Chapter 22: Recovery and Recuperation, Part II

The Lighthouse, Vertex Point One

As the bright, hazy lights above her began to resolve into distinct shapes, Minako Aino felt a moment of confusion. This wasn't her bedroom, or her trailer… but the furry weight sitting curled on her belly could only be Artemis, and the noise like a runaway chainsaw from one corner had to be Usagi. No one else could snore like that.

A hospital? From what little she could tell, the room was too clean and orderly to be any of hers, or Usagi's. Overwork, maybe? That last concert in Berlin was a killer. Minako stirred and tried to sit up.

"Lie still, Minako." A voice as gentle as the ocean waves, and a hand resting on her shoulder. "Don't worry, you're safe."

Michiru-san, said Minako. Now she remembered; the battle with Joker and those Witch things outside of Osa-P. Bizarre monsters, chaos, the world melting around her... What happened? Where is everybody?

It took an unusually long time for Michiru to answer. "It's just me, Usagi, Chibi-Usa, Hotaru, and the Reis… along with Luna, Artemis, Diana, and Naru and Gurio Umino." A painful pause as she looked down at her opposite arm, swaddled in a cast and hanging from a cloth sling. "No one else made it here."

Cold swirled in Minako's belly. At least there were survivors, but if all the others were gone… Wait, where's here?

Michiru wasn't listening. She leaned over and gave Usagi's leg a hard pinch…

"Uwaaah!" The chair Usagi was sitting in fell to the tile floor with a crash, Usagi herself following an instant later. "Sakurada-sensei, I wasn't sleeping, honest!" she squealed out of habit. "I- Oh! Michiru-san, what was-" Then she stopped, her jaw hanging open. "Minako-chan! You're awake, thank God!"

Minako laughed as Usagi dove over the bed to embrace her, narrowly missing Artemis, who awoke from his nap with an angry hiss.

"Minako-chan… I was so worried…!"

It's okay, Usagi-chan. I'm here, I'm all right.

"Yeah, I could tell you were. Warn me next time," said a cranky voice from below.

"Sorry, Artemis! Are you okay?"

The white cat hopped back up onto the bed. "I am now. Welcome back, Mina, you gave us quite a scare there."

It takes more than some badly-dressed clown to get rid of me. Minako reached over and scritched him behind the ears, in the good place.

"Mina…?" Something was wrong. Artemis put a paw on her knee, his whiskers drooping. "What's the matter?"

What do you mean, what's the matter?! said Minako, indignant. What are you looking at me like that for? Is there something on my face, or what?

Usagi interrupted her. "Minako-chan? Minako-chan, please, say something-"

I am saying something! Can't you hear me talking to-

Dawning realization broke across all of their faces at once. It was as if the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees in an instant.

No. Oh no. Minako felt herself mouthing the words, but the only sound she heard was from her own thoughts. With a trembling hand, she reached up to touch her throat, still bearing faint marks from where the clown tried to strangle her… No, she remembered. Not strangling. He held her there and drew some kind of weird black card, and then-

He took my voice.

He took… my voice...


The flames cast flurries of dancing shadows on the walls of the dark room, a recreation of the Hikawa Shrine's inner sanctum. The fire crackled and hissed and spat merry glowing embers, but the figure seated in front of it paid no attention. She watched not the flames, but the spaces between them, searching within them for guidance as she chanted mantras in a low voice.

Rei Hino. She was still Rei Hino, Sailor Mars. That much was certain, at least. However, now that two very different Rei Hinos had become one inexplicable being, it became that much harder to calm her mind and focus properly on the fire reading.

Half of her advised patience, rational thinking, and careful planning. That half recognized that until they had some more effective way of fighting back, taking on the forces of Dead End would be suicidal.

It wasn't easy to listen to that half, when the other half demanded to rush out and make Joker pay for every person he hurt and for every monstrous thing he had done to them or to anyone else. In that half, a fire roared hotter than any she could produce as Sailor Mars, enraged by the injustices done and burning with an all-consuming need to do something about it, dammit.

She was Rei Hino, Sailor Mars. Both of them were, and yet somehow she/they were more than the sum of her/their parts. And yet, the fusion was unstable… she didn't have to fully understand the situation to understand that. Rei occasionally caught sight of glowing embers falling from the red streaks in her hair, or a tongue of flame visible for an instant in the pupil of her eye when she looked in the mirror, or parts of her body glitching out of being like images on a corrupted computer screen before snapping back into solid form. Rei tried every meditation method she knew to keep herself together, but she couldn't shake the fear that if her self-control slipped, even for a moment… she would split apart at the seams.

The visions weren't helping. Rei was used to reading ominous signs in the flames. They happened often enough that she usually wasn't bothered by them. Even after Galaxia, there were portents of impending doom roughly once a month… though they were far less specific and direct threats than they were in her Senshi days.

Now, though, whether it was the fusion, the new locale, or something else, the images she saw in the flames were uniformly grim and bloody: cities burning. Entire worlds destroyed. Unthinkable suffering. Rivers of innocent blood. Friends and allies corrupted into enemies. Space and time crumbling. And behind it all, a madman in a mask, laughing at her, always laughing…

Worse, though, than the visions, than the confusion of her new state of being, than the destruction of her peaceful life, was what Usagi told them all when she came back from that first meeting at the Crossroads. Rei's eyebrows knit together in a hard line as she stumbled over the recitation of her mantra. No matter how hard she tried to keep focused, whenever she thought about Fantine's true purpose in bringing them all here, how she intended to keep them there, even after explaining what Joker had done… the flames inside her burned hotter than stars...


