That night, for the first time in a year or so, Chisato starts to cry while brushing her teeth.
She barely even realizes it until she hears her mom's footsteps down the hall. She spits out her toothpaste and tries to wipe her face dry, but her eyes have already gone red and puffy, and she's breathing in little sobs. It's too obvious to hide it now.
There's a knock on the bathroom door. "Chisato? Are you all right? Did something happen?"
Chisato opens the door. "It's nothing, mom," she says, with her best embarrassed smile. "I... um... I'm under a lot of stress at school right now, and... well, it's that time of the month for me, so..."
Her mom doesn't respond, but her face says she doesn't quite buy it.
"I'm sorry." She can't meet her eyes. "I'll be fine, I promise."
"Chisato," says her mother, gently, "you know you can talk to me about anything, right?"
Every time her mother says this to her - and there have been many times over the last two years - she wishes so badly that it were true. That she could let her know why she's so tired all the time, why she has trouble keeping up in school, why she sometimes cries at night before bed. Why she sometimes looks around the streets of Futsuyama as though she's seeing something different.
She just can't bear to do it. There are things nobody should know about, and since she's the only one who can do anything, it's for the best if she keeps them to herself.
"I know," she says, and without saying anything more, she hugs her mom tightly, pressing her wet face into her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Her mom puts her arms around her with a wistful sigh. "You have nothing to be sorry for," she says. "I trust you, honey."
Too soon, she has to let go and continue her preparations for bed.
Chisato has worked out an evening routine that soothes her enough to sleep, regardless of what might happen in the night. She makes a pot of chamomile tea, then listens to her favourite CDs while she reads something that doesn't require too much thought on her part: a light novel or classic children's book. Sometimes she even does a bit of homework, if it's easy.
She sleeps in a four-poster bed with a fluffy duvet and brightly-coloured patchwork quilt. The bed and the quilt were both birthday presents from when she turned seven, a time when she was going through a phase of fascination with fairy tales. Gradually, she's given up most of her childhood stuffed animals, but a few of the most treasured still sit by her pillow.
Just before bed, she lets down her hair from the buns she wears at the nape of her neck. There's a hairbrush on her dresser, and she brushes her hair with it, gently and carefully. It reminds her of when her mom used to do her hair for her. The memory is comforting in the face of uncertainty.
"Good night!" she calls, pulling off her slippers and climbing into bed.
"Good night!" her mom calls back from down the hall.
That night, like every night, she says a silent prayer to whoever might be listening, asking them to give her courage.
She lets her head fall back onto the bed.
Ironically, when she opens her eyes an hour later and sees only darkness, she is perfectly calm.
Even from her bed, she's learned to immediately recognize that she's gone to the Shadow World. Her alarm clock and the little red light of her smoke alarm are both dark. The neon sign across the street advertising the neighbors' store has disappeared from her window, replaced by the branches of a gnarled black tree. Mostly, though, it's just a feeling, an unease she's only ever felt in this one situation.
She slips out of bed and pulls her power talisman out of her pyjama top. It's about the size of a cellphone charm, shaped like the sun and made of a strangely warm metal she's never been able to identify. She keeps it on a chain around her neck at all times.
"Power of the sun," she mumbles, and she is enveloped in a blinding golden light. When it fades, her transformation is complete.
Chisato's magical girl costume is beautiful, with a frilly skirt and long, lace-up boots. It fits to the contours of her body, but not too tightly, and it never tears or wrinkles. Her hair is tied up with shiny red and yellow ribbons. Sometimes, when she's alone in the house, she transforms during the day just to admire herself in the mirror. Cute clothes like the kind her classmates wear are usually too small for her, and it feels good to see herself all dressed up.
She used to feel conflicted about this - how could she enjoy anything connected with the Shadow World? But life goes on. She has to find happiness where she can.
Tucking her power talisman into the top of her costume, she opens her bedroom window and jumps out. The fall would be dangerous in her everyday life, but as a magical girl she seems to glide down to street level.
The Shadow World is clearly a parallel of her hometown, but with everything somehow askew. The pavement of her little street is cracked and blistered, so that it rises and falls like waves as far as she can see. The buildings are crooked, with narrow doors and windows scattered haphazardly around their shadowy facades. The cherry trees that line the road become black, twisted skeletons that tower above her. "Scary" isn't the right word for it, not quite, but it's unsettling, and Chisato shivers a little as she scans her surroundings for Shadows.
She sees one further down the street, but it's not yet facing her way - she can still take it by surprise. It's humanoid and roughly her size. Like all Shadows its outline is fuzzy, expanding and contracting slightly with every move it makes. When it opens its mouth, a greasy black smoke pours out, rising up into the equally black sky.
