Chapter One: Those Left Behind
Kyouko ran through the dark city streets, her footsteps echoing in the vast empty space around her. Sweat and blood mingled on her brow as she panted for breath, her mind filled with the exhaustion and pain. Putting one foot in front of the other. Forcing her aching limbs to move, never matter how little magic she had left. If she stopped, that would be the end.
The demons pursued her in eerie silence, their long cloaks trailing slightly as they floated just above the ground. Without a word they swept up the street in a loose formation, a dozen, a score or more coming one after the other. They were gaining. The shadows were dissected by thin, sharp rays of light that erupted from their hands, shooting towards Kyouko from behind.
Kyouko threw herself forwards, rolling hard against the cold asphalt of the cross-roads as the rays of light shot over her head. She smirked as she rolled to her feet. Take it away.
Mami nodded calmly from the road to Kyouko's left, pulling two of her many muskets from the ground and opening fire as the demons spilled into the intersection. The first crumpled, its head shattered by her accurate fire. With deft, polished movements she threw the empty guns aside and reached for two more, a withering barrage of fire slamming into the ranks of the demons as they tried to locate the new threat. "Turn-about is fair play. Attacking in such numbers is positively ungracious."
Homura landed gently on top of a lamp-post overlooking the intersection, her white wings fading away as she raised her bow and drew it back. "I don't really mind. If they gather together, we can clean them up that much faster." Her purple arrow shot cleanly through a demon's head, twisting as it pierced through and flying straight through another's chest. Both exploded, sagging down as they died. She formed another arrow, purple lightning playing about her hands as she took aim. The second shot snapped through the enemy ranks, tearing two more apart.
The demons reeled back, almost crashing into each other as they struggled to respond to the second attack. Rays of light erupted from their hands, shooting towards their new enemies.
Intersecting lines of red light erupted behind Kyouko, forming a barrier that deflected all of their attacks. She smirked as she raised her spear, her aching body responding to her rising hope. "What, no thanks for me? Who do you think gathered them all up for you?" She raised her spear, red lines erupting behind the demons and cutting off their line of retreat. Screaming, she slammed her right foot forwards, her whole body moving as she swung her extending spear, smashing a demon apart with a single blow.
Lines of magic crossed each other as Mami bound the remaining enemies with her threads and emptied the last of her muskets into them. "Homura!"
Homura fell forwards, descending gracefully as she passed Kyouko's fading barrier. Her wings erupted around her, deflecting the rays of light that threatened to tear her apart. A moment later she landed in the middle of the remaining demons, spreading her wings wide. The wings shone like sunrise, ripping through the demons as if they were made of so much fog. The figures crumbled away, scattered fragments becoming so much dust around her as she banished her wings and lowered her bow.
Kyouko fell to her knees, deep gasps for breath racking her body as her spear and her scarlet jacket both faded away. "It's strange..." she managed, smiling oddly as she fought for breath. "Even though I know this won't help, I can't stop."
"If we could stop breathing at will, we'd have noticed these fake bodies were fake long ago," Homura said dismissively, turning to face the kneeling girl as she banished her weapon and jacket with an idle thought. "Either way, you're close to your limit. Having rallying points was a prudent decision."
"Give me a chance to catch my breath before you lecture me," Kyouko managed sourly. "No, first of all, bring me some remnants already."
"Here." Homura opened her right hand, revealing a dozen tiny black cubes. "There's more, but this is your share. It should be plenty."
Kyouko raised her right hand to take them, frowning. "Just when did you take them?"
"Just now," Homura said calmly. "I like to be efficient."
"There are more here," Mami noted. She was on her knees a few feet away, picking through the remains of the destroyed demons. "This is a good harvest, which is nice enough... but the demons arising in these numbers is starting to become a regular event. That's worrying."
"We can talk about that more later," Homura said. "There may be others lurking around. We pull out to a rooftop the moment Kyouko is able to move."
"Okay," Kyouko said, touching her Soul Gem to the remnants.
Mami simply nodded.
Five minutes later, Homura landed on the roof of a tall glass sky-scraper, her wings fading away behind her. She shook out her long black hair, her right hand touching the red ribbon binding her hair. "The others will be here shortly."
Kyubey looked up at her, his smile fixed as he studied her face. "How was today's hunting?"
"So-so, I suppose," Homura said. She sat down, her legs dangling over the edge of the building as she pulled her Soul Gem from its housing and surrounded it with remnants. "Twenty-two. We've broken the back of them, but I imagine there's one or two lurking around here somewhere."
