Margin Note

Although she later forgave me for it, my repudiation of my eldest daughter is easily my greatest regret…at least while they still lived. In my defense, after risking my life and fortune defending those cynically accused of witchcraft, generally to steal the fortunes of heirless widows, it was quite a surprise for a landed noblewoman in 16th century Scotland to discover that her daughter had gained magical powers by contracting with a strange beast, even if it did save my life. I am grateful I was later given the chance to eat my words. I've lost count of the mothers who never took that chance before they no longer had the opportunity. It's one of the many great tragedies that surround these girls.

~F

A Mother's Folly

Saturday, May 21
(a little over three weeks after Sagitta Luminis)
(Cosmos Secundum ad Madoka)

"I thought I told ya to go fuck yourself."

Kyouko knew she was being tailed even as she entered the poorly located wraith grid, but she didn't want to risk waking or losing her quarry by first arguing with Mami. The structure held little power, having been erected outside in the shade on the north side of a wide building.

Wraiths could be surprising when cornered, however, and she wasn't interested in a fight or a chase – in her current mood she wanted a slaughter. She had seen to business, and worked out some of her frustration, with the handful of torpid wraiths that had been hiding during the daytime sunshine and never knew what hit them.

"Actually, to be precise, you told me to fuck off."

Halting in mid-motion as she reached down to collect her single reward for the fight, Kyouko stopped to look up and regard a blonde girl wearing the uniform of a Mitakihara Junior High School student sitting idly on the edge of a nearby building, her feet swinging back and forth opposite each other ten stories above the ground. She looks like a little kid up there like that. How does she manage to look so carefree given everything I know is on her mind? Put a lollipop in one hand and a big stick a' cotton candy in the other and she'd look fresh from goin' to the circus.

"I think that's the first time I ever heard ya use that word before, Mami. I might forgive ya followin' me if ya came down here and actually say it to my face. Wouldn't that be a sign a' the apocalypse or somethin'?"

"You'd have to ask Akemi-san. Isn't she the one who believes she's seen the end of the world?"

Kyouko expression darkened briefly at the comment before she chuckled and shook her head as if at an irony. She waited for Mami, still carrying the bag of apples from the press conference, to rise and glide down from the height using her trademark yellow ribbons. "I must be rubbin' off on ya. Ya don't usually talk trash about people like that."

"Well, you were my first student," the blonde magical girl said with a warm smile, verbally now that she was within comfortable speaking distance. "Can I help it if I learn some of your bad habits along the way? You've had the longest to corrupt your sensei."

The normally fiery redhead only shrugged silently as she retrieved the cube at her feet and stuck it in the designated pocket of her crimson outfit. Once it was safely stored away, she shifted back to street clothes before making her way in whatever direction her soul gem indicated another small enclave of wraiths was hiding.

"I'm still amazed you survived as long as you did living like this," Mami marveled as they walked together, determined not to let her friend remain silent. "Picking them off during the day when they're weaker and in small groups. Staying out of their way at night when they collect together and prey on people. All the stories I've heard tell me it's a slow but steady road to suicide. You'll have to show me sometime how you cast such a wide net with so little magic."

"It's not much, I'll agree, but it is a whole lot easier – and safer I might add – once ya know what to look for." Kyouko was proud of having mastered an existence others derided – critics she'd cheerfully point out were all either dead or younger as a magical girl than she was. Her face was a window for her enthusiasm. "Nights don't havta be so bad, either. Ya just havta be choosy about your targets. You're the one who refused to let people get hurt and insisted on fightin' the strong grids at night."

"It almost got me killed, too," the blonde girl noted soberly, dampening Kyouko's fervor. "Back when I was on my own after you left and before Miki-san came on the scene. You told me to go away then too, that you didn't want me around. So why did you keep popping up when I was in over my head?"

Mami looked over at her friend to gauge the girl's reaction to her potentially uncomfortable words. Kyouko wasn't fond of deep sharing. "You could have just let me self-destruct. It couldn't have been for the renewal cubes or else you would have chosen the moments when things were going well, rather than when my magic was drained and I was in danger of dying. You knew I'd have joyfully taken you back any time."

Annoyed at the direction of the conversation, Kyouko stopped and turned to face her mentor. Her departure at the time had devastated her friend, leaving her lonely and despairing. She knew that. From the look on her face, the older girl was still sensitive about it. Kyouko could understand it all too well, but she wasn't comfortable sharing like Mami.

Sharing meant being vulnerable, and Kyouko had enough of that already to last a lifetime. The scars she had to prove it might not be obvious, but they were there nonetheless. She didn't appreciate her best friend poking at old wounds.

"I told ya, Mami, I'm not interested in addin' to your shrunken head collection. Stop tryin' to fix me. Unlike our cracked little rookie, I ain't broken."

"I suppose not." Mami smiled sadly at her words as her free hand picked an apple out of the bag and threw it to the apple-haired girl, who caught the fruit effortlessly and bit into it.

"You've never told me why you're so neurotic about food, Sakura-san," Mami began again. She started walking in the direction Kyouko had been going, forcing her to choose whether or not to follow; Kyouko chose to follow. "It's compulsive. Something tells me it has to do with what happened to your family. You never did fill me in on the details of what it was like before your wish, or what happened when your family was killed."

