Apple and Cinnamon
a Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica fanfiction
by Sakura Rurouni
For Rosenal's KyouMami contest
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young girl in possession of magical powers must be in want of a frilly outfit."
"Oh, bullshit, Mami-san. I know that reference and it does NOT say that."
"Well, it does now." I made no effort at all to conceal my grin as I lifted the frilly garment into sight. Tomoyo, eat your heart out.
She visibly blanched, moving backwards on instinct. "W-what is that... that... abomination?!"
"This," I replied, trying to emphasize how very generous I am being, "is your uniform for the evening. Take it. Embrace it. Wear it in expectation of two days in the future."
"You're taking advantage of my desperation!" She objected, coming closer now, wincing as she took in every frilly detail.
I shrugged. "Yes, and? Beggars cannot be choosers, Sakura-san."
"But whyyyyyyy?" She was doing her best to look tragic. Little did she know that her shenanigans were only amusing me more. Dohohoho.
"Because that is the price of my assistance," I replied, wearing a serene smile to conceal my sheer level of amusement at her dilemma. She was still looking at me with horror, so I did myself the favour of talking aloud to show her the dire straits she had gotten herself into.
"On the one hand," I began, "you hate all things frilly and flowery and pink and embarrassingly girly, much preferring stripped-down, simple attire, frills kept at a bare minimum.
"On the other hand, there is your beloved little Momo-chan, and the small issue of a little promise you have made to her, and the possibility of breaking that promise to her face would lead a moment of stunned silence, then to big tears welling up in her eyes, and..."
"All right, FINE! Hand it over!"
I let my grin spread back over my face as Kyouko snatched the price of her payment out of my hands and stormed into my bedroom to change.
I heard a sudden shriek. Ahh. So she had found the accessories I'd prepared for her.
"Ah, Sakura-san, would you like any assis--"
"GO TO HELL!"
It appeared that everything was progressing according to plan. I sat down with a cup of green tea on my seat next to my triangular table, humming Innocent Starter along with my cell phone's music player. I took the chance to make sure the batteries I'd be using tonight were charged and ready to go. And also the backup camera, just in case.
After a few minutes and a few other Nana Mizuki songs later, I heard the familiar creak of my bedroom door and slow, tentative steps towards the living room. I looked up, and did my best to keep my smile from becoming a shark-like grin.
"So, does it fit?"
"I hate you and everything you stand for." She looked haunted.
"I will take that as a yes!" I pointed to my mouth. "Now keep a smile on, as the very model of a modern magical girl!"
"I would so love to hurt you right now."
"Just as long as you smile like Dokuro-chan!" I giggled.
The witches wouldn't wait forever, though, so I decided to get this show on the road. I stood and readied my camera bag. "You found the stack of cards, I hope?"
"Yes, and I read them," Kyouko replied, looking more and more miserable with each passing second. "Do I have to do them all?"
"Yes. Down to the exact words." I smiled, and opened the door for us. "And I will be recording everything, for later viewing!"
"This had better be worth it," she glowered as she walked out of my apartment. "All right, where to?"
"That way," I said, pointing west. "But before you take off, you have at least one catchphrase first."
"Eh?" Kyouko asked, and I pointed at the stack of cards she held in her hands.
"The very first one," I said, locking my apartment door. "Hold on..." I opened up my camera bag and pulled out my camcorder, grinning. "All right, whenever you're ready."
"Do I have to?" Kyouko begged again. "Is there any chance I could just be your servant for a day, or something?"
"Nope," I replied. "Only this will satisfy me. Now say it with a smile..." I counted down with my fingers. "Now." I hit record.
Kyouko flushed red as she read her pre-battle catchphrase from the card. "T-to defeat the evil born of night, the heaven-sent Sakura Kyouko must take flight!"
"O-oh my god," she sobbed into her hands and looking incredibly adorable, "this is going to be soooo embarrassing!"
I grinned. This was shaping up to be a day I was going to treasure for a long time to come.
I really had put a lot of effort into Kyouko's outfit, and despite her loathing of all things poofy, she was compelled to point it out.
"Yikes, this has ribbons in places I didn't know I had," she said as we zoomed on ribbon ziplines across the not-very-populated west side of Mitakihara.
"Yes, it does. I didn't want to just buy a sweet lolita outfit from a designer shop and call it a magical girl outfit, so I put it together as best I could and made most of the accessories from scratch."
I pointed to her shoes and she looked down at them. "Ordinary Mary Janes, but the frill pattern down the side and the ribbon around the ankle is all mine. Same with those ruffled socks. I followed the same pattern on your gloves."
"You put so much work into this," Kyouko replied. "I'd hate to--"
"I know where that is going, and no. Flattery will not get you out of this."
Kyouko swore. I laughed at her expense.
"Goddamnit, fine," she scowled as she dashed across the rooftop beside me. "If I have to do this, then damnit, I'm doing it well."
"That's the spirit," I reassured her. "Make your sempai proud!"
"I'll be happier about it once you hold up your part of the deal," she replied, her red hair blowing in the wind behind her, festooned at intervals with pink ribbons and little charms.
