Home on the Range, Part 6

The alarm clock on the bedside table went off, jiggling and ringing, letting everyone know that it was now five in the morning.

Kyoko snorted as she was jolted awake. Yawning, she turned to her back and rubbed her eyes before silencing the alarm. Then she sat up and stretched, extending her arms above her head while sticking out her legs as far as they would go beneath the blanket. Then she grabbed up the water bottle sitting next to the alarm clock and took several deep and cleansing gulps, soothing her parched throat.

Once she was fully awake, she turned to the girl sharing the bed with her, who was still lying on her side with her eyes closed. "C'mon, Fish Stick," she said, swatting Sayaka in the shoulder blades. "Up and at 'em!"

Groaning, Sayaka sat up as well. "Ugh," she grumbled as she slumped forward. "Never gonna get used to this."

For someone who had spent the last couple of years of her life stealing out of discretely acquired hotel rooms in the wee hours of the morning, Kyoko had no problem adjusting to the early wakeup times. No longer needing to spend most of the night hunting down witches meant an early bedtime to compensate, so she was actually getting more and better sleep now than she had in a long time. Pushing the bedcovers away, Kyoko swung her legs around slid her feet into the waiting slippers.

Standing up, she walked over to their shared dresser and stared going through the drawers, pulling out a pair of jeans and a thin cotton shirt. Grabbing out a blue bikini top and a loose shirt, she tossed both toward the still groggy Sayaka before stripping off her pajamas and dropping them into the laundry hamper. Now just in her underwear, she went over to the washbasin, turned the faucet, and splashed cold water into her face.

The shock of cold chased away what little sleep remained, and she was wide awake and ready to face the day. Kyoko picked up the dwindling bar of soap, rubbed it into the washcloth to get it all lathered up, and washed away what grime that had collected since the previous night's shower. Then she straightened out her hair and picked up the waiting black ribbons and tied it into a neat bow, sealing her ponytail.

Once her jeans were on and belt buckled, she slipped the shirt on and started buttoning it up as she turned toward her roommate. To her annoyance, Sayaka had gotten as far as putting the bikini top on before giving up, falling back onto her pillow.

"Hey!" she said, yanking the pillow out from under the mermaid and swatting her with it. "Get up! I'm hungry and you're keeping me from breakfast!"

"Breakfast, smeakfast," Sayaka grumbled. "No brain today. Check back tomorrow."

"Nope!" Kyoko grabbed the blanket and pulled it away. Then she picked up Sayaka's shirt and tossed it onto her face. "Come on, coffee's waiting!"

Sayaka grumbled a number of complaints and questions regarding what past karmic deeds had led her to getting stuck with such a hellish soulmate, but she complied, sitting up again and pulling the shirt on. Once she was decent, she rolled out of the bed and into her waiting wheelchair.

Kyoko finished buttoning herself up and pulled on her new boots, these ones of cow leather and made to last. Then she picked up her poncho off of the hook on the wall and slipped it on over her head and shoulders. A little shifting got her necklace out of the neck hole and into view.

And then she moved to the next hook, which held her hat.

It was beautiful, crafted from the highest quality of cow leather, dyed a dark maroon, arrowheads studding the band, and her old sigil stitched into the front. She held it in her hands, admiring it for a bit before setting it on her head. It fit perfectly, as if it had been made specifically for her. Which it had been.

Demonstrating an appalling lack of taste, Sayaka did not have a hat. Instead, she had settled for a blue bandana, one patterned with gold stars. It looked good on her, Kyoko had to admit, and Sayaka's job did not lend itself well to hats, but c'mon. How could she turn down a snazzy cowgirl hat?

Well, to each their own. Sayaka deftly tied up her hair and knotted the bandana into place. Now that they were both properly attired, Kyoko unlocked and opened the door and then walked over to take the handles of Sayaka's wheelchair and pushed her over to the doorway.

At the door, the two of them started to edge out into the hall, only for Kyoko to hastily pull Sayaka back as Hoo'sah'nn, the ai'jurrik'kai housekeeper sauntered by, three of her legs used for walking while the other six were bearing a number of covered platters. "Oops! Our bad."

"Nooooooo prrrroooooblllleeeemmmm!" Hoosie whistled. "Goooood moooorrrrrnnniiiinnng!"

One she had passed, Kyoko and Sayaka proceeded out into the hall, just as Mami and Charlotte were leaving their own room. "Good morning, y'all," Charlotte remarked as she shut the door. "Sleep well?"

"Nope," Sayaka groused. "Thinking of asking for my own room. Kyoko kicks in her sleep."

"Do not," Kyoko said.

"Do to! Every five minutes, right as I'm about to drift off, there's your foot!"

"Oh, I know," Kyoko said. "But what makes you thinking I'm asleep?"

"Wait, you mean…" Sayaka shot a pained look up at Charlotte. "Please, help me. She's driving me insane!" Charlotte lifted her palms and stepped back, removing herself from the situation.

"Ah, you know you'd miss me," Kyoko snickered.

"Don't flatter yourself! The peace and quiet would make it all worth it!"

The four of them headed toward the back of the house, and as they went, Kyoko started singing, "When I'm gone. When I'm goooone! You're gonna miss me when I'm gone!"

"No, I will not!"

"You're gonna miss me by my walk, you're gonna miss me by my talk, oh, you're gonna miss me when I'm gone!"

Then a new voice, this one deeper than Kyoko's, started singing as well. "When I'm gone, when gooone! You're gonna miss me when I'm gone!"

As soon as Kyoko heard that voice, she found herself experiencing a very disorienting mixture of happy surprise and utter dread. Her face brightened, and a sharp shiver zipped down her spine. Her already cheerful mood perked up, while at the same time her stomach twisted itself into knots while her neck and shoulders tightened. Pins and needles burst out all over her left arm, which was now curling into a fist.

Immediately she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose, held it for a few seconds, and then let it out through her mouth. The shaking stopped, and the tenseness relaxed, and she was able to turn toward the person that had filled her with such raw terror.

It was a spider. Or rather, it was a human who had become a spider witch, in that she had four giant tarantula legs coming out of her back, eight eyes on her face, and quivering teeth that were distinctly mandible-like. She was also quite striking just on her own as well, being very tall and muscular for a fifteen-year-old girl, the age she had been when she died, with white hair cut short and shaved down at the temples. Her name was Linda, and she was one of Kyoko's new friends.

That was perhaps one of the strangest developments since arriving at the ranch. Kyoko had something of a very bad history with spiders, and now just seeing one of the jerky-legged bastards was enough to make her skin crawl. Naturally, the first time she had met Linda, she had nearly been paralyzed with fear.

That had been then. Now, Kyoko had gotten pretty good at managing her instinctive response to Linda's presence, in part because Linda was one of the nicest people she had ever met, but also because while what that dockengaut had done to her had been one of the single worst experiences of her life and death, she was not going to let that screw her up forever. So if being friends with a spider-cowgirl meant confronting her newly found fear of spiders on a daily basis, then so be it. Better that then running away.

Before anyone could take note of her initial reaction, Kyoko immediately started singing along with the chorus. "You're gonna miss me by my hair, you're gonna miss me everywhere, oh, you're gonna miss me when I'm gone!"

Oktavia's face twitched. "Stop," she begged. "Please. Too early for singing."

Linda laughed. "Aw, come on, Tavi! There's nothin' like a song to stir the spirits on a fine morning!"

"See? She gets it," Kyoko said, sticking her thumb toward Linda.

"Yes, there is! Coffee is so much better for spirit stirring."

"Didn't say there was nothin' better, I said there was nothin' like it," Linda retorted.

"Well, I guess I can't argue with that logic," Sayaka grumbled. "Though I sort of feel like I should."

They all headed out of the house and onto the green. There, several long wooden tables were set up, covered with tablecloths. One table had been turned into a buffet, with several covered platters and manned by the ranch's cooks. Several residents of the ranch had already arrived and were filling their plates, while others were walking in from the other houses, a few riding in on horseback from homes that were outside of the main town, known as Liddelton.

Kyoko's stomach was already growling, and as she approached the buffet line her mouth started to water. Wonderland Ranch might be isolated and put upon, and it might lack many modern amenities, from reliable electricity to plumbing, and it might often be short on many sorts of supplies, but the one thing that it was absolutely never short on, the one thing it produced in abundance, the one thing that allowed it to not only survive but actually thrive despite all of its challenges was food.

Lots and lots of food.

Lots and lots of good food.

Kyoko's nose twitched as the tantalizing smell of sizzling bacon, of buttermilk pancakes, of freshly baked biscuits smothered in sausage gravy, of frying sides of steak, and of half a dozen other heavenly scents filled her nostrils.

She had faced many hardships ever since her death, and it was difficult to decide which one had been the most harrowing. But her constantly empty belly had just been torment, the gnawing hunger that wore her down little by little, taking her back to the Bad Place. She had resisted, she had coped, and she had endured, but looking back, it was scary how close she had been to cracking.

Kyoko did not consider herself a trusting person. But anyone willing to give her that much food scored pretty damn high in her book.

Now with loaded plates, she and the others headed toward one of the tables, Sayaka wheeling up to the end of the table as using the benches was too difficult for her, Kyoko and Linda to her right, and Mami and Charlotte to her left. As they did, Kyoko noted Rev. Heyman sitting together with her small congregation, leading them in grace.

Though she wasn't sitting with them, she still bowed her head along with them, silently joining in with a prayer she couldn't hear. When the blessing was done, she dug in.

The haze of bliss descended up her almost immediately. Savory chunks of steak were bitten off as chunks of buttered potatoes and fried tomatoes dripping with oil were shoveled into her mouth, all mashed together and savored before each mouthful was gulped down, one right after the other. After that came the pancakes and bacon. She had discovered quite by accident that the fattiness of the bacon was complemented quite well with the sweetness of the syrup, so those went together.

"I will never get it," Linda said as she watched Kyoko clear away her pancakes and attack the gravy-smothered biscuits. As she was a big girl with a physically demanding job, she also had several plates, but not as many as Kyoko. "You are like the only person on the ranch who can out-eat me. How in the blazes did they keep you fed before comin' here?"

"Believe me, it wasn't easy," Charlotte said, her single plate incredibly small by comparison.

Kyoko sighed happily. She was feeling too good to take annoyance at the jab.

"Well, y'all got my respect," Linda remarked as she dug into her own breakfast. "After everythin' you've been through, I'm just glad you can finally breathe a little."

"Hear, here," Sayaka sighed. "I swear, my butt was getting blisters."

"Oh, what are you complaining about?" Kyoko said. "You got to sit down and get pushed everywhere! I had to the actual work!"

She meant the comment in jest, but regretted it as soon as she saw the small, telltale twitch of Sayaka's left eye. Right, of course the mermaid wouldn't appreciate that. It wasn't like she was confined to a wheelchair by choice, and would definitely prefer to be pulling her weight along with the others instead of having her own pushed around.

As she had been the only one looking directly at Sayaka's face, no one else noticed the mermaid's reaction, and it was gone less than a second later. "Oh, don't you start," Sayaka groused. "Just because you decided to take us through a freaking desert. Hey, tell yah what: what say the next time we're on the road we try to cross another ocean. Then we'll see who pulls who."

"Looking forward to it, I'd love to have my own mermaid-pulled chariot," Kyoko retorted. She was smirking as she said it, but then, speaking in a low voice so no one but Sayaka could hear, she murmured, "Sorry. My bad."

Sayaka's eyes twinkled, and she gave a brief nod.

Trying to filter out what she said and apologize when she didn't catch things in time were two things that Kyoko was trying really hard to work on as of late. Old Kyoko, as the two of them now dubbed the Kyoko Sakura that had first "introduced" (i.e. insulted, assaulted, and tried to kill) herself to Sayaka Miki way back when they had been alive, still had a nasty habit of rearing her head every now and again. As for New Kyoko, well, she was a work in progress.

It was just so hard. Kyoko knew that she was walking around with heavy trauma and needed help; the two years of acting like a near-sociopath were more than enough proof of that. But she had gotten so good at compartmentalizing all of that and carrying on regardless that digging deep and dealing with what had made her that way felt like trying to open a cupboard that was so crammed with stuff that just cracking the door open would cause everything to spill out and smash all over the floor. So she was taking it slow, working things out little by little. That way, she might actually build herself back into a full, emotionally healthy person again in under a decade! After all, she had nothing but time!

Yeah, right.

"By the by, Kyoko," Mami said. "I never did get a straight answer out of you why I saw you stumbling around with that huge gash over your face yesterday."

"Kyoko here got into a teensy little scrap yesterday," Linda snickered.

"Oh yeah, I heard about that," Charlotte said. "Still feuding with that chicken?"

Kyoko rolled her eyes. "It was not a scrap!" she objected. "Billina and I just had a disagreement."

"With her talons," Linda said.

Kyoko pointed a spoon at the spider. "Look, it's a feeling out process, okay? She doesn't like change, and I'm a new face. Some things take time."

"Felt out that new face with her talons."

"Cut her some slack," Kyoko said.

Linda shrugged. "Well, at least you're taking it in stride. I mean, I saw what she did to you. If we were still alive and all, those would be some nasty scars."

"Eh, I've had worse," Kyoko said with a shrug. Taking a half-eaten biscuit, she ran it through the gravy, mopping up the sauce before plopping it into her mouth. "Remind me to tell you about the time I had to gouge my own eyes out," she said after swallowing.

Linda jerked, her spider-legs reflexively curling. "Wait, for real? You really did?" She looked to Kyoko's companions. "Is she messin' with me?"

Charlotte's jaw tightened. "Nope."

"Not at breakfast, please," Sayaka said, looking queasy.

Kyoko lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Yeah, that was a crazy day," she said, shaking her head. "But honestly, it's kind of funny that it's Billina trying to beef with me. I honestly thought the goats would be the ones making trouble."

"Yeah, they can be a pain," Linda sighed. "I don't mind the rest, but I could do without the goats."

"Aw, they're not that bad. They're just goats doing their goaty business."

"That goaty business is disgusting. They drink each other's pee. The pigs are less gross. The pigs!"

"It's nature."

Linda shook her head. "Well, if you say so. If you ask me, they're a bunch of smelly, bad-tempered grumps with really weird eating habits."

Then Sayaka smirked. "Maybe that's why Kyoko gets along with them," she said, digging a finger into Kyoko's side.

"Oh, don't you start!" Kyoko swatted her hand away. "I am not smelly!"

"You sure about that, sweetie-boo?" Sayaka wrinkled her nose and waved her hand in front of it. "Because the distinct smell of goat hanging off of you whenever you get done for the day says otherwise."

"Yeah, right," Kyoko scoffed. "I'll have you know I shower thoroughly immediately after every time. I'm as fresh as a daisy. The only foul stench is what you bring back with you from that lake."

"That is a lot of standing water," Charlotte agreed.

Sayaka sighed. "Oh, don't you start. You know it's massively filtered, right? Besides, I'm not the one stuck in a sweaty shop all day."

Kyoko raised an eyebrow at that. That jab struck her as being a bit below the belt. Though she had never said it out loud, she got the impression that Charlotte was less satisfied with her own realm of responsibilities on the ranch than the rest of them. There was just a sense of weary resignment she got from Charlotte whenever the subject came up. She glanced over to the pink-haired witch, curious if any offense would be taken.

If Charlotte didn't appreciate the shot at her job, she didn't show it. "Hey, it's messy, but I at least shower after every shift. And you're seriously going to argue with me about how smelly diving all day can make you? At least we were in the ocean."

"Well, if you guys think you know so much about it, nothin' stoppin' you from joinin' me on the lake, just sayin'," Sayaka muttered, as much to herself as Charlotte.

Uh-oh, this was starting to get tense. Time to redirect. "Well, if you're talking about working up a sweat," Kyoko hastily jumped in. "Then Mami' the Goddess of the Forge here probably takes the cake."

They all looked toward the blonde, who had been quietly eating while they had talked. She swallowed the mouthful of eggs, dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, and said, "Yes, but it's a clean sweat. A good, honest sweat." Her eyes turned meaningfully toward Kyoko. "And I also shower."

Kyoko scowled. "What, my job isn't honest?"

"Oh, it's very honest. Honestly smelly."

