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Have Your Death And Eat Cake Too

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She should have waited for Homura.

The thought flashed across Kyoko's mind as she fell in slow motion, watching the links of her spear arc against the grey sky, aiming to hook a target she already knew was too far. Once upon a time she'd had the energy to cut down demons from dusk till dawn, but then she had gotten older and landed a job that kept her on her feet all day and blown out her knee a few years back (nothing to do with demons; amateur bian soccer league, of all things). She shouldn't have plunged into this battle, knowing she was tired, knowing Homura would be there just as soon as she'd made her excuses and gotten out of whatever meeting she was currently running.

At least she had cleared the last of them out of the hospital before she fell.

I'm sorry, thought Kyoko, all the more so because she was the last of their incongruously tight-knit group. Other cities had puella magi, but between their teamwork and, to be honest, Homura's jaw-dropping levels of power, they'd never needed to call in anyone else's help. Kyoko didn't put great odds on Homura letting any of those girls get close to her. They might have her back in a fight, but when the dust settled and the grief cubes were swept up, she'd be alone—

(Bells—)

She's not alone.

(—and the scent of lilies, and the touch of soft hands—)

And neither are you.

(Funny. Kyoko thought death was supposed to hurt.)

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

There's an awful polyester squeaking interrupting her nap.

Kyoko groans and rolls over on the cotton sheets. If it's the neighbors having loud sex in the apartment next door, she hopes they break the bed...

"Kyoko-neechaaaaan! Are you up yet?"

"Eh?" mumbles Kyoko, levering her eyes open. A set of frilly white skirts comes into view, short legs kicking as they bounce up and down on a chair. The fabric of the chair squeaks every time the figure bounces, but that's not the point anymore, not when she knows that voice.

She raises her gaze to a chubby face dominated by an endless smile, silver baubles bringing some order to the mass of disheveled spring-green hair.

"Yay!" exclaims Yuma, clapping her hands. "Kyoko-neechan's awake!"

She bounces straight onto the bed with Kyoko still gaping. Yuma, her greatest regret: the girl who became a puella magi far too young, whom Kyoko used her mind-tricking powers to convince her parents they had adopted until the night when the demons came too fast. Kyoko had wiped her parents' memories, it was easier that way, and planted a memorial that only she would ever visit, until she and Mami and Homura added a flower for—

Oh. Now there are going to be flowers for her too.

"I'm so glad you're here!" squeals Yuma, as Kyoko pulls her into a fervent embrace. "There's lots of food, and we can play together, and—but you have to meet the Lady first! It's the rules."

"The who?" says Kyoko, with a nervous glance at whatever she's wearing. It turns out to be a lacy tank top and a thigh-baring wraparound skirt with short shorts underneath, all in the same white as the sheets and Yuma's puffed sleeves. White seems to be an overall theme in the bedroom they're in, along with gold trim and more pink than Kyoko's normally comfortable with.

"The Lady. You're gonna love her." Yuma tries to wriggle free of the embrace, every inch a normal kid full of energy, oblivious to the fact that Kyoko never wants to let her go. "C'mon! I'll show you."

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

After a quick detour for Kyoko to wash her face (the attached bathroom had more marble than a coliseum, it was kind of intimidating) and pull her hair into a messy ponytail (with a white ribbon, of course), she follows Yuma down the hall. Here the hard marble lines are softened by a string of potted plants, and the whole thing is lit by a stained-glass skylight.

The doors are marked with gold plaques, emblazoned with a script Kyoko can't read. Some have decorations taped up, and whiteboards with scribbles in multicolored marker, as if they're in a university dorm and not some kind of palace. Yuma tugs on her hand until they reach one with another white ribbon tied around the doorknob.

"That means the Lady's in there," announces Yuma, pointing to the ribbon. "An' I'm not allowed in. You talk to her, then come find me! Or just wait for dinner. I'll be there."

