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In Thy Orisons

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Kazamino City disappears, and suddenly the world is a swirl of color all around you, black and white and every shade of red. It feels like you’re falling. You probably are.

You can't breathe. The raw hurt and despair and fury in the air is thick and choking, ripping at your skin and pulling you in.

The wind shrieks in your ears. “Kyoko!” you howl. Her name's like a prayer on your lips.

There’s no answer. You didn't really expect one.

.

It starts like this.

“I’m going to Kazamino City,” you tell Mami. “Just for a couple weeks.”

The piece of cake you'd bought for the occasion sits untouched on the glass table. There's dust settling into the walls, the floor, pretty much every surface you can think of. Even the once pristine kitchen counters are dull with a thick layer of grey.

You frown. You really should start coming by more often, clean up the place a little.

Mami's photograph sits demurely in its frame. It's been so long since it happened, and you can almost look at her without feeling that bitter ache in the pit of your gut. She's smiling primly, all clear eyes and shiny, bouncy hair: Mami Tomoe, you think wryly, is the only person you know who could manage to look good in a school photo. The sunlight glints off the glass. “You are?” You think she'd say, “Why?”

You shrug. It’s because Kyousuke and Hitomi have decided to make their relationship public and you don’t feel like seeing them making cow eyes at each other everyday, but that’s not really information you feel like sharing right now. You haven’t even told Madoka, for crying out loud, and she’s your best friend, isn't she?

But then again. You’ve been a Puella Magi for almost half a year now, and you haven’t told Madoka that either. And Madoka has other friends now, doesn’t she? You’re not blind. You’ve seen the way that transfer student, Akemi, trails after her like a lost puppy, and you’ve definitely seen them holding hands under the table in that little café you used to go to together.

You make a vague gesture, flash a grin that you know for certain doesn't reach your eyes. “Just… you know. I kind of want to take a vacation.”

“Ah,” Mami would say. You imagine her giving you that gentle smile never fails to make you feel like the worst person in the world for not being honest with her. “I completely understand. Being a Puella Magi can be difficult. Don’t worry about Mitakihara while you’re gone, all right? Akemi's a little odd, but I'm sure she'll look after the place for you.”

“Yeah,” you say, staring into your empty teacup. “Thanks. You’re the best, Mami.”

And here you think she'd laugh at you, reach across the table to pat you on the head. “Don’t be ridiculous," you're sure she'd say. "Get some rest, okay?”

You end up eating the cake yourself, and spend the afternoon getting rid of all the dust that's accumulated since you last visited. When you're done, you click off the lights and leave the empty apartment behind. You've got bags to pack.

.

You're kneeling on the red brick ground of Ophelia’s barrier. It’s dark and the fog is cold against the nape of your neck. There are lamps everywhere, flickering with red, unearthly fire and floating in midair, but even so you can barely see two feet in front of you.

So, you think with a numb sort of bitterness, this is how a witch is born. You're almost glad Mami hadn't survived long enough for this to happen to her.

Kyoko’s in your arms and she’s not breathing. Her skin is still warm but it’s already starting to cool, and when you pull her close there’s no heartbeat.

You're not crying: you haven't cried for months now, actually. But there's this awful tightness at the back of your throat, and your heart feels like it's been thrown through the wringer.

You can hear the soft sound of hooves in the distance. It’s staticky, fading in and out like it’s being played on a broken radio.

You can't fight a witch while carrying Kyoko, so you stand and hoist her over your shoulder. A ghostly fish blinks into existence in front of your face, lingering for an instant before swimming back into the fog.

Your soul gem is already a murky blue, but you’ll be fine for now, and it’s bright enough to serve your purpose. It flares brightly in the palm of your hand before the light fades away and it spins around, once, twice, orientating itself.

One more spin and then it stops. So the exit’s that way, then.

You start walking.

.

You meet Kyoko for the first time outside a fancy-looking bakery with a very impressive window display. You can’t help but think that ‘impressive’ is an understatement, but you’ve never been particularly good with words and can’t be bothered to think of a better one.

You don't have enough money on you to afford anything, but it's alright, you don't mind just looking. You’d been wandering around Kazamino for a couple days now, drifting from tourist trap to tourist trap, and ended up following your nose all the way here. Judging from the flocks of curious tourists hovering around, you're not the only one.

There’s about a dozen plates of mille-feuille on display, fragile stacks of flaky, delicate leaves of puff pastry alternating with meringue and walnut and sweet pastry cream. They sit side by side with a row of opera gateau, layers of ganache atop coffee butter cream atop almond sponge soaked in rich coffee syrup. In the center of the display is a towering pyramid of choux à la crème on a fancy silver cake stand, each one piped full of thick custard and dusted with icing sugar.