"Of that, you need not worry." I winked. "I promise to give it my all if you do your best. So just keep Momo-chan in mind."
"Heh, got it." She grinned back, sliding down a ribbon ladder to the ground floor. "All right, now which way?"
"Around here," I replied, running a hand over the walls and pulling back my ribbons. "Go ahead, use the technique I taught you."
Kyouko nodded and closed her eyes, holding her soul gem in her hand. "Ah, got a reaction."
"This is a very slow-moving witch, trust me," I replied, scanning the late afternoon sky for a witch's barrier. "I weakened it yesterday to prepare it for today, as well. It shouldn't have gone far, and not many people pass by this area, anyway..."
"Wait, so, a boring fight?" Kyouko complained.
I raised a finger in the air and wagged it at her. "We're already pushing the boundaries of being good magical girls for our own amusement. Let's not be too lax in how we do things."
She looked appropriately chagrined and glanced down at her poofy skirts. "S-sorry, sempai."
I ruffled her hair. She acted so impulsively sometimes, it was difficult to believe the age difference between us wasn't very big. "No worries. Today is an exception for us, right? We're gonna have some fun. Old-school magical girl style."
Kyouko gave me a wry grin. "Damnit, I hate admitting to this, but frills and all, I'm actually lookin' forward to this."
The prospect of a fight always got my heart racing a little as well, despite the danger. I nodded to her.
We both felt the barrier go up before we saw it.
"Barrier due north," Kyouko said as the familiar pattern of a witch's boundary from the outside came into focus just down the alleyway.
"Transform without changing clothes, just like you practiced," I said, pulling out my camcorder and hitting record. "And don't forget your note cards!"
"Ah, right," she muttered as she flipped to the next card and cleared her throat. "Let's see... Pam puru... pim p-puru par-- parim pompun-- bluh?" She fizzled out. "Mami-san, there's no way I can pronounce that! I'm terrible with tongue-twisters! Isn't a simple 'Raising Heart, Set Up' okay?"
"Soul Gem Power, Make up." I tapped my shoe against the ground and in a flash of orange and yellow light, I had put on my magical girl guise. I aimed my camcorder at her again. "And no, it's not enough. You just don't appreciate the classics."
"Fiiiiine. Hmm..." She stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Princess Tutu didn't say anything, damn it... hm... Mew Mew... nah. Ah! Got it." She held out her soul gem, now in ring form on her finger. "My heart, unlock!"
I had tried that before. It took a lot of control to shift one's body to magical girl form without actually putting on the outfit. But for this to work, she was definitely trying her best. I made a mental note-- be sure to put on plenty of frosting for Momo-chan later.
Red light flashed and faded, and Kyouko hadn't visibly changed, but she was powered up all the same. We nodded to each other and dashed into the barrier.
This witch had started out on the low end of the scale of witch power, and had only fallen farther in the tiers since I had beaten it up yesterday. Good thing, too. I wouldn't have been comfortable letting one run free otherwise. Even then, I had injured and tied it down with some of my strongest ribbon traps to keep it in the vicinity over the last evening. And just to be sure, I had also managed to take out the bulk of its familiars last night. This all meant that our dash to the center of the labyrinth was trivial work.
Kyouko had to work to get accustomed to her new weapon, though.
"Fuckin' hell!" Kyouko swore as she waved her Sakura Strawberry Bell at a familiar. "You don't really expect me to fight with this!"
"Language, Sakura-san," I said, not actually fighting but staying above the action to record Kyouko's frilly antics. "And yes, since all magical girls need their cute weapons."
"Shut up! You use flintlock muskets! How cute are those?" She snapped as she frantically waved it harder, with sound waves of red magic coming out and damaging the oncoming familiars. "I need my spear, Mami-san!"
"Oh, fine, I'll compromise just this once if you use both," I replied, sighing. Hopefully the rest of the battle would provide me with more cute material. And what was she saying, that my muskets weren't cute? They had curlicue designs on their sides and everything.
"Hah! Time to stab some bitches!" Kyouko cut through the slow-moving familiars with ease.
I sighed. She would never get the role of main character if she was that foul-mouthed. At best, she would be the supporting, snarky anti-hero, and probably die before the series was over.
"Looks like we're done here," the redhead called out to me. "Come on, let's go!"
"Don't forget your cards," I reminded her as we approached the center of the witch's labyrinth.
"How am I supposed to read them during a fight like this?" she said, pulling them out and holding them in the same hand as her pink plastic Sakura Strawberry Bell (it flashed lights if you pressed a button).
"Okay, so it won't be glamorous, but it'll still be great home video material," I said as Kyouko slowed in her walk, flipping through the cards and muttering the catchphrases to herself.
"This will be tricky, but I think I can mostly wing this," she said, stuffing them into one of the two apron pockets her wide, poofy pink skirts carried. "Let's rock."
I reached out to ruffle her hair again, readied my camcorder, and opened the door.
It was a well-lit area. Good, that meant I would have no problem recording all the action. I summoned a ribbon and another, and they automatically attached themselves to the roof, creating a gigantic swing and giving me a birds' eye view of the area.
