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After the third time Sayaka doesn't listen to reason in battle, charging in early when she'd be better off playing it safe or getting in someone else's way to take a hit that they totally could have shaken off, Kyoko can't deal with this dumb rookie any more.

"You gotta help me figure out a way to drill her out of it," she tells Mami over strawberry cake. She's living at Mami's place now, which is disorienting; she keeps expecting to get kicked out. But she needed a local home address to enroll at Mitakihara Junior High after the summer break, and Mami seems determined to make that a real thing, not just a front they put up on paper.

"Is it really such a problem?" asks Mami. "She has the best healing abilities out of all of us. And it isn't like anyone's gotten seriously hurt because of her tactics."

"I don't care if she gets hurt!" exclaims Kyoko, stabbing her fork through the cake's fluffy layers. "She can get herself killed for all I care. More grief cubes for the rest of us! But as long as she's part of a team, we're better off if she acts like it."

This is a serious issue, so it's really annoying when Mami just smiles. She does that a lot these days, any time someone says a word like "team" or "friends" or "us" around her. Kyoko gets that her mentor has loneliness issues, but ugh, would it kill her to focus? They're trying to talk about Sayaka, here.

"You can at least talk to her about it at our next training session, right?"

"Of course," says Mami, delicately spearing her strawberry. "Or, if you want, I can help you work out what to say."

"She won't listen to me!" snaps Kyoko. "And, uh, who says I want to talk to her anyway?"

 

~*~

 

After the lunch bell rings, Sayaka heads up to the school building's roof. This used to be her spot until Homura transferred in, and the creepy genius girl promptly took it over. (Without even asking!)

At the top of the stairs she forces herself to calm down, and by the time she takes a seat next to Homura on the marble-white plinth she's feeling practically civil. When it's this cold out, Sayaka probably wouldn't even eat up here anyway. "Listen, transfer student, I need your help with something. It's important, or I wouldn't be asking."

Homura, who's been working her way through a boxed lunch out of a vending machine, nods. "I'm listening."

"You know Kyoko?" Dumb question — the four local magical girls all know about each other — but Sayaka keeps going anyway. "Loud, bossy redhead, keeps getting in trouble for eating in class, keeps calling me 'rookie' even though I've been doing this for more than half a year now?"

"I am aware of Sakura Kyoko," says Homura.

"Great! So have you noticed how she's having trouble with schoolwork and stuff?"

"I...had not."

"It's not like it's her fault!" adds Sayaka quickly. "She was out of school for a long time, and when she came back they just threw her in this grade without testing her or anything. We can't all be weird geniuses who know everything on their first day back. I'm not saying she's stupid!"

"Of course not," says Homura. "Sorry, but what does this have to do with me?"

"I want to make a study group to help her, that's what. And I want you to be in it, because you are a weird genius, while I may be great with a sword but I'm a totally average student."

Homura does her annoying silent-stare thing for a minute. A cold wind blows across the roof, tossing her long hair and the tail-ends of that ribbon that doesn't suit her at all. At last she says, "This is very thoughtful of you, Miki Sayaka."

"Thoughtful? Seriously? I just don't want her to fail all her classes and be a wreck in battle because of it. Magical girls gotta stick together, even if certain magical girls are totally obnoxious 'look at me, I'm so cool for thinking everything sucks' types. So, are you in? And is your place free?"

 

~*~

 

They meet outside the door of Homura's apartment building.

"Rookie," says Kyoko by way of greeting.

"Transfer student," replies Sayaka in kind.

Kyoko snaps off the end of a stick of pocky, crunching it between her teeth. "You aren't going to call both me and Homura 'transfer student', are you? Because that's gonna get confusing real fast."

Sayaka, who brought her own bag of snacks for the study group but has managed not to start gulping them down yet, pushes the button to have Homura buzz them in. "Yeah, all right, I won't. Wouldn't want to tax your brain power. You need all of that for algebra."

