The rest of the day went without further incident, much to her relief. The calming effect of regular university lectures and classes, of the totally mundane and humdrum activities of life, had helped settle her mind down.
As was the way of these things, the horror of the morning’s events had faded and Meg had begun to question whether she had really witnessed all of that, or if it had been some strange hallucination. She wondered if maybe the more or less daily curry bread she enjoyed was affecting her in some odd ways.
When she had originally flown out to Japan in April of the previous year, her only real concerns had been whether she would get on all right living alone, if she could cook without either poisoning herself or burning the flat down, and if she would do well at university. Giant black quasi-demonic entities weren’t high on her list of things to deal with. They weren’t on the list at all.
Returning home to her flat, a one-room affair above a traditional sweets shop a little way from the town centre, she ducked inside the shop to say hi to her landlady. Again, the familiar comfort of the everyday. The wide open frontage of the shop had its usual stands with all manner of interesting confections, both contemporary and traditional, so Meg grabbed a couple of bags of her favourite lemon bonbons and wandered inside to pay.
Beside the wooden counter at the rear of the shop, an elderly lady with a face as wrinkled as a month-old prune grinned at her with a solitary tooth. “Oh, Megu-chan! Finished for the day?”
Meg dropped the two bags on the counter. “Yep, just fancied something sweet after a tough day.”
“Tough day, you say? Allow me to help a little in my own way, then.” The old lady shuffled over to the counter.
Meg’s first meeting with her landlady had been indelible. Mispronouncing a word during her introduction and saying something else entirely, she had worried her cheeks might burn the shop down around her.
She loved Japanese dearly, having grown up speaking both that and English thanks to having a parent from each country, but speaking it to a native person had been so nerve-wracking that she tripped herself up. And Japanese is one of those languages where embarrassment is only ever a single tongue slip away.
Fortunately, Kyouko-san had turned out to be that particular brand of old lady who enjoys a good laugh and has literally no shame or concept of embarrassment.
Ringing the till, her near-toothless grin reappeared. “Special discount for my favourite tenant, two-hundred yen.”
“Eh? That’s half the proper price,” Meg said, holding her hands up. “You’ll go bust if you keep this up, Kyouko-san!”
Kyouko laughed, a mildly gravelly and throaty affair which nevertheless conveyed her bountiful mirth. “Don’t you worry about that, the old codger back there,” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at a doorway behind her, “has a nice little nest egg or seven tucked away! Miserable old git never spent a single yen more than he could get away with.”
A gruff voice could be heard grumbling to itself through the open door, never loud or clear enough to make out individual words. This was probably just as well.
Leaning over to peer through the doorway, Meg waved. “Afternoon, Hachiro-san!” She grinned as an additional bout of vague muttering emanated from the dark depths.
Taking two hundred-yen coins from her zip wallet, Meg paid, thanked Kyouko for the thoughtful gesture, and headed back out front. Up the left side of the small building ran a rickety wooden staircase. At the top, a door led into her little flat directly above the shop.
Finding this place had been entirely thanks to her father’s connections; he still knew people he had been friendly with both as a child in Japan and during his career, cashing in a favour or two in order to secure his daughter a low-rent yet comfortable little place while she attended uni.
A faint mustiness filled the air in here, similar to the air in a locked room back at her home in England where her father kept all his movie memorabilia. Meg’s flat had a similar smell of old books, threadbare furniture, and – more than anything else – of comfort. She had felt at home the very first day she moved in.
The tatami mat flooring took a little longer to get used to. They had soft and comfy carpets at home so these green rice straw mats were an enjoyable novelty. Directly to the right as she entered, a kitchenette occupied the front of the room, overlooking the narrow road outside and the park directly opposite the building on the other side of the street.
To the left, at the rear of the room, a steep ladder led up to a small landing with a railing and her futon. And below this, a door in the left half of the wall leading into a compact bathroom directly under the sleeping area.
She moved across to the kitchenette and stared at the cooker. Then at the sink. A variety of pots and pans plus several plates and a number of pieces of cutlery lounged there, awaiting her attention. She turned to the centre of the room where her sofa and TV stood. T-shirts, random pairs of pants, and various jeans and trousers lay strewn across her sofa.
Lacking the energy required to clean, she decided something simple to eat would be a good idea until she could find the enthusiasm to wash up, so she opened one of the cupboards, muttering as she did so.
“Guess I’ll just do some noodles for now…”
She pulled a plastic pot of instant curry noodles out and placed it on the worktop. Waiting for the kettle to come to the boil, she tugged her hair down and wandered across to the rear of the room. Here, she rummaged in one of two built-in cupboards in the wall to the left of the bathroom, pulling out a ripped and supremely comfy pair of jeans and a loose white T-shirt.
A quick change out of her neater uni clothes – a blouse and considerably tidier pair of jeans – was followed by bounding back to the kitchen in time for the kettle to boil, tossing the worn clothes onto the sofa with the rest of the items she still needed to sort through and wash on her way past.
