***Authors' Note: Thanks to the nearly 14,000 of you who have read STARS ABOVE over the past year! Forz and I appreciate every one of your comments, questions, criticisms, and favorites. Keep the feedback coming! - BHS***

Lyrics excerpted from "Cosmic Love", written by Florence Welch and Isabella Summers, ©2010 Universal Music Publishing Group.

CHAPTER 20: In the Shadow of Your Heart

Nanatsuen Costume Boutique, Akihabara

Three Weeks Later

"You know," said Kagami, shifting on the small wooden bench that sat outside the dressing rooms, in a vain attempt to make herself more comfortable, "Somehow, I get the impression that you're not taking this whole thing seriously."

"What makes you say that?" asked Konata, tilting her head to one side.

Kagami raised an eyebrow and jerked her head toward the growing stack of magical girl anime, manga, games, and merchandise that surrounded Konata on her side of the bench, almost hiding her from view. "Call it a hunch."

By the time Kagami finally convinced Homura to go with them on Konata's Akihabara "pilgrimage", summer was well underway, and her and Tsukasa's shared birthday was just over the horizon. At first, Homura had refused outright. Kagami could hardly blame her; she was still trying to cope with the trauma of what Desideria had done to her, and going out with friends to an overcrowded tourist trap like Akihabara hardly seemed the way to help. Konata's insistence had won Kagami over, however. Maybe it was some innate ability of Konata's to sway others, or maybe it was the earnestness of her desire to be friends with Homura… Kagami didn't know, but she eventually concluded that maybe a day out with Konata really was something they both needed.

So she told Konata she would try, and then she waited. For over three weeks, she helped with the healing process as best she could. Some days were better than others. On the good days, it sometimes seemed Homura's shell really was cracking, and she would occasionally give a small smile or even a quiet, polite little laugh. Those days, Kagami could almost forget everything and simply enjoy her company, like they were nothing more than an ordinary teenage couple.

The bad days were wrenching, grueling, heartbreaking ordeals. These were the days when Homura's despair threatened to overwhelm them both. A few times she had appeared in Kagami's room without a word and collapsed shaking into her arms, unable to stand, unable to cry, unable to speak. When this happened, Kagami would hold her carefully, delicately, and try to comfort her without words. Usually in an hour or so, the shaking would stop, and she would leave as suddenly as she appeared.

The worst days, however, were the ones in which she grew so angry or bitter that she would retreat into herself, returning to the stone-faced, emotionless Homura that she had been when they first met. Just trying to talk to her in that state was maddening, and it often took a round of furious kendo practice on the straw dummy in the back yard for her to begin to feel better. Kagami tried her best to be patient, knowing that it wasn't her fault, that Homura didn't really mean to be cold to her, that she could hardly be blamed for shutting her out after what had happened, but still. Sometimes she wanted to scream into a pillow, break things, tear her hair, simply say to hell with the whole thing... After that, of course, the guilt would set in, she would call Homura to apologize, or vice-versa, and the whole erratic cycle of emotions would repeat itself.

Eventually, when the good days started outnumbering the bad ones, Kagami began to bring up the subject of the Akihabara trip again. She waited through stubborn refusals, then wavering, then finally resigned acceptance… Satisfied, she had gone back to Konata with the good news. With the understanding that Konata wasn't to push too hard, they had made plans and set out on one sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tsukasa insisted on coming with them for at least part of the day, and so did Miyuki, surprisingly. They decided to make it a date… now that their relationship was out in the open, Kagami assumed they wanted to take full advantage of it. She wondered about that; a few times in the past two weeks, she had overheard some of the long, serious discussions her parents had been having, sometimes with Tsukasa, and sometimes not. They were being supportive as best they could, thankfully, and they were obviously glad that it was Miyuki Tsukasa was dating and not some stranger, but it was clear they still had lingering concerns. For now, they seemed to be putting Tsukasa's happiness ahead of those concerns… and Tsukasa was happy, radiantly so. Strange and foreign as the idea was, Kagami reluctantly had to admit that she and Miyuki really did seem like a good match for each other… as long as they kept the sex and the kissing in private, she could handle it.

"It's just my way of dealing with the weirdness," said Konata with a grin, reaching over her pile of boxes to pat Kagami on the shoulder. "Like yours is being tsundere and Akemi-san's is going all spooky and quiet. We all have ways to deal."

"Yeah, but remember what I said about pushing her, please," sighed Kagami. "I know too well how you usually deal with things. Keep it under control, and don't be perverted like you are with me. I can put up with that, she can't."

Konata went very quiet. "Kagamin, that hurts… You really think I would try that on her?" To Kagami's astonishment, her tone was genuinely wounded.

