Author's note: Big thanks to everyone who followed, favorited and reviewed. You make the suffering worthwhile.
Reader Psykoakuma pointed out that the story lacked a cover image and had an uninspiring summary. I've taken a shot at fixing these.
The Persistence of Memory
Extra Story: Notes from the Silver Garden
Act II – Apple and Strawberry
On the east side of Mitakihara, beyond the industrial district and the Kazamino border line, there stands an abandoned cathedral. It's been empty for some time, stripped of valuables and frequented only by stray cats and dogs. Urban explorers and paranormal enthusiasts visit once in a while, drawn by tales of a grisly murder-suicide and a vengeful spirit which drives away would-be squatters. They never stay long.
"Here we are," says Kyouko. "Welcome to my home."
Chie looks at the forsaken church, at Kyouko, and back at the church again. The trees outside appear healthy enough, yet those gray stone walls give a gloomy feeling even in sunshine. "You... live in there?"
"Yeah." The shorter redhead steps forward. "C'mon, we don't wanna be late."
There's a lot Chie still doesn't understand about the Mitakihara magical girls. She's grateful to Kyouko and Mami for their kind guidance, she really is, but sometimes they say things the novice can scarcely believe. So far she's been afraid to pry too deeply, to ask why neither of them have families or why they speak of the Law of the Cycle like a dear friend. She tried asking Kyuubey once, when he came around to collect her grief cubes. He merely said he wasn't allowed to discuss it.
Despite the church's dilapidated condition, its door is fastened with a new looking padlock. Kyouko produces a key from her shorts pocket and opens it, drawing a squeal of protest from the hinges. Chie follows her inside, beginning to regret wearing such a nice blouse and skirt this afternoon. Floorboards creak underfoot and a musty smell hangs heavy in the air. "It's cozier than it looks," Kyouko tells her. "There's a public bath and a convenience store pretty near by."
Chie stays close behind, unable to see clearly until her eyes adjust. "I guess the owner doesn't come here much..."
"I'm the owner." Kyouko says it without pride or joy. "It's a long story." She opens a door and ducks into a side room, reappearing with a plastic shopping bag. "Don't trip on the rug."
They go deeper into the shadowy maze, twisting and turning. Chie starts to feel as if someone else is watching them. She tells herself it's only her imagination, wound up by the spooky stories about this place. The feeling doesn't go away, however, and at one point she could swear she hears a voice whispering "Apfel bringt Erdbeere." Then Kyouko opens another door and Chie is dazzled by colorful light.
Knowing very little of Christian practice, she guesses this is a communal worship space. The walls and ceiling are lined with masterworks of stained glass, the floor occupied by rows of wide benches with an aisle down the center. At the far end is a simple wooden lectern on a raised platform, a large cross affixed to the front. A girl with long black hair sits at its foot, balancing a well worn MacBook Ultra on her knees. She wears the uniform of Mitakihara Middle School with tights underneath, though Chie doesn't recall ever seeing her there.
The seated girl directs a frosty look at the new arrivals. "I trust Akayama Chie is here for a reason."
"Of course she is." Kyouko shuts the door and walks up the aisle, unfazed by the cool reception. "Gimme a minute, okay?" She goes to the back of the lectern and kneels facing the window, head bowed and hands clasped.
Chie wonders who or what her mentor is praying for. Then she begins to feel awkward, left standing alone between the benches. After some seconds, the stranger acknowledges her discomfort. "You may as well sit down."
The rookie does. The unfriendly welcome leaves her ill at ease and she finds the renewed silence oppressive. "Um..."
Pitiless eyes flick in her direction. "Yes?"
"You're Akemi Homura, aren't you?"
The laptop girl makes a curt noise of assent. "I suppose the others have told you about me."
"They said..." Chie swallows. "They said you're some kind of demon."
"That's right. I'm an evil being who leads magical girls astray, tempting them away from the Law of the Cycle."
It feels like a test, or maybe a challenge. Either way, Chie's too confused and intimidated to work up a clever riposte. "But... if you're against the Law, why are you helping us?"
"My reasons are my own." Homura carries on typing. "It's fine if you don't understand."
Fortunately Kyouko rejoins them at that moment. "Go easy on Akayama-kun," she admonishes. "She's a good girl."
The show of support helps. So does the jumbo candy bar which the spear wielder pulls out of her bag. "Thanks," Chie murmurs self-consciously.
"My pleasure." Kyouko takes another for herself and plops down beside her shy pupil. "So how did the thing with Sayaka go?"
"Well enough," replies Homura. "Her efficiency could be improved."
