Ikko pinched the bridge of his nose, letting a long sigh slip from his lips before he could stop it.

Mizore looked up from her manga, reclining against the headboard of his bed. "You good?"

"Yeah, I'm just... tired, I think." He shook himself. A tension coiled in his head that he couldn't dislodge, even after coffee and an after-school nap. "Been augmenting Kaiyo's guise all day. I'm still getting used to the drain of that particular spell."

"You two have been glued to the hip." She murmured. "How's she coping?"

"Fine. Just fine. Only..."

"Hm?"

He scrunched his eyes, driving his thumb into his forehead. He forced himself to say, "Healing's a slow process. She's working through a lot of trauma, and that has its bad moments."

"You're not her therapist, Ikko."

"I know, I know. I'm her friend. It's just-when things get bad and I'm there, what am I supposed to do? Let her struggle?"

She closed her book, swinging her legs off the mattress and adjusting her seat so she could find his eyes. "You help. You always help, and I'm glad that you're there. But you've gotta recognise the cost of supporting her, else you're gonna run yourself into the ground. Then, when she really needs you..."

Ikko nodded. "Yeah..."

"What can I do?"

"I dunno. It's Sunday tomorrow. Maybe I just... stop for a day." Sunday already. A whole week had flown by, and he'd barely stopped to play games. When was the last time he'd taken time for himself? "Oh, but I promised Kia we'd brainstorm some proposals for the cultural festival..."

"That can wait." Mizore insisted, "Tell her you need a break. She'll understand."

The knot in his mind still wouldn't budge. Irritated, he dug his thumb more forcefully into his forehead, squeezing his eyes closed so tight that shapes appeared on the back of his eyelids. "Mm..."

Cold swathed him. Mizore's arms wrapped over his hunched back and sore neck. She kissed the back of his head. "Come here."

"I'm okay."

"Sure—come here."

She urged him to lay on the bed, closed the curtains and turned the light off, then took to his side and wrapped herself gently around him, running her hand through his hair. Ikko curled up.

"I know that look." She whispered, softly. "You're not gonna get anywhere forcing yourself to do more. You need rest, Ikko."

"There's so much to do," he mumbled into her chest.

"No-one's expecting you to do it all on your own. The world's not gonna end just because you don't bring some ideas to the cultural festival vote, is it?"

"No, but—"

She shushed him, squeezing gently. "Rest. Everything will be here when you wake up."

"Including you?"
"I said everything, didn't I?"

Ikko faltered. "You did..."

"I'll be here, Ikko. I promise."

Finally, the knot began to unwind. One more soothing kiss was all he could recall before sleep dragged him to its inky depths.


Knock knock knock-knock.

Kaiyo looked up from her textbook, staring at the door. Had she heard right? Was someone knocking on her door? No, surely not. She went back to studying.

Knock knock. Two more sharp raps on the hardwood were followed by a familiar, muffled voice. "Honoka, it's Kia."

She threw her book closed and scrambled to collect her mask from the coat hook, hastily affixing it and fluffing her hair to hide the worst of the leaking magic on the collar and shoulders exposed by her nightie. After a moment spent gathering herself, she peeled the door open by a half-inch. "Tayama?"

"You okay in there?" she squeaked.

"Yeah, sorry. I just-I didn't think you'd come knocking."

"Sorry, I know it's pretty late. Do you have a minute?"

She wrestled with having the conversation at the door, but after a few seconds' thought and Kia's assurance that she wouldn't be long, Kaiyo relented. Pulling the door open, she saw that Kia had arrived in pyjamas. Had something woken her up? "What's up?"

Kia moved to come into her room, taking the open door as an invitation. When Kaiyo didn't budge she stopped, fidgeted, and tried to pass the motion off as coming to lean on the doorframe. "It's Ikko," she began, huffing.

"What about him?"

"We're-" Kia stopped. "It's just-" She stopped again. Each time she took a sharp inhale of breath, like she was sucking the words back in, catching them before they could escape.

"What?" Kaiyo pressed, louder than perhaps she'd intended to say it.

Certainly louder than Kia expected, if her raised eyebrows were any indication. "You didn't notice, did you? Oh, man..." She pinched the bridge of her nose. "You've gotta lay off tapping him for guise help. He's exhausted."

Indignation flared in her chest. She tried to stifle it, but grasping it was like handling a white-hot steel ball, causing her to flinch instead. "And I'm not?"

"Excuse me?"

"You have no idea what it's like maintaining this," Kaiyo snapped, gesturing to her entire body. "Even here, even now. You think I'm not tired?"

"That's not the point I'm trying to make. Ikko's-"

"He's helping me whilst I figure this out. It's not forever, and I don't want it to be forever. You think I like gluing myself to him every time someone looks at me funny?"

