time it takes for her eyelids to close and rise once more, he’s stolen by the night, off to another town, another city, another contract. Her heart seizes in her chest – a great ocean’s wave poised at its greatest height, threatening to crash down – then her soul gem throbs with light, and the moment is stifled before it’s even begun. Witch activity nearby. (What does it matter that her only company has left her once and for all? What does it matter that she’s got no ambitions to speak of, no future to look forward to? The hunt is all that’s been left of her. She’s got to do at least that for the wish that was promised to her.)

 


 


The walk, in the end, isn’t far. Three blocks and a turn to the left reveals the sight of chemical ooze pouring out of reality’s fissures and the familiar beat against the skull that signal’s a witch’s territory, staked in an alley nearby notorious for its violent muggings-turned-homicide. Did it come here because of those crimes, she wonders? Or has it always been here, quiet, waiting, infecting the poor with ideas of wealth built off the blood of another? William – oh no, she’s thought it again – had warned her never to go near, but the terror of man has come to mean very little to her. No knife against flesh can compare to the feeling of the first breaching steps into a ward.

Immediately, she knows something’s wrong.

There’s an uncomfortable thrum in the walls that can mean any number of things, because awareness of an issue doesn’t always translate to understanding of that issue. Kyubey, she thinks miserably, still smarting at the idea of his willingness to leave her behind, may have been able to tell her at a glance. Alone, she can only guess: A renegade familiar breaking loose? Another magical girl, already in combat? Worst of all – a second witch, nestled up close in another’s labyrinth?

These questions don’t stop her, of course, from mowing down any familiar that comes in sight. With pistols in hand, barely taking aim, she makes quick work of the slimy little beasts that trail webs from the ceiling like spiders; bullet to the brain, they explode into primordial ooze and fairy dust.

The first time she had done this, taking unsteady aim with unfamiliar weapons that could be summoned with merely a thought, she’d almost fainted at the first sight of them. To her credit, or at least from what she can remember, that labyrinth had been more frightening in appearance than any that had come since. On unforgiving nights, her memory drags the puppet master back up in dreams, putting her face to face once more with flesh rotting off metal bone and a thousand reaching arms ten times her size. Compared to that, tonight’s showcase feels like nothing. Compared to Hollywood thrillers…

An ‘elevator shaft’ skyrockets her up, far above what the outer appearance of the ward would betray of its inside dimensions, and it’s only when its shutters slide open (up and down, somehow more wrong even than the one-eyed gelatinous familiars she’s killed along the way) that Mary understands what’s been causing the disturbance. There, across the way, with both hands held up in a pathetic attempt to keep his sharp-toothed attackers at bay: a boy. A real, living human.

“Stay down!” she yells, authoritarian, but the sudden hiccup of worry (what if he doesn’t stay down? what if she hits him with her bullets instead?) causes her words to hiccup, themselves. Aiming hasn’t been this hard since her novice days. Still, in four messy shots, the surreal melts into nothing, and she’s left facing someone not wholly unfamiliar.

He peaks through his fingers to ensure the coast is clear before lifting his head. Had his face not already been colored with shock-horror, she’s sure it would have become so at the meeting of their eyes. “Mary?”

“Nikki?” she echoes. In a flurry of light, both firearms vanish from her grip, opening up a palm that she offers to help lift her classmate to his feet. “How did you get in here?”

“How did I – How did you? And what’s with that… that nun getup?” Two eyes scan her up and down with disbelief. At the ‘nun’ comment, though, Mary can’t help but fold her arms (gesture of kindness ignored) protectively over her chest, decorated in black and white and a dress that leaves far too much skin exposed to ever be that of a sister… but isn’t entirely unlike what he’s accused her of. It isn’t as though she had been the one to choose the veil, hanging off her head like part of a habit, or any of the rest of her attire, either.

She says, “Never mind all that! You can’t be here.” From its place mounted to the base of her neck, her soul gem bursts again with life, warning them both – or, truly, just the one who understands their situation – that the labyrinth’s charge is frightfully near. How he ever managed to make it this far without being swallowed whole, another casualty to be mourned at a school assembly, she’ll never know. “Can you walk?”

“You know the way out?” Nikki completely ignores her question, but his shuffling steps of hopeful excitement toward her answer it as well as any words.

