Chapter Fifty-Six: Wishes

Apologies for the unannounced break.

When she was young, she had lived in a simple world. There was good and there was evil. Her father was pure good. They'd never possessed much, they just barely lived, but they had pride because they believed in his words. To him, there was no setback and no amount of suffering that did not justify and reaffirm his own beliefs. He took misfortune as proof of his own correctness. His only regret was that no one would listen to his words. She had wanted to make him happy. She'd wanted to fight evil. In a black and white world, she had wanted to become justice. She hadn't been strong, but she'd been driven by a simple will, a child's wish to be like the father she admired. That was the true nature of her contract with Kyubey. Not a wish for the sake of another, but a wish for her own sake. A wish that she could make a sacrifice and become a better person, someone who could live the ideals she was taught to believe in.

But good and evil were just words imposed on an uncaring world. Their ideals were distortions. She knew nothing and lost everything.

So she'd thrown away her ideals. She'd thrown away her wish. She'd nearly died. It wouldn't have been strange for her to have died at that time, but that catastrophe had taught her what death looked like. It was empty. There was no martyrdom to be found in that broken church, no salvation. God was silent in the face of that disaster. It might have been her sin. Or perhaps her father's heresy and hubris had been punished by heaven. But she was a young girl, and even if she came to despise him, he had flesh and blood, a beating heart. He was human. So rejected everything, God, her ideals, her family's death. Her father's black and white world. She'd rejected Mami as well. Survival became her creed and she cared for nothing in a careless world. She was strong in a sense. She had confidence she wouldn't lose to anyone. So she hurt plenty of people, and she was hurt. It was just barely possible to live in a world with no colour at all.

Neither of those lives could serve as an answer. The world couldn't easily be described by the words good and evil, but humans couldn't live in a world without those words. Now she lived in an ambivalent world. She had any number of wonderful things. She wasn't going to be defined by her past. But she still hurt others and was hurt by others. Her life right now wasn't the answer. It wouldn't bring her magic back.

What was Rosso Fantasma?

It wasn't so something so simple as a special power. Magic was hope. Magic brought despair. Despair killed magic. That was the twisted law of her world. So from the start, her magic was never simply external to her, just a tool to be used. Everyone was like that. Timespace Control. Knowledge. Negation. Illusions. Force. Prescience. Immortality. They were prayers for the sake of another. They were all selfish wishes but they weren't just selfishness. They were symbols of their lives, inalienable things those girls couldn't renounce, almost despite themselves. But she was different from them, and different from Mami, as well.

The rain down around the church, running down the broken panes of stained glass. Kyouko sat on the altar of the church, eating a banana. The only sound she could hear was the steady pattering of the rain. She didn't hate this place. Time had made the pain turn dull. But if reclaiming her magic meant returning to who she'd been in this place, she'd never get it back. There was no point in resenting that fact. It was simply how it was.

Her father had betrayed her. She'd betrayed her father. He'd broken the two of them in a way that could never be fixed.

But still, she'd been happy at that time. Happier than she'd ever been since. Innocence wasn't something you ever got back, of course. But it wasn't just an illusion, either. There had to be something to learn from this place. That's why she'd come back here. But it wasn't the answer. Her past couldn't be denied or changed. The answer had to be somewhere else.

When she left the church, Homura was waiting for her, a lonely figure in the rain. The dark-haired girl silently covered Kyouko with her umbrella.

"Just how long were you out here in the rain?" Kyouko said.

"Not long," Homura said.

"You shoulda said something."

"It's not important," Homura said. "I'm not interrupting. Just take the umbrella, then go wherever you want to go."

Kyouko smiled as Homura thrust the umbrella into her face. "Now you'll just get wet instead."

"I can fly home. It's not important," Homura said. "I know you want to be alone, so-"

"You don't know that. I was just thinking I should go see your face." Kyouko gripped Homura's outstretched hand briefly, pushing the umbrella back towards Homura. "Let's go."

"Where?" Homura said.

"Anywhere," Kyouko said. "Just as long as where going together, I don't mind where."

Homura nodded stiffly.

The rain was oppressive. They took shelter in the same restaurant as before, leaving the soaked umbrella by the door and settling down to eat cheap udon. They had the place almost to themselves.

"How is it going?" Homura asked tentatively.

Kyouko shrugged. "Not at all."

"Sorry. I know that was a stupid thing to ask," Homura said.

"Nah. I mean, you stuck your neck out for me, here," Kyouko said. "I need to make something of this chance, so I wish I could say anything better, but yeah. It isn't like I understand."

