Pre-series, mild spoilers for Kyoko. Food's not a certainty. It's not a right.

Like everything else Kyoko's been unfortunate enough to learn, food isn't a constant you can trust. You don't get to enjoy it while it's there, and then shrug when it's not. Meals aren't going to appear on their own. If you don't stock up, then someday your supplies will run dry.

Kyoko always eats at any opportunity. She can't help it. Even when she's not hungry, if Kyoko sees food lying around, she has to take it. The habit's an old one; it's the first and foremost thing she learned as a kid, drilled into her until it became part of the most mindless instincts of her soul. Filling her belly goes hand-in-hand with flinching, with breathing, like how her lungs struggle to move even when she's trapped fighting underwater: stupid body, doing stupid things, not listening to how much she knows better.

But stuffing herself is only half the story. Starvation's taught Kyoko all about conserving what she has. The two impulses aren't contradictions: if you waste all your resources at once, you don't have them later, so the most practical thing to do is to carry as much as you can in your gut, and keep the rest in a safe location. Packing her stomach to the brim helps when Kyoko has to spend long stretches between meals - not because she can't steal during those periods, but because having reserves of food is the most important priority ever, taking precedence over everything else.

Feast inevitably goes to famine. Sometimes if you're lucky, famine might go back to feast.

You just can never tell for sure.

Food's not a certainty. It's not a right. You don't get it just because you happen to be alive, just like you don't automatically get warm places to sleep. None of those things get given to you by default. You have to hold on to what you can.

So Kyoko eats more than she should; she eats even when people are watching, when she knows she should hold back and pretend that she's never had to cram her belly to bursting because the next meal might be a myth, when she'll look strange and desperate and eat too much, enough to attract people's attention. She gets more than enough stares and uncomfortable smiles. Society doesn't like what it sees in her, but Kyoko's stomach doesn't care. In the past, that appetite had earned her kind jokes from Mami, kind enough to be humiliating - but Kyoko had gobbled down every scrap of cake anyway.

Now that she's older, her control is better, but not by much. Kyoko devours other people's leftovers, and panics at the same time if it doesn't look like there's enough food to save for later. She stretches out loaves of bread, refuses to unwrap them until they're starting to get stale, and then softens them with water so they can go down easier. She's not picky.

Not anymore.

Since being a magical girl gives Kyoko the power to keep herself alive, she's happy to develop her skills in that too. Magic lets her live outside the system. It elevates her past the needs of school, of grades, of career paths that would assign her to some dreary home someday, dependent on a paycheck to get her meals. Magic lets her pick her own homes out of the rooms that no one lives in; it lets her steal meals and clothing in equal measures, and never be caught.

But magic, too, must be carefully rationed. It's not reliable. It's not unlimited.

Magic can also run out.

Familiars are the start of Kyoko's problems as a magical girl on her own. She expends more power than she gets back from them, and they never give up a Seed, no matter how fast she kills them or how long she draws out the fight. She ignores what Kyubey says - everything that Mami said - and tries to gather multiple familiars together, even when juggling them all gets really crazy, really fast. Nothing works.

It'd be great if she could figure out a method to get them to cough up the goods - familiars are easier to kill, way easier - but they're stubborn. Like tiny buds of fruit, they don't even provide enough for a stomachache. It's maddening.

After a long week spent chasing an animated pair of socks across town, Kyoko finally gives up on her research attempts, and shreds the familiar to pieces. As the world shimmers and returns to normal, she squats down behind the nearest bench and examines her Soul Gem with a frown. It's darker than she'd like; she brings out her sole Grief Seed and cleans it, chewing on her lip as she waits for the color to return.

The Grief Seed darkens further into ink. Kyoko's Soul Gem is still cloudy. There wasn't enough power left to purify it completely; Kyoko's at a disadvantage now, two or more steps down from her full potential with nothing else to rely on. She rolls the Gem back and forth on her palm. Its surface is sullen in the light.

Looking at it makes her afraid.

Cold practicality crashes down, smothering her thoughts. The familiar didn't feed her. None of the familiars feed her, ever. She can't waste time on them. All they do is drain her magic.

She has to let them become witches. They won't keep her alive otherwise.

