2018-10-06 - Over And Over Again
|Over And Over Again|
Alone after the awful truth comes out at Haneda Airport, Madoka makes a wish. Homura commits murder, then explains herself.
Shibuya Shopping Ward
|OOC - IC Date:|
10/9/18 (moved for chronology) - 05-19-2018
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+ Shibuya Shopping Ward +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+ Any rural ingenue looking to come to the big city and get swept away at first sight would be well-advised to get off at Shibuya Station, where you could fill a high school yearbook with the people teeming over a single crosswalk, and a legion of ten-story department stores offer a choice so broad it resembles existential crisis. Shinjuku might administrate Tokyo, but Shibuya is its style capital. Its densest concentration of boutiques, retailers, and restaurants is bound together by Shibuya Crossing, a bustling pedestrian intersection resembling an even gaudier Times Square. Within walking distance to Harajuku, Shibuya is less whimsical, and far grander. Its most iconic symbol is the Shibuya 109 department store, a cylindrical grey monolith famous even outside of Japan. Each floor of 109 has about a dozen shops, and with ten flights of escalator to ascend, it doesn't take a mathematician to realize that even this single store can be a lot to take in. But Shibuya too has its side streets and quirks, and it's not hard to find a chic little cafe to rest in. Those who find themselves energized instead have recourse to the night clubs that trade on Shibuya's stylish reptuation. Shibuya Station has a humbler landmark as well. It was here that the loyal dog Hachiko waited for his owner each day, even after the owner had long since died. A bronze statue of Hachiko waits here still, a reminder that love and loyalty never die.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
"Papa's architect friend designed it, and Mama got her friend with the construction company to build it!"
The Kaname house is a symbol of new money in Tokyo, indeed. Really, the impressive part was getting the plot of land, and all the permitting required to tear down something old and make something brand new. But the building itself is also quite striking, both for its modern design and its impressive size.
The path to Madoka's bedroom window in the darkness, however, is mostly notable for how you have to go through Papa's tomato patch. In the middle of the night it is impossible to differentiate hard from ripe, but they catch glints of light off the street, which collect on rounded surfaces then vault back, diffuse. To the unpracticed sneaker, it would be far too easy to crush the base of a plant, or worse, one of the strings tying them up, which are as dangerous as tripwires when it comes to creating noise... and evidence.
After that it's easy going around the corner of the house to the back.
Madoka's blinds are drawn, and the vaguely sakura geometries on them -- somewhere between flower petal and snowflake, but too abstract to really be either a symbol of winter or spring -- are easier to see from the outside than the inside right now because there are no interior lights on right now, but Tokyo is always bright. The fog starting to settle around the city, in fact, is creating a nice diffuse gray radiance. Moonlight isn't moonlight anymore when it passes through fog -- it becomes something else instead.
There is a tiny gap between the edge of the blinds and the window frame, on the side closer to the head of Madoka's bed than the foot.
It's so hard to make out anything inside, but it isn't too hard to figure out that the bed is empty; Totoro is right in the middle, with bunched up blankets all around him. Messier than Madoka would leave it, but then, she hasn't been sleeping in her own bed for weeks. She's had a special house guest -- the daughter of a friend of a family friend, Kozue Kaoru, and Madoka being Madoka she insisted on giving her guest the bed.
Spotting the futon, on the far side of the bed on the floor, is much harder.
Other, larger shapes come into focus first... the edge of Madoka's monitor, on her desk. The chair -- not the desk chair, but one of the other ones, the deep purple upholstered, spindly mahogany-legged one that was always Homura's preference whenever she was the guest in this room. It stands alone, attached to no table or vanity or purpose; the only way that it isn't alone is in that it is not the only one, and the mismatched shapes and sizes of the many other chairs arranged across Madoka's hardwood bedroom floor slowly become visible, one by one.
And there it is, in the corner.
The futon, neatly rolled up, as it is every morning before school. Its rope has a bow tie identical to the ones in Madoka's hair.
But those ribbons aren't here right now, and neither is their owner.
<SoundTracker> Umbra Nigra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G81uLQA8OoI
It isn't raining, but it feels like it should be. If it wasn't for the cloying onset of the fog -- a very early warning sign of morning in the sense that it means that the night has passed the point where it is closer to the day before, and is thoroughly in the day after -- the clarity of the air would in fact be offensive. After the rain there are a few hours where Tokyo is cleansed, fresh, when the byproducts of combustion recede and the smell of the sea is sharp as the broken glass outside the izakayas. It would smell like renewal. Like beginnings.
But this is a night for endings, and so to the extent that she is capable of welcoming anything into her heart right now, Madoka welcomes the oppressively thick mist. It makes it hard to know where she is, even when they are streets she's walked down all her life. But that's okay. Every street corner has a memory attached to it, or half a dozen; every storefront could reflect the noses of two girls pressing themselves hungrily to the glass.
She can barely see her feet, and those she has memorized, especially after spending a solid twenty minutes standing on her own doorstep, looking at them and the welcome mat beneath them and wondering at how, like the moon through fog, you aren't yourself anymore when you're passed through something like tonight and come out the other side. Sometimes you really can't go home again. Even when home has a Mama who would love nothing more than for you to wake her up in the middle of the night and confess everything across the kitchen table over scotch (and juice), and a Papa who would make you cocoa and tuck you into bed.
Especially then, because -- because, for the first time -- it wouldn't make anything better. But if she went inside, she would do it anyway. She wouldn't be able to help herself, and then she would lose something irreplaceable, something else irreplaceable, on the very same night.
And so Madoka walks the streets once protected by the Golden Queen of Shibuya and then, later, Tokyo's Premiere Puella Magi Konbi, and now no one at all, and keeps safe in the realm of the quantum and uncertain the possibility that her parents are still capable of protecting her from terrible things.
Not safe in her heart. Her heart is not a safe place right now, and may never be again. She always worried so much about how Sayaka dissociated herself deliberately from her body but for the first time Madoka understands why she might do the same. The human mind has other tools than magic, though, to distance itself from pain. The fog gives Madoka nothing to look at, and so she looks at nothing, and tries to think of nothing too, to feel nothing. The only part of it that's easy is the part where exhaustion, like the fog, shrouds everything, makes it all indistinct and strange.
She stumbles across every sidewalk's end. No matter how many times, it takes her by surprise. At least she doesn't have so far to fall, though mostly she just staggers, and when she actually ends up on her hands and knees in the gutter, that's the time she hears faint voices approaching her.
They're drunk. Madoka knows from drunk, when it comes to laughter.
"Yeah, man, I've got her parents totally in my pocket. They love me more than they love her now."
There are three of them, a pair of shorter men with their arms slung around the shoulders of a taller man in between.
"But like," one of the shorter men asks the taller, "Isn't she frigid?"
"Not forever... I mean... who could resist this?"