"Ya don't give up, do ya blondie?"

Mami just continued walking, leaving Kyouko to sort her feelings.

She really isn't gonna give up. Dammit. When she's like this we play cat and mouse until she wins. She'll wear me down sooner or later, it's inevitable.

It's like her hidden magical talent or something. Damn annoying.

My only way out is to leave.

If I walk away we'll all be gone in a month. I know it. That stupid dream of Mami's will be lost forever.

Am I okay with that?

She's the only one who would ever understand the shit that happened.

Am I willing to leave? To pull the trigger?

"Okay. If ya really want ta know, I'll tell ya. Hopefully then you'll shut up and leave my head alone. Seriously, I'd think Homura'd be enough ta keep ya busy for at least a few years." The redhead shook her head with a scowl on her face as she shifted her soul gem back to ring form and changed her walking direction, not watching to see if Mami followed her.

/*/

"Oooof...um sorry..."

So focused was she on her surroundings, Mami failed to notice Kyouko stop moving and she ran into her. The collision wasn't terribly rough, but the bag and its contents fell from Mami's grasp and fruit scattered on the pathway.

Dropping down quickly to collect the apples, Kyouko placed them reverently back in the bag and took up the burden herself. She glared chidingly at her partner a moment, then indicated for Mami to follow her onto the grounds of what looked to be an old church…a church which had clearly seen better days. The stone structure still basically looked sound, but the stained glass windows were all broken out, most likely from vandals, and anything wooden showed the effects of over a year of direct weathering.

"Bein' here with you brings back memories," Kyouko mused as the two girls made their way to the front of the building.

"It most certainly does," Mami mused as she ran a hand along the grain of the door that surprisingly remained intact despite the damage apparent even from the outside. Despite the deterioration, she could still marvel at the amazing gothic architecture.

"This is the first time I've been back since you had me over to eat with your family that one time." Mami brought her gaze down from the building to consider her friend. "You've been here since then, though, haven't you?"

Kyouko seemed lost in her thoughts for a while before she spoke again. Mami gave her time to process. "Yeah." she eventually agreed. "I brought Sayaka here once right after we took on Homura and you went off one day to focus on firing drills."

"I remember that day," Mami said with a nod. She then cocked her head to one side and scrunched her face in accusation. "You said you two went off for sparring practice."

"We did," Kyouko agreed, then grinned at her friend. "I didn't say where we went for it. This ain't a bad place to practice, doncha think?"

"Were you able to dispel the ghosts?" Mami held her breath as she watched the smile vanish from her friend's face.

The redhead's expression grew cold and her eyes narrowed.

"Fuck you, Mami."

Strong words, but she didn't turn away.

Mami took that as a good sign. "That's three times you've propositioned me today. If you keep trying, I might just take you up on it, you know."

Kyouko's eyes widened at the words and her face cycled from irritation to shock and then settled into a smile. "And here I thought with that stick up your ass that you'd be as straight as one'a Homura's arrows."

Mami smiled enigmatically, raising her eyebrows in a coy "you never know" expression.

Kyouko shook her head at her friend's gentle, disarming antics. "If you're tryin' ta save me Mami, this is a strange way a doin' it. Hearin' you talk like this, I think I've heard everythin' now and I can die a happy girl."

Mami's face became thoughtful again and Kyouko's smile faded as she realized the next salvo from her friend the shrink was on its way. "Is that what you want now? To die?"

She knew she was pushing, that her gamble could easily backfire and push her best friend even faster along the self-destructive path the increasingly erratic girl was taking. Still, Mami knew her last, best chance to get through to her dearest friend was likely right here and right now.

Rather than get angry or irritated again, Kyouko tilted her head as she considered the words. She then chuckled and pushed the doors open, striding into the familiar church and kicking some boards as she went. "I'd be lyin' to ya if I didn't say the thought hadn't crossed my mind."

Mami followed the redhead. "I suspected as much. I saw your dive for Miki-san. You knew what was happening to her- when the grid came down, I think you were just feigning confusion. I've told you the stories I've heard from up north about girls disappearing together. You wanted to die with her, to vanish with Sayaka."

Kyouko stopped at the words, obviously pondering her next action. She turned – without looking in Mami's eyes – and handed back the bag of apples before making her way up to the altar and beginning to dust it off.

Sensing Kyouko needed to think and that her simple continued presence was an indication things were going as well as could possibly be expected, Mami made her way to the nearest convenient seat and planted herself and the apples. She knew there was nothing more she could say until the newly industrious girl herself chose to break the silence, so she just watched as her friend turned from the now-clean altar and began clearing away the debris that littered the area around it.

Mami was content to stay as long as it took for the younger girl to respond to her mentor's latest words.

"I did, Mami," Kyouko shared a long time later as she stood at the pulpit, surveying the rather large clearing in the debris between herself and the altar. "Are you happy now?"

Frustration and anger were evident from her tightly clenched fists which gripped the edges of the weathered lectern. She looked not at the other occupant of the room as she spoke, but rather out to the top pews as if giving a sermon.

