Magical Juggernaut Heather Crunch versus The Old Grind, Part II: Terminus Est

From Magical Girl Noir Quest Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

“-alled Coolio in, she’ll be waiting for-”

A low rumble and the stench of antiseptics greet me in the waking world, just barely drowning out the sounds of voices. People. That complicates things. Well, it's not like they can stop me. There’s the beep of an EKG, and the feeling of wires on my body. A hospital? I crack open one eye and see clouds rushing by. An airplane. A makeshift hospital room on an airplane. After what happened, that makes sense. But it means I'm being taken back. I'm running out of time.

“-n’t blame you, it’s the Gardener’s faul-”

Beneath the covers of the cot, I discreetly feel at my neck. My clothes have been changed to a hospital gown, and my gem is missing. It’s… I close my eye and try to sense it… over there. I feel it like a phantom limb, a pang of sensation disconnected from my body about two feet away, on this side. I open my eyes to look without turning my head, and I can see it, the dull red stone set inside a glass jar. There’s some powdery residue gathered at the bottom, but that’s not important.

“-lliance is over, I’ll give you a head sta-”

Everything is falling into place for this moment. I just need to do it. To find the drive, the conviction to follow through. The last time I tried this, I was paralyzed with fear. So afraid to do it that my body gave out before my spirit did. But now… now I can do it. I finally have what I was missing. Conviction. Drive. Evidence that things will not, cannot improve. Any doubt I had before is gone: this needs to be done.

With one quick motion, I reach forward and take the jar. The top of it comes off easily, and I take back my prize. Now my gem is back in my hands, and, just as importantly, so is my inventory.

“-will leave quarreling for when her condition impro-”

It feels somewhat poetic, pulling out a handgun. This piece was a gift from a former friend. As if I’d kept it solely for this singular purpose. To chamber one bullet in this weapon. To retract the slide lock. To pull back the slide and chamber a round. And to train it squarely at my gem. Because no magical girl is totally immune to damage to the gem, no matter who or what they are. I remember that lecture distinctly. A single bullet is enough, even a .32 caliber.

“-ill succeed! It has to, I can’t deal with this kind of thing, I'm not, like, an empa-”

It’s finally over. This whole farce of a life is finally over. I can finally stop hurting, stop hurting people. My body is tense, but of course it’s tense. I’ve seen what happens when I have a second chance. I squander it. Waste it. I’m a waste. Wasteful. Useless. Unnecessary. And kept alive because people are too kind for their own good.

It has to end.

It has to end!

This can’t go on, it has to END!

It’s been nearly nineteen years of misery and pain inflicted on others. All so I can fail, again and again, to improve myself in any meaningful way, and drag everyone down with me. It has to end. I have to do it. I have to pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. End it. End it now. Please. Not just for yourself, but for everyone else. This can’t go on. It just can’t.

“-er best, and have faith in her will to-”

My vision blurs from the tears. I wish it didn’t have to be this way but wishing didn’t work. There’s no other choice, no other way. No more chances, no more leeching off the good graces of others. I’m putting myself out of everyone’s misery so they can find someone better. It’s not selfish. It’s thinking forward, it’s necessary. A necessary excision of a cancerous tumor on this world. A removal of someone who failed from the very beginning. The grieving will be brief and transitory, as given to any coworker or people who misguidedly saw themselves as my friends. And then someday a brighter future will dawn. One where I’m not in it.

“-ntal state? She’s-”

It’s the right thing to do. That’s all it has to be to finally convince me. I’ll do it. I’ll pull the trigger.

My finger tenses around the trigger, and slowly, gently pulls. There’s no going back.

“-ere’s her gem? Where is-”

...I don’t want to die. But there’s no other way. But I don’t want to die. But there’s no other way. But I don’t want to die! There has to be another way! But there isn’t! But this can’t be the right way! I have to do it, but I don’t want to do it, but I have to do it, I have to do it, there has to be another way, somebody, anybody, tell me there’s another way, but I have to do it!

My hand spasms in panic as the gun fires, my mind racing a trillion miles an hour. I can see it. The jerk of the handgun. The bullet exiting the barrel. The grooves and scratches on it from the rifling. Even the manufacturer’s imprint. I can see all of it play out as the sound of the gunshot rings out.

I can’t say if it’s a cruel twist of fate or otherwise, but my movement was just enough. At the last possible moment, the bullet grazes past the gem and embeds itself in the wall of the aircraft. The empty ejected casing smacks me in the face to rub in my failure.