They keep bickering on their way up the stairs...

...until they get Homura's door open, and both stagger back, covering their mouths.

"Ugh, what died in here?" demands Kyoko. "This place reeks!"

"This from the girl who still has to be reminded that she's able to take regular showers," mutters Sayaka.

"I was homeless! What's her excuse?"

"Maybe she's never lived on her own before this?"

"I've lived on my own for a long time," interrupts Homura. She just sort of appeared in the middle of the dark room. It's really eerie how she does that. (And she isn't transformed, so it can't be her time-stopping power.) "If it isn't presentable in here, I apologize. Miki Sayaka did basically invite herself over."

"You didn't mention that to me," says Kyoko, in between pocky sticks. The two of them forge deeper into the apartment, Homura trailing along with them. Dirty dishes are piled in the kitchen, which smells like mold.

"I thought it would be like Mami's place!" Sayaka pokes her head in the bathroom for a second, wincing at the built-up grime in the sink and tub. "Hey, transfer student, how can you live like this?"

Homura's expression is blank. "Until just recently, I had a...service...come in and clean up for me every other month. I don't know how to deal with...mold. It's all right, though. Magic can protect us from diseases, and we don't have to use our senses of smell if we don't want to. And I have a holoprojector to cover anything that doesn't look good."

"This is ridiculous." Kyoko turns to Sayaka. "We can't let her settle for this."

For once, Sayaka is in complete agreement. No matter how annoying Homura is, she deserves better. "We sure can't. Bet she doesn't even have any cleaning supplies, do you, Akemi?"

Homura blinks a couple of times. "I have soap."

"Right." Sayaka empties the snacks onto the least musty-looking chair, leaving her with a nice free bag. "Time to go shopping."

"I'm not paying," says Kyoko.

"You can't just — oh, right, no money," says Sayaka. "Fine. But you're carrying."

"I have money," says Homura quietly. "You really don't need to...."

"Great!" Kyoko grabs her arm. "C'mon, you can pick out your favorite fresh scents."

 

~*~

 

They return armed with garbage bags, rubber gloves, and a whole rainbow of cleaning supplies.

"I'll start on the dishes while you clean out the cupboards," says Sayaka.

"Don't tell me what to do, rookie." But Kyoko's already arming herself with a duster.

"And one of us should check the fridge!" adds Sayaka over the running water as she fills the sink. "We can probably cut down on the smell by tossing anything that's gone bad."

"What do you mean, tossing? Just because something's a little past the sell-by date, that's no excuse to waste —"

She opens the door. Gags. Slams it shut again.

"Akemi!" she shouts. The dark-haired girl is standing in the kitchen door, still holding the supplies they loaded her up with. "How could you let all this perfectly good food rot? That's a horrible thing to do!"

Homura blinks. "I didn't mean to. How long do things take to rot?"

"Well, how should I know?" demands Kyoko. "I never leave leftovers!"

The water under Sayaka's hands foams blue with dishwashing liquid. "We can take a break later and look that stuff up, okay? Now, somebody throw me a sponge."

 

~*~

 

With gloves up to their elbows, Kyoko scrubs the shower tiles with a vinegar mixture while Sayaka clears off the counter to sponge it off, including the sink.

Homura's been sent off to haul away a couple of full garbage bags, and she isn't burning through time-stop magic to do it, so she'll be out for a few minutes. Kyoko takes the opportunity to say, "Listen, rookie, what's your problem with Akemi?"

"What do you mean, problem?"

"Oh, come on. You snap at her practically as much as you do me. But she doeesn't snap back, so what gives?"

Sayaka doesn't answer right away; she's handling the drain cleaner, and that stuff can be toxic. It's a good thing it's unseasonably warm today, because they have all the windows open. "It's different," she says at last. "The way I don't like her isn't the same as the way I don't like you. Obviously."

"Well, I figured that," mutters Kyoko. "She kill your dog or something? What started it?"