"Sayaka looked up to me as much as she was a pain in the ass and kept poking at my attitude. But in the end I couldn't save her..."

Her voice caught and, despite her dry mouth, she swallowed before continuing.

"...just like I couldn't save Momo."

A swift kick slammed into the wooden pulpit and it splintered from disconsolate wrath.

Mami watched as her friend's rage collapsed along with the hapless target of her umbrage.

Disheartened, Kyouko pondered the shattered remains at her feet a while before eventually making her way to the bench where Mami was sitting. She plopped herself down and began munching on an apple she pulled randomly from the bag.

"We're gonna lose Homura too, ya know," the redheaded girl noted forlornly with her mouth full between bites. "She won't last as screwed up as she is."

She stopped chewing and seemed to examine her apple thoughtfully. "I'm sicka losin' people," she added in a soft, dispirited voice after a brief pause. Kyouko looked weary, something to which Mami could most certainly relate, and for the same reason.

"I understand, Kyouko," Mami said, making rare use of the redhead's given name and placing a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder.

Kyouko shrugged the hand off and she swallowed to empty her mouth. "Do you really, Mami?"

Watching as the blonde girl looked surprised, then irritated, the former priest's daughter started talking again before her mentor could protest. "I know you lost your parents too, Mami. Really, I'm not taking away from how much that sucks. Still," she hesitated just a single moment, "no, I really don't think you can understand. You see, I told you my family died due to wraiths."

Once again she faltered, taking a deep breath that hitched in her throat before she forced herself to continue.

"I lied."

***PGBR***

(Sixteen months earlier)

Kyouko was tired.

As much as the idea of her being so tired was ridiculous considering she could re-energize her body with magic anytime she wanted to, she was bone weary…an exhaustion having nothing to do with her muscles.

It had been a difficult night.

The wraiths had been particularly bad, and even teamed up with Mami the two of them had been hard pressed at times to come out on top. It seemed as if the strength and number of the wraiths increased even as their paired ability to fight the vermin improved.

Plentiful renewal cubes and the resulting magic be damned, a never-ending task was still draining.

Beyond that had been Mami's never-ending pestering of Kyouko regarding her dour mood this past week. While Kyouko appreciated her mentor's concern, she had no desire to drag her partner into problems that were Kyouko's alone.

There's nothing Mami can do to help me with Dad. Finding some way to convince him to listen, to see reason, is my job. After my wish, you'd think I'd be better at it. Then again, that's what got me into this mess in the first place, she thought sadly as the familiar stomachache born of guilt and regret returned.

A flurry of January snowflakes were still falling lightly around her, adding to the thin layer of stark white blanketing her world. Normally the sound of snow crunching under her feet would have cheered her with the promise of fun in a rare winter wonderland with her precious little sister, her mother looking on as hot chocolate warmed in the kitchen awaiting the freezing girls' return to the warm, inviting house.

That was before her father's break from the diocese...before the time her family spent living hand-to-mouth...and before she had ruined everything with her misguided effort to help the man who had always been the center of her world.

The snow now served only as a reminder of the desolation that was now her world.

Kyouko sluggishly approached her house attached to the church where her father preached…correction, had preached until about a week ago. She could see the confused faithful milling around both inside and outside the building, trying to find the salvation they were no longer receiving from their pastor, from the man they felt compelled to listen to.

Even in the pre-dawn hours they would sit in the church, waiting. Eventually each lost soul would depart to tend to his or her own daily duties. Some would come back repeatedly. Despite Kyouko having made the wish that had brought them here, she had no idea what caused some to come again and some to not return.

Honestly, after the events of the past week, she no longer cared.

I used to care...about a lot of things, but that seems like a lifetime ago. Now all I want is my dad back.

Words didn't exist to describe the depths plumbed by Kyouko's disenchantment. She'd lived her entire life for her father and his Good Works. Looked up to the man since she could raise her eyes. Listened to and believed every word he said. And yet the one time she needed him to listen to her, him to give her a chance to explain, him to keep an open mind – what had he done?

He'd condemned her. Called her a demon, a devil, a witch.

That's crazy. I fight demons or whatever they're called every night and he calls me a monster.

And yet I'd agree with all of it if he'd then forgive me. It's not like I haven't tried, but...

Things seemed to be worse for everyone when Kyouko was around – the yelling, the fights, the desperate praying or, even worse, the silence – so she'd become scarce during the afternoons and evenings when she knew her dad was up and, more often than not, drinking. She'd return like a ghost in the pre-dawn hours to check on Momo and tuck her sister into bed, slipping treats to the girl since she suspected food was once again becoming a challenge, what with her mother now entirely occupied trying to manage her derelict husband.

Kyouko had tried speaking to the woman on several occasions and had either been ignored by the tired nurturer or been told 'please not now'. As much as she was desperate to explain herself to her mom, she didn't have the heart to push the woman given what was happening. What her eldest daughter had done to make it happen.

It was surprising how in just a moment, the time it took to utter a few words, an entire world could collapse.

Her parent's first born considered the closed door of the building that had once been her home for a few moments before attempting to turn the cold knob and enter. She was surprised to find the door locked. We never lock the door. That's odd. Undeterred, Kyouko used magic to flip the latch and she opened the door into the house.