…No! NO!

No, no, no, no, no, I’ve already done this before! I can’t keep backing out forever, I have to die! I have to try again! I have to break this damned thing!

As I try to slot in another bullet, someone grabs my arm to stop me. Weakened as I am, still lying on the bed, the bullet tumbles out of my fingers in the scuffle and rattles across the floor out of reach. Cursing my luck, I form my gem into its normal shape as a broach, in case someone would try to pry it out of my grasp.

“Crunchy, whatever happened with Dolly the Destroyer back there isn’t worth an heroing over!” cries the pained voice of Nakajima as she wrests my weapon away. I don’t understand what she’s trying to pull, considering she got all the data from me she probably needs. I toss and turn in the struggle, finding the Soul Temperer at the foot of the cot. Her shocked expression looks like she just about had a heart attack.

She has to take a deep breath before she can even speak. “Truth-Seeker-” the Soul Temperer starts, about to launch into some spiel about duty or hopes and dreams or whatever. Some fortune cookie bullshit that isn’t going to help here. I want no part of this, so I cut them both off.

“No, see, I don’t want to try and fail to get better yet again,” I say, pulling myself up into a sitting position and wrenching my arm back from Nakajima. “I’ve finally remembered that this is why I came out here in the first place!” I fling my arms wide, putting on the fakest smile I can manage. “To get away from bleeding hearts and crocodile tears so I can, at last, end my wretched, miserable, worthless, hopeless, damned and despicable life with NOBODY to stop me!”

My captive audience is, for whatever reason, speechless. As if everything I said wasn’t the most simple, logical, moral, ethical, and best possible conclusion to the facts presented by my continued existence. I pull myself out of the cot, pushing past Nakajima as she scrunches her face up in pain. “Why?!” she screeches; for someone supposedly so smart, she needs an awful lot of this explained to her.

It’s annoying. It’s irritating. It’s getting on my fucking nerves.

“Why indeed!” I roar back, causing her and the Soul Temperer to shrink back. “WHY IN-FUCKING-DEED!” I wag my finger at them accusingly, their eyes following it like I was still holding a gun. “THAT is a question I’ll throw to God before I fling myself rightfully into the deepest pits of hell!” With my piece said, I march towards the emergency exit. They can’t follow me out of the plane if I jump-

The Soul Temperer grabs my arm. “Heather…” she pleads. What, was the Truth I was Seeking too much for her to bear? I shake her off, my anger empowering me enough to get my strength back.

“‘Why do better people suffer because of me, while I coast through life unscathed? ‘“I pose to her. She has no answer, so I continue, driving in what should be a simple conclusion with increasing frustration. ‘Why couldn’t I be a hero when I explicitly wished to be one?’ ‘Why can’t I ever, ever, EVER improve myself in a meaningful way or stop making the same exact mistakes every single time?!’” I roar, punching my palm for emphasis. “EVERY! SINGLE! TIME!” It’s not fucking fair.

The anger is swept away by a flood of tears and sadness, enervation and listlessness threatening to stop me from my sacred duty. “It’s like a bad joke,” I choke through sobs, “where somebody waits until the end to scream ‘The Aristocrats’, but jokes are supposed to be funny, right?” For once, I turn to look at the others for confirmation. “I’m not the only one who isn’t laughing, right?”

Nakajima looks to be on the verge of tears herself, mouthing “Crunchy” as her expression collapses. I want to tell her that I’m alright, but I’m not. And I never will be. Not in this life. All I can do is convince them to understand where I’m coming from and try to make the pain of loss hurt less.

“You know,” I start, putting my hand on the handle, sniffling and wiping my nose, “I was prepared to fight alone against evil, you know? I was prepared for a friendless, solitary life. I had steeled myself for such a possibility. Hope rides alone and all that.” I can’t see through the tears anymore, but I can still manage a sad little smile at my naive ambitions. “Who hasn’t dreamed a little dream about being the lone agent of good in the world, a pariah who nonetheless does what needs to be done to protect those who can’t protect themselves?” Even I couldn’t be faulted for that much, regardless of my sins.

