The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live. You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.
—Louise Glück, "Persephone the Wanderer"
The stairs spiral up forever. They're far beyond any building, reaching into the sky without so much as a railing to mark their boundaries. In the air beyond their edges, sheets of flower petals drift downward like falling snow.
She runs up.
It feels like she's been running for an eon, like her whole past is made up of running and her whole future destined for the same. But eventually there's a gate, and beyond it a platform, and beyond it (against all logic or sense, but somehow, probably because this is a dream, she doesn't question it) a freestanding set of rollers from a car wash. She hesitates only for a second before diving through.
On the other side is chaos.
She's come out on the top floor of a building, sprouting twisted, blackened girders and charred scraps of furniture that show it hasn't held the position long. The air's choked with soot, the sky clouded over, the crumbling block around her bathed in bleak grey light. A monorail line runs past the building, its supports maybe three meters below her shoes, with the last broken half-car of a darkened train hanging off the tracks; she doesn't dare look long enough to tell whether there are bodies inside.
There's a creature floating overhead, a monster of gears and lace, its shrill laughter rattling a cityful of broken windows as explosions bloom uselessly across its flanks.
"You can stop this," says the figure beside her, a little white marshmallow of a critter with a tail as big again as itself. "You have the power to change destiny."
She watches, mute, as she comes flying across the sky, slamming into the roof of one of the subway cars hard enough to break bones.
A chunk of falling masonry shears against the face of the next building over, snapping wood and shattering glass as it passes; the roar fills her ears, drowning whatever groans the other girl makes as she fights to sit up in the crater of her own impact. This hit almost killed her. The next one will come closer. The one after that...
It doesn't matter what happens to me! Not if I can save the city...and that girl...
There's an explosion of white light, this one with herself at the heart.
The other girl screams. It's a howl of rage and pain too wild for an animal, let alone a human being, and it cuts through the din like a razor.
She ignores it, focuses instead on the ripped section of wall now hurtling toward them, its silhouette frayed by pipes jutting out from the edges. Ignores the bulging eyes, the fury that resolves itself into words—"You don't listen! You never fucking listen!"—and leaps to the rescue.
With a final sob the other girl collapses, a crumpled heap of torn fabric and tangled black hair.
Madoka draws her bow.
March 25, 2011
The stuffed bunny squished under her elbow as she stirred. She'd managed to fall asleep on its face; she could feel its plastic nose pressing into her forehead. That was going to leave a dent.
Madoka sat up in bed, dragging Mr. Bun with her. With the blinds down, her room was well-shadowed, though there was still enough light to make her close her bleary eyes rather than look at the windows.
With a sigh, she flopped forward onto the oversized bunny. "What a weird dream."
While half the girls in class crowded around the new student's desk, Sayaka folded her arms and sighed. "The poor girl just got out of the hospital, and now they're going to have to send her back for suffocation."
"She does seem fragile," agreed Hitomi. "Madoka-chan, you should make sure she knows where the nurse's office...Madoka-san?"
A hearty slap on the back from Sayaka snapped Madoka out of her daze. "I think someone's got a crush!"
"W-what? No!" stammered Madoka, as the half-remembered images she'd been trying to gather dissolved completely.
"No? Then why have you been staring at her ever since she walked in?" demanded Sayaka, her wolfish grin the polar opposite of Hitomi's scandalized squeak.
"I...I think I've seen her somewhere before. In a dream." Madoka blushed even harder at the way that sounded. "I was trying to figure out if it was really her, or just somebody who looks like her."
"Well, that settles it!" said Sayaka. "It's destiny! And a lucky one for you, too. With her cute face and those glasses, she's totally moe. And look how vulnerable she is, in a new school with that fragile body...I bet if you act cool and dazzle her with those flashy hair ribbons, she'll fall right into your arms."
"Sayaka-san, you're so mean!" Tears sprang to Hitomi's eyes. "How can you talk about taking advantage of someone like that?"
"Aw, Hitomi, relax." Sayaka reached awkwardly out to her, while between them Madoka lowered her head to avoid broadcasting her embarrassment like a lighthouse. "I'm just teasing."
Timid as the voice was, all three girls snapped to attention.
Akemi Homura stood in front of Madoka's desk. She was a tall girl, though the fact was obscured by the way she hunched her shoulders as if perpetually cringing, with silky yamato-nadeshiko hair gathered into two thick braids and cherry-red glasses that seemed too bright on her ashen face. "Kaname...san? You're the health representative...?"
"Yes! Yes, that's me! Do you feel sick? Do you want me to take you to the nurse?"
Homura nodded. "P-please."
Homura didn't say much as Madoka led her down the brass-and-glass halls, in spite of Madoka's best efforts to put her at ease. She stammered when Madoka commented on her cool name; she mumbled when Madoka invited her to a study group for any subjects where she'd fallen behind.
They were passing through the covered walkway over the courtyard when Homura finally spoke on her own: "Kaname-san, you're a very caring person, aren't you."
"Because I offered to study with you? It's not such a big deal. Anyone would do that."