Ignoring the stab of guilt that was becoming much too familiar, Kagami frowned down at her. "How am I supposed to know? I can't tell when you're being serious, if you ever are… and you're always making cracks about my breasts, or hugging me in public…"

"I do that because I know you," said Konata. There was no mistaking her seriousness now. "Like I know Tsukasa and Miyuki. We're best friends, and we know each other so well that that kind of thing's okay. Come on, don't you make fun of me all the time for being an otaku?"

"Yeah, but-"

"Akemi-san is different," said Konata, dropping her voice. "A little teasing is fine, but I'd never be ecchi with her. Not ever, not after what she's gone through."

Kagami stared at her incredulously. "You know?"

"Kagamin, really, give me some credit, I'm not as clueless as I come off. I've been playing and watching adult games and anime since I was a little kid, I know the signs." Konata looked away. "You think I haven't noticed her flinching, even around you? She's been hurt, really bad." She looked down into her lap and wrung her hands together. "I'm glad that I don't remember much. Just from what you guys told us…"

"Konata…" Now it was Kagami's turn to reach for her. "Come here. I'm sorry."

The smaller girl shifted a few of her boxes to one side and slid over on the bench. She tilted sideways and leaned her head against Kagami's shoulder. "It's okay," said Konata. "Everything's gonna be okay someday. We just have to believe that."

Far from reassuring her, Konata's weight against her made her churn with even more conflicted feelings. Something else had happened that night, something she had been very reluctant to bring up, or even think about… "Konata," she said quietly. "About that night… one of the Demons was telling me all these things, trying to… to hurt me. And she said… she said that you…"

"That I what?"

Kagami swallowed. The moment of truth. "That you had… feelings for me."

"Oh, that."

That response caught her off guard. "'Oh, that'? What is 'Oh, that' supposed to mean?"

Strangely, Konata was smiling. "Well, she's right, in a way. I guess I've always sort of had fantasies, you know, about you being my girlfriend…"

Kagami started to turn red and fought the urge to shove Konata away. Oh God, fantasies. She's had fantasies... why did you have to put it that way?!

"I wanted to bring it up a couple times, but every time I tried you were always too bitchy to take me seriously. Oh, don't make that face, you know it's true," said Konata as Kagami opened her mouth to protest. "Really, even on one of your good days, you'd think I was joking, right?"

"I-" she stammered.

"Of course you would. That's just the way we are, always throwing insults back and forth… it'd be weird if it were anything different. So now that Akemi-san's here, and she's your girlfriend-"

Kagami flushed hot. "She's not my-"

"Shut up, Kagamin, yes she is. Now that she's here, well, I guess I'm out of luck. I triggered the Unlucky Best Friend flag." Surprisingly, the smaller girl's tone was bittersweet. "I had plenty of chances, but I lost, game over. But I'm not gonna be all yandere and go crazy with jealousy from losing you, you know… just because I wish it was me instead of her doesn't mean I can't be happy for the two of you, because really, I am."

Kagami bit the inside of her lip. Now her guilt wasn't just stabbing, it was piercing straight through. Was it really true, what the Second had said? Was Homura's presence a disruption? If it weren't for her, would Konata have had her chance? Should she have had her chance, for that matter? Stop, she thought, rousing herself from her fit of self-doubt. There's no point in wondering about what-ifs and could-haves and never-weres. This is hard enough without second-guessing my feelings. We just have to forge ahead with the choices we make… She swallowed. "You mean that, Konata?"

"'Course I do, you're adorable together. It's totally moe." Now she was smiling her familiar cat-smile again. "You'd just better make me maid of honor at the wedding, okay?"

Kagami made a sound somewhere between a groan and a chuckle as she lightly punched her friend' shoulder. To her relief, the moment of painful truth-bearing seemed to be over; now they were back to normal with each other. "Oh, knock it off. The day I mention a wedding to Homura is the day she disappears forever."

"Speaking of Akemi-san…" Konata sat upright and looked over at the entrance to the dressing rooms. "She's been in there for a long time. Do you think she's all right?"

"I dunno, let's check." With a tinge of worry, Kagami stood up, stretched, and leaned into the doorframe. "Homura? Are you still in there?"

The answer came quietly and simply in a single word. "Yes."

Konata joined Kagami at the frame. "Well, come on out, let's see how it looks on you!"

Another single-word answer: "No."

Now Kagami felt more than just a tinge. "Is everything okay? What's wrong?"

A long pause. "… These clothes are embarrassing."

Sighing, Kagami allowed herself to relax a bit. "That's all?! Dammit, you scared me! It's all right, Homura, you don't have to-"

"Are you crazy? I wanna see!"

"Konata, enough. She said she doesn't want to, don't push it."