This particular witch was not only weak, she was also incredibly slow. Definitely one of the most slothful I had ever encountered. Even so, being a witch, witches' kisses were a danger to the public, so I felt no qualms about seeing it humiliated and destroyed for entertainment value.
To face the menacing foe that appeared to be an oversized, six-legged, shoddily-constructed marionette with fur in patches on its surface, in walked the magical girl Sakura Kyouko. I made sure the red recording light was on, and filmed.
"Hey! Hey you!" She yelled, waving her Sakura Strawberry Bell at it, flashing lights and all. Slowly (very slowly) it turned its head to look at her.
"Preying on the slothfulness of innocent people! Disrupting the peace and inducing self-destructive behaviour! Unforgivable!" She struck a pose, flashing what appeared to be a surfer's hang ten sign. "A magical girl of Love and Justice: Puella Magi Sakura Kyouko! In the name of the moon, I will punish you!"
Wow. She really was going all out for this. Momo-chan would have a feast to celebrate.
In response, the lumbering marionette raised one of its floppy four arms and... "swiped at her" would not be correct. It looked more like he dropped it at her. This was not at all fabulous. But it would do. At least it gave Kyouko ample room to flip through her cards again.
"All right, let's do this shit old-school," she declared as she dodged to the side, raising her Sakura Strawberry Bell. "Rainbow Moon Heart Ache!"
The marionette witch looked at the bell and its non-attack of flashing lights. Kyouko took the chance to stab its arm with her spear.
It roared, but it was too slow with its other hand to catch a nimble magical girl like her. Kyouko used her spear's extending property to pole vault into the air, and spun it in the air behind her. Frills would not stop her from being an incredibly effective puella magi.
"Eat this! Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss!"
What followed was not a red-hued version of Eternal Sailor Moon's light attack. Instead, she powered up her red spear and shot out a spear-shaped blast of magic, right at the face. It roared again and covered its face, and swiped a limp-wristed paw into the air. By this time, Kyouko had reached ground again.
"Do I have to let this loser hit me?" she called up at me.
"Not necessarily hit you, but you need some tension before your power-up," I replied from my perch in the air, out of the witch's reach.
"Hmph, all right," Kyouko muttered, brushing her hair out of her eyes with a white-gloved hand, then gestured at her opponent. "Come at me, muppet!"
It was now sufficiently angered that it was actually starting to move around now, agitated and scared. It waved two of its arms at Kyouko, hoping to trap her between his hands. Kyouko leapt up just in time, but ended up right in the path of a third hand. She was batted out of the air and into a wall.
"Are you okay, Sakura-san?" I called out to her.
Kyouko waved away some dust and nodded up to me. "No sweat. Is that enough dramatic tension?"
"I don't think we're going to get any better, so go ahead and start to finish him off," I replied, giving her the go-ahead.
"All right then," she grinned, punching her hands together. "Rosso Fantasma!"
Six other copies of Kyouko formed. I was pleased to note that they were all wearing the same frill-tastic outfit. I made sure to catch that on film.
"All right, girls, get me a distraction," Kyouko commanded them.
They nodded and scattered, confusing the heck out of the very dumb witch. Especially once they all started screaming different things to distract it. It was about to aim at the right Kyouko, right before one of the clones attacked it, screaming "RAYEAAAAARTH!" as its war cry.
"KAGUTSUCHIIIIIIII!" another one yelled, and the overwhelmed witch screeched and tried to bat them away. All of this only gave Kyouko more time to set up her final attack.
She raised her spear parallel to the floor, outlined with magical red light. "Sturmfalken!" she yelled, but then she just threw her Sakura Strawberry Bell at its face.
The Fantasmas caught each of its arms, and I knew that Kyouko was about to finish it off. Her spear extended out and fell into its segmented chain form. She raised her spear, spinning it above her head as she charged.
"Sakura Love-Me Chain!" She threw it and each of the Fantasmas caught it with their own illusory spears, and tied it around the witch's gangly legs. It roared its displeasure and thrashed around, but it hit empty air when it tried to hit the Fantasmas.
Kyouko summoned up a spear of red magic. The real spear was tied around the witch's legs, binding it. She glanced at her cards one more time and grinned.
"Return to the guise that you were meant to be in! Clo-- Grief Seed!"
She leaped up and shoved her red spear straight into its body, where it exploded outwards in dagger-like points of red light. The pathetically weak and very not fabulous witch screamed as it disintegrated, the labyrinth collapsing with it.
My ribbon swing was attached to a lamppost now, and I jumped down to the ground, still recording.
Kyouko retrieved her spear and the grief seed, looked over at me, face flushed with excitement, and grinned.
"And so, the day is saved, thanks to--"
The sudden flash of realization that she had done all of this dressed in the frilliest, girliest, most overdone magical girl outfit in creation seemed to hit her like a ton of bricks. She froze before she could complete her sentence and her face turned as red as her hair.
"Y-you... YOU RECORDED ALL OF THAT!" she screamed, collapsing to the ground, utterly mortified.
I would have comforted her, but I was too busy saving the file and laughing.
Two days later, I discovered that the Sailor Moon music collections made great background music when one was doing a baking marathon.
