CHAPTER 22: Not Like This
The Seventh's Lair
Kagami stared in horror from her prone position on the fleshy ground. The Seventh's voice was coming from her sister's mouth. Its searchlights were shining from her eyes. It was inside her. "Tsukasa!"
"She's here," said the Seventh's scraping voice. "She's in here with me. She's trying to fight. Haaah… adorable…"Lurching to her feet, Tsukasa moved slowly toward Kagami, wearing that obscene leer, fixing her with the searchlights, blinding her. Even if she wanted to move to fight back, she couldn't. Her neck was bruised, the breath nearly driven from her lungs. She felt her sister's soft, delicate hands lift her up off the ground with unnatural strength, then slowly close around her aching neck. All she could see was that glaring white light.
"Kagami Hiiragi." The Seventh brought her close and whispered in her ear. "Your sister sealed away my body, but you will still die here. Everything will die with you, and the stars above will fall. Spend your last moments in agony… let me see you squirm. Haaah…"
Choking and gasping, kicking feebly, Kagami struggled as the breath she had so recently regained left her, bit by bit by bit. Dark spots danced merrily in front of her eyes. "Tsu…" she croaked, putting a hand on her sister's. "Tsu… ka…"
Click. The muzzle of a Beretta pistol pressed against the back of Tsukasa's skull. Wielding the gun, battered but very much alive, Homura stood behind her, her face set like stone. "Demon," she said quietly. "Leave. Now."
"You would kill one of the focal points?" The Seventh grinned without looking back at her. "Haaah… are you that desperate, Puella Magi?"
"I would rather see Tsukasa dead than suffer another moment of your presence inside her body," said Homura. "Let Kagami go, and leave."
The Seventh smiled and slackened its grip on the girl's neck, just a bit. "Go ahead then. Pull the trigger. Spill the blood that will herald the end of all things."
Homura didn't move, didn't even blink.
"Haaah. You can't, can you? It appears, then, that we are at a stalemate…"
Konata lay spread-eagled, staring up at the angry clouds that composed the Lair's sky. Had she been able to hear, she wouldn't have been able to tear herself away from standoff between Kagami, Homura, and the Demon… but all she heard was the same persistent ringing in her ears that had plagued her since her attempt to make the contract went wrong. She doubted she could even turn her head to watch what was going on; every muscle in her body ached, worse than the time she had played a marathon session of DDR with Patty at an arcade. If the Demon chose to attack right now, she'd be a sitting duck. Her one chance to help, gone…
Why? The question nagged at her over and over again. Why didn't it work?
That is a question I would like answered myself, Konata Izumi. The voice of Kyubey – Incubator, Konata corrected herself– was hesitant with confusion.
Oh good, you're back, Konata thought at him as she dimly felt him climb onto her stomach. Sorry, Kyubey. I'd get up and hug you if I could, but I can't…
I appreciate the sentiment.
What happened? Konata blinked slowly and let a teardrop fall from her lashes. Even that small action hurt. I agreed to the contract, I made my wish… why can't I do it? Why can't I become a Puella Magi? Was I… not good enough?
I don't know, Kyubey admitted. He turned in a circle on her belly and settled down on all fours, more like a cat than ever. Your wish was valid, and your contract was made. The fact that you're still human defies explanation.
I feel so… Konata paused and searched for the right word. … left out.
She blinked again and winced. You do?
Kyubey heaved a mental sigh. Did you know that back in our world, I was the last of the Incubators…?
I think I remember Homura mentioning that. Why?
For the first time, she heard hesitation in Kyubey's cold voice. They left me behind. Because I'm 'damaged'.
'Damaged', what do you-
As if someone turned a switch, she could hear again, just in time for the Demon to growl, "It appears, then, that we are at a stalemate…"
Konata slowly, painfully turned her head to one side. What she saw made her face turn white as a sheet: Tsukasa, her eyes aglow and her hands around Kagami's neck, Homura with a gun to Tsukasa's skull… it was a scene out of a twisted nightmare, and all she could do was lie there and watch it unfold…
There was a monster in Tsukasa's closet.
Not her real closet, of course. This wasn't even her real room. It looked enough like it, with her stuffed animals, her vanity mirror, her discarded laundry atop her untidy sheets on the mattress, but it wasn't her room. It didn't matter, because the thing inside the closet was trying to get out, and she wouldn't let it. She couldn't let it.
Trembling, she pressed herself against the sliding panel door with all her weight, feeling it push back and bulge as the Demon threw its body against it. Flesh and fragments of bone seeped through the grooves all around the door, threatening to consume the rest of the wall, but as long as she held it closed…
"You'll never win, Tsukasa Hiiragi," rasped the Demon. "Never. Let me out."