All three of them burst into laughter by then -- and double down on it, uproarious, as they notice the collapsed girl on the edge of the street. Madoka wishes she was wearing tights like Mami when she feels, viscerally, the way they are looking at the space between the top of her stockings and the bottom of her skirt. She can't even see their eyes. She can just feel it, and the invisibly tiny hairs of the fuzz on her skin, on her thighs, stand on end like candlewicks.
"Awww... come back, cutie... Macchan needs more practice..."
It takes a long time for her heart to stop pounding, after she somehow finds her feet and sprints blindly across the street and down the block, and it brings with it all the immediacy that she wanted to forget. Now the fog is just a feature of a cold world, rather than its kind blanket.
And a few blocks later, even that is unable to cross the chasmic distance that surrounds her. It cannot hope to compete with the events of the evening. It is its own horror that, five minutes later, it doesn't even register, and five minutes after that, she has forgotten about it entirely.
Madoka walks, and walks, and walks, and if the world changes around her, at least she can't see it.
<< Madoka... >>
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Homura Akemi could have sworn Madoka went into her house when Endo Naoki dropped her off at the front door. There's a fog, though, like the sea wasn't content with taking Haneda Airport and has sent its cool tendrils into the city as an advance scout for further invasion. The puella's usual high perch across the way on a neighbor's roof keeps her out of Endo's sight, but tonight it also puts too much of that fog in the way for a clear view.
She decides to check. Just to be certain. But if Madoka's in there she's getting ready for bed. So Homura... waits. She gives it a good twenty minutes, just to be on the safe side.
Twenty minutes in damp-chilled henshin garments, twenty minutes spent worrying and running through possibilities in her mind and growing more and more certain that everything is going to hell. Everything she's done to try and prevent it, and Sayaka Miki erupted into a Witch practically in Madoka's arms. Did Homura make it worse? She didn't make it better, that's for sure.
Eri and Kyouko know, now. About her power -- so does Kozue. About Soul Gems. Eri survived, but... how much of her is left? Homura isn't sure how either puella will take the revelation, this time loop. She doesn't even know how they took it in the moment, because she was... she was...
Twenty minutes are up.
Dainty black feet tiptoe through Papa Kaname's tomatoes. In the moment she feels like a sneaking high school student rather than a deadly and stealthy puella magi. With a sharp reminder to herself that only the latter matters, she makes her practiced way past those gardener's tripwires.
Homura knows the gap between Madoka's sakura-print blinds and her window frame as well as she knows her way through the tomato garden at night. She lays fingertips white from diffuse no-longer-moonlight upon the frame's edge -- and sees the tremor in them that she did not feel. She twists her lips, draws a breath, and wills the tremor gone.
Her fingers keep trembling.
She draws them back before they rattle against the window and makes a fist, instead. There. ...Now she can ignore their shaking. As if it's not happening at all.
It's dark within, so Madoka's probably already in bed. Craning over, she leans in to check, bracing for the sight of a sleeping angel and ready to feel the usual rush of love for her and hatred for herself, the devil peering in...
Madoka isn't there.
Neither is Kozue Kaoru but that matters a lot less to Homura, aside from informationally. She's not there. Madoka isn't THERE.
Where is she?
She could be anywhere. She could be anywhere.
She could be with... anyone. Fear burns into her, a vision of two round red alien eyes, and Homura backs away from Madoka's window. She doesn't notice how her heel comes down on the fragile base of one of Papa Kaname's tomato plants, turning the stalk to mangled paste.
Then Homura begins to run.
Where is Madoka Kaname? She has some ideas where the grieving girl might go, right now.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
The hall light is on in Sayaka's apartment, and it leaks underneath the shut bedroom door. It can't get far, though, not with the mess made of the floor: a textbook here, a pillow there. An Aohime blouse, crumpled into a ball and thrown. It must have loosened over time, just a little, its own weight forcing it to spread. A battered old denim jacket, beloved, forgotten across the back of the out-of-place dining room-style chair.
There's movement in the big antique mirror across from the window, and that means that there's also a hint of a shadow in the handmirror on the nightstand. Pale skin flashes in the many-sided modern one.
A half dozen sets of cold eyes stare back at Homura. A dozen. Two dozen. The broad chestnut stand faces the frameless wall-mounted looking glass directly, and that means there must be as many girls in the bedroom as there is patience to look, back and back and back and back.
But all of them are purple.
No, there's Madoka. Jammed shoulder to shoulder with Sayaka, still in their middle school uniforms. Madoka is laughing, elated, her arm outstretched, surely holding the phone. Sayaka's eyes sparkle with joy but they're a little tearful too. They're in front of some sort of announcement board, surely at school. Something is scrawled on the hanging paper behind them, in Sayaka's reedy English-language handwriting:
Most of the photos in the room are curated carefully on a bulletin board above the desk, but this one is still loose. It hasn't found its final place.
And now it never will.
"Ah," Madoka says, vaguely, "There you are. I was looking for you, earlier..."
She can't see him, in the fog, until she can. That's forgivable. She was looking at nothing, after all, and he is white in a whiteout in any event.
But actually, the moisture isn't quite as dense, here, there's a shift to the flow of the bank that implies an openness entirely unlike the streets and alleys she's worn down. She can feel dryness in the thickening of her tongue. Like an object that may be closer than it appears in the mirror, she can hear the distant trickling of fountains that are actually quite nearby.
With a terrible suddenness, Madoka knows where she is, and the GPS marker that pops up on the neighborhood map in her mind is an unforgiving and painful revelation. Her breath catches in her throat, then comes faster. Needles prick behind her eyes. They're hot.
"...you weren't there." She is too tired to be sharp, so what could have been a bitter accusation emerges as a flat statement instead, modulated only by how it rides a sigh out of her lungs. Just the facts.
<< I tried to be, but I couldn't get to you. >>
Pink eyes look down at red eyes look back up.
There comes a complex silence, one with several layers, like the petals of a flower. Exhaustion meets anticipation and at the point of their collision, tension.
Kyuubey is the one to break it.
<< ...are you mad at me, like the others? >>
Madoka sighs again, and takes a seat next to Kyuubey on the park bench, and tries not to think of how there was a time when her feet didn't touch the ground and Sayaka's did and she would chew the inside of her cheek with that bit of irritation, exacerbated by the endless teasing.
Now it's a pearl too bright for her to look at straight on, like a tiny sun. Just being near it burns her. She doesn't even want to look at it sideways, so she looks over at her little furry companion instead. Some distant piece of her mind observes his little pawsie toes. She knows their pads must be incredibly soft, but she doesn't ever remember playing with them, so where did that knowledge come from?
Oh, she's asking a question.
"If I were," she wonders aloud, small-voiced, too small for there to be room for any meaningful amount of hope, "Would you change Sayaka back?"
<< I can't. It's beyond my power to do that. >>
Afterwards, it is easier to return her gaze to her feet after all. If she balances her weight just right against the planks of wood, she can't quite feel the Earth.