As per my original promise to Kyouko, in exchange for her going to take down a witch in classic magical girl form, I was going to cater her little sister Momo-chan's birthday party. It was the first time Momo-chan would be inviting other kids over for a birthday-- indeed, it was the first birthday party her family could afford to celebrate in lavish style.
Kyouko always became reticent when it came to talking about her family's past. She had told me about it before, though not without reluctance. About how her father's preaching had never been popular, but when he had started to deviate from official church doctrine-- spouting heresies like making love the focus of one's faith and not shaming others for being honest with their emotions-- he had been excommunicated, and cut off from official church support. Taking his message into the streets with his daughters by his side, the kind-hearted preacher had only been spat on, insulted, and publicly humiliated.
Frustrated at seeing her father and his message degraded like that, Kyouko decided to take matters into her own hands, and contracted with Kyubey. Believing that all that needed to happen in order for people to believe her father was for them to give him a chance, she wished for people to listen-- and listen they did. With magic. Not because they believed. It was giving Kyouko a guilt complex, and I worried for her. But I couldn't say so. She never liked it when people openly worried about her.
She was also the best and only magical girl friend I had, so I would have catered her sister's birthday party if she had just asked me without offering anything in return. As far as I was concerned, just being my friend was more than enough return payment. But for her pride, she had to offer something in return.
For her sake, I threw myself into the work of baking everything a little girl with a major sweet tooth could ask for. According to the list of confirmed guests Kyouko passed to me, they would not be able to eat through the massive triple-layered cake I was making for her, but they would eat through the top two layers, leaving the bottom layer for the Sakura sisters to eat over the next few days. To this I added an array of cupcakes (three per guest, at a minimum) with extra frosting, and a lineup of small cakes and confections to be given out as party favors. This was going to be extremely glamorous, and I was enjoying every moment of it, visualizing Kyouko and Momo having an eating contest, and the Sakura parents' proud smiles as they congratulated their younger daughter on turning a year older.
Which is why I set our witch-hunting day two days before Momo's birthday. I was going to need at least two days to do all of this. I didn't think I would finish in time, but I did, and with flair.
I had just finished the last bit of sugar and syrup on a dessert item when Kyouko showed up at my doorstep. I was fairly certain that she was doing her best to block the traumatic event of two days before, and overcompensating as a result. She was wearing short denim shorts and a hooded sweater. No frills to be seen.
"Good afternoon, and you looked better with frills and ribbons," I told her with a smile. "Come on in."
She shivered. "I'm never letting you do that to me again."
"Is that so? Then you might never get to see a bounty like this again," I said, waving my hand at my trophy room of the finest pastries and baked goods I had ever before made.
Kyouko's jaw dropped.
I opened up a box of assorted cupcakes that I had made precisely to distract Kyouko from the rest of the cakes. "Help yourself. Now tell me, how are we supposed to get all of these to your church?"
"And don't say 'in my stomach'."
Still starry-eyed at the sugar bounty before her, Kyouko stuck her tongue out at me, and threw her arms around me in a hug.
Eventually we got them all into boxes, and stacked them onto a cart Kyouko had brought from her church's Sunday School classes. She wouldn't have been able to do it before, but with all the tithes coming in from the booming congregation, Pastor Sakura had been able to buy some actual supplies for the young kids in the church. The path from Mitakihara to Kasamino was thankfully smooth. We couldn't risk carrying the cakes on bicycles, but with enough trips back and forth, we slowly transported all of the baked goods I had made to the site of the party: the newly-renovated fellowship hall of the Sakura Cathedral.
After the first few trips, I stayed at the church to set everything up, and let my redheaded best friend take care of cake transport. There was the risk of Kyouko devouring everything left at my house, but I bet that she wouldn't eat food promised for her sister. And besides, one of the first boxes I had brought over was filled with the foreign desserts that drove her wild, so she'd never risk it.
Kyouko's mother had gone out on a day on the town with Momo-chan after picking her up from school, so there was no risk of Momo coming home early to see the surprise we had planned out for her. In addition to desserts, I also appointed myself head of the decorations committee, and decorated the hall in a style that was meant to remind Kyouko of her little adventure as 'heaven-sent Sakura Kyouko'.
While setting up the second-to-last cartload of confections Kyouko delivered from my house, I became vaguely aware of Pastor Sakura looking around at the tables I had decorated with entirely too many cupcakes.
As I climbed down from the ladder I had used to pin up long red ribbons to the ceiling, he gave me a warm smile.
"Mami-san, was it? Thank you for doing all of this for us, for Momo-chan."
I liked Pastor Sakura, but... sigh. He and his beautiful wife, and their beautiful family. There was a part of me that was envious of Kyouko for having the kind of family I could never have again.
"No, thank you," I replied. "I'm glad to be doing all of this for someone I care about. Thank you for taking care of me."
"You're the first best friend Kyouko-chan has ever had, I think," he said, stroking his beard. "I'm glad to see that you get along so well."
I blushed. "T-thank you. I'm glad I get along with her as well."
He bowed a little. "Please continue to take care of our daughter."
"I will." I nodded to him, and he went on his way.
I looked after him, sighed again, and turned back to the work of decorating.
