Family

Author's note: These are the NPCs attached to the player characters in the Monster of the Week campaign. I'm in a cozy mood, so have some cozy text.

Best read as it was written: while listening to a loop of Home by J Rabbit.

"Iriko will be disappointed, you know, she's been waiting all night for you to come home... But I understand," Youko says into the phone. She's taken well to this mortal communication method. It's not unlike the magic communication methods used by early human witches, but without any mana involved. "Let me know if I can help in any way. But it sounds like you've got that covered. I'll put the call out to start a search for that girl."

She sets the phone down, forgetting (as usual) to hang it up. "Iriko, honey? Your mom wants me to put you to bed, because she's not going to be home until late. And you have school tomorrow, don't you?"

"Awwww... But she said we were going to read more of our book tonight..." Iriko pouts.

Anshin lifts her head toward Iriko's voice. "You can read with me!"

"Yeah, but mom really wants to know what's happening!" Iriko protests. She crawls over to Anshin. "Tell grandma to make mom come home."

"Maybe if you brush your teeth," Anshin says. She does a remarkable job of making a scolding face despite her lack of a face, mouth aside. "You know you're not supposed to eat cookies after brushing your teeth! Maybe if you go do that, I'll tell Mom that you were so good with your teeth that she'll read extra with you tomorrow!"

Iriko scrambles out of Anshin's lap. "Okay," she says, already on her way. "But you better do it!"

Youko sits herself down beside Anshin as Iriko disappears from view. "You're such a good big sister. I bet your mom is proud of you."

Anshin's body relaxes as Youko's tender fingertips run through her dark hair, and she leans into her grandmother's touch. "Mm... She's really nice to me."

The sound of scampering overhead alerts them to Iriko, now with very clean teeth. She lowers herself down toward the other two on a rope of webbing, making little squeak sounds as she goes so that Anshin can hear her coming.

She breathes hot, minty breath over Anshin's face. "Now I have a clean mouth so I can eat you~!"

"No eating your sister," Youko says affectionately. "All right, you two. To your bedrooms. I'll tuck you in in a minute, okay?"

"Since mom's not gonna tuck me in, can I sleep with you tonight?" Iriko asks.

Anshin puts a hand to her chin. "Do I get a choice in the matter?"

"Nuh!" All six of Iriko's arms wrap around Anshin as Anshin gets to her feet. Iriko's pajama-clad legs flop down over Anshin's shoulders as she hangs on to her adoptive sister upside down. Undeterred, Anshin makes her way - somewhat more slowly than usual - toward her bedroom.

"No eating your sister?" Hanko asks, leaning against the doorframe and watching her nieces go. "Where was that rule when Okano and I were growing up?"

Youko turns toward her daughter with barely concealed mirth. "You two were quite old enough to handle yourselves. Besides, it was a punishment. And it was for the best, wasn't it?"

"There were probably better ways for me to get close to my sister than spending millennia in her gut," Hanko says. Though, to be honest, she isn't so sure... "You know, Okano's really happy that you're treating her daughters so kindly. Even though, you know... They're not... our daughters."

"They are her daughters, and they are my granddaughters," Youko says. "Foxes or not, they are a part of our family. And I will spoil them rotten. It's my right as their grandmother."

Hanko snorts, an irrepressible smile coming to her face. "She's less happy about that part, okay."

"Besides, your sister has given me plenty of fox grandchildren. More than I could ever know what to do with." Youko steps over to Hanko, kissing her forehead. "But I'm still cheering for my little girls. You'll get there one day."

"Thanks, mom," Hanko says, standing on tiptoe for her gigantic mother as she's done since she was a kit.

"Now, then, let me go tuck those girls in," Youko says. "Let me know if I need to visit that half-oni girl."

===

Over at Saraba and Haruka's mountain home, Manaka sits beside the aforementioned half-oni girl, monitoring her condition. Manaka's acid burns are soothed and bandaged with healing cream. But Haruka is still unconscious, breathing shallowly. Her injuries were more severe. Ms. Okano did everything she could, but... Haruka will not be in basketballing shape for the tournament finals. She likely won't be back at school for a week or more.

"Thanks for trying to help me and Mihoko," Manaka whispers. She reaches out tentatively, touching Haruka's cheek.