Kyoko stabbed three sausages with her fork and smeared syrup all over them. "Yeah, well, you can all keep your hot bits of metal, piles of paper, and duck ponds." She shoved the entire forkful into her mouth and started chewing, taking the time to enjoy the savory fat and gooey sweetness. After swallowing, she went on, "I'm the one doing the important work! This is a ranch, ain't it? Taking care of animals is literally its main purpose!"

Sayaka shot her a look. "You're just saying that because they shot down your first choice."

"Shut up."

"And your second. And your third."

"Shut up!"

Then…

"No," Silty said.

Kyoko felt the indignation bubble up within her. "Why not?" she complained.

The andalite crossed her arms over her chest. "The Dune Patrol is reserved for my deputies, and I do not deputize anyone I do not wholeheartedly trust. You do not qualify."

"Oh, come on! I thought I already passed all of your vetting!"

"No, you have not. Enough of your story checks out to keep you from getting locked up with your nemeses, but we still have reason to keep an eye on you. And members of the Dune Patrol spend quite a lot of time alone and outside of our walls. Do you really believe I would allow a near-stranger with as much implicit risk as yourself that much freedom?"

Kyoko's mouth set in a straight line. Truth was, that freedom was the reason she wanted to be a part of the Dune Patrol in the first place. Yes, it meant a whole lot of doing nothing by herself in the desert heat, but it also meant being alone outside of the walls.

She had not seen one hint of Jerky ever since arriving. Her little buddy had to be somewhere nearby, but she just had no idea where. And that sort of scared her.

Kyoko didn't like being separated from him. It was something of a strange turn of fate that the only person she truly felt that she could confide in was a juvenile space raptor, but there it was. And with things heating up between her and Sayaka, she really could use someone to talk to about it, someone who would just listen and not offer unsolicited advice.

But there was another reason, one more pressing. She wasn't really worried about his wellbeing, as he clearly could take care of himself. But despite their bond, and despite him being incredibly smart, he was still a wild animal, and an actively predatory one at that. And Wonderland Ranch was full of prey animals.

Kyoko was reasonably certain that if she could just talk to him, she could get him to understand that the ranch's animals were off limits. He might not be able to understand human speech, but he always seemed to get what she was trying to convey to him and was really good at following her instructions.

But that required being somewhere alone where they could talk without the ranchers' prying eyes, and Silty had four of them. She knew they were watching her. It was understandable, as she wouldn't trust her either, but it was a pain.

"Fine," she sighed. "Um, maybe I can help out with the herds? Like, the cows and shit?"

"Ah, no."

Kyoko was trying very hard not to let her frustration show, she really was, but emotional restraint was not one of her stronger virtues. "What, you're afraid I'll tip them over or something?"

"You're certainly welcome to try, but it has more to do with the size of the pastures and the lack of supervision. Quite frankly, another hand with the herds is not worth the deputy I'd have to assign to keep an eye over you." Silty tilted her head to one side, her main eyes narrowing. "And by the by, that's the second job that you've requested that would allow you to spend large swaths of time on your own. Any particular reason why?"

Shit, shit, shit, the andalite was sharp. Probably why she had been given the job of sheriff in the first place. Kyoko's mind raced to come up with a suitable excuse, something that would-

Then her salvation came. From where her wheelchair was parked not far from the two, Sayaka just sighed. "She wants to be a cowgirl. Seriously, ever since we got to Pendle's Quarry she won't stop going on about the hats and the horses and the yee-haws."

Silty blinked. Then she released a long exhale of air from her nose slits in a very humanlike sigh. "Oh, is that it? A fan of Westerns, are you?"

"Well…" Kyoko started to say.

"Well, you wouldn't be the first. A lot of humans have shown up and made assumptions based upon your shows and movies."

Kyoko tilted her head. "What, andalites don't have any stories about the rugged frontier?"

"Ah, well, some, but as we have always been grazing beings, aesthetically it is very different. Honestly, helping you people exploit beings disturbingly similar to my evolutionary ancestors took quite a bit of getting used to."

Kyoko sort of felt like she was being judged, even if she couldn't quite describe how.

"At any rate, if anything that only further compounds your lack of qualifications in handling the herds," Silty continued. "Our way of life is one of survival and necessity, not playacting. And I am not interested in helping a troublesome stranger live out her outlaw fantasies."

Kyoko's eyes narrowed. "I don't need to live out any fantasies. I am a literal outlaw, in case you haven't noticed."

"I have, hence the caution. And as such, you of all people ought to understand the difference between a fictional depiction and the reality of a lifestyle." Then Silty's cheeks crinkled, giving the impression of a smile. "However, if caring for animals is something you would not mind doing, there is an opening."

Now…

"All right, you smelly fuckers!" Kyoko hollered, banging a stick against the large brass bell she held. "Come and get yo' slop!"

All over the pen, the pigs stopped wallowing, snoozing, wandering, and other piggy activities to rush over to the feeding troughs. As they did, Kyoko stopped ringing the bell and knelt down to help the other girls on Pig Duty fill the troughs with a rather smelly mess of scraps and gravy.

On the one hand, Kyoko knew that she wasn't given the most glamorous of duties, especially when compared to that of her friends. Hers was hard, stinky, and kind of gross, as well as potentially hazardous, given how ill-tempered so many of these animals were.

And yet she still liked it. The pigs, the goats, and the fowl liked to lie around, eat, and get into fights. There was no denying that there was a kinship there.

"There you go!" she said as all of the fat beasts pushed and shoved to stick their faces into the muck. "Come on, there's plenty for everyone. Hey! Larry! I see you shoving them away! Knock that shit off!"

Larry the pig, who wasn't quite the problem child that Billina the chicken was but was getting there, lifted his head to glower at her. He oinked what could only be some kind of swine-based slur.

Kyoko glowered back. "Oh, stuff it and behave! Sharing is caring, you walking Sunday dinner!"

Once all the pigs were happily shoving their snouts into the trough, one of the other girls gave the dividing gate a kick, separating the feeding area from the rest of the pigsty. Which meant it was time for the really gooky part.

Shovels were grabbed, wheelbarrows were manned, and everyone headed into the pigsty to start shoveling up fouled clumps of mud, straw, and…other materials into the wheelbarrows, while other came in to place down fresh straw.

It wasn't the most glorious of jobs, but Kyoko honestly didn't mind. It took a lot to gross her out, and she liked the repetitive physicality of it. The harder she worked, the less she had to think. And the less she had to think, the happier she was.

"You know, I'm kind of surprised that you all went for different jobs instead of sticking together," Linda remarked as she and Kyoko shoveled up the piles of muck. "I mean, usually when we get a group, they tend to all go for the same thing."

Kyoko shrugged. "Eh, we're a family, but we're into different things, you know? Mami likes guns. Me, never cared for them. Charlotte likes…not pigs, good for her. The fish likes swimming. Me? I can barely dog-paddle. So-"

"Wait, hold up!" Linda said, all eight eyes going wide in surprise. "You can't swim?"

"Nope!"

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. Water's…not my thing. I mean, get me something shallow and bubbling hot, and I will soak it in all day. But the moment I can't touch the ground…" Kyoko shivered. "Nope. No, thanks."

"Huh." Linda shoved her shovel into the ground to lean against as she stared at the redhead. "Why not just get your girlfriend to teach you?"

Kyoko sighed. Okay, this conversation. "Okay, one!" she said, holding up a finger. "We've been way too busy and came across way too few large bodies of water. And two! The whole girlfriend thing? Kind of a work in progress."

"What?" Linda jerked up. "Seriously?"

"Hey, what can I say?" Kyoko said with another shrug as she kept shoveling muck. "We've been through some tough shit. We're taking it slow."

"Slow? Giiiirrrrllll! Everyone's been through shit!" Linda flicked a shovelful of literal shit for emphasis. "That's the whole point!"

"Yeah, well, there's baggage, is what I'm saying."

Shaking her head, Linda went back to work. "You're soul-tied. You're bantering constantly. You can't look at each other without going all starry-eyed."

"Hey, we don't-"

"I literally have eight eyes, Kyoko. You think I can't see it? Also, you've got that cute red and blue thing going. You keep touchin' each other in some way. And you two are not only sharin' a room, unless there was some kind of major furniture change since last time I was in there yesterday, you are also sharin' a bed! Come on, girl."

Kyoko sighed.

The two of them finished up. Kyoko slapped the back of the truck, and it started moving (she could only wonder what the driver had made of their conversation), and they started for the next pen.

"So," Linda said as they walked. "You do…like her, right?"

"Yup," Kyoko said without hesitation. Why hide it?

"And she likes you?"

"Who wouldn't?"

Linda sighed. "Kyoko. Seriously. What's keepin' you from doin' somethin' about it?"

Two images of Sayaka turning into a witch filled Kyoko's mind, one heavy with despair and the other shot through with sheer terror. Kyoko had been present for both, and had been equally helpless to prevent it both times.

Her face twitched. That was the only visible indication of sharp pain lancing through her heart that she allowed herself.

"Like I said," she said casually, her voice giving no sign of the turmoil inside her head. "Baggage."

Linda rolled her eyes, a disorienting thing to watch considering how many of them she had. "Well, if yah say so. Me, I'm thinkin' that baggage would be sorted a whole lot quicker if you two would just stop dancin' around the obvious."

Kyoko shrugged and went back to shoveling.

"Hmmm. Hey, you two are gonna be at the bonfire tonight, right?"

"Sure," Kyoko said. "Those are always fun."

"And you said your fish is a pretty danged good musician, yeah?"

"Oh, hell yeah!" Kyoko exclaimed. "She's fucking brilliant! You should see her with that harmonica of hers! Like, she'll just straight up make shit up on the spot and it's better than, I don't know, fucking Mozart."

Linda chuckled. "Well, ain't never fucked Mozart before, so I can't judge. Still, okay. When y'all show up tonight, bring that harmonica with you. I wanna see how good she is for myself."

Kyoko's eyes narrowed. "Okay, that sounds like you're up to something. What's going on?"

"What?" Linda said with a shrug. "I play a pretty mean harmonica myself. Can't blame me for wantin' to see what she's got."

"Yeah, yeah," Kyoko grumbled. "Hey, seeing how you're so invested in my stupidly complicated love life, how about you? You got anyone? Like, I don't know, some fly girl you've got trapped in your web?"

She meant it as a joke, but as soon as she said it, the naked grief in Linda's eyes made her instantly regret it.

"Whoa, hey, I'm sorry," Kyoko said hastily. "I didn't mean to hit on any sore spots."

Linda sighed. "No, it's fine, it's fine. Not your fault. It's just…" Another sigh, with her four spider-legs wilting behind her.

Kyoko cocked her head to one side. "Uh, bad breakup?"

"Somethin' like that," Linda said after a pause. "So yeah, there was somebody, but… She swallowed. "She, uh, decided to…stay."

"Stay? Stay where?"

"Pendle's Quarry."

Kyoko just about jumped out of her poncho in shock. "Pendle's Quarry? You were dating one of those…fuck, what's the word? Not racist, but…"

"Witchphobes."

"Yeah, them. One of those bigots?"

"Nope," Linda said, shaking her head. "Another witch."

Another shock to the system. "Wait, a witch lives there? Like, on purpose?"

"More than one," Linda said morosely.

"Why?"

"Because…" Linda shook her head and let out a frustrated growl. "Kyoko, believe me when I say that that places messes you up. They get in your head, make you think, 'Oh, we don't mean you. You're one of the good ones! You can't help being a witch!"

"Wait, you used to live there?"

"For a time," Linda said glumly. "I…got out. Couldn't get her to go with me. So…yeah."

To this Kyoko had nothing to say at all, though she did lift a hand to gently pat the big girl on the shoulder. Linda glanced at her and nodded her thanks.

They kept on their way to the next pen. As they did, Kyoko kept to the edge of the group, eyes sweeping the field that bordered the small settlement.

There still was no sign of Jerky. That was the one thing that galled her about this place, and it was a big one. She tried not to worry, tried telling herself that Jerky would be fine, that he was more than capable of handling himself.

Except he was only one juvenile alien dinosaur, whereas these people had guns and swords and magic. Kyoko and Charlotte had taken on an entire pack on their own and nearly prevailed. The ranchers would have no difficulty rendering him extinct.

Making sure that no one was watching her, she stealthily reached into her pocket and extracted Elsa Maria's compass. Bringing it to her lips, she whispered, "Jerky." Then she waited.

The needle idled back and forth a bit, then it swung out, pointing toward the field. That could mean any number of things. Either he was in the field, or he was somewhere outside the ranch in the general direction of the field, or someone was smoking a whole lot of jerky in that direction and the compass was getting cheeky again. At least the needle was swaying back and forth a bit instead of remaining fixed on a single point, indicating that whatever it was pointing at was actively moving.

Kyoko breathed out. He's fine, she told herself. He's fine. If anything had happened, you would've heard about it by now. Alien raptor showing up would get everyone talking.

She started to pocket the compass again, but before she did, the needle suddenly swung to one side, pointing insistently in a different direction entirely.

Toward the lake, to be specific.

You too? Kyoko thought as she irritably jammed it back into her pocket. Jesus, everyone's gotta play matchmaker. What was next? A bunch of singing crabs telling her to kiss the-

And then Kyoko heard a rather hoarse cackle.

It was not Jerky. Had it been Jerky, she would be elated. As it was, it merely put her on her guard.

Perched on the wall was a chicken. But this was no ordinary chicken, not another stupid yet oddly endearing ball of fluff. For one, it was black as tar, from its sleek feathers to its majestic comb to its deadly sharp beak to its tearing talons. For another, it was pure evil.

When Kyoko had first seen Billina, the undisputed queen of the henhouse, she had thought that the magnificent creature was the most beautiful bird she had ever seen. Linda had said that the bird was called an Ayam Ceyami, a rare breed of chicken known for their black bodies and black eggs. Apparently even their bones were black. That was so fucking metal that Kyoko had fallen in love immediately.

Unfortunately, Billina also had a black heart, and did not share her affection. In fact, she had hated Kyoko on sight, an impression that Kyoko couldn't get her to shake no matter how hard she tried to make friends. And now the devil bird was her nemesis, bound and determined to end Kyoko's existence at any and every opportunity.

For some reason, that only made Kyoko like her more. That much pure spite had to be respected.

Rising slowly, Kyoko locked eyes with the devil bird. She took up a gunslinger's stance, legs apart, arms hanging loose and hands at the ready. She had no intention of actually hurting Billina, but her skin knew the feel of those talons entirely too well. She was not going to give the chicken another chance to slice her open.

"Okay, Wild Bill," Kyoko said, her own little nickname for the feathered fiend. "How you want to do this? Fly at me directly? Wait for me to look away? Try me."

Billina cocked her head from one side to the next, switching from eye to eye. The malice in those evil black orbs was plain to see.

"Come on, I know you're going to try something," Kyoko said. "You got a piece of me yesterday, I'll give you that. But it's going to take more than that to take me out."

Another hateful cackle, and Billina crouched down, preparing to spring. Kyoko tensed up.

Suddenly something hard and fast moving slammed into the small of her back. Yelping out in surprise, Kyoko was pitched upward, lifted up off of her feet and sent tumbling backwards ass over teakettle. She made a full rotation in the air before landing facefirst in the straw.

Dazed and bewildered, Kyoko lifted her head and spat out a mouthful of straw. Billina was still perched on the wall, though she was no longer crouched for the kill. Rather, she was sitting prim and proper, her inky black feathers puffed out, an air of smug superiority around her.

And standing next to the wall was Larry the pig, somehow having gotten out of his pen.

It took a few moments for Kyoko's scattered mind to put together what had happened, but when she did, she couldn't help but laugh. "Did you two team up on me?"

They had! They had done just that! Billina had distracted her, letting Larry sneak up from behind! She had just been outsmarted by a chicken and a pig!

It was so stupid and yet so funny that Kyoko couldn't help but start laughing.

She and Charlotte had wasted an entire valk pack, and she had just gotten outmaneuvered by a cranky chicken and a pig.

Fuck it, she loved it here.

"An' there she is," Cachiro the botuntiko remarked as Oktavia wheeled her way down the dock toward her and the rest of the lake crew. "Mornin', gal."

