It is the week before school starts, and Lily can feel the end approaching. It's almost perfect, really.
She heaves, hands on her knees, legs shaking, as she tries to pull air into her lungs. Her heart thuds in her ears, and her throat is raw. The tulle under her skirt is so soaked with sweat that it sticks to her thighs, and it feels a hundred times worse than its usual scratch. It sucks.
Like a telepath, Batty lets out a tired laugh next to her and tips her face to the bright afternoon sky. "That sucked, Revel," she wheezes. "That sucked so much."
"Mmmph," Lily grunts. She lifts a shaking hand and wipes a dribble of spit from the corner of her mouth. Ugh, her body isn't even functioning like a normal person's anymore. Triple gross.
Batty sends her magical weapon into the nothing from which it came, and it disappears in a flash of red light that makes Lily wince. "You don't think this'll keep going through the school year, will it?"
With one last, rattling breath, Lily stands up straight again. "The summons note said this was the penultimate fight." She squints at the open field, where the rest of the girls stand in their respective pairs, all of them stationary as they catch their breaths.
Today's battlefield is the public soccer fields. As a kid, Lily had been on a rec team that met here to play half-field soccer, and the place had felt enormous back then. Now, as a teenager who's just fought off not one, but two clouds of malicious energy, it feels tiny. The trees at the edge of the fields press in too close, like overbearing parents, and the lines on the ground are too tight.
Except for Yin and Yang, the other pairs stand scattered around the fields like offense-defense pairs. Yin and Yang, because they're special like that, each take up a center circle of the two fields. They stand strong, staring at the sky where their vanquished foes once floated, like still frames in an epic tv show opener.
It's silly. Lily kind of hates them.
As Batty stretches out her arms, Lily massages her thighs and watches as the pairs slowly start to coallesce around them.
Normally, she and Batty take posititions on the edge of the fight, but today, with the team split into two, they're at the center. Lily, after all, needs to be able to reach all the other girls with her magic-replenishment. And Batty goes where Lily goes.
Ever so slowly, the girls form up into their own center circle. Well, it's actually more like a bean until Aero points out, with a 'come on, beyotches!' and two sharp claps, that they have a very pitiful circle. Then they form a circle. And none of them sit, even though Lily would very much like to sit. Instead, they stand with their arms crossed, still panting as Yin begins the wrap-up.
"Alright, everyone," she says, her voice breathy with exhaustion, even as she straightens her back and sets her chin. "That was a tough one. But we're almost done."
Yang smiles and wraps an arm around Yin's shoulders. Her eyes glitter behind her pitch black domino mask, and the white dot over her chest sparkles like the sun. "The penultimate battle is the second-to-last. We've got this in the bag."
They look to Circuit, expectant twin smiles stretching across their faces.
"Ahem," Circuit coughs. From her left, Brush pats Circuit's shoulder. "So, let's recap."
Lily feels herself die on the inside. Fight recaps are so incredibly boring. It's just Circuit reciting all the insane little stats she's counted during the latest battle, droning on and on about hit percentages and apparent damage. Like, okay, the mental TI-83 stuff was cool the first couple times, but now it's just the same thing over and over.
She leans into Batty's shoulder and sighs, letting Circuit's scratchy, serious voice wash over her.
The statistics run into conclusions and advice. Batty, apparently, has had the most consistent gain in damage output of any team member, though Yin and Yang remain the strongest. Circuit thinks Fauna could switch over into damage instead of buffing sometimes. Circuit thinks this. Circuit thinks that.
All the while, the black-and-white haze of the other world rolls around them. Grey mist drifts overhead, heading east as it always does. The black silhouettes of the trees are disconcerting against the perfectly white sky. It feels like a strange, pixelated rendering.
"I suspect," Circuit continues, "that the final battle will be only marginally more difficult than this one. We've never really fought two enemies in close quarters like that before, and the change threw our teamwork out of whack."
That much Lily can agree with. The remnants of battle smell different from usual, less well-mixed. For all that the team has horrible teamwork in general, usually Lily can at least catch a few more complex notes in the air. She doesn’t have anything to add though, so she keeps her thoughts to herself.
“What’s to say the final battle won’t be something else entirely new?” Batty asks, interrupting a few sighs of relief. “It could be a single mass, like a lot of the things we’ve fought before. Or it could be a whole horde. We’ve never fought a horde.”
Wrong. Batty and Lily have fought a horde. Yin and Yang, and Aqua and Feugo, have also fought hordes. There have been a fair number of double enemies, too. The problem is that the group as a whole has never fought those kinds of battles. All those strange, surprising battles from the beginning of summer faded away once all fourteen girls found each other in July.