"Kyouko-san," I murmured to myself, "I wish I had a loving father like yours."
Everything was set. Momo-chan walked into a dark room and Kyouko flipped the light switch and everyone yelled out "SURPRISE!" Her reaction was adorable.
Kyouko and I sat together at a table, watching Momo and her friends swarm like locusts over the baked goods I had made for the party. Kyouko had the air of a proud mother as she watched her younger sister laughing.
"It's been a long time since I heard that on a consistent basis," she murmured to herself.
I took a sip from my can of orange soda and looked at her. "What?"
"Momo-chan laughing with friends. It's just been so long since she had friends to play with..." Kyouko smiled, looked over to me, and put her hand over my own and squeezed it. "T... thank you, Mami. Thank you for making this possible."
Her hand was so warm. I blushed, and smiled back. "It was my pleasure."
Later during the evening, after Kyouko had exhausted my supply of sopapillas and crème brûlée and the party was calming down now that Momo-chan had finally cut into her massive birthday cake and distributed the pieces among the party guests, Kyouko and I were enjoying the night air together. The sounds of Momo and her friends were still coming from indoors, but the night was fresh and cool and I had my best friend by my side and all was right in the world.
Kyouko was smiling off into space, pondering. Her hair reached halfway down her back already, and she had stated her intention never to cut it a month ago. I wondered how long it would grow. I wanted to be there, by her side, to watch. I wondered how it would feel to run my hands through the full length of her hair, to hold it to my lips and breathe in the scent of apple and cinnamon, to giggle at the blush on her cheeks.
We heard the sound of childish laughter come from the party, and both of us turned to see Kyouko's mother, Momo riding on her shoulders.
"Mami-san!" Momo squealed with happiness and reached out towards me. Kyouko and her mother both laughed.
"I just wanted to thank you, Tomoe-san," Kyouko's mother said, tired but happy. "Thank you for all of this."
I nodded, learning to accept their gratitude without feeling overwhelmed. "It was my pleasure."
"Ah. Momo-chan wanted to thank you, too," the smiling woman said, setting her daughter down.
"Yes, I did!" Momo proclaimed.
I kneeled so that I was eye level to Momo. "Oh?"
Much to my astonishment, the little redheaded girl dove in and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Mami-san!"
I blushed deeply, and Kyouko laughed.
"You are welcome, Momo-chan. Be a good girl, okay?" I told her, ruffling her hair.
Momo giggled and returned to her mother's side.
"Isn't your apartment in Mitakihara? If it's too far, please, spend the night," Mrs. Sakura offered.
"No, it's not that far," I said. "I can go home, but maybe I'll stay the evening. Thank you for your generosity."
"Whatever you decide, Tomoe-san." She gave me a slight bow, just as her husband had done earlier. "Thank you for everything. Come on, Momo-chan."
Momo took her hand, and they returned to the party, leaving me looking after them, and Kyouko looking at me.
"What is it?"
I hesitated before answering.
"... your family is so wonderful and loving." I looked down at my hands. "I am... a little... jealous."
Kyouko didn't say anything. She must have realized I had more to say.
"A-and it's not just that I'm jealous of you having a family... I'm jealous that... your wish, to protect the happiness of others... it's turned out so well, because you wished for other people and not just for yourself..."
I felt a hand around my own, and looked away, ashamed.
"There's nothing wrong with being jealous. But please don't beat yourself up, Mami-san. You were dying and scared. Don't feel guilty over being concerned about your own life."
"... home just feels so empty without them..."
I was sobbing now. Kyouko wrapped her arms around me and held me tight.
"I'm so glad... you're my friend, K-Kyouko," I stammered between sobs. "I-I can't begin to tell you... how much better it feels to have someone who c-cares..."
"... hey. Mami-san."
I looked up. Kyouko met my eyes with her own, raised her hand to wipe tears from my cheeks, and kissed me gently on the cheek.
"I'm grateful to have you in my life. Thanks for being here for me."
I sobbed into Kyouko's chest, and she held me while I cried. And when I calmed down, she guided me next door to the Sakura household, where I fell asleep in Kyouko's room.
When I woke up, there was a ribbon on one of my curls that hadn't been there before. It was a red ribbon, so it wasn't one of my own. I pulled it out of my hair and kept it close to my chest.
Two days later, after returning from a witch hunt, I cleansed my Soul Gem for the day, tossed the Grief Seed onto the shelf for one more use, and settled down on the couch with a salad and a movie to watch. But first I turned on the TV.
The moment I heard "apparent double murder-suicide", I was out the door, practically flying to Kasamino.
Kyouko was all I could think about. Momo. Her parents. What the hell was going on?!
Kyouko. Was she safe?
I swung down from a ribbon in a dark alley, de-transformed, and ran towards the cathedral, to the house next to the cathedral, where all the police cars were parked.
"Kyouko-san!" I yelled out, catching the attention of one of the officers. "Where is Kyouko-san?!"
"Who are you?" He asked.
"T-Tomoe Mami! Sakura Kyouko is my best friend and this is her house! What happened?!"
The officer looked back at the house and his comrades, and took me aside.