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
When Homura Akemi realizes where she should start her search, she resents the realization. Where else would Madoka Kaname go but someplace related to her dead best friend? Visions of timeline-ending disaster fill her head as she runs flat-out through crawling veils of fog, darkened buildings fading into view and out again like passing ghost ships, and yet there's still a treacherous part of her that hopes she won't find that particular heartstopping shade of pink at Sayaka Miki's apartment.
It is not disappointed, even as the rest of her feels the tide of panic rising. The sensation is too close to being in Kozue Kaoru's seawater vortex for comfort, cold washing up heavy limbs. She stares into her own hundredfold eyes in the darkness of the bedroom of her enemy and doesn't see the cold mask she gives others, but the terrified girl beneath it.
There is no patience in Homura Akemi for her own weakness, none at all. She sees loathing in her own eyes next, and then nothing because she looks away.
The lone swatch of Madoka-pink in the room doesn't escape her, oh no. Homura spots the photograph, the joy on it, and her mouth twists. "Why? Why her? Why do you have to be such good friends with a doomed girl?" Whatever else Sayaka Miki has been to Homura in her long strange existence, her role now is clear. Obstacle. Foe. Danger.
And dead, she still threatens Madoka's soul. The dark-haired puella takes off at a breakneck pace once more. She's not out of places to look, not that she likes the rest much better that the first. She runs faster now, burns more power, more... time. The fog is just as grey and obscuring frozen as it is in motion.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Most rooms are a snapshot frozen in time, the apartment hardly looks changed from memory.
It should be an empty sanctum now, with the Golden Queen gone. The lights are off over the scalene table that once served guests. The kitchen has no dirty dishes in the sink. The guest room door is open. All of this is plainly seen with the shades drawn up, the urban lighting twinkling into it like colorful stars. What of the master bedroom though?
BGM Change - Cruel and Clumsy - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX6uIP6c-AA
Moonlight slices through the slits in the blinds and the refracted triangles wrought in the glass, leaving slivers of light lying heavy across one side, and dark shadows deepening along the edges.
The bed has an outline within the soft covers that rises at a diagonal, showing that someone must be resting within it. The figure is tucked securely in up past their shoulders. Someone put a lot of effort into tucking this person in. The covers are smoothly drawn over their form, with painstaking toil taken to wrap them securely enough to stay warm.
It's the kind of effort a mother would place into tucking in a child scared of the dark, or an older sibling to a fond younger one. It has a feeling of security, safety, and comfort. Any solitary child might envy the care taken in such a simple act.
A ray of light ends on the hair at the nape of their neck, revealing where the blue fuzz joins the tomboyishly short hair. The outline of her face shows that Sayaka's eyes can only be closed. A casual onlooker might mistake her as just sleeping. Trying to count her breaths would be a futile effort though.
Less obvious is the outline of another girl in a chair across the room, using only a duvet for cover. The outline of drawn up knees of the figure curled up in that smaller space. The darkness gives a certain added illusion of androgyny to the pair, making them seem more twins than ever.
The outline of Kozue's face offers some insight, because her eyes appear fractionally open. Is she awake still? A flicker of spidery thin lashes seemingly confirms it.
The bitter draught of grief has then seemingly offered Kozue Kaoru only stillness, without true repose.
A second silence dawns between girl and mascot, but it is not the same as the first. As slowly as fingers of daylight crawl across the ocean towards the island where they live -- still out of sight, but inevitable -- this one is becoming thoughtful.
Madoka is becoming thoughtful -- dares to allow herself to think. To crack open the door. To peek her toes out from underneath the blanket to taste the air outside.
This time, she is the one to break the silence.
She doesn't look at him, but she doesn't stare at her feet, either. Gradually, almost involuntarily, her gaze drifts upwards, past the fountains, past the hazy outlines of the buildings which are higher than the treetops, into the sky. The sky she cannot see.
"...you once told me that I could become an incredibly powerful magical girl. Was that true?"
Not being observed does not stop Kyuubey from perking up his ears, from flopping onto his side. A little bit of his belly is exposed, and it is even softer and lovelier than the promise of his toes.
<< "Incredible" doesn't even begin to describe it. >> To say that it is rare for Kyuubey to show enthusiasm is to kid oneself; he is enthusiastic for treats, cookies, and Contracts most of all. But there's an extra strain of excitement beyond his usual now, like the same melody played in a higher octave.
Madoka's brain translates it into nerdiness. Like when Papa talks about gardening, or when Sayaka talks about cl--
--or when Usagi's classmate with the bottle glasses talks about, well, anything. Kyuubey is a magical girl enthusiast. But he's especially a Madoka enthusiast, isn't he? It's weird.
He's still talking, and it interrupts her own thoughts. << ...your power would be almost incomprehensible! You'd probably be the strongest being in this world! >>
Madoka continues to stare blankly at the stars above the clouds, as though if she looks for long enough they will reveal themselves to her. Kyuubey continues to stare at Madoka for much the same reasons. The tip of his tail twitches impatiently. Usually this is the part where she shakes her head and says it's impossible.
But the thoughtfulness that has gathered around the girl at his side is deepening, and perhaps slipping a little bit sideways. Like her head. She is perched on the edge of consciousness, and about to stumble where the sidewalk ends.
She doesn't. Instead, she asks him another question, or maybe she's really asking herself. The fog shifts around them, billowing a little bit further away, allowing the presence of shadows.
One, cast by the intersection of a high streetlamp with Kyuubey's lifting tail, crawls over her shoulders.
"Why me, though?"
The question is troubled, disturbed, but not as anguished as it might have been. Even a rock skipping across a sea of serenity is still serene.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi transforms into Puella Magi Homura!
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed. <SoundTracker> Love Like a Sunset Part I https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkdwLwaDvoI
It's getting hard to breathe.
She's been running so long and fast now even her magic-honed body is reaching some limits, but that's not all it is. Homura is breathing harder and faster than she needs to, even before racing down her endurance, gasping open-mouthed and tight-throated at a pace fueled by fear instead of exertion. Long black hair whips behind her.
Every wrong place she checks is time lost, and the state Madoka was in...
Homura sees pink eyes as she runs, the beautiful light in them guttered with grief. Round. Teardrowned. She remembers how the thready spark died, when she put it out with her grinding-bootheel speech. Great job, Homura thinks with the barbed savagery she reserves for aiming at herself. I made sure to drive the point home, and then I lost her.
She doesn't want to think about the state Madoka is in and she can't stop thinking about it.
As she goes, Homura berates herself for every little thing. Should have gotten closer to make sure Madoka went inside, who knows how much ground was lost waiting? Should have checked her bedroom window sooner -- but knows she wouldn't, she couldn't, not without crossing lines she set for herself a very long time ago. Should have checked Mami Tomoe's apartment before Sayaka's, because...
Because surprise isn't anywhere in her when she ducks a head around the window's edge to spot the body under Mami's covers and the curled carbon copy sitting watch.
Sayaka claimed such... ownership over Mami Tomoe. Homura kept close tabs, especially recently, and knew the blunette had more or less moved into her apartment part time, after the Golden Queen's death. As if being Madoka Kaname's best friend wasn't enough; no, she had to invade every part of what used to be Homura Akemi's life, take her senpai, too. Sayaka laid loud, clumsy claim and then...
