Chapter Six: Complications
The two of them stood by the school gates under the silver light of a winter afternoon.
"For someone who always harasses Kyouko for being late, Mami's not exactly the most punctual person either," Sayaka grumbled. She glanced at the huge metal clock suspended over the school entrance. 3:45. School had ended twenty minutes ago, and the place was almost empty, now, with only a few stragglers present in the courtyard. They were supposed to meet fifteen minutes ago.
"If she has decided to cancel the meeting, she would have given us prior notice," Homura said.
"That's not what I meant," Sayaka said exasperatedly. "I mean, I'm sure she'll come. I didn't expect her to cancel or anything, but – "
"There she is."
Mami's blonde hair was easy to spot in the trickle of students. As always, she was surrounded by a dense mob of admirers, all of them girls. Sayaka counted at least nine. They flittered around her like fairies, giggling, laughing, chattering, clustering around her like planets pulled into orbit by the sun. Some smiled at her in worship; some smiled at her in love; some smiled at her in jealousy. Mami's own smile was vapid and polite, the smile of someone for whom the expression was the default expression of the face.
"Sayaka, Homura, good afternoon!" she called, running up to them. "Sorry about being late, I had to run an errand for my teacher."
Mami turned to her group of girls, an apologetic smile appearing on her face. "See you tomorrow. Thanks for waiting for me."
"No problem, Mami!"
"I'll meet you by the gates again tomorrow morning!"
"You sure you don't want to go karaoke with us?"
Mami waved at them cheerfully as they departed the school gates. Some even returned back into the building. A few shot venomous glares at Sayaka and Homura as they passed – who are you two to monopolize Tomoe Mami? Sayaka resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Once the last of them left, Mami leaned against the school gates, rubbing her eyes like a tired mother who had just put troublesome kids to sleep.
"Nice to see you're as popular as ever," Sayaka said dryly.
"Have you been waiting long?"
"I'm terribly sorry. You know how those girls are. They actually wanted to walk home with me, but I told them I had other plans."
"If they bother you so much, just tell them to stop."
"It's not too much of a bother, really."
"You are too nice for your own good."
Mami laughed, bare and joyous, not at all like the laugh she used among the girls earlier. "I'm glad you're worried about me, Sayaka, but it should be the other way around."
"None of them know what we really do."
"And I'd prefer they never find out." Mami smiled. "It's not their fault. It's tiring, at times, but as long as they enjoy my company, I don't mind. That's what being a magical girl is all about, isn't it?"
In the distance, past the school building, Sayaka could see the silhouettes of the school's softball team at practice on the baseball diamond. A shadow threw a ball, another shadow swung a bat, a line of shadows stood up and raised their arms. What did those shadows worry about? Did they worry about death? About taking another's life? Even though school had ended, the schoolyard was still alive with the faint laughter of far-off students, but it was a cloudy sort of sound; the distortion held the quality of a tone heard from underwater. A stab of guilt lanced through Sayaka's heart.
"I guess you're right," she said.
"Anyway, we should get going," Mami said, turning away from the school. "Lead the way, Homura. I've been to your apartment before, but Sayaka hasn't."
Several months ago, Sayaka would've wished for the same attention Mami so effortlessly received. To be so popular, to have so many friends, to be praised by everyone she met – wasn't that what a fun high school life was all about? Sayaka smiled wryly. With a shiver, she stuck her hands into the pockets of her coat, her footsteps crunching against the frozen gravel. But that was before Kyubey, before Hitomi and Kyousuke, before Kyouko. When puppy love was still puppy love, when her best friend was still her best friend.
With a shake of her head, Sayaka scattered those memories back into void. She tilted her head upwards. There were better things to think about. Mitakihara's cityscape was dyed a harsh silver by the winter sunlight. The three of them strode through quiet streets, under downcast skies that predicted snow, or sleet, or rain, or maybe nothing at all – you could never tell in Mitakihara. Not like some cities with their silicon biodomes covering the sky, set to display whatever season the citizens voted for. Sayaka preferred Mitakihara's fickleness. She liked the caprice of nature, of waking up every morning not quite knowing whether she needed a jacket or boots or a T-shirt or a sweater or sandals or jeans. All the same, she wished it would snow. It had been two weeks since the last snowfall and she still remembered the sensation of a snowball striking the back of her neck, wet ice trickling down her collar while Kyouko's laughter ran clear and breathless behind her.