Lake Luminous was one of three bodies of water within Wonderland Ranch, and the one closest to Liddelton. It was fed by the same stream that Oktavia and her friends had followed into Pendle's Quarry and drained into an underground river, something that apparently everyone had to be careful about, as those assholes had apparently tried mucking up the water supply on more than one occasion, twice through contamination, and three times by cutting it off completely, something that was only reversed when the Colemans had reminded them who controlled the liquor in those parts. Even so, a lot of work went into making sure that the water kept flowing and remained pure.

Which was where Oktavia came in.

"Morning!" Oktavia said cheerfully, looking in what she hoped was Cachiro's direction. The nearly transparent amphibian was a lot easier to see in the village, but up against the lake and the sky the telltale distortion of her body was harder to pick out.

It got easier when Cachiro picked up a bright red toolbox. "Ready to go?" she said.

"Yup!"

Oktavia pulled off her bandana, followed by her shirt. Then she pushed up on the armrests to slide into the water.

Then…

"You…want to help take care the animals," Missy said, as incredulous as they came.

"What's wrong with that?" Oktavia said, perhaps a little too defensively. But something about how Missy had said that struck a raw nerve.

The Wonderland Elders she was speaking to exchanged a glance. "Well, I hate to be the one to bring this up…" Tai started to say.

"You are half-fish," Silty said bluntly. "You are physiologically incapable of doing the tasks required without massive amounts of accommodation."

Oktavia scowled. "Hey, I can get around on my own just fine, okay? I got these magic wheels-"

"No," Silty said.

"Why would you even want to?" Missy said in befuddlement. "It ain't exactly the most popular job 'round here."

Oktavia didn't answer, but her eye flitted briefly to the window. Outside, Kyoko was talking to Charlotte, oblivious to the conversation taking place within.

"Of course," Tai groaned. "Kid, you wanna stay with your girl? Fine. But it's gotta be somethin' you both can do."

Oktavia pursed her lips. She wished that Kyoko had talked to her first before choosing her job, so they could decide on something they could both do. It wasn't like-

No, no, no. Now she was just sounding clingy. Kyoko needed something that made her happy. So if shoveling animal poop and hauling around buckets of smelly pig slop made her happy, then Oktavia was going to be fine with it!

"Whatever," she sighed. "Okay. Do you…guys have anything someone who's half fish can do? And, uh, hopefully something that doesn't involve me sitting in a chair, shelling peanuts all day?"

"Well, damn," Tai said. "There goes my idea."

"A good peanut sheller is hard to come by," Missy agreed. "Well, fine. I suppose we could go with the obvious route."

Now…

As soon as the cool waters closed around her, Oktavia felt her spirits lift. She did just fine on land, but she was a sea creature at heart, and it was so rare that she got to be in her natural habitat. She kicked her fins, stretching them out, and spun around to head off.

At first she had been hesitant to enter the lake. After all, lakes had a lot more standing water than the ocean did, which meant a lot more buildup of things like animal waste, hair, decomposing fish, and other gross stuff that she didn't want near her gills. But the water was surprisingly clean, in part of the constant drainage, but also in part of the carefully maintained purification system that they had in case Pendle's Quarry tried anything. Again.

Oktavia followed the others down, past the kelp farms, past the hatcheries, and past the shellfish traps. A few large turtles drifted by, paying them no mind, and a school of little silver minnows darted past.

If Cachiro was hard to see above water, then below it she was practically invisible, so she had on a little bracelet around one arm that had a flashing red light for Oktavia to follow. Keeping her sight on it, she followed Cachiro down and down, where the water was cold and dark.

All along the bottom of the lake were several large crisscrossing pipes that led up to the mill by the dock. There, several gallons of something with a name that had too many syllables were dumped into the pipes every day, which were sent deep into the lake to bubble up out of the vents to dissolve in the water, keeping it clean. It was quite the sight, a field of bubbles billowing up in timed intervals.

Most of it seemed to be working okay, but there was one vent that clearly wasn't pulling its weight, its bubbles coming up slow and sickly. "There," Cachiro said, her voice a little distorted by the water but still perfectly understandable. "See it?"

Oktavia nodded. "Yeah, it's busted all right."

The two swam down to the faulty vent. Cachiro reached down to click a switch, and the bubbles stopped rising. "All right, hold the light for me," Cachiro said, holding Oktavia a large flashlight. Oktavia did, and the amphibian elder set to work, opening her toolbelt and unscrewing the vent. Placing the screws into a pouch so they wouldn't get lost, she seized the vent cover with four hands and indicated for Oktavia to help her. Working together, they twisted the cover off.

The two peered inside. Then Cachiro sighed. "Well now, that would just about do it."

Oktavia's nose wrinkled. "Ew."

It fortunately wasn't sabotage, but it also wasn't pleasant to look at. From the look of things, a hawk had tried to fly off with a turtle, only to get trapped and drowned in the ensuing struggle, causing both of them to sink to the bottom of the lake, and somehow both of their corpses had managed to lodge themselves inside the vent, gumming up the works. How that had happened, Oktavia couldn't guess, but it had and it was gross.

Glad that she was wearing gloves, Oktavia helped Cachiro scoop out the mess of feathers, flesh, scales, and bone. "Kind of ironic, if you think about it?" Cachiro remarked.

"Eh?"

"This here bird. Ol' boy wanted to yank a creature of the water into the sky to meet its demise, only to meet its own in the depths."

Oktavia shrugged. "Well, we can't all be amphibians. Or ducks, I guess."

Cachiro chuckled, a gooshy, gurgling sound that had taken Oktavia a little while to figure out was laughter instead of a sudden urge to vomit. "Yeah, some folks walk the two worlds easier. Or swim. Or wheel. Folks like us, who're sorta of half-and-half, you know what I'm sayin'?"

"I guess," Oktavia said. "Though honestly, water is way easier for me. Can't beat that full range of motion, you know?"

"Oh, true, true, true," Cachiro agreed, doing a brief loop-de-loop. "See, my world? All water. I mean, my feet work well enough, but let me tell you, getting used to walkin' was an unbelievable inconvenience. Just gettin' used to the pressure was a mighty trial, you know what I'm sayin'?"

For some reason, the image of some kind of blobby fish with big lips appeared in Oktavia's mind. "Uh…"

"Sure you do. That's why I got my house mostly in the water. Ain't the same, but it is a mighty relief. Say, if y'all are plannin' on stickin' around, we can probably get you set up with somethin' of the like."

Oktavia's ears perked up at that. "You mean, my own underwater house?"

"I can't think of any particularly compellin' reason why not. You've been dryin' out your scales long enough, I say."

That gave Oktavia pause. Her own house? Her own nautical house where she could just go and stretch her fins whenever she wanted? No more getting carted around all the time? That sounded kind of amazing, actually.

Heck, maybe they could figure out a way to have everything underwater, even a bed! There had to be a way to waterproof a mattress and bedcovers, right? Then she could always feel at home, even while sleeping and waking up…

Alone.

Oh. Oh, right.

Oktavia slowly exhaled through her gills. "Well, I…Actually, I don't think that would work out," she said.

"Why the devil not?" the extraterrestrial amphibian demanded. "I…" Then her voice trailed off, and when it came back, her amusement was evident. "Oh, I see, I see. Don't wanna live apart from your leggy friends, do yah?"

"Yeah," Oktavia sighed. "I mean, we've been together since, well, ever."

"Well, I do say."

The subject was dropped for the rest of their swim. Once the vent was done, they turned to their routine work, checking the nets, lines, and traps, fixing what needed to be fixed and bringing up the catches.

They finished around one in the afternoon and headed back to the dock. They surfaced, and Cachiro scampered up the legs of the peer with sticky ease, and then reached down with one squishy arm to help Oktavia up out of the water and onto the pier. For a being that looked like she was made of mucus (she wasn't, fortunately), Cachiro was shockingly strong.

Oktavia settled back into her wheelchair with a somewhat regretful sigh. She would be back in the water soon enough, but she never liked leaving it. She wrung her dripping hair out with her hands, shook out the droplets, and tied her bandana back into place.

As she did, she got the sense that she was being watched. Glancing to one side, she saw the shimmer of Cachiro's body, now much more visible in the sunlight, enough so that Oktavia could tell that the extraterrestrial amphibian was staring right at her.

"Okay," Oktavia sighed. "What?"

Cachiro turned to look out back toward the mill. "Far be it from me to pry into affairs not my own, but it could not escape my notice that when y'all settled into your roles 'round here, the four of you decided to try her hands at somethin' different from the others. Given those tales you told of the dangers you faced together and the trial you overcame, I thought it would only be logical for you to continue in close company. And yet here you are, by your lonesome with me, while your girl is mucking it up with the pigs and the goats, and the other two, well, they stuck together, but in very different stations. I hope you don't mind me askin', but was there any particular reason for the separation?"

Oktavia groaned out loud. "Well, why do you think? You guys wouldn't let me take care of the animals with Kyoko."

"Ain't nothin' preventin' her from findin' work here with us."

"Kyoko…" Oktavia winced. "…can't swim."

The shimmer of Cachiro's body suddenly flared up, causing her to darken, becoming more solid-looking. "Wait, what? Really?"

Oktavia shrugged. "Yeah, uh. She…She said she never got around to learning. So…"

"Well, I'll be knackered. I weren't aware that that could even be a thing."

"Well, it's not like humans are water creatures. You had to learn how to walk on land, didn't you?"

"A mighty fair point," Cachiro mused. "But is she particularly opposed to water, or is she just currently ill-equipped to traverse its depths?"

That question brought to mind that time in the hot spring and the subsequent naked wrestling match. Sure, it had just been the bait Mephisto had used to lure them into her trap, but there was no denying how pleasant it had been. "No, I don't think she's scared of water, she just doesn't know how to swim. That's all."

"Ah, I see then." Even though Oktavia couldn't really make out her facial expression, there was no mistaking the slyness in her gurgling voice.

"What?"

"Well, it's just she strikes me as the type to meet challenges and overcome obstacles! The type to better herself and do what she can to add to her arsenal of skills."

"She is," Oktavia agreed. "So what?"

There was a pause, and then Cachiro spoke slowly and deliberately, as if the answer were obvious. "Then why not offer to teach her?" she said.

Oktavia's eyes went wide.

"I mean, it'll get her little rear over here to spend more time with you. Not only that, you'll be bringin' her to your world 'stead of havin' her push you around in hers. An' if you do a good enough job and she likes it enough, why, what's preventin' her from askin' for some kind of transfer? Maybe she'll want to spend her time here on the lake. With you. Wearin' a cute little swimsuit or somethin'."

Now Oktavia's cheeks were bright pink. "I, um, well, I never actually taught anyone how to…anything. Besides, I got a fin, she has legs, the motor skills are totally different! And…And I don't know if she'd even-"

"Girl," Cachiro sighed. "Those're excuses, and you know it. You was all set to spend your day workin' out how shovel pig shit while confined to a chair. Ain't this better?"

"Y-Yeah, but…" Oktavia ran her fingers through her dripping hair. "I…You think she'd want to?"

Chuckling, Cachiro lowered down onto all limbs and skittered over her to rise back up and lay one glistening paw on Oktavia's shoulder. "I reckon there's only one way to find out, don't'cha think?"

Oktavia looked out over the lake. That…sounded pretty nice. Her and Kyoko, together in the water, guiding her along as she struggled to adapt to Oktavia's world. Oktavia had spent so much time being reliant on Kyoko and others that the idea of Kyoko having to rely on her did have a lot of appeal, especially since Oktavia would have to hold onto her for most of it, and doubly so since Kyoko would, as Cachiro had just pointed out, probably be wearing just a cute swimsuit. Maybe then Oktavia could get her to forget Sayaka Miki and-

Unbidden, the image of Kyoko's drowning face from Oktavia's dream rose up in her mind, serenely succumbing to the waters as Sayaka Miki dragged her deeper into the depths, away from Oktavia.

Though it was a nice warm day and the sun had already dried the water on Oktavia's skin, she could not repress a violent shiver.

"Um, maybe not," she said. "Kyoko and water…don't really mix, I think."

The shimmer of Cachiro's body shifted as she tilted her head. "Somethin' wrong?"

Though Oktavia was certain that her body language made a very obvious liar out of her, she still looked toward Cachiro and forced a smile. "Oh, I'm fine. Just don't want to force her to do something she's uncomfortable with, you know?"

Cachiro sighed. But then her head tilted again, briefly fixating on a point beyond Oktavia's head before quickly turning back to her. "You could always just ask," she pointed out.

"Yeah, but…" Oktavia sighed. "I don't know. I don't know if I'd make a good teacher, and what if I mess up and she ends up drowning? Then she'd never go anywhere near water!"

Cachiro took a few steps back, again looking to a point beyond Oktavia. "Or you'll end up being a fantastic teacher and you'll give her something to share with you."

What was that botuntiko looking at? "Yeah, but-"

Then a bucket of cold water was dumped directly on Oktavia's head. She squealed and flailed around, trying to bat away whatever was attacking her.

Oktavia liked water. No, she loved it, and certainly had no objections to being wet. But having it suddenly come down on her without warning would startle anyone, especially since she had just gotten dry. Who had done that? What had done that? How could-

Oh.

Her.

"Hey, Chicken of the Sea!" Kyoko said, poking her smirking visage into view. "Sorry, but I didn't want you bringing any of that smelly-"

Oktavia swiped one hand out, like she was chopping the air. Immediately a glowing train wheel slammed right into Kyoko, lifted her off of her feet, and sent her wailing across the lake to drop into the water.

"You seem to have conquered your reservations regardin' her aversion to water," Cachiro observed as they watched the furious redhead flail and curse.

"Yeah, well, she had that coming," Oktavia said in a flat tone. Another gesture, and another wheel came up beneath Kyoko, lifting her out of the lake to bring her back to the dock, where she was unceremoniously dumped onto the wooden beams, looking like a rather unhappy drowned rat.

"You prick!" Kyoko seethed as she scrambled to her feet. She snatched her hat off of her head and shook it out. "I can't swim, remember?"

"Then don't mess with the fish right next to a lake," Oktavia said without remorse.

"You got my hat wet!"

Cachiro cleared her throat. "Well then. It is a good thing you have the magic to fix it, then."

Kyoko sighed. "Yeah, but it's the principle!" Her entire body shimmer faint scarlet, and the dripping stopped.

"You were asking for it," Oktavia said as Kyoko put her hat back on. "What're you doing here anyway?"

Kyoko shrugged. "Eh, I was heading to my weekly Date with a Dipshit, when I saw you on the dock." She then pointed to the wooden bucket that had fallen next to Oktavia's wheelchair. "Then I saw the bucket, and the lake, and ideas were had."

"Poorly thought-out ones, I must say," Cachiro said.

"Yeah, it did go better in my head," Kyoko admitted. "Whatever. Still funny."

Oktavia was about to retort, only for Cachiro to leap in first. "Well, as it so happens, we were just discussing that very problem."

"Eh?"

Realizing what Cachiro was doing, Oktavia shot her a pleading look and waved her hands out, begging her not to. Ignoring her, Cachiro said, "It has been brought to my attention that your early education was woefully lacking in regards to nautical motor functions. It was then my recommendation that havin' both such a lovely lake at hand and such a lovely mermaid for a, ahem, close friend seemed to present a solution." She held out one shimmering hand toward the now furiously blushing mermaid in question.

"What?" Kyoko said, looking over to Oktavia, who was now quite deliberately not meeting her eyes. "Oh! Really? You too? Linda was saying the exact same thing this morning!"

"Linda is quite right," Cachiro said. "And I for one think it would be good for you both."

"Look, just ignore her," Oktavia said. "She's just messing with us."

"Am not," Cachiro said. "I am quite serious."

"Yeah, but if she doesn't want to, then don't pressure her to-"

"Yeah, you know what?" Kyoko said. "Okay."

"Huh?"

Kyoko shrugged. "She has a point. I'm kind of overdue. So, whad'd'ya say, Blue Tuna? Wanna see about getting me some sea legs?"

Oktavia was pretty sure that sea legs actually referred to sailors keeping their balance during turbulent weather, but this was not the time to correct her. "Really?" she said, unsure if Kyoko was just playing with her again. "Swimming lessons?"

"Well, can you?"