"No." She shook her head and tried to block out its horrible voice. "No!"
"Haaah… sooner or later, I'll break free and take complete control. When I do, I'll use your hands to rip everyone you love apart…"
"I won't let you!"
A pause. "Haaah… I have something to show you, little one. Would you like to see it?"
Tsukasa shook her head frantically. "No!"
"This is your friend Aya's last memory. I took it from her when she became part of me…"
The foreign memory violated Tsukasa, forced itself into her mind. The crows tore into her with their teeth, ripping off her clothes, her skin, her flesh… she screamed in agony, until they took her throat…
"That was her death, would you like to see more…?"
Kagami fell roughly to the ground, sucking air greedily into her lungs. Tsukasa stumbled backward, almost tripping over Homura's foot. And Homura stared, confused and suspecting a trick, keeping the gun trained on Tsukasa…
Tsukasa gripped her skull as if it were about to split apart. "Nooooo! Please, onee-chan, it hurts, it hurts!"
Wild-eyed with fear for her sister, Kagami reached for the closest person at hand, and ended up clinging to Homura's leg. "Homura," she gasped, her throat still raw, "Homura, help her, it's killing her!"
Still impossibly calm, Homura held the gun steady. "Tsukasa-san? Tsukasa-san, if you can hear me…"
"A… Akemi…san…" The searchlights from Tsukasa's eyes flickered out, and tears streamed down her face. "Kill it, please kill it… shoot me…"
Tsukasa lay fetal and shivering on the floor. More tendrils of flesh crept across the wall, but the closet door stayed closed. Searing fire scoured her every nerve, but she held on with all the strength she had… because letting the Demon out would be incalculably worse. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to replace the awful images the Seventh sent her with something else, anything else… Yuki-chan…
Miyuki. The warmth of her embrace, the color of her skin, the heat that she always felt inside when they were together. Nights when the air hung heavy with the perfume of their sweat, when they lay so close together that they could hear each other's hearts beating. Miyuki Takara, the person that she loved with all her heart… She could almost feel her arms around her now…
Inexplicably, the Seventh started to laugh. "This is your defense? Haaah hah hah hah… Let me tell you something, Tsukasa… your Miyuki, your love, your feelings? Lies, all lies."
"Haaah. The person that you think you love doesn't exist. She's a reflection."
"She only wants your body, your energy…"
Tsukasa stood up.
Though it made her tired muscles groan in protest, Kagami stumbled forward, opening her arms. "Tsukasa, no!"
"Kagami, what are you doing?!" Homura's practiced calm briefly failed her, and the gun wavered for just a moment.
"Not like this! It doesn't end like this, do you hear me?" Hot tears spilled from Kagami's eyes as she stepped unsteadily toward her sister. "Not like this! You can fight it, I know you can! I'm here, Tsukasa, I'm right here!"
"Onee-chan," Tsukasa whispered, holding herself tight. "I… I feel it inside… I'm keeping it locked away, but it's h-hurting me…"
"It's okay." Against all logical sense, Kagami smiled. "It's gonna be okay, because I'm here. Because I love you…"
Homura watched in awe and confusion as the silhouettes of feathered wings unfurled from the backs of both twins: white wings for Tsukasa, black wings for Kagami, both pairs ghostly and insubstantial, like they were made of shifting mist… Is that… They look almost like-
"Homura," said Kagami without looking back. "Take Konata and the others and go back to the café. Tell everyone else that's there to get out."
"Don't be a fool, I can't leave you here! It's-"
"I know," she said as her wings spread wide. "I know it's dangerous, but I want to teach this thing a lesson for hurting my sister."
Homura bit the inside of her cheek. She felt so lost… she was supposed to be the one in charge, the one who explained everything. Her mission used to be so simple: protect the Hiiragis. But now who was protecting who? The lines were blurred… She took one last longing look at the shadowy wings, then nodded and turned over her shield.
By the time Homura blinked into existence next to her, Konata had managed to pull herself up onto her elbows. "Akemi-san," she groaned, trying to move her deadened legs. "G-good timing…"
"Izumi, can you stand? What happened?" she asked as she offered her hand.
"Don't think so, not yet. I…" Here Konata smiled sheepishly as she reached up to take it. "I tried to make a contract-"
Homura's grip tightened so hard that Konata winced. The Puella Magi shot a glare as cold as a midwinter's night at the Incubator now sitting to the other girl's left. "Did you."