"Are you sure she'll come?" Mami asked.
"She'll definitely come. She promised me this morning."
It was the third time today Mami had asked her the same question, and the third time Sayaka had given her the same reply. She wasn't quite sure if the blonde wanted the answer to change.
"You said you two encountered the demon last night?"
Sayaka nodded. "I honestly don't remember much about it, though. It happened so quickly, and the signal was so faint. We saw it near Mita Theater, another crowded place, if that means anything."
"And what were you doing with Kyouko so late at night?" Mami reproached her. "I purposely left you free nights so you can rest, not so you can cavort around until you fall asleep on your feet."
Sayaka turned red. "I-I was…I mean, I didn't want to, I wanted to sleep, but Kyouko – "
Mami laughed. "I'm just kidding, Sayaka. You're certainly free to do whatever you wish in your free time. I understand that all of this is still new for you, and that you need to unwind sometimes. Really, you are doing an admirable job. If you ever feel overwhelmed, Homura and I are more than glad to take over your patrols for a few days."
"You don't need to worry about me," Sayaka said, slightly miffed. "I've been a magical girl for almost a month. I'm sure I can hold my own. Anyway, I don't know much about what happened last night. Kyouko will know more about it than I do."
"Perhaps, but will she talk to us? Despite your reassurances, I'm still not convinced she'll cooperate."
"She will, I think. For this, at least. She knows this thing is too powerful to fight alone. The rest will depend on you."
The blonde pursed her lips. "I have made every effort to be patient with her."
"Patient, sure, but you never take what she says seriously."
"That is because what she says is utterly false."
"The things she says are worth considering – "
"So you agree with her? That we should fight each other and leave this city to the blood-soaked winner?"
"No, of course not," Sayaka said, alarmed. "I could never bring myself to harm any of you. I know you can't do it either. Just…try to think about the things she says, alright? Deep down, Kyouko doesn't want to hurt anyone, either."
"I find that a bit hard to believe."
"I do not think we need her," Homura said. She strode two paces ahead of them and did not turn her head to speak. "Given her personality, she may ultimately hinder us – ."
"Of course we need her," Sayaka said automatically. It had been close – she had almost said I instead of we. "She's at least as powerful as you two, and more experienced to boot."
"Experience, huh?" Homura's laughter was a single dead note. It was the first time Sayaka had heard her laugh. "Experience matters far less than you think."
Mami sighed. "Homura has a point. Sometimes, I can't help but feel things would be better with just the three of us."
"Without her, I'd be dead," Sayaka pointed out.
"That's one thing she's done right since she came. It's probably the only thing." Mami's eyes focused on something far-off in the distance. Her tone became reflective. "Honestly, I'm grateful for what she's done, and…really, I want to be friends with her. But it's just so difficult. I'm worried about you, Sayaka. Despite how she acts around you, Kyouko isn't as trustworthy as you might think. Her core is too warped – she has suffered, perhaps more than any of us. She's too selfish. When the time comes, she'll definitely choose herself above all others."
"I don't think she will. I know her better than you do."
"Maybe you're right. I won't tell you what to do. But still, be careful, okay? I don't want to lose you. You were my first – " Mami looked away, her breath lingering upon the cold winter air. " – friend."
Sayaka's heart twisted sickeningly in her chest. In that instant she wished that Mami was just some stupid, idealistic blonde, or Kyouko another ruthless, selfish girl. Anything would be preferable to this indecision tearing her breast.
For perhaps the first time in her life, the redhead had the decency to look embarrassed.
"Sorry, Sayaka," she said, taking a seat next to the blue-haired girl. "I was going to arrive on time, I swear, but there was this guy selling the most delicious-smelling takoyaki down by fifth avenue, and I hadn't had anything to eat since lunch."