She skips off down the hall. Kyoko's heart skips a beat when she vanishes, even though it's only by turning a corner.

But somehow, much as she wants to chase the girl and never let her out of her sight, this place feels safe. Like there's nothing here that could hurt Yuma even if it wanted to. Feelings can be deceptive, but between Kyoko's natural paranoia and her finely honed puella magi senses, that's a high bar to clear....

Puella magi? A sudden impulse makes her clasp her hands. Bare fingers. No ring.

But if she's made it this far without her soul gem, she may as well keep going.

The change in palette on the far side of the door dazzles her senses. This room is all in blue, like being inside a waterfall, or under the ocean; she nearly trips over what looks like a plush version of the fish pastries her fifteen-year-old self used to practically inhale. There's an actual waterfall on a desk beside her, one of those little electric fountains with three tiers of smooth stones, though Kyoko can't see any cords. She has to listen around the water to hear the breathing.

Over the back of an azure couch facing away from the door, she spots a head of tousled sky-blue hair.

The mystery girl's head is bobbing to a slow rhythm, breaths deep and ragged, and, oh, hell, Kyoko's interrupting something. She can't see the other person, except for the corner of a (white, obviously) skirt flowing out past the arm of the couch, but whoever they are, they know what they're doing if mystery girl's response is any indication.

If Kyoko could think of a quiet way to bolt and slam the door, she would have done it already. She can't. Which leaves her rooted to the spot, embarrassed and startled and, okay, maybe a little turned on, but mostly just freaking out.

Mystery girl's breath kicks up a notch. Her head falls back, hair fanning across the fabric of the couch; there's a flush high in her cheeks. Now that Kyoko knows what she's hearing, she can pick out the slick wet sounds that line up with the stranger's gasps and moans like lightning with thunder.

Half-lidded, unfocused eyes slide in Kyoko's direction, and stop dead when they reach Kyoko's horrified, frozen form.

"K-k—" A shudder upends the word before mystery girl can finish. She tries again, the name tumbling out with a desperate cry: "Kyoko-san!"

Kyoko knows that voice.

She doesn't know (except that she does, maybe from a dream) the laugh that answers it, bubbly and knowing and teasing all at once. "I knew you were thinking about her! But I guess I didn't realize how much."

Mystery girl—who isn't a mystery at all, oh god, she's Sayaka, a more mature version but definitely Miki Sayaka—just stares, until her companion rises from between her legs: another young woman with more hair than seems humanly possible, in a billowy white dress with the front open to bare teacup breasts. Sayaka is bright red by this point, probably about the same shade as Kyoko; actual-mystery-girl just lights up, without a hint of self-consciousness as she reclasps her bra.

"Kyoko-chan! I'm glad you're awake." She picks up a discarded white glove and uses it to dab the wetness from her chin, smiling all the while. "I'm sorry you caught us at an awkward moment. Let's go outside, and I'll explain everything while Sayaka-chan gets dressed. Is that all right, Sayaka?"

Sayaka nods, mutely. The stranger stands and presses a tender kiss to Sayaka's temple; pink hair and silken folds of cloth trail behind her as she comes over to take Kyoko's trembling hands in hers.

"D-do I know you?" stammers Kyoko.

"Not yet," says the stranger. "But you will."

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

Her name is Madoka, which gives Kyoko the same dreamlike feeling of recognition that seems to be around every corner. She doesn't explain anything, at first; she just asks if Kyoko wants something to eat, then leads her down a spiral staircase and through some doors until they're in a cathedral-sized kitchen, silver and polished and full of more food than Kyoko's ever seen in her life. There's a girl with rust-hued dreadlocks pushing salmon around in a pan, and one with short pink pigtails slicing strawberries, and one in a hijab tipping walnuts into a pot that smells of lamb and spices, and one with spiraling summer-gold curls measuring a cup of flour—

Kyoko swallows a gasp. Madoka just waves. "Mami-chan! She's up!"