Pouring the water into the flimsy plastic container, she stared vaguely into space, mulling over the morning’s events and aimlessly stirring the noodles with a chopstick. Her life had been threatened that very morning, she had witnessed a cute girl of roughly her own age beating a monster to a pulp with some sort of manipulated gravity attack, and here she was, waiting for noodles.
Meg considered the ability of the human brain to gloss over terrifying events to be both a miracle and an enigma of truly epic proportions. Noodles were safe. Noodles were boring, unexciting, normal. Noodles didn’t try to kill her, and didn’t stink the place up as though someone had dropped a box of rotten eggs.
She stirred a few more times and settled down on her ancient sofa, shifting some underwear items to one side. Switching the TV on for some background while she ate, she half expected to see news reports of the incident that morning. The old CRT television clinked and crackled to life.
Nothing about that morning, just a documentary on an intense storm that had swept across the city close to three years ago. Meg had heard of it several times since arriving, people still mentioned it even now. It must have been pretty incredible to have made that much of an impression in a country historically battered by hurricanes on a regular basis.
Finishing her noodles, she rested up for half an hour to let her meal settle, then headed out to the gym for one of her three-times-weekly sessions. These were always enjoyed with the best friend she had acquired shortly after arriving in Japan, a bouncy and fun girl called Yasuko.
Her family name was Hikami, literally meaning ‘on ice’, a particularly apposite name in Meg’s considered opinion. Yasuko – or Yacchan as she was nicknamed by her close friends – tended towards being cool and collected, an older sister kind of girl. Albeit one with a penchant for cute girls.
A ten minute jog later Meg arrived at the gym, a squat building with glass frontage tucked away in its own little cul-de-sac, and surrounded by cherry blossom trees. Dressed in her favourite comfy red tracksuit, Meg entered and scanned the floor for her friend, spotting her hard at work on a treadmill towards the back.
She made her way across. “Evening, Yacchan!”
The black-haired girl hard at work on the treadmill beamed. “Hey! Up you come, I need a pace partner!” Droplets of sweat ran down her terra-cotta features, dripping from her chin as she pushed herself harder and harder.
Meg jumped up onto the next machine over and beginning a steady warmup pace. “Been here long?”
Yasuko glanced at the clock on a nearby wall. “No… only about an hour…”
Meg had long ago given up being surprised by Yasuko’s perception of time; she could get so lost in the moment that she entered a sort of trance, entirely unaware of time passing. A few minutes ticked past, with the only sound punctuating the atmosphere coming from the whine of two treadmills and some awfully cute J-pop song playing over the speakers.
“Forgetting to wipe your sweat again?” Meg added, noting that her friend was presently dripping everywhere.
“Oh… right, I should do that,” Yasuko muttered, making no move to do so.
Meg ran silently for a short time, wanting nothing more than to talk about that morning. But while she had known Yasuko for a good eight months, a period during which they had spent probably five out of every seven evenings together, she wasn’t entirely certain how well it might go down if she started talking about demons and magic, even with a girl as easy-going as this.
Blissfully unaware of her friend’s internal struggles, Yasuko bumped the speed up a little further, her midnight hair drenched in sweat despite the cool weather outside. Meg wasn’t sure what caused it, but her best friend’s hair had an unusual purple tint to it in certain lighting conditions, especially when wet. It reminded her a little of the girl who saved her that morning.
It couldn’t have been Yasuko. Meg was certain. Almost certain. Quite apart from the height difference, Yasuko had a sizeable pair of breasts the girl that morning couldn’t feasibly have hidden. And their faces were different. Build, too.
Not to mention their skin tones didn’t match up; Yasuko had a sandier complexion, hailing from Japan’s southern islands where the temperatures were rather more tropical. Yeah, no way it could have been her. No way. Definitely.
Meg was doing a great job of convincing herself that her best friend wasn’t really a superhero or magical girl. Unfortunately, this meant she was doing a less stellar job of staying on the treadmill. She slipped, the rubber beneath her feet neatly deposited her on the floor at the end of the machine, her backside making friends with the ground for the second time in one day.
She sat up, rubbing her bruised behind. “Ow-ow-ow…”
“Careful, Meg,” Yasuko said, jumping down to assist. Unlike most of Meg’s friends in Japan, Yasuko had spent time overseas, picking up a decent understanding of English in the process, allowing for a more natural pronunciation of her friend’s name. She extended a hand. “You okay?”
Meg grasped the offered appendage. “Yeah, I’m fine! Sorry, wasn’t concentrating.”
“You seem a bit out of it. What’s up?”
“Just… something weird happened this morning. I’ll tell you about it another time, think it’s probably best if I head home for now.”
“Sure? I’m happy to come along and keep you company.”