'No one's going to die.' In memory she hears the girl boast. 'Madoka-chan isn't going to have to wish for anyone.'
'Because you say so, no one will die. Because you say so, you'll win. You've already used your wish, Miki-san. Stop acting like the world has to do as you say.' Homura should have taken the damned shot.
She tries to refill aching lungs and glares through the glass. That was her Premiere Puella Magi Konbi. Not Sayaka's. Homura was the first to sit at that beautiful little table and eat Mami Tomoe's beautiful little slices of cake with Madoka Kaname. She was the first to be saved by pink arrows and golden bullets, the first to join them. They taught her... so much. It's no easy thing, having memories so precious that she both clings to them and rarely touches on them directly for the pain of their distance.
Now the corpse of Sayaka Miki lays under that lovely pastel canopy in a bed that is not hers, and Kozue Kaoru sits in that warmly-appointed chair that is not hers. Interlopers. Homura feels the hurt resentment of a lonely kid watching all her old friends sitting at a lunch table with newer, cooler kids.
But... Madoka is not here, either.
Homura's dead heart races like a rabbit and every frantic beat is MA-doka, MA-doka, MA-doka. Her hands are fists, and she doesn't want to know whether the tremor is still there, but her whole being buzzes like a too-tight harp string. She has to find Madoka.
The pale girl runs. She's bent almost double. Her breaths sound out of her open mouth in panic-edged gasps. Skinny legs pelt, long hair streams, sharp quick footfalls echo off the inside of the obscuring fog.
Sayaka Miki's empty shell doesn't matter. Kozue Kaoru's interference doesn't matter, Mami Tomoe's invaded apartment... none of it matters.
Only Madoka matters. She has to find Madoka. She has to find Madoka!
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed. <SoundTracker> Raindrops -- Regina Spektor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_oLCJIYOVU
The streets hold no answers for Homura, only questions. Not even useful questions. Pointless, distracting questions, like why does the fog keep getting thicker and what time is it anyway and oh, who were those guys I just blew past, it doesn't matter.
There are memories for her here, too. As many times as Sayaka and Madoka's noses pressed admiringly against that glass, Homura and Madoka's did too. The first time Homura had a territory, it was Shibuya, for the same reason that it was Madoka's originally, and Sayaka's lately.
There they are now, clutching crepes to their chests and gawking at the pretty sweaters they can't afford. Today's Witch has been slain, and there's just enough time before homework to get a snack and a walk and a good long gossip. Madoka is so engaged in whatever she's being told that she almost walks straight into a telephone pole. Homura's braids bounce down her back as she hastens to grasp her by the collar, thwarting this tragic fate in the nick of time.
Ah -- one has slipped its knot. Laughing, Madoka moves up behind her and reties it. Now her bows are mismatched -- one tied Akemi style and one tied Kaname style. Rueful, Madoka offers to redo it.
Her sprint passes the telephone pole and on the other side is nothing but bags of trash, waiting for the first morning pickup.
<< I have no idea, either, >> admits Kyuubey with a certain reluctance. It's like pulling taffy out of his teeth to get him to cop to ignorance, Madoka knows (indeed she knows both halves of that simile -- everyone who lives in the Kaname residence practices good tooth hygiene, voluntarily or otherwise), and it gets her attention. << Truth be told, your latent potential is on a scale that theoretically shouldn't even be possible. I want someone to come explain it as much as you do. >>
She blinks, and molasses-slow begins to drift back to earth from the invisible heavens. A detail at a time, the world comes back into focus: the skyline. The trees. The fountains.
The midnight wind shifts -- and slows -- and the fog, which had parted around the park like it was the Red Sea, rolls back in. In an instant, the only thing she can see is what's right in front of her nose: the fairy mascot at her side, there on the bench.
Credulous, worried -- maybe a little bit guilty -- maybe more than a little bit -- the word escapes Madoka's lips to kiss Kyuubey's ears. But it keeps going, vanishing into the fog. Such a soft little word, tumbling end over end to reach Homura's ears too.
Like a perfect pink crocus unfurling as it's warmed within the ground, it's the first sign of Madoka in what is now a sea of white.
Stopping time is no good -- a rare moment, in fact, when it is almost completely in vain. Homura could pass Madoka six times in an hour in this soup and never know. She can't even see the shield on her own wrist. Another thing she can't do is hear Kyuubey, whose telepathy is tuned to one mind alone right now. But the silence after Madoka's question is as telling as it is terrifying.
<< If you were to release your power, the miracle you could unleash might twist the very fabric of the universe. Why you and you alone should carry such unthinkable power... I can't guess the reason right now. Even if you were a reincarnated princess or a destined bride, a famous idol or future president... all those fates put together wouldn't explain your potential. >>
Her response, when it finally comes after what feels like an eternity, is like a lighthouse. The fog muffles it, the fountains interfere with it, the streets themselves reflect it from odd angles, but, word after word, it is there -- and so is she.
Madoka sounds troubled, and confused, and sad. But at the same time and in the same breath there's something almost clinical about her self-evaluation, a certain practiced detachment, like what it's like when you've read a poem too many times and not just memorized it but internalized it to the point that it's just words and not poetry at all.
"I... I always thought that there was nothing special about me at all. That I would just kind of stumble through life, never being able to help anyone, or be of any use... even before I knew about the Mami Tomoes and Sailor Moons and La Sirenes of the world, I felt that way. And after... it's funny, there's been so much danger since I found out about magical girls, but I felt... safer. Knowing they were out there, these wonderful, wonderful girls. But... I felt worse, too, frustrated and kind of lonesome, left behind. But I figured there was no helping it... even when she was just Sayaka Miki she was a dozen dozen times better than me. Cleverer and braver. Even as a magical girl... I'd just have been a burden to everyone."
She pauses, and the needles behind her eyes grows red hot. Another blink, and then another.
"And then even more so, as a Witch, I guess."
She must be close, now; by the end of all that Homura feels like she, too, could be sitting on a park bench next to Madoka. And yet -- nothing.
<< The reality is quite different from being a burden. Madoka, if you wished it... you could even become the god of this world. >>
"Then... would I be able to do things that even you can't do, Kyuubey?"
The closer Homura gets, the more curiosity she can hear in Madoka's voice. Yes... it's unmistakable. It's hope.
<< What do you mean? >>
It's hunger. It's need.
"If I made a contract with you, would I be able to turn Sayaka human again?"
Homura knows the answer without being able to hear it, because this has, in fact, played out more than once before. Not just the conversation. The wish, this particular wish. If she ran statistics on Madoka's wishes, after you got rid of the noise of the early neighborhood kitty ones, more of her wishes would be for Sayaka than for anyone else, by miles.
Madoka doesn't know right now, though. She trembles on the edge of the bench with the need to know, though, and tiny tiny ripples pass through the fog, creating another crucial clue with every tense swing of her twintail.
