Author's note: Here I go again, taking an idea for a nice long story and mashing it into an extended oneshot because I don't have time for anything else. The pacing suffers for it, but it can't be helped. My thanks go to Kira, Winterbraid and Ghost-itS for beta'ing bits and pieces along the way, even if they didn't always like the direction I was taking.

Title shamelessly pinched from the painting by Dali.


The Persistence of Memory

"Sayaka-chan? You have a letter."

It's exactly like the others: a plain white envelope, impeccable penmanship, no return address. Sayaka sequesters herself in her bedroom before opening it. Inside is a single sheet of folded paper, written in the same hand. Every line she reads brings a greater sense of oppressive familiarity, like picking up an unhappy book that she hasn't touched in years.

When she's done, she takes the collection of letters and spreads them across her bed. Each one is a variation on a common theme, cryptic fragments from a scrambled diary. The story Sayaka pieced together from them is one she knows and yet doesn't know, and it chills her to the core. It also confirms one thing she already knew without knowing why: the blame for all of this lies with her classmate and nemesis, Akemi Homura.


Kyouko is waiting halfway up the cherry tree boulevard when Sayaka arrives. The redhead has made an effort to dress up and look nice for a change, though the effect is spoiled by the way she's stuffing her face with junk food. Normally Sayaka would just shrug and shake her head at the spectacle. Today's it's different.

The anonymous letters paint a different portrait of Sakura Kyouko: a selfish, callous, itinerant orphan. Circumspect words hint at a past history between her and Sayaka, a relationship far less cordial than the one they enjoy here. It seems crazy even to herself, but that other Kyouko now feels more real than the one Sayaka came to meet. As the thought crosses her mind, another figure enters her vision and she begins to glare unconsciously.

Homura notices. "Is something the matter?" she asks coolly.

"You..." The blue-haired girl's hands ball into fists. "This is your doing, isn't it?"

"Ah, you figured it out." Homura tips her head. "Then it's time to start over."

"Start... over?" Sayaka bares her teeth. "Don't screw with me, transfer student."

Too late she realizes her carelessness, that she's played straight into her enemy's hands. "You shouldn't speak like that," says the devil idly. "It would be bad if she heard you." With a cruel smile, Homura softly claps her hands once. "Now then... What did you need, Miki Sayaka?"

"I..." It was there a moment ago, right on the tip of her tongue, and now it's gone. All that remains is the lingering conviction that Akemi Homura once again has made a fool of her.

Homura flicks her hair. "I guess it wasn't important." The smile twists, as if she wants to look sincere but doesn't know how. "Enjoy your date."


"Sayaka-chan? You have a letter."

It's exactly like the others: a plain white envelope, impeccable penmanship, no return address. Sayaka sequesters herself in her bedroom before opening it. Inside is a single sheet of folded paper, written in the same hand. Every line she reads brings a greater sense of oppressive familiarity, like picking up an unhappy book that she hasn't touched in years.

When she's done, she takes the collection of letters and spreads them across her bed. Each one is a variation on a common theme, cryptic fragments from a scrambled diary. The story Sayaka pieced together from them is one she knows and yet doesn't know, and it chills her to the core. It also confirms one thing she already knew without knowing why: the blame for all of this lies with her classmate and nemesis, Akemi Homura.

Sayaka's jaw tightens. It's insane, and it makes perfect sense. That... that bitch! She's been messing with me the whole time! She starts towards the door, visions of cornering Homura for a public calling-out flashing before her eyes.

Wait.

Sayaka stops in her tracks. She isn't sure how she knows, but she does know: a showdown is precisely what Homura wants from her. It feels like a premonition, except for the maddening certainty that the outcome she anticipates has already happened somewhere, somehow. That's impossible, isn't it?

She couldn't be..?

The girl looks over her shoulder at the letters on the bed, a minute or more passing as she wrestles with her conundrum. Finally she turns and goes back, and starts to read them all again. Some of the denser passages unravel when viewed through the lens of this new paradigm, though it doesn't help Sayaka's mood. If that's the kind of game it is, what can she do against her tormentor?

She sits and thinks for a while, then goes to fetch a pen.


"Sayaka-chan? You have a parcel."

First a couple of bizarre letters came, now there's a padded manila envelope. Like them, it has a local postmark and no return address. The label, however, appears to have been written by Sayaka herself, and the envelope holds a ruled notebook of the exact brand and color she favors. Its contents are in the same vein as the letters, twisted and ominous.

Did I... mail this to myself?

Even if it's the obvious conclusion, she has no recollection of doing so. Comparing the notebook with the earlier missives, Sayaka identifies portions which are duplicated and others which are new. The hands of the clock on the wall trace broad arcs as she reassembles the puzzle pieces. Confusion gives way to anger, cooling into numb dejection. She's trapped and she knows it.

She spends the rest of the afternoon brooding, until Kyouko comes over and gives her something else to think about.


"You coming or not?"

Standing in front of the dresser, Sayaka finishes buttoning her pajamas. "I'll be right there."

Kyouko shifts her legs, the bed's covers rustling. "I've been looking forward to this all week," she complains. "I even skipped going to the arcade so I could get my homework done sooner."

"I know." Sayaka was looking forward to it too, before the notebook came. Now she can't look at her girlfriend without thinking of the other Kyouko, the one she doesn't remember.

The one who was never with her like this.

She climbs into bed, Kyouko snuggles up beside her, and it's not long until the only sound to be heard is the redhead snoring. Sayaka wants to join her but can't. Her mind won't stop going back to the notebook, clawing in the dark for some clue she hasn't found yet.

The minute hand is three short of midnight when her eyes, which were finally closing, pop wide open. She should have thought of that sooner: it's not only the notebook's contents which matter, but its very existence as well. Did Homura know about it and let it arrive anyway? Did she tamper with it? Or has Sayaka found a loophole, a way to preserve what her enemy erases?

That idea gives a glimmer of hope, enough to anchor her flagging spirits. If she left a record for herself once, she can do it again. More letters will come and she'll write them down... And maybe, just maybe, she'll find a way out.


"I think Saotome-sensei is losing it," Sayaka declares. "Be careful not to date guys who demand you shave all your body hair? Does she even think about who she's talking to?"

Lunch on the roof with Madoka is a special exercise in awkwardness. No fault of her own, bless her heart. It's just that wherever Kaname Madoka goes at school, Akemi Homura is never far away. Sayaka often finds it easier to eat with Kyouko alone, or with Hitomi and Kyousuke, than put up with Homura's lurking presence. Now, however, she has an incentive to endure.

"It must be hard," says Madoka sympathetically. "To be single at her age..."

Ever since Madoka transferred into their class, Sayaka has had an unshakable feeling that something is out of order. Her conscious memory tells her she didn't get along with Homura even before then. Her subconscious, conversely, insists the person who first took a seat that day was not Madoka.

"That's why you gotta hook up young!" Kyouko sucks up the last of her juice with a gurgling noise. "If it weren't for me, Sayaka here would be just as bonkers."

"Hey!" Sayaka swats at the girl beside her. "If it weren't for me, you would be some kind of delinquent glutton! And you'd fail all your classes!"

The notebook and letters confirm one fact explicitly: the real outsider is Homura, not Madoka. A sleight of hand has taken place, a subterfuge that only Sayaka noticed. And so she sits with them, pretending to be her usual brash self while she looks and listens for any scraps that can help her.

Patience, she has learned, is sometimes a virtue.