"But you're the one who did," said Homura. "And you only met me today. You care a lot for your friends and family, right?"
"Of course!" Madoka thought of her father, showing Tatsuya how to pick ripe cherry tomatoes; her mother, pointing to the bright red ribbons and saying a woman should always dress as if she had a secret admirer; Sayaka and Hitomi, laughing and joking as they walked together under the trees. "My friends and family are very important to me."
"And if they were in some sort of danger, you'd try to protect them? In any way you could?"
"Well, of course I would," said Madoka uncertainly. "I don't know how much good it would do—I'm not a very strong person, and I don't have any special talents—but I would try."
Homura nodded. She was still lagging a half step behind Madoka, still with her eyes fixed firmly on the heels of Madoka's Mary Janes; but there was a subtle change in her demeanor, less of a stumble in her gait. "Kaname-san, are you busy this afternoon?"
"Please, call me Madoka! And, well, I was going to spend some time at the mall with Hitomi-chan and Sayaka-chan...would you like to join us? It'll help you start getting to know the town."
"Could we help me get to know the town without them?"
"Are you worried you won't get along? You'll like them, I promise! And I'm sure they'll—"
"I get nervous in groups," interrupted Homura, cutting Madoka off for the first time. "But I understand—if you already have plans, I don't want to be demanding...."
"It's okay, really! We hang out all the time. They'll understand if something comes up once in a while." They came to a stop in front of the nurse's office. "Not that I only want to hang out with you once in a while...I mean, we'll figure out the details of that based on how this goes, right? And on your health, if that's an issue. And...well, we can talk about it later, because this is the nurse."
Homura nodded. "I'll see you after school," she said, head still down. "Thank you, Madoka-chan. You have no idea how much this means to me."
"Ahhhh! Madoka-san has a forbidden-love date!" wailed Hitomi, and took off running. A few of the other students in the courtyard stared after her as she passed.
Sayaka sighed. "Don't worry, I'll catch up with her. You have fun with Akemi-san."
"It's not really a date, you know," said Madoka. Somehow, though she knew Hitomi would have overreacted anyway, it felt important to make that clear. "Homura-chan's shy, that's all."
"Of course she is," said Sayaka, patting her on the back. Madoka sighed with relief: too soon, as Sayaka went on, "It's normal to be shy around someone you like!"
Sayaka was already striding away. "See you later!" she called, waving to Madoka over her shoulder.
Almost too flustered to know which way was up, Madoka managed a halfhearted wave in return, then spotted Homura's dark hair not far off. Gathering what was left of her wits, Madoka went to greet her.
The stuffed panda squished under her elbow as she stirred. She'd managed to fall asleep on its face; she could feel its plastic nose pressing into her cheek. That was going to leave a dent.
Wait a minute. She didn't own a stuffed panda.
Madoka tried to sit up, only to be thwarted by a heaviness in her limbs. Her eyelids were more cooperative, revealing a scene that jarred against her senses. From the pale-jade paint and the pattern on the crumpled sheet, it looked like the edge of her bed where it pressed against the corner of the room; but the light was all wrong...the texture of the wall too smooth, as if the drywall had been sanded in the night...the air thick with an unfamiliar smell, like old paper.
Maybe the last fragments of a dream were bleeding through into waking. She took another shot at moving, noting as she did that her arm was still in the cuffed sleeve of her school uniform.
The shock gave Madoka the strength to roll over, knocking Panda-san aside as she did. "H-Homura-chan!" she said weakly, picking the other girl's form out of a blur of space and furniture. "You scared me."
"I'm sorry," said Homura.
It had to be the same Homura, right? Same voice, same silky hair....but the girl watching her from an office chair beside the bed had a completely different bearing from the shy, mincing creature Madoka had met in school. This Homura had perfect posture, along with unbound hair and cold, piercing eyes unshielded by glasses. And she was dressed in the purple-and-white uniform Madoka remembered from...somewhere.
"Don't try to sit up yet, Kaname Madoka," continued Homura. "You might still be dizzy."
"I told you, you can call me Madoka-chan...."
"You won't want me to do that anymore."
"Why wouldn't I?" Madoka blinked, dazed. She didn't remember Homura doing anything unforgivable when they went out for hot dogs. But then, she didn't remember anything at all after that. "And what happened? I didn't faint, did I? Is this your room?"
"From now on, it's yours," said Homura. "I'm sorry, but you were in danger. So I drugged you, and I brought you somewhere safe, and for the next five weeks I'm afraid I can't let you leave."
Madoka started to giggle.
"I'm sorry, Homura-chan," she said, eyes sliding closed once more. "I'll listen to your story, but I can't seem to stay awake. Please be...patient...."
The last thing she heard was Homura's voice. "Take all the time you need, Kaname Madoka."
Awareness came back more easily the second time, and was harder to laugh off. Madoka sat up straight in bed, head hardly spinning at all. "Homura-chan!"
"Yes, Kaname Madoka?"