Kyuubey is motionless, in a 'no sudden moves, don't screw this up' sort of way, but his words are kindly, encouraging.
<< That would be child's play for you. Would that be worth trading your soul for, then? Even knowing what you would become? >>
BGM, AGAIN: Raindrops -- Regina Spektor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_oLCJIYOVU
There she is -- there they are. Like the whole world is holding its breath, the fog around the park bench is perfectly, impossibly still. The only thing in the world moving are Madoka's hands -- as they twist around each other, anxiously and prayerfully all at once.
As tears return to her eyes. As she lets herself feel again -- voluntarily -- for the first time in hours. The fog is close about her, but not inside her, where it's blowing away, unfurling like its own crocus, to reveal the piercing treasure in her heart. She can't see any of those same storefronts anymore, or even the cobblestones at her feet where they used to play The Dark Squares Are Lava. She doesn't have to, though, for two reasons.
First because these memories are engraved so deeply in her soul that if she made a wish right now, the resultant Gem would have, on its gold chasing at its base, a sloppy English inscription:
And second because she has a dozen or more of the two of them sitting on this very same park bench. After a walk, sharing a snack and a good long gossip. No single memory stands out because, right now, they're all so precious and perfect. Crepes and ramunes and Garigari-kuns. The time and time and time after finishing their exams when they rolled their heads back on their necks and let their shoulders drop for the first time in a week. The time Hitomi got her first love letter and Madoka worried about ever getting one and Sayaka tickled her until she forgot to be afraid of being alone forever. The time after Tatsuya was born and Madoka was told at a stressful moment to go outside and play already, and NEITHER of their feet touched the ground yet, there on the bench. The time after an endless night in the Emergency Room, on their way home after the nurses kicked them out, where Madoka was too tired to make it home so they took a break, and Madoka fell asleep on Sayaka's shoulder, listening to one earbud's worth of piano music, then woke up in her own bed.
It's like trying to pick your favorite flower in a field of them so endless that they stretch to the horizon, they sway in the breeze...
...spring is coming again, after all...
Now, take all of that -- that everything -- and compress it into a half-heartbeat, because Madoka does not so much as hesitate. Sayaka -- the return of Sayaka -- the safety of Sayaka -- the future of Sayaka -- rushes into Madoka, and words rush out.
The only things in the world moving are Madoka's hands -- and Madoka's lips.
"For Sayaka, yes. I'll do it. Make me into a mag--"
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Homura hardly heeds the scenery, at least consciously; she hardly heeds the lack. The fog erases Shibuya's living details, leaving familiar outlines rubbed blank for all of her memories to fill in. Ghosts of timelines past walk the streets she searches, more real than the solid lampposts and building corners that occasionally swim past and fade to white.
Even though they don't exist, not any more, never existed. She erased that day shopping, the gentle tug of her hair in Madoka's hands and the cherished, soft-voiced laugh, even more completely than the fog smudges out the city, sacrificed the happiest times of her miserable grey existence along with everything else.
Madoka is worth it. She cared enough to rebraid the escaped hair of a painfully awkward girl, to rescue her from horrifying monsters, to save Homura Akemi from her own suffocating worthlessness. Madoka... is everything, and she is the only thing Homura has left.
She's running as fast as she possibly, inhumanly can. Homura runs harder.
And then she hears that precious, delicate 'Really?' bloom between the sharp stabs of her footfalls, and Homura skids to a hasty, overbalanced halt lest she stomp out any other perfect pink syllables. The fog saves the pride of the graceless cat, as unseen as her quarry.
It also keeps her from locating Madoka in the silence, the silence where a response should be. Homura doesn't feel her hands fall open at her sides. She doesn't feel the tremor in her fingers.
All she feels is terror.
Madoka speaks again and Homura breathes again, all at once, like she's surfacing from a deep dive. She follows the sound of heartbreak, or tries to, but there are many echoes and Madoka could be anywhere in the whiteout. Could be anywhere, with... What Madoka's saying reaches her as much as her voice does, and an awful little sickly pain twists in the depths of her chest. The things Madoka believes about other people. The things she believes about herself.
When she says the hated name it is hardly confirmation. Homura knows what is happening here. She has seen versions of this so many times before... and it never hurts less for the repetition, entirely unlike other cyclic sorrows in the time mage's existence.
She's going to stop it this time. She follows Madoka's voice, straining every sense, strung between the impossible demands of care and desperation. She hunts the dawning hope she hears.
And there is pink. There is hope. There on the park bench with the eager deceiver is the girl who is the center of her universe, preparing to fling her soul away yet again.
Madoka moves her hands, Madoka opens her mouth. Madoka speaks the beginning of a prayer and the thing hooked in the depths of Homura's chest twists so hard she can barely see for blackening vision.
Homura doesn't need to see to touch her shield.
BGM Change: Sudden, violent silence
The fountain stops. The fog stops. The creature stops. The girl on the bench stops.
It all stops but the wracking rhythm of Homura Akemi's puppet heart, the dizzy howl of blood behind her ears, the sounds she's making that she tells herself are gasps. Her fingertips buzz.
She doesn't feel the smooth weight of the shotgun's stock as muscle memory draws it forth from her shield. She can't make out the metal bite of racking it in the still of the timestop.
Homura has a worm-bodied liar in the sights of the Mossberg, centered within the creeping dark tendrils of the panic shrinking her vision, and she pulls the trigger without any conscious thought or made decision. It is all just a scream of MADOKA in her head, underscored by a chorus of nos.
She doesn't remember releasing the time stop, either. The world just resumes, even though Homura still feels suspended in her own dark.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
In less time than it takes to form another syllable, the air fills with soft little zips and Kyuubey fills with soft little holes.
Well, not that little. Each is about the size of a silver dollar. Through him, the back of the bench can be seen, and its presence is also why he doesn't fall backwards, but instead topples over to one side. He can't possibly balance when half of his neck is gone, and the place where his tail joins his body, and much of his legs, too.
There is a hole where one of his eyes used to be, and holes through his chubby little chin, and floppy little ears. These holes were, perhaps, unnecessary.
It is a gentle kind of flump, the sound it makes when his corpse hits the wood; the same kind of noise that a stuffed animal makes when it's tossed across the room.
The strangled gasp that is torn from Madoka's throat is not gentle in any respect.
She's seen worse, in a sense; this was a remarkably goreless execution, though she doesn't notice the strangeness of the lack of splatter. The holes could have been bored through Kyuubey with a drill bit, and he has no innards to speak of, just a continuous dark red expanse. He isn't leaking.
It doesn't matter. You can see your friend's arm ripped violently off by what you've recently found out was surely someone else's friend, you can see your other friend murdered by your other other friend, and your first friend transform into the antithesis of her every dearly sought ambition, and there's still something extra-horrific about witnessing the snuffing-out of a fairy's life.
It isn't worse.
What's worse is that he was killed because Madoka was going to get her friend back, and now she isn't.
What's worse is that he was killed because Madoka was using him to make a wish.