Plastic crinkles as the seasoned huntress unwraps her snack. "But she did okay for her first time, right?"
Chie follows her senior's lead and opens the confection. Kyouko is already wolfing down her own bar, talking between bites. "You got more of these jobs lined up?"
"A few." Homura lifts up her laptop's carry bag and takes out a manila folder. "This is the next case." She hands a sheet of paper to Kyouko, who holds it so Chie can see as well.
It's a copy of an aged photograph showing a row of eight girls, all of them around middle school age. They wear the traditional costume of shrine maidens, but their hands grip long-barreled rifles fitted with long-bladed bayonets. Stood upright, the weapons are taller than the wielders. Those at either end have a rising sun flag tied to their guns, and Chie recognizes a portrait of the former emperor mounted on the wall behind them. A severe man in a dark military uniform and peaked cap lurks beneath it, glowering into the camera. The face of the second girl from the right has been circled in ballpoint. There's no explanation, just a note scrawled on the margin with the same implement: Original dated Shouwa 18.2 on reverse.
Kyouko shares Chie's puzzlement. "What's that?"
"It seems that during the war, a certain group of magical girls came under control of the Imperial Navy. One of them, Moriwaki Aoi, is not accounted for in the Law of the Cycle."
"And you know where she is?"
"Roughly." Homura exchanges the sheet for two others. "Within an area of about four hundred square kilometers."
The first of these pages is another old picture, its subject a dreadnought lumbering left to right across the frame. Six turrets and a superstructure towering over the hull like a lopsided pagoda give a top-heavy appearance. It's escorted by a smaller vessel with a high prow and two raked funnels, the name Amakaze spelled along the side in blocky katakana. Like the girl from before, the little ship is circled. This image was scanned from a book, judging by the caption printed neatly in English underneath: Plate XXXVII – battleship Hyuuga after modernization.
The last paper's content is also a scene photographed at sea. It was taken from an airplane, a dark wingtip with a star-and-bar emblem visible at the bottom. A ship of the same kind as Amakaze lies stricken in the water below, rolling to the left and settling by the stern. Its rearmost turret has been smashed, part of the adjacent deck torn asunder and smoking. There's a label, again in English but written freehand in white letters: JAP DD SUNK 140 MI WSW KAGOSHIMA APR 7 '45.
Kyouko whistles. "You got your work cut out for you."
"Maybe." Homura takes back the documents and places them in the folder. "Now, perhaps you'd like to tell me the purpose of this meeting?"
"Oh yeah." Kyouko pockets the crumpled candy wrapper. "Go for it, Akayama-kun."
Chie would be hard pressed to think of a more daunting task right now. If Homura dislikes her already, can this end in anything but more humiliation? Even so, she knows it's too late to turn back. "I've been working on a... a proximity fuze for my rockets, so they only explode close to wraiths. Sakura-san is teaching me how to steer them, too... She said you have a safe place where I could train, and maybe some targets?"
"I see." The demon tilts her head. "You're asking a large favor of me. What can you offer in return?"
Unspoiled grief cubes are the common currency of the trade, but Chie has none. "I've got about a hundred and eighty thousand yen saved up..."
"I don't need your money." Homura folds up her computer and puts it aside. "Naivety and timidity are fatal weaknesses, Akayama Chie. A magical girl who can't overcome them is no use to me."
"I can!" The words are out of the tall girl's mouth before she quite realizes what she's saying. "I'm sure I can," she amends, the flash of defiance fading as quick as it came. "I just need more practice."
There's no immediate response to the outburst. Homura dips into Kyouko's bag and takes out a can of coffee, prying up the pull tab with a soft hiss. "And once you've had your practice, what is your desire?"
"Desire..." It takes a couple of seconds to grasp the demon's meaning. The question does have an answer, albeit one many in this line of work would scorn or deride. Kyouko and Mami encouraged it, though, which gives Chie a little confidence. "I want to be strong enough to protect this city and help others, the way Sakura-san and Tomoe-sempai do."
Her aspiration is spared mockery, but not skepticism. "Charity is seldom rewarded in our world. You've been a magical girl long enough to know this." Homura sips her drink. "The others will tell you the same."
Chie nods. "The girls I worked with before only cared about themselves, always fighting for the most cubes. Now I know a magical girl can be more than that... Maybe I made a bad wish, but I can still do some good with the power it gave me. I want to try my best, even if it only makes a small difference in the end."
"Tell her about the quote," Kyouko interjects. "I liked that part."
"Ah..." Chie wasn't sure whether to mention that, since Kyouko said her appeal shouldn't depend on pretty rhetoric. "It's something President Kennedy said," she explains. "My dad has it framed in his office. 'We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.'"