"I see. Good work." Kyubey rolled onto his back, his ears twitching. "Why don't you just admit you need another helping hand? I have a few good prospects in this city."
"That won't be necessary," Homura said flatly.
"If you insist, I'll overlook them. You three are valued partners by us, since your results are consistent," Kyubey said peacefully. "But that's precisely why we're concerned. It would be a tremendous waste if you all died for some irrational reason like this."
"We won't die," Homura said. She frowned, changing the subject. "Have your superiors considered my request?"
"We're still deliberating," Kyubey said. "Like I said before, you're asking for a radical change of our policy. Once the magical girls across this country have established contact with each other, it's difficult to predict what the consequences would be. If you're right and it increases average productivity, that's all well and good, but the probability of meaningless conflicts between magical girls rises as well. We're well aware that you humans fight violent conflicts for the strangest of reasons."
"Consider us three as a case study," Homura returned calmly. "Are we not cooperating effectively? It's no coincidence our results are so striking, the three of us together can overcome far more than the sum of our strength alone would suggest. If you extended that principle across this country, no, across this world, it would be a tremendous force multiplier."
"A rational argument. I wonder if that's the actual motive here, though." Kyubey rolled onto his feet, walking towards her. "If it's that cut and dried, why haven't you told those two about this?"
"I don't intend to overcomplicate things. I'll tell them when the time is right, but for now, they should concentrate on our daily battles," Homura said.
"You really are the human closest to us," Kyubey said. He looked down over the city, his glassy eyes reflecting the many lights shining beneath them. "But isn't the reason why those two do so well because you are here with them?"
Homura shook her head, her eyes lost in the maze of streets that stretched out below her. "It's not just that. Humans aren't that simple." She threw the darkened remnants to Kyubey, slotting her Soul Gem back into place.
Kyouko scrambled up onto the roof-top, turning around to offer Mami a hand-up as the older girl braced on her golden ribbons, glued to the flat, smooth surface of the glass. "Next time pick a smaller building. We can't all fly, you know."
"This way is safer," Homura replied calmly.
Mami sat down calmly, her ribbons fading away behind her. "I agree with Kyouko. You can't expect us to do this every time."
"If you insist," Homura said. "I suppose you have a point."
"We do have a point," Kyouko said, panting for breath.
Kyubey rolled over, watching Kyouko and Mami expectantly as they began to purify their Soul Gems. "Homura refuses to let me recruit more magical girls in this city. You two should say something. Your lives would be easier if you had a few more bodies on the ground."
"I agree with Homura," Mami said crisply. "Introducing a rookie into the equation is going to make our lives harder, not easier."
"That might be true, but for the first time in my life, I agree with this rat," Kyouko said. "If there are girls in this city who really want to make a wish, I don't see why we should stop them. If they do stupid things and get themselves killed, that won't be anything to do with us. There's no saving some idiots." Her bitter words rang out in the darkness as the group fell into a heavy silence.
"Certainly, there are qualified people here who desire a miracle," Kyubey said, oblivious to the mood. "It's illogical of you all to ignore that, since if they die it shouldn't inconvenience you, but if they survive, they may be of great use. The demons of this city are multiplying, as well."
"Even if we recruit others, just what do we say to them?" Mami said calmly, ignoring Kyubey. "Do we easily explain the truth and watch them fall into despair, or do we let them live in happy ignorance for as long as possible?" She shot Homura a look. "I can't imagine anyone would comply if we clearly explained the process involved, so isn't it just a waste of time to try?"
"There are those who would comply, even if they fully understood," Homura said. She folded her hands on her lap as she looked up at the waning moon, her expression unreadable. "People who sincerely desire a miracle. But right now, we don't have the time or magic to spare cultivating them. Precisely because the demons are waxing right now, we can't protect them. Next time their numbers fall off, we can reconsider. Not before then."
"And you call yourself human, with that kind of logic?" Kyouko said sharply. "Those girls might be desperate, if this guy thinks they're viable candidates. And you intend to leave them alone?"
"As I've always told you, I'm not human," Homura said sharply, glaring at Kyouko. She blinked at her own words, turning her head away to avoid the other girl's bewildered expression. "In any case, the sort of person who makes wishes generally have a lot of time to reflect on their situation. And if they don't, I doubt Kyubey will hesitate to contract them anyway."
"More excuses," Kyouko said curtly.
"I'm jealous of those who had time," Mami said wanly, cutting into the argument with a tired smile. "It must have been nice, being able to think about your wishes. I never had that privilege."