"But she'd look so perfect in it! Come on, pleeeease? I've had this one in mind ever since I first saw her, even before I knew she was a-"

"Konata…"

The voice from the dressing room interrupted them. There was hesitation in it. "Izumi-san, is this… truly that important to you?"

"Yes, yes, yes!" Konata's eyes sparkled. "Please, come out… I won't even take that many pictures, honest!"

Another long pause. "Three pictures."

"Aww, just three?"

"Three, that's all." Homura's tone indicated that she wouldn't budge on the matter. "And you won't share them on the Internet, or with anyone else besides the three of us."

A little crestfallen, Konata slumped her shoulders, admitting defeat. "All right, only three pictures, I promise."

"You'd better keep that promise," warned Kagami, raising a fist.

"I will, I will!" Her eyes were already shining with excitement.

"And Kagami…" Homura's voice hesitated again.

Kagami craned her neck up. "Yeah?"

"Please, don't laugh."

She had to smile at that. She'd said the exact same thing the first time Konata dragged her into something like this. "I'd never. It's okay, come on out. There's nobody here but us."

Very slowly, the wooden privacy door was pushed open… and out she stepped. Far from wanting to laugh, Kagami had to force herself to keep her mouth from dropping open in awe. Damn it all, Konata was right. She was perfect for this costume.

It was a sort of combination between a superheroine outfit and a school uniform. The main body was a white leotard, with a red sailor collar and a big purple bow with a crimson brooch. The pleated skirt was short… very short, probably designed to show off the wearer's bare legs, and oh, what legs they were. Pale as alabaster, slender and curvy and seemingly going on forever… at least, until the eye traveled down to the fire-engine red heels. Her forearms were clad in elbow-length satin gloves with round red cuffs. She had a simple choker around her neck, and sported a pair of star-shaped earrings, also red. The ensemble was topped off with a golden tiara set with a faux ruby, nestled underneath her black bangs. Wearing a neutral expression that did not quite mask her trepidation, Homura brushed her long hair back, looked at both of them, and asked, "How do I look?"

Even if Kagami had been able to answer, it would have been drowned out by Konata's ear-rending fangirl squeal of delight. "Kyaaaaaa~! Akemi-san, you're like the best Sailor Mars ever! Turn around, turn around!"

Homura did so, a little unsteadily. The heels were giving her trouble. "Like this?"

"Holy crap, yes! You're amazing, you could be Rei-chan's twin sister…" Konata's arms waved in a blur of ecstatic motion. "You've even got like the same personality she has in the manga, all elegant and mysterious and stuff! Not like the anime Rei-chan, she's more hotheaded and grumpy like Kagamin…"

That, at least, was able to snap Kagami out of her trance. "Oi, watch it, short stuff."

Homura turned to her. "Well? How do you think it looks?"

Looking her up and down and trying uselessly to keep her cheeks from burning, Kagami gave the only honest response she could think of: "You're beautiful."

The corners of Homura's mouth curled upward into a smile, a real smile. "Thank you."

She smiled back and felt warmth spread through her body, like stepping into a ray of summer sunlight. "Anytime."

Konata ignored them both. She was already flipping open her phone and readying her camera. "Okay, only three pictures, so we gotta make 'em count. Can you do the Fire Soul pose? Here, here's a screencap…"

Bracing herself against the wall, Homura leaned forward into the glow of the tiny screen, looked at the picture, and frowned. "I'm not certain I can balance doing that, Izumi-san," she said flatly. "This entire costume is extremely impractical. It provides almost no protection, the jewelry and ornamentation only gets in the way, and the shoes hinder maneuverability. Frankly, any Puella Magi who wore something like this to battle a Demon would be dead in seconds."

Kagami clapped a hand over her mouth and attempted to disguise her laughter as a sudden coughing fit.

Fortunately, Konata's enthusiasm was undeterred. "Well, yeah, it's impractical, it's supposed to be sexy! Come on, can you just try?"

"You might as well," said Kagami. "Better that pose than something even more embarrassing. You should have seen what she talked me into wearing the first time we came here…"

"You'll have to tell me later," she said, clearly already curious about it. "All right, Izumi-san, I'll do my best." She wobbled carefully over to their left, where a green screen was spread over the wall for the benefit of those who wanted backgrounds and digital effects added to their pictures. Homura clasped her hands, raised her index fingers, and spread her legs out into a wide stance, mimicking the reference picture as best she could. "Like this, Izumi-san?"

"Perfect!" said Konata, raising the phone to her eye level. "Now hold still. I'll be done in just a sec." She shut one eye and stuck the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth. Flash, flash, flash went the camera in quick succession… then it buzzed in her hand as the slightly garbled sound of some rock song came from the speaker: "I was made to hit in America / I was made to hit in America / I was made to hit in-" "That's Patty-chan from work," Konata said to no one in particular as she jabbed buttons. "I wonder what she- Oh, crap!"