"That wouldn't be as bad as you moping over – ah!" Kyouko jumps to her feet. "Mami, wait up!"

Sayaka watches her run towards a passing upperclassman with blond corkscrews and an elegant bearing. She doesn't know Tomoe Mami as well as Kyouko does, and at the same time knows her too well. The letters tell of a different Mami, a desperately lonely girl who hid her insecurity behind a polished facade.

Madoka's attention has not strayed so far. "You two really are close, aren't you?"

"Well, yeah." Sayaka forces herself to laugh. "I have to keep her out of as much trouble as she gets me into, after all."

"Madoka," Homura interrupts quietly. "You haven't returned Nakazawa-san's book yet, have you?"

"Eh..?" The pink-headed girl bolts upright. "Oh no! I forgot all about it!" Hurriedly she packs up her lunchbox. "I'll see you back at the classroom, Homura-chan, Sayaka-chan!"

Madoka runs away. Kyouko is still talking to Mami, and Sayaka has a pretty good idea of what comes next. As of yesterday, the number of letters she received is equal to the number recorded in the notebook.

Homura placidly finishes her own food and closes the lid. "You aren't enjoying our game," she remarks, as if complaining about the weather. "I'll have to make the new one more challenging."

Sayaka has done all she can. Now all she can do is to trust in her preparations. "Bite me, transfer student."

The devil smiles and claps.


Sayaka finds Kyouko in one of the arcade's side alcoves, playing Street Fighter XI instead of her usual dancing game. "You're late," says Kyouko, not looking away from the screen. "Something happen?"

"Sorry," the new arrival replies. "I had to make an unexpected stop." Actually several unexpected stops, but she can't talk about that. "I'll treat you."

"Really? Awesome!" The Pocky stick in the corner of Kyouko's mouth wags up and down. "Gimme a minute, okay? I heard there's a secret ending if you get a perfect score with this character."

"Sure..." Sayaka could use a breather anyway. She instinctively checks their surroundings, mindful that a roving custodian might see Kyouko flagrantly violating the establishment's posted rules. For the moment, it's all clear. While her companion happily hadoukens a foe into orbit, she sits back and reviews her progress.

Two letters came in the mail today. One was just plain weird, the second of its kind in as many days. The other was a to-do list, written by Sayaka for Sayaka. It led her on a scavenger hunt across town, retracing her own steps to pick up a series of stashes. Their contents, neatly wrapped in plastic and duct tape, are now secure in her school bag: a notebook, sheaves of photocopied paper, and digital memory cards.

"C'mon," Kyouko mutters. "Almost got it... Bingo!"

"It's useless!" a synthesized voice proclaims. On the screen, the player's avatar is getting the crap beaten out of him. "ZA – WARUDO!"

Kyouko tries to counter and discovers the controls don't respond. Her character's demise concludes with a falling steamroller. "Wha... wha... what the hell kind of secret ending is that!?"

"It's the you've-played-long-enough ending." Sayaka reaches over, breaks off the exposed length of Pocky and sticks it in her own mouth. "...Raspberry?"

She doesn't know where this path will take her, guided by messages she can't remember sending, but she does know she has a lot of reading to do when she gets home. It's going to be a long night.


"Sayaka-chan? You have a parcel."

She expected the last of the letters. What she got was a white cardboard box, small yet heavy, addressed in the usual handwriting. Sitting at her desk, Sayaka cuts the tape and finds a paper tucked under the lid. The final message closely follows its predecessors' pattern, though these words no longer have the desired effect. Thanks to her past self's diligence, she's been able to study the letter's prior iterations with time to spare. The author's purpose is clear already: to end the game by goading Sayaka into reckless action. She won't fall for it again.

On the other hand, receiving a box is new and that could be a problem. Sayaka puts the sheet aside and tackles the inner cocoon of bubble wrap, slowly uncovering an object she would never have anticipated. For a second she thinks it must be a toy, one of those airsoft things that shoot plastic pellets. Then she tries to pick it up and feels the heft of real steel.

No way...

The Desert Eagle has seen better days. Its muzzle is ringed with a gray deposit of carbon fouling and there are brown stains on the trigger and the front of the grip. Gingerly turning it over, Sayaka notices something odd: rows of scratch marks on the frame below the barrel, too clean and consistent to be accidents. She does a quick tally and comes to a total of eighty-nine.

The magazine is wrapped separately, carrying a single cartridge with a fat hollowpoint bullet. Sayaka scrutinizes its details, finding none of interest, and lays it next to the letter. Then she goes back to the pistol itself, testing the grip's fit. It's awkwardly large, of course, but the act calls her attention to something noteworthy. The rust spots on the frame are a near match to her own fingers, impressions of a hand smaller than the weapon was designed for.

The hand of a girl like herself.

A thought stirs at the back of her mind, another phantasm of missing memory. Something about girls fighting? In spite of how much they reveal, the letters have never spelled out what she and the others actually did before Homura interfered. For all Sayaka knows, maybe they were protecting the world as pretty warriors of love and justice.

Why would she want us to forget?

Sayaka has no answer, and it doesn't seem as if examining the handgun will deliver more insights. In any case she can't afford to dwell on such questions now. According to her reconstructed timetable, the game master will wipe her memory and start again tomorrow. She has a lot to do still, and not a lot of time to do it.

First she needs to get her smartphone and take some pictures...


This is the craziest thing Sayaka has ever done. The craziest she can recall, at least.

The cherry boulevard is crowded with students in uniform. Just like herself, except she's the only one packing a magnum in her bag and that's not even the worst part. What really worries her is having to act on the assumption that this is what Homura wants her to do, assuming Homura is assuming Sayaka hasn't caught on to her machinations. That's more assumptions than Sayaka is comfortable with.

The irony is not lost on her. When did I become so cautious?

Homura is in the middle of the boulevard, sitting at a table with an umbrella. Fittings from an outdoor cafe don't belong on the route to school, and yet no one else acknowledges the incongruity. Is Sayaka the only one who can see it? She watches Homura toy with the straw in her drink, murky purple and a slice of lemon. Sure enough, it looks like the devil's presence is for her eyes only.

Fine, then. If that's the case, there's no need to hold back. Sayaka steps forward, unzipping the bag as she closes the range to point blank. Five paces left, four, three, and then she draws the massive pistol from concealment. Homura starts to turn just as she extends her arm and jams the muzzle against the side of the seated girl's head.

Click!

Suddenly the gun, the girl and the table aren't there anymore. Sayaka's not surprised, though her empty hand clenches. From behind her comes a single clap.


Sayaka spent more time in the school library today than she did in the past month, ransacking the catalogs and shelves like an exam crammer. Her search netted a smorgasbord of material, too much to take home all at once. It's already late afternoon when she finishes paring down the selection and checks out, carrying Sunzi and Clausewitz sandwiched between primers on theology, quantum physics and literary analysis.

The sky is on fire, the cherry boulevard deserted. Kyouko will be mooching at Mami's tonight, leaving Sayaka free to dive into her self-improvement program. It would have been nice to go along, and not just for the tea and cake, but socializing will have to wait for now. There will be other opportunities to get better acquainted with Mami...

A clammy chill seeps around Sayaka's legs. She looks down as a dense mist swirls over the paving stones, swept forward by a cold wind. Where did that come from? She turns back towards the school, finding it swallowed up by an advancing wall of fog. Instinct tells her to run, to get away from the sinister phenomena as fast as she can. Her muscles respond sluggishly, as if sapped by the encroaching vapors, and the best she can do is a stiff march.