Mami almost drops the flour. She catches it, of course, because she wouldn't be Mami if she didn't, and rests it safely on the nearest counter before sweeping over to Kyoko's side, scooping up a plate of croissants along the way. "Kyoko-san! Welcome! I made these earlier; try one. You don't look right without a snack in hand."

Kyoko takes a crossiant automatically, light and buttery and flaky against her fingers, but doesn't eat. Not yet. The other girls in sight, ranging from teenagers to women a little older than herself, are throwing her interested glances; she tries to nod to each. "Are they...all...?"

"...puella magi," finishes Mami. "Or, we used to be."

It makes sense, that the label no longer fits. Mami isn't wearing a visible soul gem either. But more than that, her eyes are bright, unmarred by the patina of loneliness that had lurked there for as long as Kyoko knew her. "And this is where we come when we die?"

"That's right. Or, more precisely, this is where Madoka brings us. It's her power behind everything. This place itself is her creation."

She nods to the girl in question, who has struck up a conversation with the young woman cooking the salmon. It seems impractical to wear white in a kitchen, but neither Mami's sundress nor the dreadlocked cook's tube top and long skirt look stained. The latter offers a sliver of salmon to Madoka, waiting anxiously while she tastes it, visibly relaxing as she licks her lips.

Then Madoka pulls the young woman into a deep kiss. Watching her melt against the touch, Kyoko's jaw drops.

"What about—her and Sayaka—?"

The corner of Mami's mouth quirks with mischief. "Madoka has more than enough love to go around. She's a mother figure to the young ones," which is good, because even some all-powerful goddess of puella magi would have had to watch her back if Kyoko found out she was abusing Yuma, "but to the rest of us..."

Kyoko makes a face. "It's not mandatory, is it?" It would be just like Kyuubey, conveniently forgetting to mention the "and when you die, you go join a lesbian harem" clause in the contract.

That is, assuming the furry little rat even knows this place exists. Somehow it doesn't feel like his style.

"Of course not," says Madoka, reappearing at their side with a bowl of fresh pear slices. Mami takes one gladly, licking up the syrup as it runs down her fingers; Kyoko remembers her croissant, and takes an outsized bite. "This place is about giving you things, not taking them away. Speaking of which...Sayaka-chan! You found us!"

Kyoko spots the blue-haired girl in an instant. Sayaka walks stiffly through the maze of countertops and ovens, hands clenched at her sides. She's in a white tank top printed with silver musical notes and a pleated skirt that reminds Kyoko of their old school uniforms, hair freshly combed and swept out of her face with a couple of silver pins. "Madoka-chan. Mami-chan. K-kyoko-san," she says, flushing slightly at the last. "Have they explained?"

"Only the basics," replies Mami. "Someone still needs to show her around. I'd volunteer, but I can't right now; there's still too much baking to be done before tonight."

Kyoko gulps down her mouthful of flaky dough. "It's fine. I promised Yuma I'd play with her anyway."

"I'll take you to her!" blurts Sayaka. "And I can show you a few things along the way. That's okay, right?"

"Good by me," says Kyoko, and shoots a cautious glance at Madoka, still not convinced that this diminutive pink-haired girl isn't going to call at least some of the shots.

Madoka just smiles, that innocent-but-knowing smile. "Go right ahead. But grab some more food, first. You'll need something to tide you over for the walk."

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

There's a swimming pool and a communal bath, half a dozen dining halls, hundreds of bedrooms, a library. The doors are all marked with those inscrutable runes, a whim of Madoka's; it turns out they're a cipher for romaji, and for some reason the residents never seem to have trouble picking them up. As souls without bodies, they don't technically need food or sleep or washing, though they're all available because it's more fun that way. They don't need toilets or sickrooms either, and for those Madoka doesn't waste the space.

Sayaka explains this all rapid-fire as she leads Kyoko down the hall, like she's a tour guide or something, and Kyoko tries to take it all in while munching on a bag of popcorn chicken and figuring out how to turn the conversation to something, anything, personal.