The Crossroads of the Lighthouse

Before

"Bullshit!" shouted Cure Black.

Fiery redness colored Madoka's cheeks as she clapped her hands over her mouth in shock.

As if to ensure that her feelings on the matter were clear, Black stomped her foot and said it again. "Bullshit!" she spat to the winged spark. "You bring us here, you go through the trouble of getting us all together, and now you expect us not to fight?! I don't believe this!"

"I have to agree with Misumi-san," said Nanoha, her brows creasing. "Though I wouldn't exactly put it that way."

"I understand that you're upset-" Fantine began.

"Damn right I am! Our homes, our friends, our loved ones, our worlds are all dying or worse… we can't just sit back and do nothing!"

"Cure Black," said Fantine. Her voice sounded older than it had a moment ago. "You don't know what it is you're suggesting. The powers you're up against aren't like the villains you've fought before."

"So what?! If we all combine our strength-"

"You'll all die that much faster," said Fantine flatly. "Once Joker finishes massing Dead End's forces, he'll wage war on reality, on the concept of creation itself. He's made sure that none of you are at your full strength, and with the weapons he has already, fighting him is worse than pointless. Sakura," she said, her avatar's wings fluttering in the Cardcaptor's direction. "How many of your Cards have been affected?"

"A-around two-thirds of them." Sakura chewed on her bottom lip.

"And I'm assuming Joker has control of most of the dangerous ones?"

"Yes."

"What about the ones that are shifting from one form to another? Do you know why it's happening to those Cards in particular?"

"No, why-"

"I suspect it's because they've been fused with counterpart Cards from another of your universe's timelines."

Sakura's lips moved, but no sound came out. Another timeline… other Cards… did that mean there was another Sakura? Another Shaoran? Another Tomoyo? It was too much. Sakura swayed on her feet. "Hoeeee~..."

The winged spark turned to Usagi. "Usagi," she said, "you've noticed too, haven't you? Something seriously wrong with your world."

Chills ran up and down Usagi's spine. "I-"

"Two sets of conflicting memories. Inconsistencies. A general sense that something's off," said Fantine. "And what's happened to Sailor Mars…"

"A-are you saying… that Joker was behind-"

"Two of your universe's primary timelines have been merged together by force." The spark dimmed. "I don't know if Joker was personally responsible, but he had a hand in it, I can promise you that. The Space-Time Door is unguarded, and by extension, the doors to all worlds, all times, are now wide open. Do you know what that means?"

Now Usagi went deathly pale. "Pluto," she whispered. "Setsuna-san… she'd never let that happen to it."

"Which means that someone has killed or captured the Guardian of Time. That's horrifying enough, but with your Silver Crystal gone..."

"Wait," said Nanoha, holding up a hand. "If it's like you say, and Joker really is causing multidimensional tempero-spatial anomalies…

"Multi… what?" Madoka's head spun with the effort of keeping track of the barrage of information.

"... then the TSAB should-"

"No," said the spark. "I know you mean well, Nanoha, but I can't have an organization like that knowing that this place exists. The ships the TSAB would send would lead Joker right to us. Do you understand? He cannot find me, or the Lighthouse."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Five

Something inside Homura nagged at her. It was annoying.

She knew that the most logical course of action for them both was to stay here in Fantine's sanctuary, as far away from Joker as possible. To wash their hands of the whole affair and forget about returning to their Earth until the danger was safely past them… if that could ever happen. Homura doubted it.

However, some part of her mind needled her, a buried part of herself insisted that she could do more.

To silence it, if nothing else, Homura went digging into pocketspace.

"Pocketspace", named as such by Kyoko in one of the timelines where they were allies, was the boundless, empty dimension where Homura stored her arsenal in the years of time loops before Madoka's ascension. In those days, it was accessed through her old clockwork shield. Now, much like with stopping time, there was no more need for the shield to do so. Browsing the space was as easy as willing it.

Most of her arsenal was gone, discarded when she fell. Guns and bombs were for lesser beings than herself. What she was looking for was not a weapon… at least, not a conventional weapon. It was buried deep, tucked away in the dark where she hoped she might one day forget it. It deserved as much.

Her fingers of power found it, wrapped around it, and pulled… It emerged from pocketspace into normal space an instant later, wrapped in an ever-shifting tesseract of light. For a moment, Homura hoped it would not respond to her. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

No such luck. It blinked its round, red eyes and stirred inside its cage, its face still frozen in that eternal eerie smile. Homura Akemi, it said via telepathy.

"Incubator," she replied by way of greeting, her voice cool.

One single Incubator, unaltered from its original state… perhaps the last such Incubator in all existence. When Homura rewrote the universe during her fall, all of them were rendered servile, her lobotomized slaves… all except one. She decided that the thought of leaving one Incubator able to comprehend what she had done to them and helpless to do anything about it was too delicious to resist. Choosing the one most responsible for trapping her in the false Mitakihara, the one she had thought of as something of a partner until it betrayed and imprisoned her? That made it all the sweeter. In a cruel stroke of irony, she trapped it inside an Isolation Field, the same technology they used against her, against Madoka.