Haruka is the same age as her, but... in a certain kind of way, if things keep going with Saraba, then... Haruka will be Manaka's daughter, too... It feels so strange. But the two of them have gradually become quite close thanks to their connection through Saraba.

Haruka's eyelids are fluttering, Manaka notices. Twitching just slightly.

"You don't have to pretend to sleep, it's just me," Manaka teases.

To her surprise, Haruka actually does open her eyes. "As long as you won't tell Mom I'm awake," she mumbles.

"Oh." Manaka is so thrown off it takes her a minute to figure out what else to say. "Of course, um... I won't if you don't want me to. She'd be happy to hear you're awake, though. She's been worried about you."

Haruka nods, staring down at the pillow beneath her head.

"Is there a reason you don't want me to?" Manaka asks. "It's okay if you don't want to tell me."

"She's going to be mad," Haruka whispers. "I blew it."

Manaka's eyebrows disappear into her bangs. "... Blew what?"

"I just... I wanted to impress her... I wanted to save you, and that Pervert-chan... And I screwed up. You almost got eaten, and I blacked out... I got both of us in trouble because I'm weak."

"You're not weak," Manaka says. "You're the best basketball player I know-"

"And I'm not going to be able to play basketball, right? I'm going to miss the finals. And now Mom and the others have to go and do what I was too weak to do..." Haruka's eyes close. "I... I really screwed up. She's going to be furious when she gets back. She'll scream and... I don't think I'm ready for it."

"Your mom and the others are out rescuing Mihoko, but not because you're weak." Manaka runs a reassuring finger along one of Haruka's oni horns. "They're doing that because... well, because you did what you could, and now it's their turn."

Haruka remains silent.

"And your mom's a lot of things, but... she's not like that," Manaka says. "She wouldn't hurt anyone." Her mind goes to a number of dirty places, times that Saraba has 'hurt' her during... play time... She quickly shakes them from her mind, but her red cheeks call her out. "She'll just be happy that you're okay. And I bet she'll be proud of you. I know I'm proud of you. I know Mayumi is, too, since I texted her to tell her you're okay."

"Why?" Haruka asks, her throat tightening. Her eyes are welling up with tears. "What have I done to be proud of?"

"You saved my life. You're like this because you fought for me, and you kept me safe for a long time. Long enough that Saraba and everyone could rescue me. You slowed that evil woman down, and Mihoko might still be saved thanks to you." Manaka's fingertips brush a tear off Haruka's cheek. "Honestly, I'm not sure I could have done half of what you did. You even sacrificed your chance at the basketball finals for me. I can't tell you how grateful I am."

Yumemi peeks in the door, a tray of fresh medicated bandages in her hands. Tamaji had come running to prepare them as soon as Okano had called. She was still in the other room, making more.

She ducks back out as soon as she realizes what's going on, but Manaka calls out to her. "Hey, Yumemi. Come in," Manaka says gently. "You know Saraba, right? You've been working with her so long."

"Saraba... she's been nothing but patient with me from the start, even when I screw up," Yumemi says, setting the tray down on the table and moving to change Haruka's bandages. "And she really loves you. She told me about everything you did. And she was always so happy that you call her mom."

Haruka hiccups, and it swiftly turns into a sob. "I want to believe you, I just..."

"You don't have to believe us," Yumemi says softly, securing a fresh bandage around Haruka's leg. "You'll find out when your mom puts you right back in Okano-sama's care by breaking you in half with a hug when she gets back..."

"O... Okay..." Haruka swallows. "I hope mom and the others are okay..."

===

And for the moment, they are. The office building that Mihoko - a.k.a. Pervert-chan - is being held in is suspiciously quiet. But Kara was able to confirm - she and the Beasts are certainly in there. Okano and Saraba have taken it on themselves to check the place out and make sure there aren't any traps before the group makes their presence known.

In the meantime, Shinoe stands guard over the humans, whose bodies tire out much more easily than the yokai. Going from one fight to another has drained them, especially given the time of day, and they're taking the opportunity to nap before the next confrontation.

For Shinoe, it's a noteworthy moment. Here she sits, Manami's head in her lap. With the humans asleep and the other yokai fully engaged in scanning, she and her knife are the only thing standing between these defenseless humans and any danger that approaches. She doesn't even have a scarf wrapped around her grotesque slit-mouth. And no one has screamed, no one has fled, no one has voiced their disgust.