My sniffling gives way to coughing and retching, a sickness and bile rising up as I try to face the Soul Temperer, blinded as I am. Words burn as my voice cracks, ”but how could I prepare myself for hurting the people I was supposed to help?” I ask, trying to raise my arm to gesticulate and succeeding only in making vague gestures at the ground. “How can anyone come back from that after it happens, again and again and again and again and again…”

The rest of my body, head included, follows my arm’s tired example and slumps to the ground, save for my hand barely hanging on the emergency handle. “I’m so tired, you guys. I’m just so tired of failing so miserably at helping people and myself. That’s my entire reason to exist, literally my raison d’etre, my sincerest wish - and I can’t do it.” If I still had any drive to do so, I’d turn to look at them. Eyes pleading, begging for an answer to the question of my life. “It’s all I wanted, all I wished for. I can’t deal with it. I can’t deal with being subhuman garbage like that, as someone who can’t even fulfill their intended purpose in life, one they chose for themselves and tried to achieve over and over and failed.” Another coughing fit dislodges more tears.

Finally putting it into words, a weight I didn’t know was holding me down releases. I’d almost say I feel better, except I don’t. I just feel weary, and everything feels oppressive and heavy and hopeless.

Someone starts walking over, and I have to force myself to get angry enough to find my strength. I pull myself back to my feet and wipe the tears from my eyes, snarling, “I can’t do it! I won’t do it anymore! Enough is enough!” The figure doesn’t stop, but neither do I, finally pulling down the emergency handle. “This is what’s best for everyone! You’ll see!” Applying enough force to open the door, even mid-flight, is easy-

Just as the door opens, someone grabs me around my midsection and hoists me into the air. “Go limp!” yells Nakajima through gritted teeth, squeezing me as hard as she can in an effort to make me go limp, or something. I don’t understand what she’s trying to do, but with the added turbulence, I wrestle free and dive out the exit before anything else can happen. To the sweet release of death.

The wind rushes up to meet me as the ground rapidly draws closer, my gown fluttering wildly. My tears dry as the wind sucks them away. Oh, I’ve jumped without a parachute before, but this is different. I fling my arms wide as if to embrace it. To savor the moment where things finally turn around. I just need to find a nice, quiet spot to hide myself long enough to deal with any lingering misconceptions and finally end my life.

A sharp noise breaks my reverie like shattering glass. I spin around, and my look of horror matches that of Nakajima, plummeting far past me. The plane is getting further away, but so is the hapless girl that fell out after me. I try to summon my Eversword, but the connection to my weapon is gone as if it never existed in the first place. I try again, and again, but the distance between my targets keeps growing while my blade refuses to materialize. With both out of reach, and my blade not available, I have to act quickly.

I pull a long, massive tube out of my inventory until I’m staring at the tail end of a sidewinder missile twice my height. And a well-aimed punch at the right place gets it belching fire and smoke. Then the thrust kicks in for real, and drags me towards terra firma at breakneck speed, far faster than terminal velocity. Already I’ve almost caught up to Nakajima in the race to hit the earth, but I’m not having it, and wrestle for control to point towards her instead of the ground. And then I climb on. Balance myself. Steady, steady… and stand tall. It’s not the most intuitive way to ride a missile, but I need both hands free for what comes next.

The shrieks of terror draw much closer as I descend and dip right under my target. And into my outstretched arms falls a suddenly silent and extremely surprised Nakajima. I can’t blame her for her shock, but right now we have a flight to catch before the hypoxia sets in.

It takes careful maneuvering to finally rise high enough to catch up with the airplane without blowing it up. While my hands and legs are occupied, my magic tape wraps a grenade from my inventory around the missile. As soon as it pulls the pin, I jump off, kicking the missile down away from the aircraft Nakajima and I land inside of, untangling ourselves from each other. Oxygen masks are brought to us, and we both start gasping and breathing heavily. Outside there’s a loud explosion in the distance as the missile is taken care of. My heart finally stops pounding in my throat.

Before I can continue my tirade, or apologize, or say anything, Nakajima interrupts my train of thought. Loudly. “Perhaps we’re wondering why somebody would shoot themselves, before jumping out of a plane!” she exclaims in a deep voice, the faint trace of a smile visible beneath her air mask. I… don’t have a response to that. Nor does the Soul Temperer. “Did you care who I was until I put on the mask?” she probes, invading my personal space.

I’m almost lured into her rhythm to go along with her skit. But I can see what she’s trying to do. “You’re trying to distract me from the fact that you fell out of the plane and almost died because of me," I tell her bluntly. I can’t even kill myself without getting other people involved now. This is why I wanted to end it before anybody noticed.