"I'm not sure anyone does know exactly how magic works," Homura said. "Not even Kyubey."

"So, did you ever despair?" Kyouko said. "I mean, your old life was like a chain of consecutive losses, right?"

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Homura said dourly. "But I despaired once, at the very end. I'd thrown everything I had at Walpurgis Night. In terms of the firepower I was deploying, and my skill, I was incomparable to what I was before. But Walpurgis Night rose above all of that, as if it had been invincible from the very start. I couldn't endure that."

"You'd beaten it before, though, right?" Kyouko said. "It was just that someone always died."

Homura nodded. "Yes. That was the strange thing. At the start, Madoka and Mami could kill it at the cost of their own lives. But Madoka at that time was weaker than you. She'd made a small, simple wish. An innocent wish."

Kyouko closed her eyes. Honestly, she always made Homura talk about that. It was like picking at a scab, something she touched again and again even though she knew she'd be better off ignoring it. "So, you despaired because Walpurgis Night was too strong?"

Homura frowned. "I suppose so. And because I couldn't save Madoka. I felt like what I was trying to do was impossible. Like it was a waste of time from the start."

"Honestly, your wish was pretty weird," Kyouko said. "I made a wish to change things. Most of the girls are like that, right? But you made a wish to, I don't know, to gain the ability to change things. In a sense, you were fighting to make your wish come true the whole time."

"I suppose so," Homura said. "I was probably being selfish. I didn't want Madoka to be saved. I wanted to save Madoka."

"Don't beat yourself up," Kyouko said. "Using magic to bring people back to life doesn't really work, from what I remember. Kyubey's really pretty unhelpful about that stuff."

"It's not as if our wishes are limitless," Homura said. "But I didn't even ask about that. I just went with my emotions. I'm not sure that was the right wish to make."

"So you regret it?"

Homura shrugged. "I regret that I failed, I suppose. And I think I was being more selfish than I thought I was. But still, I really wanted to save Madoka. I still wish I could have saved her. I'll probably feel that way forever."

"I thought so," Kyouko said.

"Sorry," Homura said. "I know I shouldn't talk about this. It's all in the past, and now-"

"It's fine," Kyouko said. "You're here now. So am I. That's how things go. I was just curious. It's just that, yeah, when I think about it, everyone else must be like you. They're all really stubborn and infuriating and they're making our lives hell, but they all made wishes and stuck by them. Makes me wonder what they were."

"Well, we know Kahoru's wish," Homura said lightly.

"She didn't wish to become god or anything, though," Kyouko said. "She just wanted to save her sister. Somehow she got here from there. Isn't that the interesting bit?"

"Not just her sister. Everyone like her sister, and herself," Homura said. "Kahoru is slightly abnormal, to put it lightly. I'm not sure that's in a good way."

"Well, maybe. What about Aiko?" Kyouko said. "She has illusion magic. But I guess it ain't just that. It's more like, what, cursing someone with happiness?"

"Something like that," Homura said. "Her wish must be something like that. But it doesn't matter."

"I know. It's our policy not to ask, and all that," Kyouko said. "Even if Kahoru cheats."

"Madoka told me to understand my enemies, but it's hard to see the point at a time like this," Homura said. "I can't be Kahoru. I can't beat her at her own game. Their minds are made up and they have no reason to waver, since she's promising them everything they want. If they could reject that kind of offer, they wouldn't be magical girls to begin with."

"So if it was you, would you follow her?" Kyouko said. "If she hadn't picked you as her enemy, I mean."

"Not as I am now," Homura said. "At least, I like to think so. But two weeks ago? Probably. If she promised to bring Madoka back, I don't know what I'd do, even if I felt sure it was a lie. I'd want it to be true."

"Yeah. I guess I'm the same," Kyouko said. She leaned back in her chair. "Honestly, this sucks. But we knew that already."

"I suppose so," Homura said.

"So, what do we do?" Kyouko said. "I mean, the enemy aren't demons. I know we need to fight. But I also know how Mami feels. This whole situation just sucks. It's just annoying anyone would deliberately try and make things this way."

Homura shook her head.

"Yeah, I know. Kahoru is what she is. So's Ritsuko. And so on." Kyouko looked up at the ceiling. "The only question is what we do ourselves, but if we could answer that, we wouldn't be in this mess. But honestly, nothing's gone right in a while now."

"It's my fault," Homura said. "I should have been more careful."

"It's not your fault. And assigning blame ain't gonna help. Getting mad at Kahoru won't change anything, either." Kyouko smiled. "I wonder what Sayaka would do if she was here. I guess she'd just shout at Kahoru and try to beat her up. Wouldn't work, though. That damn brat never learned how to deal with superior opponents."