Then she puts her foot down and there's no ground under it.

Sayaka pitches headlong into the chasm, throwing up her arms in a protective reflex. She lands on her stomach, the heavy book bag slamming into her chest. Her eyes water as she fights to get her breath back, forcing herself to get up again. The strange fog, she realizes belatedly, has stopped moving closer. Even so, Sayaka keeps a wary watch as she sorts herself out. After several seconds, she dares to look away and take stock of her situation.

She's standing inside a trench cut into the ground, deep enough to shelter a tall man. The bottom is lined with a plank boardwalk, the sides shored up by sandbags and rough hewn timber. This must be a new trick on Homura's part, something found in neither the letters nor Sayaka's notes. She feels her pulse start to quicken and thinks of the advice she wrote for herself, every time she mailed the key to her secret stashes: don't panic, don't get angry, and don't give up.

The heavens have turned a menacing gray color, the kind that precedes hard rain, and the chill lingers. With the fog at her back, there's no way to go but straight on. The trench zigzags at fixed intervals, preventing Sayaka from seeing very far ahead. Wood creaks underfoot with each step, the insistent wind murmuring in her ears.

"Hänschen klein ging allein in die weite Welt hinein..."

A rhyme in a foreign tongue, sung by a childish chorus, comes to the blue-haired girl. It's a singularly eerie addition to an already foreboding ambiance.

"...Stock und Hut steht ihm gut, ist gar wohlgemut..."

The singers, whoever they might be, aren't far off. Sayaka hesitates, tempted to turn around and brave the fog after all. One look at it dissuades her.

"...Doch die Mutter weinet sehr, hat ja nun kein Hänschen mehr!"

The trench widens just past the next corner, with a raised step built into either wall. Sayaka climbs up one side and peeks over the top.

"'Wünsch dir Glück!' sagt ihr Blick, 'Kehr' nur bald zurück!'"

Outside the trench lies a lifeless vista of cratered mud and barren trees. Gigantic tethered balloons, shaped like stuffed animals, float in the shrouding mist. She searches for landmarks, anything to orient herself in the wasteland. No good. Even if this is still Mitakihara Middle School, it's been ravaged beyond comprehension.

"Sieben Jahr trüb und klar Hänschen in der Fremde war..."

The singing goes on, apparently originating from some of the nearer craters. There's no visible movement in any direction, no discernible threat at hand. Sayaka steps down and resumes her walk, treading lighter now. The trench soon reverts to its original width. After another few turns, Sayaka arrives at a fork with a pair of signs.

[PAPA IST WÜTEND →]
[← MAMA WEINT]

She goes left. The decision proves irrelevant, as the branch turns inward and reunites with its twin after several meters. The path is the same, the choice illusory, the exit elusive. And that makes her remember... what? The thought is gone before she can seize it, leaving only a vague impression that she's been here already. Not here, not in this trench but in a place like it, another otherworldly realm superposed onto mundane reality. Try as she might, she can't bring back the details.

Past the next zigzag, Sayaka finds an oblong pink and white object mounted on one of the parapets and steps up for a closer look. Even then, it takes her a moment to recognize the thing as a machine gun with spade-handle grips, formed entirely out of cake and icing. A wrapped present, its top ripped open, feeds a belt of colored candles into a slot on the side. Near by sits a shallow box of ice cream cones, each carrying a message spelled out in chocolate syrup.

VOR GEBRAUCH SPRENGKAPSEL EINSETZEN

The further she goes, the stranger the going gets. If Homura wanted to freak her out, she's almost succeeding. Sayaka is about to climb down when she notices the top of the gun-cake is marked with pink frosting.

ERIKA
13 JAHRE

Moving on, she discovers another machine gun pointed in the opposite direction. Then another and another, fixed on alternating sides. Just when she's getting used to the pattern, it changes. The trench becomes choked with dirt and splintered wood, its bulwarks collapsing inward. Sayaka picks her way over the debris and emerges onto the lip of a crater big enough to swallow a bus. A grave marker, a simple cross with painted lettering, juts from the disturbed soil at the bottom. One corner is broken off, obscuring part of the text.

LILI MARLENE
Geb. am 17. Mai 20XX
Gef. am 22. JunXXXXX

On the other side of the grave, a flash of color catches Sayaka's eye: a large piece of paper pinned under a split plank, one ragged corner fluttering. She crosses the depression to check it out. It's a poster, ripped halfway down the middle. Most of the spread is taken up by a picture of a catlike animal, one white paw raised to point at the viewer. There's also a slogan splashed across the lower third.

AUCH DU SOLLTEST EIN MAGISCHES MÄDCHEN WERDEN

Sayaka stares at the creature, with its round red eyes that seem to drill right through her. She knows that face, and it fills her with a visceral antipathy. Why, though? What reason would she have to hate something that looks like a fluffy mascot?

The cross falls over. Sayaka turns just in time to see it disappear as the crater's bottom caves in. Fog erupts from the open sinkhole, flooding the basin. She bolts, shoes tearing into the slope, but the vapors overtake her before she makes it to the rim. Her limbs grow numb, heavier with each step.

Come on, come on, come ON!

The ground levels off beneath her feet, soft dirt giving way to hard stone, and an orange glow diffuses around her. The mist abandons its attack, dispersing even quicker than it appeared. All that's left is blessed warmth and sunlight and one very confused girl. She's at the far end of the boulevard from where she started, and the school and city are as they should be. Everything has returned to normal.

No. Not everything.

Sayaka's uniform is rumpled, her bag scuffed where she fell on it. The soreness that persists in her arms and ribs isn't imaginary.

"Häns-chen klein... ging al-lein... in die wei-te Welt hin-ein..."


On the outskirts of Mitakihara there is a certain park, and in that park there is a certain hill. If one follows the winding paths to its peak, one can enjoy a spectacular panorama of twenty-first century Japan's finest urban engineering. Sayaka knows this much already, having made the ascent plenty of times. She's never gone by herself in the middle of the night, however, not even on a dare or an amorous liaison. Now that's changed, thanks to the letters. There's something important about this place and she's intent on finding it.

It's a good thing the footpath lights are on, otherwise she might have walked straight off a cliff. One side of the hill is missing, sliced from top to bottom with impossible precision. Sayaka scarcely believes it even after touching the cloven edge with her own hands. There's no trace of machinery, no scars left by digging tools. What other force could possibly do this? She thinks of the trench, so tangible and yet gone in a blink. If Homura can create something like that, can she vanish untold tons of solid earth as well?

Sayaka backtracks to a safe distance from the precipice, turns and cuts straight up towards the summit, making her way under the cool blue glow of the sculpted fixtures. A half moon shines weakly through thin overcast. Grass whispers and sighs in the caress of a pleasant breeze.

Whatever she thought she would find at the top, it definitely wasn't Akemi Homura.

The devil sits in a straight-backed chair beside the abyss. She watches over her domain in silence, the metropolis so bright and vibrant and totally ignorant of its master. Sayaka starts to back away, but the long stalks ensnare her feet and she stumbles. Homura's head whips around. For a fleeting moment, honest surprise breaks through the inscrutable mask. Then it's gone. "Why are you here?"