What's worse is that he was killed because Madoka.
Because of Madoka.
Her eyes were already wet and huge but they are wetter and larger as she turns to the direction whence came the gunfire. She's shocked by the murder but not by the murderer. Indeed, surely it could have been no one else.
Her wail is shrill with dismay.
All that pent up feeling, denied the conduit of a wish, starts rolling down her cheeks instead.
"You didn't have to kill him!!"
Raw with bile, her throat acidifies, and she presses her palms to her knees, closes her eyes, and sways.
Beside her on the bench, Kyuubey lies still. His eye is closed. He could be sleeping, if he wasn't almost more holes than fairy mascot. Right now the ratio is 50/50 at the very least.
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
The shotgun slips from enervated fingers. There's a sharp crack of metal on cobblestones, then the murder weapon rattles to stillness at Homura Akemi's feet.
Can a heart beat so hard it shudders the shoulders? Hers thunders, rattles through her body like a runaway train, and no part of the pale girl is left unshaken. She's openly gasping, the uncalm bellows of her lungs trying and failing to catch up with Homura's desperation. With strained eyes she stares at the girl she's just traumatized again, and then it all starts coming out of her.
"Why do you always sacrifice yourself? How could you? After everything you just learned? After what you just saw?"
The first syllables are almost smooth as they leave her lips, but the tremor that has Homura's body in its grasp claims her throat with the rest. She can clench unsteady fingers into unsteady fists, but the more she tries to control her voice the more it gets away from her.
It hurts. It hurts, it grips the inside of her chest with cruel hands and squeezes and twists and rips at what's left of her, and her resolve...
Homura has held on so very long.
But she doesn't see the will it took to cling year after year, whiteknuckled, to her purpose and her sanity and her love through the soul-winnowing moebius existence she has taken upon herself. No, Homura just despises herself for weak as speech cracks upon her breaking point and falls out of her mouth, one despicable quaver after another.
"There's nothing special about you? You're no use to anyone? Stop saying those things about yourself."
Three swift and shaky steps bring her to the bench -- to Madoka. The pale girl is close, but her voice rises instead of falling. It climbs in pitch, too, uneven and tight.
She looks angry, standing over the pink-haired hero she adores and the aerated remains of the creature she hates, and maybe she is. Homura is so many things right now that she cannot begin to sort them out. Instead, she keens them at Madoka.
"Stop saying they're more important than you are!"
The sable swallowtail of her hair ripples skyward as she lunges. Homura squeezes her eyes shut against the awful betraying sting in them and grabs -- her hands know Madoka's shoulders, she could find them blindfolded. Earlier tonight those hands felt secure and unbreakable, wrapped around the other girl's waist to keep her from the water's edge.
There is no grip to them at all, now. They shiver atop Madoka's shoulders like fallen leaves.
"You matter so much..."
She hardly sounds like the Homura Akemi that this Madoka knows, once as crisp and impenetrable as lake ice in winter. Thaw has come, and her words emerge wet.
"Can't you see how much it would hurt people if you were gone? Why don't you understand? What about everyone who's trying to protect you?"
The spigot of emotion squeaks shut and she strangles on it.
Homura tries to stand up straight, to push back and away. Teartracks shine white on porcelain cheeks, curling to meet beneath her chin. She rises only to fall, because her nerveless knees will no longer hold her.
Cobblestones smack her palms as she goes down, and Homura is almost like a string-sliced puppet in a white-and-grey heap at Madoka's feet. Except puppets don't shiver, and they don't make small agonized sounds like their heart is a broken thing.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed. <SoundTracker> My Long Forgotten Cloistered Sleep -- Yuki Kajiura https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZ0tY8ZSdqw
Homura is crying.
Tonight Madoka's tears are a virtually endless well, like a sacred, secret spring. Find it, in the heart of the forest, and know wisdom. Drink from it, and know eternity.
The last tear does not know that it is the last. It burbles up like all the rest, beading, ballooning from that hot lanced place within its girl that birthed it, until that space -- glistening and round and huge and pink -- can no longer contain it.
It glides down her nose -- and falls off the very tip.
Suspended in midair, lit distantly by the blue fluorescence of the fountain, diffused through the fog, it is pink on one side and purple on the other.
And white on the bottom, until the exact moment that it splashes onto Kyuubey's ragged fur. It sinks into it instantly and is gone.
But there are no more. Madoka stands poleaxed, arrested completely by Homura's breakdown. Some hours ago when Sayaka broke down, Madoka panicked when she didn't know the magic words to fix things, to make it all better, to bring her back from the edge of the abyss that she was so obviously about to plunge into -- even if the literality of that metaphor was an as-yet unrevealed surprise.
Some of it, now, is shock; shock from the murder she's just witnessed. It would be completely reasonable for this straw to break her poor camel's back (again, let us not pretend that she hasn't broken already tonight, repeatedly even).
Homura's behavior is shocking, too, by any metric of the mysterious, obsessed girl's behavior. The words themselves are perhaps not so surprising. Even the passion is not shocking in itself -- still waters run very deep. But something profound has been laid bare here, something more than just passion. Something more terrible, something sharper, something much more sad. This misery, the totality of this broken heart...
Some of it is compassion; Madoka responds.
She always does. There is no surer way into her heart than to give her feelings to empathize with, and Homura is perfectly expressing the Madoka inside who grieves for Sayaka, for Mami, for Kyouko and for Eri and even for Homura. For Kozue. For herself.
Her heart pounds in her chest and she aches, she aches with the need to do something, something for her, for this suffering stranger, sometimes friend and sometimes bully. Ah, but she wants to help.
But it is not her shock, and it is not her kindness, that stops her tears and her eyelids too, that leaves her as surely frozen as the many Madokas Homura has observed across the dim gray veil of time. It rises within her like the fog all around them, like a thick and cloying mist.
It quivers uneasily in her belly, in the back of her throat, on the tip of her tongue. It's the tears, Homura's tears, that agonize with their sheer and raw nostalgia. The quavering in her hands, the trembling of her fallen form.
It's the wrong thing to feel -- disquieting in its inexplicability but more profoundly in its dissonance. Homura lies crying at her feet, and Madoka is feeling deja vu? But even the coiling snake of guilt in her gut, of self-consciousness, cannot consume this bizarre serpent. It has constricted at her very core.
Through dry eyes -- bewildered eyes -- dissociating eyes, the only possible defense from feeling something that she oughtn't to be feeling --
-- as if it were all a dream --
-- Madoka stares down at Homura, at this Homura she knows, she knows as well as her own reflection.
The truth leaks out as a question. It is not a shocked question. It is not a kind question. It is almost like the words speak themselves, voiced by another Madoka, or the thing that has taken root within her. The serpent inside Madoka has a rosebud for a head, and it blossoms into Madoka's face. Madoka's face, crying.
Familiar words, and not really a question at all, though that slender sliver of Madoka that is still only this Madoka, from this singular world, beats her wings against the cage of her soul with her desperation to know the answer. But she is not at the wheel right now, or at least not tied to it by more than the most fragile red thread.