It's probably a lost cause. She's not great with emotional stuff anyway, and when Sayaka gets started on something she pushes it through all the way and damn the consequences. Or at least that's what Kyoko remembers from the short time they knew each other, which wasn't enough time for real knowing in the first place.

Maybe what Kyoko saw as a connection was just her imagination, trumped up by a posthumous airbrushing of Sayaka's legacy and with all the flaws invisible through years of rose-colored nostalgia. Maybe Sayaka has more friends among this throng of ex-puella magi than she knows what to do with, and hasn't thought of Kyoko for years.

Although she did recognize Kyoko on first sight. That's something, right?

"Now, this is a pretty impressive sight," says Sayaka, as they approach a set of double doors framed by more of the multicolored stained-glass arches. She puffs up a little, as if it's a point of personal pride to show off her goddess-girlfriend's handiwork. "Brace yourself."

Kyoko tries not to bristle. "I think I can handle it," she says, popping another bit of fried chicken into her mouth.

Sayaka nods, grabs the handle of one of the doors, and swings it outward.

There's awe, and then there's awe.

The building's front steps swoop down into a grassy field, marked by paths in a pattern of circles and lines so broad Kyoko can't make the whole of it out. Fields turn into trees turn into river turn into stone; bursts of autumn red and gold grow side by side with clusters of cherry trees in full blossom and snow-covered hills with frosted ponds at their feet. It's like an endless buffet table of the best nature has to offer, except that it's not endless, there's a horizon that gives way to stars, black night visible in the distance even as their little world is kept bright by the sky, and how to describe that sky?

There aren't words. It lights up the retired puella magi as they pick apples and go sledding and play Frisbee; Yuma's with that last group, a little green and white figure running through the grass under this puddle of liquid color, rippling and shimmering, a planet-sized lake of radiance hanging over their heads.

Something moves in the corner of Kyoko's vision. It's low to the ground, like a dog; she looks down. And then she screams.

The cottonball-dandelion-butterfly-thing skitters forward, twitches its mustache at her, and sweeps up the chicken she spilled before darting away.

Alerted by the noise, Yuma has spotted Kyoko and is running toward the steps. Sayaka, meanwhile, is laughing so hard she's crying.

"It's just an Anthony," she explains, once she can speak through the mirth. "I don't really understand it, but Madoka swears they belong here too. How can you be scared of him? He's so cute!"

"Cute things can be plenty scary!" grumbles Kyoko. "Case in point...."

She kneels to catch Yuma as the little girl flies up the steps and crashes into her arms, clamoring for her to come join the game.

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

Yuma runs fast and plays hard, right up to the point when she drops from happy exhaustion. She's the smallest player on either team, and still manages to give everyone else a run for their money.

Kyoko keeps up. It's been ages since she played this hard. Of course, it helps that her knee doesn't complain the whole time. She could get used to this whole soul-without-a-body thing.

She ends up hauling a dozing Yuma on piggyback into the building, in company of a brunette about Kyoko's own age who introduces herself as Maron, and, more importantly, knows where Yuma's room is. It doesn't even bother her that Yuma could technically be awake if she wanted to. After so many years of regret, being able to carry the girl around feels like a privilege, that she would happily choose for the rest of her death.

Thinking about it that way, though....

Yuma's room is full of cat toys and family portraits. Kyoko tucks her into a bed with moss-green hangings and follows Maron out before voicing what she's thinking, because she'd rather give her right arm than let Yuma overhear it and take it the wrong way. "Is she going to be a kid forever? Not that I'm complaining, but it doesn't seem fair to her, you know?"

"No one's mentioned...? I guess they wouldn't—you haven't even settled in." Maron twirls one of the ribbons on her dress as they head in what seems like the direction of the dining halls. "I don't know if I should say it. Our Lady might want you to see for yourself."