"I, uh... I heard there was a great view in the dark." This is true, albeit not Sayaka's real motive. She's here now because the final letter, the one that pointed her to the hill, only came today. In hindsight, she should have just copied it down and waited until after the game's next reset. Her secret ought to be secure since she mailed the stash key this afternoon, but tonight's expedition will be a waste of time if Homura alters her memory ahead of schedule. "I'll leave if you want," she offers lamely.

"That won't be necessary." Homura rises, the clouds parting as if by her command. Moonlight casts her features in harsh relief as she beckons her classmate closer.

Closer to Homura is not where Sayaka wants to be right now, not that she has much choice. She comes forward, narrowing the gap to a few paces. Homura raises her left hand and an article takes shape: an obsidian crown with an amethyst core. Sayaka would compare it to a regal paperweight, were it not so audaciously defying gravity. That's as far as her train of thought gets before Homura does a pirouette, the crown circling at shoulder height.

"Choose the tune."

"Huh?"

"You have similar tastes to Kamijou-san, do you not? I'm sure you can think of something suitable."

Sayaka is so not prepared for this. It's probably a safe bet Homura doesn't care for Saint-Saëns or Stravinskiy. So what kind of music does she like? For that matter, what kind of anything does she like? At school she's utterly indifferent to any recreation Sayaka can think of. As for her private life, second-hand sources provide much gossip and minimal substance.

Nutcracker.

Sayaka seizes hold of that idea, a random whim that's not random at all. She can't put her finger on the reason, but to appease Homura with Chaykovskiy's ballet really feels most fitting. She hums the opening notes of the abridged suite and the devil responds, long hair streaming as she twirls over the grass. Sayaka falters, caught off guard, and sees displeasure in those violet eyes. With haste she picks up the melody once more, swishing her arms to the tempo.

It must be a peculiar sight: one girl dancing in her school uniform, the other conducting an invisible orchestra in tracksuit pants and a windbreaker. Sayaka does pretty well, all considered. She slips up a few times and performs the third and fourth parts out of order, but otherwise manages to reproduce the complete twenty minute opus from memory. Kyousuke would be proud.

Satisfaction at this accomplishment is cut short when Homura ends her half of the act with a flourish and curtsey. To pile one surprise on top of another, she almost looks as if she might have enjoyed the impromptu duet.

It could be thanks to lessons learned in the game, or merely a lack of the customary antagonistic air between them, but Sayaka is viewing Homura differently now. At this instant the person facing her is neither the aloof model student nor the architect of her own personal hell. Instead, what she sees in the moon's pale radiance is emptiness and exhaustion.

You shouldn't look like that.

A strange sentiment to hold for one's nemesis. Sayaka doesn't discount it, though, because it comes from the same place as her musical offering and the deja vu she felt in the trench. At times like this, echoes of lost history carry more truth than deceitful recollections of a fabricated world.

Homura turns to gaze at the moon, seemingly content with letting Sayaka make the next move. The gem at the bottom of her salamander earpiece swings like it's waving to get attention. Did she always wear that gaudy thing? Sayaka's memory says yes but she doesn't trust it. Intuition tells her the ornament may be a post-meddling addition, same as the bags under Homura's eyes. Come to think of it, why hasn't anyone said anything about those? As far round the bend as she is, even Saotome Kazuko wouldn't normally overlook one of her students being in such obviously poor health.

Then again, Sayaka herself only just noticed these details, which were staring her in the face from the very start. It's idiotic to think in terms of 'obviously' or 'normally' now, when she's up against a being who moves mountains. What does that leave her with? If the uneasy detente holds fast, perhaps she can glean more from this encounter... Assuming the devil hasn't already decided to make her forget it, and assuming she can stay in Homura's good graces long enough to escape.

The safest course is not to get further involved. The second safest is to go slow and be ready to drop it if risk outweighs reward. With this in mind, Sayaka takes the plunge. "Can I ask you something?"

"What?"

"Why me and Kyouko?"

"Do you dislike it?"

"No, but..."

"I watched you destroy yourself over a boy who would never make you happy." Homura sweeps a hand through her hair. "Watching it again would be tiresome."

Just like that, the conversation takes an unforeseen turn. "So... you made me like girls?"

"The inclination existed. I only encouraged it." Her tone is matter-of-fact to perfection, as if she thinks no more of this than she would of holding the door for someone. "Sakura-san is also happier this way. Do you disagree?"

Sayaka can't unreservedly say that she does.

"I thought so." Homura walks back to the cliff's edge. "Why not simply enjoy what I've given you?"

There was a time, not even that long ago, when Sayaka would have told Homura exactly what she thinks about accepting relationship favors from someone whose idea of fun is blanking out her memory over and over. Not any more. "I guess I don't get why you would do this."

"What benefit is there in questioning it?"

"I'm not sure," the short-haired girl hedges. "I just feel like maybe I should be trying to understand you better."

Homura stiffens and Sayaka realizes she screwed up big time. The devil pivots on her heel, facing her uninvited company. "Miki Sayaka, do you love Sakura Kyouko? Do you hold her more dear than anyone else?"

The gloves have come off. Sayaka's verbal sparring skills aren't sufficient against such a sudden reversal. "Um... We bicker a lot and her bad habits drive me crazy, but... I do really like her."

"Would you bear any pain to spare her from it? Give up your own happiness to protect hers?" Though Homura doesn't move, it feels like her presence is creeping nearer as she presses the attack. "For her sake, would you embrace evil?"

Sayaka's mouth opens and closes. No sound comes out.

It's enough reply for Homura. "Then there is no need for you to understand me, nor I to be understood by you." She starts to say more but then breaks off, looking to the side as if she senses another trespasser on the hill. "Go home," the devil orders curtly. "If you stay out too long, someone might notice."

This isn't right, even for the ever apathetic Akemi Homura. There's no way she would let Sayaka just walk away after what happened here... And yet that's precisely what Sayaka does, step by step, waiting with bated breath for it to happen.

It doesn't happen.

After a minute she dares to look behind her. Homura is dancing around the empty chair, the black crown orbiting like a personal satellite. Sayaka turns her back, this time for good, and descends without stopping. Reaching the bottom unscathed, she takes the shortest route out. Halfway to the exit, the lone girl chances to glance at the sky's reflection in one of the park ponds.

What the – !?

Sayaka gapes at it, some part of herself insisting that this, even after all she's been through, is too absurd to be real. Then she lifts her face and confirms the aberration directly. There are points of starlight glimmering where a shadowed hemisphere should be: the moon isn't half full, it's half gone.

She needs to write this down while the memories are fresh, and the path home takes her past one of her info caches. If she can find an all-night convenience store and grab a notepad and pen, she can slip one more record into it as she goes by.


"Sayaka-chan? You have a parcel."

This one breaks all expectations. The little box arrived early, clumsily taped and bearing an address label that looks like it was filled out by someone holding a pen between their teeth. Sayaka compares it with her saved photos of the package which came previously, then takes some new pictures and opens the box. The inside is stuffed with long grass that's beginning to wilt. There's no letter enclosed. Nested in the center is...

Sayaka doesn't know what it is. One of those jeweled egg things she's seen on TV, maybe? It's got a golden shell, with a crescent motif on top and a flat base to make it stand upright. The centerpiece appears to have been a polished blue crystal, of which only shards remain. The fragments are stained, darkened like smoked glass, and the outer fitting has tarnished spots where they touch it. The artifact's basic size and structure invite comparison with the black crown produced by Homura during the last round of the game, as described by Sayaka in her notes. She's pretty sure the broken gem doesn't belong to her enemy, however... And the longer she examines it, the stronger she feels she's seen this exact item before.