The demon sips again. "This represents your feelings?"
"Is there anything else you wish to add?"
The interview seems about to end. Chie can't tell whether her pleas have had any effect. "No..."
The church falls into silence once more, disturbed only by a raucous crow outside. Homura drinks, Chie frets, and Kyouko opens a box of Pocky. Chie feels like a bug under a magnifying glass, intently scrutinized yet pitifully insignificant. How long will this trial go on?
The petitioner's sagging figure jerks upright. "Eh..? You mean you'll do it?"
"I'll give you a chance to demonstrate your ability. If you pass, you can have your training ground."
It's not quite full approval, but Chie won't let the opportunity be squandered. Hastily she gets to her feet and bows at the waist. "Thank you so much. I promise I won't let you down."
Her appreciation is met with indifference. "There's one condition," Homura states. "Your infatuation with Tomoe Mami will not be requited. Give it up."
"Uhk..!" Chie freezes, blindsided by the demon's candor. She doesn't know whether to deny it, ask how Homura found out, or try to defend her attraction. "I... That..."
Kyouko stands up. "It's okay," she says, laying a hand on the novice's shoulder. "Trust me, you're not the first girl to fall for Mami."
Chie's cheeks redden. "It's just... Tomoe-sempai is so..."
"I get where you're coming from, I really do." The ponytailed girl gives her understudy a comforting pat. "But she's already got someone."
If that's how it is, then the outcome is clearly defeat. "I understand."
Thankfully Homura doesn't linger on the subject. "We'll begin soon," she says, also rising. "If you're going to eat, do it now."
"Eat?" Only now does Chie remember the candy bar. Her anxious clenching has crushed it inside the wrapper, extruding a glob of caramel. She quickly bites into the sweet, lest it start dripping.
The demon snaps her fingers and a great bell tolls once, high overhead. There comes a patter of running feet and a door opens, admitting a fourth girl. She wears wire rimmed glasses, her rust-brown hair drawn into twin tails. An oversize maroon tracksuit hangs off her petite frame. Although rather short, she looks about the same age as the others.
Homura introduces the stranger. "This is Park Song-yi, a guest from the east."
Song-yi bows. "Greetings."
Chie returns the gesture. "I'm Akayama Chie. Nice to meet you."
Kyouko greets the latecomer in her own way, holding out the Pocky box. "You sleep okay?"
"Yes, thank you." Song-yi takes a stick. She speaks modestly and with a marked accent, though she sounds comfortable conversing in Japanese.
Homura continues to be all business. "Tomoe Mami has gone to retrieve your brother. In the meantime, I – "
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Kyouko cuts in. "Mami's in Chiba? She didn't tell me anything about that."
"I'm sure she did." Homura brushes a hand through her hair. "Check your messages."
"I would have gotten a ring..." Kyouko takes out her phone and pushes the power button, to no result. "Uh oh."
She's alarmed, Song-yi is worried, and Chie understands neither. "What's happening in Chiba?"
"It's ugly." Her mentor crams the inoperative handset back into her hoodie. "A gang of really tough girls moved in last month and started squeezing the locals. Came down from somewhere in Touhoku... At first it was shakedowns and stealing, now they're kidnapping for ransom too."
"They took my brother," Song-yi adds. "They said I have to pay them a lot of cubes or give up my territory."
"One of Mami's old students got wind and sent her to us." Kyouko turns to Homura. "Why'd you let Mami go alone?"
"I didn't," says the demon flatly. "Momoe Nagisa is with her. Hashimoto Zoya will join them."
"Zoya..." Kyouko's eyes widen. "Zoya the Burner!? Since when does she work for you?"
"She was eligible for a contract. I made an offer and she accepted."
"You're kidding me... That's a joke, right? No way the friggin' Burner made a contract."
Chie looks from one to the other in bewilderment. All she knows is that Mami might be in peril. "Who is Zoya?"
"She's Russian," answers Kyouko. "Or half Russian, I forget. She hasn't got her own territory, so she does dirty jobs for other girls. Like, they pay her to knock off their rivals and stuff. She's called the Burner 'cause she roasts 'em alive."
"You shouldn't give too much credence to third-hand rumors," remarks Homura. "Nor assume that I made this decision lightly. I would not have used Hashimoto Zoya if I considered her a threat."
Kyouko isn't satisfied. "But still, making Mami and Nagisa work with someone like that..."
"Their opponents are survivors of the Northern Territories War. An ally with the same experience is needed." A frown tugs at the corners of Homura's mouth. "Or would you rather have your friends walk blindly into a battle they aren't prepared for?"