"Have the two of us... met... somewhere before?"
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed. <SoundTracker> Something I Can Never Have - Flyleaf cover https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEVOVN24R08
The pitiable crumple of a girl at Madoka's feet hears the question, and each hesitant word hammers pain and hope alike into her battered psyche. And really, how much difference is there between them for Homura Akemi right now? She hasn't allowed herself hope, not of this sort, in a very long time.
It's a knife's edge Homura runs. She is not entirely without hope -- if she was, she'd have already suffered her blue-haired enemy's current fate, her Soul Gem lost to the untender convulsions of its final transformation. Homura seeks it in the permutations of timelines, growing between cracks in the grey expanse of repetition like dandelions through gaps in hard pavement. She keeps her head above the drowning waves of despair by knowing that she, and she alone, is the one who can save Madoka.
That was her very specific wish, after all. To be the one to save Madoka.
Homura has tried to save so many Madokas, tried and failed so many times, and never has she dreamed that the long sacrifice that is her existence might be acknowledged. That Madoka might somehow see, and understand, everything she's done... Understand why she's had to be so cruel.
Then Homura hears that question and suddenly, suddenly there is a hint of connection -- that this Madoka hears the others over the drowning susurrus of hourglass sands draining away, somehow. It is inexplicable, and so it is terrifying, but...
A new and harrowing hope blooms in the dead depths of Homura's chest. Perhaps it revives; who could say for sure, watching that boneyard of fossilized dreams?
She wants to tell her.
She tries. She tries, tries to say the words, to tell the girl who rescued her fading heart that she is just trying to repay an unpayable debt by saving her gentle soul. Homura tries to tell her how very long ago they first met. She tries to tell her how many times they've met.
How she wouldn't take back a single thing. How every time they meet again it is worth it, no matter how much Homura suffered in the last time loop's decline and how terrible her failure. How Homura's existence will only be worth anything at all if she can finally save the girl she loves.
Homura wants to tell Madoka everything, wants to tell her so badly...
She tries, and nothing comes out except strangled agony, high pitched and pitiful.
She tries and -- in silence, a raised hand with hesitant fingers falls short of bridging the gap between them.
She tries and all that comes out is, "I'm sorry..."
Madoka is right there, close enough to touch, but the distance is too much for Homura to breach. Insurmountable. She could not be further from the girl she loves in this moment, and knows it to be her fault. Just like the rest of it: the fear and pain Madoka has suffered, the grief at Mami Tomoe and Sayaka Miki's deaths, the terrible truths and their terrible telling. The wish she just almost made, despite everything.
Homura whimpers and her back gives a hitching shudder. Once, then again. Over and over.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
They say it at exactly the same time, Madoka a minor third above Homura's.
One girl reaches desperately towards the other, but that moment of clarity -- that moment of transcendence -- that magic moment, that miraculous moment --
Like everything in the world of Homura Akemi, it runs on borrowed time.
And time... always runs out.
Madoka drowns in a dream of sand.
Her tears return -- as tears do, when the eye is aggravated, when the heart is overwhelmed.
Is it 'reality' that's reasserting herself inside her fluffy pink head?
What is real? Homura is real. Her tears are real. Her suffering is real.
How many Madokas look back at Homura -- and how many Homuras do they see?
Just one -- and just one.
Madoka's suffering is real too.
"I'm sorry," she whimpers, in unison.
What does she know about this girl? This stranger, this secret-keeper, this friend and this savior? This bully and this terror?
She's not the only one suffering.
Sayaka -- Sayaka is dead -- and -- and the reason Homura's pain is familiar is because it reminds Madoka of the living.
She has to -- she has to help the one whose heart is broken.
She has to help the one who's been left behind.
She has to help her.
She has to help
"Kozue," Madoka inhales frantically, breaching the surface of the deep, dark ocean of fate and clinging to the fractured driftwood of herself, of her life. "She's... she's all alone. I've got to find Kozue."
Through an all-but-opaque layer of tears, she looks down at Homura Akemi, who loves her, but she doesn't know why.
"I'm so sorry," she repeats. And she means it. She's so sorry that she can't help this girl collapsed in front of her.
She just doesn't know how.
She just doesn't know her.
She just doesn't know.
She can't lose Kozue too.
She just can't.
Casting Homura a final, agonized, terrified look, Madoka turns and vanishes into the fog. Soon, not even the reckless slapping sound of her soles on the concrete remains, and Homura is alone.
But Homura isn't really, is she?
Something wholly indifferent to the power of privacy is watching her.
Something ignorant of what might have happened, if only this human had been left to writhe in the nadir of her heart.
It's just as well. If it understood -- it would have let it happen.
A voice blossoms in her mind -- Madoka's silent partner, the other half of the conversation she interrupted, the part she could not hear.
But she can hear it now.
<< You knew there was no point in doing that. You just never learn, huh? I have countless spares, of course, but making me use them up for no reason like this... it's wasteful. >>
It leaps down onto the bench from a nearby tree.
It lands neatly, delicately.
And neatly, delicately, it bends its head to the corpse beside it --
-- opens its mouth --
-- and starts to eat.
Kyuubey is confused by human values and in any event, the fluff -- it is fluffy, the corpse, when torn to bite-sized pieces, as fluffy as Madoka's hair, and as pink too, when the red inside and white outside blend together -- traveling down its throat, does not in any way inhibit its ability to speak. It has no vocal cords, after all.
<< You've killed me so many times, >> it continues, matter-of-factly, as the old Kyuubey vanishes into the new Kyuubey without any apparent change in the latter's size or shape. << But this time ... maybe it wasn't a waste. I was finally able to see what your magical specialty is, Homura Akemi. >>
Its throat pulses as it gulps -- its chin lifts as it looks up from its meal -- from its recycling process -- to look straight at her.
Oh, it is hungry, but not for its own flesh.
It is hungry for truth.
It is hungry for answers.
<< That was Time Magic, wasn't it? >>
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed. <SoundTracker> Aphelion - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2iT6YPfdXo
Each of them is sorry, and it is a wall between them. They are not sorry together.
Hearing the burden of her flood of pain reflected in Madoka's voice just makes it all worse to Homura, knowing she has further added unnecessarily to the awful emotional toll of the night.
What a neat little spiral of misery for her to slide down. If she was stronger, she'd stop this shameful sobbing. If she was better at this, she would never have broken down in the first place. Oh, it is an ascetic's pride Homura Akemi has taken in her whiteknuckled endurance over the course of stolen timelines, and that pride is part of the desperate scaffolding boxing her in and holding her up. Now it crumples just like she has.
She hears Madoka through her own inarticulate misery, and balls up further like her curled back could somehow protect her from words that fall like lashes, all unintended. The girl with the kind, brave heart sees how alone Kozue is, even through her own fresh grief.
Just like with Sayaka Miki before this, and on so many other occasions in this timeline and timelines gone -- Madoka has to save everyone else, even as Homura tries desperately to save her.