First things first. She reaches for the smartphone on her desk, wanting to get an image of the opulent relic in situ. Then it hits her: the egg has a crescent motif and a blue core. Sayaka has a blue crescent mark on her left middle fingernail. How did she get that, anyway? Her memory claims it's a memento of a holiday trip to Kazamino in Kyouko's company. Now that it's under the spotlight, that version of events doesn't hold up to –

Wham!

Sayaka spins around so fast the back of her chair hits the edge of the desk. Kyouko stands in the doorway, wearing school clothes and a disgruntled expression. Shutting the door behind her, she marches across the faux hardwood floor and plunks herself down on Sayaka's bed.

"K-Kyouko..?"

"I can't take this any more." The redhead's voice simmers with frustration. "You've been acting strange for weeks, always thinking about something else when we're together. Hitomi and Kyousuke say they hardly ever see you." Her fingers dig into the comforter. "You spend hours in the library, reading books you never touched before. If you were worried about your grades, you wouldn't hide it from me." Kyouko stops for breath, or to marshal her courage. "I'm sick of trying to act like everything's normal. If you want to break up, just say it."

"I don't!" It's the truth, but Sayaka knows it's not enough. She stretched herself thin with this double life, struggling to stay one step ahead of homework and Homura alike, and now she's on the verge of losing the one person she needs most. The fate of the relationship may hang on her next words. "I don't want that," she repeats. "I didn't mean to ignore you, honest. It's not a problem with you and me, it's... it's something else."

"Like what?" Righteous fire shines in the other girl's eyes. "Is someone bullying you? I'll kick his ass!"

"That's not it either." It totally is. "It's complicated."

Kyouko folds her arms. "Let's hear it."

She can't hear it. Letting the secret out would endanger both of them. More than that, Sayaka doesn't want to admit all the happiness they've shared might only exist because of a demon's whim. "Just a minute," she says, stalling for time. "I have to finish this."

"Hm?" Kyouko notices the ruined egg. "What's that?"

"I'm not sure." The smartphone mimics a shutter's clattering. "It came right before you – "

Pop!

Sayaka is about to pick up the jewel when a spark jumps from its surface to her fingertip. Her hand jerks away, the muscles in her arm spasming all at once. The phone slips from her grasp, deflects off her thigh and hits the floor. She heeds neither the impact nor Kyouko's cry of alarm. A firehose of information has been unleashed, flushing out all the unreachable crevices of her mind.

Kyouko grabs her by the shoulders, shaking frantically. "Sayaka? Sayaka! Snap out of it!"

"Wha..?" Sayaka blinks, her vision blurred by the rapid motions. "S-stop it, I... I'm all right, I remember..."

It's all coming back now: wishes and contracts, soaring hope and plunging despair, Madoka's ascent and Homura's rebellion. Miracles and magic do exist... There's no way I'd regret this... I won't be like the rest of you magical girls...

"...I really was an idiot."

"No!" The chair bangs against the desk a second time as Kyouko throws herself onto Sayaka. Sayaka doesn't fight it, just puts her arms around her companion and holds her close until the desperate clinging relaxes and the trembles subside. "I'm sorry," Kyouko mumbles. "I just... I had this horrible feeling I'd never see you again..."

Sayaka has heard words like these before, in a world even less real than this one. She wants to be sure of it, though. "Kyouko, do you still have dreams where I'm dead?"

"Huh?" Her girlfriend looks up in surprise. "I told you about that?"

"Yeah." The how and when aren't important. "Is it still happening?"

Kyouko nods reluctantly. "The last one was really bad. You were drowning and I wanted to save you but someone wouldn't let me." Backing away, she sits on the bed again. "It doesn't mean anything, right? I mean, I also have dreams where we live together."

Living together? That memory is false... Rather, it's a real memory of a false occurrence. Kyouko and Sayaka shared a home only in the Mitakihara created by Homura inside her barrier. The relationship she imposed on them wasn't openly romantic at that time, though Sayaka won't deny it was very nice... But then Homura saw through her own illusions and violently rejected the idyllic construct, upsetting the plans of those who had come to liberate her.

Kyouko intrudes upon Sayaka's reminiscing. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah." Sayaka rolls her chair to one side and rescues the dropped phone. Sitting up, she discovers the fake soul gem has disappeared. Only the box of grass is left to testify it was ever there. That doesn't matter, not when she had the real one right here all along.

Her fortunes have turned more in these five minutes than in the five weeks ending yesterday. While her position remains anything but secure, she feels like she's in control of her destiny for the first time since the game started. There's no need to keep fumbling in the dark, no more chasing after breadcrumbs. She knows where she stands now.

All roads lead to Madoka, in whose unwilling name this world was shaped. If anyone still has the power to make right what Homura made wrong, it's her. Sayaka has to get to her without Homura realizing what's happened, and then... what? Don't hastily act without thinking, that's what the game has taught her. Suppose she can bring out Madoka's true form, and suppose Madoka can fix everything. Must Sayaka relinquish this life and leave Kyouko alone once more? What about Mami? Hitomi and Kyousuke? Her parents? Madoka's family?

What about Homura?

Sayaka remembers a conversation they once had in the unreal city, when the fledgling witch had not yet recognized her own nature and was futilely pursuing an imagined foe. She accused Sayaka of taking the enemy's side, after the blue-haired girl cautioned her against rushing to strike down someone who just wanted everyone to be happy...

Back in the here and now, Kyouko is getting antsy. "Don't space out like that. You're scaring me."

"Sorry." The introspection is making Sayaka restless as well. She leaves her chair and begins to pace around the room. "I'll be done soon, I promise."

A small part of her wants to reject this duty. She can stay here with her friends, it whispers. Just stop resisting Homura and be content with things as they are... But while Sayaka has changed, the sense of justice which led her to become a magical girl has not. If she lets this go on, she's betraying all for which Madoka sacrificed herself. Pretty ideals aside, there's also the practical fact that Homura's erratic behavior does not inspire confidence in her mental state. How long will her domain endure if its master is unable to govern it?

The Law of the Cycle must be repaired, that much is certain. Sayaka might have achieved it at the very beginning, if only she'd gone to Madoka in the first place instead of stupidly confronting the newborn devil on her own. Perhaps the blunder was a blessing in disguise: if she'd done that, she wouldn't have gotten this chance to learn from her mistakes.

What she has to do will not be easy. At least she won't have to attempt the breakout by herself, so long as she can persuade Kyouko to join her cause. Kyouko can bring in Mami, and Mami can bring in the last member of the scattered team, Momoe Nagisa. It'll be just like old times.

Sayaka finishes pacing and sits on the bed, taking a moment to ready herself. "I have to tell you something you're not going to like," she begins. "And then I need your help."

Kyouko watches her uneasily. "What is it?"

With immediate secrecy no longer a concern, showing is faster than speaking. Sayaka holds out her hand so Kyouko can see the blue crescent and the ring on the same finger, a silver band etched with dark symbols. After a couple of seconds, she turns it palm upward and draws out her soul gem. The core gives off a healthy azure light, free of the miasma which once poisoned it.

Kyouko stares at the gem. Then she looks down at the ring on her own hand, identical save that Homura's influence has concealed its runes. Her eyes are wide as saucers. "Oh my god..."

They've had a nice dream together. Now it's time to wake up.


