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The Red Bridal (IC)


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Fall 2021 

Neko and Danica's room 

 

"Falling in love at first sight is less common in Japan than in the West; party because of the - peculiar constitution of Eastern society, and partly because much sorrow is prevented by early marriages which parents arrange. Love suicides, on the other hand, are not infrequent; but they have the particularity of being nearly always double. Moreover, they must be considered, in the majority of instances, the results of improper relationships." Having been speaking in a low whisper as she read the Hearn book, Neko closed the book with a sigh and set it on her desk, the largest piece of furniture on her side of the room. With much more care in picking out her words, she said, "Enough for today."

 

Turning in her seat, she said to Danica, "Can you want to buy some food?" 

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"That book is creepy," Danica complained, rolling out of the beanbag nest she'd assembled under her loft bed and climbing to her feet. "If you love somebody, run away and find a way to be with them! And don't let anybody pick who you're going to marry!" She stretched, her movements fluid but slow as always. "I was thinking about just going to the caf, but we can maybe get something else if you want. There's a pretty good pizza place around here that delivers, and a Thai place that has good curry. If we're gonna go out-out, we probably have to wear disguises." 

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Neko responded to that by swiveling her ears around and folding them down onto her head, then running her fingers over them as the white color faded from her hair and eyebrows. In a moment, she looked like any petite Asian girl of her age, though there was still something distinct about how she cocked her head and smiled with a squint. "That is easy." She considered a moment. "I have a pizza with - pepperoni? It was very, um, thick, and greasy. But I have never had Thai food. Is it - is it like noodles, tied together?" she asked.

 

Her eyebrows moved together, and she suddenly looked worried - "Will there be trouble if we go out? I don't want trouble with the headmistress." No one had said a word about corporal punishment at Claremont, but she was sure a school with such powerful students must have fearsome ways indeed to keep them in line. 

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"Nah, I'm an upperclassman this year," Danica explained, looking extremely proud of this fact. "I don't have to be in until ten on school nights, and if you're with me you'll be fine. They just don't want us out and getting into trouble. Patrolling is different, there's all sorts of different rules for that, but you don't have to worry about any of that yet." Danica concentrated and suddenly the shell on her back was shrinking, forming itself into a large black and gold backpack that looked almost too big for her short frame. "Let's do Thai," she decided. "It's got some noodles, but it's also got rice and vegetables, and amazing sauces with spices and coconut milk and good things. You'll like it," she promised. "And I'll buy this time, my folks paid me to work at the zoo this summer so I'm good for awhile."

 

Climbing onto her scooter, she touched the controls that covered some of its more fantastic accessories with plain white panels and hung a blue handicap placard on the front. It seemed much plainer that way, and Danica had explained that the blue card let her take the scooter to places it would otherwise not be allowed. "You ready?" 

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"Okay, Thai." said Neko with a nod, feeling pleased that the school had assigned her someone with so much power. There were real advantages to having someone with so much experience as her guide to Claremont! She headed off, hands in the front pocket of her hoodie, sneakers making her almost silent as she padded after Danica outside. Danica's machine was one of her favorite machines around the school, though not quite so interesting as Ryder's bugs. It was a little frustrating to have to walk slowly with Danica around campus sometimes, but the ride made everything easier. She thought about inviting Owain as they passed his floor, but then remembered he was going to teach James how to fight with swords that afternoon. "Are there many Thai people in America?" she asked curiously. "There are - not many people there" 

 

 

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"Well, no, we're not just going to leave him outside. There's plenty of space in the dorm room. Advantage of a super single, and all that!" There were lots of odd sights at Claremont but the British teen heading towards the door at a quick clip was unusual even by Claremont standards. An oversized black bird was perched on top of her curls, talons digging into her braid to try and keep purchase and occasionally squawking with outrage and a flap of big black wings to keep balance. Dark blue tattoos covered much of Tori's exposed skin and around her neck was a handsewn pouch whose contents were occasionally wiggling and moving about. Keen eyes might spot the small snout of some young creature occasionally poking over the edge before quickly burrowing back down to avoid the chaos. In her hands, a tan and black snake curled limply around her hands. "He's a ball python; probably someone's pet. They're not native and it's way too cold. I know all snakes look alike to you, Achilles, but we didn't leave you out in the wild when you cracked that keel bone, did we?" 

 

Tori was so invested with arguing that she almost ran right into Neko and Danica. She caught sight of them out of the corner in her eye just in time to stop short. "Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going."