"Fire Lily Strike," she calls, and a vaguely flower-shaped fireball grows in her palms, then launches itself towards the Shadow. Before the creature has time to turn around, it is engulfed in flame. There's a hissing sound as the fire burns itself out, taking the Shadow with it.
Chisato takes a cautious step closer to the place where it was standing. The only thing left is a perfectly round black gem.
She crushes it under her heel in one firm stomp. It's impossible to be sure, but she thinks that some Shadows regenerate after they've been melted down. They might even become stronger. To avoid the risk, she destroys the black stones whenever she has the chance.
Sensing something behind her, she whirls around.
Behind her is a Greater Shadow. It's at least three times her size, and looks like a goat standing on its hind legs, but with huge, splayed claws instead of hooves. Its horns twist absurdly from the top of its head, so big and asymmetrical that no living creature would be able to support their weight. It has no eyes, of course, only a gaping red mouth in what is otherwise a sea of blackness.
Chisato is hit by a near-paralyzing wave of fear. Fortunately, over time, she's learned to ignore her reaction to the grotesque appearance of most Shadows. She springs backwards as the creature swipes at her with its claws.
It was careless of her not to keep to the walls. Attacking a Shadow in plain sight, forgetting to observe her surroundings, she's let a Greater Shadow sneak up on her unnoticed. It's a mistake she made often enough as a beginner, and it was only luck that kept her alive back then. Now, there's nothing she can do but hope she has the strength to take it down.
She readies another Fire Lily Strike.
The Shadow's mouth contorts horrifically as the blade of a sparkling crystal sword emerges from its mouth. Stabbed through, it crumbles into nothingness, its crooked horns the last thing to disappear.
Behind the remains, gripping the hilt of the sword with both hands as she lands on the ground, is another girl. She too is wearing a costume: a blue and silver corset with a pleated skirt and long, white gloves. Her hair is in a high ponytail and there's a tiara on her head.
It's Ryuuzaki Kana.
"You're... Tanemura-san," she says, as she shatters the Shadow's remains with the point of her sword. "You should be more careful."
"I, um- yeah..." stammers Chisato, too surprised to thank her.
Ryuuzaki Kana is in her class at school, but she's only lived in Futsuyama for a few months. Chisato doesn't know much about her. She's thin and beautiful, with a kind of angular, mature face, and she's one of the taller girls in class. She's an average student, the same as Chisato, with Gym as her only stand-out subject. Some of the sports teams have tried to recruit her, but she's turned them all down. She's popular in such a way that everyone admires her and no one gets too close.
This is the most they've ever said to one another.
"Thank you," she says finally, remembering her manners.
"It was nothing." Kana's not even looking at her. Instead, she scans their surroundings intently, sword in position to attack. "We need to move. I saw another big one headed this way."
Chisato has a million questions, but they'll have to wait. The Shadow World isn't the place. "We should get to higher ground."
Together, they run for the four-way stop at the end of the street, which in the Shadow World is a hill tall enough to see most of the neighborhood from. Instinctively, Chisato puts her back up against Kana's. There are several Shadows approaching from the left: all about as small of the first one she killed tonight, but threats nonetheless.
"River of Flame," she cries, and a pathway of fire springs up from the concrete at her feet, then blazes its way to the nearest Shadow and envelops it.
"Nice aim," comments Kana, glancing her way for a moment before taking out another Shadow with her ice sword.
They hardly speak for the rest of the night. The Shadows come faster than usual, as though the presence of two magical girls attracts them twice as strongly. Chisato fires off Fire Flowers and Rivers of Flame and watches admiringly when, once, Kana summons a line of ice javelins which fire themselves into the crowd of Shadows and disperse them momentarily.
Chisato loses track of time, which is already malleable in the Shadow World. Finally, though, she sees the faintest light on the horizon, an almost unnoticeable change in the shade of the black sky.
Instantly, the world returns to normal.
The streetlights come back all at once, the neighbor's neon sign once again advertises their convenience store. Chisato and Kana are standing in the intersection of the perfectly flat street which leads back to Chisato's square two-story house, and the cherry trees are bare but alive.
They take a step back out of the intersection, and Kana de-transforms in a column of silver light. Chisato can just barely see the outline of her body as her costume fades away. She's always wondered what that must look like.
In her normal form, Kana is wearing a black t-shirt and sweatpants. She pulls her cellphone out of her pocket - dark blue, with no charms or decorations - and checks the screen. "Four-thirty."