"What?" said Kagami, leaning over.

"I didn't realize it was this late, I gotta go help the others prep for this afternoon's floor show!"

"Konata, I thought you said you had today off!" Kagami put her hands on her hips in annoyance.

"I do, I do," said Konata, brushing her off. "I'll explain later, right now I have to book it. Take care of my stuff, will you?" She was already heading for the boutique's door.

"Don't just leave us with all of your otaku junk! And what about Homura's costume?!" Kagami shouted after her.

"Most of that stuff's for Akemi-san anyway, it's fine. Just meet me at my café in about an hour and a half, all right? And tell the store manager to put the costume on my tab. Thanks, see you there!" With a cheerful wave, Konata blew out of the shop's door, the bell clanging in her wake.

Bewildered, Homura blinked and returned to a standing position. "Izumi-san has a tab at a cosplay shop?"

"Somehow it doesn't surprise me," grumbled Kagami, kneading her brow. "C'mon, let's get you back into your normal clothes and get out of here. We'll make some time for ourselves before we go see… whatever it is Konata's got planned. I'll let Tsukasa and Miyuki know to meet us there."


Futatsumaru Sweet Shop, Otome Road, Ikebukuro

"Tsukasa-chan, you have some ice cream on your nose."

"Uwaaah!" Tsukasa scrubbed at her face. "Is it gone?"

"No, it's still there. Allow me." Miyuki smiled and leaned forward, planting a kiss on the very tip of Tsukasa's nose. "Mmm…"

Tsukasa laughed. "Yuki-chan! That was just an excuse to kiss me, wasn't it?"

"Perhaps." She withdrew and licked her lips, then dabbed at her face with a handkerchief. "Perhaps not."

"You're so silly." Tsukasa leaned against her lover's shoulder and sighed, watching shoppers go by. What a perfect day. Lunch with everybody at the train station, then two lovely hours with Miyuki, browsing stores, giggling over a few of the more explicit girls-love doujins in said stores, stopping for ice cream and conversation while people-watching. Even the weather was perfect, bright and sunny without being too hot… the whole day was like a birthday present a week early. She snuggled into Miyuki, full and happy and slightly drowsy, content to just be here for a while, letting the moment last. A few seconds later she felt the familiar sensation of delicate fingers stroking her hair, and a sound almost like a purr escaped her lips. One of the reasons she had wanted time alone with Miyuki during this trip was to finally tell her the truth about Homura and the Demons… but why spoil such a wonderful day with something like that? She decided to let it go, at least until they meet up with Kagami and the others.

"What do you want to do next?" said Miyuki after a while.

"We've still got a little time before we're supposed to meet onee-chan at the café. I'm fine with just staying here."

"I am too."

Tsukasa's eyelids began to droop. So many people walking by, most of them girls and young women… she was beginning to think she liked it here, where it was much quieter and less crowded than Akihabara. There weren't as many neon signs or bright, clashing colors, either. True, she did sort of miss the famous Akiba cosplayers, but she could live without them. Her eyes wandered onto a group of three crows, pecking for scraps of food in the street.

She felt Miyuki shift. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, thank you," said Miyuki, her fingers stopping. "But someone seems to be watching us."

Reluctantly, Tsukasa raised her head to look. Across the street, peeking out from behind a gingko tree, was a girl about their age, perhaps a little younger. Very sleek and somewhat boyish in figure, she had mint-green hair and intimidating blue eyes, somewhat like Kagami's. It was difficult to tell, as her face was so passive, but she might have been frozen in shock…

Tsukasa blinked. "Who is that, Yuki-chan?"

Miyuki smiled and kissed her forehead. "No one to fret about, I recognize her. That's Minami Iwasaki, she lives across the street from me."

"Really?" Grinning from ear to ear, Tsukasa sat up and waved to the girl. "Iwasaki-san! Hey, Iwasaki-san, don't be shy, come over here!"

The girl, Minami, turned a shade of red that they could see even from across the street. She lingered for only a moment before she fled, and soon she was lost to sight among the mid-afternoon shoppers. The crows scattered as she took off, shedding a few black feathers.

"Did I say something wrong?" Tsukasa stuck her lower lip out.

"No, no, not at all," laughed Miyuki, putting an arm around her. "Perhaps she was just jealous of how beautiful you are."

"Y-Yuki-chan…! You're gonna make me blush…"
"You're already blushing," she chided. "Don't worry about it, Minami's not important."

The crows flapped overhead to join a larger flock of their brethren as the two embraced, and their lips met.