The first time Kyoko kills another magical girl, it's in self-defense. Sort of. Her new territory is a fragile thing, and even though Kyoko has the ability to patrol it regularly - one advantage that schoolkids lack - she gets other predators trying to weasel their way in anyway. This time, the girl's a puffed-up newbie, with sleeves that billow in embroidered segments, littering sequins at every turn. Her weapon is a jeweled boomerang, constructed from a twist of painted wood that leaves pink afterbursts of light when it spins. It leaks an odor that smells suspiciously like baby powder.

This particular witch had been slow to hatch, so slow that Kyoko had put it on the back burner while she'd looked for more immediate prey. But it had finished off its last few victims all in a rush, one after another - an entire family, minus the ailing grandfather - and attached its labyrinth right in the middle of the neighborhood, letting its malice swell up like a bulging tumor in the street.

Kyoko gets there late. The other girl's already wiping off her boomerang, smug and prim. The labyrinth is shredding away quickly; all the familiars have exploded, leaving mismatched blotches of caramel-colored paint. One of Kyoko's shoes lands in a puddle, spattering warm drops along her leg.

She ignores it, focused on the other magical girl. "I needed that witch," she blurts. Desperation smears a dry layer of bile along the back of her throat. "I was saving it for later."

"You're crazy," the girl snaps back. Then she tosses her head, wrinkling her nose like she can smell the garbage can that Kyoko had been poking through only a few hours ago. "Anyway, I got here first. You'll have to be quicker next time." The sneer makes her face far less cute. "If you can."

Next time. Kyoko swallows hard. If she doesn't do something - something drastic - then each hunt will end up turning into a chase. Even at her best, Kyoko can't watch every familiar around. There are going to be losses.

She's fumbling with her thoughts almost as badly as she's fumbling with her spear, launching herself forward without a clear picture of what to do. She wants the Grief Seed; she wants the girl to just go away. She wants - she's not sure what she wants, but she planned on having the witch, and she can't just walk away hungry. Not this time. Not any other.

The labyrinth continues to peel away like tissue around them. The other magical girl grits her teeth, blocking the strike with her boomerang, and then sends the weapon in a wooden wail towards Kyoko's head.

But Kyoko's fresh to the fight; she has enough energy for a knock-down tussle, and more than that, she has the desire to win regardless of the cost. Her mind is humming. Her stomach roars. The labyrinth is almost gone. If one of them dies after it vanishes, then there'll be a body left behind, and all kinds of problems will come out of that. Victory has to be fast.

When Kyoko whips around the spear and shoves it forward in a violent thrust, she watches with only faint satisfaction as she impales the other girl hard enough to lift her into the air. Dainty pink shoes rises from the ground, kicking limply a few times. The girl's body goes slack, momentarily stunned.

Even though it's probably cheating, Kyoko flips the spear over onto the ground, and then rips off the other girl's Soul Gem, crushing it in her hands - just in case the girl was planning to use magic to survive. That stops the battle, right there; the girl's wounds catch up with her in a rush, her fingers grabbing desperately for Kyoko's hand, and then she spasms and bleeds out soundlessly. Her fancy costume flickers, changing back to a normal school uniform. The boomerang vanishes into a puff of smoke, laced with the faint scent of baby powder.

Kyoko's breath scrapes in her mouth. She pants, waiting for the girl to try and get up again, to heal herself and resume the fight. The body doesn't even twitch. After a brittle heartbeat, habit takes over, propelling Kyoko towards the corpse, where she starts to paw through the pockets in search of the Seed and anything else that might be useful.

She's rooting through the other girl's change purse when she feels the air shift, and twists around to see Kyubey stepping delicately through the melting boundaries of the labyrinth.

"Are you gonna say something?" she snaps.

Kyubey flicks his tail. "The witch is dead, and you've recovered the Grief Seed. As long as that process continues to occur, it doesn't matter to me if you use up your magic in other ways."

With one last flicker, the labyrinth fades; the girl's body goes with it, erased forever as if she never existed to begin with. Kyoko blinks at the restored street. Mechanically, she checks her Soul Gem, and then applies one of the nearly-empty Grief Seeds. After the last charge is spent, she pitches it at Kyubey, who engulfs it deftly from midair.

"If I left her alive, that girl would have just kept preying on my territory," she insists. "There aren't enough witches around here to supply two magical girls. We would both end up starving."