The silence was broken only by the soft hum of a refrigerator and the ticking of a clock. Even the normal background noise of as dysfunctional a family as hers was missing.

Making her way further into the familiar building, something made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Things felt…wrong.

As she would when scouting out wraiths and wraith victims (or at least, as she would have before the bottom dropped out from her life) she enhanced her senses of hearing and smell, hoping to find her father and assuming he would be at the source of her disquiet.

One breath and she knew.

Blood!

Human blood.

Lots of it.

Wraiths? Although wraiths had no use for the physical bodies of their victims, they still could be notoriously violent as they squeezed out every last iota of their agony, fear and despair.

Despite the smell, she quickly dismissed the thought since there had been no sign of them nearby. Surely she would have noticed something like that so close to her own house. Nor would the faithful outside likely be as calm as they were had they been under the influence of her unseen enemy.

Kyouko moved quickly through the house, following the scent.

Turning a corner into the sitting room, the immensity of her horror began to unfold. Her gut wrenched as she saw her father's body hanging from a rough noose tied to one of the beams of the vaulted ceiling. Still standing near to the dead man was the tall A-frame ladder he used to change lights from the high ceilings in the house and the church.

"No..."

Bile rose in her throat as she took in the first of many sights that would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life.

Kyouko slowly, almost timidly, approached the dangling corpse that had once contained the immense spirit that been the biggest influence in her life...the man for whom she had joyfully used her one wish.

There was no joy within her now as she took in the contorted expression on her father's face, the neck now held at an impossible angle. The man's swollen tongue protruded obscenely from his open mouth. She had been so focused on the coppery smell of blood that only now did she realize that smell competed with the contents of her father's bowels and bladder, both of which must have emptied by reflex when his neck snapped.

Long moments passed as she stood frozen, unable to truly comprehend the reality before her.

The ticking of the old grandfather clock with the pendulum which had so fascinated her as a little girl sounded like cannons blasting...taunting her with the passage of time which had already run out for the man who had once been her shining light.

She wanted, needed, to turn and run from this nightmare place, never to return.

She wanted to fall into a crumpled heap on the floor and weep over the moments she would no longer share with this man who had defined her life.

At the very least she wanted to hold her nose as the cacophony of putrid smells threatened to overwhelm her.

With that last thought, her mind began to reluctantly engage again as reality returned for the girl like a bucket of ice water over her head.

Where is the blood I'm smelling?

Seemingly at odds with his position hanging from the ceiling were deep wounds on her father's left arm and shoulder. Given her experience fighting with sharp objects, it was immediately apparent to Kyouko that someone right handed had attacked the man with a sharp, slashing weapon. But the injuries still didn't account for the heaviness of the cloying odors.

She knew she was missing something, knew it was dancing just out of reach in her brain, but her mind adamantly refused to allow her to touch it. Whatever it was was important, she knew it, so she kept digging even as the dread inside her threatened to overwhelm her like the horror before it.

It's not enough blood. Who was he fighting? Why is he hanging? It just doesn't make any sense! Where...

In less than a minute, Kyouko's entire world had changed.

In less than a second, in the time it took to think four words, her world died.

Where are the others?

The man's hands were covered in blood and she could see a long knife nearby, slick with the increasingly sticky red liquid. None of it was enough to account for the intensity of overwhelming coppery smell in the room.

Her eyes desperately scanned the room for another source of blood, a terrifying fear of what she might find consuming her.

Her heart shattered as she beheld a vision she had wanted never to see.

Momo!

Kyouko sprang to her sister hoping beyond hope that the child, her precious Momo, was still alive. Yet even as she clutched the tiny mutilated body to her breast, she could feel it growing cold and stiff.

A wail of uncontrolled grief escaped her as she realized that even if she had been willing to empty her soul gem of every ounce of magic, something she would have gladly done, there was nothing she could do for the poor girl.

"Dammit!" Kyouko cried out through the tears pouring down her cheeks. She slammed her fist down to the ground in frustration beside the peacefully still body of the most precious person in her world.

Even as she descended into the blackness of her grief, her still enhanced hearing picked up a moan coming from the direction of the kitchen, perhaps in response to her cries. Despite everything, every horror, a trickle of hope burbled up from the shards of her shattered heart.

Mom?

Kyouko reverently settled her sister's body back on the ground before sprinting around her father's corpse to the source of the noise.

"Mom!" Kyouko screamed as she went to kneel beside the terribly wounded but still barely breathing woman that now constituted the sole surviving member of her family. She assessed the woman's condition, which she noted wasn't good at all with blood loss from several deep knife wounds.

A bloody meat cleaver was loose in the woman's right hand.

Tears streamed freely down Kyouko's face as her mind struggled to puzzle together the horrific events of the past hour. The pieces were now all there, but as she connected them together her mind kept rejecting the picture they painted...and the obvious conclusion no matter how it added up.

I should have been here!

With superhuman effort she pushed the thought away to focus on the more important fact. Her mother was still alive, if just barely.

"Mom! Mom, you're gonna to be okay," Kyouko gently assured the woman before her, feeling a slim glimmer of hope that all in her world might not be completely lost. That she wouldn't be left entirely alone. "I can heal you!"