"No..." It's a grudging acquiescence. "I just hope you're right."
So does Chie. She also wants to know what Homura meant by a war, but the demon's attention swings back to Song-yi before she can speak: "As I was saying, I would like you to assist Akayama Chie in a test of her skill. It won't be dangerous."
Song-yi nods. "Of course."
"Good." Homura waves her empty hand and the church turns inside out.
Chie blinks. She and the others are back in Mitakihara, standing at the top of the hill in the park. It's nighttime, the air clear and cool. Only Song-yi seems to share her bafflement at this sudden change. Turning around, the apprentice is startled to see what's happened to the city itself. Where did those aqueducts come from? Why are there blimps patrolling with spotlights? What is that flying thing?
It looks like a fever dream teddy bear with a second, deformed head grafted on top, dancing among the brightly lit high-rises. "That is a nightmare," announces Homura. "This one can't hurt you, but it will evade your attacks. Your goal is to destroy it."
"Okay..." Chie hurriedly finishes the mangled candy bar and tucks away the wrapper. Knowing the moment of truth has arrived, she closes her eyes and breathes in. Her day clothes vanish, replaced by a gold-trimmed scarlet leotard and knee boots. "Ready, Park-san?"
Song-yi switches into a sky blue Mao suit and soft cap, embellished with white lily motifs. "Ready."
They leap forward together, bounding down the hill towards their waiting prey. It soon becomes obvious they're in a Potemkin city, with no cars, no pedestrians, not even a whisper of life on any street. Chie could hardly ask for a finer sparring ground, yet the construct's depth and detail leave her uneasy. Is this what a demon's power can do?
The nightmare is wandering around a traffic overpass when the pursuers catch up to it. That's good for Chie, who needs open space to make effective attacks. Alighting on an exit ramp, she materializes one of her improved weapons in its back-slung carrying configuration. Song-yi does the same, filling her hands with a sledgehammer by Fabergé. "Who will strike first?" she asks.
"I guess I should," Chie replies. "Unless you can hit it from here."
"I can." Song-yi adjusts her grip and posture, moving her feet apart and lowering her center of gravity. "We go on three?"
"Yeah." Chie reaches up to grab the control handles and raises the six-tube launcher into position above her head. "One! Two! Three! Panzerwerfer zu Fuss!"
The first rocket shoots out with a shrill whoop and a plume of red smoke. At the same instant, Song-yi spins and hurls the sledgehammer in the same direction. It outruns the rocket, hitting the airborne monster right in its plushy center. The nightmare squeaks like a rubber toy and lurches away from its assailants, firing pillow-shaped missiles from stumpy arms.
Kyouko and Homura look on from the hilltop as the target bobs and shakes, buffeted by a string of near misses. The last rocket detonates beside an apartment complex. "That's why I wanted Akayama-kun to do it here," says Kyouko, watching the glimmer of broken glass raining down.
Homura refills her can and takes a long sip. "She has much to learn."
"She'll learn." The redhead starts on her eighth Pocky stick. "Thanks for taking her on. I was sure you were gonna say no for a minute there."
"I'm aware that you and Tomoe Mami are concerned about finding successors," Homura points out. "You wouldn't have brought that girl if you didn't believe in her potential."
Kyouko nods, crunching the biscuit between her teeth. "I owe you one."
The devil flicks her hair. "It's an investment, not a favor. Akayama Chie may be needed sooner than you expect."
"In case something happens to us? Or in case the stuff we do attracts the wrong people?"
A cry of "Schräge Musik!" rings out, followed by a staccato pom-pom-pom as a flurry of crimson tracers pelt the nightmare from below. It veers off, clipping the corner of an office building in its haste to escape.
"Are you okay with that? Having her on the team and all?"
"Someone who stays up late to watch reruns of Panzer Shoujo Mogami Maki wouldn't be my first choice," Homura says bluntly. "But it's not my decision."
"Doesn't mean we don't care what you think." Kyouko glances at her neighbor. "How do you know what she watches?"
"She has a limited edition phone strap on her school bag. I assume that's where she learned about proximity fuzes."
"Huh... What about the crush on Mami?"
"Manuke and Ibari overheard her asking other third-years whether Tomoe Mami was seeing anyone." Homura swirls the coffee with a gentle motion. "Were you aware of it?"
"I kind of wondered," Kyouko admits. "Figured Mami would know a nice way to turn her down."
Six rockets go up all at once, bracketing the nightmare with flak bursts.
"I really hope Mami's okay out there."