So far, so good. She's almost at the Kaname house and all is calm. With any luck, Madoka hasn't yet gone to bed. Sayaka makes sure she's alone, tucks the baseball bat under one arm and sprints off the street. Her clothes transform in mid-stride, cool air washing over her bare shoulders and midriff as she slips into her magical girl form.

The residence is dark except for one section on the top floor. That's perfect. Sayaka leaps over Tomohisa's tomatoes and hops up the side of the house itself, taking advantage of the irregular architecture. Alighting on the stepped roof outside Madoka's room, she sidles over to an open window. The one she seeks is at her desk inside, typing on a virtual keyboard projected over its surface.

Sayaka props the bat against the wall and taps the glass. Madoka looks up with a start. "Sayaka-chan? What are you doing out there?"

"We need to talk. Sorry to drop in like this, but it's important."

Madoka helps Sayaka climb through the window and onto her bed. "Are you cosplaying?" she asks, understandably confused by her friend's appearance.

"Not exactly." Sayaka would explain, but there won't be any need to if her idea works. "Listen, have you noticed Homura acting weird lately?"

"You have too? I wasn't sure if I was just imagining it..."

Of course Madoka would feel something's amiss. She's the only one Homura is close to, the only one the devil cares about. "What do you think?" prompts Sayaka.

"I don't really know. She seems tired all the time and she barely speaks to me any more." Madoka's fretting grows. "I thought maybe she was sick but she said she wasn't. Do you know what's wrong?"

"I might," says Sayaka grimly. "Before we talk about that, I want to apologize. I said something really mean to you once and it's been bothering me ever since I remembered."

"I don't understand," Madoka protests. "You're never mean to me, Sayaka-chan."

"It was sort of like this." Sayaka stands, moving a short distance away. She concentrates on drawing out the bitter feelings she held in that bus stop, the last time she saw the human Madoka. "You could be all-powerful," she recites coldly, "but you just sit there and watch me suffer instead. Don't act like you know how I feel from the sidelines."

Her performance tears away the veil of Homura's deception faster than she dared hope. "Sayaka-chan, don't!" Madoka cries. "You have to purify your... your..."

Sayaka conjures her soul gem, holding it at arm's length. "This?"

The room is quiet for a minute. Then Madoka's dazed, unfocused expression begins to coalesce into dismay. "This isn't right," she murmurs, looking around with mounting alarm. "We shouldn't be here." Amber light shimmers in her eyes. A jagged crack propagates through the space behind her. "We were supposed to bring back Homura-chan but she... How can she do this to herself?"

Sayaka shrugs. "It's love."


Driving rain lashes Madoka's face, drenching her snowy dress. Relentless wind tugs at its hem and at her long, bedraggled hair. She stands unbowed, face set in a look of deep concentration, as indifferent to the storm as it is to her. Electric turbines furiously spin behind her as the early morning sky pours its wrath on Mitakihara's industrial district.

"I don't see why you're not grateful," says Kyuubey. "Thanks to me, you were able to escape from Akemi Homura's manipulation."

There are no thanks to be found in the glare Sayaka gives him. "Don't talk to me about manipulation, Incubator."

"Pay attention," Mami admonishes. Even upwind, her voice doesn't carry far amid the tempest. "They're coming!"

As if Sayaka needs to be reminded. They are one breed of Homura's familiars: twisted caricatures of their maker, soldiers advancing in perfect ranks with spears leveled. These were no match for a magical girl the last time Sayaka fought them, but she mustn't take that for granted now. She glances at Kyouko, standing beside her on the footpath. "Are you ready?"

The answer is curt. "Uh-huh."

Mami and Nagisa have taken up a position in the grass on the far side of the river. Looking over her shoulder, Sayaka can see Madoka commanding the landscape from her vantage point above the sluice gate. Satisfied with her friend's safety for the moment, she faces the front again and slicks back the hair clinging to her forehead.

Their objective is still some ways off, well behind the oncoming phalanx. Sayaka would describe it as a gigantic flying gearbox, with a silhouette akin to a spinning top. In the brief lull between squalls, she makes out Homura's doll familiars waltzing on the highest, widest gear. The devil herself perches on the tip of the drive shaft, a forlorn bird of ill omen in an immodest black ensemble. Skeletal wings jut from her back, lined with a single row of feathers.

Her calm appearance doesn't fool Sayaka any more than Madoka's did. The real battle started hours ago, fought with powers the eye cannot see. It's a final contest for dominance, the goddess who loves all versus the devil who loves only her. With the two of them wholly occupied by their silent duel, leadership falls to the one who set the ball rolling. Now Sayaka needs to make sure it rolls in the right direction.

"Stick to the plan!" she calls. "Focus on the familiars, don't attack Homura!"

At Madoka's insistence, Plan A was a diplomatic approach. Said plan fell apart the moment Homura became aware of her precious captive's awakening and, in a panic, tried to reassert control by force. It was too late for that, too late to simply clap her hands and make the problem go away. She and Madoka were nearly matched in strength, and the ensuing stalemate gave Madoka's allies time to improvise Plan B. It's not a great plan, but it'll let them finish the job and sort out the finer points afterward.

"Wait!" For an avowedly emotionless being, Kyuubey sounds remarkably distressed. "Isn't Akemi Homura your enemy? Why would you want to spare her?"

"Would you shut up already?" Kyouko whips the butt of her spear into the furry alien's backside, launching him headfirst off the riverbank. "Jeez!"

"I don't understand this at all..." Sploosh!

The outburst doesn't pass unnoticed. Kyouko has been acting out of sorts ever since her memory was restored, seesawing between reticence and irritation. Sayaka knows it's not just the wretched weather making her unhappy, nor Kyuubey's unwelcome persistence. If this gambit succeeds, Kyouko must face the very real possibility that she may not see Sayaka again for the rest of her life. Knowing a magical girl's life tends to be short under even the best of circumstances brings scant comfort.

There's a lot Sayaka wants to say, but not enough time to say it. In the last seconds before the familiars come into striking range, she reaches out and gives Kyouko's shoulder a gentle squeeze. Then she unfastens her cape and lets the wind pull it away. A musket volley thunders on the right flank. Kyouko throws herself against the massed minions with a snarl. Sayaka snatches up her swords and follows into the fray.

Homura's soldiers haven't gotten any stronger, though the weight of their numbers adds a little challenge to what is otherwise just killing time. Kyouko and Sayaka cut through the puppets' weapons and bodies with equal ease, erasing two, three, even four at a single blow. Across the waters, Mami is conjuring, firing and discarding her ornate snaplocks with breathtaking speed. Nagisa guards the older girl's back, her own strength held in reserve for the critical moment.

The infernal machine inches closer. Whirling blades cleave raindrops. Guns flash in the gloom. The magical girls fight on, soaked to the bone yet burning with determination. Everybody knows what's at stake. One way or another, it ends here.

A cry from Nagisa pierces the mayhem. "Look out! They're above us!"

Sayaka swings both swords together, depriving a familiar trio of their heads, and jumps back to get a clear view. A flock of Homura's enormous crow servants have appeared, circling above the gearbox. The first wave is already peeling off to attack those who hinder the infantry. "Mami!"

"Got it!" The blond fighter casts aside her unused stockpile. "Mitragliatrice Grande!"

A black spear hurtles towards Kyouko. Sayaka lunges to intercept, but the clash of steel is lost as a tooth-rattling BABABABABOOM drowns out all other noise. There are no crows left in the sky, only a shower of feathers.