To be fair, said Kyubey, it was her idea, and she did ask to know the risks first…
"S-sorry," stammered Konata, unnerved. This wasn't anything like when Kagami got angry… Kagami just shouted and acted tsundere, but Homura looked like she was considering murder. "I'm really sorry, I just wanted to-"
"It's not your fault," said Homura, deathly quiet. To Kyubey, she sent a private telepathic message: You and I are going to discuss this thoroughly later.
"But it didn't work, anyway…" said Konata. "I'm not a Puella Magi, Kyubey said my Soul Gem didn't appear…"
She didn't have time to be surprised by that, or wonder how it could be possible. "Be very, very thankful that it didn't. Climb onto my back," said Homura, kneeling down so Konata could put her arms around her shoulders.
"Wh-what's going on, anyway?" asked Konata, looking over at the two winged figures. "What's that thing doing to Tsukasa, and what's with the wings? Are they gonna be okay?"
"I honestly don't know." With her passenger secured, Homura turned her shield over again. The world froze and turned to greyscale, and she took off at a run toward the Lair's entrance. "Hold on to me as tightly as you can."
"Wait, what are you doing?! You're not leaving them, are you?"
"I need to get you and the others out of here."
"But…" Konata stammered again. "What about Tsukasa and Kagamin?!"
"I don't think Kagami needs my help…" It hurt to admit that, it really did. Homura turned her shield upright again as they reached the very edge of the barrier. The world resumed its course, and she plunged through the billowing clouds of fog until she felt the solid wooden floor of the café's stage underneath her feet. Relieved, she drew in several breaths of fresh, clean air, free of the scent of blood and death, taking just a short moment to let it calm her… That done, she set Konata gently down on the floor, then turned to face her, putting her hands on the other girl's shoudlers. "Izumi-san, we'll talk about this once the Demon is dead. For now, just rest… I'm going back in for your friends."
Konata nodded shakily. "Y-Yeah. You do that. Go get Patty and the others… and make sure you bring Tsukasa back too, okay?"
"And where is Tsukasa, exactly?" The voice came from one of the tables. The café was deserted save for one person, who sat near the foot of the stage with her arms crossed, her foot tapping impatiently against the floor.
Konata looked over Homura's shoulder to see who it was, and let out an audible gulp. "H-Hey, Miyuki-san…"
"Akemi-san, Konata-san," said Miyuki, adjusting her glasses. "I believe the two of you owe me an explanation."
Oh, how easy it would be, the Second thought as she glared at the two girls on the stage. To eliminate both the Puella Magi and Izumi in one fell swoop, while they're both distracted. No more distractions. No more hiding. Finally, an end to this charade.
But no, damn it all, that wasn't possible. That wasn't the plan. Everything they had left depended on maintaining that plan, and that meant keeping her cover for just a little while longer.
However, she could at least be convincingly angry with the two of them, and enjoy watching them squirm as they tried to explain themselves. The deception would hold up, for now.
Izumi was babbling something at her about a stage show gone wrong, but the Puella Magi silenced her with a look and stood up, brushing back her hair. "Takara-san," she said, turning to face her, "I dislike telling lies. I do owe you an explanation, but right now isn't the time. There are four innocent lives in danger. Only I can help them, so please, watch over Izumi-san until I return with the others."
The Second kept her face set and nodded to her hated enemy. "Of course, Akemi-san."
Tsukasa's wings disappeared. Once again the searchlights shone from her eyes, and a crimson aura surrounded her body. The force of that aura pushed against Kagami like the hand of a giant, threatening to topple her over, but she pressed forward, shielding her eyes against the glare… "Tsukasa, keep fighting! I know you can do it!"
The Seventh snarled. "Haaah… she can't hear you any longer, little fool. Her strength is gone."
"You're lying!" Kagami took another slow step forward, reaching into the aura… it felt like it was flaying away at her skin. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she brought her wings forward to partly cover herself. "Tsukasa's stronger than you know! She can hear me, I'm sure of it!" The stormy sky above them cracked like glass struck by a hammer, and a great shudder ran the length of the Lair. The heaving of the ground almost made Kagami lose her footing, but she took another step into the bloody aura. The searchlights from her eyes were too bright to see anything else now… she shut hers tight and thrust both hands forward… "Tsukasa, whatever you're doing, keep it up! Keep fighting!"
"Haaah! She can't hear you, she can't-"
"I believe in you, Tsukasa! You're not alone!" Kagami's hands were scoured to the bone now, her body was on fire… Keep going, she told herself. The pain's not real, it's just an illusion… "Please, Tsukasa!"