Sharp footfalls recede into the mist and echo off of other moments just like it, other times Madoka has fled Homura, terrified and crying. Why? Why can't she ever catch up to Madoka, no matter how hard she tries?
Why must the girl she loves forever run away from her?
The bent bow of her spine shuddering, Homura drenches the inner crook of what was a perfect white sleeve with saltwater and snot. She'd forgotten how much it hurts to cry like this--
(no she hasn't, she just refuses to access those memories)
--and her chest aches, her eyes sear, her throat twists till she is sure it will knot itself closed. It's worse than any gruesome injury she has taken in an existence punctuated by apocalyptic violence, and this she cannot fix with the press of a Grief Seed. The wrack of a guttered soul finds no balm in such magics.
Madoka can't let Sayaka Miki's widowed girlfriend be alone, and so she leaves Homura alone instead to sob until it feels like her flawed grey heart will dissect inside her ribcage.
But... she is not alone, not really. The adversary lies in wait.
That hated chirp slithers into her head and where it goes, fear trails a crackling frost behind.
A bucket of ice water dumped on her could produce no deeper shock. The unstoppable crying that Homura thought would consume her from the inside out ceases like the creature cranks some spigot shut in her. Her shoulders still; she stills.
Her next movement is executed with care that any cornered prey might envy. Surreptitiously Homura smears shut and swimming eyes across her sleeve as she rocks forward with toes stretched, then curls back again to stand.
Homura comes up dry-faced but red still stains parchment cheeks from the force of her crying, though the blood is quickly draining. She shoves an arm behind her to hide the wet ruin of her sleeve and glares, and she has enough practice at hiding terror under anger that the expression comes easily despite everything.
The first time she witnessed this vile autocannibalism, revulsion got the best of a younger and incompletely hardened Homura and she'd lost the contents of her stomach even as her enemy regained contents, stomach, and perforated corpus. Tonight it helps to anchor a grief-stricken girl better to her hatred. She locks her knees and brushes free a few vagabond strands of dislodged hair, then locks gaze with those inhuman eyes, red within red in a head as round as a clock face.
'That was Time Magic, wasn't it?'
Dread stabs between Homura's ribs, a stiletto sliding home.
Even with her stolen lifetimes of experience in concealing pain and misery, the puella magi has the look of the gravely wounded: a round-eyed shock as disbelief in one's own mortality bleeds out, beyond revival. Some corner of her mind registers that this, too, is her fault: she's normally so careful to never use her magic to murder the beast, to not tip her hand too far, too publicly. Tonight she lost control, and this is what she reaps.
The shock on her face is an unwilling confirmation, whether such was strictly needed or not. Another bit of lost control, and more ground lost to the enemy along with it. Homura's hands shake again. She digs nails into palms as if fingers could drive straight through flesh and skewer the tremor dead. The twin twist of pain helps get a frozen brain moving again.
There's no denying it. Too late, no point. She could run away from this, but makes no move toward her shield and another fresh start. Walpurgisnacht nears, and this timeline... this just might be the one.
But she can pretend like it doesn't matter. She can pretend she still has the upper hand somehow, even if it feels like there's a neat, delicate white paw shoving her under. Homura reaches for acidic bravado instead of her shield.
"You don't know everything."
Just too much.
Homura knows things, too. She stoops and locates the hefty stock of the fallen Mossberg without looking, then straightens and slides the shotgun into the strange between-space behind esoteric clockwork. Considerable effort goes to making the movement smooth and unhurried.
She has other weapons. "If you think that was pointless, you might as well know nothing at all. And I have learned plenty. You'll always be one step behind me... Incubator."
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Red eyes stare at Homura, as she controls herself (or not), as she pushes back (or not). The Incubator's gaze is as absolutely steady as it would be if it were washed out in shades of timeless gray. The creature doesn't have nervous tics. It doesn't even have instinctual ones; absence the need for the pretense of cuteness -- of organic origin, even -- all unnecessary motions are abandoned. No ear perks. No flicks of the tail. So often Kyuubey looks like its peers among the plushies on Madoka Kaname's bedroom shelf, but never moreso than now.
Except for those eyes.
They aren't empty, except of emotion. They aren't blank, except as boxes that might be checked 'humanity'. What looks out from behind them is calmly alien. Not in the extranational or extraterrestrial sense. In the incomprehensible sense.
It goes both ways. Homura knows that; the Incubator is perversely proud of announcing its continuous befuddlement over the nature of humans and their strange behaviors.
As casually as the Puella Magi stows her gun, Kyuubey stows the rest of its destroyed body inside itself, without ever looking away from her, the motion of its jaw mechanical. Not even a trace is left. There were two and now there is one. The bench is exactly as clean as it was before, which is to say, a little bit dirty. Even the salt from Madoka's tears is still there. That which didn't drip directly onto the fur, that is.
With a complete lack of inflection, it destroys Homura's assertion as thoroughly as she destroyed its last body.
<< I know you come from countless other timelines. I know why you've been trying so hard to interfere with me. >>
The Incubator swallows the last big bulge in its throat.
<< Madoka Kaname. >>
Said that levelly, it could almost be its meaning instead of a name -- 'keystone of the circle'.
<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
Two cold beings regard each other, but Homura's cool is ultimately as terrestrial, as mortal, as it is fake. The Incubator commands the alien menace of absolute zero. It drops that cuddly facade, sweet as antifreeze, as no longer needed -- and the time traveler clings to hers all the harder, only just suppressing an all too human shiver.
To face the devil unmasked, amid grey mists...
Madoka saw truly in Linden Baum when she'd asked if the fearsome puella across from her was okay, because she was seeing with her heart. Homura's a girl, too.
And she's so very frightened.
Bravado fails her. It knows... if not everything, then far too much. It knows enough. How? Where did she slip? What will it do with this knowledge?
"You... You're going to fail. Nothing you can do will stop me." That, Homura hisses with conviction. With emotion. "Not until she's safe from you and your lies. It doesn't matter how many times I have to try. I just have to beat you once."
There is an insidious release of pressure as she bares these words to the air. This is the secret she could not share with the girl she loves, that lodged in her throat and only came out as agonized squeaks. Homura nearly asphyxiated on those impossible words only minutes ago. She does not examine the relief, nor the insinuation that she might be closer to her greatest enemy than her very best friend in the whole world.
This is her truth, exposed like bone.
She glares and ignores the sting of strained tear ducts. To hell with the Incubator. "Madoka is the only thing that matters." A fine pale chin rises. Homura will just make sure it doesn't matter, one way or another, whether the wish-peddler knows.
<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<< Yes, >> the Incubator agrees, sitting up straight on its haunches again.
<< You've made that absolutely true. >>
Cheshire cats disappear by smiling, the expression vanishing at the last.
Incubators disappear expressionlessly. And not all at once. The wind picks up, tossing leaves and a bit of litter into the air. Homura's mane, too.
By the time it has fallen, her nemesis is gone.