MachineBitch: MightyMouse

MachineBitch: 1)I wish to express my continuing distaste for your naming privileges

MachineBitch: 2)I have a proposal

MightyMouse: is it a marriage proposal

MachineBitch: No.

MightyMouse: then why should I care

MightyMouse: *i

MightyMouse: stupid autocorrect

MachineBitch: You should care because I understand the concept of bribery.

MightyMouse: oho?

MachineBitch: I'm taking vacation time.

MightyMouse: sounds fake but go on

MachineBitch: And I'm offering $2500 mischief budget plus dinner at that steakhouse you like. Invite whomever else you like, too.

MachineBitch: 3 drink minimum.

MightyMouse: o.o

MightyMouse: you want something bad if you're willing to trust me with your drunk ass

MachineBitch: Oh I want something very badly.

MightyMouse: color me intrigued, what's happening?

MachineBitch: I mentioned I'm taking a vacation?

MightyMouse: yas?

MachineBitch: Dauntless is in charge while I'm gone.

MachineBitch: And I want this to be an Educational Experience(tm) for him

MightyMouse: oh no

MachineBitch: Oh yes.

"Well, Sunny, I gotta admit..." Taylor sighed happily, as she reclined in the mineral-scented waters. "For as much trouble as it took to get here? Totally worth it."

Lounging next to her, though how canine anatomy managed sitting on the underwater shelf so well eluded Taylor, Sunny wuffed and lifted a paw from the water. Taylor gently knocked her own closed fist against the paw. Today was not a day for contemplating the irregularities of life. Today was for decadence. The bathhouse was functionally complete, just lacking a few decorations here and there, but with winter setting in a lack of paintings or gilded arches was less than an afterthought in comparison to being able to soak in natural hot waters. Taylor sighed happily and sunk a little lower into the water, glad that she'd had the foresight to grab her bathing suit from her house after The Chessman Incident. The onsen was more or less complete and she had plenty of time to paint membership tokens for the upcoming new year, Yuuta was comfortably making bank selling protective talismans (he'd initially been selling only to the Local 433, but a silent Look from Taylor to both him and Oni Lee had expanded the allowed customer base), her other fiends and loved ones were occupied with their own pursuits away from Sunny's chaotic influence, and the Baachan Collective hadn't found any fault with her in several days. Life was good. Life was simple. In fact the only improvement Taylor could think of would be if she'd thought to bring a cold drink with her to-

"Here is your cocktail, My Lady, and I've bought some juice for you as well, Young Miss."

Taylor's startle reflex splashed mineral water in an arc but didn't phase the young woman who had appeared at the side of the bath. She was ambiguously young, and short, the sort of build where it'd be hard at first glance to say if the person was 16 or 20. Her brown hair was pulled back in a bun and she was wearing a kimono, the fabric's hems embroidered with the image of feathers. She had placed a wide-rimmed bowl full of a colorful alcohol near where Sunny was lounging, and a tall frosted glass of what was probably apple juice near where Taylor was staring wide-eyed at the interloper.

Sunny made a pleased noise and lifted herself out of the baths enough to start lapping at her drink. Taylor used the moment to reboot her unprepared psyche. "Uh... I'm sorry, who are you?"

"Oh! I'm Chiyo, Young Miss," the girl twittered. "I work here at the bath house."

"...I didn't hire anyone to work here."

"Oh no, we know you didn't. We're, ah..." Chiyo glanced at Sunny, who utterly failed to provide any sort of reassurance. To the girl's credit, she rallied herself, and said, "Our clan has run the bath houses for generations. We are, ah... I believe the term is renting? We're being allowed to use the entryway here in exchange for upkeeping the mortal areas."

Oh no. Oh no there was so much to unpack in those few sentences. Taylor took a sip of the apple juice. It was great. Not great enough to fully distract her from the tangled snarl that filing her taxes was going to be, but pretty great. When she looked up, Chiyo was gone, and Sunny was still focused on drinking. The wolf didn't acknowledge her beyond a glance when Taylor climbed out of the baths and wrapped a towel around her steaming swimsuit, then headed off towards the only anomalous door in the onsen she'd designed.