"There's nothing nice about getting to think about it," Kyouko said. "If you do something dumb, you don't have any excuses." She frowned. "But I like the fact that I can at least call my decisions my own, I suppose."
"I didn't precisely have time to think myself," Homura said. "Or, to be precise, I had that time but wasn't in any state to take advantage of it, emotionally. I just blurted out what I was feeling at the time."
"Just what was your wish, anyway?" Kyouko asked curiously.
"Even if I explained it, you wouldn't believe me," Homura said flatly.
"I can believe a lot of things, after everything I've been through," Kyouko said, tossing the first of her spent fragments to Kyubey. "Try me."
"It involves Madoka," Homura said.
Kyouko snorted. "Never mind."
"Exactly." Homura shrugged. "If you aren't going to believe me anyway, I won't waste my time."
"And what if I offer to listen, even if I don't believe you?" Kyouko said. "I'm bored anyway."
"I also wouldn't mind hearing this. You've never told us about the circumstances of your contract, after all," Mami said politely. She pushed a few remnants towards Kyubey as he pattered expectantly towards her, before stowing the rest in her Soul Gem with a pulse of rich golden light.
"I don't want to waste my time, like I said." Homura met Kyouko's glare for a few seconds before relenting. "That was a long time ago," she said, looking out over the city again. "Madoka had died fighting a tremendous witch, and I was overcome with grief. I asked Kyubey for the chance to go back and protect her. That's all it was. A snap decision."
"The elaborate nature of your delusions never ceases to confuse me," Kyubey said amicably, his true mouth closing around the last of the darkened remnants.
"Well, I won't say anything. I also don't like wasting my time," Kyouko said. "But I'm surprised you'd ever think about protecting another person. You're hardly the sentimental type."
"That was then, and now is now," Homura said. "I sincerely doubt you're currently the same person you were when you first made your wish, either. But that aside, there was only one time I ever regretted that wish. Even now, I defend it."
"If you say so." Kyouko sighed. "If dad could see me now, he'd probably cry buckets, I guess. Or maybe he'd just get angry. But he was an idiot, and I was an idiot. I'm glad I changed."
Mami frowned thoughtfully. "Kyubey, you should remember Homura's wish, right? Just what was it?"
"I don't know. I don't remember making a contract with her, though it feels like I did make a contract with her." Kyubey scratched his ear with one of his paws. "She's an irregular existence, that much is true. But that's no reason to accept wild speculation as a concrete fact."
"I don't really care whether you all believe me or not," Homura returned. "But my magic has changed, that much is certain. That's something I can't explain myself. Perhaps that was something Madoka desired."
"Whatever you say. I don't really care either," Kyouko said. She closed her eyes, falling backwards and reclining on the hard concrete of the roof. A moment later, she stared up at the stars. "This world is crazy, so I may as well believe what you say. If there really was a goody-two shoes goddess watching over us, that would be a wonderful thing, even if she can't do anything much."
Homura turned, her eyes furious, before biting her lip and restraining herself. "No matter what happens, hatred and resentment will continue for as long as humans exist." She touched the ribbon tying her hair again. "We should embrace that rather than fighting against it. It's an inalienable facet of humanity, and part of what makes us different from Kyubey's kind."
"Now that's something even a Christian can agree with," Kyouko said tiredly.
"I wish I could disagree. There's nothing nice or enlightened about the existence of curses and demons, at least." Mami forced a smile. "But I think that's enough gloomy talk for one night. Isn't it time we got back and slept? The city's peaceful, and there's no sign of any more demons."
"That's true. I haven't sensed anything either." Homura swung her legs back onto the roof, scrambling up and brushing herself off. "Tomorrow, we should start in close formation. In the present circumstances, we can't afford to fight while separated from each other."
"I know" Kyouko said. "I was just surprised by their numbers, that's all."
"Homura, is your apartment ready?" Mami asked pointedly.
"It's fine." Homura glared down at Kyouko, offering her hand. "Let's go. Do you have anything we need to take from Mami's place?"
"I travel light, for obvious reasons." Kyouko stood, ignoring Homura's offer of help. "If you don't want to do this, don't force yourself. I'm just fine living on my own. I don't want to go to school, either."
"It's more convenient to concentrate our forces when we know where you are. Don't think anything of it." Homura raised her soul gem, purple light flaring around her as she summoned her jacket.
"And now we climb down this bloody building again," Kyouko groused. "Seriously, think about our needs here. It's a waste of magic."
Homura approached, putting her right arm around Kyouko's waist. "I see. Then I'll accommodate you."