"And you promised me you'd come on time, too," Sayaka groaned. "I was afraid you weren't going to come at all."
"That's alright, Kyouko," Mami said pleasantly. "I hope you enjoyed your meal."
Sayaka tensed, waiting for Kyouko's reaction. Despite her reassurances earlier, it was still impossible to imagine Kyouko and Mami on friendly terms. After all, the last time the two of them had spoken, Kyouko had threatened to kill Mami before storming out of the room. And that had been one of their better conversations.
For several seconds, Kyouko just stared at the blonde warily, her right hand knotted into a fist inside the pockets of her jacket. Then, with a scowl, she muttered, "Thanks."
Sayaka let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. Maybe this would go smoothly, after all.
"Sweet place you got here, Homura," Kyouko continued quickly. "It's very…interesting."
"Interesting" would not have been the word Sayaka chose to describe the raven-haired girl's living room. Impossibly huge, the room was almost completely devoid of furniture save a small table at its center and the circular bench surrounding it, upon which the four of them were seated. A clear white keyboard sat on top of the table. Next to the keyboard curled Kyubey, his head resting in his paws almost like just another cat. At Kyouko's entrance, he raised a single long white ear.
The room smelled like antiseptic. The floor was white; the ceiling was white; the only wall was white. The other three walls of the rectangular room were actually liquid-gel LED displays, covered top to bottom by images and text concerning demons. At the forefront, occupying the center wall with photographs as large as doorframes, were the forty-eight suicide victims. Some, like the policeman, had shot themselves with a gun; some had hung themselves, some had drank poison; and some, lacking the necessary tools, had simply resorted to biting their tongues or repeatedly bashing their heads against the wall until their brain matter had leaked out. Gruesome things, photographs not available to the public, photographs meant only for the police investigators. Sayaka wondered how Homura had gotten a hold of them. She stared at the stainless steel table and tried very hard not to look.
"Thank you," Homura said.
Taking a sip of her tea, Sayaka watched Kyouko pounce upon the pastries in the middle of the table. There was still a smudge of takoyaki jam on her left index finger. That's one thing that would never change, Sayaka thought. Demons may devour Mitakihara, Soul Gems might blacken to ash, the world can vanish in a day - but Kyouko would always remain hungry.
Mami cleared her throat. "Let us begin. This meeting, as you probably already know, is again about the suicides. There have been – "
"Wilfrenough," Kyouko mumbled through a mouthful of food. With a single gulp, she swallowed down the petit four and ran a tongue over her lips. "We already know about all that, there's no point in repeating it. I sure don't want to be here any longer than I have to. Anyway, Sayaka and I encountered it last night. One a.m. Down by the entertainment district. Near the theaters."
Mami smiled indulgently. "Please tell us more about it."
"Didn't Sayaka already tell you?"
"She did, but we would like to hear your version of the events. Isn't that right, Sayaka?"
"The demon possessed a policeman. He shot himself. That's it, really." Kyouko shrugged. "It happened in plain sight, too, caused a huge commotion. By the time we arrived, the policeman was already dead. The entire thing took maybe five seconds total. The demon's presence wasimpossible to track down. It was there and gone in an instant – " Kyouko snapped her fingers " – just like that. I couldn't detect it all."
Mami's shoulders sagged. "Your account is identical to Sayaka's. I had hoped you had learned something more."
"Most curious." Kyubey stood up, stretching back on his hind legs. Beady red eyes focused unblinkingly on Kyouko. "I had not thought it possible that such a powerful demon could remain undetected from one as skilled as you, especially in such close proximity, and so subtly that you could not lift a finger. Did you do nothing else?"
"Of course not," Kyouko snapped.
Homura's fingers tapped rapidly upon the keyboard. The central wall flickered, then a single photograph enlarged to prominence. Sayaka flinched. It was the policeman, lying down on the sidewalk with his head split open and the blood pooling outwards in viscous tendrils. The picture had been taken minutes after his death – perhaps Sayaka and Kyouko could've been in the image, if the camera had zoomed out a bit more. With the picture the size of the entire wall, the veins of his brain were bigger than caterpillars.