In the moments that followed, I had two realizations.
The first: that my best friend had just witnessed the most awful thing I could imagine.
The second: that my heartbreak was nothing compared to hers, and that things would never be the same again.
When my parents had died, I had been an empty shell for a while, merely going through the motions of being a real human. Feeling like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Only just managing to kill witches with my slow reflexes, because I could barely motivate myself to fight even for survival.
Kyouko was different. I recognized the hollowness in her eyes from the mirrors in my house. But unlike me, she hadn't stopped feeling. On the contrary, her emotions now threatened to overwhelm her at every turn. She had always been enthusiastic about battle, but now she took an almost sadistic glee at destroying witches and collecting grief seeds, as if it was the only thing that gave her life meaning now. And yet, having been there myself, I recognized it as overcompensation. It was itself a way of concealing what was really going on.
I should have said something. My parents were gone, too. At least I could tell her that I knew how she felt. But my tongue felt like a useless wooden paddle in my mouth. And I decided I didn't know how she felt. My parents had died in a car accident. Her father had dismembered his birthday girl and his beloved wife and then hanged himself.
And this was the loving family I had so recently envied.
I felt us drifting apart. It was the worst feeling in the world, like feeling myself begin to be stretched out, pulled apart at the seams. I knew that this was bad for the both of us. I would be miserable and alone again and every cell in my body cried out against being lonely again, and she would come to feel the hollow emptiness of being lonely without someone who could understand by her side.
I resolved to stop us from separating. It was a feeble resolve, but it was all I could manage.
I expected us to drift apart. What I didn't expect was for Kyouko to forcibly sever the bond that held us together. I wasn't prepared for that.
I realized with my throat at the tip of her spear that I wasn't prepared for her to be willing to go farther than I was.
She cut my neck ribbon. She could have cut more. It didn't matter, because with it, she had cut the ties that bound us.
Sakura Kyouko left me on my knees in the darkness and wandered off. I cried myself to sleep again, but this time, there was no one to comfort me.
Two years later, I found myself in the stillness of the run-down Sakura Cathedral. Kyouko's father owned the property, and his sole living heir held the deed. Technically, all of this was Kyouko's. But she wanted no part of it. So it could not be torn down, but it would never be repaired.
That was okay. Buildings were just buildings. It was much more important to repair people. The only way to do that is with love and support, creating and reinforcing and mending the ties that bind people together.
Circumstances about a year ago had found me making friends with a few other girls since Kyouko. Miki Sayaka-- she had been enthusiastic but burned out too soon. Regardless she held a place in my heart for the sheer force of her personality. She had passed over with a smile. Akemi Homura, aloof but kind, a beautiful red ribbon in her hair that reminded me of my own special red ribbon. She was stoic and quiet, but she lit right up when you asked her if she loved someone. She spoke of Kaname Madoka with the unashamed tone of a lover, with such joy that I wished I had met this Madoka, so we could have been friends too.
A face I hadn't seen except from a certain home movie I only watched when I was feeling really depressed returned, seemingly from the dead.
"Don't expect me to call this home. My home is gone."
It was true. The Sakura house had been burned down a few months after Kyouko's disappearance. I didn't find out until after she returned that it had been her work. I did not blame her for wanting to erase those memories from the face of the earth.
"It doesn't matter. I'm j-just so glad to have you back."
I could tell Kyouko didn't want a hug, but she indulged me. She felt wooden and stiff, incapable of returning the hug. But she still let me hug her.
The other magical girls who hadn't known her before her family was shattered wouldn't have known what I knew about her. I wasn't sure Kyouko knew it herself. But for all her fighting spirit and reckless ways, she was... different. Colder. There was a certain hollowness to her eyes and a stiffness in her walk that hadn't been there when she was younger. It hadn't even been there after her parents had died. That was from her wanderings.
It was from the loneliness I had warned her about.
For my part, I get the feeling that I was really socially awkward during those first few days and weeks together. I tried to keep my sobbing out of her way, because I knew it made her uncomfortable, but I think she still noticed. Getting me to keep strong and not be so clingy and simultaneously satisfying my desperate need for companionship was like a bedridden patient being asked to walk after months of solitary slumber. My tongue felt like wood again, my gestures awkward. I kept trying to be physically close, but Kyouko had been so used to being alone for so long that she had to fight her own instincts to push me away. Her social skills hadn't atrophied completely, but they came close. I didn't help matters any.
But we got through it. The days lengthened into weeks. Weeks turned into months. We... adapted. And she stayed. That was the hardest thing for her, I think. She was so used to being able to cut and run whenever she decided she didn't care anymore, and yet she was the one who had come back of her own volition. It still didn't stop me from waking up in the middle of the night, terrified that the sound I had heard was that of Kyouko closing the door behind her as she left and disappeared off into the night again, this time for good.
Sometimes she really had left. And I spent those nights trembling in fear, heart pounding against my ribs like a panicked, frenzied drum sounding the alarm to impending doom.
A few days later, she would come back. She wouldn't say where she had been. I wouldn't ask. But I would greet her with what I knew was the face of someone who had been too close to her fears for comfort.