Happy Nyoron Café, Akihabara

"They're late," Kagami groused as she stirred at her soft drink with more vigor than was necessary. "I know I told Tsukasa to meet us at 5:30…"

Kagami and Homura sat together in the semi-darkness of the small café, waiting for the floor show to start. Kagami had been expecting Konata to greet them at the door in her usual Haruhi costume, but surprisingly, she was nowhere to be seen. They were shown to their table by some girl dressed as Tsuruya, who took the extra effort to get the strident laugh right when she took their drink orders, to Kagami's annoyance. Fifteen minutes they had sat there, and no sign of Konata, Tsukasa, or Miyuki. "Do you want to just wait outside?" she said, looking over at her companion. "Homura?"

Homura didn't answer. Her eyes were closed, and her head was down. Her tablet lay in her lap, with a set of tiny earphones connected to it. She had long since changed out of the costume, and now was wearing a simple, dark-colored sundress.

Kagami was still a little wary of touching her without her permission, so she waved to get her attention. "Hey, Homura? Can you hear me?"

Homura opened her eyes and removed one of the buds, tapping the pause button on the tablet's screen. "I apologize. What did you say?"

"I asked if you wanted to wait outside. What were you listening to?"

In lieu of answering, Homura offered one of the buds to Kagami.

Her hand reached for it automatically, then stopped. "Um, are you sure?"

Homura nodded. "It's all right."

She swallowed as she placed the bud in her ear. As Homura tapped the screen again, she heard a primal, driving drumbeat, the lilting of a harp that reminded her of a waterfall, and a woman's voice that was low and rich with emotion… The lyrics were in English, so she didn't catch the meaning of all of them, but the feeling behind them was unmistakably sorrowful, like the singer was desperately crying out for the hand of another…

"The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out

You left me in the dark…"

"Homura," she whispered.

"No dawn, no day, I'm always in this twilight

In the shadow of your heart…"

The dark-haired girl closed her eyes again and listened.

"And in the dark I can hear your heartbeat

I tried to find the sound

But then it stopped, and I was in the darkness

So darkness I became

The stars, the moon-"

"Homura," said Kagami again, a little louder this time. "Are you feeling okay? Do you want to leave?"

"No," she said, shaking her head slightly. "I don't want to leave. I don't want this to end."

"I don't understand, what's wrong?"

"They have all been blown out…"

"This time I've spent with you…" Kagami had to strain to hear her over the mournful howl of the lyrics, the percussion's pounding heartbeat. "It's been the best of my life. You've made me feel like… like I'm human again. You and Izumi-san…" She smiled sadly down at the many packages laid at her feet. "You can almost make me forget about it all, and that's something I cannot afford to do. I have to remember…"

"You left me in the dark

No dawn, no day, I'm always in this twilight

In the shadow of your heart…"

"... why I'm here, what I've fought for all this time. But there are times like today…"

"I took the stars from my eyes and then I made a map

I knew that somehow I could find my way back…"

"… that I wish, more than anything, that I could forget." She stared down at the gem set in her silver ring, glowing faintly even in the café's dim light. "Some time soon, though… it will all start again. The happiness I have with you can't last. It has to end."

"And I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too

So I stayed in the darkness with you…"

Kagami leaned toward her and slowly, hesitantly put a hand on her leg. "You're right, it will end, one way or another," she said over the primal drumbeat as her heart ached for the other girl. "Which is why we need to make it count. Hold onto today, treasure it for as long as possible. It's something we have that they can't ever understand. They won't take it from us, I swear it."

A pale hand grasped hers underneath the table, and blessed summer warmth was shared between them. "I believe you. Thank you, Kagami."

Now they were both leaning, millimeter by millimeter, toward each other. Everything else was falling away…

And at that precise moment, a spotlight lit up the little stage at the back of the café. One of the waitresses stood at a microphone… she was dressed as Yuki Nagato, and doing an impeccable job of mimicking the character's single, deadpan expression. "Excuse me," she said in a monotone, bowing low. "On behalf of the management and staff, this establishment would like to make a special announcement." She adjusted her glasses and peered out over the sparsely-attended tables on the restaurant floor. "Are Kagami Hiiragi and Homura Akemi here?"

Both girls froze, still connected by the earbuds. From somewhere above them, another spotlight beamed down on their table. Kagami's blush reached all the way to her ears and crept down her neck, and Homura simply looked baffled.

"Excellent," said the Yuki lookalike, without the slightest indication of happiness… or anything else. "The management understands that Hiiragi-san's seventeenth birthday is next week. We graciously extend to Hiiragi-san and Akemi-san a free meal in honor of this occasion."

There was a round of applause from the other patrons and waitresses, and a few cheers of "Banzai!" Homura remained frozen, a deer in headlights, while Kagami tried to sink as low as she could in her seat, doing nothing at all to suppress the fantasies currently roiling in her mind of wringing Konata's tiny neck.