“Oh, me?” Nakajima responds in her normal voice, sounding surprisingly carefree for somebody who was screaming for her life just moments ago. “I jumped out on purpose.”

…Wait, what.

“Like, I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist coming after me,” she explains, lunging for my arm. “Sooo, I took a leap of faith, and I knew you were going to try and save me.” I retract my arm, making her pout just a little. “I just had to scream and look scared and a hero like you comes rushing to save me!” So, any hero would have worked, huh?

“That’s stupid!” I retort, pointing at her so hard that she flinches back, “I could have screwed that up you know! Just like everything else, I could have failed, and you could have died!”

Nakajima latches onto my extended arm, grinning beneath her mask. “But you expected it to fail and did it anyway, right?”

Again, I retract my arm, this time to wildly gesticulate. “I had to do something!” I shout back.

As if that somehow answers everything, Nakajima settles back and asks with a gravelly voice, “So, do you feel in charge here?” Again with the jokes. My severe look at her doesn’t cow her, only prompting her to ask, “Also how did you start that missile so quickly?”

“What, I just hit it in the right spot.”

Now it’s her turn to be surprised. “Wait, what? You can jumpstart a missile just by punching it?"

I snort derisively. "You can't? Aren't you supposed to be smart?" As soon as the words leave my mouth, I cover my face in shock and remorse. Even Nakajima is put off by how vicious that was. "I'm... I didn't...” I have to force my tongue to stop tangling itself up and obey me. “That was uncalled for,” I manage, giving a small bow. ”I'm sorry, it’s just… I can assure you this self-destruction is completely deserved. And one good deed does not excuse a lifetime of sin." Another gaffe, which I correct before anybody else can jump on it. "Of failure, then, but it may as well be a sin for me. I’d be the ruler of Hell if incompetence was a sin.”

Nakajima slumps to the ground, staring at me in bewilderment. “I don’t get it. You jumped out of a plane, punch-started and surfed on a missile, and saved the girl, namely me. You should be super stoked, right?” She scoots forward on her knees and reaches up, pushing the corners of my mouth into a fake smile.

I pull her hands down yet again. “And yet I’m still miserable, like I’m constantly being rained on,” I tell her, holding her wrists away. She grabs my hand instead.

“Then build a shelter with me!” she says, the cheery facade she’d built up starting to crumble. “Being happy isn’t about not feeling miserable or hurt, it’s being able to, like…” She looks lost for words, swinging my hand back and forth like a metronome as if it’d get her thought processes going again. She doesn’t have much conviction when she says, “still be happy? Something about weathering the storm together?” She squeezes my hand.

Sigh. “Look,” I tell her, yet again removing her hands from my person, “it’s nice that you’re trying to help, really, but this isn’t something anybody can solve. Literal mutant space cat magic couldn’t make me a good person, it’s just inherently impossible.”

“So, you’re going to try and jump again?” she asks, wiggling her fingers in distraction.

"Of course!”

Nakajima pulls her hands back and covers her face except for her eyes. “Well, that would be very painful…” No, don't finish that sentence - “For you.” I give her the most withering look I can manage, and Nakajima withers under it immediately, before her face scrunches in anger.

“Okay, look!” she growls, hands balling into fists. “I don’t know how to cheer up sad people so good, so I’m just trying to say whatever to make you stop being serious about something stupid!” She points to herself, yelling, “Look at us! We’re magical girls, so of course we’re all miserable, but we’re not killing ourselves over it!” And then stamps over to me to try and grab me, shaking with barely contained indignation. “So come on! Just stop it! Just stop this stupid crap already!”

Yet again, I push her hand away, my costume reforming over the thin hospital gown. “It is stupid, but then again, so am I.”

With my piece said I take off my mask and move towards the opening again. This time I conjure some bindings around her feet, causing her to trip before she can pull the same stunt from before. The breathing apparatus falls off, revealing her pained expression. It doesn’t stop me, but it hurts my heart.

“Don’t do it!” she pleads, with an earnest sadness I haven’t heard from her before. “I tried! I tried so hard this time! I tried for *you*!”

She stretches her arms out once more, but this time they do not reach. I sadly shake my head. “Thanks for trying anyway,” I tell her “I hope you find happiness without-”


The Soul Temperer’s voice rings out clearly, reminding me that she has been watching the entire time. No longer content to sit back, she tears off her oxygen mask and yanks me away from the opening. I stumble slightly, then regain my footing before I would crash into the opposite side. She grabs my other wrist and slams both into the wall. I expect a look of predatory hunger, which is why her expression of righteous indignation takes me completely by surprise. The ferocity in her scarlet red eyes is unlike anything I've seen from her before.