However appropriate and satisfying it was, Homura had to admit that perhaps the effort had been wasted. By nature, Incubators had no emotions… those that developed them were considered defective, and were purged from the hive mind and destroyed. She gave them all the capacity to fear her, of course, but the lone unaltered one had no fear. It could not feel disgust over what she had done to its kind, nor would it rage impotently against its captor, no matter how much she might want it to. Changing its nature to allow it to feel these things would mean fundamentally altering what it was… and though she loathed them all to the depths of her being, for some reason she hesitated over the thought of changing this last one too. Perhaps she thought it might be useful later, or perhaps part of her was still too soft, too weak, too human. Whatever the reason, she stored it and its cage away in pocketspace, and that was that.

Now, she thought, the Incubator might finally prove useful. If it was willing to cooperate.

I must confess, it said, I didn't expect you to let me out.

"Things change," said Homura. "I require something of you. You will assist me, Incubator." Her wording made it clear that interpreting that statement as "I need your help" would be the last thing it ever did.

Kyubey peered through the angles of the cage, his curiosity spiking. The Isolation Field could block all sensory input to the prisoner inside it if its operator so wished. He noted that Homura had chosen to allow him to receive visual and stimuli. There was a telepathic connection as well, but the channel was strictly unidirectional; he could broadcast thoughts, but not intercept them. Those means of gathering data were more than enough to perceive that his present location was not at all what it appeared to be, however. This is not Earth, he said.

Incubators had a remarkable talent for stating the obvious, Homura thought. "Correct."

The visual configuration of this room resembles your home, said Kyubey, but the materials that compose it are… odd. Unlike anything we've seen before. How is that possible?

"All in due time. As I said, I require something of you."

Given that you've placed me in an Isolation Field, I see little way I could assist you at present, said Kyubey. Perhaps if you were to release me-

"No," said Homura with her deadliest, coldest glare. The temperature of the room dropped twenty degrees as she spoke the word. She expected as much from one of a race that thought of themselves as so damned superior to all other beings, but she promised herself long ago that these creatures would never fool her again. Its feeble attempt at trickery would have been amusing in other circumstances, but Homura was not in the mood to laugh. "You will stay in there until I decide otherwise. What I need from you, I can acquire through conversation alone."

Interesting, said Kyubey. He sat down on his haunches and folded his front paws together. Please, continue.

Homura shifted in her seat, choosing her words carefully. Lying was beneath these horrid little beasts (or so they claimed), but they were very skilled at half-truths and deceptions. To get the information she required from this one without destroying its brain or altering its nature, she would need to tread carefully. "I need to know," she said, "how to safely counteract an Isolation Field."

Why would you need to know that?

Again, Homura spoke carefully. "A being has appeared, a dangerous adversary, that has used your kind's technology and hybridized it with others to construct magic-nullifying devices. My power is…" She paused. Best not to show any signs of weakness to it. "They require far too much power to destroy in normal circumstances."

Kyubey tilted his head. It's an efficiency problem?

"Of sorts."

Hmm.

"Well?"

I'll need to consult with my others on this matter. Where are they?

"Gone."

That isn't possible.

"Believe what you want. Do you have an answer for me or not?"

At present, no, said Kyubey. When you say 'gone'...

Homura glowered at it. "What I mean is that that field is as much for your protection as it is for mine and Madoka's. Your kind have been corrupted, and the only way I can ensure that the same corruption doesn't claim you is to shield you from all outside influences."

That's remarkably noble of you, Homura Akemi.

"Don't misunderstand me, Incubator," she sneered. "If it weren't potentially a danger to Madoka, I'd gladly throw you out there to be corrupted with the rest of them."

But where is 'there'? And for that matter, where is here?

"Somewhere between," said Homura. "We're guests of an entity that I'm not certain I like or trust, and the feeling is mutual."

"You know I can hear both of you." Fantine's voice was flat and unamused as it came not from the comm crystal, but from the walls of the room itself.

Kyubey's long ears perked. Fascinating, he said.

"That," said Homura between clenched teeth, "is Fantine, our hostess." For lack of anything else to glare at, she glared at the ceiling as she tossed her hair back. "Do you make a habit of spying on your guests?"

"It's not as if I can help it, Miss Akemi. Especially not when one of them is bending dimensional space and communicating with a potential threat. Your powers don't lend themselves to subtlety very well."

Excuse me, said Kyubey, casting his eyes around for the voice's source. Fantine, is it? I'm very interested to know more details of the situation, but Homura is not being forthcoming.

"And she's quite smart for that," said Fantine. "We may not agree on much, but neither of us trust you."

Ah. Kyubey nodded. Under the circumstances, that's logical, I admit.

"Miss Akemi," she said to Homura, "while I recognize that we may have a need for this creature, that doesn't mean I approve of it being here. However, in the interest of pragmatism, I'll allow the Incubator to stay… on one condition."


The Crossroads of the Lighthouse

Before

"Um," said Madoka, raising a hand. "Excuse me…"

"Uwah~! Sorry, Madoka-chan, sorry!" Something about the girl brought out Usagi's protective instinct. Maybe it was the pink pigtails. "I guess we were kinda talking over you."

"Th-that's all right, Usagi-san, but-" Madoka frowned and wrung her hands together. "With all this talk about fighting and dimensions and stuff, I… I guess you're all magical girls like Homura-chan, right? But from different worlds..."

"That's right," said Fantine. When speaking to Madoka, her tone became gentle, warmer than before.

"And Homura-chan said I was one too… before."

"I guess you've gotta be," said Cure Black. "I mean, if you're here with Usagi-san and me and these other two."