It was a habit that she dropped over time. Her evening departures came less often and lasted for shorter amounts of time, and eventually they trickled away into nothing. I started breathing a little more easily. Out of the corner of my eye, Kyouko looked relieved.
Kyouko started opening up. She began to initiate conversations with me and not the other way around, and every so often, she would offer me a hug. I always took it. At first they didn't last for very long before she rescinded her offer, but, eventually...
We began to hunt the occasional demon together. We had always been excellent partners. But our fighting styles had developed separately over the past two years, and we had to reconcile them. Habits like that were hard to break. But she learned to pounce in the small pause I gave her after a musket volley, and I learned where the gaps in her chains were so I could fire through them.
I began to make her favourite desserts again. It took some practice, because I hadn't made them in so long. She tackled them with as much enthusiasm as she had before, and I relished watching her. There was a refreshing honesty to her gluttony. That hadn't changed, at least. Even if everything else had.
She never smiled. Not like Homura, who would smile with hidden joy when asked about her beloved Madoka. Not like Sayaka had smiled over her beloved Kamijou. Sure, Kyouko grinned. That was different from a smile. She grinned at demons. She never smiled with warmth anymore.
The slow realization that we were different people settled in over time. Different from the people we had been in that silly home video I had taken two years ago. There was no returning to that time, and there never would be. But that was fine with me. The idea of clinging to the past had no appeal to me. However wonderful it had been, the past was the past, and I would be a fool to think that we could bring an age from years ago to the present and make it fit.
I knew all of this, but it was so hard to accept, since I knew that there was nothing Kyouko would want more than to have her family and her home back again, happy and warm and loving.
"Let's go out together."
From the serious tone of her voice I could tell that she didn't mean a romantic outing.
It was a day off of school and nothing else was going on. I wondered where she was going to take me. Secretly I was thrilled that she had asked me at all. I didn't want her to be alone and I didn't want her to leave and leave me behind.
She wore a white jacket, white slacks. The colour of mourning. I didn't realize why until we arrived at the destination she had in mind.
Japan had crematoriums for the dead and murdered. Her parents and sister would have been turned to ash and Kyouko would have had no funeral to participate in.
Even so, at some point, she had set up an informal memorial for them, behind the burned-out wreckage of her old house, behind the dilapidated cathedral. I don't know where she got the photos of her mother and her sister to put into their iei, their death portraits, but they were there.
This was her family's house. I hadn't been back here in two years. Even though the church was right next door, I felt like this was the more sacred ground, and felt like I didn't belong there.
So many memories.
I hung back while Kyouko knelt before the memorial. It wasn't my place. That was her family and I couldn't intrude. I watched her from behind and a little off to the side.
I wished I had a memorial for my parents. Maybe I would make one. I sighed. It would be just one more confirmation that my life would never be the same.
The only really good thing that had happened in my life since becoming a magical girl had been Kyouko. She had allowed me to open up later on and make other friends, but it still all came down to one girl that I loved dearly, and at least we were together in the mourning that no one else who hasn't lost her parents can understand.
So I didn't run. I wouldn't leave her, and I was touched that she had thought to invite me to a place that must have been very, very personal to her.
She was bent on one knee, eyes closed, hands clasped together. I realized she was praying and fell silent. Only the birds in the trees and the sky made any sound.
I blinked, returning to awareness. Kyouko was... smiling.
"Momo-chan, last year I was away and didn't get the chance to give you something. So I brought two this time to make up for it."
From the small bag I didn't know she had been carrying, she pulled out two cupcakes and placed them on the stone in front of their portraits. My eyes widened slightly. They were... it seemed they were deliberately designed to recall the cupcakes I had made for her birthday two years ago.
She also pulled out two small birthday candles and stuck one on top of each cupcake, then lit them with a lighter.
"Momo-chan, you would be eight years old today. Happy birthday."
Kyouko leaned forward and kissed her sister's portrait, then turned her attention to the other two.
"Mom, I was always closer to Dad than I was to you. I wish I could have spent more time with you. I'm sorry. I love you. I miss you."
I held my breath as she kissed her mother's portrait and turned to the last one. It was Momo's birthday. Two days after two years ago, her father had killed his family. How must that feel, to have those two dates so close together? To know it was someone you loved and sacrificed everything for that had taken everything from you?
"... Dad." Her voice cracked. "Dad..."
She shook, her long red hair concealing her face from me. I wanted to come to her, hold her in my arms, comfort her. But... no.
"... I can't say everything. I'm sorry. I-I'm not ready for that." A deep breath. "God knows it. I can't say it yet. Maybe someday I will."
She took another breath, steadied her voice.
"But for now... please forgive me. I love you."
And as I watched, she bent her head, and prayed in a language I didn't understand.
"Anima eius et animae omnium... fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam... requiescant in pace et in amore."
She was smiling now. Really smiling, with a warmth I hadn't seen in a long time.
"... mea culpa. Te amo. Ad occursum futurum nostri."
She stood up, swaying a little, feet not stable at all. Took a deep breath again. Cracked her knuckles. She looked pale with tears running down her cheeks. She wavered, and shifted, and held her balance.