"Miki-san, Kyouko-san, we can do it now!"

Exactly what Sayaka wants to hear. "Great! Let's go!"

Mami depresses the big gun's barrel and Homura's tin troops wither before her. She sweeps one bank clean, then swivels the weapon on its tripod and rakes the familiars on the far shore. What dregs survive are soon mopped up by Kyouko and Sayaka. Abandoning the immobile fixture, Mami reverts to her usual armament. A single slug bores into the opposite embankment, providing an anchor for the yellow ribbon which forms along its flight path.

The sharpshooter wraps the tail around her hand and takes a flying leap, pulling herself over the river to Sayaka's side. The devil's army is half reinforced by the time Mami lands: the power she expended has bought the team a minute at most. If their good fortune holds, that minute is all they need.

Mami summons another brace of muskets and fires them together, aiming beneath the flying fortress. New ribbons appear at her command and gently coil around Kyouko's and Sayaka's waists. In the background, Nagisa wipes her hands across her face, assuming the clownish visage of her inhuman self. With a shout of "Cambozola!" she falls upon the foe.

The wind eases, affording a few moments of better visibility. It looks like Homura is still taking the bait, and doesn't know or doesn't care about what's happening on the ground. This is the trickiest part of the plan, yet Sayaka has the most confidence in it. "We'll go on three, all right?"

"Wait!" Mami hesitates, then undoes the little ribbon which was tied in a bow under her collar. "Please, give this to Nagisa for me."

Sayaka understands. "Count on it," she pledges, knotting the keepsake around her own wrist. "Don't lose hope, okay?"

Mami nods stoically. Sayaka wishes she could offer more, but the gale is kicking up again and the familiars aren't going to wait while she makes a proper farewell. She gets back into position, ready to start the count, and suddenly all she can see is red. A cold wet pair of lips press against hers and someone else's tongue is in her mouth. "...There," Kyouko concludes. "Now I'm ready."

Just this once, there will be no complaining about her lack of propriety. Sayaka flips her swords over, holding them with the blades pointing down. "One – two – three!"

Kyouko jumps. The ribbon attached to her body snaps taut, contracting and flexing upward simeltaneously. As her girlfriend rockets into the sky, Sayaka takes a deep breath and pushes off with both feet. She rides through the jolt and the heavy g-force which follows, squinting against the stiff headwind that blasts her face. Then the acceleration eases off and the ribbon unravels.

Mami's gunfire resumes, muted by distance. Kyouko straddles her spear directly ahead, riding it like a broomstick as the pair coast towards apogee. Gravity takes over and Sayaka switches her focus to the landing zone. The dolls are still dancing, mocking their mistress as they have always done. These familiars are far stronger than the other types, and solidly outnumber the airborne boarding party. It's going to get a lot harder if they join the fight.

The redhead hits first and slides across the mammoth gear's broad surface, dragging the spearhead behind her. Sayaka lands right on her tail, hunching as she absorbs the shock. Pale faces flash past on either side, glassy-eyed, leering. Cries of "Gott ist tot!" fill the intruders' ears. Homura remains entranced, lost in her own struggle.

Kyouko springs off the deck, twisting into an aerial somersault that carries her over the devil's head. She snaps the spear downward and it breaks apart into chain-linked pieces. The transformed weapon snakes around Homura's body, binding her arms and wings just before Kyouko's momentum pulls her off her pedestal.

There was a time, not even that long ago, when Sayaka would have relished a chance to get payback for what Homura has done to her. Not any more. This is merely a cruel necessity, an act performed because it is the lesser evil. She jumps onto the drive shaft and jumps again, discarding one sword and raising the other above her head with both hands. In the final instant before contact, she looks into the eyes of Akemi Homura – fallen magical girl, nutcracker witch, beloved of a higher power – and sees raw, primal fear.

And then Miki Sayaka – doomed magical girl, mermaid witch, best friend of a higher power – drives her blade into the devil's heart.

Homura screams. Sayaka straddles her waist, pinning her to the deck. A pink aura envelopes them as Madoka's power surges through Sayaka, discharging along a circuit she completed with her own body. Kyouko grimaces, hands locked around the ends of the spear chain in a white-knuckle grip as Homura writhes in agony. The end, when it comes, is mercifully quick. Homura goes limp, head lolling to one side, and Sayaka feels Madoka's will recede from the link. She replaces it with her own, delving into the wound for the one thing she still needs. It's close, very close...

The dolls aren't dancing any more. They're standing and staring, and Kyouko is getting nervous. "I think we should leave."

"I know."

"I mean like, leave now."

"Not yet." Not unless they want to win the battle and lose the war. Sayaka grits her teeth, makes a grab for the prize, and pulls. The sword comes out slowly, as though mired in glue, and something else comes out with it as the tip emerges. Rain begins to wash away the devil's ichor, exposing the harsh lines of the black crown. Sayaka scoops it up with her free hand and hurriedly rises. "Bingo!"

She doubles back towards the gearbox's leading edge. Mami and Nagisa are still fighting on the ground below, slowly withdrawing to the sluice gate lest the soldiers overwhelm them... And there's Madoka looking up at her, waiting to finish this.

"Sayaka!" Kyouko has Homura's body slung over her shoulder. The dolls are gathering around her in crass mimicry of a mourning procession. "This isn't the end, right? You're coming back, aren't you?"

Sayaka holds the crown close to her chest. She wants to say yes, wants to say they've got a whole life together ahead of them, but she can't. The fragile hope she's carried this far must remain unspoken. With a parting smile, she dives off the edge. The lower part of her uniform melts away, her legs fusing as the river rushes towards her.

Mami takes one more shot: "TIRO... FINALE!"

Sayaka punches through the surface and levels off, driving forward with powerful strokes of an iridescent tail. Swimming in this half-witch form is second nature to her, though she never used the ability as much as Nagisa does. It leaves her half naked and that's embarrassing, even if it's not the human half.

Embarrassment is the last thing on her mind as a dark shape reaches out to her. She slows, synchronizing the movement of two bodies, and Oktavia von Seckendorff's gauntleted hand cups around her protectively. At Sayaka's direction, the leviathan lifts her back into the realm of air. Water pours from Oktavia's three-eyed helmet and armored shoulders as monster and mermaid emerge together at the foot of the gate.

Sayaka holds out the crown. "Madoka, here! Take it!"


Homura sits in her chair on the hill, clad in a gothic funeral dress. The hill itself is whole, and a second chair stands empty where there was once a divide. Red spider lilies, blooming out of season, blanket the ground.

Sayaka takes care not to trample them as she approaches, still in her magical girl guise. "Now that the game is done, let's be honest with each other." Her nemesis doesn't respond, but she's not going to be discouraged so easily. "I won't ask why you put me through that, but if you were trying to make me hate you, you failed."

Homura barely reacts. "Leave," she says flatly. "I don't want to hear your gloating."

"Oh, like I'm going to gloat over someone who's so miserable her own familiars throw tomatoes at her." Sayaka circles in front of the seated girl and stops. The other chair isn't hers. "I'll say my part and if you still want me to go, fine. Until then, humor me."

The devil frowns. "After what I have done, can you honestly say you do not despise me?"

"There were times when I thought I'd end up that way," Sayaka concedes. "When I remember what Madoka showed me, I'm glad I didn't."

That name rouses Homura from her sulking. "What are you talking about?" she demands. "What did she show you?"