Oktavia hesitated. This was kind of new. She had never really thought of herself as a teacher. But if Kyoko was interested…

"Okay," she said with a quick nod. "Let's, um, work things out later. But sure. Sure."

"Sweet. Guess I'm committed, then." Kyoko playfully ruffled Oktavia's hair as she headed her way back to land, leaving the mermaid even more red in the face. "Okay, I'll see you guys at the bonfire then."

As she headed off, Cachiro called after her, "But make sure you come to your lessons properly attired! Cute swimsuits are an absolute must!"

Kyoko burst out laughing. "Oh, is that what this is all about? You got it, then! I'm gonna find me the tiniest, skimpiest bikini I can find! I'm gonna scandalize all the old ladies! Pearls will be clutched, and sermons will be angry! Reverend Heyman's gonna have to dedicate a whole month to my sinful ways when I get done!"

When Kyoko was finally gone, Oktavia slowly breathed out and turned her attention to the still very hard to make out but quite obviously smirking botuntiko. "I am going to kill you," she said flatly.

"After you've done that, you can thank me," Cachiro said. "Don't recall you sayin' no."

"Kill you. Death.

"Sure you will. In the meantime, we need to plan for your first lesson! I'll set out the arrangements. Some floatin' candles, some flowers, maybe get Linda out here with her fiddle to serenade y'all. I'm thinking sometime around sunset to good a good, romantic-"

Oktavia used another one of her train wheels to smack her halfway across the lake.

After finishing up breakfast, Mami and Charlotte headed toward their respective jobs.

For them it was a short walk, only about halfway through the village. As they did, Charlotte found herself watching her wife out of the corner of her eye, taking note of how she was feeling.

Mami had improved noticeably over the last few days. While still a far cry from where she had been before this whole nightmare had begun, she also no longer was being swallowed up by the darkness inside of her own mind. There was a renewed lightness to how she walked, a spring in her step that hadn't been there before. She was talking more, smiling more, and seemed to genuinely look forward to each day.

Most of the time, anyway. She still had her relapses, had her bad days, but there were much fewer than there had been before, and today was not one of them, and for that Charlotte was glad.

Sighing, Charlotte stuck her hands into her pockets. She just sort of wished she felt the same.

Then…

Mami stared down at the bottle of pills in her hand.

"They are not…quite what you had back home," Tai told her. "A bit off brand. But they should help."

Maybe so, but Mami had learned the hard way to be suspicious of any strange medication. "Just how…off brand are they?" she said.

Tai folded her arms. "What, you're worried that they're drops? They ain't. We ain't got no truck with that shit. No poor fool's vapors went into these. But as I understand, that samizayn stuff they had you on was jott made." She nodded toward the pills. "The vekoo came up with these. Owensteen. Not as effective, but it should help."

Mami's eyes flitted back to the pills. She said nothing.

The withdrawals had been at their worst about the same time they had all arrived in Wonderland Ranch, that suffocating blanket at its heaviest. She had felt like she was being constantly smothered, weighed down by her many sins. Several days of peace and rest had helped some, but even after her body had finally purged itself and the physical effects had passed, it did nothing for the weight around her heart.

"I…I don't know," she said. What if it made things worse? She had nothing to go on save for this near-stranger's word. Even if Tai was sincere, there was nothing to keep her from being wrong.

What if they had some kind of averse mental effect? What if they made her snap? She had never even heard of these things! Was she really just going to take some strange medicine just because they might help?

Sighing, Tai stuck out her hand. "Then give 'em here, if you don't want 'em. Someone else'll take 'em."

Mami looked at her, and then down at the owensteen pills. Well, she was never going to find out if she didn't at least try. And frankly, she was getting sick of being miserable.

Fine then.

Mami plopped the pills into her mouth and gulped them down. Tai handed her a glass of water to help them go down.

Closing her eyes, Mami waited.

Medicine tended to work a little faster in the afterlife than it did back home. Once ingested, it dissolved and spread quickly through the soul vapors, shifting and altering as designed. But it still took some time for the vapors to grow accustomed to them, and the process could be grueling.

She remembered the first time she had been put on samizayn. It had taken a couple days for them to start to help, and until then she had wondered if they had given her sugar pills. That had been a really bad time for her, when time had seemed to have little meaning, just an endless gray haze of misery and self-loathing. She hadn't even been able to look at Charlotte without seeing those gaping holes she had blown into her then-future wife upon their first meeting, and most days all she could do was lie in bed as the faces of all those she had helped entangle in Kyubey's lies floated in her mind.

It wasn't as if the samizayn had taken that away. Nothing ever really did. But it did help lift the weight. It did help clear her mind. She just hoped that this could do the same.

"Anythin'?" Tai said.

"Not yet," Mami said.

"Might take a while?"

Mami nodded.

"Fine," Tai said, turning. "Lemme know if somethin' goes wrong."

Taking that as a dismissal, Mami headed out of the big house, to where Charlotte was idling on the front porch.

"So, you good?" Charlotte asked.

Mami held up the bottle and shrugged.

Frowning, Charlotte tilted her head to one side. "So that's the new stuff, huh? Any sour feeling in your stomach, like you've been poisoned, or are about to explode or anything?"

"No," Mami said.

"Okay, but what about a swarm of parasites, their microscopic eggs cleverly hidden in the pills, just waiting for them to dissolve so they can hatch and swim free through your soul, gobbling up all the vapor?"

"Charlotte," Mami sighed.

"Or maybe some kind of mind-altering drugs? Well, I guess anti-depressants are those, but what if instead of being anti-depression, these are actually anti-freewill, and just by taking them you've made yourself more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion? It's not like we don't have anything experience with that sort of thing."

Mami sighed again. She knew what Charlotte was doing: crack a bunch of dumb, slightly inappropriate jokes so that Mami's annoyance would outweigh her feelings of self-loathing. It was irritating, but she couldn't deny that it was working.

"I am quite certain that that is not the case," she said in long-suffering manner. "I am expecting side-effects. I am not expecting malicious intent."

"If you say so." Charlotte looked out over the small village. It was early afternoon, and while most of the town's populace was away doing their jobs, there were still a handful of people milling around. "Well, at least this got you outside. What do you say about a walk?"

"Actually, I really rather just go back to bed-"

"Glad you agree!" Charlotte clasped Mami by the hand quite firmly. "Let's go see the sights." She headed down the stairs, holding tight onto Mami's hand so as to not let her slip away.

Mami scowled, but didn't put up much resistance. She had spent a lot of time in bed since they arrived at the ranch, nearly all of it in fact. Maybe stretching her legs and getting some air would do her good.

Then again, she had gotten plenty of air and stretched her legs quite a lot during that long and arduous journey, and it definitely hadn't helped.

"Charlotte, I-"

Then a harsh shiver swept down Mami's spine, accompanied with a weird churning around the gut.

"Oof," she winced. "There they go."

"Are you okay?" Charlotte said.

"I think so." Mami shivered again. "It's just…the side effects kicking in."

Charlotte arched an eyebrow. "It doesn't look good."

"I'm fine," Mami told her after a bit. "It just takes some getting used to."

"What's it like?" Charlotte asked.

"I…" Mami shook her head, though not out of denial. "You know how weird things get when you take a lot of cold medication, how you're alert and groggy at the same time, and everything is just so twitchy? It's kind of like that. Also, my skin keeps tingling."

"That doesn't sound like an improvement."

"I know, but…" Mami frowned. "You know, it does sort of feel like the weight's lifted a little. At least, my head feels a little more clear."

"Could be a placebo effect," Charlotte suggested.

"Maybe." A particularly strong chill made Mami's whole body shiver. "I guess we'll see."

Charlotte's mouth thinned out. "I'm still not comfortable with this. Just taking some weird drugs because some people we barely know tell us that they'll help? Even if they are on the level, the people here don't exactly strike me as being the most medically educated."

Mami shot her a look. "Don't be prejudiced."

"I'm not, I'm just…" Charlotte sighed. "Okay, well, we'll see what happens."

Mami gave her hand a squeeze. "Not everyone is out to get us, you know."

"No, but given our track record…" Charlotte groused.

"Maybe, but I don't get a bad vibe from these people."

"Me neither, but hey, I didn't from the Persephone Protectorate either, and we all know how that turned out."

Mami winced. "That's…well, okay, but that wasn't really…I mean it's not like these…"

Then she saw someone looking at them, and the words died in her throat.

It was Carola. The reclusive witch was with four of her sisters, and from the look of it they had been chatting with a couple of ranchers that Mami hadn't been introduced to yet. However, she had spotted Mami and Charlotte, and her face had fallen.

Mami's insides squirmed. She had a very good idea as to why.

"Maybe we'd better leave," she whispered to Charlotte. "We don't want to-"

Then Carola broke off from the others to head toward the pair, and suddenly Mami was on high alert. Oh no, this wasn't good. Get out, get out, get out…

"Um, hello," Carola said as she approached. "Been a few days. You two settling in well?"

"Hi," Charlotte said guardedly. "And as well as can be expected, I suppose."

Carola slowly breathed out. "Well, that's good to hear." She placed her swollen hands on her hips and shook her head. "Ah, well. I suppose…" Clearing her throat, she said, "I suppose I owe you an apology for the other day. I did not react in the most…hospitable manner to what must have been a heavy burden."

Mami blinked in surprise. "What?"

"You've been carrying a great weight, and seeing me could not have helped. Understand, we tend to be a little jumpy out here, so hearing what you had to say about our shared history sort of took me by surprise, and I didn't want to risk any, ah, unpleasant issues. But I see I was…less than considerate in conveying that, and given how worn you must have been, my reaction must have been hard. I apologize."

"Oh, no, Carola," Mami sighed. "You have nothing to apologize for. It was completely my fault. I shouldn't have-"

Carola's lips pursed in a frown. "Now, now, I will hear none of that! I can tell that you have not been treating yourself kindly. Well, that stops now. You will accept my apology, we will move forward as friends, and you will start treating yourself better, you hear?" She stuck out one large, pawlike hand.

Mami stared down at the offered handshake, not sure what to make of it. How was she supposed to react to something like this? Carola was apologizing to her? She ought to be the one apologizing to Carola! And Kyoko. And Oktavia. And Charlotte. And the rest of them, from poor Brooke Alexander to Lana Goldberg to Asami Suzuko to-

Then an elbow dug into her side, jolting her out of her bitter ruminations. Startled, she turned her head to see Charlotte with her hands in her pockets, rocking back and forth on her heels. Catching her eye, her wife tilted her head meaningfully toward Carola's waiting hand.

After one last moment of hesitation, Mami slowly slid her hand into Carola's grasp. The witch closed her big paw around Mami's dainty hand with all the care of someone who has had handshakes go wrong in the past and was now very careful not to repeat them.

"Thank you," Mami said as the two shook hands. "I of course accept. Completely understandable."

Candeloro sighed in relief. "Oh, I'm so glad. It's been keeping me up, you know?" She bobbed her head. "Well, imperfect as it might be, our afterlife is all about new beginnings, hey? Be seeing you two around!"

"Well, that was a nice surprise," Charlotte said as they watched Carola hurry off.

Mami gave a brief nod. "It was," she agreed. She was still on high alert, but also mightily relieved as well. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. "Oh, and thank you for that little push."

"I figured you needed to make up with her as much as she did," Charlotte said. Then she paused, her brow furrowed.

Mami tilted her head. "What is it?"

"Um, well, it's just…I know it's not exactly what we lost, but this is still the most decent place we've come across since, you know, Cloudbreak, so…"

Mami's stomach tightened. She knew exactly where this conversation was going. "You're thinking that maybe we should stay?"

Charlotte gave a half-shrug. "I know it's not ideal, but damn it, Mami. We can't keep going on like we have. Maybe it's time to think about our future."

"I…" Mami breathed out. The cloud hanging over her head and the weight on her heart might have lessened, but it was far from gone. "What about Kyoko? What about her sister?"

Charlotte's lips thinned out. "Mami, be realistic. That was never going to work."

The tightness grew stronger. Charlotte's bluntness could hit a little hard at times, but that didn't mean she was wrong.

Slipping her hand into her wife's, Mami gave it a squeeze and said in a soft tone, "I think a decision like that should be made with a clearer head. Let's focus on putting ourselves back together first."

"Fair enough," Charlotte sighed.

"But don't mention it to Kyoko," Mami was quick to add. "Not yet. It might push her into doing something…drastic."

Charlotte didn't answer immediately, thoughtfully staring back at the big house, where their younger friends were. "You know," she said at last. "I think she already knows."

Mami didn't like the sound of that. Kyoko was unpredictable even at the best of times, but these days she was nearly impossible to read. She might decide to settle down into the humble life of a prairie rancher permanently or suddenly disappear in the middle of the night, and Mami wouldn't be surprised either way. Who knew what she was thinking?

"Maybe," Mami admitted. "But even so, let's not test that."

"Again, fair enough," Charlotte said. She looked over the small town. "So, about that walk?"

Again Mami considered asking to just go back to bed. It would probably be the safe thing to do, until her body got accustomed to the new medication and rode out the side-effects.

On the other hand, the thing that had helped her overcome her post-death depression the first time around was Shizuku and Natsuru coming up with things to keep her busy and out of bed. It had been Hell at the time, but she had to admit, it had kept her mind occupied when she needed desperately to not wallow in her own self-loathing.

"Okay," Mami sighed. "A small one. Just to clear my head a little."

"A small one it is." Charlotte took Mami by the hand, and the two of them stepped out into the town.

Mami still felt a little queasy, but once she was actively moving forward, it was easier to just keep moving forward.

"Though speaking of Kyoko," Charlotte said. "She's actually settling in better the rest of us."

Though she was still concentrating on keeping her feet moving, Mami couldn't help but smile a little. "Oh? Has she gotten her hat yet?"

"Not yet, but you know she will. Honestly, this kind of place suits her."

Mami could see that. Kyoko had always been a survivor, one rough around the edges. A community like this would have a lot of appeal toward someone like her, especially given how hard she was trying to separate herself from that toxic Darwinism that had enveloped her for so long.

Besides, she was probably the only person in existence that remembered the friendly, outgoing girl that Kyoko had been before the tragedy. Maybe a community like this would give her what her old church had, minus the brainwashing. "What about Oktavia? How's she doing?"

"Well, I haven't talked to them a whole lot the last couple of days," Charlotte admitted. "Been mostly focused on putting myself back together. But she does seem very relieved to not be constantly on the run anymore."

Mami resisted the urge to wince. Charlotte had been tactful in not mentioning that most of her time had actually been taken up with taking care of Mami rather than herself, but Mami still caught it. "Well, that's good to hear," she said. "I just wish…I had been more-"

"Nope," Charlotte said, giving her hand a squeeze. "That's what we are going to work on starting now. Carola told you to stop beating yourself up, and I for one intend to see to it that her orders are followed. You needed rest. You still need rest. They are being cared for. Leave it."

"But-"

"Actually, on that front, I think they might be finally giving in," Charlotte said before Mami could complete her thought. "Answering the call of the heart, if you catch my drift."

Mami sighed. And now Charlotte was just using gossip to distract her, to keep her from sinking back into self-loathing. That was the most insidious part of her struggles, how the default was to wallow in her misery.

But once again, she couldn't deny that that too was working.

"Oh, really?" she said.

"Mmmm-hmmm," Charlotte said with a nod. "I mean, they're still bickering. All the time. But it's gotten very, shall we say, flirty as of late."

"Was it ever not?"

Charlotte laughed. "I mean, okay, that's a good point, but even moreso." She shot Mami a rather meaningful look. "I think not having to be on the move all the time is helping. As is having their own room. And sharing a bed."

Though there was nothing in her path, Mami just about tripped over herself. "Wait, they are?"

"Well, the rooms that they lent us only have one bed apiece, and I sure haven't seen them try to replace the one they have with separate beds." The smile on Charlotte's face started to look a little less forced. "Actually, last night I heard them arguing about the blanket. I guess they haven't figured out that there's spare blankets in the closet."

Huh. "Do you think that they have, well, you know…"

"I'm pretty sure I would have heard it if they were," Charlotte said. "So no. I'm just saying that now they're getting some real alone time, and that might be good for them."

"I hope so," Mami sighed.