Healing wasn't Kyouko's strength, certainly not like it was for Mami. She could do it, but it was inefficient and took a lot of magic.

Looking at her mom, Kyouko suspected she'd likely drain herself dry just to stabilize the woman, but that was fine. She could always turn to Mami for cubes and a stabilized mother could be easily treated by the authorities in the mundane manner.

Because of her magic, of what her father had called proof of the power of Hell, her mother was going to live.

As the magical girl daughter made to bring her plan into reality, she heard her mother speak in a soft, raspy voice.

"M-Momo's d-dead i-isn't she." The words were almost a groan and clearly came out with great effort from the drained woman.

Kyouko nodded as she started to infuse her magic into healing., every ounce of her attention focused on saving the life of her mother.

"P-please...d-don't use your s-spells on me, Kyouko." With what strength the woman had left she ineffectually batted at her daughter's hands briefly before her strength failed her. The action had no chance of budging a magical girl's limbs, but still it gave Kyouko pause and she stopped her healing effort.

"But Mom, you're dying!" cried the confused and forlorn child.

"Then I'll die if that's God's will," she wheezed resolutely, her eyes clearly brooking no argument even as pink, frothy blood burbled from her lips. "Just as we would have starved when it was God's will, but you weren't satisfied to leave it to God, were you Kyouko?" A ghost of a smile touched the red-tinted lips.

"Mom, please!" Kyouko was nearly frantic as she watched the remaining life ebb from her mother – wanting to save the woman who had given her life but unable to move under the intensity of the stare that held her frozen, unable to act.

"I'm sorry I failed you, my daughter," her mother gasped. A cough wracked her body and even more foamy blood poured from between her lips before she continued. "I'm sorry I didn't realize how vulnerable you were to the Deciever. It's my fault this all happened."

"No! You didn't do anything wrong! Mom! Please! Just let me heal you and then I can explain! It'll all be okay, you'll see!"

"Your father believed...that you couldn't be saved. He was convinced the only way to save us all was to remove us from you since he knew he couldn't remove you from us." Another cough swept her punctured lungs. The dying woman's sad eyes softened.

"I'm not willing to believe that of my little girl…that you can't be saved," she whispered, seeming to pull up every bit of strength to impart her message to the daughter she would be leaving behind.

"My dying prayer is that you'll be saved through our sacrifice. Momo and I, even your Father, we died for your sins. I hope that God sees that as enough to save you from your foolishness, sweetheart," she smiled softly.

Kyouko was stunned by words that forced her to finally acknowledge what her wish had driven her father to do; words that brought back the bible stories the woman had read to her every night of her life when tucking her into bed. Her mother's force of will disoriented the ever obedient girl more than the most terrible blow from a wraith.

Her mind was blank as Kyouko watched the last of her mother's life fade away, feeling helpless due to her upbringing to have any impact on it and unable to change the woman's chosen fate.

The woman who had given birth to her smiled up at her daughter one last time as she uttered her final words with her last breath. "I love you so much, Kyouko. I so hope we all get to meet again in heaven."

***PGBR***

(back to present)

"When the last of my family died," Kyouko continued in a louder voice as she tore into yet another apple, the bag now significantly drained and the space around the girl now scattered with cores, "I decided I didn't want their bodies to be found and my father's legacy to be ruined due to my bein' an idiot. I went out lookin' for a hibernation grid once the sun rose and dragged in the bodies. They disappeared with the grid like all the other corpses."

Finishing up the fruit in her hand, she sat examining the thin, white core as if maybe it held the answers to all the questions she's stopped asking. "I used magic to clean up the blood traces as best I could. When the authorities came lookin', they found a few spots of blood I missed but nothing that looked like foul play. My whole family ended up just one more folder in the missin' person's files of Mitakihara prefecture."

Mami had remained silent through the entire story, nodding occasionally when Kyouko had looked to her for reaction. Somewhere in the middle, Mami found herself fidgeting absently with an apple without even realizing she had grabbed one.

She wanted to do something to comfort her friend, but she knew right now that the hurting girl needed to talk herself out, and to reach out would likely just dry up the cathartic flow of words. In the meantime, the round fruit in her hand was feeling the brunt of her frustrated desire to extend her hand to the girl next to her.

No wonder she's hurting so much, Mami marveled incredulously as Kyouko's words became halting and the apple-haired girl's features turned thoughtful, almost pensive. Not only is she dealing with not having saved her sister, but her mom died thinking she and her whole family had sacrificed their lives to save Kyouko's soul. What an horrendous burden to place on a child.

"I just wish I'da been there earlier and could a' saved Momo." This last was said almost in a whisper and silence filled the space afterwords until Mami chose to fill it.

"I can relate with that one," Mami finally added as she carefully replaced the apple she had been fingering back into the bag. Kyouko's last forlorn words resonated with one of Mami's deepest inner demons, something that perhaps might connect with her hurting friend.

"You know what I wished for," the older girl continued. "I wished to live when I was mortally wounded after a car accident. I've never hidden that. What I've never shared is that I think my mom was still been alive there at the end. She was a lot worse off than me, but I think she wasn't quite dead when Kyubey came to me. I realized after I got my soul gem the extent to which we can heal ourselves...me especially. I could have wished to save Mom, kind of like how Miki-san wished to heal that boy of hers, and then I could have healed myself."