Slowly she moved towards me, tears still on her face, making no effort to wipe them, and moved her hand up to my face, wiping the tears I didn't realize were there.
"I'm g-grateful to have you in my life. Thanks for being... here for me."
Before I could blink I'd wrapped my arms around her and I was hugging her tightly, and she was returning my hug, so warm and soft and loving. Tears flowed like water from a fountain, from both of us at once. I was sobbing and heaving, and she was for reasons the same and yet different. I am completely un-ladylike when I cry and I knew I must be making a mess of Kyouko's clothes but it didn't matter because I finally had the most caring person in my life back in my arms.
I'd missed her terribly over these past, horrible years. It was only two years but it felt like an eternity since I was separated from her. I needed someone I matter to in the same way I needed air.
The only thing I ever really feared was loneliness, and with her return, I was not afraid of anything anymore.
We spent an hour there, in each other's arms. Eventually we picked ourselves up and walked out of that sacred place, and watched the sun set in the sky over Mitakihara sitting on my apartment's roof.
I told her about everything that had gone on in my life since she left. She told me what went on in hers. It was redundant stuff, actually. Apart from cutting down demons and collecting grief cubes and meeting up with the occasional fellow magical girl, neither of us had done anything significant. I told her about my back history with Homura and Sayaka, the parts that she didn't know herself, and she told me about Chitose Yuma, the very young magical girl she was mentoring.
"I noticed you didn't like it when I went to see her during the nighttime. So I stopped. I just go see her during the day when you're in school now."
I blanched. "W-wait, that's what you were going out to do?"
My head was resting in her lap. Kyouko nodded down at me.
"... if that's what you were going to do, then it's okay. I just wish you had told me..."
"I've actually wanted to bring her along with me for a while. I'd like her to meet you. She's an adorable little girl and I think you would love her, too."
I realized then that her affection for Yuma was, at least in part, Kyouko's way of taking on the big sister role she lost. She deeply missed Momo-chan, still. And I was certain that she would miss her for the rest of her life.
"I would like that, Kyouko-san."
"... just Kyouko is fine."
"Only if you call me Mami."
"... In that case, Mami, can I tell you something?"
She put a hand on my back and I instinctively sat up, sitting next to her as the sun sank over the horizon, painting the sky red and yellow and gold.
"... I don't know how to say this without sounding ridiculous." She laughed to herself.
I remembered a time when we were talking together openly, without fear of judgment from the other, and how she did me the favor of being silent until I was done. I returned a two-year-old favor.
"... I wanted to bring you along because... I don't know why. But I thought having you there would help. It did. I can't say exactly how... ahhh... I'm not used to being this honest, yet." She shook her head, letting her long red hair fall over her shoulders.
"It's weird to be this honest again." She breathed in. "A-and it hurts a little to breathe. My back is tight. My neck hurts. My legs are still sore from kneeling and then carrying you back here."
She looked up at the sky, that old gentle smile on her face again.
"But I can feel. I can feel again." A soft chuckle. "And I don't feel like a stranger in my own life, like a visitor in my own memories... not anymore."
I felt a warm hand on my own.
"Because you're here to welcome me back with open arms." She looked over to me.
I swallowed hard.
"So, Mami... I want to... say I'm sorry for having left, two years ago. For destroying our relationship and leaving you in your loneliness." The light of the setting sun reflected off her eyes and I could tell there were tears that weren't falling yet.
"When I left, I told myself that someday you would find someone better to be your friend." She closed her hand around my own. "Now I want to be that someone better."
I was crying again. So was she, but she tried her hardest to keep her voice even.
"Being alone is just t-too lonely, for the both of us... I... I need you, your warmth, your love, your forgiveness." She moved over so that her other hand was on my cheek, and she held eye contact with me. It had been so long since I had last seen her beautiful red eyes.
"I-I forgive you," I said quietly, trying not to choke up. "And you have all of that. You always will, Kyouko."
She smiled and it felt like my heart was bursting with happiness. "Thank you, and I'm home."
I realized then that this was the first time she had said those words since she left her home behind, and we held each other tightly and cried again.
Two years later, I still haven't gotten over the habit of staying up for Kyouko's return. Yuma's already fallen asleep, but I'm sitting up in bed, reading a magical girl manga, with the window open to the night breeze to keep me awake.
It's the last volume and I hit the last page. I didn't expect it, because the journey was so much harder for them than for other magical girl stories I had read, but somehow they managed to get a happy ending. A satisfying conclusion.
"You'll catch a cold if you sleep with the window open."
I leave the book on the dresser to my right. The other side of the bed, next to me, is empty and waiting.
My heaven-sent Sakura Kyouko stands in my windowsill, long loose red hair falling to her side, a gentle smile reserved for those she loves on her face. "I'm home."
I meet her gaze with a warm smile of my own, reserved only for her. "Welcome home."
The past, with its unabashed fun and innocence, is always tempting to return to. But the present, even with all its heartache, is also worth living with the people who love me by my side.
Later that night, Kyouko holds me close and tells me that I will never be alone again and kisses my cheek, and I run my hands through the full length of her hair and hold it to my lips and breathe in the beautiful scent of apple and cinnamon.