Instead, she's been trusted. Fully trusted. With three lives. The other yokai had been happy she was there to watch over them.

"This is your doing, isn't it?" she murmurs to Manami, careful to keep her voice down and not actually wake the human girl. She uses her non-knife hand to run her fingers along the edge of Manami's ear. "If it weren't for you... They probably would have run from me. That probably would have been for the best. Then I wouldn't have gotten tangled up in this mess."

She doesn't mean it, of course. She's beginning to feel like... maybe this odd little family could have a place for her, too. Like no family ever has. So... "This mess" is the best thing that's ever happened to her.

"The second best thing that's ever happened to me, after you," Shinoe whispers.

Manami shifts in her sleep, snuggling closer to Shinoe's stomach as it growls softly. She moans quietly.

Shinoe breathes a laugh. "You're even a pervert in your sleep."

But she should be quieter. The girls need their rest, after all. This could get messy.

===

Another yokai watches over the humans, too. This one has no physical shape save the doll clutched in Kara's arms the way Kara herself is clutched in Yuuki's.

She can't remember much. Something happened to her when she died, something bad. But she knows this is her daughter. Reunited with her girlfriend.

A voice pops into her head, a familiar one. "Aki..."

She knows the name of this person now. Kara has reminded her. "Maria."

"You answered this time."

Aki gives a mental shrug. "I'm feeling... sentimental. What do you want?"

"I want... I want to apologize. To you and Kara."

Aki remains silent, waiting for Maria continue.

"... I can't face Kara. Not like this. She's right. I've... made messes. And left them for others to clean up. I want to make this right."

"I see," Aki says. "Why are you telling me this?"

"So that... if I never see Kara again..." Maria hesitates. "You can tell her what happened to me. Promise me that you won't let me die knowing that my daughter hates me. But... until then... don't tell her, okay? I think... she's sick of me. And she should be."

"Are you going to do something?" Aki asks.

"I'm going to clean up my messes. And... Aki, tell her I love her. That I've always loved her, even if I was too cowardly to act on it. You, too." Maria closes the connection.

Aki rolls this around in her head a moment.

"Kara..."

She feels a little more connected with her daughter. With her former wife.

Her hand reaches out. And for the first time, she's able to shift Kara's hair aside. "I think she finally understood you, a little. You may be even better at reaching out to others than she and I combined. Living and otherwise."

Kara has no response, her brow furrowing slightly at the ticklish sensation of her hair moving across her forehead.

Aki rests. That was a lot of effort. And she wants to save her energy for keeping a close eye on Kara, as she has since her death.

===

Aki isn't the only parent watching her sleeping daughter and her girlfriend.

In the safe house in Antarctica, Ami rests her head against Yumi. The connection has gone silent and the picture has become almost useless, as Yuuki's hand has come to rest against Kara's back and the only sounds coming across the microphone are the even breathing of the two sleeping girls.

And yet, Yuuki's parents can't bring themselves to end the video call.

Ami reaches out, muting the microphone. "I'm happy they're together again. Aren't you?"

Yumi doesn't answer, looking away from the screen.

"Yumi?"

"I can't believe it," Yumi says. Her voice is thick. "She's out there, fighting monsters, and we're powerless... We're trapped here, thousands of kilometers away... I... When I think about what she's going through I just... I want to protect her from it all. I want her to be here, safe, with us."

"It's strange for a child to protect her parents, isn't it," Ami murmurs, squeezing her wife more tightly. "But... that just means we raised her right, didn't we? She's been blessed, and she's using those blessings to help others. Even if it means risking her own life."

Yumi's lip quivers. "All those times I laughed when she said she was a heroine... and she really is, isn't she?"

"In every sense of the word," Ami whispers. "She takes after you. You've always been my hero, you know."

Yumi laughs, tears dribbling down her face. "Are you ever not cheesy?"

Ami snuggles up to Yumi. "When you're involved? Never."

"Ugh. How much longer am I married to you?" Yumi sniffles. "I hope you say forever."

"It's forever, sweetheart," Ami says teasingly. "It's hard to watch her grow up. But if we have to watch... I'm happy this is how she turned out."

"Yeah," Yumi says, sighing. She lets her head rest against Ami's. "Me too..."