Kyouko watched as Mami now fidgeted with her soul gem ring, the blonde girl's attention on her hand as she twirled the object and shared her own story of guilt. "By the time I had taken my soul gem to myself, pulled myself from the car, and went to check on my parents, she really was dead. Her injuries were beyond even my healing magic by then."

"She might really have already been dead, Mami. You're second guessin' yourself. You can't be sure you could have saved her, ya know," Kyouko assured her friend.

Mami raised her somber face to regard her student and best friend. "Any more than you can be sure that they wouldn't have died if you had been there that night? That your father wouldn't have done it some other night? Or that if you'd taken Momo away that something else wouldn't have gotten her? Once she saw you and wasn't under the influence of your parents, I have to believe she'd have contracted. You know how few of us survive even our first month. Even my teamwork idea doesn't seem to make a big difference given we're one for two with new girls, and that one remaining is sketchy as you say. If you manage to leave, I'll be alone again."

The older girl paused as she looked down again at her hand. "Kyouko, please don't leave me alone again. I don't think I could live through it this time, especially if there was no hope of you ever coming back."

"You never gave up hope I'd come back, did you?" Although she wasn't normally a touchy-feely person, Kyouko knew that even for her more open friend this moment, this admission, was terribly hard on the sensitive girl. She felt moved to place her hand on Mami's forearm, perhaps the most obvious show of vulnerability she'd displayed since her sister died.

"Never," Mami answered with certainty, looking up with shimmering pale eyes into the orange ones before her. "Every time you'd come back to pull me out of a tight spot I'd feel happy rather than annoyed or embarrassed like I suppose most in my position would have been. When Miki-san managed to anger you so much that you stayed just to spite her, I think that was the happiest moment of my life. Truth be told, I think my effort to bring girls together is less about fighting wraiths and more about giving us all a foundation of support. We all know despair and disappearance or death go hand-in-hand for us. I want to try and fix that."

"You really believe that, don't you?"

Mami nodded.

"I used to have faith like that. It didn't end well for me…or anyone else."

"Is this really so much a leap of faith, though?" Mami pursued. "Even if we fail, we're no worse than when we started. The Law of Cycles will eventually claim us whether we try or not."

"Sometimes you sound like my Father, ya know."

"I'm sorry, Sakura-san." Mami wilted, her mouth open looking stricken at the words.

"Don't be," Kyouko reassured her friend with her words and a shake of her head. "When you sound like him you sound like the righteous man I loved, not the derelict that killed Momo. Just don't forget disillusionment is all that stands between belief and despair, Mami. I'm worried when you fall, you'll fall hard like my Dad. I really don't want to have to live to see that."

"Disillusionment? I think that's the longest word I've ever heard you say, Sakura-san," Mami teased weakly, a small smile returning to her face and new hope lighting her eyes. "Since when did you become so eloquent?"

Kyouko glared at her mentor for the teasing, but the look in her eye wasn't really reproachful.

A thought occurred to Mami and her face became grave again. "If that happens that I do get disillusioned, though, I trust you'll stop me…before I hurt anybody like your father did?"

Kyouko simply nodded.

"So until then will you stay by my side, Sakura-san?"

Kyouko shrugged clearly not comfortable with the emotion of the moment. "I ain't got nothin' better to do, so why the Hell not. Anyway, I promised Homura's mom I'd watch after her sorry little kid. I ain't a liar and she IS payin' me, so I guess you're stuck with me."

"I can imagine worse fates." Mami shared a smile with her student, her eyes shimmering as she allowed her friend to see just how happy she was.

"Anyway," Kyouko began again, her expression becoming more irritated, although Mami had a feeling it was just Kyouko slipping back into her more comfortable devil-may-care attitude. "It's dark and we should be getting' back to Mitakihara. It'll be interestin' to see how well Homura's holdin' up on her own."

Mami's smile, although lessened, remained on her face. "By your choice of words I suspect like me you're less concerned about the wraiths and more about which Akemi-san we'll come back to."

"Something like…" Kyouko's answer was cut off by a faint voice in her head.

"…anyone, help me!"

Mami and Kyouko shared a look – they'd both heard it.

"…so tired…"

"Do you recognise her?" Kyouko whispered to her teammate as if speaking any louder might cause them to miss the voice if it returned. Of the team, Mami had by far the most contacts with other magical girls, so it was a logical question.

Mami simply shook her head, clearly concentrating to pick up any new hint of the other girl. She wasn't disappointed.

The voice was a little louder this time, probably due to slightly greater proximity. Both girls were certain the speaker had practically no magic left, her soul gem likely blackened, perhaps even on the verge of cracking. It sounded childlike, although with telepathy you could never be absolutely sure.

The voice sounded haunted, as if the speaker was truly losing all hope.

"Please, I know you're close. I just hope you can hear this. Stop Kirika, you have to stop her and then make sure Oneesama and Okaasama are okay. Keep them safe! They're all that mat…Oh no!"

