Nagisa had to act as a crutch as she led Mami up the stairs to the apartment. Every few steps, the elder's knees would buckle and she would need to pause to catch her breath. An incessant ringing hung in her ears—Nagisa's worried pleas were largely incomprehensible as they made their way to their floor.
Mami's breaths were heavy and exhausted as she drew her key, missing the slot to her door a few times before shakily inserting it. Nagisa led her inside as she immediately collapsed on the couch. Gentle tears were visible in Mami's eyes, a mixture of physical and emotional distress.
Nagisa was in a muted panic, refusing to let her concern control her actions, but in a fragile state nonetheless. She set a pot on the stove for tea, hoping that would help Mami recover to some degree. As soon as the stove was on, she headed back to Mami's side.
"I'll be fine, Nagisa…" Mami mumbled, her voice riddled with a subtle quiver. "Please don't worry about me."
Nagisa shook her head. Her voice was equally shaky: "You're not okay. Don't say you are. You need help so please just let me help you!" She could feel a tear escape her eye and stream down her cheek, which she quickly wiped away, trying to keep her composure. "I almost lost you… I'm not going to let that happen again now that you're sick!"
"I'm not sick, I'm just tired…" Mami airly commented. Her eyes barely seemed to acknowledge Nagisa's presence. The child took her hand and reached for the ring around her finger. With a little concentration, the ring shifted into its egg-shaped form, falling gingerly into Nagisa's hands.
As suspected, shadows swirled over its orange surface. Before long, such a process would lose the soul to the Law of the Cycle. Nagisa's breathing grew sharper and more concerned. If there was going to be any chance of sparing Mami from being lost to the Law of the Cycle, she would need to act decisively and carefully.
Mami had realized what Nagisa was looking at, but was too dazed to take note of the details. "It's not too bad, is it?"
Nagisa could feel her mouth curl into an uncomfortable frown. "You're fine, senpai, just… please try to rest… And please stay calm…" Mami's vision was too blurry to notice the tears occasionally escaping from the corners of Nagisa's eyes. The responsibility of someone's life was too much for a child to bear, but she was determined to bear it as best she could.
She set the gem down on the coffee table as her mind desperately tried to sort out a solution: where she could find enough wraiths to fight on her own, the best strategy for acquiring curse fragments, who she could trust for help—
She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that the sudden hiss of the kettle, coupled with a well-timed knock at the door evoked a startled scream. Mami suddenly bolted awake, sitting upright as her hand instinctively went for her gem. With a single, rapid motion, she drew a burning gold ribbon from its core which immediately reshaped into a flintlock pistol, so hastily made that it was unraveling at the stock. She immediately pointed the gun at the kettle, her eyes locked on what she perceived as a threat, though fortunately she didn't shoot.
Nagisa's arms were up in a panic, trying to urge Mami to calm down. There was another knock as Mami finally relaxed, slumping back against the couch and closing her eyes again. The pistol evaporated from her hand as Nagisa went to the door.
"Homura-san?" Nagisa asked timidly, taking a step back. Homura allowed herself in without a word. Mami's eyes didn't even open to acknowledge her.
"It seems Sayaka was successful… Good." Homura didn't turn her head to acknowledge Nagisa as she spoke, moving to kneel on a cushion by the coffee table, leaning in to inspect the soul gem. "Nagisa, please tend to the kettle. The hissing is quite unnecessary, though tea would be appreciated."
Nagisa hesitated but obeyed. Homura meant well, that much she knew. She proceeded to take out a few cups and prepare some tea for Homura and Mami.
"Please don't…" Mami muttered weakly. Homura was placing a few black fragments around Mami's soul gem.
"You're in no condition to protest," Homura commented as the curses began to sap the shadows from the gem. As Nagisa returned with the tea, Mami's soul gem was no longer overwhelmed with shadows. While it still lacked any glow or shine, it was healthy enough to survive.
