STARS ABOVE SIDE-STORY
By BHS and Forzare
"You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are gray
You'll never know, dear
How much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away"
- Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell, 1940
PART ONE: DENIAL
Oriko Mikuni felt her coming long before she laid eyes on her. Such was her gift: precognitive visions that could give her brief glimpses of the future. Sometimes those visions were a boon, able to warn against danger and save lives before trouble arose... those were the times she was thankful for her power. And other times, they were a curse… she would feel bad news, churning like acid inside her, before anyone had a chance to deliver it. In those instances, though she remained serene and unflappable on the surface, inside she would hate her ability, hate it like she hated scarcely anything else in her life.
This was one of the latter instances.
This particular omen sent her to the floor, her white satin dress crumpling and pooling around her as she moaned, clutching her temples. Pain… she saw flashes of red hair and felt anguished pain, mixed with livid, boiling rage… something terrible had happened…
Kirika Kure was at her side in a heartbeat. Dust gathered on the knee of her one ragged, striped stocking as she knelt down. "Oriko-sama! What is it, are you okay?"
Poor Kirika. One of the few things that could actually alarm her was the state of Oriko's health. When she was hurt, no matter how minor the injury, Kirika would fly into violent rages that made Demons look amiable, and whoever or whatever caused that injury would be swiftly and summarily dealt with, usually dead within minutes or hours, depending on how sadistic the younger girl felt that day. When she was sick, Kirika would turn into a particularly scary mother hen: forcing meals on her, checking her temperature, changing her sheets, helping her bathe… and refusing to stop until she was absolutely, one-hundred-percent sure her Oriko-sama was feeling better.
"It was a vision," gasped Oriko, trying to control her breathing. "I will recover in a moment, do not worry."
"Another bad one?" Kirika's lower lip stuck out.
The white Puella Magi gave a weak, sad chuckle as the other girl helped her to her feet. "I know. There have been too many of those lately…"
The reason for the recent darkness of her visions was obvious. The remaining Japanese media called it "the Destroyer" or "the Great Disaster", not knowing what else to call it. The Puellae Magi, knowing all too well, had taken to calling it "Mother". Born from one of the two they had tried so hard to protect, even a month later she was still rampaging throughout Japan, leaving a hurricane trail of devastation wherever she went. Mother needed no Lair to hide behind; she was impossibly large now, covering entire city blocks in her shadow. And whenever the Puellae Magi mounted a mission to try to take her down… sometimes the strike teams got away lucky, coming back with only superficial or treatable injuries. Other times… other times it was like what had happened to Kazumi.
Kazumi was the first of a growing number to have their Soul Gems reduced to dead and empty glass shells by Mother's branches. No one could determine how she was doing it, what process it was that could drain the gems of their bearers' very being with just a few seconds' touch. There was no defense against it, no way to halt the leeching of the soul once it begun. It was a hideous thing, seen as twisted and cruel even by the most hardened, jaded Puellae Magi. Even those who hadn't seen it happen, who hadn't been there to watch the roots burrow into the soft flesh of her cheek, who hadn't heard the sickening thud as her body fell to the floor, who hadn't watched the life fade from her wide, childlike eyes… even they still had nightmares, simply from hearing of it.
Kazumi's body had not faded; she was denied even that much dignity. Her friends and comrades had buried her in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the ruined Beatrice Hotel. There had been no question of repairing the place or using it again. The specter of death hung over it like a shroud… no one wanted to stay there. Their operation, such as it was, had been moved back to Mitakihara, now largely abandoned and empty, its residents either evacuated or in hiding. Oriko's own Shirome High School was their headquarters, but the familiarity of the surroundings was of very little comfort, not when almost every day brought a new and terrible glimpse at the future…
Kirika pouted for a moment longer. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, her face split into a wide and crooked grin, the same expression that gave most of the other Puellae Magi the creeps. "I know! We should go find Asuka and make her cook you something good!" She pounded her fist into her palm. "And if she says no, I'll beat the shit out of her!"
"Language, Kirika," said Oriko, grimacing.
Just like that, she was a meek little child again. "Sorry, Oriko-sama."
"I would like you to locate Asuka-san and Chitose-san, though. Sakura-san and the others are returning, and they may require medical attention."
Impossibly, Kirika grinned even wider as she snapped into a salute. "Right away!" She vaulted over a desk and flew out the classroom door, and soon the pounding of her footsteps receded down the empty hall.
Oriko sighed, smoothed out her dress, and followed as gracefully as she could. Even in trying times, one had to lead by example.
Moments later, Oriko turned the corner and found the two healers and Kirika waiting in the entrance hall, by the school's front doors. Yuuri Asuka was clearly in a bad mood; it was obvious from the disheveled state of her hair and her wrinkled pajamas that Kirika had literally dragged her out of bed. Little Yuma Chitose needed no such prompting; she never dealt well with being separated from her onee-chan, but she was always ready and waiting whenever she returned, with a box of her adopted big sister's favorite chocolate pocky on hand.
"Asuka and Chitose, just like you asked!" Kirika crossed her arms and smiled proudly, totally oblivious to the glare she was attracting from Yuuri's direction.
"Thank you, Kirika, that will do," said Oriko, giving her a fond pat on the shoulder. "Asuka-san, Chitose-san, I apologize for-"
"Is onee-chan all right?" The small green-haired girl interrupted her, tugging at her dress. "You didn't see anything bad happen to her, did you, Mikuni-san?"