The voice was cut off even as Mami and Kyouko, fully transformed and moving rapidly in the direction they sensed the voice was coming from, were bounding from the church through one of the large broken windows. Certain from the 'feel' of the voice that time was of the essence, the two traded magic for speed as they made to quickly cover the distance.

"A magical girl is callin' for help, and she's worried for her loved ones more n' herself. There's no way you can fake how drained she is. That low, she should already be gone. She's fightin' for more than her life. Are you thinkin' what I think you're thinkin'?" Kyouko grinned knowingly at her infamously meddling friend, her feet hitting the ground in time as they simultaneously took another great leap into the air.

Mami smiled back despite the gravity of the situation – the possibility of combat between puella magi, the single most dangerous and unpredictable situation imaginable. Nothing to go on other than the plea of a spent magical girl apparently fighting for something she held more dear than herself.

"We're coming!" Mami called out as loudly as her magic and her passion would allow, focusing on the signature of the girl who had cried out in the hopes her assailant wouldn't hear it and be tipped off. "Don't give up hope!"

/*/

Moonlight streamed through broken windows upon a bag of apples, mostly but not completely drained, sitting forgotten on a bench in a deserted church.

As a breeze drifted through the open chamber, a swirl of leaves spun briefly around the bag and then traveled on and back out into the open air.

A child's voice whispered on the wind.

Ganbatte, oneechan. Arigatou…


Journal Note

Thoughts on variation across the timelines: Sakura Kyouko and Tomoe Mami
Dr Fiona Graham, Ph.D.

"I...I want to redo my meeting with Kaname-san. But this time, instead of her protecting me I want to become strong enough to protect her!"

When ignorant and naive fourteen year old junior high student Akemi Homura made this wish and began our long journey, she really had no idea of the leap of faith it involved. At the time, our young hero visualized the universe in the very simple manner most human beings have since the dawn of time. Singular.

It's so easy, really. I was guilty of it for most of my life, until I availed myself of faculty privilege to pursue my masters degree in astrophysics and benefited from the concurrent numerous conversations with Méntoras. Just as our limited and conceited human perspective makes it so easy to see the Earth as the center of the solar system and the universe, not to mention flat, we think of time as being linear and alone.

In such a model, Homura expected she'd be a time traveler going back to bring about the specific outcome she so desperately desired. Going back only once I might add, despite her open ended words 'to become' which may well have been what damned both of us to the endless repetitions. She really was a hopeless romantic back then...in many ways still is. Homura today is the poster child for the saying, "A cynic is an optimist who has been given a stiff shot of reality."

The problem with such a singular view of the universe is that most scientists will tell you such a universe will likely not allow do-overs. What you are living now already takes into account time travel events even before you go back, if such travel backwards is even possible. Allowing time travel to make 'new' past changes in a singular universe by definition becomes bogged down in a snarl of paradox.

But there's a solution to paradox- elegant and simple. And by only the third iteration, Homura already had evidence this was the universe she lived in. The universe replicates itself...just like she did...over and over again. Rather than being faithfully monogamous, the cosmos is poly.

After her first return to the hospital bed in the morning of March 16, everything seemed the same as before. Homura was discharged from the hospital, took a taxi to the apartment since her mother was a non-presence, spent a week getting herself settled in her new home using her mom's "guilt card" – although this time she also spent that time timidly familiarizing herself with her new powers – and presented herself for her 8th grade of school on the morning of March 25. It was all basically identical to her first memories of the events other than the changes she brought to it. Most to the point- Madoka and Mami were the only magical girls in Mitakihara.

Her next go around was different. Not only was Homura much more proactive that time around given her new knowledge regarding the origin of witches, but when she presented herself to school on March 25th she found a fundamental difference – one which she had no role in producing. There were three mahou shoujo already attending Mitakihara Junior High School, not two. In this timeline, Kamijou Kyousuke met with a terrible accident resulting in nerve damage and the associated loss of dexterity that rendered him unable to play the violin. When Kyubey approached Madoka this time during the term break, Sayaka's karmic potential now also registered and not for the last time the alien achieved a two-fer. This was the first of a long line of data points which led Homura...and me...to realize things weren't as simple as Homura had intended with her wish.

Not long after the revelation of the second iteration, timeline three, came another data point. Sakura Kyouko, the girl who had before been in a tense stand-alone coexistance with the girls of Mitakihara, was now a team player. This time around, she and Mami managed to reach a detente that kept the two intensely dear friends in alliance if not always in agreement. When Madoka and then Sayaka contracted, they had two mentors and not just one. To my mind, this relatively early timeline was particularly tragic given the fierce affection that had developed between the two. Mami's choice to kill Kyouko first, once she realized the fate of magical girls, wasn't just recognition that the expert in sōjutsu was the most immediate threat. It was also a reflection of her deep love for her first pupil and the desire that Kyouko specifically never suffer becoming a witch.

Later timelines would bring even more compelling evidence of a universe that was different starting well before Homura appeared in the hospital bed. In Homura's own words to describe them- the "bizarre timelines." These 'bizarre' timelines became more and more common as the iterations stacked on each other...as the web Homura was forming, which only at the end we became aware of, began criss-crossing over itself. What caused the increasing variability over time has occupied many of my thoughts these past few weeks, and may someday be the subject of another entry if I can settle on any specific theories. I could fill an entire volume, and someday likely will, with what brought forth Oriko, or holy mother help me, the catastrophe that was the Pleiades Saints.