Mami leaned back in her seat, her breathing a little less heavy, much to Nagisa's relief. There was silence. Nagisa knelt down on another cushion, sighing, grateful for Homura's intervention.
However, without warning, Mami suddenly snapped alert again, recreating the flintlock from before and pointing it directly at Homura.
Nagisa gasped, stifling her terror, though Homura didn't flinch. "I don't recall asking for your help, Akemi-san," Mami asserted. Her voice was tense and occasionally she'd tremble. As she spoke, her voice randomly would crack. "I don't know what you've been planning, where you've been, whose side you're on… I just… I don't like it. I don't want this." She sniffed, gritting her teeth. There were tears in her eyes. "You disappear for days and then only show up when there's trouble. It's too convenient."
Homura patiently rose to her feet, dismissively giving her hair a toss. Mami kept her gun trained on her. "Always the same with you, isn't it?" Homura mused, slight irritation in her voice.
"Mami… please calm down… you're scaring me…" Nagisa whimpered.
"Be quiet, Nagisa!" Mami shouted. Nagisa flinched. She could feel her eyes welling up again, this time not out of fear or panic. Mami turned back to Homura, demanding with a shaky voice: "Explain yourself."
"This is a rather poor way to thank someone for saving your life," Homura began. "I feel like I should be questioning you."
"Why did you intervene?" Mami began interrogating. "Why save my life? What about Sayaka? She's in just as bad a state, she deserves—"
"She matters simply because you would blame yourself if she were to die?" Homura inserted. Mami blinked, temporarily relaxing her grip. "I would have opted to leave you both to your fate. Magical girls who can no longer fight are no longer useful. Sakura-san insisted I help you, however, while she went to look for Sayaka." Homura gave another dismissive brush of her hair. "While I feel it would have been more tactical to save the gathered curses, I will admit that it is still fair to say you have a small stake in them, considering you initiated the battle."
Mami's edge was starting to wane, but she kept her gun raised. "I don't deserve nor want your pity… If… If Sayaka dies—"
"Mami—" Nagisa attempted to interject.
"Quiet!" Mami snapped again.
Homura took advantage of the distraction to step forward and swiftly struck Mami across the face, causing her to drop her pistol. "You're hardly in the right mind to suggest such foolish things such as pride or pity," she stated coldly. "Stop and look at yourself. You're so caught up into trying to save a life that you're neglecting those who are trying to save yours!"
Mami didn't turn her head back to face Homura, her cheek marked red. Nagisa was covering her mouth with her hands in shock. There was no response for several seconds. Homura turned to start heading to the door. "I took pity on you because I've experienced the same hell of trying to save someone countless times. You have the blessing of it not ending in perpetual failure." She stepped back again, her eyes cold. "You've always pushed yourself beyond your limits yet kept up an arrogant facade despite having the weakest heart. I elected to ignore that this final time in hopes that I could maybe see you as a friend. Even now, with nothing to lose, I'm questioning if that was a mistake."
Her words were cryptic. Without turning back, Homura headed out the door, leaving her tea untouched on the table. Nagisa bolted to her feet and immediately took off after her.
"Nagisa-!" Mami called, reaching out her arm only to be ignored. She hesitated before relaxing, taking a deep breath. She knew Nagisa wasn't going far. Gingerly, she reached up to feel the area where Homura had struck her—it still stung slightly, though upon reflection she fathomed she deserved it. She reached for her cup of tea.
Outside, Homura had stopped before the stairs, noticing Nagisa approaching from behind. Nagisa skidded to a stop, immediately taking a bow as Homura turned to acknowledge her.
"Thank you for helping Mami…" she sheepishly stated. "Please don't think ill of Mami-san for what she did, she's just—"
"I don't think any less of her than I did before," Homura responded, her gaze still unreadable, but her voice a little more gentle when dealing with the child.
Nagisa shuffled her stance a bit, a question burning in her mind. "Homura-san… Did you know Mami before?"