"In addition," continued Yuki, blind to Kagami's mortification, "we are offering to the both of them a special-"

The microphone let out a long, electronic squeal, to which Yuki didn't react at all. A clamor rose from somewhere backstage, things were being knocked over… and then it emerged, a round purple sheet resembling a child's ghost costume soaked with a few gallons of grape juice, with a monster's yellow eyes and grimacing mouth painted on the front. Its arms and clawed hands, clearly made of papier-mâché or plaster, were being manipulated by thin rods poked through the fabric. The thing turned to face the audience… three pairs of shoes were clearly visible under the sheet's hem. A chorus of voices bellowed from underneath it: "ZAKENNA~!"

"Oh no," said Yuki in the exact same monotone. One had to admire her dedication to staying in character. "Everyone, there is a Zakenna in the building. We are under attack by Dusk Zone."

The audience gasped obligingly. A few of the waitresses screamed, obviously acting as plants.

Homura stared in complete confusion at the "monster", at its stiff arms, painted-on face, and the six shoes underneath its hem as it slowly clambered off the stage. It was heading for their table. Of course it was.

I'll kill her, thought Kagami, sinking lower in her chair.

"ZAKENNA~!" shouted the three voices from under the sheet as it advanced. Kagami was fairly certain she heard giggling from it afterward.

"Akemi-san, Hiiragi-san, run," said Yuki flatly. "Run, run for your lives."

The faux-Zakenna advanced, coming within a meter of their table before stopping. The rods from inside raised its plaster arm high. It paused as music blared over the speakers set at the foot of the stage, brassy and triumphant…

"Hold it!" Someone speaking Japanese with a pronounced American accent shouted from the rafters. "Attacking two innocent girls on their precious day together… I don't believe this!"

"Unforgiveable! We won't let you get away this time, Dusk Zone!" said another voice, very familiar.

Oh dear God, thought Kagami, putting her hands over her face. Please don't tell me-

On stage, twin puffs of smoke flared in front of Yuki, not quite thick enough to disguise the two ropes being lowered from the rafters, or the two figures descending on them. A gloved hand thrust through the quickly thinning cloud… it was a girl, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, well-endowed, and obviously foreign. She was wearing a flashy black and pink costume with boots, a short skirt, and bike shorts, adorned with hearts. "Emissary of Light," she cried, beaming as if this was the proudest moment of her life. The girl struck a pose and finished, "Cure Black!"

Mirroring the other girl's movements, a second fist cut through the smoke. There was Konata, sporting a frilly, puffy-shouldered dress-like-thing that was without question the girliest outfit Kagami had ever seen her wear. It was all white and blue as opposed to her partner's outfit, and her hair was gathered up at the top by a blue heart hair clip. Assuming an identical pose, she called out, "Emissary of Light, Cure White!"

Joining hands, Konata and the other girl spoke together. "The two of us are Pretty Cure!"

The Zakenna costume's handlers clumsily turned it around and bellowed once again, as the speakers blasted an extraordinarily catchy theme song and the audience roared its approval, cheering and whistling.

Stewing in her embarrassment, Kagami sat with her arms crossed, vowing to watch this entire stupid display, if only to avoid hurting Konata's feelings. She had obviously worked hard on this, of course. But that didn't mean that she wasn't going to pay for it at some unspecified time later.

Her eyes drifted over to Homura a few seconds into the choreographed fight between "Pretty Cure" and their foe. She could have been wrong, it was hard to tell in the dark, but the other girl might have been trying not to laugh. That, at least, would be worth the embarrassment.


Nearing the Café

The two of them were dozing, half-asleep against each other on the long bus trip from Ikebukuro to Akihabara, when Desideria felt him. Her eyes snapped open, and she cursed herself for not seeing the signs earlier. What did he think was he doing?!

Duilio, she thought savagely at him. Are you insane? Why are you out in the open? Our brother ordered you to keep low and wait!

I'm tired of waiting, growled Duilio, tired of hiding in the shadows. I must have blood. I must tear flesh, shatter bones, rend meat… Our brother will stop me no longer.

Idiot, she thought. Do you truly wish to die so quickly?

Better to die than waste away as you do. The plan has failed. Five of us are dead already. If I must join them, I will at least perish in a way that befits me. Let the Puella Magi come with her armory. Let the focal point strike me with her sword. Before I die, I'll crush their skulls between my teeth, drink their marrow, crack open their ribs… Duilio's voice devolved into mad laughter.

Idiot, thought the Second again. She knew him, nothing short of his own destruction would stop him now, and she wasn't about to try.


Happy Nyoron Café

Most of the café's patrons were on their feet now, pumping their fists into the air and chanting, "Precure! Precure! Precure!"