Kyoko cocks an eyebrow. "Your lady give a lot of orders like that?"

"It's not about orders," stammers Maron, dipping her head, though Kyoko doesn't miss the sparkle in her eyes and can practically taste the adoration in the air around her. "I don't want to make her unhappy, that's all. Besides, she knows what she's doing. I trust her with my life."

"But you're dead." Kyoko frowns. "Wait, is that not the end? Do we get more lives after this?"

"That's right." Maron gives her a shy smile. "I'm sort of the expert, actually. I've been about two dozen different puella magi, so I'm the one people ask when they want to be reassured that Our Lady will find them again at the end. There's someone else going back tonight—the party is to send her off. Most of the youngest girls Our Lady brings here feel like they missed out, and decide to go back right away."

"But Yuma never did." Kyoko can imagine why. After what most of Yuma's childhood had looked like, a year or two of a loving family that ultimately couldn't protect her wouldn't be enough to sell her on the merits of human life....

"Of course not," says Maron, guiding her into a light-bedecked chamber with three long and busy tables. "She's always telling us how she was going to spend some time with you first."

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

The meal isn't so much dinner as dessert-with-side-dishes. Kyoko spots the salmon, and the lamb dish is probably around here somewhere, but they're scattered among stacks of caramelized apple tarts, crème brûlée, raspberry charlottes, chocolate mousse garnished with sliced strawberries and whipped cream.

Oh, and cheese. Some of it sliced and placed in interlocking spirals with rows of crackers, some cubed with tiers of grapes, a couple of massive wheels with no adornments at all, just knives thrust in the top waiting to be used.

Madoka's at the head of the central table, with a wreath of women clustering around someone nearby, and Sayaka holding three chairs a few seats down. Kyoko swipes a handful of sugar cookies with macademia nuts as she makes her way over, scanning the other occupied seats for Mami, until with a start she notices blonde curls from the center of the throng.

"This seat taken?" she asks, not waiting for an answer before she plops down in a chair, the back of which Sayaka's arm is slung over. "This isn't Mami's going-away, is it?"

Sayaka moves her arm. "So you heard? No, it's Yuzuna's. She and Mami were close, that's all."

She turns her focus to holding Mami's chair. Kyoko munches on a cookie to fill the awkward silence until the women begin to disperse, filling in the empty seats. At last it's just Mami, and the now-visible pink-pigtailed girl from the kitchen, wearing a short dress (white, polka-dotted in silver) with oversized sleeves that swallow her hands.

When Mami kisses her on the mouth, Kyoko checks Madoka for signs of jealousy. No dice. Madoka just sips a glass of cherry punch and watches with sparkling eyes.

Nor is there any sign of distress in Mami when Yuzuna gives her one last hug, skips over to Madoka, and arranges herself in the younger woman's lap.

Kyoko's desperate to ask someone what the rules are about that, but it would be awkward with Mami and even more awkward with Sayaka, so she waits until everyone else has picked up their forks and digs into the meal with gusto. The only one not to eat is Madoka, who kisses Yuzuna's ear before telling the assembly the story of her wish, and of the valiant fights that followed. Her clear, bell-like voice is easily heard by all. Kyoko almost feels bad that she's only half paying attention.

She's full to bursting, and scooping up another forkful of petit gâteau anyway (because you don't disrespect food, even when it's not actually food and there are infinite amounts of it), when Madoka says, "Are you ready, Yuzuna-chan?"

After a moment of hesitation, Yuzuna grabs one last slice of cheddar from the table and pops it in her mouth. There's a ripple of laughter around the room as she swallows, and a fond sigh from Mami: "That girl and cheese! I hope she's reborn as someone who can appreciate my cakes properly."

"Now I'm ready," declares Yuzuna at last. As the crowd watches with bated breath, Yuzuna straddles Madoka's hips, while Madoka's hands slide up the backs of her thighs. "Because...because I'll see you again. Right?"