I thank whatever gods still listen to me for the providence that prevented Homura from EVER having met Nico Kanna. Given the dark paths Kirika caused this child to follow, I can only imagine what Homura would have done with the knowledge of THOSE unholy experiments.

But as my thesis adviser once told me I often do, I digress. Within just a few timelines, Homura had established she existed in a multiverse where instead of repeating the same events over within the same vessel, she was jumping to a set point in different but generally similar universes. She wasn't really a time traveler, although she would continue using the terms of time travel to the bitter end, rather she was a slider.

As profound as some of them appear in isolation, overall the changes between the timelines were extremely limited. From my own vantage point I can certify until the post-Madoka world such changes were limited to Japan and to events within three years of Homura's return to the hospital bed. Of the consistent variants, Kyouko and Sayaka were the most frequent variables. Madoka too, but only due to Homura's own interventions. Later on, Oriko and Kirika added themselves to the short list, and in fact showed the most unpredictable and inconsistent, often bordering on radical, variations. Nothing else significant happened more than once- thanks be to God.

I'll cover Sayaka and Oriko each later. This time I'm focusing on Kyouko. What elements contributed to the variation that was Sakura Kyouko...and necessarily Tomoe Mami?

Like Mami, everything up until Kyouko's wish was exactly identical across timelines. Her family dynamics, her passionate belief in her father and his faith, all of it. Like all the girls except for Madoka herself, and now Homura, her wish was word-for-word identical every time. Her initial optimism as a magical girl and the early alliance with similarly minded Tomoe Mami were identical, although the differences in Mami herself after wishing would always impact the younger and later-wishing Kyouko- the two friends cannot ever be viewed accurately in isolation.

The basis of variation for both Kyouko and Mami stems mainly from the events of their families' death and revolve mostly around guilt and loneliness. In those timelines where there is no doubt in Mami's mind about her mother, she comes out of the experience much more certain of herself, less likely to question or second guess. Similarly, in timelines where Kyouko's mother is dead when she returned home, the spear-wielder comes out of the experience colder and more adamant to do things her way, even if it means being on her own and the resulting pain it causes both her and her best friend. When Mami and Kyouko have confidence issues, they tend to stay closer to each other and find compromise. In timelines where they are inflexible, such as the one where Madoka made her Final Wish, both were so stubborn that Kyouko didn't bat an eye when Mami died or hold back when initially challenging Mami's new protege- Sayaka.

Kyouko is also impacted by Sayaka, but only near the swashbuckler's end...and only when Kyouko is drawn in enough for the two close-quarters fighters to interact substantially with each other. Mami is right to note how deeply Sayaka touched Kyouko's heart. Most of my own sense of the romantic has been lost to experience, but I'd like to think the bonds these two girls formed during their end in Madoka's final timeline among us perhaps played a role with their relationship in this one. Their affections this time around were reflexive in ways they never before had been. And none of it seems to take away from the much older and well established closeness between the original duo. Had Sayaka finally been able to resolve her issues over Kyousuke, I expect a very curious relationship would have developed between the three of them. Out of respect for their privacy, I'll refrain from saying more.

Ultimately, I am left to wonder if this post-Madoka universe developed the way it did, with some of the tightest friendships ever in Mitakihara, by accident or by Madoka's design. All the magical girl variables in this timeline have played out perfectly to produce an environment nurturing to Homura. Even the seemingly unfortunate loss of Sayaka has worked to solidify Kyouko's and Mami's resolve in the face of escalating adversity. Given the grave portents surrounding Homura, I'd like to think Madoka has done what She can do to help stack the deck for us. Heaven knows we'll need all the help we can get if we're to thread this needle.


***Author's Note***

Lexicon

Ganbatte = Good Luck/Do Your Best, generally informal unless kudasai added (Ganbatte kudasai, Please Do Your Best, is formal)
Oneechan = sister, familiar form (usually older sister, generally used only for real family)
Oneesama = sister, formal form (usually older sister, often used for honored older girls and not just a family relation)
Okaasama = mother, formal form
Arigatou = Thank you, informal form
sōjutsu = spear arts

I should repeat myself that Fiona doesn't know everything. While she can be a great editorial mouthpiece, she is very much a character within the events. There are errors in her reasoning, and at least one of those errors made due to ignorance in her journal note is foreshadowing the end of Mother's Journey. So while I'll love to hear conjecture regarding her perspective, please don't assume apparent errors aren't intentional on my part to develop the story.

I'll also note again that my take on the characters and events of the Post-Madoka Universe is my own. If it's easier to think of this as an AU, that's fine. I just hope you find it no less enjoyable.

As always, I love feedback, either as a review or PM. I take these responses seriously and they can help guide me as I keep developing this story. While I certainly know how it all ends, how I get there is very much still an open question. So if you're so inclined, definitely let me know what you think!

EDIT: At the suggestion of a reviewer, I changed the story to a "T" rating. I guess there's a concern some people may not appreciate Kyouko's language... ;-)