"That's smart," says Chisato admiringly. "What you're wearing." Her street is usually deserted this early in the morning, and as far as she knows she's never been spotted in either her magical girl costume or her pyjamas, but she has worried about it.
Kana shrugs her shoulders. "I like to be prepared."
Chisato's not sure if that was meant to be an insult or just a statement of fact. Either way, she hardly cares - dawn and the discovery of Kana have made her too happy to be offended. She's about to burst into a rush of questions, but when she opens her mouth all that comes out is a yawn.
"Excuse me!" She puts her hand over her mouth, belatedly, and laughs. "I think I might go home and sleep for a bit. But, um...."
"We'll talk at the school," says Kana, answering her unvoiced question. "If you want."
"Of course!" Chisato smiles, wholeheartedly. "I can't believe... well. See you in class."
Without another word, Kana jogs away.
From the moment she wakes up and starts the day, Chisato is overflowing with nervous joy. Usually her mornings after going to the Shadow World are a struggle, but today she feels as energetic as if she'd had a full night of sleep.
"You look happy," comments her mother mildly, as they eat a quick breakfast of cereal together.
Chisato nods. She hasn't been able to stop smiling. "Yeah! I feel a lot better now."
"I'm so glad, honey."
As usual, she has barely enough time to get to class before the bell rings. Kana is already sitting in her desk when she bursts into the room. Her eyes flicker to Chisato, staying focused on her until she takes her seat near the back.
It's not much, but it's enough to keep her on the edge of her seat for all of their morning classes.
At lunchtime, when Kana goes to the school cafeteria, Chisato goes with her. They take seats together in a quiet corner and talk in whispers over plates of curry rice.
"When did it start for you?"
Kana's expression is unreadable. "Two years ago, I think. Maybe three."
"Me too," says Chisato, trying to sound calm, although her heart is racing. "I mean, it's been two and a half years, for me. Since I got the talisman." She reaches into her shirt and pulls it out, cupping it carefully in her hands so that no one else will see it and wonder. "I found it in my hand one morning, after I dreamt about the Shadow World."
"Why do you call it that?"
Chisato pauses. "I don't know. It just came into my head. Why, what do you call it?"
"The Shadow World." Kana frowns. "Those words came into my head, too, the first time I woke up there. With my transformation phrase."
"It's not 'Power of the sun,' is it?"
She shakes her head. "Power of the moon."
"So we match!" Chisato can't help smiling at the thought. "And after you transformed, you just... knew how to use your powers?"
Kana nods. "There was nothing strange about it to me at the time. Even when I saw the Shadows." She looks bitter. "I thought it was another dream."
"Yeah, me too," responds Chisato with an awkward little laugh. "Until a Shadow grabbed me and the bruises were still there in the morning. I had to wear a scarf for a week." The memory still makes her wince, and she hurries to another topic. "So, um, you never met, like--"
"A talking animal guide?" finishes Kana, a bit sarcastically."No. There was only the dream, and then I was there for real. I don't know what the Shadow World is, or why I have magic powers." She stares down at her plate. "I just fight. That's all."
They're both quiet for a while.
"I never knew if the Shadow World was everywhere," says Chisato, slowly, "or only in Futsuyama. I don't know if I ever thought about it before."
"I hoped it might just be my city," responds Kana. She laughs, unpleasantly. "I guess that was too much to hope for."
"Is that why you moved here?"
"And your parents...?"
"I live alone."
Chisato frowns. "So they let you move here by yourself?"
"None of your business," snaps Kana.
Shocked, Chisato flinches. "Sorry," she says, nervously. "I shouldn't... I don't want to pry."
"No." Still looking frustrated, Kana closes her eyes and takes a deep, faintly shaky breath. "No, I'm sorry, that was rude. You were only asking." She looks uncomfortable, even nervous. "I've never... talked about this before. With anyone."
"We don't have to talk about it at all, if you don't want to." Chisato smiles shyly across the table. "I'm just glad that there's someone else."
"Me too," replies Kana. Almost hesitantly, she adds, "Chisato-san."
The sound of her first name on Kana's lips makes her heart beat a little faster, but she tries to ignore it.
They decide to signal one another the next time they wake up in the Shadow World. A few nights later, Chisato does. After transforming, she hops out of the window and aims a Fire Lily Strike into the black sky, sending it up like a flare. A few seconds later, there's a reply: tiny beads of ice shooting up into the darkness, like a hailstorm in reverse.
Chisato thinks it's close, but can't be sure. Following the twisted pathways of the Shadow World, she continues to send out signals every minute. It seems to take forever, but finally she turns a corner and sees Kana running towards her.
"Hi," she says, shyly, unsure of what to say to express her gladness.
"Hi," responds Kana. "Anything follow you?"