"You could say that. She wouldn't know of it, however." She turned her head towards the stairwell solemnly. "She'll never admit that she needs help, especially from you as her student. Still, you'll need to care for her for a while. Make sure she's in a better mood for when Sakura-san comes by." As she turned her head back, her gaze was more patient, with a small, understanding smile.
Nagisa raised her head, a bit taken aback by the sudden amiability, but gave a competent nod. Homura turned to head down the stairs once more.
Where are you, blockhead…
Mitakihara seemed bigger than normal. Kyouko Sakura, garbed in her red robe, lept from building to building, eyes scouring the dimly lit streets in search of said 'blockhead.' She needed answers, and Sayaka had them, yet no trace of her could be found, not even the faintest sign of magical energy. Before long, Kyouko found herself a few buildings apart from Sayaka's home, her search thus far remaining fruitless.
She shuffled atop a roof, jamming a stick of pocky into her mouth, and started to mull over her thoughts. There had to be an explanation. Sayaka was fairly quick to move, that much she could remember… unless, maybe she was injured? That would explain why she hadn't made it home yet. That said, she technically should've still made it back home by now, given how long it had taken Kyouko to finish off the wraiths with Homura.
This, of course, agitated Kyouko. Say Sayaka were injured: if she were to be attacked in her weakened state, would she survive? An even graver thought crossed her mind: what if she was so weak that she had already been lost to the Cycle? That didn't make sense either, however; Sayaka had been in healthy, fighting condition when Kyouko had intervened.
She shook her head and jumped off the roof, dissolving her magical robe as she began to trace back through the streets, this time at ground level. No, if Sayaka were attacked, she'd still be more than able to fight back, and that would've given off more than enough energy to find her.
Idiot, better not be dead… Her eyes focused on the ground, frustrated, trying to hide her anxiety. Please don't be dead.
Her wandering led her down a few streets to an open road a few blocks from Sayaka's home, the only noteworthy object in her path being a bus stop along the side of the road. With a sigh she meandered under its cover to sit down, hugging her light jacket a little tighter with a shiver. I need to get new clothes, she thought to herself, finding her shorts a little inadequate to keep her legs from forming goosebumps.
She had already polished off her stick of pocky and reached to her pocket to get another, only to find her box was empty. She groaned.
"Is something wrong, Kyouko Sakura?" a voice echoed in her head. She bolted upright, noticing the shadowy, red-eyed incubator sitting a few feet before her.
"Kyubey…" she growled at first below her breath. "Is Sayaka still alive?" she promptly asked, ignoring any further introductions.
The incubator's tail swished behind him. "It would seem so, for now."
"Do you know where she is?" she continued.
"I do not. Her magic is very weak at the moment." If that were true, then something had injured Sayaka. Kyubey dared to step closer. "I'm curious as to why you intervened in that last fight. Considering your injuries it seemed far from lucrative."
"I'm fine," she insisted.
"Can you say the same of your soul gem?" Kyubey asked. Kyouko eyed him suspiciously, before conjuring her gem in her hand. As it rest in her palm, it failed to reflect any of the light from the street lamps nearby. A few black markings swirled around it.
"It's fine. I can get by," Kyouko insisted.
"You have spoils from the recent battle, why not—" he began.
"So being cautious is suddenly illogical?" Kyouko snapped. "Besides, if Sayaka's weak right now, I'd rather make sure she gets a cut."
"What does helping her gain you? Do you two have an agreement? I rarely have seen you two so much as talk," Kyubey continued questioning.
Kyouko dismissed her soul gem, leaning back and crossing her legs as she looked down at the incubator with an annoyed brow. "Why do you care so much?" Kyubey's ear suddenly twitched. "I don't need to explain myself. She helped with the fight, she should get something for it."
Kyubey's head was turned. "You're not even listening now, are you?" Kyouko grunted before sighing.
Kyubey's tail swished again. "Rather it would seem Sayaka's coming this way now." Kyouko sat up, before getting to her feet. She peered out from the bus stop to see a staggering figure off in the distance.