"Then…" said Madoka, "what happened? Why… why did I stop being one?"

Silence all around.

The winged spark fluttered a bit slower. "... Your powers were stolen from you. Sealed away, along with some of your memories," said Fantine. "As you were before, you were a threat to Joker and all of Dead End just by yourself. In fact, you, Sakura, and Usagi are meant to become the Three-"

"The Three?" Usagi interrupted. "Three what?"

"The Three are magical girls that transcend all others, with the ability to restore everything to what it should be. Right now, none of you have the strength that that requires, so as things stand, there's no hope of winning against Dead End. If you can reawaken your true powers, though…"


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Five

"No," said Homura. After dismissing Kyubey back to pocketspace for privacy, she listened to Fantine give her proposal. Her response was prompt: "Absolutely not."

"I don't see that you have much of a choice, frankly," said Fantine. "She's asking questions about what happened to her. There's only so long that the truth can stay hidden."

"I swore I would never let her fight again."

"You won't be. I'm negotiating with the others, trying to convince them that the war is a lost cause. Getting them to see reason is… difficult, but if we do this…"

"I said no," Homura hissed.

"Miss Akemi." There was that steel in Fantine's voice again, harder and colder than before. "I've told them that if we can all survive long enough to use the powers of the Three to rebuild afterward… there's a chance. I won't lie to you: it's slim, almost nonexistent, but it's a chance. Even if it's not much, if she can give them a reason to stay here instead of throwing away their lives, if she can give them just a little bit of hope..."

Hope. The word tore at Homura's black heart. It was at once the kindest and cruelest thing that anyone could give, capable of causing as much sadness as it could joy. It was within her power to give a tiny fragment of hope back to Madoka, and for Madoka in turn to spread it to the others.

Doing so would likely mean opening Pandora's box. There was a real and terrifying possibility that if she did what Fantine was proposing, Homura would lose everything all over again, and this time, there would be no way to go back and start again.

Isn't that already the case, though? said that buried part of herself.

With trembling hands, Homura reached for the earring, stored away in pocketspace so that nothing could reach it and nothing could happen to it. As she touched it, her lips formed words that she prayed Fantine couldn't see: I'm sorry.


The Crossroads of the Lighthouse

Before

"But most of my Cards are gone," said Sakura, gazing down at the floor.

"And so is the Silver Crystal," Usagi added.

"I know." Fantine's voice was heavy, weary. "As I said, without any of the Three, there's no hope of winning. If we could awaken just one of you-"

An idea struck Madoka. It was a most peculiar idea, as if it came from someone else's mind and found its way into her head. She spoke the words as if possessed: "I could make a wish."

Four pairs of eyes and one winged spark all stared at her.

"That's how it works, isn't it?" said Madoka. "In the stories, I mean. Magical girls can make wishes come true. If I wish hard enough to become one again…"

"It shouldn't be possible," said Fantine, sounding skeptical. "But I suppose it couldn't hurt to try. Just don't be disappointed if it doesn't work… it's a long shot."

"I'm sure you can do it, Madoka-chan." Sakura came to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. Strange, how she already felt like the younger girl was a close friend.

"Sakura-chan's right, we're right here with you," said Usagi, doing likewise. There was that warm, goofy smile again.

"I dunno about all this Three stuff," said Black, "but if Sailor Moon is behind you, so am I." She flashed a grin and a thumbs-up.

"As am I," Nanoha nodded. "Just do your best."

Do your best. The words stirred something in Madoka's heart that she couldn't explain. There was so much that was confusing about all of this. These four should still be strangers to her, but… but she had the most bizarre, unshakeable feeling that she could trust all of them. That she knew all of them, perhaps from a dream.

Blushing slightly, Madoka folded her hands over her heart and closed her eyes. Digging deep into herself, she thought the words with all her might: I wish… I wish I could be a magical girl again...

And something responded. There was a pulse, like a heartbeat.

"Oh," she whispered… and light blossomed from her, bathing her in radiance. Something pushed out from inside her, hard and solid but warm to the touch, glowing from within with soft light. A pink jewel in a gold setting, almost like a Fabergé egg. Her jewel. No, she remembered now what it was called, and she knew what to say...

"Soul Gem," shouted Madoka, "transform me!"

And in a vivid pink flash, Madoka was dressed in a frilly, tiered skirt, cherry colored Mary Janes, white lace gloves… the very image that came to mind when she pictured "magical girl". The Soul Gem reformed itself into a teardrop shape and attached to her choker, then bonded to her skin… She felt so warm, so light, she was floating… power surged through her body, vast and untapped, gathering at her fingertips…

And the others drew back in awe, not understanding what they were seeing, but somehow knowing deep inside themselves that they had just witnessed a miracle. The light that shone from within her shone from inside their hearts as well, a light that spoke of possibility, of overcoming the odds… of hope.

For the first time, the voice that came from the winged spark was hushed with surprise. Fortunately, none of the others heard it. "Well, I'll be damned," said Fantine. "She really came through."

Madoka Kaname opened her eyes. The heels of her Mary Janes touched gently back down on the floor of the Crossroads, and happy tears fell from her lashes as she smiled. "I did it… I'm back."


TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Recovery Ward

"Up," said Fate. "Down, up, right, left."