One sister's hand broke through the wall of crimson energy, smoking and singed… and was grasped by the other.
"You…" said Tsukasa to the Demon behind the door as she clenched her fists. "You don't know anything." The thought of embracing Miyuki again was filling her with strength and power.
"Haaah… little fool. Have you so thoroughly fallen into delusion…?"
"Sh-shut up!" she cried as she stamped her foot against the floor. There was a spark in her heart, igniting into a flame with the force of her anger, quickened by her emotion. "You don't understand… about friendship, or love, or anything! You're nothing but… but darkness and hate and… and I'm not gonna let you hurt anyone else!"
Tenderly, Kagami put her arms around her sister, laid her head on her shoulder. "Tsukasa…"
A heartbeat later, Tsukasa did the same. "Onee-chan…"
The white wings reemerged from Tsukasa's back. Both sets of wings enveloped the girls, opposite-colored feathers setting off sparks as they touched each other…
Somehow, in that moment, Tsukasa knew what she had to do. All the energy she was putting into keeping that door closed, she had to take back into herself. She had to let it open. The girl closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and clasped her hands together…
The closet door was blown off its hinges, and the Demon's shape emerged, three meters tall and pale as death, clad in white robes and with a skull that flickered into multicolored facets. The Seventh roared and lunged for Tsukasa, its flesh and bone racing across the wall, devouring it like a cancer. Its hands grasped for the girl's neck to snap it like a twig…
It never had a chance. Tsukasa's eyes snapped open, filled with stars. Her wings unfurled from her back. She took all the strength of her love for Miyuki and directed it into one huge blast of white flame that erupted from her heart. The Seventh was caught up in that blast and incinerated, reduced to nothing but floating ashes.
Still in each other's arms, they fell to the stage together as the Lair collapsed and dissolved like a bad dream. They barely felt it as Konata clumsily attempted to hug them both at the same time, bouncing up and down with such joy that it was astonishing to think she was almost paralyzed only moments ago.
Patricia and the Zakenna girls were there too, sleeping peacefully on what was left of their costume, just a few feet from where Homura and Miyuki sat by the footlights, in the midst of a long conversation. Kyubey sat in Homura's lap, his tail twitching back and forth.
"All right, all right, we're fine, so knock it off," said Kagami shakily, waving an arm to push Konata away. "God, you're like a puppy…"
Barely deterred, Konata tried to peer over Kagami's shoulder. "Is Tsukasa gonna be okay?"
Tsukasa's reply was weak. "Th-think so… Need some water…"
"Right!" Konata slammed a fist into her palm and clambered to her feet. "One water, coming up!" She rushed off the stage so fast she almost tripped.
When she was gone, Kagami looked up and smiled gratefully at the dark-haired girl… only to have the smile drop off her face as she saw the person sitting next to her. "M-Miyuki…?"
Miyuki nodded curtly. "Kagami-san."
"She knows," said Homura simply. "I thought it best to-"
"Yuki-chan…!" Tsukasa was a blur of motion. She dashed to the foot of the stage and almost knocked Miyuki into a footlight. "Oh, Yuki-chan, I'm so sorry, I should have told you, I wanted to tell you, but-"
"There, there," said Miyuki, gently patting her back. "It's all right. I forgive you. I understand now."
"Yuki-chan… Yuki-chan, I thought I was never gonna see you again…"
Feeling suddenly empty, Kagami rose to her feet. She was very grateful when Homura moved to catch her as she fell an instant later… whatever power she had been using in the Lair, it had left her exhausted. "Thanks," she whispered. "You did it, you got everyone out… Thank you…"
Homura closed her eyes. "Not everyone."
It was only in the kitchen that Konata started to cry. It was right here that she and Aya made drinks just a few hours ago. Over there she had once done an emergency stitching job when one of Patty's stockings ran right before a show. Her clothes were still in one of the storage lockers in the back, they probably even still smelled like her, maybe they were even still warm. Poor Aya, she would never come back to get those clothes. They would never perform on stage together again. Aya…
The tears came with heavy choking sobs. It was unfair. Aya hadn't done anything wrong, she had died trying to protect her friends, and she never even knew… Never knew the truth about Demons and magical girls and the sacrifice Konata had been prepared to make…
"Kona-chan?" Patricia Martin came around the corner, yawning. "Hey, Kona-chan, what happened? Your friend Akemi said a pipe must have burst above us or something, but why did… Kona-chan? You okay? What's wrong?"