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"I like stories like that," Neko was telling Danica. "They are - romantic, and are very bloody!" She smiled at that, though the look on Danica's face suggested she had perhaps picked the wrong word. Come to think of it, the Red Bridal did end with the doomed young lovers meeting their end by an oncoming train. Maybe it wasn't really the right story to read around Danica, who was of a rather sensitive disposition in Neko's opinion. When they almost ran into Tori, she hesitated a moment, then momentarily fixed her gaze on the girl's bird. She didn't make a hostile move, but automatically a low chattering came from inside her mouth, and the pupils of her eyes grew bigger and bigger until her topaz irises seemed to vanish entirely. 

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"See, the romantic part is great, it's the bloody part I'm having a hard time buying into- oh!" Neko's sudden stop had her braking hard, the compensators in the scooter itself enough to make up for her own slow reflexes and avert an accident. "Sorry about that!" she said, almost over the stranger's own apology. "Guess there's just a lot of traffic today!"

 

She smiled at the new person. "Hey, I'm Danica and this is Neko! I love your bird! Is he a familiar, or is he just your friend?" Danica had seen some of both with animals on campus over the years, and the bird had a canny look in their eye. "Oh!" she said again, getting a better look. "You have lots of friends! Look at that cutie," she cooed, smiling down at the snake. "Poor sleepy thing." 

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"Hullo!" Tori offered, returning Danica's smile with a warm one of her own. She lifted the ball python up slightly. It was young still but old enough that it was probably getting too big for a tiny pen and had started to reach the level of 'more work' than some errant pet owner had been willing to put in. "He says his name is 'Fang' but he doesn't like it very much. I told him we could come up with a new name. He got left out in the park today and it's just too cold, poor little guy. I said we could get him warmed up and find him a new place to live. I'm Tori, by the way. My crow friend is Achilles, although he's a friend, not a familiar. I don't have one of those - just friends that need a bit of help."

 

Tori took in Neko's reaction and offered a small smile of understanding as the crow sidled back and forth on top of Tori's curls, digging in talons to try and keep purchase even as it reacted with some alarm to the clear predator. Achilles either felt very comfortable with Tori's protection, or he hadn't yet recovered enough to fly. When he began to flap his wings, Tori reached up one hand soothingly. "Don't bolt, Achilles, it's not polite to trigger someone's hunting instincts if you can help it. If I launch him to fly to my room, is that going to bother you, miss?"

 

There was nothing but sympathy in Tori's tone, and some familiarity with having to play peacemaker between prey and predator species. As she talked, a sleepy head poked up from that pouch; an orphaned opossum by the looks of it. Followed by three more little heads of its siblings to see what all the fuss is about. "And these are the babies," Tori added as the opossums peered over the edge of the bag. She lowered her voice a little, deferential and sad, like she was telling the other two girls about a human's loss rather than an animal death and certainly like the opossums could both hear and understand her words. "Their mother passed away a few days ago. Car accident."

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Neko took a few moments to calm herself, taking deep breaths, and let herself be soothed by Danica and Tori's gentle voices. "Okay," she told Tori. "He can fly." She made a little wave up towards where they had come from. "We are going to eat Thai," she added after Danica had finished speaking. She started to point off in the direction Danica had suggested, then realized abruptly she wasn't actually sure where they were going once they left campus. She looked at Tori, noting the girl's bond with animals, and tried Do you speak the language of cats? To Danica's ears, it sounded distinctly as if Neko had simply started meowing at the girl. (This was usually how Neko sleep-talked.)

 

At some point during the conversation, Neko had acquired a cat that she now held in the crook of one arm, a short-haired Japanese Bobtail whose brown and white coloration matched the odd color of Neko's hair, its eyes the same color of yellow as it watched the two girls. 

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Danica cooed over each of the animals as they were introduced, but her interest was definitely with the snake. "Can I hold him?" she asked eagerly. "He's so cute, it's so mean if somebody dumped him on purpose! My parents are reptile specialists at the Freedom City Zoo, I'm sure they'd be able to help find a good home for him, if you want. Are you going to do rehab out of your dorm room? That's really neat, do you need an incubator? We have one at my house that we don't really use, it's from when I was little and used to hibernate if I got cold at night. Do you have any other pets? Have you been doing this for a long time?" Her torrent of words cut off when she noticed Neko. "Um, you're not going to try and eat that bird, are you?" 