The Soul Temperer takes a deep breath, speaking slowly and deliberately, her voice booming with barely restrained fervor. “I have sat idle for far too long, having full confidence in your ability to finally see your own brilliance the way I see it," she says, her firm grip thwarting my escape, "but still, still you are blinded by despair, loathing and a misbegotten need for penance through self-flagellation! I won’t have it! I won’t suffer it anymore!“

Her face softens, as does her voice, but her grasp stays firm. “For when I first saw you so very many months ago, clashing weapons and hearts with the High Marshall, you kindled a spark in my heart that has since ignited into something far more, something I once would claim that I did not deserve!”

Wait… I saw her. I saw her there. At the conference between the Officios. Between the Second, the Sixth, the Seventh, and the Eighth. The discussion about how to move forward after Walpurgisnacht, between the Officios guarding their own Akashic Gates. She was the one that took me to the infirmary after Alondight gouged out my eyes! Valentina Tenko, a representative from the Seventh!

A sardonic smile twitches at the edge of the Soul Temperer’s mouth, perhaps unable to notice my recognition. “Oh yes, I was once the one seeking wisdom, truth, and enlightenment; And I sought it in pain, and suffering, and placing my faith in people who told me I was a wretched, horrible being, only fit to be used and discarded by those who had no affections for me!” She switches to a scowl, pressing her face forward and driving me back even more. “And I would not have you suffer that same fate!”

Her nose is mere inches from mine - her eyes are even more intense than her words, if that’s possible. I can feel her breath right on my face and smell the traces of fruit from her shampoo. “If ever I still thought I needed to redeem myself for my past sins and transgressions, then for you, and all that you are, I would forsake my other desires both mortal and spiritual, blaspheme any god, do anything! Whatever it takes to convince you that life is worth living!”

I’m stunned. Nobody has ever said anything like that to me before. Nobody ever had to. I didn’t have such vicious hatred for myself until Walpurgisnacht. Or maybe I just never noticed the survivor’s guilt weighing on me until now. But a former Black Templar would shun her own faith if it wouldn’t save me?

If I can’t live for me, if I can’t believe in myself… What about her? Can I believe in someone who so fervently believes that I should live, until I can find that drive myself? It can’t be that easy, can it?

She hoists me up and up, but before she can continue, I have to ask a simple question: “Why? Why are you trying so hard for someone like me? Why go through all this trouble for a one-night stand?”

The Soul Temperer lets go. “Is that what you still think this is about?” she asks incredulously, her momentum interrupted momentarily. “Perhaps I did not make my feelings clear before, so sure that they were as obvious as your own brilliance.” Ouch.

She clears her throat loudly, throwing her arms wide. “Then I will dispel all doubt now,” she declares jubilantly, her previously pained expression breaking into a wide smile. “It is because I love you!”

…My brain skips like a record and tries to make sense of what she just said. However, there is no need, as she repeats, “I love you, Heather!” I’m still coming to terms with what she just said, but she’s not giving me any time to process it. “My love is greater than the stars in the sky, and it burns for you and only you! Even if you would forsake my feelings, please take my earnest wish and passion as a sign to keep living on!”

Valentina Tenko loves me.

With that truth finally laid plain, Tenko pulls the back of my head all the way forward. I squeeze my eyes shut, my body on autopilot while my brain tries to sort through everything that’s happening. Gentle, girlish gasps escape from my mouth even though she has it locked in a deep, passionate kiss. My toes curl as if the heat escaping from my face was all that kept them straight.

The despair hanging over my head is, for the moment, shunted away by emotions so bright I would be afraid to look at them normally. The cheer and warmth in my heart and soul would cook me alive with embarrassment before now. But now a thirst for affection I didn’t even know I suffered from is being sated, and the sense of rightness and belonging gives me a sense of peace I haven’t felt in years. And not because of a kiss - it’s the affections of Valentina Tenko. Someone who, for all their quirks, truly did care for me all this time. That I, somewhere deep down, dared to hope held real affection for me.

Tenko releases me, cradling my chin on one hand, and faces away from me, trying to hide her expression behind her long blue hair. For all her bluster and bravado, even she is red in the face with an awkward self-consciousness that seems out of character for her. Even she, for all her forwardness and brashness, is trembling like a bashful schoolgirl.