"I don't think so...."
"There was a Greater Shadow trailing me, but I think I lost it." Kana glances over her shoulder, as if to make sure. "Still, we should be careful."
"We can shake it off," says Chisato, and she gestures to the house beside them, a crooked and shadowy monster of a building. "I don't think they sense us as well when we're indoors."
Kana raises an eyebrow coolly. "I'm sure the people inside will be thrilled to see us."
Flushing, Chisato shakes her head. "No, that's not a problem." She pulls the door handle. It's open, of course - people don't lock their doors at night in this town. "I'll show you."
The door they come through is tall and crooked, sitting in the wall almost diagonally, so that they have to duck going through it. On the other side of the wall, though, it looks perfectly normal. There's even a little peephole through which Chisato can see the Shadows passing by outside. Other than the darkness, which could easily be the result of a power outage, there's only one difference between this house in the Shadow World and the real world.
There's a middle-aged man sitting on the couch in the main room, across from a blank-screened TV. His index finger touches his glasses as if to push them up his nose, but he is completely still.
"What's wrong with him?" whispers Kana, taking a step closer.
Chisato replies by waving her hand in front of the man's face. There is no reaction. "He's frozen. It happens to everyone - I don't know why." This is why she always leaves her house by the bedroom window - the sight of her mom as still as a wax figure makes her nauseous. "And people who are outside when the Shadow World appears just..."
"...Vanish, and then reappear in the morning," finishes Kana. "I know. I've seen it too."
"I think that's why the Shadows come after us," says Chisato. "We're the only living things in this world."
"Have you ever seen the edge of town?"
Chisato shakes her head. "I try to stay close to my house." That's not the whole truth. Really, the Shadow World scares her so much already that she's been too terrified of what she'll see to wander too far from the relative safety of her neighborhood. She braces herself for a frown or a cutting remark from Kana.
Kana responds with neither. Her face is calm, almost gentle. "I went to the edge of my city once," she says, adding, "Only because my old apartment was close." She goes to the door and looks out through the peephole. "Do you want to see it?"
"Sure," says Chisato, after a moment's hesitation. "Okay." She's pretty sure that Kana wouldn't take her anywhere too dangerous, and travelling through town might be easier with two people. She goes to the door and checks the peephole. "I think we're clear. For now."
They run through the streets, firing off occasional attacks into the crowd of Shadows amassing behind them. Chisato's lungs are burning. She's not used to running this fast, and eventually Kana has to grab her hand and half-pull her along.
"Sorry," she wheezes.
"Don't be," replies Kana, sounding slightly winded herself. "I used to do track and field."
That does make her feel a little better, and she tightens her grip on Kana's hand.
She loses track of where they are. The Shadow World has a uniformity which makes it difficult to tell, but she's pretty sure she's never been through this part of town before. Once she thinks she sees, a few blocks away, a Shadow the size of a skyscraper, but they turn the corner before she can be sure. It's probably for the best.
As they continue into the outskirts of town, the Shadows thin out and finally disappear altogether. Chisato can't quite be happy about that, though: there's a kind of foreboding atmosphere around them that makes her worry something worse might be up ahead.
"We're here," says Kana abruptly.
At the edge of town, everything fades to black. The street before them gives way to a deep, seemingly endless darkness, dwarfing them and the whole town.
"What's out there?" asks Chisato. She has to force herself not to whisper.
"I don't know."
Chisato summons a flame into her hand, but it doesn't help - the darkness seems to swallow it up. Beside her, Kana fires a spear of ice into the darkness in a shallow arc. Some distance away from them, it hits ground and shatters.
"Well," says Chisato, letting out a sigh of relief, "at least it's not just... empty, or filled with Shadows..." Still, the void is overwhelming. "Have you ever tried walking into it?"
Kana shakes her head. "I was--" She hesitates, then frowns and continues, "I was scared."
"Yeah." Chisato laughs nervously. "I'm scared just to be here. What do you think is out there?"
Kana shrugs her shoulders. "Maybe it goes on forever."
Chisato shudders. "I hope not."
"I don't really think so," says Kana almost at once, as though trying to assauge her fears. "The Shadow World existed in my city, too, so it must be in other places. Maybe it's all connected." She gestures out into the darkness. "Other towns. Other Shadows."
"Other magical girls?"
"I don't know."
Chisato shakes her head. "We can't be the only ones," she says, sounding more certain than she really feels. "It was one thing when I was alone, but I'm sure there can't be only two of us. Maybe every city in Japan has one!"
Kana looks like she doesn't buy it, but she doesn't argue.