Konata hurriedly rubbed her eyes and put on a cat smile for her friend's sake. "N-nothing, Patty-chan, it's nothing. It's just…" She sniffled and looked around at the familiar little kitchen, at the frilly maid headdresses sitting on a shelf, at the props lying scattered around. How she loved this café, her first job, a place where she could truly be herself… but everything was different now. "It's just…" she continued, "I… I'm sorry, but I think I'm gonna have to quit. I can't work here anymore."
Patricia's blue eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. "Q-quit? Why? Wasn't the show any good? Why would you do that?"
"No, no," said Konata hurriedly, waving her hand. "The show was fine, really it was, it was great… I've just… got a lot on my mind right now."
"Hrm…" Patricia frowned and crossed her arms. "I guess I can't stop you, but it's gonna be tough to replace you in our act, you do such a great Haruhi with me and Aya, you know?" She stopped and looked around. "Where is Aya, anyway?"
Konata swallowed. "She… I think she went home."
The reunion was interrupted by a sudden coughing fit from Tsukasa.
"Hey, are you okay? Tsukasa, what's the matter?" Kagami felt panic rising in her breast as she gently pounded on her sister's back. "Tsukasa?"
Miyuki drew back from Tsukasa's embrace. "Oh dear, Tsukasa-chan, are you sick again? Should I call for a-"
Tsukasa leaned over, put her hand to her mouth, and retched… her hand came back holding a translucent black cube with a spindle rammed through it. "Onee-chan," she said wearily as she looked at the Curse Seed and shuddered, "I think I wanna go home now…"
"We will," said Kagami, taking it from her and passing it to Homura, who placed it inside her shield. "We will, really soon. Never mind, Miyuki, I think she'll be okay now." I hope.
To her surprise, Tsukasa turned to Homura next. "Akemi-san, I…"
Homura blinked. "Tsukasa?"
"I need a favor. Something only you can do."
Confused, Homura looked back and forth from sister to sister before she answered. "Yes…?"
Tsukasa put a trembling hand to her forehead. "The Demon… it put… memories inside me. Awful ones, from the people that it… that it k-killed... Can you… take them out? I… I don't want-"
Beside her, Miyuki tensed.
A painful memory surfaced inside Homura as she turned away. In her world, one of the Hiiragis had asked her to do something similar, and when she refused, it led to catastrophe… But this was different. These memories weren't Tsukasa's. There was no reason for her to bear them, to suffer the trauma of the Demon's victims in addition to her own. She thought about what she might do, and that was it, the decision was made. Mercy was the answer. "I will," she said to Tsukasa, nodding. "I'll do my best."
"Can you really do that?" asked Kagami, looking fearful.
"Ordinarily, no, but foreign memories should be easier to find and separate from hers. Tsukasa, if you would, please. This will be easier if you're relaxed." She knelt on the stage and patted her lap.
"I'll try." Tsukasa swallowed and gave Miyuki's hand a squeeze for support. She then closed her eyes, turned her back, and laid her head down. She shivered a little as Homura's cool fingers found her temples and pressed gently…
Homura found the victims' memories without much effort. They were angry, twisting things, discolored whirlpools in the ocean of Tsukasa's thoughts. When she tugged the first one free, she felt a wave of sympathy for the girl, and knew that she was doing the right thing after all… the Demon had clearly chosen only its most violent, savage kills to implant into her. With a gentle hand she plucked each victim's memory away from the whole, regarded it for a moment with disgust, and scattered it into nothingness with a small bolt of power.
Then she stumbled across something in Tsukasa's mind, buried deep down, that nearly made her drop the girl in shock. Only her storied self-control kept her focused on the task at hand; losing concentration during this process could have disastrous consequences. Trying hard not to let the discovery rattle her, she continued with her work, steadily calming the ocean of thought, until at last it was smooth and tranquil once more.
"Th-thank you," said Tsukasa when she was finished, sitting up dizzily. "Thank you, Akemi-san. I owe you one."
"Come here," said Miyuki, drawing the other girl into her arms. "It's going to be all right now."
Homura sat still and said nothing.
"Homura?" Kagami noticed the expression of worry on her face, faint though it was. She frowned and put a hand on Homura's shoulder and shook gently. "Homura, what is it?"
Homura stared at her, at a loss for words. How could she tell her? What words could she possibly use to tell Kagami what she had found? "Later," she said quietly, "I'll tell you later."
In truth, she wanted to do nothing of the sort, for she dreaded the inevitable moment when she would have to tell Kagami the truth: that she was not the first to alter her precious sister's memories…
END OF CHAPTER 22