She stopped caring that haze began to leak from the gouges in her arm. Kia didn't back down, her eyes cold. She thought she saw something lurking behind them, dark and patient. "We're worried," Kia urged, pursing her lips and lowering her volume. "It's been a whole week, and he's just texted me calling off our entire weekend. He's never done that before."

"You're saying that's my fault?"

"Wh—no!"

"You're saying he wouldn't be like this if I hadn't needed him, though. That's basically the same thing."

"Honoka, listen..."

"No." Kaiyo shook her head. "Unbelievable. First you drag me for something I didn't ask for, now you're kicking off because Ikko's helping me out? If you're jealous, just say so."

Kia's eyes cracked. The baby blues of her guise shattered, revealing black sclera and terrible, murky blue irises. She scrunched them shut and, when she next opened them, they were back to normal. "I'm not jealous. And I'm not saying you don't need help, either. I just-"

"I'm working on it." Kaiyo snapped, grabbing the door. "And you're not helping."

She didn't wait to listen for Kia's answer. The slammed door was full stop enough.


A cold sweat coiled around Ikko when he woke, coupled with a dreadful, nagging ache all over his body. He tried to lift his arms, but no luck. Lead replaced his bones. To top it all off, his mouth was dry, his throat sore.

He tried moving his neck. At least that worked. He couldn't make out anything in the dark-his muscle memory might have helped him find his phone on the bedside table, but in his current state that was no good. "Muh..." he croaked. "Mizore?"

No answer. Even with her natural chill, he could normally feel her presence on the bed. She wasn't there. Wasn't in the room, either, as he tried listening for her. Where had she gone?

Ikko blinked a few times. How long had he been out? Was it possible to go to sleep up and wake up feeling this bad? Maybe he was still dreaming.

The door opened, letting in the light of the dormitory corridor. He saw the light of a phone screen before he heard the footsteps. He called out again. "Mizore?"

"Ikko..."

"S'at you?"

"It's me." She sounded tired. "I'm going to turn the light on. Okay?"

"Yea-ack!" A grenade of light restored enough of his strength for him to cover his eyes. "What time is it?"

"It is..." she sighed, "Two in the morning."

"Two in the... why're you awake?"

"This first."

Unsure of what 'this' was, Ikko forced himself to sit up and, blinking rapidly, tried to see where she was. Mizore had his desk chair pulled up to his bedside, and held out a glass of water. He took it in both hands, the first gulp equal parts delicious and agonizing in how it scoured his throat. He gulped it all down, gasping for air at the end as if surfacing from the deep. "Thanks."

Mizore folded her arms. "I'm up because you talk in your sleep."

"I do?"

"Not just talk. You were... you were struggling."

"Struggling?"

She looked away. "Who have you spoken to about Kotsubo?"

Realization slapped him. Hard. "Um... You? Not exactly anyone else I can talk to, all things considered..." He adjusted, finally, to his room's stark lighting, and rubbed his eyes to clear them.

He saw Mizore first. Never mind sounding tired-exhaustion swathed her like an iron blanket, sagging her shoulders, pulling her eyes down to the floor. Guilt's riptide pulled him into reaching out to her, hoping to take her hand. "That bad?" he asked.

She nodded not pulling away from his touch. "Yeah."

"Did I hurt you?"

She shook her head. "You've been training, but I'm a little bit tougher than the wet paper bag you can fight out of." The teasing got a quiet snicker from them both. "No, it was... shocking, is all. You seriously can't remember it?"

Ikko swung out of bed, sitting up properly. "I remember the nightmares, more or less. Honestly, they've never really stopped. Kinda figured I'd be living with those."

"What are they about?"

Even thinking about them glutted his throat. Ikko scrunched his face, trying to force the words out. "They're... It's just of the attack. You don't forget being crushed by a kraken. Some nights it's not too bad."

"It's not all the time." Mizore confirmed. "Sometimes you'll just mumble, y'know? Or you'll fidget a little. Tonight, though... did something happen?"

Ikko tried to think. Reaching through his stricken sleep was like peering through fog. "I'm exhausted." He suggested, "Like... really exhausted. This whole week's taken it out of me. I've been on edge watching out for Kaiyo, and I've been helping her with her guise, and I've been training, and-"

"School."

"Yep."

"It really shouldn't be that low on your priorities."

"Tell that to the headmaster." Ikko pulled at his face. "Sometimes I think he's trying to get me to flunk, with all this stuff he's piling on."

"I'll mention it."

"Anyway, I think it's just that." He said. "Worn down. I'm not in a good place to look after myself, let alone keep my subconscious in check. If it wants to poor salt into the wounds, I can't stop it."

Mizore moved, pulling her hand out from his to stroke his hair.