The overwhelming presence of the empty darkness brings their conversation to an end. Chisato stares out into it, as transfixed as she is terrified. After a while, her eyes start playing tricks on her and flashes of light appear in the darkness, like distant stars.
Without really thinking, she puts out her hand and touches Kana's. At first she's afraid this will bother her, but she barely seems to notice, so Chisato keeps it there until they finally turn around and head back towards the centre of town.
Chisato hasn't had any close friends since she became a magical girl. She was part of the choir in middle school, but eventually she decided that she needed to drop out. Nights in the Shadow World were leaving her exhausted during the day. Going home after school let her take an afternoon nap, and that was more important than club activities.
In high school, she never even joined a club. She's friendly with her classmates, and sometimes she joins them to go shopping or see a movie, but she doesn't have a strong connection with anyone, and that's okay with her. Pretending to be a normal teenage girl takes a surprising amount of energy, and she couldn't keep it up long enough to maintain a serious friendship.
With Kana, of course, she doesn't have to pretend. With Kana, everything is in the open.
Soon they spend most of their free time together. Chisato has never realized how badly she's needed someone to talk to, someone who understands what she was going through. Just knowing she isn't alone makes her feel light, like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders.
She tells Kana everything she's been holding in: how scared she is, how much she worries that nothing will ever change, how badly she just wants to go to bed without knowing that she might wake up in a few hours in the Shadow World.
"Sometimes I wonder what we're doing this for," she says, in a quiet moment late one night. "Fighting Shadows. I mean, nobody ever asked me to, and... well, it's dangerous, right?" She pauses for a moment, thinking. "But I also have this feeling that something terrible would happen if we didn't. I don't know. What do you think?"
Kana says nothing. Her face is inscrutable.
It's not always easy, being friends with her. There's a part of Kana that seems to be constantly on edge. Even in the daytime, her eyes dart from left to right as though Shadows might be everywhere, hidden, waiting for the right time to strike unexpectedly. She clearly doesn't get much sleep at night. Sometimes it seems like nervous energy is all that gets her throught the day.
The downside to this alertness is her irritability. There are days when it seems like Chisato can't say anything without making her grit her teeth or snap at her.
Kana herself tells her, early on, it might be better if they didn't hang out.
"Look, Chisato-san," she says, a few days after they went to the edge of town together. "You need to know that I'm not..." She stops, then tries again. "I'm not good at talking to people. Sometimes I say things I don't mean, or in a way that I don't mean to say them. I might hurt you."
"It doesn't really bother me," says Chisato, grateful for her honesty, and trying to be as frank as possible in return. "I know that you don't mean to, and you always apologize." She smiles, but it probably looks a little forced. "I do worry about you, though."
"I'll be fine."
"Have you ever... thought about talking to someone? Like a counsellor?" Afraid Kana will take this suggestion badly, she braces herself.
She shouldn't have worried. Kana doesn't look upset, only very tired.
"Of course I've thought about it," she says. "But who would believe me?"
Chisato has nothing to say to that, but after school that day, she pressures Kana into coming to the mall with her. They go window shopping and drink smoothies and go to a Print Club and get photos with heart-shaped borders. It's almost like being a normal teenage girl, except that they're both a little awkward, overcome by the novelty of it.
When Kana tucks the printed photo carefully into one of her textbooks to keep it uncreased, Chisato feels a little rush of pleasure, then a pang of guilt immediately after.
She's so happy, but at the same time, she's suspicious of herself. She's scared of the way she feels sometimes when she's with Kana: like the Shadow World is a secret place where the two of them can be alone together, and not a dangerous mystery. Sometimes the thought of waking up there gives her a sweet, sick thrill that she hates.
If what she's feeling is love, she wants no part of it. She doesn't have the energy to figure it out, let alone worry about Kana's reaction. Her life is complicated enough.
For the first few weeks they fight back-to-back, surrounded on all sides by Shadows. Eventually, though, Kana suggests that since Chisato's powers are more suited long range attacks, she should stay out of the fray as much as possible while Kana uses her sword up close. The first time they try her plan, they find that Chisato can take out enough Shadows from a distance that Kana only has to fight one or two at a time, making defeating the Shadows far easier.
Once they've practiced their strategy on smaller Shadows, they start taking on some Greater Shadows instead of avoiding them. Then, gaining confidence, they start exploring new areas of town, rooting out the Shadows there before they have a chance to attack unexpectedly.
"Ready?" asks Kana, as they come upon a group of Shadows in front of the shopping arcade downtown. They're mostly small, with amorphous bodies and writhing tentacles that expand and contract sporadically. It shouldn't be a problem to destroy them.