The nurse smiled. "Very good, Cadet. A perfect 20/20, I think… maybe even higher." With a wave of his hand, the nurse deactivated the vision test holo with its rows of differently sized arrows pointing in the four cardinal directions. Technically, Nurse Balzac Yugo was supposed to be Private Balzac Yugo… but he was the only one of Arthra's surviving crew with any medical training beyond the basics, so he had to do. No one else was coming.

By her count, it was a full ship's day since Nanoha left with… with her. An involuntary shudder passed through Fate's body, her hands balling and clutching the sheets. That girl, the Stranger. No matter how open-minded Fate tried to be, no matter how she tried to convince herself that it wasn't the Stranger's fault she looked like her dead sister, she couldn't think of her as Alicia, not ever. She looked like the Alicia she remembered from inside the Book of Darkness, and like the body in the stasis tank that her mother-

No, that was too painful to think about, even years removed from that terrible day.

So instead, Fate tried to think about Nanoha, as she often did when she needed comfort. Ever since she awakened in the infirmary, however, thinking of Nanoha led back to the memory of her smooth, shiny, reddened fingertips, her hands swaddled in bandages. A sick feeling of unease swirled in her stomach whenever that memory came to mind. It had to have been that woman, Viluy. While I was incapacitated, she must have hurt Nanoha… I wasn't there for her. I raced right into that horrible woman's trap, and because of that, I couldn't-

Tiny clear droplets rolled down one of her cheeks. The eyepatch's fabric soaked up the tears on the opposite side, and Fate grimaced at the sensation. Most likely she would have to give her ‒ it still made her dizzy to think of the word ‒ her socket another saline rinse. There were things no one told you about losing an eye, things most people lucky enough to still have both of theirs never thought about. Cleaning and maintenance were two of them.

Surprising how normal having only one eye was starting to feel, though. Surprising, and disturbing. Of course she cried once the initial shock wore off; she wept into Alph's shoulder for an hour, maybe two. That was followed by her introductory lesson in hygiene and personal care. Leaving tears to gather there was neither comfortable nor healthy. For the most part, though, she felt she was transitioning well. Only a few panic attacks upon waking up and seeing half the world dark before she remembered. Less and less temptation to rub the spot, or to blink with that eyelid. Now she had just passed her vision test with flying colors.

As Nanoha said, once they returned to Mid-Childa, there would be a number of options for replacing her lost eye. Some of the cybernetic implants available there were all but indistinguishable from the real things, and came with useful integrated features to boot. Fate wasn't sure she liked some of them; the thought of having incoming text messages displayed directly on her retina, for one, made her skin crawl. If cloning another eye was impossible, though, she supposed she would be happy with a cybernetic. Given time, she would get used to it.

All of that depended on being able to return to Mid-Childa in the first place. None of the crew said anything, but after spending weeks docked at the Lighthouse, the prospect of going home seemed less and less likely. Cut off from their families and friends, with no way of telling if they were still all right, or even alive… no wonder everyone was so restless.

A pneumatic hiss, and the doors slid open. Fate's head snapped up; it was too early for Nurse Yugo to come back, Alph was sleeping, and Lindy was supervising repairs to the ship, so it could only be… "Nanoha!"

"Fate-chan." She smiled, but her eyes were more exhausted than Fate could ever remember. Even during her year of healing and rehab, there was always a spark of life and energy in Nanoha's eyes, but now that spark was dimmed… dimmed, Fate noted, but still there.

It didn't take telepathy to tell that she needed rest. "Come, sit down," said Fate, sliding over and patting the edge of the mattress. It was an order, not a request. "Tell me what happened."

Nanoha tried hard not to wobble as she crossed the room. Too much time on her feet over the past few days, and all those stairs up to the Crossroads, then back down again… she would probably be stuck in the accursed mobility chair for a week from the overexertion. Sitting down gratefully at Fate's side, she tucked her head into her friend's shoulder. With Fate, and Fate alone, she could drop the armor. "I met the others," she began. "From the other worlds. We all talked with Fantine-san, and…"

"And?"

Something inside Nanoha pulled painfully tight. Not now, not yet. Poor Fate had enough on her mind without knowing that they couldn't go home. "There's…" A long pause. She swallowed, and the sound seemed to echo off the walls of the room. "There's something I need to tell you about first. About back on Carnaaji."

"I'm listening." Fate took Nanoha's bandaged hand and laid hers atop it.

"When… when Viluy hurt you…" A prickling sensation in her eyes. Nanoha willed herself to ignore it.

"Nanoha." Fate paused, searching for the right words. "Whatever it is, you know you can tell me. You know I won't think any less of you for it. I love you, nothing will change that."

"I killed her." There, it was finally out, hanging in the air between them, festering in the silence. "I released all of Raising Heart's limiters, all of them, and I used Starlight Breaker."

To Fate, it made a horrifying amount of sense. From the moment she saw Nanoha's hands swaddled in bandages, the shiny red skin of her fingertips, she wanted to believe that it was from something Viluy had done to her… but she knew better. The consequences of turning off one's Device limiters were drilled into every TSAB officer's head over and over, almost from day one. They had all seen the pictures. Given Nanoha's level of power, even after her accident, it was a miracle that she still had hands at all. Fate remembered too well what it was like to be hit with the first Starlight Breaker, and that was in Raising Heart's basic state, before any upgrades: an enormous pink battering ram of brilliant heat and unthinkable power that blasted through every layer of her shielding and protection and knocked her unconscious in an instant. That was with the limiters on. When she woke up after that, it was like she had been hit by every car of a linear rail freight train at once. A full-powered Starlight Breaker sans limiters? Little wonder there was nothing left of Viluy to take into custody.