"Yeah, that's the guy," Kyouko said. She popped a profiterole into her mouth. "These are really good, by the way. Did you make them, Homura?"
The black-haired girl nodded.
"I figured. They're not as sweet as what Mami makes, but I like it better this way, I think – "
"Don't you know anything else about it?" Mami pressed. "Any clue as to where it went after it killed the policeman? How it managed to hide its presence? How it could vanish so quickly?"
Kyouko smirked. "You mean you haven't figured it out yet?"
"You almost sound like you have," Mami said coldly.
"Maybe I have."
Sayaka frowned. Kyouko had told her nothing about this. She glanced at Kyouko, wondering what she was planning. The redhead was arching back lazily, one arm propping herself up while her other hand dangled a vanilla wafer over her mouth. For all the world, she looked like she was talking about the weather instead of something that could potentially wipe out an entire city.
"Then explain. Please," Mami said.
"Oh, let me savor this. Two straight-A students, the brightest of Mitakihara Middle School, outsmarted by a dropout? Come on now, are you even trying?"
"Kyouko…" Sayaka began.
"Relax, I'm just joking." Kyouko popped the last of the wafer into her mouth and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. "I had my suspicions for a while, but I spent all last night thinking about it and finally figured it out this morning. It all seems so obvious, now – the appearance, the disappearance, the complete vanishing act. Honestly, how you haven't figured it out yet is beyond me – "
Sayaka jabbed her sharply in the ribs.
"Alright, alright, I'll get on with it, then. It's simple. The demon survives by possessing multiple people. It causes its host to commit suicide, then once its host is dead, it immediately seeks out another host."
"Impossible," Mami said immediately. "I've never head of a demon possessing more than one person."
Kyouko tapped a thin finger against her forehead. "Use that head of yours. This is the only theory that fits. We can never detect if someone is possessed by a demon – we can only detect a demon when it actually takes full control of the host. Hell, I'm not sure if the person possessed even knows what's going on. It's pretty common for demons to lie dormant inside its host's body for months or even years, feeding off the weakness and insecurity in his heart until it builds up enough strength. When it finally matures – well, I'm sure you've fought enough of them to know what happens next. That will explain why we can never detect this thing despite how powerful it must be by now."
"What you felt last night – "
"Yup. We detected the demon once it actually took control of the policeman. Poor guy had no clue what was coming. After he was dead, the demon then immediately possessed someone else, becoming dormant again – a perfect vanishing act. The cycle will repeat."
"Then the reason the suicides only appear in crowds – "
"Law of probability. Demons can only possess those who are mentally weak or have just been affected by some huge tragedy. It's much easier to find a suitable host in a large crowd." Then, a tad too smugly, "I told you it didn't mean anything."
"This defies all we know," Mami said, crossing her arms defiantly. She bit her lip. "Is…Is such a thing even possible?"
Sayaka stared at the corpse on the monitor. The scene played back in her head like a videotape. The policeman is walking along, glad to finally be returning home after a long shift. Suddenly, his left arms jerks upwards, his left leg freezes, his neck twists one hundred and eighty degrees, his right hand goes for the holster. Like a puppet with its strings cut, the woman had said – that must be the exact moment the man's will was no longer his own. Then there is the gun, the gunshot, and the bullet. His life force vanishes in an instant as sustenance for the demon. In Sayaka's mind, it is a large mouth, fang-filled and formless, snickering as it slowly casts its gaze for yet another victim…
"It's possible, I think," Sayaka said. "It's at least worth considering."
"See, Mami? Listen to the two people who were actually there last night."
Kyubey tilted his head in a gesture almost akin to thoughtfulness. "An intriguing hypothesis. A tad fantastic, but not impossible. Perhaps not even improbable. Our current knowledge of demonkin is limited. Such a demon as Kyouko described would be novel, but far stranger things have happened. When it comes to the realm of magic, nothing is ever quite impossible."