"Me too." Then a slight furrow dug into Charlotte's brow. "Though, maybe we'd better have a talk with them first. About, well, you know. A certain blue swordfighter."

Mami's stomach clenched. "I'd rather…That's sort of…sensitive."

"Oh God, trust me, I do not want to go there again." Charlotte made a face. "But I also don't want Kyoko to hurt Oktavia. But I also don't want to hurt Kyoko! Like, okay, we're all pretty messed up, but she was already all twisted up even before we ran into Mephisto. Now I have no idea how she even thinks about Oktavia, or what she'll do if anyone even mentions Sayaka."

"Do you think Sayaka's really gone for good?"

"I…have no idea," Charlotte said. "She should be, but you know, we kind of actually met her. Who knows what Mephisto did to them? For all we know, Sayaka could be conscious now, just…stuck."

Mami felt her skin crawl just at that possibility. "I hope not. I really hope not."

"Me too. All I know is that if they're gonna become, you know, a thing, then they're going to have to confront that glaring detail. And I don't think either of them are ready for that."

To that, Mami had no argument.

They walked in silence for a bit more, mulling over their twisty situation. Then Mami heard the rhythmic sound of a hammer, the pounding of metal on metal. She paused, and looked toward it.

It came from a building near the end of the village, still a part of it but set just a little further from the others. In contrast to the round, grassy looks of the other buildings, this one was more utilitarian, a two-story structure with brick walls, sharp corners, a shaded porch, and a wooden roof. There was large, rectangular shack attached to one side, almost like a garage, with a wide-open door, and smoke was billowing up from three smokestacks.

If the sound of methodic clanging from within didn't give away what the building was for, then the sign bearing a hammer and anvil out front certainly did.

"Huh," Charlotte said. "That's…uh, quaint. You'd think they'd have something more efficient set up."

"Blacksmiths aren't efficient?"

"I mean, maybe tech is hard to come by, but they still got magic. Why not enchant something to do it for them?"

Mami shrugged. "Freehaven kept a lot of things basic," she reminded her. "Some people like to keep things simple."

"Yeah, but we could afford to. These people-"

"Char," Mami said, giving Charlotte's hand a squeeze. "You're doing it again."

Charlotte blinked. Then she sighed. "All right, turning it off." She looked over to the blacksmith. "So, I'm guessing you want to go say hello?"

"It would be the polite thing to do," Mami said. "I mean, if we're going to be here for a while."

Charlotte raised an eyebrow, but didn't object.

They headed inside the workshop. It was, as expected, a blacksmith shop, complete with a forge, a smelter, and an anvil, along with a variety of tools that Charlotte presumed that a blacksmith would need, though admittedly her knowledge of such matters was a bit lacking. Several guns of different makes rested on hooks on the walls, while a messy desk covered in papers was shoved away in one corner.

And then there was the blacksmith herself. She was certainly impressive, a very tall girl with nut-brown skin and impressive biceps. She was wearing a thick apron over a dark red cotton shirt rolled up to her elbows. She had a round, handsome face, with short dark hair tied into a tight bun. One hand grasped a pair of metal tongs that held a red-hot metal bar over the anvil, which she was striking at with a hammer.

The girl looked up from what she was doing. "Can I help you?" she said in a tone that conveyed less willingness to be helpful and more demanding to know who dared disturb her sanctum.

"Hello," Mami said. "I'm sorry to bother you. My friends and I are new, and I-"

"I know who you are," the woman said brusquely. "Saw the fight you got into with that other group of assholes through the window." She lifted up the rod and dropped it into a vat of water. A cloud of steam billowed, surrounding the blacksmith, giving her the look of some ancient goddess of the forge. "What do you want?"

Well, this wasn't off to a good start. Mami wasn't sure if the woman's standoffishness was due to her just not caring for strangers or if she had a prior issue with the Void Walkers and associated Mami and her friends with them. "I'm sorry, I was just walking by and noticed-"

The woman's jaws kept masticating whatever it was in her mouth. "Walkin' by? You lookin' to buy anythin'?"

"Um, no, but-"

"This look like a tourist stop to you?"

Oh, Mami really should have kept her distance. "No."

"Good. 'Cause it ain't." The woman gestured at her with her tongs. "Your whiny-bitch friends caused us enough headaches, and until proven otherwise, I'm puttin' you in the same category. Don't care if you hate each other, you still bring the same trouble." She then pointed the tongs toward the door. "So how about you about-face and take yourself out of my shop? Wasted enough of my time as it is."

Charlotte's eyes narrowed. She was about to open her mouth to say something, but Mami hastily grabbed her hand before she could. "We're sorry," she said. "We didn't mean to intrude. We'll go."

Charlotte sighed, but didn't object.

"Good." The woman turned her attention back to her work. "Colemans have got to stop adopting every sad stray with a sob story, I swear to fuckin' Bran."

Well, this had been a mistake. Mami would like to say that she was getting used to being faced with unwelcomeness, but after Pendle's Quarry it still stung. She exchanged a look with Charlotte, sighed, and turned around to remove their unwanted presence.

Then she caught sight of something that made her pause.

"Hey," she said, pointing to a line of militaristic rifles lying nestled in grooves along one wall. "Are those MD 97's?"

The blacksmith paused. She then looked up, one eyebrow askew. "They are," she said guardedly.

Now that she was looking, Mami saw that there were actually quite a lot of firearms around. That did make sense, given the rough lifestyle, though a lot seemed to be more for armed combat than hunting. "And those," she said, pointing toward a set of shiny new revolvers in a line on a table. "Those are…" She drew a blank. The make was familiar, but she hadn't studied revolvers as much as other kinds of guns. "Colt…

The blacksmith straightened up. "Close. Magnum, actually. BFR's. Based on 'em, anyway." The gruff unwelcomeness was easing from her voice. "Modified 'em be automatic. Basically a self-loading hand-cannon."

Mami's brow rose. "Really? I tried something similar, once. But I never could get the spring mechanism to trigger right."

The blacksmith's head jerked back in surprise. "What? You make guns?"

With a shrug, Mami waved a hand. Her ribbons flashed into being and coalesced into a musket. "My power lets me create firearms out of magic, but I have to understand how they work first, so I mostly stuck to simple weapons like muskets and cannons. I did try to experiment a little with more complex firearms, but I died before I could get them right, and by then it no longer mattered."

"Let me see that," the blacksmith said, holding out her hand.

Mami handed the musket over. The blacksmith hefted it up, checking the lines, the weight, and balance. "Hmmm. The make is good, but the design is…ancient. Effective, though. Percussion-cap, I see."

"It is yes," Mami said. "I based it on muskets used by American Revolutionaries. It was the simplest mechanism I could find."

"Understandable. Can you open it up?"

A gesture, and the outer casing vanished from around the trigger. The blacksmith lifted the musket up and looked over the inner workings with a critical eye. "Simple or not, the craftsmanship is efficient. Elegant too, though that's probably the enchantment. Still, it is good work." She flipped the musket around and handed it back to Mami, butt first.

"Thank you," Mami said, laying a hand on it and banishing it into petals. "Though it isn't nearly close to what you do. Magic is magic, after all."

The blacksmith shrugged. "True, but there's not a whole lot of girls that have to actually understand how their weapon works before they summon 'em." She leaned back against a wooden table, elbows on the top. "How old was you when you was lookin' all this up?"

Mami winced. "Uh, th-thirteen. I was thirteen."

"Must've made the librarians nervous, little girl looking up how to make guns."

"No, I used the internet."

The blacksmith tilted her head, a small, wry smile lifting the edge of her mouth. "Ah, been a long time since I used that. Must've been some concerning Gaggle searches then."

Mami blinked. "Um, do you mean Google?"

"Gaggle, Google, whatever," the blacksmith said with a dismissive wave. "My family used Yahoo. But I mainly looked up Teen Titans smut on my dad's computer, so I can't judge. God knows how I wasn't caught." She looked Mami up and down. "You said you was lookin' into maybe making somethin' a little more complex?"

"Uh, well, I always meant to, but it was hard to find the time later on."

The blacksmith slowly nodded. She looked from Mami to the racks of weapons, and then back to Mami. "You got a name?"

Well, at least she was more friendly. "Mami," she said. "Mami Tomoe."

The blacksmith nodded. "Coco," she said. "Coco Smith, and no, the irony has not escaped me."

Now that they were on more friendly terms, Mami felt herself emboldened. "Um, say. Is it just you here? Because if you need another hand…"

Charlotte, who had been standing quietly while the two jabbered on about guns, suddenly whipped her head toward Mami, eyes wide in surprise. Mami winced. Oh, that had been impulsive. Maybe she should have talked that over with her first.

As for Coco, she seemed less than enthused. "Do you even know the first thing about workin' metal?"

"No," Mami admitted.

"Neither does basically anyone else," Coco growled. "I make everythin' for them, from the tools to the guns to the nails, but I can't so much as get any of them to hold a hammer." She looked Mami up and down. "Fuck it, at least you're offerin'."

Mami started. "What?"

"You wanna learn the craft? Fine. You're startin' Monday. Be here at six, and you better come ready to sweat."

Charlotte cleared her throat. "Uh, she's still recovering-"

Mami's hand tightened on hers. "That sounds fine," Mami said. "Six it is. I'll be there."

"Good. We'll see how you shape out then." With that, Coco turned back to her work, silently dismissing the pair.

Feeling sort of dazed, Mami left the shop, a very bemused Charlotte with her.

They walked for a time, both of them knowing that a conversation must be had, but neither really knowing how to start it. "So, uh…" Charlotte said at last. "That was…"

"I'm so sorry," Mami said. "I should've talked it over with you. I-"

"Okay, okay. I mean, yes, you should've, but things are weird, you're on a new medicine, I get it." Charlotte sighed. "So, are you really serious about this? A blacksmith?"

Mami made a face, but then she shrugged. "I mean, I don't know how long we're going to be here, but I rather not have to just sit around in a room all the time. Maybe this'll help keep my mind off of…things."

"Yeah, okay, but a blacksmith?"

Turning her head, Mami looked over the village. It was so small, so simple compared to Freehaven, or even just about every other place she had been. Granted, the ranch itself was quite large, but she doubted that even if every building were gathered together with everyone that lived here, it wouldn't encompass a city block or two from back…well, she couldn't exactly call Freehaven home anymore, now could she?

But maybe that was what she needed. Even before, she and Charlotte had lived a rough, stripped-down life compared to everyone else. And this place definitely had quite the tight-knit community, one that understood hardship even beyond that which they all suffered under the Incubators' contracts.

But even then, she couldn't really bring herself to believe that it would last.

"Charlotte," she said. "We're…still wanted. Reibey might still come for us. The Brothel. Even the Alliance. Maybe we should prepare for that. Maybe it would help if I had something on hand other thing muskets and cannons, something with more than a single shot at a time."

Charlotte pursed her lips. "I can't argue with that. It's just…" She looked off into the sky, the wheels turning in her head. Mami, who knew that look quite well, waited.

Then Charlotte said. "You sure this is something you want to do?"

"I'd like to try."

"Well, if it helps…" Charlotte drawled. Then she shrugged. "Fuck it. Fine. I'm going with you, though."

Mami frowned. "You want to be a blacksmith too?"

"Well, no, not especially. But hey, maybe she has something else for me to do. Like, dunno, the paperwork? I can do paperwork."

Now…

"Mornin', girls," Coco greeted the Tomoes as they walked into the workshop. The Wonderland Ranch blacksmith was just getting ready, tying the strings to her apron. Leaning over the table was Carola's sister April, come to visit her girlfriend as she did most mornings.

"Hey, boss," Charlotte said.

"Good morning, Coco," Mami said as she hung up her hat and headed behind the counter to grab her own apron. "And you too, April."

"Hello!" April said cheerily. "How are you?"

Mami breathed out. The truth was she still had her daily struggle, still had that cloud hanging over her head, but it wasn't nearly as heavy as it had been. Her thoughts were clear, and she could actually feel things other than deep depression and self-loathing.

"I'm doing well, thank you," she said. And it was the truth. Compared to how she had been when she had first arrived, she was doing splendidly.

April's broad smile was ever-present and unwavering, but Mami was learning to catch the minute changes, such as the slight increase in April's cheek dimples, indicating that she was pleased. "I am glad to hear it!" she said. "Coco tells me that your work, while amateurish, has become increasingly adequate, and she also appreciates your shared interest in the inner mechanisms of firearms!"

Mami couldn't help but let out a soft snort. Coming from anyone else, that comment might strike her as being rather condescending, but from one of Carola's sisters it was nothing but sincere. "Thank you, working with her has taught me a lot," she said.

"I am glad to hear that!" April said, bobbing her head. "However, I feel I will need to return home soon, so I must say goodbye for the time being!"

"All right," Coco said, heading over to her. "See you tonight, Sugar?"

"Of course!" April leaned in to give Coco a small peck on the lips, her smile still remaining transfixed. "I look forward to seeing you both at the bonfire, just as you will see all of us, as we will all be present, as usual! I also look forward to the intimate activities we will engage in private together once our social obligations have been fulfilled!"

"I know you will," Coco said, flirtatiously playing with a lock of April's hair. Mami raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. "Lookin' forward to it."

Mami shook her head, hiding the small smile she felt forming. The folks around here might be a little guarded about some things, but they were also refreshingly open about others.

April turned and walked from the store. Coco stood at the counter, watching her leave, an appreciative smile on her face. When she was gone, that smile grew, and she turned away from the counter.

Then she caught Mami watching her. "What?" she said. "Somethin' to say?"

Mami again shook her head. "No."

"'Cause it looks like you gots somethin' to say."

"No," Mami repeated. "Just…enjoying how cute you two are together."

"Humph," Coco grunted. She headed over to where the tools were locked up. "People all guarded and shit with their lovers back where you come from?"

Mami thought about that, and then said, "Not as open as they are here, but more open than they were before. You know, back when we were…alive."

"I hear that," Coco lamented. "My Grandmama, she'd flay me alive if she ever caught me actin' at all, ahem, 'improper.' And forget about with another girls. Buncha bullshit, that way of thinkin' was."

"Plenty of bullshit thinking around here too, I've noticed," Charlotte said as she headed over to the bookkeeping desk at the back of the shop.

"Huh? Oh, you mean Pendle's Quarry." Coco shrugged. "Well, can't argue with you there."

"Were you into girls back then?" Mami asked.

"I was into both, though I told meself I wasn't," Coco said with another shrug. "Had a hard time acceptin' it when I first came here. Some stuff just gets drilled into you, you know? You?"

"Just boys," Mami said. "Though I didn't have a lot of opportunity to explore. Things changed after dying." She looked to her wife, who was looking over the stack of papers on her desk in dismay. "Charlotte saw to that."

"Bet she did. Though speakin' of which." Coco turned to Charlotte. "Ayo, Lottie! When you're done with that, do somethin' 'bout those garbage bins! They be overflowin' an' smellin' somethin' fierce!"

"One thing at a time!"

"This is one thing at a time. I said when you was done, didn't I?" Coco then turned toward the forge. "Anyways, come on and gimme a hand here. I've got some bars for you to cut your teeth on."

"Got it," Mami said, eager to start pounding things with a heavy hammer. Her skills as a markswoman in battle really had prevented her from learning what joy could be divined from blunt force trauma.

"An' later, when the shop's closed, I'm gonna show you how to put together a particularly lovely piece of iron," Coco said, a gleeful grin slashing through her sharp features. "Since you're so good at puttin' together cannons, I'd like to introduce you to their little sister, a sweet little thing called a Desert Eagle."

With a long sigh, Charlotte settled in at the small desk in the back of the shop. Pulling the inventory list she had made the previous day, she set it next to the material requisitions that had been coming in from all over the ranch. In mere moments she was already wondering what in the hell she was supposed to do about this mess.

Back on the Nautilus Platform, Charlotte had been her and Mami's small business's bookkeeper, keeping track of their finances, deals, orders, and upkeep, so she had figured that doing the same for this rustic ranch's blacksmith shop would be the perfect fit for her. It was work she was familiar with, she didn't have to swing a hammer or shovel animal poop, and she would be working close to Mami, so hard to could it be?