Once the shock wore off, Fate's first thought was that she was hardly sorry. The Viluy woman was a sociopathic monster, a dangerous lunatic who would have done far, far worse given the opportunity. TSAB regulations stated that lethal force was to be authorized only in the event of a catastrophic emergency, beyond any hope of control. Viluy was responsible for the resurrection of the Book of Darkness, possibly the most dangerous Lost Logia in the history of any world. More than that, she took control of Hayate, and by extension the Book and the Wolkenritter, and heartlessly shut down the latter once they were no longer of use to her, rendering them effectively dead until she desired otherwise. She used the reborn Will's power to summon that horrible creature she called Master Moebius 90 to feast on a defenseless planet. She sneered at their pain, attacked them both without mercy, stole Fate's eye.

Was Viluy beyond redemption? Did the havoc she wreaked constitute the kind of emergency that could only be contained by use of lethal action? Absolutely, without question, Fate thought. But no matter how cruel Viluy was, no matter how many people she had hurt or killed… Nanoha, being Nanoha, would see being forced to kill her as a failure on her part.

Nanoha was sweet. Nanoha was kind. Nanoha honestly tried to see the best in everyone, and succeeded more often than should be possible. She made more dear friends out of mortal enemies than most people did in a lifetime. Now she had blood on her hands, and the horrible burns caused by unleashing her first-ever lethal Starlight Breaker were nothing compared to the pain she must be feeling now… it was destroying her from the inside out.

"Nanoha," said Fate, pulling her close. "It's not your fault."

A choked sob. "It is my fault, Fate-chan! If I hadn't been too weak to-"

"Shhh." Fate placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "I know. I know how terrible it is, to be forced to do awful things."

"Fate-chan…" she said in a hushed tone. Of course she did, Nanoha remembered. If anything, what Fate had gone through was even worse: being controlled not by magic or by some evil force, but by someone she loved. Years ago, the grief-maddened Precia Testarossa pushed poor Fate to the brink of death in order to collect the volatile Lost Logia called Jewel Seeds and realize her impossible dream, the dream that she might see her dead daughter again in the mythical world of Al Hazard. That dream came close to ripping entire dimensions apart, shattered Fate's perception of herself, and ended with both Precia and the late Alicia's body lost forever.

At least, Precia was lost, that much was certain. Her health was fading fast when they last saw her tumbling into imaginary space along with Alicia's pod… but now, someone claiming to be Alicia, or part of her, was walking around the ship and the Lighthouse. I'm being selfish, thought Nanoha, clutching her hands in her lap. The bandages crinkled. Fate-chan must be suffering so much worse than I am. Not just losing her eye, but having to see the Stranger looking like her… "I'm sorry, Fate-chan."

"Don't be." Fate squeezed her bandaged hands. "You have nothing to be sorry for. I know you. We'll get through this, all of us, together."

All of us, together. Those were intended to be words of comfort, but instead they brought to Nanoha's mind the missing part of their group… A knife bit into her heart. "Fate-chan. Hayate-chan was-"

Fate's eye closed in sorrow. "I know. I read the report. Lindy-san didn't want to show me, but I insisted."

"I just…" Nanoha bowed her head. "I can't imagine how this all could have happened. The Book of Darkness was supposed to be gone. Now it's back and worse than ever. If we still had Hayate-chan, we might be able to stop it like we did last time, but… but she's gone. Worse than gone. The Arc-en-Ciel-"

"You're forgetting," said Fate. "If it has the same programming as before… there might still be a chance to save her."

"Fate-chan?" said Nanoha, not daring to hope.

"Remember?" She was actually smiling, though the smile was bitter. "It took the original Reinforce sacrificing herself to destroy the book for good. Not even the Arc-en-Ciel could stop it from regenerating. If Hayate was Unisoned with her at the time of the blast… then when she regenerates…"

Nanoha drew in a long, sharp breath. She had forgotten. Fate was right: there was a chance. A slim chance, possibly even microscopic, but there was a chance. And she had aleady seen one miracle today… "All right," she said after a long pause, gripping Fate's hands tighter. "All right. We'll do it, somehow. Thank you, Fate-chan."

The smile that Nanoha so loved spread across Fate's face. "That's more like it. Being sad doesn't suit you, Nanoha. You're my invincible ace, and you won't lose to anyone."

"Right."

"So what else did you learn?"

Just like that, Fate was all business again. She was itching to resume her duties, lost eye or no lost eye, Nanoha could tell. "Fantine-san told us why she brought us here. It's not what we thought, but… but we may be able to change things for the better."


Outside the Crossroads

Before

"So it's your job?" Sakura goggled as the two walked down the corridor leading out of the Crossroads. Now that the first meeting was done, Fantine assured them that they could all come and go between the Vertices as they pleased. Sakura, for one, was happy to get to know Nanoha better in particular. "And your family and your friends all know about it?"

"They have for a while now," said Nanoha. "It was kind of a shock to them at first, but they adjusted."

"I can't imagine that. Going to school like normal, and then just going poof to another world after class…!"

"Eh heh…" Nanoha rubbed the back of her head. "It did take some getting used to. To be honest, I can't imagine the kinds of things you've done. Being chosen as the successor for your world's greatest mage…!"