"It fits the current train of events," Homura agreed, "but without concrete evidence, it is still nothing more than a hypothesis."
"What other evidence do you need?" Kyouko snapped. "You got something better?"
"No, we don't," Mami said firmly. "However, moving forward on a hypothesis supported by only circumstantial evidence is never a wise move. Furthermore, assuming this theory of yours is true, it still doesn't get us anywhere. The demon could be inside any of the two million people in Mitakihara. How can we possibly find it?"
"What if I told you I had a plan?"
"Then I would like to hear it."
Kyouko leaned back, supporting herself on her arms. She gazed levelly into Mami's face, did not move, did not even touch the half-finished strawberry tart in front of her, and though her eyes were focused on Mami it was obvious she was staring into emptiness. The sounds of the world became muted; there was only the static of the monitors. Sayaka recognized the expression on her friend's face. It was an expression of rare intense concentration. It was the expression of someone contemplating a decision that would change her life. It was also, strangely enough, reminiscent of a fox staring at a hutch of rabbits and considering which one it should take for dinner.
When at last the redhead spoke, it was almost anticlimactic.
"What is the state of your Soul Gems?"
Mami blinked. "Why do you want to know that?"
"Call it pragmatism. If we're going to work together, we should at least know each other's strength. Mine's at ten percent."
"Kyouko…" Sayaka stood up from the table, grinning from ear to ear. "You mean you've finally decided to work with everyone?"
"I haven't decided anything," Kyouko scowled. "Not with them, anyway. But even I know this thing is strong, too strong. So just this one time, maybe."
"While I am very glad you have finally come to your senses," Mami said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously, "I still don't understand how this brings us any closer to finding the demon."
"Before I tell you my plan, I need to make sure you guys are actually going to be of any use when we fight. I don't have time to lug around dead weight in battle."
Three sets of eyes focused on the blonde, waiting. Her face was flawlessly calm. Sayaka's breath caught in her throat. This was what they had been waiting weeks for, ever since that first ill-fated meeting with Kyouko so long ago. Sure, Kyouko had said it was to be just this once, but a month ago she wouldn't have even considered the idea, and who was to say where this will lead to in another month still? A shadow Sayaka hadn't even realized existed lifted from her heart. The four of them, united against the darkness, unsung heroes that protected Mitakihara from whatever monstrosities would threaten its peace. It was almost too beautiful to be true, almost too beautiful to even wish for. All that was left to do was for Mami to…
"My Soul Gem is at forty percent," Mami said at last.
"Mine is also forty percent," Homura said.
Sayaka beamed. "And mine is – "
"Oh, I already know you're at thirty," Kyouko said. Under the glare of the monitors, her smile revealed twin rows of fangs that glinted like steel daggers. "Forty percent corruption is a tad high, but really, you two are powerful, very powerful. It should be enough. Probably. As long as we all work together, we'll defeat it, no sweat. And, of course, we'll split the Grief Seeds afterwards. You don't have a problem with that, right?"
Mami took a sip of her tea, obscuring her face behind the teacup. "You certainly are much more agreeable today."
"This will be the only time. Don't count on it."
"Why the sudden change of heart?"
Kyouko shrugged. "I can't defeat this thing alone. This way, I'll get at least some Grief Seeds instead of none. By my estimates, if we kill this thing, it'll drop enough Grief Seeds to fully cleanse all of your Soul Gems, with enough left over to keep you clear for another few months. In fact, you don't really have much of a choice in the matter. Unless you do something drastic, your Soul Gems will corrupt within the year."
"This sounds almost too good to be true. Is this demon really that powerful?"
"You think I would ask for your help if it wasn't?"
"What are you after?" Homura said flatly. "You have too little to gain, and to offer us – "
Mami held up her hand. The raven-haired girl fell silent.
"Please, tell us your plan. You said you had one, correct? We will hear you out."