The dim streetlights were enough to reveal that it was indeed Sayaka Miki. Kyouko started to approach, surprised at her own relief. The figure's head was bowed, slowly dragging its feet. At about 20 meters out, Kyouko called out: "Oi, Sayaka?"
They both stopped. Sayaka slowly raised her head. Her face seemed worn and tired. "You alright?" Kyouko continued. She began to take a few steps closer. Sayaka's gaze shifted downward again, not even acknowledging Kyouko as she drew within arm's length.
"...Sorry," she muttered. She dragged one foot forward to start to stumble onwards again, almost tripping. Kyouko reached out to grab her arm, catching her.
"Idiot…" Kyouko muttered, propping Sayaka against her shoulder. She let out a sigh. "...Thanks, by the way."
The two staggered on for a few more steps before Sayaka finally acknowledged her. "For what?"
"For saving Mami," Kyouko explained. She reached over and deposited half of her spoils into Sayaka's pocket. "Here. Now we're even."
Sayaka tensed up as Kyouko imparted the fragments. The two slowly passed the bus stop as Kyubey curiously but silently watched them press on.
"I don't deserve these… I didn't save anyone," Sayaka finally muttered slowly. "I made the kid do all the work."
"Yeah right, stop tryin' to be modest. You're the one with healing magic," Kyouko retorted. She sighed. "Honestly I was originally tryin' to find you so I could chew you out for getting in over your heads like that… I'm giving you a pass just this once."
Sayaka suddenly stopped walking. "I can't heal anything," she murmurred. Kyouko looked at her quizzically. "Every time I tried, it failed." She avoided eye contact, her head staying bowed. "Sorry for being useless..."
It took Kyouko a minute to realize what she was saying. Sayaka reached into her pocket. "Take these back… You at least can do more than I can." Sayaka's cryptic murmurs suddenly clicked within Kyouko as she reached out to grip Sayaka's fist, keeping it closed.
"Goddammit…" Kyouko muttered through grit teeth, averting her gaze. She gave a sigh, before looking at Sayaka again, their gazes finally meeting for the first time since the encounter started. She struggled on how to formulate her sentences, but held her stare. "If you call yourself useless again I'm gonna punch you… But if what you're saying is true, then you need these more than I do, and if you say otherwise then I'm gonna punch you a second time."
"If I can't be of use to anyone, what good am I?" Sayaka somberly asked.
Kyouko's grip tightened around Sayaka's fist. She averted her gaze, stumbling over her next words. "Oh cut the emo crap. If you give up on everything I'll punch you until you get back on your feet…. You held your own against me when we first met. Givin' up and being weak like that just makes me look weak…" She sighed, before staring at Sayaka again. "I guess what I'm saying is... if you can't find a reason to fight for yourself, at least do it for others. Mami and Nagisa would lose their shit if you gave in." Her eyes shifted once more. "I think I would too…"
There was silence for a moment. Kyouko's grip finally relaxed. "Yeah, magic helps, but you don't need it to define how you survive. You gotta adapt, find new ways to survive." Sayaka's hand slowly dropped to her side as she pocketed the curse fragments once more, submitting to Kyouko's request. The two stared at one another for some time, before Sayaka, still expressionless, broke the silence: "Fine. I'll try. I won't promise anything… but I'll try."
"Good enough," Kyouko confirmed. Sayaka began to move forward again, this time on her own. Her steps were still slow and deliberate, but were slightly less stumbling.
"I do not think you have enough fragments left over for yourself, Kyouko Sakura," Kyubey commented, still sitting by the bus stop.
Kyouko only turned her head briefly to acknowledge him, before stretching, placing her hands behind her head. "Would you relax?"
"Agitation is not something I am capable of experiencing. However, it is highly unlikely that both you and Sayaka Miki will be able to survive at this point without deliberate and careful action," he almost dismissively stated. "It seems like a waste for two puella magi to die instead of one."
Kyouko dismissed his forebodings with a roll of her eyes. "Hey, Kyubey?"
"What is it?"