Kyubey settles down, curling the puff of his tail around his paws. "That does sound efficient," he agrees cheerfully. "But there will be stronger magical girls than her. Do you think you can beat them all without using your powers to their fullest extent?"

The question isn't pleasant. It lodges like a worm in the back of Kyoko's thoughts.

She counts up the Grief Seeds when she gets back to her hiding place, hunkering down inside the warm nest of blankets that she hauled up to an abandoned construction lot. That last fight took almost two charges worth of magic out of her. Killing other girls won't always be worth a Seed. Maybe the next one, she can just scare off. Maybe the next girl will have the sense to know when there's a tougher predator around, and slink away harmlessly.

It seems like her options are clear. Kyoko can't risk having other magical girls around, but she can't prey on them frivolously either. She'll just have to get better at intimidation, at baring her teeth in warning: back arched, fur bristling, giving them the chance to run away first.

She's better at the entire process by the time autumn rolls around, picking out familiars and tracking them while they grow stronger. Once they blossom into witches, she's fast to pounce; no need to let them cause too much trouble, or they might attract other magical girls. Because of that, it's important that Kyoko stay on the trail once she's pinpointed a familiar, keeping track of everyone that the creatures eats so she can check numbers off the list. It's almost routine.

This familiar's an elusive one: a paisley-speckled ladybug that likes to try and blend in with its surroundings, but shy enough that Kyoko assumes it's only recently branched off from its parent witch. The first victim she sees it claim is someone's child, so young that it's hard to tell if it's a boy or a girl. A white sunhat droops around the kid's bowl-cut hair. The sneakers look new; they've barely had the time to get smudged with playground dirt.

As the familiar creeps closer towards the child, Kyoko settles into position, three stories up on a nearby balcony. Reality shimmers as the familiar's barrier takes hold, barely strong enough for privacy. Her spear is a solid line wedged against her leg. She watches the familiar frolic in ever-narrowing circles around its target, teasing with manic giggles as the kid's fascination evolves into fear, and then outright terror.

As splashes of green-striped light begin to puddle around the kid's feet, the child draws breath to scream.

The familiar chatters in delight, and dives for the kill.

Kyoko jams her pastry into her mouth, ripping off bite after doughy bite as she watches the familiar burrow through its prey. The child thrashes; it wails in agony, the noise lost inside the barrier. One of its hands flails against the ground, beating the concrete as if to find an escape. The hat goes flying. The kid's shirt comes off in a ripping shriek.

"Not yet," Kyoko whispers aloud to herself, just to keep steady. Her voice sounds like a stranger in her ears. "Not yet."

Disappointingly enough, the ladybug familiar doesn't sprout into a witch once it's finished its meal. It wipes its long tongue along the concrete, slobbering up the blood. It noses once, hopefully, against the ridges of the sidewalk. Then it twirls itself into a thin lozenge, transforming into a furled banner of pink and emerald spots, and scampers away, tittering.

The barrier dissolves.

Kyoko licks her fingers. The sticky sweetness on her skin reminds her of Mami's home - and alongside the flavor, there's another weight in the back of her throat. It feels like the aged, sour shame of when she used to spend afternoons at Mami's place, eating endless varieties of cake, unable to say no even when her stomach was heaving at all the sugar. She'd eat, and eat, and Mami would giggle politely and ask if she still wanted another piece.

The answer was always yes, even when Kyoko wondered if she was being laughed at.

She stops wasting her energy on memories, spending it instead on tracing the familiar, focusing on business until the thick ball in her throat is gone. What she's doing isn't any different than waiting for a cow to get fat enough to be diced into steak. The familiar is feeding her. Kyoko's eating the witches, as surely as if they were food. They give her strength.

When she's on the hunt, Kyoto tries hard not to get distracted by her other type of nourishment. Witches are her most active prey, and they take precedence over ramen. Kyoko shouldn't care that there's an okonomiyaki parlor two streets back during the chase - and they, and they, they had just set out leftover plates waiting to be scraped and she could smell them through the open kitchen windows when she ran past, she could smell them so bad.

Stalking restaurants isn't something Kyoko's proud of. She'd never let anyone else know, has screamed at Kyubey when he's followed her, and once tried to kick him when he started asking too many questions.