"Of course!" exclaims Madoka. "I'm glad you could be here, Yuzuna-chan. I'm glad so many of us could be your friends. You will always, always be welcomed back."

Yuzuna kisses her.

It starts off slow, but then her whole body arches into it. Madoka closes her eyes and tilts her head, almost innocently, though her hands are kneading Yuzuna's ass in a way that would have made Kyoko cover Yuma's eyes if she'd been present. Heat radiates from their embrace, they're practically glowing with it...and then they are glowing with it, or at least Yuzuna is, a vibrant pink that makes her look first like a puella magi mid-transformation, then some kind of living lamp, then a bolt of rosy lightning.

For a half-second she's too bright to look at, the pink a dazzling corona to pure white like the wings Homura sometimes spreads. When the brilliance fades, there's no human form remaining, just a whirl of light in Madoka's embrace as she herself rises into the air.

It deserves some kind of ringing speech, or maybe a quote from the Psalms.

"I'll see you outside in five minutes," says Madoka. "Don't forget to put away your dishes."

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

Not everyone joins the crowd heading outside, while a few of them, including Mami, head out to the front of the pack. Unsure where she's supposed to go, Kyoko settles for hanging back by Sayaka's side, a bunch of green grapes dangling from her fingers.

It's dark out. The field of color overhead has melted to a velvety blackness, tempered by streams of deep hues flowing through it.

A couple of Anthonies are dozing at the base of the front steps, cuddled together like a pile of discarded wool. Kyoko shivers without meaning to as she walks past them. "Aren't there any normal critters here?"

"I don't think animals fall under Madoka's charge," says Sayaka. "Except Amy—that's the cat she brought here a while back. I don't know what made her special, though."

"I guess animals wouldn't be able to say whether they want to stay, huh."

Sayaka gives her a startled look. "Sure they can. Didn't you ever meet Satomi? From the Pleiades Saints? She's asked."

"This place can't be that perfect!" blurts Kyoko.

A couple of the young women nearby give them odd looks as Sayaka whirls on her heel in the cool grass. "Why not? Didn't we all get the wishes we fought for? And Madoka's fought longer and harder than any of us. She's fighting on levels we can't even understand. Why shouldn't she be able to get whatever miracles she wants in return?"

With effort Kyoko lowers her voice. Even if the people around them aren't armed puella magi, she doesn't want to cause a scene. "Is that why you all sleep with her? Because you think she deserves it?"

"Because we love her," hisses Sayaka.

"Enough to give up living in the real world for it? Or is that just the excuse you use? Yuma's just a kid, but you're old enough to lick your own wounds and try again! Unless you're too much of a coward to go back, scared to give up this fairy-tale dreamland and risk getting rejected by some new boy as dim as the last—"

"You idiot!" cries Sayaka, throwing something the size of a baseball that knocks Kyoko hard in the chest and makes her gasp. "I don't know why I ever thought you were worth waiting for!"

She takes off through what's left of the fanned-out crowd, leaving Kyoko to catch her breath and stare mutely after her.

Everyone in range is looking carefully at something in the distance, which Kyoko figures is just politeness until she glances in the same direction. The highest point on the building is a solitary cupola, almost invisible against the dark sky except for the shining figure on the roof. Madoka's dress glows under its own power, star-white beside the streak of shocking pink in her arms.

When Kyoko blinks back the tears, she realizes that Madoka's drawing a bow.

It's something like Homura's puella magi weapon, in the sense that a hurricane is like a sigh. The goddess pulls back on the string and fires, sending Yuzuna's soul arcing across the pseudo-sky and back toward the streak of reality at the horizon, while a shower of pink sparks rain down in its wake like falling stars.

A scattered medley of claps and cheers rises from the audience. Chewing furiously at her lip, Kyoko hangs her head, and sees the blurred apple lying in the grass at her feet.