"Ready," replies Chisato, a fireball already in hand.
The Shadows are fiercer than ever that night, and Chisato can hardly keep up. She loses track of Kana in the black smoke of the fray, and then a Greater Shadow with seemingly endless blades covering its insectoid body rears up in front of her. She's about to attack, but one of the smaller Shadows wraps a black tentacle around her leg, and she sends a River of Fire in its direction instead.
There's too much going on at once, it's impossible for her to keep track. She tries to jump back out of the fight, to a more secure position--
Something tackles her, and she slams to the ground. But it's not a Shadow - it's Kana, and she's screaming. She's been hurt. Chisato is dazed, but she springs to her feet to see the Greater Shadow from earlier close at hand, a splash of blood on its long, razor-sharp arm, and Chisato realizes too late what's just happened.
Her whole body is overcome with horror, then with rage. She lays Kana on the concrete as gently as possible and rises to her feet with her fists clenched hard.
"Towering Inferno," she says, and a thousand tongues of flame seem to shoot from her eyes, exploding in size and number as they sweep over the Shadows. She doesn't stop until they're incinerated, and even then she focuses the flame on their black gemstones until they melt and sizzle away.
When she comes back to herself, her legs are shaking with the effort of keeping her standing, and there's a cold sweat covering her whole body. It takes her a second to remember what's happened.
Kana is wearing her ordinary clothes. The attack must have snapped her out of her transformation somehow. There's a deep, bloody gash down her left side and a pool of blood forming on the concrete around her.
"It's not as bad as it looks," she says, in a small, strained voice.
Chisato bites her lips. "You haven't even seen it." Kana starts to get up, but Chisato shakes her head vehemently. "No, don't move yet. We need to stop the bleeding...." She thinks for a second, then reverts to her normal form.
"What are you doing!?"
"It's just for a second." As quickly as possible, she pulls off her pyjama top and bunches it up in her hands. "Power of the sun!" Transformed again, she kneels at Kana's side and presses it to the wound.
Kana hisses in pain, but manages a small smile. "Good... idea."
They stay there until Chisato is convinced that the bleeding has slowed. Then, helping Kana to her feet and putting her arm over her shoulder so she can bear some of her weight, she brings her to the doors of the town hospital. It's deserted, of course, but it's all she can think to do.
"I wish we had water," she says, laying Kana gently down on her good side, and sitting down on the curb next to her. "I'd feel so much better if we could clean your wound."
"Maybe you should cauterize it," says Kana, quietly.
Chisato forces herself to laugh. "Don't be ridiculous," she says quickly. "It's not that bad. It'll be morning soon enough, and you'll be in emergency."
"'Soon', huh." Kana says the word with a kind of cynical chuckle. The laugh seems to hurt her, and she winces. "You know how time stretches."
"Soon," repeats Chisato, because it's what she has to believe. "And Kana?" She's about to add an honorific, but at this point it no longer feels necessary. "If you like, you can lend me your housekey, and I can go to your apartment and pick up your toothbrush and things. And I'll bring you a lunch, if you don't want the hospital food."
Kana is silent for a long time.
"Chisato, I need to tell you something," she says, at last. "If I don't..."
"No. Don't say that, it's ridiculous." She tries to force the tears from her eyes. "You're not going to die, Kana."
Kana ignores her. "I think it's important that you know what happens if... that you know why we're fighting." A bitter, humourless smile crosses her face. "Because I found out the hard way, before I moved here. I... gave up."
"I stopped fighting Shadows. I was so tired... When I woke up in the Shadow World, I would barricade myself in my room and go back to sleep. I felt like something bad would happen, but I ignored that feeling. I just wanted the whole thing to go away. I didn't know..."
A sick feeling rises up in Chisato's stomach. "What happened?"
"They came to the real world." Kana look past her, into the distance. "Shadows. They came into my house. They attacked my parents. They..." Her voice is hoarse with pain. "My, my mom, she..."
Chisato shakes her head. "I'm... I'm so sorry."
"I couldn't stay there anymore. I couldn't live in that house, knowing that it was my fault."
"It's nobody's fault!" Looking at Kana, at the still-bleeding gash on her side makes her feel sad and angry and protective all at once. "It's natural to be scared. You couldn't know what would happen." Tentatively, she offers Kana her hand to hold, a gesture of solidarity. "Don't blame yourself for wanting not to fight. You shouldn't have to fight."
Kana takes it. "Neither... should you."
"But we will." It's hard, but Chisato manages a smile. "You'll be okay, and we'll keep fighting. So that nothing like that will happen ever again."
Kana's eyes flutter.
"You have to stay conscious," she says, anxiously.