“Yes, but –”

The witch. It’s so close, near enough she can feel it in her teeth, through her capillaries, soul gem be doomed. If she’s to escort her ruffled-haired acquaintance out in one piece, she’ll be abandoning the mayhem maker to make mayhem again, without any guarantee it won’t simply move its wards elsewhere now that its home has been defiled by a half-baked ‘holy woman’ and her pair of smoking guns. How many people will it curse like that? How many innocent lives will have to die before she hunts it down again and finally, rightly puts it to rest? Is it a risk she can take?

But then, here is Nikki, who has never spoken so much as a word to her beyond these crumpling, twisted walls – who takes hold of her elbow as a lifeboat, and looks at her as though she’s a messiah, second-coming. If she lets the witch go, someone might die. If she lets Nikki go, someone most certainly will.

“… But it’s kind of far, and the familiars will be after us,” Mary says instead of what she thinks, smiling hollowly in a facsimile of comfort. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to do anything to calm the other’s nerves. His eyebrows only furrow further at the fall of ‘familiar’ from her lips. “Um, I mean – it’ll be dangerous. Can you stay close to me?”

He opens his mouth – to comply, to deny, to say anything at all – but the oxygen he takes in doesn’t matter, the chemical that feeds to the explosion that bursts between them not a second later. Near, the magical girl thinks sardonically as she raises a warding hand to cover her eyes. That doesn’t begin to describe it!

Who wails first? Nikki? The disgusting, malformed shape of a man-eating monster? Their screams mingle into one ear-piercing noise, and Mary wastes no time shooting bullet hell into the beast’s bleeding eye.

“Run!”

Wait, no – what would Kyubey, unbothered, fearless, tell her in this situation? If the boy were to run, he would be safe from the recoiling witch, certainly, but he may very well race headfirst into the maw of something far less dangerous, but nonetheless still very deadly further down in the labyrinth. The safest place can only be: “G… Get behind me! I can take care of this!”

“What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?” Nikki curses in a mantra – but the sound of his frightened chanting gets louder, circling around her to come to a halt behind her neck, and let him swear up a storm so long as he gets (they get) out of this alive. In the meanwhile, her target’s limbless body contracts, contorts, and capsizes, face melded into the oozing flesh around it. For a breathless minute, it appears that a single well-placed shot was enough to do it in.

It’s not. It’s not! Mary lowers her aim only an inch, and instantaneously, what once was the massive beast’s side splits open wide into a maw filled with rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth. Knee-jerk reaction is all that saves her head from being made into a single bite meal, but the backward swing of the skull has her colliding with the boy behind, and together, they collapse in one headache of a human heap, barely safe from the threat that drools above.

“S-sorry!” she gasps, brain bursting into a supernova. There’s no time to spare him a backward glance, but she doesn’t imagine her classmate’s head is faring much better after a hit like that.

Their assailant is relentless, as all creatures like it are, bearing down on them from above with another ghastly screech. The blonde makes use of their prone position on the ground to make herself into a shield for the coming attack – laid out on top of a protesting Nikki, willing to take the coming strike. When its teeth sink in this time, at least, she’s prepared for it, magic running over the surface of her body like electricity. Thick skinned, Mom used to laugh at the playground park, when Mary’s greatest concerns were jeers and sneers at the sandbox. Here, now, with blood trickling out of a flesh wound that otherwise would have been fatal, she thinks: You don’t know the half of it.

As the witch sinks its teeth further and further in, she summons a very different gun into her hand. “Close your eyes tight, okay? Everything will be alright.” (She doesn’t believe it anymore than Kyubey’s promises of humanity, but – well – it’s not as though she’s ever been very forgiving of herself, either.) With every ounce of strength that can be mustered, she aims one great pistol whip at its reopened eye, a weak point it isn’t equipped to properly guard, and pulls the trigger; from the weapon’s barrel shoots not a bullet, but a cloud of thick, suffocating smoke, smothering everything in sight with white. Altogether, it’s enough to knock that grip loose, startle it into momentary submission, and with smokescreen for a cover, it’s simply a matter of hauling Nikki to his feet and fleeing for safety.

Nikki’s smart enough to break into a run without thought or complaint the moment he’s set upright. Enviously, in their blind rush to get away, she realizes that he’s faster than her, much, pausing every so often to make sure she hasn’t fallen behind. What’s to be expected, though? The side of her magical girl attire has been shred to ribbons and splatter painted with her own blood; it will take more than a burst of healing magic to sew up the puncture holes carved into the canvas of her rib cage.