"She might end up on Kahoru's side, to be honest," Homura said.

"You think so?"

"I'm being unfair. Like I said, anyone might," Homura said. "That's the problem."

"I swear Sayaka would hate Kahoru," Kyouko said.

"Of course. But that doesn't mean anything by itself. It's not as if anyone likes Kyubey, either," Homura said.

"Yeah. Guess so."

Homura fiddled uncertainly with her chopsticks. "We can go back. If you like."

Kyouko blinked. "Sorry?"

"I'm at wit's end. My tactics and strategies can't bring us victory," Homura said. "So it's okay if we go back and try to save Sayaka. Maybe you and Mami are right about that."

"You think we could win even if we did that?" Kyouko said.

"I don't think so. But I've been wrong about a lot of things recently," Homura said. "And at least you'd be able to see her and talk to her again."

"Nah. I get it, you know. Good intentions alone aren't enough. Mami gets that as well. She's just sensitive, so she ends up unhappy," Kyouko said. "If we end up doing it, we'll do it because we can win. Right now... yeah. Let's just say all those losses kind of prove we shouldn't be playing on hard mode right now."

Homura nodded limply.

"If Sayaka was here now, would she still be able to use her magic?" Kyouko said, half to herself.

"I don't know," Homura said. "There wasn't any time loop like that."

"Yeah, I know. It's fine. I was just talking out loud," Kyouko said. "Sayaka's not the answer. I know that. But what we've been doing up to now doesn't cut it, either. So what's left? Trying to do both... I don't even know if that's possible. Pragmatic idealism? That doesn't sound like a thing."

"I doubt it." Homura tilted her head. "Honestly, nothing ever goes how we want it to go, does it? It's always been that way."

"Yeah, well, I'm used to it," Kyouko said. She put down her chopsticks. "Let's go play games."

"I doubt that will help you much," Homura said.

"Yeah, well, whatever," Kyouko said. "I just wanna spend time with you."

Homura smiled. "I know. I'm the same. I'm just being mean."

They left the restaurant and stepped out into the rain. They gave up on the cares of the world and just talked about small things. It was fun to do so. It was such a fragile thing. In a world of frustrated hopes and betrayed expectations, this bond was precious. But it wasn't the answer, either. It was a sort of strength, but it wasn't Rosso Fantasma.

Kahoru Hoshino hated her house. It was a tiny, cramped flat, the square rooms crowded from wall to wall with assorted junk. In her brighter moments, her mother went out and searched for meaningless things. Broken lamps, scraps of wallpaper, candle stubs. They meant something to her mother, and she'd talk about them excitedly, gesticulating as she visualised what they could become. Then she'd collapse inwards and they'd be piled up in the corners of the room with all the rest. Kahoru hated that house, and she hated her mother, who was either bright and vacuous or dark and dull and full of spite, resentment for her children oozing out of her like puss. She hated her mother's stupidity, and she hated her creeping knowledge that her mother was just as intelligent as she was. Yurino had never really known that mother, which was a small mercy. But Kahoru knew. So this was a place no one was allowed to know, and her mother was a person no one was allowed to know. She was a queen among magical girls, so this profane origin had to be concealed.

But today she was at home, because she had nowhere else to hide. The narrow room she shared with her sister was colonised with patches of junk. However much she fought it and whatever she said, it would creep in from outside the moment she left the house. She sat as far away from it as possible, staring at the small mirror she'd managed to keep intact. She affected carelessness with her appearance, but there were expectations of a queen. She was still at a loss, though. Her hair was looked after, but she really did dress carelessly, in jeans and whatever came to hand, cheap, hard-wearing clothes she could pass off as practical. They were reasonable clothes for fighting demons, especially since Tsuya was just as careless and Toku was a tomboy. Riko was the exception that proved the rule. But that didn't mean her normal clothes suited a date. Even if it was an experiment, Aiko would have expectations.

Would a skirt be best? It made some sense to look more feminine than usual on a date. There was a basic expectation that you'd dress to look your best. Kahoru searched through her wardrobe fruitlessly. Apart from her school uniform, there was nothing usable. Not in a context like this. Perhaps she could buy clothes. When Homura turned back time, the money spent would disappear, of course. Or rather, reappear. But it still ran against her instincts. Her jeans, though- Aiko knew them all. She could just turn up casually, but what if Aiko had dressed up? That would be awkward for both of them, especially if Aiko was wearing a skirt. That wasn't something she'd ever seen, or even something she'd ever thought of. Aiko was attractive, of course, but it was in a tennis player who can probably hit home runs off boys her age and play football for ninety minutes sort of attractive. So would Aiko just dress in jeans or trousers, and she'd be expected to dress in a feminine way? Was that the etiquette here? She had no idea.