"Don't worry," replies Kana, with another cynical laugh. "Hurts too much to sleep." Then, a kind of helpless expression crosses her face. "Chisato... don't... let go of my hand."
When the sky starts to lighten, an ambulance and a team of paramedics materialize on the street, along with a nurse smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. As they strap Kana onto a stretcher, Chisato wonders numbly what these people think they've been doing all night.
She paces back and forth across the waiting room, still in her pyjamas, stopping only to ask the orderlies at the front desk about Kana's condition. Listening in on them, she discovers that Kana has an uncle in Futsuyama who's supposed to be her legal guardian, but he's not answering the phone. Finally someone takes pity on Chisato and lets her know that Kana was given a blood transfusion and she's in stable condition.
Visiting hours don't start until the afternoon. She goes home and tries to rest, but for the first time in a long while, she can't manage to fall asleep. It seems like forever until she is able to go back to the hospital and see Kana.
"Hi," she says, entering the room.
"Hi." Kana is lying in bed. She's on an IV, but some colour has returned to her face.
Chisato puts down the flowers she brought as a gift on the bedside table. She's forgotten to bring a vase for them. "How's...?" she starts awkwardly.
"It's healing," she says. "Much faster than it should, I think. The doctors seemed shocked."
"I'm... I'm so glad you're okay." It comes out a little bit strained, but she's trying her best not to cry.
"They're keeping me overnight for observation," says Kana, with a sigh. "I feel like some kind of specimen." She pauses, then points to the keychain lying by her leg. "Um, if you wouldn't mind... can you take my housekey and--"
"Of course!" says Chisato, picking it up. Threaded onto the keychain is a small crescent moon - Kana’s sigil. "I promised I would."
Kana's apartment is on the first floor of a boarding-house-style building on the other side of the school. The room is bare and lifeless, except that taped to the wall above her desk, there's a photo they took at the Print Club. Chisato cries again when she sees it.
The next day, Kana is back at school again, as though nothing ever happened. Chisato is desperate to talk with her, but can't manage to get near her. Every time class breaks, the whole class gathers around Kana, bombarding her with questions and well wishes. In a way Chisato is glad to see that they care, but it means she has to wait until after school to ask the question on her mind.
"Will you be okay by yourself?"
Kana stiffens, and her face becomes a mask of stubborn independence. "Of course."
Instantly, Chisato regrets her choice of words. "I mean," she says, "you're welcome to stay over at my house, tonight, if you'd like. I'd feel better that way."
"...Yeah. Yeah, okay." Her face softens, just a little. "Thank you."
Her mom makes nikujaga and they all have dinner on the couch together. Kana's met her mom before, but only briefly. They seem to like one another. Chisato is so glad to hear them talking to one another that she hardly says anything the whole time.
Thrilled that she's having a sleepover for the first time in years, Chisato’s mom offers Kana a pair of Chisato's old pyjamas when she finds out she doesn't have her own.They're a bright sunshine yellow, with little white ducks marching in a row along the hem. When Chisato sees them, she bursts out laughing.
"What's so funny?" asks Kana with a glare. "They're yours."
Chisato nods. "I know," she says, still giggling. "I'm sorry."
They stay up for a while, listening to a new CD of Chisato’s and talking about nothing in particular. Finally, though, they get ready for bed in a kind of nervous silence, both knowing that at any moment the house could plunge into darkness and their night of peace come to an abrupt end.
Chisato wonders if she should sleep on the floor, but the bed is more than big enough for two, so in the end she decides it's fine. They lie side by side. She tries her best, but she can't fall asleep. If she concentrates, she can almost make out the sound of Kana's steady heartbeat, comforting and terrifying all at once.
"You're awake," whispers Kana.
"So are you."
Kana seems to ignore that. "If it hasn't happened yet, it won't happen tonight."
"I know," she whispers back. "It's just..." But the rest of her sentence - that she can't sleep knowing that Kana is lying beside her - she completes only in her mind.
There's a sudden warmth pressed against her as Kana rolls closer to her in the bed. Chisato can't help but gasp, and she's sure her face is bright red.
"What is it?"
"Nothing," She swallows, nervously. "Sorry." In the semidarkness, Kana's face is so beautiful it makes her ache. She's terrified that Kana must hear how hard her heart is beating, must know everything.
Kana has an expression on her face that she's never seen on her before: tenderness. "Chisato," she whispers, and leans over, and kisses her on the mouth.
Chisato feels like the bed is giving way underneath her, like the earth has disappeared, and she's falling through space. Her arms wrap themselves around Kana as though holding on to her is the only thing keeping her alive. It's not her first kiss, but it's the only one that's ever made her feel like this.