If there’s rhyme or reason to their eventual stop, she can’t put a name to it. Their legs simply shuffle into stillness. The roar of battle has dulled to a throbbing in her badgered brain.

“Are you okay?” he asks through wheezing, greedy intakes of breath, looking no better than ‘okay’ himself.

“I’ve had it worse.” This, she tells herself with a concoction one part pride and two parts shame, isn’t a lie.

“Worse?” he parrots, gawking. “When? You’ve fought that thing before? What is it? And why’s it after us?”

The male hurdles his volley of questions at her without mercy or break between inquiry, but she doesn’t have the breath or the energy to answer them. There’s too much to tell, she wouldn’t even know where to begin. With Kyubey? With contracts and the miracles they bring? The secretive underworld of acid-corrupted fantasy known only to those who fall victim to it or rise above it in silence? With no one to back up her claims, anyway, she’s certain she’d sound the part of a lunatic –

(But there is the witch, no less, whose very existence lies beyond the realms of logic and rationality. What else has he to believe but her word when it comes to things so wretched and unholy?)

“I’ll tell you everything once I’ve gotten you out of here,” she promises in lieu of a proper answer. Mary’s got better things to do with her energy now: picking pieces of fabric out a cauterizing cluster of wounds, for one, and planning their second wind with her limited pools of reserve magic, for another. The easiest answer is to make haste back from where she had come before their unexpected rendezvous – but the section of the ward their retreat has taken them doesn’t look familiar in the slightest, and even as they speak, the labyrinth around them changes, unfortunate reflection of its amorphous master. For as much as they would like to leave, the witch is not so ready to let them go.

Deep down, she understands that the quickest way to get out of the wards is to dispel them entirely. (Even deeper, dug nicely into its own sour little pit, mocks a voice: Can she even manage?)

 


 


In madness, there is method – this is the first, the most crucial rule of the hunt. Two years ago, Mary had stood stock still in a very different place, no less manic than the ever-changing stairways and winding escalators presented to her in the present. There had been the way out, somewhere, fleeing always further, slipping just out of reach; and then there had been that around which everything circumvented, tugging at the invisible leash of the stone at her throat.

More than anything (the grief seeds, the witches’ curses, the proper way to handle a gun), the life of a magical girl was a dead end, one-way street, no road back. Once inside, the only option was to fight. The only option was to win.

No one had seen the blood that first night. William was busy, always busy, and the red ran like sea waves on a bone-white beach down the bathroom sink, ebbing. Proof enough she was alive, at least one day more: breath, heartbeat, a shadow cast against tile and porcelain.

She always thinks of running, every new battle, every coming night, but she hasn’t got the nerve.

 


 


“It’s coming back!”

Just so that their foe is a foul match for her. In labyrinths, there is almost always a centerpiece taken shape in one great and grand hall that houses its master. Victory, then, is a matter of keeping her distance and raining hellfire from afar, firing and firing and firing until her clips turn up empty and the witch undoes itself from existence.

Like its master, then, the labyrinth has no sense of structure: it molds like a contortionist wherever is most convenient for its innards, and the witch stuffs hallways full of its stinking, pulsing flesh to take up the whole of the space. Mary’s no good backed into a corner – no good anywhere at all, if she’s to be honest with herself, but here, particularly – and the rooms take advantage of that, cutting her space by halves, and then by halves and again and again.

It’s a long, hard-fought battle, to say the very least. Nikki tugs her out of the way of oncoming rows of teeth, and Mary, robbed of any other alternative, dedicates herself to guerrilla warfare. Together, they form one haphazard duo barely scraping by.

Things can't go on like this, she says to herself moments before an arm shoots out past her periphery and her companion asks, “Hey, is that...?”

It is. Or, at least, appears to be: 'EXIT', slathered in scarlet, screaming in red. The sign hangs from a rolling and coiling ceiling like lead, not so much as swaying with the disturbance, and below its striking light stands proud what appears to be the promised escape to the outside world. Dull light spills in through the cracks, a taste test of the streetlight that beckons outside, and for the first time since she has stepped within the labyrinth's boundaries, the magical girl is able to breathe deep and easy.