I hadn’t dared to dream that I could love someone, anyone, in the longest time. To date, perhaps. Maybe even a fling if I was feeling unusually adventurous, but to reciprocate feelings? To cherish and be cherished? ‘til death do us part, or even for an instant? I was promised this happiness for over a decade and had all but given up hope on ever seeing it come to fruition, but now…

Tears start to well up once again. All this time wasted fretting over my own worth, squandered. I was this close to missing it. I was this close to losing any hope of love and affection ever again. I almost died, never knowing peace or fulfillment, when what I was looking for was this close to me for so long…

"What the frick just happened?!”

Nakajima’s voice interrupts my reverie, and both myself and Tenko turn to face her, the moment passed. The disgruntled maid picks herself up off the ground, tearing off the strips of magic tape. She crumples them more than strictly necessary, cursing under her breath. I do her the service of dismissing it magic, but it doesn’t alleviate her mood.

Nakajima jabs her finger in Tenko’s face, who flinches back. “Did I just lose the Crunchy Bowl to friggin' Eurotrash while I was winning, despite having a bigger role than her until now?" she yells, stamping her foot in rage. "This is discrimination against maids!” She points even harder. “It's discrimimaidtion!”

As I’m not the immediate subject of her ire, I scratch my head in bewilderment. “I’m sorry, the… ‘Crunchy Bowl?’” I ask quietly.

Nakajima whirls about and exhales very loudly. “Gawd are you really that dense? Don’t make me say it, it’s embarrassing!” she whines. Her outstretched hands slap her own face, dragging her cheeks down with them. “And I don’t even understand why I’m doing this! Any of this! I feel like I have to add ‘no homo’ to everything I say, or I’ll go crazy!”

Possible understanding dawns. I take a tentative step towards Nakajima, who realizes that *I* realize and immediately regrets saying words. I still need confirmation, so I probe her, asking “you mean you…” okay, gently now, “like me, like that?”

She was preparing for this, but she still wasn’t ready for my query. Her face falls, and she covers it to hide her blush. “Oh, well, um, uh…” Nakajima can’t look at me, not willing to let her expression be seen while she’s tripping over her words. “Yyyyeah? I guess? Maybe?” She tries to trace shapes in the air that might look like a heart. “Y’know, it’s like… like, I heart you and stuff…” Her indignation immediately comes back, and she gets ready to rant, starting out with “man, this is so unfair! I mean, I’m happy that you’re alive, I guess? But I’m still super pissed that I lost!” And prepares to lay out why it’s unfair and such things.

“Never again,” I murmur, the beginnings of an important thought trying desperately to form in my mind. A grief seed pops from my inventory and cleanses the tarnish from my gem, leaving it pristine once more. “Never again will I permit despair to grasp my heart in its talons as it has.” This is not that thought, however. While the others give me strange looks, neurons I didn’t know I had active scream at me. Give me a sudden flash of insight. And I try to give voice to that line of reasoning before the idea is gone.

Without warning, I run over and grab both of the maddened maid’s delicate hands, the normally devil-may-care woman’s complexion going as pink as her hair. “I see now! You’re afraid, and you want an out if you can get one!” Embarrassment gives way to shock. I doubt she expected to be read so easily, but then again, I didn’t expect to get her either. I keep following the logic to see where it takes me, earnestly explaining, “you found someone who you feel like finally understands you on a level that you didn’t think possible, and these feelings are *new* and *scary* and you feel like you’re not the one in control, so now you’re afraid. Afraid of losing control and embarrassing yourself, but also afraid of losing that person, and feeling all alone again.”

Her golden eyes grow wide, and they shimmer as if an emotional landmine just exploded. I pull her closer, clasp my fingers around hers, and try to speak in a more soothing tone. “And because of that, you’re conflicted. But you’re also still trying your very best. For maybe the first time in your life, you’re trying your very hardest to connect with someone and be a good person. And you’re afraid that it’s not enough. So committing to your feelings becomes difficult, unless you can pretend you were merely joking. And now that you feel like you’re losing, you’re trying to downplay how serious it is to you. But it still hurts so deeply.” I wipe away my own tears that I’d forgotten about, giving her the warmest smile I can muster. “I’m sorry that I hadn’t seen it sooner. But Amber, I’m touched by the kindness and love you didn’t even know you had inside you. And I won’t take it for granted. I promise.”