Kahoru stared at herself in the mirror, hating her own flustered expression. This was a solvable puzzle, but she'd never made a study of the subject. Frustration overwhelmed her so she sat down and snapped her fingers, silver liquid pouring from the ring on her finger and concealing to form her red book. She opened it and picked up her pen before pausing and staring at a blank page. Just what was she even trying to ask? She didn't know. Maybe she could ask the records what it was she wanted to ask.

"Isn't today a day off for you?" Yurino said sleepily. She looked up from her futon, blinking her eyes blearily. "Stop using the book."

"I'm not using it for work," Kahoru said. "I'm just clarifying a few matters."

"Matters like what?" Yurino said.

"Nothing important," Kahoru said.

Yurino blinked, intrigued by the evasion. She rolled over, stretching slightly. "You're meeting Aiko today, right?"

"I meet Aiko almost every day," Kahoru said.

"Yes, but today's different," Yurino said. "If it's about Aiko, you shouldn't use the records. That's cheating."

"Cheating is my way of living," Kahoru said. "Everyone prefers it if things go well."

"Your magic won't help this go well," Yurino said. She put her hands behind her head, shaking off the last vestiges of sleep. "Just go with the flow, I don't know. It'll work out."

"Just going with the flow is a sign of laziness," Kahoru said. "Nothing good ever came of that." But she sighed and closed her book.

"What are you worried about?" Yurino said.

Kahoru turned her face away, trying to conceal her flushed cheeks. "Various points of etiquette. How to dress and present myself and so on."

Yurino giggled. "Shouldn't have thought about this before now? You don't have much time."

"I'm always busy. One little ceasefire doesn't change that," Kahoru said.

"You could borrow mom's clothes," Yurino said.

"I don't want to," Kahoru said. "I'm not a middle aged woman, thank you very much. There's no way they'd suit me."

"Doesn't she have her old clothes around her somewhere?" Yurino said. "I'm sure I've seen them around." She sat up. "Let me take a look."

"No, I'll go. You should get ready for your morning training," Kahoru said. "Don't slack off."

"I know," Yurino said mournfully.

Kahoru rooted through the cardbord boxes stacked up in one corner of the lounge, eventually finding the right one. She opened it doubtfully and rooted through the dusty clothes. They'd been folded neatly, somehow frozen in time. They were fashionable, daring clothes, the clothes of a confident young woman. She didn't want to look at them, but she had no choice. She uncertainly chose a bright blue dress and retreated into her room again to try and shake off the dust with her hairbrush.

"That looks like a good choice," Yurino said. She finished tying back her hair, watching her sister. "I can do that."

"You can go," Kahoru said. "Don't be late."

"Okay. Have fun."

Kahoru changed into the dress with uncertain hands. This felt wrong on her. It was only adding to the nervousness she felt, the nervousness she was unsuccessfully trying to deny. It was just a dress. This was merely an experiment. Those thoughts couldn't shift the butterflies in her stomach. She stared long and hard at the mirror before giving up and heading back towards the lounge. At this rate she was the one who would be late.

Kahoru's eyes widened when she saw her mother kneeling on the floor by the open box of clothes in the corner. Threads of white punctuated the twisted silver hair that fell down her small shoulders. "Why are you up already?"

Her mother turned her head, staring back over her shoulder at Kahoru, eyes sweeping over the blue dress. Then she stood up without saying a word and retreated back into her bedroom.

Kahoru scowled and walked towards the hall. That was one way to put her in a foul mood. She frowned as she kicked off her slippers. Her school shoes, or her trainers?

Her mother padded towards her from behind, carrying a pair of black high heels. "Here." She knelt awkwardly, leaving them in front of Kahoru.

"I can't wear heels," Kahoru said instinctively.

"Just wear them," her mother muttered. "I don't have any better ones, you know."

Kahoru stared suspiciously at her mother but she was already drifting away again. "Thank you," she said.

Kahoru arrived just in time to meet Aiko outside the zoo, barely managing the unfamiliar heels. Her eyes widened as she saw Aiko fidgeting in a dress, complete with lipstick and a handbag. It was an incredibly unfamiliar sight. "Morning."

"Hiya," Aiko said. She blushed slightly as she stared at Kahoru. "You look good."

"Thank you," Kahoru said. That made her happy, and scared. This was absurd. "Um, so do you. It's just a little surprising. I wondered if you'd be wearing trousers."