"Just what are you doing?" Kyouko said sharply, her cheeks flushing at the sudden contact.
"Flying you back. Hold on tight." Homura's white wings erupted behind her body. The moment she felt Kyouko grip her waist, she flapped her wings just once, erupting into the air.
Mami waved at their pair of them, her expression amused as she turned and gathered her own magic, a forest of ribbons criss-crossing each other to form a slide that led straight to the street far below.
Kyouko blanched as she stared down into the enormous void beneath her, street lights glowing far below. "If you drop me, I will haunt you!"
"I've secured you with my magic," Homura said calmly, flapping her wings again. They shot rapidly through the darkness, a strange point of light crossing in front of the stars. The wind pressed against their faces as Homura banked and began a smooth descent, banishing her wings momentarily as she came close to street level. They flared up brightly again a moment before she landed, directly in front of her home. She let go of Kyouko, swiftly banishing her magic again. "Here we are."
Kyouko shivered, staggering as she struggled to stand under her own power. "I take it all back. I'm never letting you do that to me again."
Homura opened the front door silently, silently leading a shaken Kyouko into her flat. An enormous pendulum swung overhead, an ominous centre-piece to the blank white living room. "The bedrooms and bathroom are on the floor above. The kitchen is off to the right. Feel free to use the shower first." Homura sat down in front of the desk in the centre of the room, throwing off her black coat and throwing it aside before picking up a pen and adding to an already heavily annotated map. "Make yourself at home," she said idly, as Kyouko remained watching her.
"This is a pretty crazy room," Kyouko said bluntly.
"I like it. Some time ago, I used my magic to renovate. This is my command centre, after all." Homura continued to annotate the map in front of her.
"What are you doing?" Kyouko asked curiously.
"I'm keeping track of the date, number and location of the demons we fight," Homura explained briefly. "If there are any patterns, I want to know them."
"So, are there any patterns?"
"Not that I've seen so far," Homura admitted. "But time will tell."
"You really are serious about this," Kyouko said. "I always used to kill them and call it a day."
"Knowledge is power," Homura said. "But don't feel obliged to wait for me. I'll finish up here soon enough."
"I'm not feeling obliged. Just curious." Kyouko stretched her arms, yawning. "Mind if I hit up your kitchen and grab a snack before I take a shower? I'll fix you something too."
"Feel free. I don't mind."
Kyouko returned after half a minute, glaring at Homura. "Just what's up with the contents of your fridge? I can't exactly preach to anyone about healthy eating, but it's all microwave meals and cup noodles. You should be able to eat better than this, right?"
"I just need something to keep myself fed," Homura said dismissively. "Given our night-time commitments, I don't have time to do anything else."
"Mami manages just fine," Kyouko said. "Your parents aren't around, right? You should stop being lazy and learn to cook proper food."
"It's not laziness. Just expedience," Homura said, giving Kyouko an irked look.
Kyouko snorted. "Whatever you say." She retreated to the kitchen again.
Homura had pushed the map aside and was writing neatly in a notebook when Kyouko sat on the sofa opposite her, placing a hot meal in front of her. "Eat," she said curtly, heading back to the kitchen to fetch her own. "I know magic takes it out of me."
"It's not as if food is actually useful to us any more," Homura said, putting her notebook aside and picking up her chopsticks. "But it does make us feel better, I suppose. I've tried not eating and it doesn't work, even with these bodies."
"Being hungry is a special kind of hell," Kyouko said curtly, settling down opposite Homura and beginning to eat. "These bodies don't change that. It's another of your 'inalienable constants'."
"So it would seem. Thank you."
"It's your food. I just threw it in the microwave." Kyouko paused, glaring at Homura. "I'm grateful and all, but you two really don't have to do this. I'm just incurring debts it'll be difficult for me to repay, and that's awkward for me. I can live fine on my own."
"We know that. Like I said, this is for convenience's sake," Homura said. "Before now, we had no way of knowing where you'd be at any given time of the day."
"If it's just that, I don't mind. I don't want to be patronised, though." Kyouko sighed. "That sounded wrong. It's not as if I'm ungrateful. Just think about my feelings, okay? This isn't easy for me, and I can tell you're not exactly thrilled I'm here either."
"I don't mind," Homura said, between mouthfuls of food.
"Really? You seem set on ignoring me, at least." Kyouko stared at Homura. "Well, whatever. I guess that's just how you are."
Homura paused, returning her gaze evenly. "I'm not ignoring you, I just have things I need to do. Either way, there is no debt to be repaid. In battle, we all contribute equally, but outside it we contribute according to our means. Isn't that inevitable, given we're still children in the eyes of society?"