While all eyes were on the show, the café's manager ducked along the side wall to answer the door... only he was paying attention to the buzzing as the button was pressed. Normally one of the waitresses would be assigned to greet, but five of them were participating in the "fight" and the rest wanted to watch, so he supposed it was up to him. He could chastise the girls later… a spectacle like this would bring in a ton of money, maybe even some publicity. He grabbed the handle and peered through the peephole.

No one was there, but the buzzing continued…


Nearing the Café

Her conversation with Duilio had taken all of four seconds, not nearly enough time for Tsukasa to notice that she was awake. Somehow, though, the instant after it was over, Tsukasa lurched in her seat, her eyelids flying open, all drowsiness gone.

"Tsukasa-chan?" said Desideria. "Are you all right?"

Tsukasa's hands flailed, her fingers grasping and finally closing around the pull cord above their heads. The electronic tone of the stop signal echoed through the bus, and seconds later the driver ground it to a halt… just in time for Tsukasa to topple onto her hands and knees and vomit on the metal floor.

Mildly surprised, Desideria knelt down beside her, rubbing her back. "Tsukasa-chan! Oh dear, did you eat too much?"

She heaved, tasting bile in her mouth, fighting not to be sick again. "Onee-chan," she gasped.

Again, the Second registered surprise. "Tsukasa-chan, what is it? What's wrong?"

Tsukasa rose to her feet, wiping her mouth with her forearm. Like a woman possessed, she staggered to the bus's doors, now swinging open for her. "I'm sorry, Yuki-chan," she groaned, her voice weak, her eyes unfocused. "Something terrible's going to happen… gotta help onee-chan…" With that she stumbled off the bus, nearly falling into the gutter… but she righted herself more quickly than should have been possible and ran blindly down the sidewalk, her sandals flapping against the pavement.

The Second was left beside the idling bus, the driver of which was now fumbling with his cell and wondering whether to call an ambulance or a cleaning service first.

Well, thought Desideria. Isn't this interesting…


Happy Nyoron Café

"Cure Black" and "Cure White" struck both sides of the monster at once as the café's manager turned the handle and opened the door. It was probably faulty wiring or something. He would have to call an electrician to-

The door blew open with such force that it struck him in the face, rendering him unconscious. An army of sleek black feathered bodies streamed into the café, with what appeared to be a localized cloud bank following behind them… the charges flew as one up into the rafters.

Down below, Kagami found herself smiling despite herself. Maybe it was silly, but it was a pretty good show, the fight choreography was decent for what it was. Konata and "Cure Black" certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, anyway.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Homura stand straight up as the Pretty Cures delivered a double kick to the Zakenna's jaw. She wondered for just an instant if the Puella Magi was actually getting into it… then she realized. Oh no.

The fog rolled across the stage. It might have been a special effect; dry ice, perhaps. The actors barely paid it a thought until it swallowed them all within its depths, far faster than it should have done. The audience's cheers grew quieter, replaced by confused muttering…

Homura disappeared. Seconds later Kagami was vaulting over the table, running up to the stage and plunging into the fog. Not Konata, she thought desperately. Oh God, not again.

It was only once she was already inside the cloud that she remembered that she was without her bokken. Unarmed. Still she ran, as the world twisted around her once more…

Something filled her shoes and drenched her socks. She was striding ankle-deep through some kind of liquid, something too thick to be water. The moment the Lair finished resolving, a powerful odor assaulted her nostrils, sharp, coppery, warm, and damp… she only stopped running when she realized what it was.

It was a lake of blood.

Kagami's stomach churned with nausea as she fought the urge to faint then and there. The only thing that kept her on her feet was the knowledge that if she fell, she would be half-submerged in it, in what she somehow knew, without a shadow of a doubt, was human blood.

"Kagami!" Homura's voice called from somewhere nearby.

Placing a hand over her mouth, she ran for that voice, not paying attention to anything around her. She was halfway up the "shore" before she realized that its surface felt all wrong… it was soft and yielding. White spikes, some of them yellowing badly, jutted up out of the ground in random places… she thought she knew what they were, what the ground was, but she shoved it to the back of her mind.

Homura, Konata, the Yuki lookalike, Cure Black, and the three other girls were there, in varying states of consciousness. The three that composed the Zakenna had apparently fainted, they lay on the remains of the sheet, their faces pale.

Konata's costume was blood-spattered but she was apparently all right, trying to rouse the dazed figure of Cure Black, who was moaning in her lap. "C'mon, Patty-chan, stay with me, please!" she begged as she shook the foreign girl.

"Izumi-san, it might be kinder to let her sleep," said Homura. She had transformed into her spotless Puella Magi costume, her face set for battle. Her happiness and levity from minutes earlier was already a distant memory. "I'll do my best to protect you all."

"I-I know you will, Akemi-san, but how are you gonna-" She trailed off, biting her lip.