She had been wrong. She had been very wrong. The actual paperwork wasn't all that complicated, though there was certainly more of it than there had been on the Nautilus Platform. But in under a day she had come face-to-face with the biggest difference between the issues faced by her and Mami's business and those faced by the Wonderland Ranch.

Namely, simple supplies.

If she and Mami needed anything, any tools or materials for repairs, then they'd simply put in an order and it would be airdropped to their ocean platform by drone. Here, it was much different. Orders had to be made manually and delivered manually, and the wait time was much, much longer than it had been.

Even then, that wasn't much of a problem. Unlike back at the platform, she only had to take not of what was needed and put in the orders. Actually putting the materials to use was Coco's problem. But while the ranch had an ample supply of things like wood, ceramics, paper, fabric, and the like, the single most important raw material required by a blacksmith shop was also the hardest to acquire.

Metal. Freaking metal.

Metal in that area, as it turned out, was almost entirely mined, refined, and distributed by Pendle's Quarry. Sure, they had other contacts besides those idiots, other communities that they traded with, but those were as metal-poor as the ranch was, meaning they had to rely on the quarry for their needs.

And they needed a lot. Every day Coco was swamped with requests for things like nails, screws, tools, fencing, hinges, pipes, horseshoes, and lots and lots of ammo. If they had a reliable supplier that wouldn't be a problem, but relations between the mines and the ranch were so tense that any shipment might take five times longer than what was quoted, and even when it did arrive it might be one-third of what was paid for, often with some excuse about low production. And even what they did get had to be manually inspected in case of any tricks. It was maddening.

So they had to ration what they did have. They had to prioritize and get by on replacements of lesser materials, be it wood or ceramics. There was a lot of needed maintenance work being held together by repeated enchantments and hope. And magic was a very temporary fix.

Charlotte looked over the building list of requests. The mill had several meters of piping that was failing, so that ought to take priority. They might even be able to recycle the old pipes into something smaller, like nails! Nails were always in high demand.

But unfortunately, that meant someone else would have to go without. Okay, what could be cut to make sure that the mill got what they needed.

As she worked, Charlotte glanced up from her books, looking over to the forge.

Mami had on a heavy apron, her hair tied back with one hand grasping a pair of tongs holding onto a red-hot iron rod laid on top of the anvil, while the other grasped a hammer, much like Coco had been doing the first time they had met her. Over and over she smashed the hammer down, reshaping the soft metal.

A small smile perked up on Charlotte's frazzled face. Seeing her wife actually doing something she enjoyed was a massive relief. God knew she needed something to take her mind off of, well, everything. Granted, she would have never guessed that that thing would be blacksmithing, but hey, she wasn't complaining.

Then Coco moved in, hovering over Mami's shoulder as she inspected her apprentice's work, blocking Charlotte's line of sight.

Her eye twitching in irritation, Charlotte went back to work.

Another letter from Silty, one reminding Coco that a repair order for horseshoes was long past due. They had several such letters, each one unfailingly polite while also expressing profound annoyance, as was to be expected from andalites. Whether the horseshoes were for the Dune Patrol's horses or for Silty herself was not specified. Regardless, that would have to continue to wait.

The southwest sheep fields needed new fencing, and maybe they could add something nasty with spikes? Apparently there was something scaring the flocks, and two sheep had disappeared already. How that was possible Charlotte could not understand. There was a massive wall around the entire ranch! She couldn't see anything like a coyote or a jackal getting in. Maybe one of the dogs had gone rabid. Sorry, low priority.

Charlotte glanced back up. Coco was continuing to hover over Mami, offering soft advice and encouragement. In contrast to her dismissive nature upon their first meeting, Coco had really taken to the whole mentoring thing surprisingly well, becoming downright gentle in coaching Mami along. Good thing too. If she were at all mean to Mami with Charlotte around, then there would probably be trouble. Of what kind, Charlotte didn't know, but trouble would be had.

Then Mami said something too soft for Charlotte to hear, and Coco laughed.

Shaking her head, Charlotte got back to work.

Okay, now here was something from one of the distillery workers, asking for…the fuck? A bouquet of steel roses to give to her girlfriend on their anniversary? What made her think that they had that much spare metal lying around? No, no, absolutely not! Just have ones made out of wood made! Or glass! There was plenty of sand around. Or, hey, maybe real flowers! They had those too! No need to waste perfectly good metal on something so frivolous!

Then Charlotte glanced over to the wall of the shack. Well, maybe they could, if so much of it didn't go into making the ridiculous number of guns and ammunition that Coco had stored away. Apparently what they had in the shop was merely the latest order, and there were plenty of firearms laid in reserve. That was nuts. Yes, okay, they had enemies, but did they expect to be put under siege? Maybe all that steel ought to go toward something more practical, something of more immediate use before letting Coco indulge in her gun fetish.

Then Charlotte's eyes shot back to Mami.

Mami was holding up the red-hot bar she had been pounding with the tongs, presenting it to her mentor for examination. Coco gave it a quick, critical look, and then nodded in approval.

Mami beamed. It was perhaps the biggest smile Charlotte had seen her wear since…well, a very long time.

Charlotte ought to have been overjoyed. Her wife was smiling again. Her wife had come out from under the shroud of despair and self-loathing. Instead, she just felt the strangest sour feeling in her gut.

She hastily went back to her books.

This continued on for several more hours. Most of it, Charlotte managed to preoccupy herself with her work, trying to sift out the ranch's appalling metal drought. But every now and then, she'd glance up, see how happy Mami was, and immediately feel uncomfortable.

Come on, concentrate! she thought to herself. Stop being stupid and focus on your work, you-

Then she heard Mami laugh.

She again looked up. Coco had taken over, pounding at the rod and shaping it with a smaller pair of tongs, pausing every few moments to show Mami what she was doing. And Mami was watching in rapturous fascination. Coco said something that sounded like a joke, and Mami laughed again.

Right, time for a break.

Charlotte stood to her feet. "Taking the bins out," she said.

Coco nodded without looking at her. "Good. Somethin' is definitely rotten in there."

Nothing keeping you from doing it yourself, Charlotte thought as she grabbed up the wastebasket next to her desk and then made a round around the workshop for the rest of the trash cans, but she didn't speak her disgruntled thoughts out loud.

She stepped out of the shop into the bright daylight. Blinking her eyes, she sighed and headed over to the back. In lieu of a dumpster, there was a square, brick hut-like structure, one with rectangular opening in the front. While the ranch might be short on a number of modern amenities, they at least had an efficient waste disposal system, namely a culture of jott bacterium that feasted on garbage of all kinds, reducing it to nutrient-rich mulch that made for amazing fertilizer. Charlotte suspected that if Earth had something similar, it would have solved a lot of problems.

Charlotte upturned all of the cans and dumped them inside. When she was done, she turned around and slumped back against the hut with a groan.

"Okay, Charlotte," she mumbled under her breath. "You've got a problem. This is bugging you, it's been bugging you for a while, and if you don't want it to get worse, you gotta figure out why this stupid thing is bugging you so much and deal with it!"

Leaning back, she looked up at the clear, blue sky. "Well, there's the obvious answer. You're being a jealous idiot. Someone who's not you is spending a lot of time with your wife, and they're both enjoying it very much."

She shook her head. "Except that explanation is fucking ridiculous. Because on top of the plainly stupid insinuation that Mami would ever be unfaithful, Coco has a girlfriend that was just here only about an hour ago, and the way she is with April is way different than the way she is with Mami. Plus, Mami isn't cheating on you, you idiot! Also, you're right there the whole time, watching them! So even if there was something going on, you'd think that they'd have the good sense to not do it in front of you? Also, your wife isn't cheating!"

Letting out a bitter laugh, she then looked down at the dirt beneath her feet. "Besides, you should be happy about this! You wanted her to find something to get her out of her depression, right? Something that'll make her smile again? Well, now she's got it! She has a hobby that she enjoys very much! She's got something to get excited about! She's being productive! And she's making friends! Coco is a friend, which is totally okay for her to have! So why does seeing her like that get you feeling all weird, when you ought to be celebrating that she smiling and happy and excited…"

And then it hit her. Charlotte blinked once before sliding all the way down against the hut to plop into the dirt, her legs brought up with her arms resting on her knees. "…excited by something you couldn't give her," she mumbled. "Because no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't be what she needed, so she got it from someone else. And now you're a screwed-up mess because your wife doesn't need you as much as you want her to. Fuck."

Closing her eyes, Charlotte's head slumped forward against her arms. Damn, she had issues.

She sat there, head bowed and eyes closed, ruminating on her personal failings as a wife. Damn it, why? Why did she have to ruin a good thing with her own stupid selfishness? They were getting exactly what they wanted from these people, and she had to get all weird with her-

Then a familiar voice said, "Uh…Charly? Are you…good?"

Fuck.

Charlotte looked up, squinting against the sunlight that framed the silhouette looming over her. A few blinks and she was able to make out Kyoko's concerned face.

Sighing, Charlotte buried her face in her arms again. "Great. What are you doing here, Kyoko?"

"Uh, well, I was on my way to my thing with her Majesty the Queen of Sour when I saw you looking all forlorn and shit. You okay?"

Charlotte shrugged.

There was a pause, and then the dirt crunched as Kyoko turned around to sit down next to Charlotte. "Here," she said, and something was pushed into Charlotte's hands.

It was a granola bar, made with honey, dried raisins, and chocolate chips. Say what you will about the scarcity of something so mundane as iron, but when it came to food, the ranch had all kinds, and they were all good. Charlotte brought the bar to her mouth and took a small bite.

"Okay, let's play twenty questions," Kyoko said. "I'm going to guess what's wrong. One grunt for yes, two grunts for-"

"I'm upset because I'm a jealous idiot who can't stand the idea of my wife's new job and hobby helping her far better than I ever could," Charlotte interrupted her. "Because apparently her getting better is only valid when I'm the one doing it! Because I'm an idiot!"

"Wow! Jesus!" Kyoko exclaimed. "That's…uh…fucking blunt. You really like cutting to the heart of things, don'cha?"

Charlotte threw her hands into the air. "Why beat around the bush? We got what we wanted! We found a place that's actually halfway decent with people not trying to sell us out where we can rest and try to heal from the myriad of fucked-up shit that's happened to us, and here I am getting all nostalgic for back when we were traipsing around from one disaster to the next with next to no supplies, barely any sleep, constantly hungry, and on the verge of having a total emotional breakdown, because at least then Mami needed me! Because, see above, idiot!" She slammed an elbow into the dumpster behind her in frustration.

"Wow," Kyoko said again. "That's, uh…well, it's weirdly honest. But…huh."

Sighing, Charlotte just shrugged again.

They sat together in silence for a time, neither of them really saying anything, as Charlotte ruminated in bitterness while Kyoko kept her company.

Then Kyoko said, "Uh, hey, Charlotte? I know I'm like the last person to be giving these pep talks, but can I say something?"

"Fine," Charlotte mumbled.

"Well, see, the whole time I've known you, you've always been the one to step up about us facing our problems, about us dealing with our issues and all that. And God knows we need to, because boy howdy, is there trauma!"

"No shit."

"But, hey, maybe you kind of spent so much time trying to help us with everything that's wrong with us, that you kind never got around to dealing with your own…thing? Damage? Hang-ups? Like, I get it, someone had to be the one holding everything together. But now you don't have to do that anymore, so…maybe it's time to let yourself heal too?"

Charlotte slowly exhaled. Then she titled her head to glance at the redhead out of the corner of her eye.

"Hey, again, no one to throw stones here," Kyoko said, holding up her hands. "I'm just sayin', I can tell you firsthand how much bottling all that pain can hurt you. You think I was bad when you first met me? You should've seen me a month before that!"

Swallowing, Charlotte lowered her arms and leaned back, looking back up at the sky. "You honestly weren't that bad. I was just…I didn't want to lose everything I had spent my whole life building and…" She sighed. "Kyoko. Look. I know…you and I have had our, um, disagreements. And I know I've been kind of hard on you when you didn't deserve it. But none of this was really your fault. You just wanted to get back someone you lost, and I didn't want to lose anything at all, so I took it out on you. I'm…" Her throat tightened, almost choking out the last word. "Sorry. I'm sorry."

"Hey. Hey, relax," Kyoko said, patting her on the shoulder. "We're good. Ain't your fault either. I was an ass too. We got through it."

"Yeah," Charlotte said softly. "We did, huh?" Then she allowed herself a small smile. "And hey, we took out an entire valk pack together. If that's not bonding experience, I don't know what is!"

She expected a laugh, a joke, but instead Kyoko just fell silent. Like, really silent. Charlotte frowned. Had she offended her somehow?

"Yeah," Kyoko said at last. "Yeah, that was…a hell of a thing, all right."

"Uh, you okay?"

"Sure, I'm fine." Kyoko stood up, and then held her hand down to Charlotte. "We just…Damn, we've been through a lot together."

Charlotte let her hoist her back to her feet. "Got that right."

"Meanwhile, I got my own special project," Kyoko muttered as she straightened out her poncho. "Talk about damage. Fuck me."

Frowning, Charlotte looked past Kyoko, toward the road that the redhead had been walking, which led right to the jail. "Well, you're a better woman than I am in this case. I wouldn't have even bothered."

"Yeah, well, someone has to," Kyoko said, looking toward the jail as well. "And hey, who knows? Maybe there's hope for her as well."

"You seem to be settling in pretty well," Annabelle Lee remarked as she moved one of her pieces.

Leaning back in her chair with one arm slung over the back, Kyoko studied the current layout of the checker board before moving one of her own. "We're making friends. Doing our part to help out."

They were in a small room in Silty's jail, one that looked like it was usually used for administrative purposes, but had a table set up with two chairs in the middle for Kyoko's weekly visits. The table was never moved when she left, nor the checkers game disturbed. She had only been popping in for a little under a month, and the two of them only managed a couple moves each per visit, with things picking up where they had left off the next week, so the game had yet to be won by either of them. Kyouko wasn't sure what would happen if one of them actually did win. That person would probably become all kinds of insufferable the next week.

Still, she kept showing up at the same time each week. Annabelle Lee would be cuffed to the chair opposite her, and they would play. And they would talk.

"I hear you got my old job," Annabelle Lee said as she reached for one piece, thought better of it, and then moved a different one.

Kyoko pursed her lips. She had been trying to stealthily move one of her pieces across the board to get kinged, but with the way things were starting to shape up she'd probably have to play defense for a bit. "Yeah, Billina's kind of a handful, ain't see? Every time I see her, she tries to claw my eyes out."

"Billina?" Annabelle Lee said, arching one violet eyebrow. "The black chicken? Never had a problem with her. She always liked me."

Kyoko stiffened up. "Wait, really?" Wow, didn't that just figure? "Huh, maybe that's why she has it in for me." Choosing which piece she wanted to move, she finished her turn. "See? You can make friends!"

Unfortunately she had failed to notice that one of her other pieces was vulnerable, which Annabelle swiftly captured. Damn it. "I didn't come here for that," Annabelle Lee said, leaning back.

Kyoko frowned. "Then why did you come here?"

"Could ask you the same thing."

"You already know," Kyoko shrugged. She looked the board over. If she sacrificed one piece in particular, she could open herself up to take two of Annabelle Lee's. "We were exhausted," she said, moving the decoy piece into position. "Been on the road for weeks, running out of food, running out of-"

"I don't mean the ranch," Annabelle Lee sighed. She waved her free wrist at the room surrounding them. "I mean here. In here. With me. Why do you keep visiting me, Sakura? Is it to gloat? Make yourself feel better about yourself?"

Kyoko shook her head. "No, that's more your thing. Actually, I'm just trying to figure you out."

"What," Annabelle Lee said flatly. She must have been paying more attention to the conversation than to the game, as she then took the bait, capturing Kyoko's sacrificial piece.

Kyoko swiftly took the two of hers that she had spotted, eliciting an annoyed hiss from her opponent. "What is with you? What's your deal, Annabelle Lee? I should be nothing to you. You know bringing me in ain't gonna get you anything. Besides, I'm just some rando that so happened to have a bounty on my head. Any beef you have with me is something you started." Shrugging, she leaned back and crossed her legs along the side of the chair. "Me, I could go the rest of eternity never seeing your face again, and I wouldn't lose one wink of sleep. But you just keep coming after me. Why?"