He leaned into the touch, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry, Mizore. Didn't mean to freak you out."

"Not your fault," she sighed, "And you're right. There isn't really someone you can talk to at Yokai."

Ikko frowned. At Yokai... "Y'think Tsukune could help?"

The suggestion caught her off-guard, but she made a thoughtful face out of her surprise. "Maybe?"

"It's been a bit since he was a human, sure, but he went through this too." Ikko explained, rubbing his eyes again. "I'll call him tomorrow."

"You wanna try sleep again?"

"Are you tired?"

Leaning back in her seat, Mizore crossed her arms. "I'm still a bit wired from the wake-up, so... no. Not really."

"Sorry. Again."

"Don't be. We've all got our scars." At this, Mizore ran a thumb over her lips. "If anything, I should be apologising to you. Nothing like this should have happened."

"If you want to complain to the guy who set this all up, get in line." Ikko grunted. He pushed down on his knees, standing into a stretch. "Well, I'm gonna need a coffee."

"Make that two."

"Sure."


A ringtone Ruby only expected to hear late at night, not first thing in the morning, roused her from sleep. She hopped out of bed and, feet stinging on the cold wooden floor, hurried across to her desk. She had tones for each of her friends, and the cliché wolf howling was Gin's. She checked the time before swiping to answer: four AM.

"Bad news." Gin growled before she could get a word in.

"What?"

"There's been a murder."

Ruby stiffened. "Where?"

"Daisen, out in the sticks. Just got done at the morgue."

"Human?"

"No, one of ours. Fucking miracle he wasn't found by the human authorities. MIO called me in."

"That doesn't make any sense. Why would—" The reason rang alarm bells, cutting her short. "Fairy Tale?"

"Got it in one. MIO has Kiria positively identified in Daisen over the past two days, visiting a private hospital a few miles' drive from the town."

"They didn't apprehend him?"

"Couldn't. Every time they got close, he vanished. Didn't leave, though. Showed up a few hours later."

"He does love a show." Ruby sighed. "Why are you telling me all this? If the MIO's on it I'll hear from Harue."

Gin sighed. "Our victim, Ruby, is one Masumi Yakumaru."

Her heart dropped through the floor. "No..."

"His student ID was, uh... he still had it with him," Gin trailed off, "The state he was in, Ruby. It was like he'd been harvested."

"Does the headmaster know?"

"He's the next person I'm calling. He might've been expelled, but he's still got ties to Yokai. Not to mention his ties to Ikko."

"What was Masumi doing in Daisen?"

"His family lives out here, if his social media's anything to go by. Full of sad photos and vague posts about his expulsion."

"You think he got in with Fairy Tale?"

"I know they're messed up, but they tend to keep the savagery for their targets." Gin rebuked. "If Masumi was ever joining Fairy Tale, it was a ruse to get... something."

"Do the family know?"

"His father's the coroner."

"Oh, gods..."

"Yeah. Lucky for us, less so for..."

Ruby started pacing, thinking through the details she'd been handed. The murder of an expelled Yokai student, one with ties to both an ex-Fairy Tale member and Ikko, out in the middle of nowhere, but somehow close to a private hospital Kiria frequented. "Hang on... you said harvested. What did you mean by that?"

Gin took a breath. "Alraunes have nodes all over their body that create the venom they use. They were... it's like they were extracted from him. Surgically."

"What does Kiria want with alraune venom? And why not just radicalize Masumi and extract it without hurting him?"

"Maybe he needed a whole bunch of it real quick." Gin suggested.

"And to make such a spectacle of it..."

"That part I'm willing to chalk up to old-fashioned barbarism."

Ruby replied, "Nothing about this suggests barbarism. He's cruel, undoubtedly, but not stupid. He gets something from this."

"Well, whatever that is, it's not freedom of movement." Gin grumbed. "MIO's crawling all over the place and we'll have the Headmaster's attention on it, too. If he wanted to do something in secret, that opportunity is long gone."

She chewed her lip. "I don't like it."

"Me neither, but I'll keep sniffing. Let you know what I find, okay?"

"What details are going on UM?"

"None for the moment. Ishigaki's keeping this all very hush-hush."

"Good. Last thing we want is to get Ikko interested. He's got enough on his plate."

"You're not gonna tell him?"

"Not right now, no. Get some more facts first."

"Is it weird that I like it when you're giving the orders?"

Ruby breathed a laugh. "Be careful, Ginei. And give me ten minutes before you call him."

"Yes, ma'am." He hung up.

Ruby set her phone down, wiping her eyes and making for her wardrobe. As soon as she did, her phone buzzed again confirming that Harue would, indeed, let her know. She ignored it for the moment and prepared as quickly as she could, wanting to be there when the headmaster received the news.