"Hoeee~, you heard that?!" Sakura stopped dead in the crystalline corridor, flushing bright red. "I-it's not a big deal, r-really! Oh-!"

"Hmmm? Is something wrong?"

"Nanoha-chan, your hands!" Sakura had just noticed the bandages as the other girl put her hand back down. "Was this from-"

Shadows gathered on Nanoha's face. "Dead End, yes. Don't worry, they'll heal. That reminds me, Sakura-chan, I should go check on a friend back on the Arthra. If you want to talk later, though…"

"Of course! Just call for me, and I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Thank you, Sakura-chan." Nanoha smiled. "You know, we're technically the only two of the main five who do magical girl stuff as work. We should stick together, do you think?"

Sakura had to laugh at that. "I never thought of it that way. We really should."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Three

Little by little, it was coming back to her. Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black, hunched over an Immaterial notepad with an Immaterial pen (strengthened and fortified; Precure super strength was too much for normal pens. She quickly learned that they tended to explode when she tightened her grip. It was a good thing Immaterial ink, by its very nature, couldn't stain.) Every few seconds, she would glance up to confirm that the Echo-Stranger was still leading her down the corridor, then her eyes would travel back down to her notes.

"Okay, so Honoka and I are the first Cures," she muttered to herself. "Hikari joined us later. Then there's Precure Splash Star, two of them… or four, sort of. Then Fresh Precure… no, wait, Precure 5 and Rose first, then Fresh… then Heartcatch, Suite, Smile, Happiness Charge, and Princess… crap, am I forgetting one?"

"Doki Doki," said Fantine's voice from her comm crystal.

"Ah, right!" said Black. "Yeah, Cure Heart. Mana and her team. Thanks, Fantine-san. Wow, there sure are a lot of us…"

The Echo-Stranger smiled faintly.

"I sure hope I can remember all these names without my notes," said Black. "Like, I'm remembering bits and pieces…" Her eyes screwed shut. "There was a big blobby thing that we all fought... twice. It-" She hesitated as the threads of memory wove back together. "It wanted to absorb all our powers, and the second time was when Echo first appeared. Then there was something huge that came out of the sea. And a black hole… holy crap, we fought a black hole. And a shadow that stole our transformation items and tried to freeze us all in crystals, and a dream monster… and for some reason, I remember us all singing on stage at a big concert. What was that one about?!"

There was a mental equivalent of a shrug from Fantine. "The multiverse works in mysterious ways."

Black was still a bit miffed with Fantine for what she said earlier, but she was trying to let it go. After all, she had just seen something that pretty much disproved all this "there's no hope" nonsense of hers. Whether she liked it or not, Black intended to use the emotional boost she got from witnessing Madoka's transformation to its fullest advantage. Enough sulking, enough brooding. It was time for action.

"However it works, I'm just glad to have the company," said Black. "I mean, with ten different teams from ten multi-whatevers, we've gotta be like a small army by now, right?"

Fantine said nothing.

Ahead, a doorway appeared before the Echo-Stranger, who beckoned Black through. Something gleamed in her eyes for a brief instant.

Black, for her part, was too preoccupied by the thought of leading dozens of fellow Cures to notice. "Because by my count, there's at least fifty of us-" She stopped in the doorway. She stared.

There were three people in the meeting room.

Just three.

"No," said Black, hushed. "No way. I don't believe this."

One of the three stood up from the gently curving couches pushed up against the walls. Rather thin, with large glasses, the kind eyes behind the circular lenses matching her long scarlet twintails, which were tied with fluffy yellow scrunchies. "Oh," said Tsubomi Hanasaki. She sank into a hasty bow, then pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose before they could fall. "You're… Misumi-senpai. Nagisa. Cure Black…"

"Hey, yeah!" Next to her, a shorter girl with a cute round face bounced to her feet as if there were springs on her heels, her long waves of navy hair bouncing a half-second behind her. "I remember now! Cure Black and Cure White!" said Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine, beaming bright. "You guys were the original Precure, right?!"

The third rose with far more poise and dignity. Stern and mature for her age, with an athlete's build… no, Black remembered. Martial artist, though that naturally extended to athletic ability as well. "Misumi-senpai," said Iona Hikawa, Cure Fortune. "Welcome. It's an honor to fight alongside you again."

Black's nervous excitement from moments before ebbed away and spiraled down a drain. Aghast, she leaned against the doorframe for support. "But… but there were so many of us. You… you three are all who made it? Dead End took… everyone else…?"

Iona's serious façade cracked with strain. "Six, actually. Kirara and Towa… that is, Cure Twinkle and Cure Scarlet… they're in the infirmary. Scarlet isn't... doing well, and Twinkle won't leave her side."

"And…" said Tsubomi, downcast. She looked away, unable to meet Black's gaze. "And then there's Yayoi. She's… she's probably not coming."

Seven Precures. Seven, out of dozens, or even hundreds. Black had been expecting to lead an army. Instead, there were seven… two of whom couldn't or wouldn't fight. She tried to speak, but any words she thought of seemed feeble in light of the monstrous things that Joker and Dead End had done to them.

In any other circumstance, Black would have fallen to pieces then. Now, though? She had just witnessed a miracle. She had just seen living proof that despite Fantine's cynicism, there were things even she didn't know and couldn't predict.

"Okay," said Black, taking a deep, steadying breath. "Okay. It's gonna be fine. Let's just start at the beginning."