Your time with Mami’s given you a good eye for cake. Your stomach growls longingly.

“They smell good, huh?” says the girl standing next to you. She looks a little older than you but her eyes are missing that harsh edge that you’ve gotten so familiar with. Her fingers are pressed to the glass. She’s not wearing any rings: not a Puella Magi, then.

You wonder when you started doing that, putting people into categories like 'Puella Magi' and 'Not a Puella Magi'. You wonder when it started making a difference to you.

“Yeah,” you say. “But I can’t afford them.”

She laughs, shaking her brilliant red hair out of her face. It sounds a little like a bark. “I can’t either,” she says.

.

The week after you get to Kazamino you give in to the temptation and call Mami's cellphone. You'd been trying to break yourself of the habit.

The phone rings a couple times, but since she's been dead for an awfully long time, it's not really surprising that she doesn't pick up.

You send a text message instead.

Kazamino, you tell her, seems to be a decent place. A little grey, a little dreary, but the food’s good and there’s not a single place without broadband. You rather like big cities, you think. You'd have liked to come here again with her. You're sure she'd have liked the pastries here.

As far as you know, Mami hasn't been to Kazamino before. You wonder if she'd have agreed to go with you.

.

The next time you see Kyoko is right outside a witch's barrier. You're supposed to be on vacation while you're in Kazamino, but you've never been able to just stand by and watch other people get hurt.

“Wake up,” you say, and shake her hard.

Kyoko blinks at you. She looks dazed. “You’re the girl from the bakery,” she slurs. The witch’s kiss on her neck is against dark against her skin, a grinning green kitten covered in what look like cigarette burns. “What’re you doing here?”

“Go home,” you say forcefully, but she shakes her head and pulls away from you. Her eyes are wide and unfocused. Even as you watch, more people are emerging, drawn to the barrier like moths to a flame.

You growl in frustration and draw your sword. You’ve got a witch to kill.

.

“So that was a witch,” Kyoko says, leaning back in her chair. “And you’re Sailor freaking Moon, huh.”

You roll your eyes and take a sip of the admittedly revolting coffee. Internet cafés tend not to be renowned for their coffee: you figure you probably should have gone with the instant noodles instead. “I’m a Puella Magi,” you say flatly. You remember Charlotte's teeth closing around Mami's neck, remember her crashing back down to the ground. Nothing like that ever happened to Sailor Moon. “It’s not nearly as cool as it looks on TV.”

She snickers, and you are momentarily distracted by the fact that her incisors are pointed. “Yeah, yeah,” she says. “You’re pretty into the whole savior thing, though. I mean, you did just rescue, what, twenty people? And from a giant green cat monster too.”

“Uh.” She's so earnest, though. In a weird sort of way. You can't help but blush: you're flattered, despite yourself. The little smile that tugs at your mouth is impossible to stop, so you don’t even try. “Yeah. Maybe.”

“That’s pretty cool,” she muses. “I think my dad would approve. He’s a priest, so he’s real big on the whole ‘do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you’ thing. So you’re like, a real life superhero then? Wow. And you’re younger than me too. Man, aren’t you the little overachiever.”

You bite your lip and look away. Even if she is flattering you, you refuse to let anyone else wander down that path because they've got some delusional idea about being a hero in their head. But you won't tell her about Mami. It's been months since it happened, but the memory's still too raw. “Being a Puella Magi, though… it’s not really a good thing. It’s not something you’d want for yourself.”

Kyoko gives you this confused, quizzical sort of look. Her eyes are bright and curious. “Why not? There are tons of girls who’d give an arm and a leg to be a magical girl, y’know.”

You stare at the ground. Maybe it’s the coffee, but there’s a sour taste in the back of your mouth. “What you have to give up is a lot more important than an arm and a leg.”

“What—”

“Don’t ask any more. Please.”

She falls silent. “Well,” she says finally. “Thanks for saving me. You’re not from around here, right? You’ve got a Mitakihara accent. How about I pay you back by showing you around Kazamino?”

You smile weakly. “That sounds great, actually.”

.

Somewhere along the way, Kyoko's offer to show you around Kazamino degenerates into this, the two of you in a deserted warehouse somewhere beating up on familiars.

The familiar is fast, but it’s nothing compared to a witch. You almost go right in for the kill, but Kyoko’s watching and you want to put on a good show for her.