Annabelle Lee's hands were on either side of the tables, eyes staring down at the gameboard, though she didn't seem to be looking for her next move. "Why do you care?" she growled. "Go, then. Go play with the chickens and fuck your fish. Leave me to rot."

There was a small flash of anger at the mention of Sayaka, but Kyoko managed to ignore it. "Nah, I really want to know. Why?"

Annabelle Lee's fingers curled around the edges of the table.

"See, you might think I'm an asshole, and you'd be right. But I used to be so much worse, before I died. Worse than you, actually." Kyoko inclined her head toward the door. "The fish you just mentioned? You wanna know what I did the first time I met her? I tried to kill her. And not because of any good reason. She just pissed me off."

"Congratulations on your success," Annabelle Lee rasped.

Kyoko's eyes narrowed. "Funny. But I snapped out of it. I got my wake-up call. You've had how many decades to figure out Reibey's full of shit, and you're still guzzling his cock? You're still going after me because of what? Spite? The fuck is your excuse?"

One hand still gripping the side of the table and her unhinged eyes still locked with Kyoko's, Annabelle Lee picked up one piece and took one of Kyoko's that she hadn't even noticed was vulnerable. "Hey, remind me which one of us worked for leechers, because it sure as hell wasn't me!"

"No, you just worked with the people buying from them," Kyoko retorted. Her eyes flitted briefly to the board, and she took one of Annabelle's pieces. "We got mind-controlled." Another jump, another piece taken. "Don't recall anyone forcing you to work with the Brothel." A third, and the piece Kyoko had been moving was kinged. "So again: why?"

Annabelle Lee looked at Kyoko. Then down at the board. And then back up at Kyoko. She reached for a piece, hesitated, and moved her arm back.

Then she leaned back in her chair. "Sheriff!" she called. "We're done here."

The door opened, and Silty trotted in. She calmly took in the whole scene, and then moved away from the door, tilting her head meaningfully toward it.

"Fine," Kyoko said as she stood up, leaving the game where it was. "Think about it. I'll see you next week."

"You seem kind of out of it," Sayaka noted as she and Kyoko headed down the path together toward the bonfire.

Kyoko shrugged. "Eh, I'm just tired. Don't worry about it."

The mermaid sighed. "Bullcrap," she sang under her breath.

Kyoko sighed as well. She loved Sayaka, she really did, but the fish could be more like a pitbull with a bone at times. "All right, fine. I'm still trying to figure out our legless friend in the cage. I got her real close to telling me her deal, and then she just shut down on me."

Sayaka shot her a look.

"What?"

Shaking her head, Sayaka looked back to the path. "Why do you bother with her?" she said. "She hates you. She hates all of us. I mean, Ticky-Nikki has made it her life's ambition to filet me, and you don't see me popping in to play chess with her!"

"Checkers," Kyoko corrected. "It's simpler. No weird L-shaped moves that make no sense."

"Kyoko…"

Kyoko paused on the road, bringing Sayaka's wheelchair to a stop with her. Up ahead, they could see the flames of the bonfire and hear the voices of those already gathered around it. "I don't know, I just want to know why she won't go away!" Kyoko said at last. "She has to know that Reibey won't take her back, but she won't quit!" Then Kyoko slowly breathed out. "Besides, I've been doing some thinking after laying into her the other day. I kinda got beaten down into being a rotten person not that long ago, and that was only for two years. She's been this way for fifty."

"Really?" Sayaka said. "Whoa, that's…weirdly empathetic for you."

"Hey!"

Sayaka winced. "Argh, sorry, that came out wrong. I'm just saying, when it comes to her specifically. You two have literally done nothing but try to murderize each other as brutally as possible since you first met. And it's all been basically her fault."

Kyoko's mind flashed back to that meeting in the rain, when she had gotten done praying for her parents on Remembrance Day. "I know, I know. But I just feel like there's something there, something that made her this way. Something to do with that crazy sister of hers, I think." She shrugged. "I just want to know what it is."

Sayaka didn't say anything. Neither did Kyoko. They were both thinking the same thing, and they both knew it. Kyoko's sister was also someplace bad, and just trying to get to her was breaking her down, little by little.

"You're not her," Sayaka said at last.

The tightening in Kyoko's throat was making it hard to talk. "N-No," she whispered. "But. But. I…I tried to kill you. That first time we met, I tried to kill you. I didn't even know you! Do you have any idea what the younger me would've thought of that me?"

"Kyoko, I-"

"And Papa! The Papa I knew would've never done what he did, but things made him into the Papa that would! Things I caused! He just wanted to reach people, to make them kinder, but not force them! I forced them! I killed his dream, and that killed his soul! How can look down on anyone after I-"

Her breath caught, her vision blurring. Realizing just how dangerously close she was to breaking, she clamped her jaw shut to keep the soul-rending confession from escaping any further. Squeezing her eyes shut, she inhaled deeply through her nose as she fought for control with her rebellious emotions.

Calm down, don't cry. Don't cry, don't cry. You're a big girl, big girls don't cry, they fight, and you're a big girl, aren't you?

Then she heard Sayaka grunt. "Argh, darn this stupid tail. All right, we'll do it this way."

"What?" Kyoko said. "What are-"

Then something hard and flat pushed her from behind.

Kyoko stumbled forward. "Hey! What gives?"

Another push. Looking over her shoulder, she saw one of Sayaka's glowing train wheels, the same kind that had launched her into the lake earlier, now shoving her around the wheelchair toward the front.

"What are you doing?" Kyoko complained. "I'm pouring my guts out here and you're just being all pushy."

"Yeah, well, I can't exactly get up to give you a hug," Sayaka responded. Then she reached up to seize Kyoko by the wrist. "So there's extra steps. C'mere."

Sighing, Kyoko let herself be drawn down into the mermaid's lap. Once she was sitting in her favorite seat, Sayaka wrapped her arms around her and held her to her front.

The instinctive tensing of Kyoko's body was still there, as was the impulse to shove her way out of Sayaka's arms. But Kyoko had gotten pretty good at shoving those reflexes away. She slowly breathed in and out, letting both the tightness in her throat and shoulders relax, letting herself to just enjoy Sayaka's touch.

"So, hurt people hurt people?" Sayaka said at last.

Kyoko sighed, and then nodded. "Yup."

"Do you really think you can save her?"

"I…" Kyoko shrugged. "I dunno. Fifty years is a long time, you know? I mean, look at what had to happen to me to make me stop being a dick."

"Oh, who says you ever stopped?" Sayaka said as she toyed with a lock of Kyoko's hair, wryly wrapping it around her finger.

Kyoko gave her a flick to the forehead. "Asshat. Fine. Be a nice dick instead of an evil dick." Then her brow furrowed. "But with Annabelle Lee…I really don't know. I mean, she's done nothing but make my life miserable. But there has to be something there. And it's not like I can just kill her to make her go away."

Smiling, Sayaka placed a finger against Kyoko's chest and gently pushed her away so she could cup Kyoko's cheek with her palm. "You know, I think I like this new you, even if you keep ruining by dropping psychotic lines like that."

"Admit it: you'd miss it if I went completely soft," Kyoko retorted. Though speaking of soft, she quite liked the softness of Sayaka's palm against her face. She laid her own hand on the back of the hand on her cheek, curling her fingers around it.

Their gazes locked, and the world around Kyoko just seemed to melt away. She was close now, so close to those beautiful blue eyes and soft lips, so close to losing herself in that warmth.

You want this; you know you want this! her heart screamed at her. So does she! Take it, already!

Which was a very compelling argument. Unfortunately, other parts of her mind had counterpoints, in the form of a few select memories that had been running through Kyoko's head a lot as of late.

If you're so dumb that you don't get it when I try to tell you, and you don't get it when I beat you down, I'll just have to kill you!

Kyoko's face twitched.

Rush in there right now and break his hands and legs so he'll never be able to use them again. Make it so he won't be able to do anything without you anymore!

A lump was forming in her throat. She swallowed it back.

I'm such an idiot.

Kyoko had done it, hadn't she? She had done to Sayaka what she had told Sayaka to do to the violin boy. She had broken her down so thoroughly that Sayaka now depended on her. Hell, she was pushing Sayaka around in a wheelchair! What right did she have to Sayaka's love after all she had done to-

Then Sayaka's eyes flitted away, and she drew her hand away from Kyoko's face. A cough, and she said, "We'd, uh, better get moving. To the bonfire. Yeah."

Darn it. Why hadn't she acted? The moment was right there! "Yeah, sure," Kyoko sighed.

Moving with great reluctance, Kyoko slipped from Sayaka's lap and stood up. It occurred to her that they had stopped on the side of the road leading from the town to the bonfire, and others had probably seen them while passing by. Fortunately, nobody had stopped to gawk, though she had a feeling that a few of them were now wearing knowing smiles.

Already seated on a hay bale in front of the fire, the Tomoes leaned into one another, brown bottles in their hands, with a couple of mugs of hot chocolate set aside for the kids.

All around them, the locals were talking, laughing, joking, and even singing. Some were roasting things like marshmallows or sausages on hardened sticks. There was a booth nearby, distributing both hot and cold beverages. Charlotte had been grateful for that. Given her current mood, she desperately needed a drink.

And it was good. Say what you will of the limited resources available to Wonderland Ranch, what they did with alcohol was nothing less than art. No wonder Pendle's Quarry had been convinced to keep their prejudices in check and continue trading with them.

She slowly sipped from the bottle of whiskey she held, letting it burn all the way down. Oh, that was good. And painful, but good.

Then Mami said, "So, um, Charlotte. I've been…meaning to talk to you about something."

Charlotte's chest seized up. Oh no. "Huh? What? What's wrong?"

"Nothing!" Mami was quick to say. "But you know what a wreck I was when we got here, and how much everyone here has…" She looked out over all the people gathered around the fire, all the new friends she had made. "Well, I needed help, and I got it. And I couldn't be more thankful for it."

"Okay," Charlotte said in a flat tone. Then, realizing how bad that sounded, she quickly added, "I mean, of course you would be!"

Mami sighed. "But earlier today, Coco kind of reminded exactly who it was that had stood by me the whole way here, had watched over me and did everything she could to keep me from slipping away entirely, even though she was probably hurting a lot herself. And, um, she was right. Coco, I mean. I never really did tell you how grateful I am to you, and…" Then Mami stopped. Charlotte was crying. "Char? Char, what's wrong?"

As Mami had been talking, something within Charlotte had broken, misting her eyes and choking up her throat. "I'm sorry," Charlotte whimpered, wiping her eyes. "I've just…been kind of a mess lately. And, um, I really needed to hear that."

Mami's eyes went wide. "Oh God, I'm so sorry," she said, putting her arms around her distraught wife and bringing her in close. "I should've known. I mean, I noticed that you were…preoccupied, but I thought it was because of your job."

Though Charlotte gratefully sank into the hug, she still scowled. "Oh, don't you dare blame yourself. It's me. I just…found out about a whole bunch of issues." Sniffing, she let out a bitter laugh. "Yeah. Imagine that. I got issues too. Who would've thought?"

Mami's fingers gently stroked her hair, once kept short and neat, now flowing untidily past her shoulders. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Sighing, Charlotte wrapped her arms around Mami in return. "Maybe after. When it's just, you know, us."

"Is it anything to do with me? Did I do something wrong?"

"Oh, hell no!" Charlotte exclaimed. "Again, do not blame yourself! This isn't your fault. It's me. I just have…some things I need to sort out."

Mami laid her head against Charlotte's shoulder. "You know, this whole time you've been working so hard to keep us going, but it is okay for you to ask for help too."

Charlotte's throat tightened. She swallowed it back. "Yeah, had kind of a pep talk with Kyoko earlier, and she told me basically the same thing." Her tail slid up to wind itself loosely around Mami's waist.

"Kyoko's a lot sharper than people give her credit for," Mami told her. "And if anyone understands what the struggle is like, it's her."

That was true. God, that was true. "Guess I'd better listen." Then something Mami had just said stood out to her. "So, um, Coco told you all that, did she?"

Mami sighed. "Um, yes. During our gun talk. I was telling her about how close I came to giving up near the end of our journey here, and how you were the only thing keeping me going, and she asked me if I had ever told you that." She shrugged. "Well, it kind of hit me that I hadn't. And that I definitely should. So, thank you for being my rock."

See! Charlotte's more critical side screamed at her. You were being an idiot! Coco's got your back! Sure, she may be a cranky, demanding workhorse that-

Yeah, yeah, I get it, shut up.

"Well, that was really sweet of her," Charlotte says.

"She also said that you've been handling the books way better than she ever could. That things have been going so much more smoothly since you took over. So don't think you aren't appreciated!"

"Yeah," Charlotte said. She closed her eyes and breathed deep of the cool, smoky air. Oh, that felt good. "It's…nice to hear that sometimes."

"Well, you are." Mami then reached up to cup Charlotte's cheek with her hand, turning her face towards her own. Smiling at last, Charlotte tilted her head, letting their lips make gentle contact.

The two kissed softly, letting themselves enjoy a moment of quiet intimacy. As they did, Charlotte felt the tension drain from her body. This was what she needed; this was both of them needed. A chance to rest, a chance to heal.

And it felt good.

As Kyoko and Sayaka approached the bonfire, it did not take them long for them to pick out Mami and Charlotte. The two were snuggling close together on a bale of hay. And they were kissing.

"Aw," Sayaka said.

Smiling, Kyoko brought the wheelchair to a stop. Well, it looked like Charlotte had worked out her issues, or close enough. Good for her.

The two waited for the kiss to end. No need to ruin a nice moment, after all, though neither saw any reason why they couldn't watch. When Mami and Charlotte's lips finally parted and they settled back into simply snuggling, they continued on their way.

"'Sup," Kyoko greeted as they approached.

"There they are," Charlotte said with a wave. "Glad you could make it. What kept you?"

Now, maybe Kyoko was reading too much into things, but something about the smirk on Charlotte's face or her smug tone told Kyoko exactly what Charlotte suspected had been the thing to hold them up. Which, okay, fair, it had come frustratingly close to being that, but given that Charlotte had just gotten done kissing Mami, it struck Kyoko as just a little hypocritical of her.

Okay, then.

"Sorry to hold you up," Kyoko said, putting the chair in park and reaching down to lift Sayaka up out of her seat. "We started making out and lost track of time."

Charlotte jerked so hard that she almost dropped the bottle she was holding. As for Sayaka, she had already reached up to entwine her arms around Kyoko's neck for support, but Kyoko's candid retort made her jump a little as well.

Fortunately, the mermaid wasn't oblivious to what was going on, or why Kyoko had made the comment that she had. "Uh, y-yeah!" she stammered, regaining her grip. "You know Kyoko. Once she starts slobbering all over you, you can't stop her! She's like a stinking Saint Bernard."

"And you love it!" Kyoko said, spinning on her heel and swinging the mermaid around like a toddler being taken for a pretend helicopter ride.

"Whoa, hey!" Sayaka squealed. "Quit it! Quit it, or I'm barfing all over you!"

Snickering, Kyoko lowered her down so she could sit with her back to the hay bales. As she did, she shot a glance over to the Tomoes. Mami was the only one not to react in shock at Kyoko's jab, and was eyeing them with a small, satisfied smile. As for Charlotte, she was slowly breathing out and shaking her head. Catching Kyoko's gaze, she rolled her eyes. "Well played," she grumbled.

Smirking, Kyoko plopped down next to Sayaka, taking the spot where two bales formed a corner and stretching her legs out.

Around the fire, there were several conversations taking place, as friends chatted and laughed together. By themselves on the other side of the fire, the Colemans were cuddling together in a rare show of complete relaxation. Carola and her sisters were also present, with the original seated cross-legged on the ground while most her sisters were lined up on the bales behind her, all of them perfectly spaced out. Those that weren't were with their own respective lovers. She saw April sitting in Mami and Charlotte's boss's lap, so small in comparison, though the way Coco was holding her was nothing but gentle. Silty was seated with her legs tucked in under her equine body, one slender arm resting on a bale as she chatted with Linda.

Kyoko inhaled deeply through her nose, enjoying the fresh night air, spiced with the bonfire's smoke. The crackle of the flames mixed with the babble of voices and the faint chirping of the night insects, creating a soothing murmur. Someone had brought a guitar, and was idly picking at the strings.