“You have though,” Circuit says, pursing her lips in consideration, “right?”
“Er, yes,” Batty says, glancing nervously at Lily. That is definitely a call for help. Batty hates talking strategy.
With a disinterested sniffle, Lily pulls her head off Batty’s shoulder. “Battle number four. I think. It wasn’t so bad. I wouldn’t worry. You all just have to connect a little more. Communicate about when the big, combined attacks are necessary.”
“I just hit things,” Batty says gleefully, “and sometimes Revel made it so I hit a lot of things at once.”
“That’s super sick,” Aero replies, “but also I have a date in the next hour that I have to get ready for. Are we almost done?” Somehow, she manages to convey genuine interest and total exasperation in one sentence.
A murmur echoes around the circle as the girls consider the pros and cons of sticking around for more strategy, and Circuit groans. “Fine, fine. We’re done for today. But we’re having a meeting before the final battle.”
“Totally. I’ll be there,” Aero says, waving dismissively. A light breeze winds past as she moves her hands, and Lily wonders for a moment if any of the other girls are so casual with their magic. She supposes Aero would have the easiest time with covert magical use.
If anyone still has reservations after that, they don't voice them. Lily doesn't blame them. She wouldn't want to disagree with Aero either.
The group slowly breaks apart as girls head out, back to whatever hidey-holes they used to come into the other-world. Lily moves to leave as well, but stops short when Batty's hand slides down her forearm and wraps around her wrist. She turns, and there stands Batty, gaze averted, shoulders tense.
Batty looks up and meets Lily's eyes for half a second. "Can we chat first? Before we leave?"
Lily would very much like to get out of the other world. It stinks here, like a really bad fart and also like rotting vegetables, which are not actually that different, when she thinks about it. But for Batty, she will endure the grossest of stenches. "Okay," she says.
The pair of them stroll away from the soccer fields, towards the empty children’s playground on the far side. In the other world’s greyscale tone, it looks like a photograph from a true crime television show. Lily thinks, for a moment, that Batty is going to lead them towards the swings, but thankfully she avoids the play structure itself, which is good. The play structure gives Lily the heebie jeebies.
They sit in the grass, just looking at the playground. Batty picks at the strands, and Lily watches her, eager to get out. She will put up with nasty stenches, but she doesn’t have to like it.
“Are you doing okay?” Batty asks. “Like, outside of the group?”
Lily squints. “Yeah.”
“Really? Are you sure? Because you've been kind of despondent the past couple fights."
Okay, so maybe Lily is a little bit over the whole thing. She hates how this place is starting to smell. She's sick of fighting. She's sick of the hyping up and the growing comraderie and the positivity. And worst of all, she hates how she knows what's coming.
But she's okay. She's just bored. With a long sigh, Lily side-eyes her partner. "Nothing's wrong," she says. "Maybe it's just like, end-of-semester blues, you know? We know the end is coming, so it's hard to stay motivated."
"Oh. I guess that makes sense." Batty keeps watching Lily though, like if she stares for long enough, Lily will break down her own walls and reveal everything.
"You doing okay?" Lily asks, arching one eyebrow. "Since we're asking and all."
With a big grin, Batty reaches out and softly punches Lily's arm. "You know it. I'm pumped. It's pretty great getting to hit bigger and bigger things every time."
"Good," Lily says. At least one of them is happy. She looks into the trees near the playground and bites her lip. She curls her knees up to her chest and wraps herself up with her cooling, sweaty arms. "What do you think happens after this is over?"
Batty laughs. "I don't know? Classic hero's journey, right? We save the world, and we go back to our normal one, only stronger and different and changed? I feel like I could join a leadership team."
"Is that really it?" Lily doesn't feel changed. She doesn't feel confident. She feels like this magical girl group business is just some weird, stinky fever dream. Any minute now she's going to wake up, and it'll turn out that the awful smell of the other world was just some freaky weed high she kept forgetting about. She wouldn't know where to get weed, or what a weed high actually feels like, but that's her approximation.
"Is that what's really got you all down?" Batty asks, cracking a smile. She scoots closer to Lily, her skirt dragging on the grass, and wraps an arm around Lily's shoulders. "Don't feel bad. I'm sure it'll feel like it's really over once we beat the big bad next time. Then you can go back to your life a reinvigorated person."
Lily has her doubts. She can't get rid of the stench of foul play. But she really wants to get out of the other world, so instead of confiding in her partner, she shoots Batty a sheepish grin. "Maybe you're right."