From above, the frosted glass ceilings and cement dividers of the bathhouse formed a peace symbol: a room each for women, men, and capes, each with a smaller selection of basins filled with different temperatures of mineral water. How the hell Sunny had managed that, Taylor had no idea, and she wasn't keen to investigate. The fact that the symbolism seemed to be working was more than enough for her. Showers and locker rooms formed the circle and inner barriers of the symbol, and it was the central hallway that Taylor now padded down towards the end. Sure enough, the long hallway stretched through the steamy air, seeming longer to traverse than common sense would dictate. It led at last to a solitary door, plain and sturdy, with a latched handle instead of a knob. Taylor took a breath, grasped the latch, and pulled the door open.

Light flooded the hallway.

The room beyond was massive, paved in warm wooden floors and every inch touched by sunlight. Paper lanterns hung just out of reach, the cheerful tok of bamboo fountains played against the sound of babbling brooks. Humanoid sparrows dressed in kimonos carried stacks of towels or platters of gourmet dishes to and fro. It was almost the very essence of festive, of hospitality, of welcomed guests and-

Taylor closed the door.

She took a breath, and then a few more, settling her heartbeat. She eyed the door handle that her hand still rested upon. Sunny was all the way back in the baths proper. There was no one to guide her here but herself. So, Taylor fell back on what she knew:

"You know what?" She asked, to empty air, "I am gonna just... make myself a pot of tea. And hope that whatever this is works itself out."

Unsurprisingly, Sunny had vanished by the time Taylor trekked back through the steamy halls towards the entrance of the bathhouse, and she didn't turn up during the hurried, towel-wrapped trek across snowy lawn to the Shrine's office, where Taylor could get dressed and properly dry her hair. And make that tea. And, safe and ensconced in blankets, with her hands wrapped around a warm mug, Taylor thought.

What was beyond the door was beautiful, and wonderful.

But it was not Brockton Bay.

It was not her city. It was not the trashed beaches, the broken-down neighborhoods, the tired brickwork and asphalt.

It was not the hopeful faces of the community she'd come to know and love. It was not the strain and hesitance of her peers, teenagers trying to find how they fit among themselves and society. It was not the will of the heroes like her father, resolute and weary. It was not hers.

(True, at times she wasn't sure that the world she knew was hers, either. There was a distance, almost a brightness, that seemed to come from behind her, showing light upon anything with soft edges and colorful faces. Taylor was hopeful, but never stupid: she knew that the city she claimed as hers was, to many, far more vicious than she'd ever known.

She could only do her best to reflect that gentleness onto others, like the moon did the sun.)

When the tea had been drunk and the memory of the doorway faded to a more easily accepted warmth, Taylor put on her coat and boots and trekked outside, then headed into the Shrine proper, while promising herself that she'd mop later to make up for her intrusion, as she passed through the haidan and into the honden. Sunny would usually gently shoo her out of here, but the wolf was off on her own business for the evening, leaving Taylor alone with the Shrine's inner sanctum and its treasures: a large bronze mirror, its surface clouded with age, and the much newer jewelry box, its lid painted in the lines and careful characters Taylor had drawn upon it months ago.

Taylor didn't open the lid, but she did kneel down in front of the box and eyed the characters she'd painted, regarding the treasure trove in silence.

13 animals. 13 sections. 13, she assumed, collections of beads. Several had been filled already: Rooster, Boar, Rat, Ox, Sheep, Monkey, Tiger... and Horse. 8 of 13 boxes had been filled. Whatever purpose Sunny had for collecting these particular gifts... it certainly didn't feel like only half had been collected. It had been such a busy year, after all.

Not for the first time, Taylor felt her thoughts wandering, wondering what reason Sunny had for doing this. But that always led to wondering what reason Sunny had for doing any of this, not just the fun hijinks or mysterious coincidences, but... any of it. Why spend so much time in Brockton Bay when her paws could have taken her anywhere? Why strain herself digging up hot springs and carrying ladders and-

And playing Frisbee, and painting walls, and trying out new recipes, and spending time with her and staying close when she cried, and- and-

The moon didn't choose who to orbit. But Sunny had every chance to choose whom to let stay near. So why Taylor?

The jewelry box, under the clouded and silent gaze of the mirror, revealed no answer. Maybe it was something only Sunshine knew. Maybe there was no answer. Maybe it was something she'd only see when the time was right. Every option was possible, with Sunny. And while it should have been disheartening, should have been lonely, Taylor knew that Sunny had chosen to stay. Sunny had her back. She was something special, after all.

And just maybe, even when only reflecting everyone else's light, Taylor was becoming something special, too.