Weak.

Kyoko's jaw tightened.

Look at you. You've given up. You've given her up.

Okay, here they went again. Those small, persistent voices, the same that had driven her on during her nihilist days, the ones that that encouraged and egged her on as she had taken what she wanted, stood aside while tragedies happened, and fed into her bitterness and resentment. They had mostly been silent since her death, or at least in agreement with her mission. But ever since arriving at Wonderland Ranch, they had grown loud and contemptuous.

Kyoko could ignore them most of the time. Working the pens kept her occupied, spending time with friends both old and new kept her occupied. But it was in the quiet moments, when she was trying to relax, trying to rest that they were the strongest.

Sighing, she gave a tug at her necklace, fingers closing around the pendant and letting the arrowhead's points bite into her fingers.

It helped, but it didn't banish the voices. She needed a distraction.

Besides, wasn't there something that was planned for tonight?

She looked over to Linda, who had been stealing glances at the pair all night. Catching her eye, Linda smirked, and then she winked.

Okay. Time to see what the spider had planned.

"So, hey," Kyoko murmured to Sayaka. "You got your harmonica with you?"

Sayaka blinked. Then she grimaced. "Uh, yeah, it's in my bag on my chair," she said. "But-"

"Did I just hear you correctly? You have a harmonica?"

The two of them looked up. Linda was now standing nearby, gazing down at the pair with one eyebrow askew.

Sayaka's face flushed. "Well, yeah, but-"

"You been holding out on us, Oktavia?" Linda said. "All this time, and we've never been graced with your talent?"

"Look, it's not like I'm some kind of professional. I'm not even that good!"

"Bullshit," Kyoko sing-songed under her breath.

Sayaka shot her a scowl. "You told her, didn't you?"

"Well, yeah. And she's right. You've been holding out on us."

Smirking, Linda reached into her pocket and pulled out a harmonica of her own. "Well, okay. Let's see what you got."

"Seriously?" Sayaka squeaked. "I'm not…"

Linda drew the instrument over her mouth, breathing out a quick shot of notes in challenge.

Sayaka's will was cracking, but it hadn't crumbled away entirely. Well, then. Time to break out the sledgehammer.

Kyoko pushed herself up to her feet and went over to the wheelchair. Finding the mermaid's bag, she zipped it open and rummaged through the various odds and ends until she came out with the harmonica in question.

The small, silver instrument had survived the journey shockingly well, with only the smallest of dents and dings. And the painted unicorn on one side and the mermaid on the other weren't even chipped or faded. Clearly it was of excellent make.

"Wow, now that's a harmonica!" Linda exclaimed as Kyoko returned with the instrument. "You been going around with that bad girl this whole time and never broke her out?"

"I, well, I'm still kinda new," Sayaka said, blushing. "I didn't want to, you know, push or anything."

Kyoko looked around. A lot of the conversations were hushing, as people were taking notice of what was happening. More than a few eyes were staring expectedly at the spider and the mermaid.

"Hey, I get it," Linda said. "But I keep hearing about what a great musician you are. So I wanna hear it for myself."

"What? From whom?"

Kyoko lazily raised a hand.

"Seriously?" Sayaka scowled.

"What, I'm not allowed to brag about my friends?" Kyoko said with a shrug. "You're good at music. Own it."

"Tell you what," Linda said, holding up her own, comparatively simpler harmonica. "I'll start things off. Jump in when you want."

"What?" Sayaka said, her face turning pale. "But I don't know any of the songs you do! How am I supposed to-"

But Linda had already started playing, running the harmonica briefly over her lips, blowing a few easy notes to warm up.

And then she kicked it into gear.

The tune was an upbeat, country jig, one to be clapped and stomped along to. Sure enough, many of the other girls nearby whooped as soon as they heard it and started doing just that. And despite knowing what was about to happen, Kyoko couldn't help but nod her head along to the music. Linda was good, there was no doubt of that.

But the fish was better.

"Come on," she said to Sayaka. "You know you can take her."

Sayaka shot her a surly glower. "I'm gonna murder you for this," she hissed. But then she turned her attention back to Linda, slowly nodding her head to the melody while thoughtfully listening to the notes. Kyoko could almost literally see the wheels turning in her head as she mentally dissected the tune.

Then, after taking a deep breath to steady herself, she lifted her own harmonica to her mouth and joined in.

A raucous cheer went up when Linda's song turned into a duet. At first Sayaka didn't push herself, simply mimicking Linda's notes and playing along. It took her half-a-second to find her rhythm and timing, but when she did she had no trouble following along.

Nodding in approval, Linda kicked it up a tempo, adding a few more notes to the melody to see if the mermaid could adjust without stumbling. Then her many eyes crinkled with appreciation when her opponent did just that.

Linda pushed a little harder, breaking into a quick solo, one that was a variation of the melody they had been playing, but with some new additions. Then she stopped, waiting to see if Sayaka could repeat what she had just played.

The mermaid did so easily.

Another solo. Another easy match.

The two traded back and forth for a bit, with Linda challenging and Sayaka responding. And while Kyoko was really enjoying the music, she was also intently watching Sayaka's eyes, waiting for what she knew was coming.

Then she saw that gleam, and she grinned. Here it came.

Sayaka suddenly took over the melody, continuing on the theme from before, but adding her own variations to it, blasting out a blistering onslaught of notes that were unlike any that came before and yet still wove seamlessly into the song. A murmur of surprise went up from the crowd, one that escalated into applause as Sayaka's solo kept building and building, before finally laying down one last vocal riff that slid right back into the main hook so smoothly that cheers erupted when the solo finished.

Despite being the challenger, Linda was visibly taken back by Sayaka's abilities. She started to play along at the beginning of the solo, only to stop and gawk along with everyone else, and when it was over she merely shook her head and starting applauding as well before throwing up her hands and all four spider-legs, signaling defeat.

The song finished, and the cheers only continued. Linda bowed low to the victor, and Kyoko grabbed Sayaka's wrist to hold it up like the referee of a boxing match. Sayaka was panting heavily, her face red with exertion, nerves, and excitement. She waved to the audience, soaking in the adulation of her first audience that wasn't her immediate friends.

Gradually the clamor and congratulations cooled down. A few girls tried to get Sayaka to keep the music going, but she was quite firm that today was a one and done deal, and she just wanted to relax with her friends, so after one last insistence from Linda that they had to perform together at the upcoming dance, everyone eventually dispersed back to whatever they were doing, leaving a very frazzled, but happy, Sayaka alone with a very, very smug Kyoko.

Still breathing hard, Sayaka settled back down, only to fixate a powerful glare upon the redhead. "You did that on purpose," she said in a low grumble.

"Maybe," Kyoko said.

"Jerk."

"You loved it."

Sayaka sighed, but try as she might, that smile wasn't leaving. "A little," she admitted. Across from them, Linda traded her harmonica for a guitar and was idly strumming. Kyoko wondered if Sayaka had the same innate talent with a guitar that she had for the harmonica and apparently piano. Maybe she really should join the local band.

Smiling, Kyoko let her eyes close. That…had been extremely fun. It sort of reminded her of church bonfires, way back before things had started to sideways, just a lot of people part of the same loving community enjoying each other's company. She remembered just sitting and listening as everyone chatted and laughed together, or sang songs together, or told stories together.

Yeah.

That had been a good time.

Then she felt something shift around. Cracking one eye open, she saw Sayaka scooting herself around, laying her body up against Kyoko's side.

"Eh?"

Snuggling into the crook of Kyoko's arm, Sayaka laid her head against Kyoko's shoulder and draped her arm over Kyoko's belly. "I've been giving you plenty of hugs lately," she said. "Your turn."

Oh.

Oh, okay. So this was still happening.

Kyoko wracked her brain for some kind of retort, something pithy to say in response, but for once a comeback just wasn't there. That phantom heartbeat was picking up again, reacting quite positively to the cute mermaid cuddling up to her.

Breathing out, Kyoko squirmed her left arm out from under Sayaka's body and then let it slide around her, resting it on the other girl's scaly hip.

Do something about it.

I am! she argued. I'm hugging her! That's something!

You know what I mean. That was what this was all about, wasn't it?

Before Kyoko could come up with a response, she heard Linda's strumming suddenly take form, playing out a soft melody as she gently hummed in tune. She was playing an actual song now.

There were some murmurs of appreciation. Apparently it was a song they knew, though Kyoko didn't know it.

And then Linda began to sing.

"Fingers trace your skin. All your cliffs and peaks."

Oh, of course she would be going for a romantic ballad. Just like the harmonica duel, there was no way this wasn't deliberate.

Kyoko raised her head to cast a glower over to the spider. Catching her eye, Linda winked at her and kept singing.

"And your hair it flows like waterfalls. I wanna give some color back to your cheeks."

Linda had a very nice singing voice, one that was low, strong, and husky, one that worked well for that kind of song.

"So, hey, Kyoko," Sayaka said, hesitation in her voice.

Kyoko's chest tightened. Oh, so this was happening. "Hmmm?" she said, trying to make it sound casual.

"Fingers intertwine. As you tell me you can't take it anymore."

"You kn-know, there's something we should, um, talk about," Sayaka said, turning her hand around to lace her fingers through Kyoko's. "Something we've been kind of putting off, but…"

"Let our hearts and souls combine! While Hell is knocking at our door."

Well, that had happened rather literally. Their souls had combined in the face of Hell.

Kyoko could still see it in her mind's eye. Perched upon that giant spear, hands clasped in one last prayer, while the hulking, monstrous form of the witch that Sayaka had become stared her down. Despite the horror of what she was facing, despite knowing that her life was about to come to an end, Kyoko had been at peace in that moment, content in knowing that she had found her soulmate, and that her last act would be to free her from her misery.

She had prayed to God then, asking for even an illusion of happiness, a sweet dream to carry them off. Instead, they had woken up into a nightmare, still trapped by the contracts they had been deceived into making, faced with an endless buffet pain and trauma, forced to confront one horror after another.

But even so, they still had each other, and that somehow made it okay. Kyoko didn't know how much of that connection was due to that resonance thing and how much was due to everything they had faced together, she just knew that she had finally found someone important to her, someone worth standing beside, someone worth loving and who loved her in return. She wasn't alone anymore.

"Baby, sing to me, she won't love you like I do."

Yes, there was weirdness there. Yes, the question of where one half of Sayaka's identity ended and the other began remained, but that was just a problem to be solved rather than a brick wall to stop her cold. And Kyoko was now convinced more than ever that there was a way to solve it, to bring back the girl she loved in full.

"She won't take your pain away, you know it's true."

But even if Sayaka Miki wasn't fully with her yet, enough of her still was. The part that she had genuinely fallen in love with was here, lying in her arms.

"Well, I…" Kyoko started to say, but her voice stumbled. There was so much they needed to talk about, so much that needed to be said, but she couldn't put them to words.

Sayaka looked up to her, her sapphire eyes full of nervousness and agitation, yet also eager and excited. Kyoko probably looked the same way. They were now perched upon the precipice, no longer dancing along the edge, ready to step off.

"I wanna see you smile, wanna see you cry, oh you're such a fool."

Kyoko had seen Sayaka both smile and cry, had been with her through some of the highest and lowest times in her life. Hell, she had caused many of them. Sayaka had been introduced to her when she had been at her worst. Kyoko had done terrible things to her, things that still haunted her. Would Sayaka had even fallen into despair like she had if Kyoko hadn't been needling and dogging her so much at the beginning? Could Kyoko ever make up for that?

"We should get some bruises falling in love."

Bruises. Yes, they had done that together. Their history was messy and painful, and probably would continue to be messy and painful.

But damn, it was worth it.

Maybe Kyoko didn't deserve this. Maybe she didn't deserve the happiness of being with Sayaka, not after everything she had put her through.

But as she lay there, feeling Sayaka's warm weight against her side, staring into those beautiful blue eyes, surrounded by loving friends and listening to music so sweet that it might have been written about them specifically, Kyoko decided that she no longer cared. She had denied herself happiness for way too long. She had done her penance. It was time to again thing about what she wanted.

And what she wanted was right in front of her.

Kyoko swallowed hard, but then dipped her head forward. Sayaka's eyes widened when she realized what was happening. There was a sharp inhale of breath, but then Sayaka pushed herself up toward her.

"I love it when you're Blue."

Their lips met in the middle, and for the first time for as long as Kyoko could remember, things were okay, and she was happy.

In one particular chicken coop, there was a corner of the floor where the wood had rotted through, creating a hole. From the inside the hole was hidden by one of the nests, and you couldn't really see it on the outside unless you so happened to be under the coop itself, making it difficult to spot unless you so happened to be looking for it, and if, say, that hole had been claimed by a particularly cunning and determined chicken who made it clear that her coopmates were not to touch it, and she was smart enough to only make use of it when the Big Things were no longer around and scamper back inside before they came back, then it made for quite the convenient way to get the yard all to herself whenever she wanted.

So, while the Big Things were away at the bonfire, one particularly cunning, determined, and ill-tempered chicken took the opportunity to shove her nest aside and squeeze herself down into the hole. Once there, it took a little pushing of the board fragments to get her body through, and once she was under the coop she had to squirm her way through the tight space to get out into the open air, but it was something she had done before and would do again.

With one final shove, Billina was out.

The black hen strutted her way through the yard, keeping an eye out for any missed grains or maybe a juicy bug or two. There was always something to find.

After a few minutes, her search bore fruit. A quick peck, and a beetle was snapped up. After that, she found a few pieces of chicken feed that had somehow gone unnoticed.

Pleased with the early bounty, Billina wandered further into the yard. There were no signs of any of the Big Things about, and she knew that they left the yard alone at night, so she should be able to forage undisturbed for-

Then she paused. There was an unfamiliar scent in the air, one dry, musky, and kind of acidic.

She looked this way and that, searching for anything amiss. Save for her, the yard was empty.

Continuing on her way, she started to paw at the grass, looking to uncover any worms or grubs. They like to wriggle-

Then there was a thump as something heavy landed on the ground right next to her.

Billina looked around. There were now a pair of legs on either side of her, legs similar to her own, bent back at the ankles and feet ending in sharp claws. But they were bigger, so much bigger than any chicken, towering high over her head.

She looked up. Three glowing green eyes peered down at her.

Then the night air filled with the sound of frantically flapping wings and panicked squawks, ones that were swiftly cut off and replaced with the snapping of bones, unnoticed by the Big Things that were supposed to be keeping Billina safe, as they laughed and sang together far away, oblivious of the danger that now stalked their sanctuary.

Lyrics for "Blue" by Ken Ashcorp, "When I'm Gone" by the Carter Family, the latter made famous by the movie Pitch Perfect, which is where Kyoko and Linda heard it.

So. It's been a hot minute, and I owe you all an explanation.

I had writer's block.

Like, really, really bad writer's block. This chapter had so many moving parts, so many issues at play, and figuring out what job each character would do and why was a bitch. The only thing I knew was that I wanted Kyoko to fight a chicken and for Mami to be a blacksmith. So yeah, that was the biggest issue that gave me so much trouble.

Plus, I spent all of August remodeling my room, went on two vacations, had a ton of other projects and stuff pop up, and started going to gym regularly. So there was a lot of time-consuming things going on.

But now it's finally done. And after over two years, we finally get the Big Damn Kiss.

And I'm not going to talk about it! I'll let it speak for itself. :D

A couple of notes, though. Firstly, this chapter is mainly about a lot of hurt people realizing how much they're hurt and trying to make the necessary changes to heal. So, no, there's not going to be any subplot about Mami having an emotional affair and Charlotte getting jealous, relax. It's not about that. And I did get a lot of people uncomfortable with how badly Kyoko dug into Annabelle Lee's issues in a previous chapter, and I do know that despite trying to reach out to her rival, she's still kind of being an ass. That's the point. They're both coming to terms with their own trauma, but are very much works in progress.

But yeah. This was easily one of the most troublesome, angsty, and thematically chapters I have ever written. Multiple scenes were rewritten and scrapped several times. Multiple things got changed and shifted around. It was a trial.

But here it is. And the angst train has barely left the station.

Jesus, maybe this means I need therapy now.

Until next time, everyone!