The Yuki lookalike was looking from Homura to Konata, to the lake and back to the strange, soft red ground underneath their feet. Perhaps it was some insane commitment to staying in character, perhaps it was a defense mechanism, or perhaps she was simply in shock, but when she spoke, it was still in the same monotone… "What… is happening…?"

The enormity of it hit Kagami at once. It wasn't just her and Homura this time. It wasn't just Konata she had to worry about. Five civilians, five innocent girls had been pulled into the Lair. She put a trembling hand on the girl's shoulder. "L-look, just stay back, out of the lake. We- Homura can handle this, s-she's done it before…"

The girl hit her with a hard stare. "… Then this is real. I am not dreaming."

"'Fraid not," said Kagami with a weak, sick chuckle.

"Fascinating," was all the girl said in reply as she adjusted her glasses. You could almost believe she was Yuki Nagato.

Unnerved by her calmness, Kagami left her and went to Homura's side. "Ho-Homura? I'm… I'm so sorry," she whispered, so as not to alarm the others.

There was no mistaking the pain in Homura's violet eyes; Kagami had learned to recognize it, even when it was hidden underneath the armor of her resolve. "It's not your fault," she said. "It's theirs, and we'll make them pay."

"N-No, what I mean is," Kagami fumbled with the words, more scared than she was willing to admit. "I… I don't have my bokken…"

Now it was Homura's turn to stare at her. Neither of them spoke.

"Don't worry." After a few seconds of silence, Homura put a hand on her shield. "I have a-"

"Look," said Yuki.

It was hard to make them out against the churning gray clouds that composed the Lair's sky, but dark shapes were coming toward them. Many, many dark shapes, cawing and flapping and shedding ragged black feathers… crows, at least two hundred, if not more.

Homura turned her shield over. In an instant she was standing three meters down the shore, surrounded by a dozen mortars. As the flock drew near, the weapons roared, expelling their payload into it. Fire blossomed in the cloudy sky, bodies and feathers fell from the mass, but it kept advancing…

Then half of it dived. Right over Homura's head, straight for the girls on the shore. Hundreds of black living missiles, somehow shrieking, though it was clear that they were all headless, every one of them…

"Run!" Kagami screamed. She started toward Konata, knowing horribly that even if the two of them got away, the other girls would be helpless… Her feet sank slightly into the yielding red ground, making it hard to keep balance. She stumbled, regained her footing, took another few strides…

There was another roar of fire from further down the shore, then the chattering of rifles. The rest of the headless flock was attacking Homura. She was fighting back, but even she couldn't make it in time to-

Someone shoved her. She fell sprawling to the ground, which she now knew for certain was made of flesh… muscle tissue. Her stomach heaved…

"Hiiragi-san, Izumi-san, stay low and lie flat." The monotone came from somewhere above her.

A meter away, Konata complied, throwing herself and Patty down even as she shouted, "Aya-chan, what are you doing?! Aya!"

The Yuki lookalike, Aya, was still standing upright. She turned to the diving birds and spread her arms wide, facing them without fear.

The crows fell upon her. Kagami saw flashes of yellow teeth; the birds' feathered chests were breaking open, revealing slavering fanged mouths. Aya wasn't trying to fight them off, she was acting as a diversion... as a sacrifice. She was swiftly lost to sight amid the storm of black wings. The screaming began, awful, anguished screaming, that somehow didn't drown out a horrid sound like the tearing of wet paper…

Aya's voice petered out into a wet, choking gurgle. Part of her went one way, and part of her went another… A ragged, bloody mess of skin, hair and cloth stayed with the crows, quickly being torn to ribbons by their terrible mouths, and the muscles, body, and bones fell to the shore with a sickening thud.

Kagami couldn't make a sound, her throat was too tight. By the lake's edge, Homura was still fighting, but she couldn't watch. She could only stare at the skinless corpse that until seconds ago was a living, breathing girl, and she couldn't look away.

The murder (Oh God, thought Kagami) of crows flew back over the surface of the lake, still fighting over scraps of their prize. A grisly rain fell as they bickered, sending ripples through the pool…

Something moved within it. Rings spread outward as something headed for the shore. It breached the surface, shedding red droplets… It was a huge skeletal hand and a three-fingered arm, clad in rotting flesh. The fingers groped for the body, found it, and closed around it. They dragged what was left of Aya backward by the ankle, deep into the lake.

Only then did someone else scream. It was a very familiar voice.

It wasn't Konata or Homura.

Kagami's head jerked upward, and she felt her heart plunge into her stomach. No…

Standing far up on the shore and leaning against an outcropping of bone, pale as a sheet and trying not to be sick again, was Tsukasa. She had seen it all.

Within the lake, something enormous stirred and began to rise.

END OF CHAPTER 20