"Would that be better?" Aiko said worriedly. "I was thinking about it, ya know, but Riko insisted."

"Riko did?" Kahoru said.

"I just asked her for help," Aiko said. "Don't worry, I didn't tell her anything. I just said I was going on a date, not who it was with or anything. But yeah, I borrowed some of her clothes."

Kahoru sighed. "Riko has as much romantic experience as me, you know. Which is to say none at all. But I suppose she did a good job."

"You could be nicer about this," Aiko said.

"Sorry. Just instinct," Kahoru said. "It suits you. But trousers also suit you. I'd be happy either way, I think."

"I see," Aiko said. "Then maybe I'll wear trousers next time." She trailed off, looking sheepish. "Anyway, let's go."

Kahoru followed her, brow furrowed. She was still fighting herself. She was enjoying the moment, and she was watching herself and resenting that. Even in a situation like this, she was unwilling to get rid of her pride, the pride that insisted she was more than a normal person.

She packed that pride away when Aiko awkwardly took her hand.

When she was young, she had lived in a simple world. There was good and there was evil. Then she'd grown up a little but not a lot, and become someone who lived for the sake of living. She didn't know who had been more wrong, the innocent, deluded girl, or the vicious, lonely one. Magic was no proof of goodness. It was just a wish someone believed in, a hope, a prayer, an ideal. But a wish could be the most selfish and dangerous thing in the world. It was a distortion, a demand for a miracle beyond reality. Perhaps there were good wishes, but hers had not been one of them.

Kyouko had returned to Akihara to remember. Just like the church, it wasn't something she could ignore, even if she wasn't proud of herself. If the church was Rosso Fantasma this was its negation, wrong in itself but perhaps another fragment of the answer. She was drifting through the back alleys she'd once considered her natural home when she felt their presence. She knew it was a terrible idea but still she ran towards the fog, red light flashing around her as she released her magic. Making all the right decisions in her own mind hadn't achieved much recently, so she'd try being wrong. She would simply throw herself head-first into the moment.

The demons shifted as Kyouko burst into the silent world of their fog, robes rippling as they backed away. She cut down the first with a single clean swing of her spear and charged forwards, moving from target to target with practised grace. But that wasn't enough. She raised her left hand, mimicking the stance Homura and Chiaki used when calling on their magic. The demons unleashed their shining lances and she ducked and rolled away almost without thought, lost in the attempt to recall the lost sensations. At first, it was hard, something that wavered in the heat and fear of the battle she dreaded. But Mami had taught her to use her magic as naturally as breathing. It was like moving a limb, something achieved without conscious thought. Simply forming an intention was sufficient to realise it. But she couldn't feel that 'limb' any more, and her magic wouldn't answer her no matter how hard she tried to force at.

Forcing it wouldn't work. Willpower wasn't the problem here. What she needed was a state of mind, how she felt and thought when she was a child. She leapt through the air to clear another barrage of fire, landing on a demon's head and cracking open its mask with a swift thrust of her spear. She fell through the dust. She was a chosen human, doing god's work. They were evil, the enemies of man. They were all the sins her father had spoken of, agents of the devil himself. Kyouko landed and breathed out, raising her left hand as she shouted. "Rosso Fantasma!"

The words echoed, muffled by the fog. Her cheeks flushed bright scarlet with embarrassment. Failing was one thing, but that name really was the worst.

The earth trembled, a shockwave shaking her and nearly throwing her to the ground. The demons lurched in confusion, disorientated by the sudden impact.

Chiaki charged forwards, dressed in the bright green of Yuma's costume. She swung the staff and ball with brutal force, crushing a demon to dust. Her eyes met Kyouko, flashing in anger. "Why the hell are you here? Have you lost your mind?"

"I'm just talking a walk," Kyouko said. "Now, don't take this the wrong way, but no one over twelve should wear cat ears like those unironically."

"Get out of my sight," Chiaki said. She charged down another demon, driving her left fist through its chest in an explosive burst of power. "If you disappear right now, I'll overlook this."

Kyouko stepped forwards and extended her spear to cut through several demons in one extended sweep. "And what if I help you?"

"I'll protect my territory," Chiaki said. "Just the way you used to do."

Kyouko retracted her spear and raised it to block a demon's bright lances. "Sounds fun. Right after we take out the trash."

"You called a ceasefire and now you're looking for a fight?" Chiaki said. She turned as more demons began to emerge from the ground, backing towards Kyouko.

"I don't get it either. But you're the one who annoys me most of all," Kyouko said.