Sayaka's answer couldn't be more succinct. "You," she replies. "The Homura who fought so hard to protect her, the one who battled an unstoppable enemy again and again. Madoka wanted me to understand why saving you from the incubators was so important... And then I got to see the world you wished for, too." Sayaka turns away, looking out at a glowing city crisscrossed with elevated aqueducts and patrolled by art deco dirigibles. "Coming back here makes me feel a little nostalgic."

"This is not my barrier."

"It's a pretty good likeness." Both of them spent enough time in the original to be sure of that. "You're right, though. This is more like a dream, a place for you to stay while Madoka finishes cleaning up."

Homura has no doubt already tried and discovered she can't break out of her spacious prison. "What do you intend to do with me?"

"That depends," says Sayaka. "Will you stop trying to sabotage the Law of the Cycle?"

"No." Even in defeat, Homura's resolve does not waver. "I will never accept a world where Madoka cannot have the life she deserves."

As expected. "Then the devil will sleep for all eternity, wandering through this Mitakihara long after the real one is gone and forgotten... But that's not what Madoka wants. It's not what I want, either."

Her attempt to be eloquent doesn't impress. "You're wasting your time. As you say, I am a devil. A provocateur who – "

"Yeah, yeah, I remember that crap." Sayaka heard this speech once already and once was enough. She leans forward, hands on hips. "So tell me, transfer student. If you're really so evil, why aren't you happy?"

Homura parries the question with questions of her own. "Are you happy, Miki Sayaka? You turned Madoka against me and forced her to resume a role which should never have been hers. When your purpose is fulfilled, you will return to the Law of the Cycle and cease to exist as an individual. Are you satisfied with this end? Are you content to abandon Sakura Kyouko for such an outcome?"

Sayaka sees where this is going and plays along. It's fine to waste time when one has all the time in the world. "I'm pretty satisfied," she says evenly. "Madoka chose to return to her rightful place, and we chose to help her. All of us, even Kyouko and Mami. I won't say it was fun or easy, but they knew what they were getting into."

"Irrelevant." Is that a bitter note in Homura's voice? "Once Madoka destroys my creation, they won't remember any of this took place."

"Don't assume the worst so quickly," the blue-haired girl chides. "We're not just going back to the way things used to be. Nagisa and I will be sticking around to lend a hand, and nobody has to forget what happened."

"I see... In other words, you've accepted separation as the price for your victory. Sakura Kyouko will know you existed, but will not be able to see or hear you until her life ends. Kaname Tatsuya will grow up without his sister, remembering her only from vague impressions and the words of others. Your own parents will only know their daughter vanished without a trace." Homura tilts her head. "Is this good enough for you?"

Another question which Sayaka has already had to answer for herself. "I can accept it," she asserts. "I might not like it, but I can live with it if that's the price we pay for saving you and protecting the hope of all magical girls. The thing is – "

"Saving me?" The bitterness is unmistakable now. "If you believe I can still be saved, you're even more foolish than I thought."

Sayaka lets the insult slide. "It's true," she replies seriously. "Since you're neither a witch nor a magical girl, the Law of the Cycle won't apply to you no matter how much Madoka wants it." She folds her arms over her chest. "That doesn't mean we can't find a place for you. The world of magical girls has its own god and its own angels. We could let it have a devil too."

This time Homura doesn't seem to have a ready retort. "What... are you saying, exactly?"

"I was about to tell you when you interrupted." Sayaka waits a moment, just to give the next part more impact. "I said I could accept leaving the others behind if it was the best ending we could get. The thing is, we might not have to settle for that."

She has Homura's attention, if not her enthusiasm. "Go on."

"Normally the Law of the Cycle only manifests when a magical girl is about to become a witch, right? I shouldn't be here, except there's some kind of anomaly where you're concerned... I don't know if it's from you breaking the Law, or being linked with us in the fight back there. What's important is that it gives us a loophole." Sayaka spins in a circle, cape flaring as she holds out her hands to encompass all of the beautiful illusion. "I said this is a dream, but actually it does have characteristics of a barrier. It's shaped by your own power, turned inward instead of out. If we released you now, you would be able to control the dreams you create and bring other people into them."

"People such as Sakura Kyouko and Tomoe Mami," the devil finishes tartly. "Sparing you the consequence of your choice."

"It won't let us carry on the lives we had," Sayaka points out. "But it's enough to keep in touch, and it doesn't have to be just for us. Think of all the magical girls Madoka has to take away. You could give them a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones, even when they fall alone."

Interested or not, Homura is mistrustful. "You've always been an obstacle to me, Miki Sayaka. Why would you offer this?"

"Because I care." It really is that simple. "I've already made my decision. Whichever path you choose, I won't give up on you the way you gave up on me. I want to see you earn back the happy ending you threw away."

Not the best choice of words, judging by the resentment that flashes in Homura's eyes. "You talk of happy endings after you've taken everything from me," she accuses. "Madoka was safe! The incubators were under control! I had my happy ending!"

"Did you?" Sayaka is careful not to sound accusing in turn. "Is that really what you wanted, a Madoka you had to keep locked in a cage?" She feels a new presence as she speaks, a force hovering at the dream's edge. Time to finish this. "Homura, listen to me. Don't go on making the same mistakes I did. If you can't respect the wish Madoka made, you'll only keep hurting her." Bending, she picks one of the scarlet blossoms. "You've suffered enough. Let it go." Gloved hands tuck the lily into the devil's hairband. "There... Now I've said what I came to say, so I won't make you wait any longer."

There's no reply. Sayaka turns her attention elsewhere. Madoka, is that you?

Right here, Sayaka-chan. How is it going?

I'm done. I don't think I got through to her, but thanks for giving me the chance. She's all yours.

All right, I'll come in.

The whole crest of the hill lights up as Madoka appears, floating serenely over the flowers. She looks much better now that she isn't totally soaked, and Sayaka can't help but take a moment to enjoy the majestic sight.

The moment ends when Homura bolts from her chair, suddenly agitated. Her tone now is almost pleading. "No... Not like this..." She backs straight into Sayaka, who grabs her in a bear hug before she can flee. Her final shield, the icy persona she buried herself in for so long, shatters completely. "Stop! Don't look at me! Don't touch me!" Homura tries to cover her face with her hands, her voice breaking. "Don't forgive me!"

The goddess will have none of it. Taking advantage of Sayaka's quick reaction, she swoops down and grabs the struggling devil's wrists. "Homura-chan, stop that!"

"Please... You mustn't..."

Madoka settles onto the ground, moving her hands to Homura's waist. "It's all right," she murmurs. "I'm here now. You don't have to be alone any more."

Sayaka feels a tremor, hears the first sniffles, and knows her part in this play is at an end. She releases her grip and steps away, letting Madoka pull Homura into a closer embrace. Soon the devil is sobbing into her beloved's shoulder as Madoka strokes her back, whispering words of reassurance.

It would be premature to celebrate success when there's still so much to be done. The wraiths aren't going to kill themselves, and someone will have to keep an eye on the incubators lest they hatch another plan to restore the life cycle of witches. Rehabilitating Homura will take time and patience. Even so, Sayaka has a good feeling as she leaves the dream.

Maybe, just maybe, things will work out.


WER IST ERWACHT?


End note: I originally planned to conclude the story on a much more ambiguous note, without an epilogue after the battle scene. I'll let the reader judge whether listening to my test audience was the right decision.

I have a few more ideas for stories in this setting, but I'll wait and see how this one goes over before I commit to anything new.