The quiet scratching of a pencil on paper was the only sound in Yayoi Kise's room. There had been tears, of course. A small mountain of crumpled tissues in her wastebasket could attest to that. Not for some time, though. For the moment, Yayoi was all cried out.

So instead of crying, she drew. And drew. And drew. Not her usual manga panels, robots, and superheroes… those were too painful to think about right now. Almost every sheet was filled with dark scribbles, formless doodles. Quite a lot of them were colored-in black from top to bottom.

It was nice, she supposed, to have infinite supplies, thanks to the Immaterial. No matter how much she scribbled, pencils would never grow dull, pens would never run out of ink, and if she needed a new piece of paper, she could just scrunch up and concentrate and there it was. With the way time worked here, she never got cramps or needed to rest her drawing hand either.

Once upon a time, an arrangement like that would have made her ecstatically happy. All the time and art supplies she could ever want, with no distractions? It should have been bliss. It was anything but. Without her best friends, without Candy… she was empty, formless as the scribbles she was drawing. What good were drawings with no one to see them?

A droplet spattered on the paper, smudging a few of the lines. So she had a few tears left after all. Yayoi sniffled and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her old yellow cardigan. It still smelled like home. That only made it worse.

Thinking of home led to thinking of her mother. If her mother managed to escape the sheet of ice that froze Nanairogaoka, would she be out there right now, wondering where Yayoi was? For that matter, could she escape? Maybe she could hide out in Märchenland with Pop...

Pop. Yayoi always had a special place in her heart for the manly little lion-fox fairy. He was supposed to be in Märchenland, watching over the Royale Palace in Candy's stead. Did Joker get him too?

Candy. Candy was… gone.

Miyuki, Akane, Nao, and Reika. They were worse than gone… Joker twisted them into monsters like himself. Cruel, evil things, hideous parodies of who they were supposed to be. His puppets.

Yayoi shuddered in her seat and hugged herself tight. She felt it welling up, the tight, sick feeling in her belly, the urge to start crying again, but she was so tired of crying…

There was a soft knock at the door. "Yayoi-chan?" said a voice on the other side.

"Come in." Her response was listless. She didn't really feel like having company, but she didn't not feel like it, either. It didn't matter.

Yui Nanase bit her lip as she entered the facsimile of Yayoi's bedroom. More black scribbles. Not a good sign. "Yayoi-chan, there's a meeting a few doors away with the other Cures."

"I know," said Yayoi without looking up. "I'm staying here, thank you."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. They don't need me."

Yui cringed as if slapped. "Don't say that, Yayoi-chan. You're just as much a Cure as the rest of them."

"Then how come I couldn't do anything?" Yayoi's shoulders shook as she hunched over the drawing board. "All I could do was cry, while Joker took everything away from me…"

"I know how you feel." Slowly, carefully, Yui crossed the room to put a hand on Yayoi's shoulder. "When Haruka and the others became Precure and I couldn't… I felt pretty helpless, too, you know. It's terrible, feeling like you can't do anything."

Shying away from her touch, Yayoi huddled down into her seat. "But I'm supposed to be a Precure, and I'm just… just… a crybaby. A useless crybaby." The hated insult came out with a choking sob. "And I hate it. I hate it."

They had only known each other for a short time. The other Cures were nice people, but Yui didn't feel like she knew them yet. Yayoi, though… there was something about her. Something special, Yui thought. Underneath the trauma of everything that had happened to her was an exceptional talent. A fellow artist. Both of them geeky, a bit shy, and a bit eccentric, with some noted self-esteem problems. When Yui saw how much Yayoi was suffering… well, she saw herself in her. And because she wasn't a Precure, couldn't fight alongside the others… she could at least try to help a kindred spirit.

"You know," said Yui gently. "Tsubomi-san thought about herself like that when she first started."

One eye peeked out from the shadows of Yayoi's golden curls. "Huh?"

"I talked with her. She said that her own fairy called her 'the weakest Precure in history' after her first fight."

Yayoi blinked. That was difficult to picture. "... Tsubomi-sempai? Cure Blossom? Really? Chypre said that?"

"Chypre admitted it," Yui chuckled. "She apologized later. But I talked to someone else I think you might know. Someone who thought she was a useless crybaby, but she was stronger than even she knew. She was kind of famous for it, actually."

Only now did Yayoi look her in the eyes. She blinked in confusion. "Who?"

Yui turned to the open door. Time for the secret weapon. "Okay," she said. "You can come in now."

Yayoi looked… and her mouth fell open in abject shock. A choked gasp slipped out from between her fingers as she moved to cover it.

"You're Yayoi-chan, right?" said the young woman at the door. She wore her hair in a distinctive set of twin odango, with long blonde pigtails like a rabbit's ears… and though Yayoi had never met her in person before, though she looked a little older than she imagined, there was no doubt whatsoever who she was. "I'm Usagi," she said with a warm and goofy grin. "Usagi Tsukino. I've heard a lot about you."

A million emotions crossed Yayoi's face in that moment… but the one she settled on was the pure joy of an impossible childhood dream fulfilled, a radiant smile that lit the dark little room like sunshine. At the same time, she burst into noisy tears and rushed to embrace the young woman, stumbling and almost falling over her chair as she tossed it aside…

"It's okay," said Usagi, holding her close and whispering to her. A few tears of her own rolled down her cheeks. "It's all gonna be okay. Hey, Yui-chan told me you draw manga really well… If it's all right with you, I'd love to see some of it."

END OF CHAPTER 22