Kana pulls away, shaking her head with a smile when she sees the anxious expression on Chisato's face. "Just a second." She throws one leg over Chisato, lying down on top of her, and then returns to kissing her. Her tongue presses into Chisato's mouth, gently but firmly. Chisato puts out her own tongue in response.
There are little wet noises as they explore each others' mouths. Being close to Kana like this for the first time makes Chisato restless, and she presses her legs together, feeling a little jolt of pleasure shoot up through her body.
When Kana brings her hands up to Chisato's face, her oversized sleeve drapes awkwardly between them. With a grunt of frustration, Kana sits up and pulls the pyjama shirt off. Her breasts are small, almost flat, with hard pink nipples outlined in shadow in the half-darkness. There's still a white gauze bandage taped to her side.
Abruptly, Chisato realizes that this might not be the best time for what they're doing. "Are you okay? Your wound... I..."
Kana shakes her head. "I'm fine." Her hands trace Chisato's face, fingers grazing her lips, parting them gently like she did earlier with her tongue. "...Can I touch you?"
Kana explores her body with a touch so gentle it makes her want to cry. "Chisato," she whispers, over and over, her lips pressed to her throat, her collarbone, the plane of skin between her breasts. "Chisato."
She's never thought of herself as being particularly sensitive before, but now everywhere Kana touches her sends little shocks of pleasure through her body, making her more restless than before. When Kana's fingers ghost over her nipples, she can't help reaching down to touch herself.
Kana's hand catches her wrist, lightly. "Let me...?"
Chisato undoes the drawstring of her pyjama pants and pulls them down, leaving herself exposed in a way that is both embarassing and exciting. Somehow, the embarrassment fades as Kana's hands trace the fleshy curve of her hips, the roundness of her stomach.
Kana meets her eyes. With an uncharacteristic hesitance, she reaches between Chisato's legs, tracing a path up her inner thigh before reaching her pubic mound and resting there, softly. After a moment, she presses into the cleft between Chisato's legs, to where she is wet with anticipation. Her fingers are long and slightly cold, and the touch of them fills Chisato with a heady, terrifying pleasure.
"I..." She feels like she should say something, respond in some way, except that Kana looks like she's concentrating so intensely and the feeling gathering itself up inside her it makes it hard to think. "Kana..."
Kana withdraws her hand, looking at her wet fingers with a kind of disbelieving satisfaction. "Chisato?" She's breathing heavily. "Is that... should I keep going?"
Chisato's whole body shivers. Unable to speak, she nods.
Kana kisses her again, at the same time bringing her hand back down between Chisato's thighs. Her touch is more sure this time. Her fingers find her clitoris, and Chisato's whole body convulses, like she's had an electric shock.
"Sorry!" she cries out, feeling clumsy and ashamed. "I didn't... Didn't mean to..."
"It's fine," says Kana, hoarsely. Her fingers move away slightly, rubbing up and down just above her clitoris, so that the stimulation is less intense, less a shock and more a slow blossoming of pleasure.
It's so good Chisato can hardly stand it. Her hands fist and unfist, clutching at the sheets. She feels like she'll die if Kana keeps touching her like this, but she'll die if she stops, too. Tears are forming in the corners of her eyes.
Kana stops for a moment, but it's only to whisper "Shhh." Chisato realizes that she's been whimpering. Embarrassed, she clamps her hand down over her mouth, hard, and nods.
"Next time," whispers Kana, in an almost offhand way, "you can be as loud as you like. When we're alone."
The thought that there will be a next time makes Chisato inexpressibly happy, but before she can reply, Kana starts touching her again and everything else is gone. Her fingers go faster than before, brushing lightly against her clitoris, then reaching inside her, then both at the same time. Chisato's tongue curls at the pleasure of it. Her body tenses, almost ready for release.
Hazily she realizes that Kana's other hand is inside her pyjama pants, moving in a jerky, almost frantic way. The thought that Kana is touching herself - that being with Chisato like this makes her want to touch herself - is what finally makes her orgasm.
"Kana," and she bites down on her hand as she comes, otherwise she knows she'll scream.
"Chisato," replies Kana raggedly, and though a haze of pleasure Chisato thinks that she might be close to coming too. She puts out her hands, running them gently through Kana's hair, and when Kana responds with a moan she feels so happy she can't quite believe it.
All of a sudden none of it matters anymore: the Shadows, the fighting, the unknown. With Kana, she feels like she can do anything.
Two nights later, they stand at the edge of town. The void rises up before them, overwhelming.
Chisato slips her hand into Kana's.
Together, they step into the darkness.