But after she takes down a witch, sometimes Kyoko backtracks. She finds those places that she skipped the first time through, the restaurants and the supermarkets and chain bakeries, and she slinks around to their back doors, where they are careless about their discards. Sometimes there are delivery trucks; usually, there are half-chewed meals, or food tipping too close to the expiration date.

Kyoko isn't picky. She descends upon the scraps, aware how tiny the windows of opportunity are before anyone notices. She lets her instincts take over while she snuffles through the remains, deftly sorting through cartons of food for what is already too close to rotting, and what is still salvageable.

Her first few bites are always the most careful. Then she gives up, and starts wolfing the rest down, whatever's unlucky enough to be in reach of her eager hands. As she eats, she feels herself become something small and dark and hungry again, like a familiar scrabbling for scraps, smearing sauce all over her chin and licking her own skin to swallow down the taste.

And it feels good. She doesn't talk about that part either, but it feels good to be alive: to have her body be so willing to abandon shame, and do what it must in order to survive. Feral determination burns like a star in the middle of her chest, and Kyoko is privately relieved every time she lets go and feels that strength flood her muscles, undimmed in its ferocity.

She thinks sometimes that maybe, maybe, if Kyubey were careless enough to come after her during these moments, she might try to eat him too.

Her appetite usually calms quickly, but her body keeps on going. If given free license, Kyoko's instincts push her to eat until the warning pangs of bloat stretch her belly. Then she fills whatever bags and boxes are around with the scraps. Half the leftovers will be sour or stale by morning; she takes them anyway, unwilling to give them up just in case she can't find anything else. It wouldn't be the first time she'd eaten something on the verge of rotting. Or over.

She's lucky she's a magical girl. She doesn't get sick like she used to, before.

The ladybug familiar takes its time in picking out its second victim. The creature's as fussy as a window shopper, buzzing and flittering from house to one it finally settles on is a schoolkid, older this time, and twice as tall. Its appetite must be maturing. Probably a good sign.

Probably. Kyoko frowns as she hunkers down behind the shallow fold of a roof. As the familiar swirls into a lethal dive, and the schoolkid tilts his head back in an anguished howl, she thinks for a second that he's looking right ather, accusing her with every inch of his assaulted flesh.

It's got to be a trick of the imagination.

She hunches back just in case, peeking out only once she's sure that the familiar's finished gnawing on the kid's face. By then, there aren't eyes left to see with anyway.

That night, when Kyoko goes back to her borrowed apartment, she sections out the food that she has left, counting off the days and which supplies can be stretched out the longest. The foods closest to perishing have to get eaten first. For dinner, that means a weird mix of sweet cream sauce and spicy glazed chicken, and Kyoko knows better than to try and combine the two into a single bowl.

She eats the sauce first with a spoon, trying to pretend like it's ice cream, reminding herself that calories are precious no matter where they come from. A glass of water rinses her mouth out in time for the second course. The chicken goes down smoother, and she chews each piece carefully, pretending there's an entire feast left in the carton instead of a few gnarled chunks.

Running her tongue over her gums, Kyoko lays out the Grief Seeds next, spacing them off by fights. Once this familiar turns, and if it's only an average fight, then she'll have a surplus of five seeds over her minimum. Five is an uncomfortable number; five is just a risky step from four, which is a short ride down to three. The minimum keeps creeping up. Kyoko has minimum margins for the minimum. It's insidious.

But not using her magic would be just as stupid - like curling up in a closet somewhere and just hoping for food to be delivered - so Kyoko grits her teeth and spaces the Seeds out between her pockets. Tomorrow, she'll have to visit the easier ATMs, the ones with the cheaper cameras to break. It's about time for her to relocate. There are a few apartment blocks that are good places to look for shelter - the screens are easy to rip, the residents are usually out on business - but she knows better than to stay anywhere too long. She can guess when people are going to move in; the stench of fresh paint is her warning out. Apartments are good for temporary holdovers.

There's something attractive about using houses, though. Sometimes, people go on vacation, and their windows go dark; when that happens, Kyoko sneaks in, and burrows down like a tick inside the soft furrows of their lives, their carefully folded futons and mismatched furniture, and pretends that they belong to her. The whole family does. She's been left behind to watch over the house, because she's old enough and they trust her, and they'll be back soon with presents for everyone.