Until her soul gem reacts.

“Nikki, wait –” is all she manages before he's off like a bullet from a barrel, and when the door swings open wide, it isn't the nightlife of Seattle streets that greets them on the other end, just more of the same. Another sign must hang further down the way. Mary can't see its letters, but she sees the slathered scarlet and screaming red bursting from behind the head of the witch.

“Oh, fuck you.” This is the last thing she hears Nikki say before it lunges.

Where, Mary ponders, exactly did her path turn astray? When she'd hesitated just a moment too long in stopping her dark-haired 'partner' of the night's battle? When she'd failed to turn around the moment she'd recognized the flaw in the witch's wards? When she had made a foolish contract in one blinded moment of furious passion? When she had taken Father William's hand that night, years ago – or more likely, the morning she'd been too stubborn to so much as look her parents in the eye, never mind tell them 'I love you' or 'goodbye' or 'I'll see you when you get back'? (She didn't; they didn't.) There is no one singular moment of failure, she decides as her feet swing her into motion and the world warbles in woe about them, with a cause rooted in all of these failures and more, compounding and compounding into this one time, this very moment. 'Fight with your life on the line' sounds so easy up until the very moment that death itself stares her in the face. What did those other girls think, smothered by the weight of the gaze of a ravenous witch? What were their last words? Famous, her own: “Move!”

He does, only with her aid, but it's already too late. There are fangs buried in the flesh of her arm, snapping through bone, a pain so blindingly powerful that the labyrinth dips into darkness for a moment, and the worst injury in her life before her contract – open palm on a heated burner – feels about as bad as a summer breeze in comparison. Nikki jerks in her periphery, and she can see the movement of his mouth as he attempts to talk to her, yet his noises are drowned out by her own horrific shriek.

This is it, she supposes: swan song, black swan, end of the line, two more dead students for the principal to mourn at afternoon assembly. In five minutes, her arm will be rent in two; in ten minutes, immobile from the pain, Mary will be made easy prey for a starving monstrosity. What will be left of her after? Bones? Hair? Nothing at all? More frightening than the mental image of terror and mutilation is the part of her that has moved beyond resignation, threatening the boundary of acceptance, or perhaps even gratefulness. The option of running has been taken entirely out of her hands. (At least no one will think of her as a coward.

(No one except Nikki, that is.)

“C'mon, Mary, you've got to do something!” he's shouting at her, the first thing he's said since their enemy put her in its maw that's managed to slip past the ringing in her ears.

“There's no – a-ah – there's no point!” Muscles tearing, marrow splitting. If only the beast had gone for her head. “I'm sorry, Nikki, I'm sorry.

Through the visual din, she watches him get his hands between the monster's lips, or lack thereof, pushing and pulling in vain. “What do you mean, 'there's no point?” asked in a cry of incredulity and rage. Teeth tugging, muscles tearing, the flesh of his fingers starting to peel against razor-sharp ivory. She's going to drag him down with her, isn't she? “Do you really wanna die like this?”

Maybe.

(But – )

Magic erupts from her gem in a way she's never allowed it to before, terrified of the consequence of running herself ragged unwisely in the thick of battle. It's – warm, nothing like she would have expected, and a welcome distraction from the nearly unthinkable pain in her arm as a barrel far greater than any gun she's ever seen opens itself from the ceiling and rains down its single mighty bullet. What does it matter if she gives up all she's got here and more? Death beckons at the end of the light show either way, but at least Nikki may have another chance in the sun.

The witch's face is no more the second the shell drops. Where its head once pulsated, there is now nothing; its tail end writhes into similar oblivion, and its bones in her blood cling to existence for only a few moments longer before crumbling to ethereal dust. That was it? a wicked part of her thoughts taunts, as if it didn't take everything she had and more to see the other side. As if her knees don't buckle beneath the weight of her as soon as her adrenaline has run its course. As if the world melting from psychedelic horror to a reality not much less frightening wasn't credit as much to the collapsing labyrinth as the tears swimming in her eyes.

Distantly, she registers something that sounds like yelling (angry? excited? it must be Nikki's, either way), but making out the words is a fool's errand she doesn't have the energy for. Instead, she points to where the witch's remains may have been in another world and asks with as much volume as she can muster, “G-grief seed.”