Twisting the jug of toxic chemicals shut, Sayaka looks for a spot for it under the sink, and finds the cupboard empty but spiderwebby. "Hang on, I need the duster again."

She gets it from the kitchen, both hands going tight around the handle like it's a sword hilt.

When she returns, she gets to work with rough, methodical strokes. Her voice echoes against the inside walls: "Nothing started it. I mean, nothing real. There's just this feeling I always get around her, like...she took something of mine. Something important."

"Wow," says Kyoko, unhooking the shower head to aim it at the suds on the walls. "That's heavy."

"I know it doesn't make sense," says Sayaka testily. "I just can't shake it."

"Hey, I didn't say anything." The handle creaks as Kyoko twists it, starting the spray. "So...when you say it's different, that means you don't get anything like that around me, right?"

"Right," says Sayaka. "With you, it's mostly just your stupid face."

 

~*~

 

"Turn off your holoprojector and turn on your sense of smell, transfer student, because our work here is done!"

The kitchen is sparkling. So is every other room in the house, but the change here is most dramatic. Homura turns in a slow circle to take it in: the counters no longer piled with dishes and crumbs, the gleaming floor, the cupboard doors that finally close and have been cleared of anything Kyoko wouldn't eat.

Her expression still doesn't change a whole lot, but she sounds pretty pleased when she says, "Lemony-fresh."

"We called Mami to bring you over a home-cooked dinner tonight," says Sayaka.

"Which doesn't mean we can't break into the snacks in the meantime," adds Kyoko, tearing open a box of miniature sweet rolls.

"And if we have regular study groups, we can check in on the place to make sure it doesn't get this bad again," continues Sayaka.

Kyoko swallows a bite of the roll and grins her slightly-fanged grin. "Maybe we'll even get some studying done next time."

Now there's an actual smile transforming Homura's face. "It's always nicest when you two work together."

"Hey, don't get me wrong!" Kyoko holds up her hands. "Just because Sayaka handled this well doesn't mean she's not still a dumb rookie."

"And just because Kyoko was very mature about the whole thing doesn't mean she's stopped being an obnoxious brat," adds Sayaka, just as her phone starts ringing. "Oh, hey, that's probably Mami now."

She answers the call. Listens. Frowns.

"Wraiths," she says without preamble, her magical girl uniform flaring into place around her figure. "Too many for her to take out alone. Let's go."

 

~*~

 

The miasma blankets the entire bridge. Faceless, demonic wraiths crawl up from the paved surface of the highway below — which is good, because they'd have a high chance of causing a despair-induced car crash if they stayed down there — to attack the magical girls, their instinctive prey.

Blank-white and strangely pixelated, like glitches in the fabric of reality, they grate against all the girls' senses. They're unnatural. They do not belong in this world.

Sayaka and Kyoko mow them down in perfect harmony.

They drop to the ground side-by-side as the miasma dissipates, heels clicking against the bridge along with the dozens of tiny black cubes that the wraiths leave behind. It's a good haul. Purifying their soul gems for the next battle will be a piece of cake.

Speaking of cake: Mami made one, and left it sitting in a box at the edge of the battlefield, along with a covered casserole container. She and Homura are standing next to the food, watching in shock and relief, respectively. They've barely had to do a thing this whole fight.

"That was amazing!" exclaims Mami, clapping her hands as her friends scoop up the grief cubes. "Kyoko, did you talk to her after all?"

Sayaka's eyes narrow. "Talk to me about what?"

"About your stupid face," says Kyoko cheerfully. "It's fine, we handled it. Now let's get back and have dinner, already."

"Glutton," mutters Sayaka.

"Ungrateful," counters Kyoko.

"Jerk."

"Idiot."

"Not to worry, Tomoe Mami," says Homura, as the supposedly-older girl doesn't seem sure whether to approve or intervene. "Now that they've gotten to this stage, everything is going to be fine."