Trying to settle on a decision makes the apartment feel twice as dark. Kyoko's lips taste like sauce when she chews on them. She checks the carton again to make sure that it's empty, and runs her finger along the inside, wiping it clean.

She picks a hotel instead this time - but doesn't pay, sneaking up to the balconies and eeling her way across until she can find a window that yields to pressure. The extra portions of her supplies get set aside, and Kyoko gorges herself on them, rolling over in her new hideout like a swollen snake.

There aren't any channels that she can pay for, so she leaves it on a random station, letting the patter play in a white-noise haze around her. Naps filled up most of her day, so her energy's good to run all night; the sun goes down, the streetlights flare up, and Kyoko's still alert. Midnight ticks past. She kicks back across her bed, legs sprawling in a broken V, and glances at the television.

Somewhere along the way, the station had started on a nature documentary. Appropriately enough, this ones's about nocturnal creatures; the camera follows an opossum as it snuffles across someone's lawn, mindlessly fixated on the pursuit of breakfast.

Just like me, Kyoko thinks, with a strange, dull pang in her chest, one she can't pinpoint immediately. She seizes the emotion, flips it around like a raccoon washing its prey in water, poking and prodding to identify the shape. On the television screen, the opossum squirms between two fallen logs, grouchy and replete with grubs. Kyoko silently cheers it on, and only then does she recognize what she's feeling.

It's not inspiration. It's not a supernatural revelation. She's not seeing a new lesson on how she should live now; she's not seeing a guide.

What Kyoko's experiencing is kinship. All these nature documentary lessons being played out at discount hours on the hotel television - all these things, she already knows. Defending your territory costs energy. Frighten away other predators first if you can; posture and snarl, in case you can end the conflict early. Store up your reserves. Gorge whenever possible.

When you do have to fight, fight to kill.

One of Kyoko's fingers traces idle circles on the heavy, embroidered bedspread. Human beings are just animals too, after all. All the happy-ending stories in the world can't erase that fact. Human beings are animals, and an animal's first priority is to survive, and Kyoko might have failed cataclysmically in picking a wish - but living, that part she can do just fine.

She comes back late from stalking the fourth victim, watching the familiar taunt and tease for what seemed like hoursbefore finally getting down to the business of ingestion.

Her stash is gone. The hotel workers turned her room down early; all her things are gone. Her bags are gone. Her food's gone.

Her food.

Is gone.

For a minute, a horrible, horrible minute, Kyoko can't see straight. She can't breathe around the anger and terror that twine like snakes breeding inside her throat; she wants to barrel down the halls and find whoever did this, smash them into the carpet and then take her supplies back and run.But it's already too late. Kyoko knows better than to hope her things haven't been tossed away or locked up in the hotel's lost and found. The one advantage is that she didn't lose any Grief Seeds; leaving the extras unguarded would have been a disaster. Food and clothes are at least easier to start over on.

Kyoko lurks around the halls until she smells the dinner carts, and claims two before anyone can catch her. Cradling the leaking platters in her arms, she crawls up to the roof and eats with her fingers, sucking gravy out from underneath her nails.

The familiar hatches into a full-blown witch the next night.

Kyoko doesn't waste any time tearing it apart.

At the next hotel, Kyoko makes sure to pay for the room this time. She hates having to do that too often - people have a habit of asking what a girl her age is doing alone, no matter what kind of excuse she makes about being sent down by her family to pay while they're off getting their bags, or something else ridiculous. Sometimes the staff looks extra-carefully at any businessmen in the lobby with her, suspecting things that they're too polite to say outright.

Kyoko doesn't care what they think. Money gets her a locked door the staff will respect, and that's a good enough safeguard that she can leave her supplies. At least, for now.

Once she's sure everything's secure for the night, she lines up her Grief Seeds, one by one on the hotel desk. She counts out the number, portions it by fights. This is her emergency reserve. This is her safe margin that covers it. These are her free Seeds, available to her in case she has a really tough battle, and these are the ones that can be used solely for travel or other basics.

After she's done, Kyoko turns around, and does the same with her snackfood boxes: carton by carton, meal by meal. She counts what she can stretch out. She counts what she can afford to spend. She counts her days left, all the ones she can be sure of, because nothing else will show up unless she's the one to put it there.

Her life fills the expanse of a table, end to end, and Kyoko marks the number down until she has to go hunting again.