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Tori grinned at Neko, "Yep. I understand you just fine. And you'd be able to understand me even if you only spoke 'cat', though I think it'll just sound like English if you don't? Or maybe your native language? I'm not sure how the magic interfaces with people who speak human and animal, honestly. I can tell you that the animals and plants all understand whatever I'm saying, to the best of their ability to understand, I mean. They get the intent." Tori didn't stop speaking English but under the language, now that it was pointed out, Neko could make out the echoes of the language felines communicated in adding clarity to Tori's words. Along with it came the strong sense that Tori was safe; someone who would have warm places to sleep and likely to leave out tasty food for a hungry stray. It wasn't an intentional magic, just the pulsing of druidic power that signaled that Tori was a safe harbor in a human dominated world.

 

"Of course. He's still cold but my magic's protecting him from the worst of it at the moment," Tori was perfectly happy to hand over the ball python to Danica, murmuring softly as she transferred the balled up reptile into Danica's waiting hands. It was clearly a baby still, not even a foot in length from nose to tail. It freed up her hands to reach up and coax Achilles from her hair and onto her arm to prepare for a launch. "I'm in a super-single this year cuz, uh, they weren't too keen on my taking over the closet to do rehab, but it's been decided with my power set and all that it's not like I'm keeping pets, so much as part and parcel with what I am. I have stuff to set up a temporary shelter but I got to do some internship stuff with wildlife rehabilitation over the summer so I have a couple of contacts because, I think, there's some concern I'll just take up any space provided. There's always more animals that need help, you know?"

 

Tori shifted the bird to her arm and warned Neko, "He's still in rehab so he's going to flap a little lopsided when he launches," because wounded animals tended to trigger that hunt instinct worse in predators and Tori was hoping that the warning would help. She kept one eye on Neko as she threw her hand up in the air to launch the injured crow and only relaxed once a few flaps of those black wings took Achilles into the air and towards her always open dorm window. Only then did she give Danica back her full attention with a smile. "I've always felt pretty strongly about ecology stuff. Drove my mum nuts that I kept bringing home strays but it kicked into high gear when I inherited the power. It's plants too. I can hear 'em all. I think that took a bit to understand as Lady Celtic's powers didn't work quite like that and my Mum gave Ms. Summers a real earful about my habits of finding tatty strays to take in but they get that I hear cries for help from not just humans now and I can't just ignore it. D'you wanna see if your folks wanna take him in, Danica? S'fine with me. I try to find good rehabs and homes when they're stable past what only I can do. Ms Summers DID point out that part of being a hero is trying to maximize the stuff that only you can do. I'm working on that part. It's hard not to help."

 

 

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Neko considered asking if Danica would eat a giant strawberry or huge lettuce leaf if it was plopped down in front of her, but then remembered Danica's face on "garden vegetable day" in the cafeteria and decided that was a silly question. "No," she said, a little nettled. "I would not eat her animal." But then, great day in the morning, all annoyance was resolved when she realized that Tori was still speaking and that she could understand her. Neko's eyes popped open wide and a huge smile crossed her face, the sort of genuine joy that Danica didn't see that much from her roommate. (Neko was one of those people who smiled when she was nervous, which meant Danica had seen plenty of smiles from her.) "Danica, she - understands me!" she exclaimed. "That is very wonderful!" She hesitated a moment, then realized that if Tori's powers let her speak English and the tongue of cats at the same time, then Danica must have understood her too. Well there was no use dwelling on that now. 

 

The cat girl was by now so distracted that her disguise had begun to lapse; it was a fortunate thing they were still on campus. But she wasn't bothered as her ears seemed to unfurl atop her head like rolled up paper and her tail seeming to wriggle its way below the line of her blouse and out above her bright floral dress. She wasn't so distracted, however, that she missed the name Tori invoked while speaking to Danica. 

 

Lady Celtic. 

 

Memories of a briefing a lifetime ago came to her; the British witch and her Yankee lover, who no doubt would lay waste to the good people of the empire unless its brave defenders guarded its borders. She knew the fate Lady Celtic had met at war's end too, and then the American too at the hands of the Katana, not that long after he'd abandoned her in Burma. What would a scion of that line make of her? She dismissed the cat she'd been holding, the beast vanishing to smoke and a faint scent of fish as it disappeared into the shadowy place of imagination where she had first found it. Tori did seem a kind, sweet friend, but surely that would only make her heart break even worse to know that she and her grandmother? great-grandmother? had once been enemies. 

 

Wringing her hands nervously, she followed the two animal lovers. 

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