You don’t know why. It’s counterproductive, even. You want her to understand that being a Puella Magi isn’t all fun and games, but you want to ‘put on a good show’? You don’t even understand yourself anymore.

It’s just, Kyoko acts so tough, but when she looks at you with those wide, shining eyes—

You shake yourself and slice the familiar to pieces. It’s flashy, but you can’t help yourself. Black, viscous blood drips off your sword and evaporates as soon as it hits the pavement. You look over your shoulder. Kyoko’s leaning against a lamppost, arms crossed over her chest.

She lets out a low whistle. “Pretty cool,” she says, morbidly fascinated.

Something in your chest flutters.

.

The next day she takes you to an arcade. "It's a new one," she whispers to you with a malicious grin. "That way they won't see it coming when I destroy them at every single game."

True to her words, as soon as Kyoko steps on the DDR machine she's on a roll, destroying challenger after challenger.

You're not much good at arcade games yourself, but for someone whose weapon of choice is a sword, you're surprisingly decent at the sharpshooting games. Plus, you break the record for the strength game, but since being a Puella Magi comes with enhanced strength, it's not all that impressive a feat.

After you get tired of shooting zombies in the head and hitting big red buttons with rubber mallets, you satisfy yourself with watching Kyoko play DDR, her red hair swinging with her every move.

It's the most fun you've had in a long, long time.

.

One day you're hanging out with her, and out of the blue she says, “Is it true, then?”

"Is what true?" you say, and she rolls her eyes.

“Is it true that you can get a wish granted if you become a Puella Magi?” she says, like it should be obvious.

You freeze. “Where did you hear that?” you say, but you already know the answer. Kyuubey’s gotten to her, then. The fact that she’d been able to see you in Puella Magi garb at all meant that she had potential. You should have known he’d go after her.

She shrugs noncommittally. “Around,” she says evasively, which means that he’s warned her that you don’t want her to make the contract.

You suck in a sharp breath. “It’s not worth it,” you say. “Don’t even think about it.”

.

Of course she makes the contract anyway.

You stare at her, eyes wide. She meets your gaze brazenly.

“I told you not to,” you say, half-accusing. “I told you what you have to give up, didn’t I?”

She stands in front of you in full Magi regalia, hands proudly on her hips. Red boots and red dress and red soul gem to match her red hair, huh. “I don’t care,” she says challengingly. “It was my choice to make. You did the same thing.”

“And I regret it,” you snap. “You will too.”

(the growing distance between you and Madoka; Kyousuke, running his newly healed fingers through Hitomi's hair; Mami, dead before she even hit the ground)

Her fists clench. There’s a faraway expression on her face. “It was worth it, though. My wish, I mean. If I could have made it sooner, I probably would have.”

Yeah, you think bitterly, it was worth it. That’s what you’d thought too. But before Mami had found you, you'd tried to kill yourself three times, and for what? To give the boy you'd had a crush on a working hand to play a violin with? You don't want that for Kyoko, and you'd tried, God, you'd tried--

But the thing is, a selfish little voice in the back of your head --the same voice that'd cried and screamed and sobbed and wished that Hitomi would just die already-- is shouting for joy, because Kyoko looks up to you, Kyoko's just like you now, and like this she won't leave you, will she?

You spin on your heel and make a break for it. She doesn't follow.

When you get back to the motel room you're spending the night in, you spend an hour bent over the toilet retching.

.

After that you don’t talk to her for three days straight.

On the fourth day, Kyoko finds you in an empty parking lot, taking all your pent-up anger out on the grafitti-covered wall. “Sayaka,” she says. Her eyes are sharp and dark, glimmering with anxiety. “Sayaka, come on. Don't be mad. I had to do it. My father--”

“A selfless wish, huh?” you say, and you almost want to laugh. Of course. It's like you're watching yourself make all the same wrong choices, all over again. “You made your wish for your father?”

“Yes,” she says, almost pleadingly. “You of all people should understand.”

This time you really do laugh, because you do understand, you really do. “Yeah,” you say, and any last remains of the tightly coiled fury left in your body vanishes, leaving you with nothing but the hollow feeling in the pit of your belly. You squeeze your eyes shut to stop yourself from crying. “Of course I understand.”

She slips her hand into yours and squeezes it. “I won’t regret it,” she says. “I know I won’t.”

The worst thing is, you know she will.

But you can’t stop yourself from squeezing her hand back.

.

She introduces you to her parents like you’re her boyfriend or something, and you end up spending so long fretting over what you’re going to wear that you nearly make yourself sick. But it’s nice.