Meg laughed. Yes, she was well aware Yasuko would like to keep her company, in every sense possible. The word ‘rampant’ had been invented for this girl. “No, it’s okay, I think I’ll just turn in early. Everything looks better after a good night’s sleep.”
“Well, if you’re sure. I’m coming round tomorrow after you finish uni for the day, remember.”
“Yep, I haven’t forgotten, don’t worry!” Meg wished her friend a good evening and exited.
Heading in the general direction of home, taking a roundabout route along the imaginatively named National Highway No. 128 with the sea occasionally visible between the buildings to her left, she mulled over the morning’s events some more.
Really, there wasn’t much to mull beyond the obvious; nasty scary monster, cute magical girl, life-threatening danger. That pretty much covered it. She muttered as she walked, an old habit picked up from her mother, taking a left turn towards the ocean and making her way along a narrow road running along Kamogawa beach.
Here, she stopped, staring out to sea. A bright glow on the horizon was all she could make out at this time of the evening, but that was enough. Starlight City, a floating technological marvel, had been under construction for many years and now neared completion.
Several sections of the city were already alive with residents made up of scientists and their families, and the construction efforts had resulted in an economic boom for Kamogawa itself as the closest and most convenient shore-side city to the new build. A circular foundation many miles across held skyscrapers, roads, shops, schools, and all the other amenities of life required by a large city.
More than a dozen countries had contributed to the building of this wondrous place, pooling resources and scientific knowledge into a single unified idea: an artificial city made for the express purpose of researching and testing large-scale self-sufficiency as a first step towards colonising other worlds.
Deep below the city itself, delving miles down into the darkness of the Pacific, research facilities, liquid-fuel nuclear reactors, and manufacturing plants supplied power and resources to the surface city, making for a near-totally self-sufficient ecosystem.
Meg heaved a sigh. “One day I’ll move there. One day!”
Even her own mother, one Cordelia Momozono, a renowned marine biologist and staunch supporter of nanotechnology, would soon be moving to Starlight City, leaving behind her current position, lecturing at Kamogawa’s Touyou University in order to research deep sea life and potential new applications for various current and future technologies.
Resuming her undirected wander, Meg finally made her way back home to the sweet store, putting thoughts of her own future to one side for now. As she arrived, her nose wrinkled at a sweet and sickly scent wafting over from the park opposite her flat.
Taiyaki? It certainly smelled like it. She enjoyed these sweet fish-shaped batter cakes, but also had to limit herself heavily; three or four could easily disappear down the pie hole if she wasn’t careful.
Seated on a bench in the centre of the dusty concrete expanse of the park, a girl with familiar russet skin and a stunning length of lion brown hair was indeed eating taiyaki. Studying art at university, Meg was particular about classifying her colours properly, and this girl’s hair was a definite lion brown, closer to beige than yellow.
She sauntered over. Approaching the bench from behind, she became aware of a voice. Quiet, relatively low-pitched for Japan, posh, and coming from… where? She couldn’t find a visible source for it anywhere; the only other person around was the brown-haired girl. Creeping closer, she took a stealthy peek over the girl’s shoulder, inhaling sharply.
This alerted the girl to Meg’s presence. “Who’s there!?” She jumped to her feet and rounded on Meg in a defensive posture.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you!” Meg said, waving her hands back and forth. She stopped panicking for long enough to look at the girl’s face. A face she had seen that very morning. She pointed a vaguely accusatory finger. “It’s you!”
“I saw you this morning! You were the girl who helped me, right? Though you had purple hair then…”
“W-What are you talking about? I was at… at church this morning, that’s right!”
“No, I’m sure it was you.” Meg walked around the girl. For a moment she had completely forgotten the other surprise, sitting silently on the bench and watching her with interest.
“You must have me confused with someone else,” the girl said with a tremolo-laden laugh. She ducked down to the bench and swiped something – stuffing whatever it was down the front of her heavy fleece-lined jacket, eliciting a mildly disapproving complaint in the same posh voice Meg had previously heard – and vacated the park as quickly as her legs could carry her.
“I just wanted to thank you!” Meg called after the rapidly diminishing silhouette. She shrugged and made her way across the street to her flat, up the stairs, and inside where she collapsed on the sofa and closed her eyes. “I’m sure that was her! The face, hair, build, everything was a perfect match. Well, except the hair colour…”
Growing up watching Japanese cartoons, known more commonly as anime, Meg had seen any number of enjoyable magical girl shows. And one of the things she quickly learned was that when the girls transform, their hair colour – and even style – often changed, sometimes drastically so.
And given what had happened with that monster, it was no stretch to believe that the one who saved her was in fact some sort of magical girl…
A gentle snore indicated that Meg had fallen asleep, thoroughly tired out after an exhausting and, indeed, terrifying day. She slept for a time, awoke with a start, and struggled out of her clothes.
Clambering up the ladder to her sleeping space, she pulled the duvet up and over herself, closed her eyes, and was asleep more or less the moment her head hit the pillow.