It takes him a moment – many, many, it feels like, but is that time proper or the pain and fatigue in her bones? – no doubt scrambling to find what he doesn't yet know the name of. One second or a thousand, she feels the distinct click of seed against gem, and the first magic that returns to her goes immediately to the slow mending of her red weeping wounds. When the darkness clears, his worried face is all that fills her vision.

“Thank you,” she hears herself sob without a will of her own, “thank you.”

 


 


The return is worse than the departure.

Mary wants little more than to breakdown her most recent and most disastrous failure into its smallest components, analyze them in her head until each mistake is memorized and cannot be repeated without intent... but the subject of her not-so-daring rescue had refused to leave in the same minute she'd refused to let him escort her to nearest hospital (what would William think once he knew?).

Instead, he escorts her home, eyes always flickering back to the open wound-turned-grotesque-scar-turned-nothing-at-all over the course of their midnight walk. All the while, he pesters her with questions she hasn't got the energy to answer in much detail; distantly, she wonders if the bone-deep exhaustion and smarting sting of irritation is what Kyubey felt the day she (unwisely) made her contract.

Things may be better this way, though, the sensible part of her brain instructs: For someone who has barely escaped with her life, even gone on to perform such an act of heroism to save not only her own but another's life, she doesn't feel particularly wonderful. Each time her dark haired acquaintance lapses into quiet, she considers her own quiet in the face of death. Tomorrow is, as always, just another date on the calendar.

“I'll be fine from here. Thank you for worrying about me,” she tells him, indifferent to the way she swallows his pantomime of already half-forgotten familiars. Tomorrow, hanging like a pendulum, the blade of a guillotine straining against gravity. Even if she has spared his life – the softening of his brown eyes in the dark, the way his arms hang suspended for a moment too long before he realizes the meaning of her words – nothing will change from the morning to next.

“Y... yeah. It was nothing.” Sheepish, somehow. He seems almost as off put by the gratitude as the ordeal he'd been thrust into not hours before. “You, uh, sure you're fine, though?”

She offers him the plastic smile of a candidate. “Positive.” If the magical girl lifestyle has taught her anything, it's to lie without so much as a twinge of the mouth. “Have a good night.”

The road home is long and dark, and while she's in no hurry to get back home, she's frightened of this thing she's found here tonight (what it means, but mostly what it doesn't), eager to get away. Her feet have already carried her a block away when he calls out, hopeful: “See you tomorrow?”

She pretends to hear nothing at all.

 


 


In the morning, like always, Mary eats her breakfast alone.

Dull lighting thieves in through her ceiling-high windows (fog in the forecast again, another day like the rest), steam curls from tasteless food pushed nervously across her plate, and the only sound save for the clacking of fork to porcelain is the third hand of the clock counting down to infinity. William – 'Dad', that hateful part of her chastises – has once again left behind the settling of the home, the shuddering of seemingly ancient wood. All that lives here and all that has ever lived here is her breath, haggard, and the wait between heartbeats.

Today, she'll eat her breakfast, slip on her shoes, and walk the same tired roads ten minutes earlier than usual. She'll listen closely to her teachers, get all the right answers on her homework sheets and raise her hand when asked; she'll nod her head through the back-of-the-class gossip and even wave goodbye to Dr. Wayne on her way out of Psych. Maybe she'll see Nikki – maybe she won't, but it will be easier for him if she doesn't. She won't come home after. Farewell, windows; goodbye, houseplants. If it will be the overpass or the highway, maybe even the school roof, she hasn't decided.

All she knows, setting down her letter carefully (out of the way, not a bother, but somewhere it can't be missed when William finally returns) is she can't stand another morning here alone.

It would of course happen, then, that she's stopped outside the school gates only after she has accomplished her bucket list of playing the upstanding student, ideal daughter – after she has made up her mind on where she'll go, if not through the front door of her home – that a familiar voice calls out to her. For a moment, the magical girl wonders if she can't play her card a second time, keep walking as if he'd never opened his mouth, but she'll come to find that what Nikki lacks in common sense, he makes up for in tenacity.

“Hey! Mary! Hey!”