It makes you feel, well, normal: like you’re just a regular kid who spends her time doing homework instead of fighting witches. If you try hard enough, you can almost pretend that that's what you are, that you don't spend your sleepless nights worrying about being a magically animated sack of meat, that you don't need to fight at least one monster to the death every week for a grief seed just to keep yourself alive. A regular girl, going to meet one of her friends’ parents.

Kyoko's family isn't wealthy. The plates that you eat dinner off are chipped, and even though you get the feeling they’re serving you all they’ve got, it’s still not much. The Sakura family church hasn’t been very popular in recent years, Kyoko's mother tells you cheerily, but they’ve seen a spike in the number of followers over the past couple days, and things are looking up.

You think you know what Kyoko wished for.

Even though they’re not wealthy in any sense of the word, Kyoko’s parents are nice, and her little sister is adorable. They’re good, honest people.

When you leave, Kyoko gives you a hug in the doorway of her house.

It makes you so happy that you can almost ignore the way your gut twists and churns guiltily inside you.

.

On Monday, after her father finishes up his last sermon and the last of the churchgoers file out into the bright sunlight, chattering enthusiastically about how listening to Father Sakura preach is almost like being put under a spell, Kyoko takes you by the hand and pulls you into the chapel.

As she closes the doors behind you with a grin, you see her father standing in the crowd like a shepherd among his sheep. He's staring at the cross he's holding in his left hand with a strange, confused look on his face.

The sound of Kyoko's footsteps mingle with the sound of yours and echo through the chamber. It's a pretty church, but with all the people gone, it seems… colder, somehow, colder and sadder. The mahogany pews are dark against the white marble walls, and coloured light filters in through the stained glass windows.

"It's pretty, right?" says Kyoko. You nod wordlessly in agreement. She stops at the altar, picks up the bible. Something strange flickers in her eyes. "My father hasn't read from this bible for about three years now."

"I thought he was a pastor," you say, uncertainly.

She shrugs. "He is. But he's not a proper Catholic priest anymore. He was excommunicated a couple years ago."

You don't know what to say. Kyoko doesn't seem to notice, walking around the altar to stare up at the statue of the cross at the back of the chapel. "He used to say that to save a new era of people, you needed a new type of religion. So he'd sometimes preach things that weren't in the doctrine. That's why he was excommunicated. And everyone stopped coming." Then she turns and hurls the bible across the room.

It hits the ground with a thud that's loud in the silence, and skids across the marble before it comes to a stop. "Kyoko--" you start, but she cuts you off.

"Everyday," she continues, voice tight, like you hadn't said anything in the first place. "He'd come here and preach to the empty chapel. And he got unhappier and unhappier, and we got poorer and poorer. And I just wanted--" she lets out a strangled sob and stops, scrubs viciously at her face with her sleeve. She's crying now, and you're not Mami or Madoka or even freaking Hitomi, you don't have a clue what to do. "Things are going to be okay now, right?" she manages between sniffs. "People believe him now, so-- so he'll be happy, right?"

There's nothing you can say that wouldn't be a lie, so you just pat her awkwardly on the back and hold her until she stops crying.

"I just want him to be happy," she whispers into your shoulder. You close your eyes.

.

When it happens, it’s so sudden you barely have time to react. You pick up your phone and all you hear from the other end is muffled sobbing, and that's when you know.

You find her in an alleyway, knees to the filthy concrete ground and chest heaving, with her red hair falling into her face, and it’s so obvious that something’s gone wrong, just like you said it would. All you want to do is rush over to her and tell her that it’s all right, that everything will be okay.

But all you do is stand there helplessly.

You want to comfort her but you can't. You just can't. You can't even look her in the eye. Because you’re a Puella Magi, and you don't know how to look past the fact that there is no happy ending for people like you.

Mami would have been able to do it. Mami had lived every day she could as a Magi, and she'd been grateful, because for her, even a half-life was better than no life at all. You wish you were Mami Tomoe, all grace and charm and perfect, unfaltering smile. Mami would be able to fix things.

But Mami Tomoe's been dead for months now, and you'd never been much like her anyway.

Kyoko's soul gem cracks.

.

You break into a hotel and leave the body in one of the rooms. You can’t be seen with it, and someone will make sure that she gets a proper burial.

Later, you hear that Sakura Church’s pastor murdered his wife and the younger of his two daughters before killing himself and razing his church to the ground. The elder daughter, apparently, had gone missing.

You go home. You go home, and you lock yourself into your room and curl up under the blankets, and you cry for the first time in months.

(the fair ophelia!-- nymph, in thy orisons/be all my sins remember'd)