"There's nothing I can say that won't make me sound bad," Kyouko said sourly. "So I won't say anything."
Homura nodded, concentrating on her food. Eventually she spoke again. "If you want me to do things differently, ask me. I'll do what I can. If you want me to try and cook healthier food, I'll make the attempt."
Kyouko smiled wanly, her expression softening. "If you get me the ingredients, I can cook. It'll work out cheaper for you, as well."
"That sounds useful," Homura said.
"It is," Kyouko said simply. She put her chopsticks down. "By the way, I'm sorry about earlier."
"Don't worry about it. I can understand that feeling, of a debt that's difficult to repay," Homura said.
"Not that. I mean the Madoka stuff." Kyouko grinned. "I still find it strange, but honestly, belittling the beliefs of others isn't a great thing to do. Maybe I was sulking after relying on you two against the demons."
"I really don't mind, whatever you say about her," Homura said flatly. "Doubting me is only rational."
"Maybe, but voicing those doubts isn't polite. Honestly, I'm sort of jealous. Keeping any kind of faith seems an uphill battle to me, given the lives we lead." Kyouko studied Homura's face thoughtfully. "What kind of girl was she?"
Homura paused for a moment, then shrugged. "In many respects, she was just a normal girl. She didn't really have any special talents, and from what I remember, she didn't really stand out in school. But she was brave and kind, ridiculously so, and so completely selfless... I've never met anyone else quite like her. No matter what happened, no matter what pain she suffered through, she persisted, she struggled onwards, always trying to make a difference somehow, never giving in to despair." Homura smiled. "I think you liked her, but not as much as I did. Then and now, she is everything I live for."
"I'm always surprised how sentimental you are at times." Kyouko folded her arms, smirking. "I want to bully you, you're being so earnest."
"That feeling is something no one can take away from me. I'm not ashamed of it." Despite her words, Homura's cheeks flushed slightly. "If you don't want to hear about it, don't ask."
"No, it was quite moving. I'm jealous." Kyouko sighed, her expression falling again. "I can't say I've ever felt that strongly about anyone, but... I know the feeling. You wanted to protect her, right? From this miserable world we live in."
Homura nodded simply. "In the end, I ended up being the one protected, no matter what I tried. We should know better than anyone... if someone sincerely and selflessly desires a miracle, no one can stop them. It's not a problem of feeling, or trying hard enough. That's just how it is."
"A miracle?" Kyouko snorted. "Maybe for you, that's true. But there's nothing wonderful about dying for the sake of another person. You're just dying selfishly, and what about of the people left behind? They're all alone." Her gaze dared Homura to disagree with her. "Just what's so good about that?"
"Perhaps you're right. I had planned to die selfishly myself." Homura blinked, her dark eyes staring into Kyouko's eyes. "I can't really talk about anything but my own feelings, but I don't resent Madoka. She saved me, saved this world, without hesitation. Simply accepting the responsibility of creating a real miracle, and the sacrifice such a thing required. I have plenty of bitter feelings about that, but that's because I'm selfish. I still acknowledge the worth of that sacrifice."
"I reject that. It's not selfish to want people to live." Kyouko bit her lip. "If she was that sort of incredible being, she should have found a better way. She should have thought about your feelings, rather than selfishly deciding to sacrifice herself."
Homura shrugged. "What is done is done. I don't feel like I can judge her actions, even though I attempted something similar myself."
"That's just half-assed," Kyouko said angrily. "We can always judge the actions of others. Especially when we're hurt by them. Shouldn't it be simple for you? Aren't you lonely? Or do you really believe you'll meet her when you die or something?"
"She is watching over me, and we will meet again." Homura was silent for a moment, watching Kyouko's flushed face. "But I don't have any answers for you."
Kyouko scowled, turning her head away and blinking back tears. "If you're still planning to do paper-work, I'll shower first."
"You can stay here as long as you like." Homura watched Kyouko from behind as she stopped by the door of the lounge. "If you're here, I'm not alone. And Mami is with me, as well. So there's no reason for me to lose myself in grief."
"You really are a sentimental idiot." Kyouko gritted her teeth. "I'm not going anywhere. This is the best way to hunt demons, right?"
"Exactly," Homura said calmly. "It's a mutually beneficial arrangement."
"I like that kind of thing. It's easy to understand." Kyouko smiled. "You'd better keep an eye on me. I might steal your soap."
Homura smiled. "I see. I'll be on my guard."