"I...with you...." She'd been about to say I had the strangest dream. But here she was, wide awake, and once more in the room that looked almost like her own but with the wrong stuffed animals, and the doors in the wrong places, and no windows at all. "Were you watching me sleep?"
"It would have been bad if you woke up alone," said Homura plainly. "You woke up once before. Do you remember?"
"Sort of. You said you were kidnapping me," admitted Madoka with a laugh. She never would've guessed shy, awkward Homura-chan could put on such a cool face.
"If you're well, I'll show you around."
"I'm fine." In truth, there was a dull throbbing behind her ears, but Madoka didn't want to impose. "This is a joke, right? Where's the hidden camera?"
Homura didn't smile. Her hair barely rippled as she stood, letting Madoka's eyes follow her to the desk: a half-circle with the same sleek lines and teal coloring as Madoka's own, though the laptop was a standalone model a few years old. "Nothing in this room will transmit anywhere outside it, nor respond to outside communication or tracking attempts. This computer is for passing time only. It has...games."
Madoka decided to go along with it. "That's good."
"There are takeout menus in the top drawer, here." Homura pulled it out an inch; it slid closed again of its own accord when she let go. "If you want anything, write it down and leave it by the door."
The only door Madoka could see was a closed one of unpolished wood, breaking up the blank wall on the far side of the room. It wasn't the one Homura pointed to. Instead, she gestured to the opposite corner of the room, where the wall stopped a few feet too soon to reveal a half-painted tail of an alcove. If this led to an exit, Madoka couldn't see it from this angle.
"There's also food in the fridge, over here." Homura touched a mini-fridge, which, along with a low cupboard, sat side by side at the foot of Madoka's bed. Or rather, the strange bed that happened to be the same model as hers. "I put in some basics, as well as a chocolate cake. Not as good as Tomoe Mami's, I'm afraid."
"I'm afraid I can't risk giving you a stove, because you won't be able to get out if there's a fire. Any cool or cold foods you would like, ask. Money is no object." She opened the cupboard, lifting out boxes of cereal and snacks one by one. Plastic dishes rattled as she jostled them. "There are vitamins, too. Take one per day."
Experimentally, Madoka kicked off the blankets. Her skirt was crumpled and her thigh-high white socks were bunching around her knees; her shoes were nowhere to be seen. She swung her feet off the mattress and tested the floor: cold, solid concrete, happily broken up by a thick blue rug.
If Homura cared about this motion, she gave no sign of it. "This is the bathroom," she continued, twisting the knob and pushing it inward to reveal a shadowed room of ceramic and white tile. She wasn't looking at Madoka at all. "I got the pink soap in the shape of a strawberry. The kind you like."
And with that tiny note, the scales of Madoka's world tipped.
Homura couldn't possibly know something like that. Not unless she had been listening in on the shopping trip a month ago when Madoka had tried to wheedle her mother into buying more scented soap, or watching through her bathroom window more than a year earlier. Either way, if this was meant to be a game, it was a game that included bona fide stalking.
Madoka was scared.
She was also between Homura and the exit.
She didn't stop to think. She bolted like a scared fawn, arms flailing, not slowing down on the turn, just hitting the wall and pushing off of it. There was a whole staircase behind the wall of the room, a wide-open door at its height. Cotton-clad feet charged up bare steps. Twenty, thirty to the top? Nothing like her dream, at least. Masonry walls converged on an iron frame, the gateway to a room of white paint and portraits and the faintest gleam of daylight.
Two arm's lengths from the top, the door slammed in her face.
Madoka crashed against the sturdy metal palms-first, already out of breath. The knob wouldn't even turn; it was stuck fast. Who had closed it? Were she and Homura both prisoners, or was it an accident?
"Homura-chan!" she blurted, stumbling back down. "The door—!"
"—is closed," said a muffled voice. "I'm sorry, Kaname-san. It has to be this way."
"Are we underground?" The words came out a squeak.
"Yes. That is, you are."
On the fourth step down Madoka swayed, leaning against the gritty wall.
"I knew you would try to run," continued Homura through the crack under the door. "I almost hoped you wouldn't. But you're not the kind of girl who gives up easily. I admire that about you, Kaname-san."
"How can you say that?" demanded Madoka, eyes suddenly hot with tears. "Even if you've been watching me, you've never talked to me! You don't know anything about me!"
"I can't explain right now. Please be patient."
"You don't have to do this!" Madoka slapped one hand against the metal. "Just let me go. I won't tell anyone. It's still the same evening, right?" It occurred to her in that moment that maybe it wasn't. "I'll say we were having so much fun that I lost track of time. Or that I decided to sleep over and forgot to call. I won't say a word about any of this, no matter how angry my parents get. You won't be in any trouble! Just let me out!"
"I can't. I hope someday you'll understand why."
"Let me out!" She was crying for real now, pounding uselessly on the door. "Please, Akemi-san, let me out!"
"I have some things to take care of now," said Homura. "I'll be back tomorrow, Kaname Madoka. Six PM exactly. I promise."
And she was gone.