Pulling Amber into a hug, a tight one that lifts her off her feet just the way she likes it, I turn back to Valentina and smile sheepishly. “I think I owe you both an apology,” I start. “And an explanation. *Several* explanations, really.” I cough, as Amber goes limp in my arms, making repressed sobbing noises behind my back. With a gentle clearing of my throat, I smile my brightest smile. I tell them, “but I owe you two, and certainly give you two, my heart, my adoration and my overwhelming affections as well.”

A nervous laugh. I nuzzle my head against Amber’s midsection, the contact stimulating happiness in my brain in ways I never thought possible from such a simple gesture. I take a deep breath, catching the scent of her strawberry shampoo, and do not calm down at all. “I mean, I’ll try to restrain myself, but this joy welling in my heart threatens to overflow, and I want to share it with you! Physically, emotionally, spiritually, I want to make you even happier than you’ve made me! If you’ll still have me, of course.” Another nervous laugh. Even though we’ve put our feelings out in the open, my blush threatens to outshine the gleam of my own soul gem. This giddy feeling is almost overwhelming, and if I lose my focus I’ll be swept away. “Does that make any sense? Haha, I don’t even know the words coming out of my mouth anymore other than I love you-”

“I’m sorry to interrupt-”

I spin on my heel to face Other Nakajima - now Nakajima I guess, but probably better to call her Jade - in surprise. “Have you been here the entire time?!” I ask incredulously. She has a video camera going…

“-but we need to make an emergency landing. In Mitakihara”

The good feelings quickly disappear like so much smoke as anxiety crashes down on me like an ocean of bricks. A sick feeling fills my guts. “So, uh, is it too late to jump to my death?” I float. Angry fists strike me ineffectually in the back, and Valentina and *the other maid* give me dirty looks. “Sorry, that was a bad joke.”

A loud drone of oriental drumbeats rings out from Tenko’s pocket. She looks at it briefly, then looks back at me, then back at her phone. She apparently realized something that she can’t share with the class just yet. She answers brightly, "Greetings, Spiritual Liege, this is Tenko-” I can hear what I assume is Chinese profanity all the way from over here “-and we need clearance to make an emergency landing in Mitakihara-”

“And don’t tell anyone that doesn’t need to know anything more than they need to know!” I shout after her. I *really* don't want to deal with more people from my past than necessary right now.

“-and Heather requests that as few people know about this as possible.” Yelling. “Yes, she’s awake. She’s why we need to make an emergency landing. The aircraft door was removed.” More yelling. “Yes, that was also her doing.” Even more yelling. “Excelsior! I’ll be sure to tell her.” Click.

“Tell me what?”

Valentina takes a deep breath. She eyes me with pity. “I’m afraid you will need to speak with Acting Warmaster Tomoe to explain why you detonated a missile above Japanese airspace.”

“Oh.” Of all the people who dislike me, Mami Tomoe probably ranks in the top ten. I don’t know if she ever cursed out anyone besides me, and I’m honestly afraid to find out.

But there was more. “The Great Sage of the Outback, the Spiritual Liege, and the Star-Spangled Sharpshooter - that is, the Warmaster of the Eighth,” she explains before I can ask, “will be there on video feed.”

“Oh, fuck me.” Getting chewed out by one Warmaster is bad enough. Getting chewed out by several is utterly mortifying!

Valentina chuckles lightly. “Well,” she asks, nudging me in the ribs, “do you feel sufficiently punished now?”

“I feel like Purgatory would have been gentler than this, yes,” I respond dryly. “I’m going to need some proper clothes if I don’t want to draw attention, and-”

There’s stirring from behind me. “Hey, Heather-Feather?” Amber calls out gently. I get the littlest spark of joy hearing her call my name like that, which really helps my situation right now. “Do you need that hug yet?”

I gently, gently, ever so gently set her down and try not to look too embarrassed. I fail, but it’s the effort that counts. “I think I do, yes,” I murmur, closing my eyes and letting myself be embraced by her. Her warmth, her scent, all of it gently washes over me. I can hear her quiet breathing, staggered as it is from all the excitement from before. I gently stroke her silky soft hair, nuzzling her cheek against mine. My troubles, in this instant, are the furthest thing from my mind.

I crack an eye open. Valentina and Jade give me A Look, and I know I’m going to have to figure out this Love Shape (Right Angle?) sometime soon, among other things…

…But for now, I’m going to savor this moment for as long as it lasts. We’ve earned it.