"It's simple, really," Kyouko said. "When I said earlier that there's no way to track the demon, it wasn't quite true. Last night, when the demon appeared, I had just enough to time to place a tracer on it – "
"You what!?" Sayaka wasn't even aware she had stood up, had banged her fist on the table so hard the teacups rattled and spilled on the immaculate steel.
"A tracer is a magical construct designed to sense demons over long distances," Kyubey said helpfully. "It requires imparting a portion of your mana into a demon – "
"I know what a tracer is," Sayaka snapped. "I just want to know why you didn't tell me earlier about this! Kyouko, last night you said that the demon had vanished for good, that there was no way to sense it – "
"So I lied. Sue me."
"You – !" Sayaka struggled to control the sound of her voice. "Why did you do that?"
"Indeed," Mami said, glaring at the redhead. "You should've mentioned this to us earlier."
"What was I supposed to do?" Kyouko shot back at Sayaka. "If you had the slightest inkling that we could find the demon, you would've gone after it in an instant. Oh, don't give me that look! We all know you'd rush to fight it without further thought. Do you know what would've happened then? You would be dead."
"You don't know that!"
"You've always been stupidly brave, Sayaka. That hasn't changed, despite all that's happened. If there's even a chance you can save a life, you would charge forward without a second thought."
"What if you messed up? What if your tracer disappeared? We'd have lost our biggest chance to catch this thing!"
"Even still, it was worth your life."
"I wouldn't have died!"
"You think you can fight a demon even I can't take on alone?"
"I would not have gone, if you had told me not to," Sayaka said bitterly. "That's how much I trust you. I though you did the same."
"I would do anything to protect you, Sayaka. A lie is a small price to pay for your life."
Kyouko stared at her defiantly, arms crossed, jaw clenched, eyes narrowed at an angle between anger and arrogance. The confidence in her expression was maddening. Yet every word out of her mouth had been her truth, Sayaka knew. That was what made it so difficult. How do you protect someone you value more than yourself, except by making sure that she stayed away from anything that could possibly bring her harm? Would you harm someone you love, because of love? In her heart Sayaka knew that had their positions been reversed, she would have done the same.
"Tell me, next time," Sayaka said finally, slumping against the bench. And yet she knew the redhead was not completely right. "Tell me, even if you need to knock me unconscious afterwards so I don't do something stupid. I'm a magical girl, just like you. I must learn eventually. I deserve to know."
Kyouko's gaze softened. "I never meant to hurt you. I don't think I ever can."
"You still should have told us earlier," Mami said accusingly. "This was something you should have told us at the beginning, not at the end. Why waste time on so much pointless discussion when you knew all along what was going on? We would have believed you much sooner. How can you expect trust if you do not give it?"
"You should be grateful I even told you guys at all," Kyouko said. In an instant her face returned to that ubiquitous irascible expression. "Without me, you'd still be wracking those empty skulls of yours for the answer. I said it before, didn't I? First I needed to make sure that you guys are worth partnering up with. The last thing I want to do is charge into battle with only two weaklings backing me up."
Mami gripped her teacup so tightly the liquid was rippling, but to her credit, her voice remained calm. "Let us proceed then. You should be able to track the demon now, correct? What do you propose we do?"
"We attack it, what else? Preferably at night time, when there's less people around, since I know how much you dislike collateral damage. Tonight, even, if you want."
"Very well." Mami settled her teacup down on the table. For the first time since the meeting started, a hint of her usual poise returned. "Whether Kyouko's theory is right or wrong, there is no point in waiting. Every minute we wait gives the demon a chance to kill another. It must be tonight."
A/N: Sorry for the long break. The main cause of the delay is classes, but just as important is the fact that this chapter was incredibly difficult for me to write. Much of it was written purely for plot purposes, to set up events that would take place later in the story, which contrasts with my usual character-driven style. Still, with the hardest chapter now out of the way, the rest of the story should come easier. The next two chapters will be flashback chapters that wrap up Kyouko and Sayaka's start of friendship.
Also, I've made some changes to the previous chapter in lieu of recent plot developments. It's technically cheating, I know, but that's the advantage of writing stuff online :)