Only someone Yuma's age could get away with touching Oriko without permission… everyone else risked incurring Kirika's wrath. She knelt down and tried to look comforting. "I do not know, Chitose-san." Addressing her like that was needlessly formal even for Oriko, but Yuma had made it clear that she didn't want to be treated any differently from the rest of her comrades, just because she was the youngest of them. "I felt a great deal of pain and distress, and saw her and the others returning, that was all."
"That could mean anything," grumbled Yuuri, rubbing sleep out of her golden eyes. "Pain and distress aren't exactly news these days."
"We should be prepared regardless," said Oriko as she rose back up. "All we can do is-"
What they could do, the others never found out. The school's front doors blew open so hard that they slammed against the stone and mortar walls with a titanic crash that made Yuma shriek and Kirika fall flat onto her backside. Looking something like a red-haired stormcloud, in stomped Kyoko Sakura. The girl's raging temper couldn't disguise her sorry state. Puffy and bloodshot eyes ringed with shadow stared out from beneath her bangs, and her face was thin, pale, and filthy with mountain soil. Her favorite old hooded jacket was torn in a dozen places and stained brown with dried blood. Yuma ran to her with a shout of relief and concern, but Kyoko simply shoved her roughly aside without a word.
Oriko tried and failed to hide her surprise. "Sakura-san, are you all right? What happened? Where is-"
The sole of one of Kyoko's boots flapped against the tile floor as she made a beeline for Oriko, curled her hands into fists, and delivered a savage right hook to the older girl's jaw.
"Oriko-sama!" Kirika howled as her beloved crumpled to the floor. She twitched spastically as two competing sets of instincts raged inside her: one part of her clearly wanted to tend to Oriko, the other part wanted to tear Kyoko limb from limb.
The latter part won out. In a flash she had Kyoko by the throat and was lifting her off the floor. "You little cunt," Kirika spat, her eyes flashing with rage. "How dare you…! How dare you touch my Oriko-sama with your filthy hands!"
Kyoko didn't look at her, didn't even try to pry her assailant's hands loose from her neck. She just hung limply, the clenching of her fists the only sign that she was even conscious.
Yuma was screaming, Yuuri was already transforming into her battle costume, and pandemonium seemed about to break loose in the hall when Oriko's voice rang out, with enough volume to catch everyone's attention: "Stop!"
Kirika's grip loosened. "Oriko-sama, are you okay? Does it hurt? Asuka, get your ass over there!"
"I will be fine," said Oriko, gingerly touching the livid red mark on her face, which was already bruising. "Let her go, Kirika."
"But Oriko-sama, she hit you! This dirty whore deserves to die for-"
"Kirika," said Oriko, boring into her with her gaze and making it quite clear there was to be no argument. "Let. Her. Go."
With extreme reluctance, Kirika let the redhead fall. Kyoko remained on the floor for only a second before picking herself up and storming off. Yuma shouted her name and followed after her, barely keeping up with her strides.
"What the hell happened?!" said a baffled Yuuri to their backs as the two retreated. "I knew she had an awful temper, but I've never seen her like that before…"
"I think we are about to receive an answer," said Oriko, turning to the open doors. "Misaki-san, Maki-san, welcome back."
The two Pleiades Saints looked like they had fared somewhat better than Kyoko, but only to the degree that neither of them were dirty or bloodstained. Both girls looked completely exhausted, and were holding each other up for support… Umika Misaki's glasses were spotted with tear marks, and her companion Kaoru Maki, usually bright and optimistic even in the darkest circumstances, wore a haunted, shocked expression, as if she had seen some terrible accident.
Oriko had already surmised the answer to her next question. She asked them anyway: "Where is Tomoe-san?"
Kaoru cringed and closed her eyes. "Tomoe's dead."
Oriko shuddered as Kirika helped her to her feet for the second time that night. She and Tomoe were not friends; at best, one could say they were strangers united by circumstance, forced to work together. However, it sometimes seemed that every Puella Magi from Mitakihara and the surrounding areas had something good to say about Mami-san. Mami-san was kind, Mami-san was gentle, Mami-san conducted herself in battle with a cool grace that was almost angelic. Mami-san took other girls under her wing and taught them to use their abilities to their fullest extent. Mami-san was an inspiration to dozens of others. Mami-san made tea and sweets for the tired and the injured. Mami-san cried harder than anyone when Tsukasa Hiiragi died, cried for poor Kazumi when she had fallen… she even cried for Kagami, who had transformed into the Demon that had taken Kazumi's life, along with those of so many others.
Mami Tomoe was dead. Oriko's vision had once again proven accurate; on the outside she let her face fall, but inside she once again cursed her power. She licked blood from her lips and asked the question that she knew she must. "Was it a Demon?"
Umika shook her head. "She… she died because of a Demon, but…" Clinging tighter to Kaoru, she shivered and took a breath. "… but the Demon didn't kill her."
Oriko looked from Umika to Kirika to Yuuri, then down the long hallway, the floor of which now bore a series of dirty boot prints. She tried her hardest to make sense of that information, but the answer wouldn't come. "Then how…?"
Kaoru spoke up again. Her voice was low and hoarse. "It was… it was Sakura. Sakura killed her."
END OF PART ONE