Heads are turning, whispers starting. He sticks out like a single light bulb trying its best to illuminate a night-washed warehouse, waving an arm in the air when she turns to face him despite the fact that she wouldn't have been able to see it until he'd already caught her attention. There's part of her that's happy, genuinely, that he's bothered to acknowledge her outside of a situation in which he relied on her entirely for his life. A larger part that reminds her it's too late to hang onto these tiny hopes; not again. She smiles, though, practiced. Let him have a good last impression. “Hello, again, Nikki. Did you get home alright?”

“Home? Oh! Yeah, just fine, no problems.” His curls bob atop his head as he crosses the bit of distance between them, cast shadows when he looms at his stop. His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper when he asks, “Hey, are you – y'know... Are you going to go fight another one of those freaky witch things tonight?”

Lie. Lie. “Probably, if I find one. That's what I have to do every night, since I made my contract.”

“Okay,” he says, and is that... apprehension? Her classmate seems as though he's steeling himself, but she's not prepared to guess for what. “Okay. Look, I – I know I mostly just got in the way last night an' wasn't any help, but I spent all night training when I got home, so this time, I'll be able to watch my back while you – ”

“Wait. 'Training'? What are you talking about?”

“Huh? I mean, you got hurt yesterday, an' I don't want that to happen again, so I figured if practiced with a bat or... something and really focused, you wouldn't have to worry about me while – ”

She interrupts again, because this can't be going anywhere good so long as he keeps this line of thought up, “Nikki. Last night was an accident; you don't have to risk getting hurt following me around anymore.”

“I know that.”

Again, with falsified venom. “It's safer for both of us if you don't.”

“I know that, too! Wait – no, that sounds bad. I don't want to make it harder for you, I mean, I just – ”

Whatever 'he just' gets lost somewhere between his brain and his tongue. Mary waits, fingers curled into a white-knuckled grip around the straps of her book bag for an answer, an explanation, an out. She'd expected... she doesn't know. Something. A thank you. A look, and nothing else, maybe. She hadn't expected him to try to throw himself right back into the pit, knowing fully well (or maybe not knowing at all) just how suicidal it was. How could she have?

“When you left last night,” Nikki finally begins again, “I got to thinking about it. Not just the witch, or any of this crazy magic stuff, but about you, going out and fighting those things every night and no one having any idea. You don't need me to tell you that sounds dangerous as fuck. But I guess I mostly got caught up in just how... lonely it sounds.”

It hits her like a strike across the face. “... 'Lonely'?”

Empty kitchen, empty table, empty home. Go to school, say nothing, go home, say nothing, alone, alone, alone.

“I know I'm probably no good in a fight. Yeah, I'll probably just get in the way! If you don't want me to go, I'll leave you alone. But I thought – I just – I couldn't stand to think about you facing something like that again all by yourself. If I can't help you fight, I can at least cheer you on.”

Mary is silent. Dumbstruck. If she hadn't been expecting him to offer to rush straight first into danger, heedless, she certainly hadn't expected him to do so while acknowledging the risk to himself, worried not about his mortality and the blood that could spill as much as how alone a complete stranger may or may not have felt all of those empty, frightening nights before. The smile is gone, long gone, fallen into a stupor, and the longer she scrambles for words that fall right through her mind, the more nervous he appears to become. “Uh...”

“You could seriously die, you know,” she manages eventually.

“I know. So could you, right?”

“You could die, and no one would ever know how, or why, or – ”

“I know, I know. You told me all this already. That's – a risk I'm willing to take.” His head ducks down to get on her eye level, face coloring in surprise. “W-woah, hey, don't cry! Why are you crying? Was it something I said?”

Sure enough, something wet makes its way down one of Mary's cheeks, then down the other, and when she raises a fist to wipe at the corner of her right eye, the tears take it as a sign to begin in earnest. Why is she crying? He's only offering what he doesn't understand, and barely anything at all. And yet – and yet –

“Okay, then. Let's... Let's go together. I'd like that.” She hiccups once – twice – then begins to sob outright, palms struggling in vein to dry the torrent of tears that betray her emotions, her plans, the note on the table at home. Heads are definitely turning now, and Nikki reaches out and retracts himself awkwardly, over and over like a rhythm, wanting to help but unsure how, and – she doesn't care. Let them look. Without ever holding out a hand, he has pulled her back from something he probably never knew, will never know. With snot rolling down her lip and the whole world turning to point and wonder, she smiles at him fully, smiles truly for the first time in what feels like a long time, and admits what she never thought she could:

“I think I'd really, really like that.”