 

◕ ◕ ◕

 

It takes a lot of trudging through halls to find the highest staircase. She almost gives up from exhaustion before she remembers that being tired is voluntary and shakes it off.

The stairs end in front of a door, its gold plaque reading at the top. In runes, so maybe that's not what it says at all, but for some reason it seems like that's what it ought to say. She'd go through at once, but there's a white ribbon on the handle, so Kyoko sits down and munches on the apple while she waits.

It's not long before a girl comes out: one of the ones Kyoko hasn't met, a teenager with gold hair held in place by an animal-ear headband. (Polar bear ears.) She's pleasantly flushed, floating along in a daze until she nearly trips over Kyoko, who waves aside her apology and asks if Madoka's alone now.

The goddess is lying on the curved roof, eyes closed, pink hair streaming down the stone. She's almost still enough to be asleep, until she tactfully draws one of her skirt's billows over the front of her legs as Kyoko rounds the walkway to the side she's on. In return, Kyoko tactfully doesn't acknowledge the pair of panties dangling from her bare ankle.

Instead she says, "Tell me something that convinces me you're human."

"I don't love you all equally," says Madoka without missing a beat.

"That was fast."

"You think you're the first person to ask?"

Kyoko leans against the iron railing that edges the walkway and holds up the apple core. It dissolves into dust, to be carried away on a stray breeze that tousles her messy hair.

"For some people, that's enough," continues Madoka, crossing her arms behind her head. "Others wonder if it's just another trick. If I tell every girl she's my favorite, and swear her to secrecy so the others won't get jealous."

That had been Kyoko's next question, though she's loath to admit it. "So who's your real favorite?"

"Someone who's not here."

A memory clicks into place, and suddenly it all falls together. There's a reason Madoka's name sounded familiar, and it isn't because Kyoko heard it in a dream, or because it was somehow whispered in her ear when first she felt the goddess' hands gathering her close.

"Homura," she breathes. "Back in middle school, when she thought people weren't listening, she used to cry over someone named Madoka. And she wore these stupid hair ribbons that didn't suit her at all, but they would've looked great on you. Your favorite person...it's Akemi Homura."

The goddess nods.

"How in the world—?"

At last Madoka opens her eyes, a touch of melancholy in her golden gaze. "I can't tell you. Not yet. When she reaches the end of her fight, and I gather her despair into my own soul gem and bring her soul here to rest—when I've had the chance to ask her permission, and she's given it—then everyone will get to hear her story. But only then."

"I guess that's fair." Kyoko isn't sure she'd like anyone blabbing her own life story without her knowledge, even if the whole audience was tuning it out to focus on their dinner. "Hang on...your soul gem? You still have one? Where is it?"

Madoka aims one white-gloved finger upward.

Kyoko sees nothing, does a double-take, sees nothing again. There's no ring on her finger, no jewel on her wrist; she's got to be pointing at something. But all there is above her is empty air, all the way up to....

"Well, fuck," says Kyoko, and means it in the most impressed way possible.

When Madoka clamps a hand over her mouth to muffle a snicker, she doesn't sound like an immortal, all-powerful, all-sexuality-overriding goddess. She sounds like a girl ten years younger than Kyoko who's just learned to love being scandalized by dirty jokes; like the kind of person Kyoko could enjoy teasing, and still be determined to protect when the chips were down. The thought crosses her mind at the same time as she's staring at the best rationale for worshipping someone she's ever seen.

"I...I yelled at Sayaka," stammers Kyoko, a wave of shyness rolling over her. "I've wanted to see her again for years, and the minute I get the chance I yell at her. She didn't even deserve it."

"It's only your first day here," says Madoka. "When you get the time to talk properly, I'm sure you two can work things out. I believe in you."

"I don't know where she went." Kyoko swallows past the lump in her throat. "I don't even know how to find her room."

Madoka sits up, gathering the folds of her dress and reaching for her underwear. "Give me a second, and I'll show you."