Maybe it was never really the boy himself. Maybe it could have been anyone on that stage that evening, anyone at all, and things would have turned out no differently. But it was him, and she was young, and it was the first time she had ever really experienced music beyond just passively hearing it. It was magic, pure and simple, and from that moment on, her heart belonged to Kamijou Kyousuke and the sound of his violin.
It didn't happen all at once, though. She was a child and thought she could do anything, so for a while, she tried to capture the music for herself. Her mother played the piano — not at concert level, of course, but well enough to entertain company — and she was delighted when Sayaka asked to be taught. It went wonderfully at first. Sure, her progress was slow, but in the beginning it made her happy just to get her scales right, or to realize one day that she could read what had once just been mysterious little symbols on a strange-looking grid and hear clearly in her head the music they represented.
The problem was bringing that music out into reality. She had always been an athletic type, more talented at softball than at math, but here it was just the opposite. Here, she understood the theory, but her fingers were clumsy and slow. Hitting the right keys at the right time was different from hitting a ball with a bat, and while her mother assured her that was perfectly normal — fine motor skills versus gross — sitting at the piano and failing again and again and again made her feel like there must be something subtly wrong with her body. It was such an awful feeling that, after a while, she just stopped trying.
"You're being childish, Sayaka," her mother told her. "If you give up now, you'll regret it when you're grown."
But Sayaka didn't agree with that. In a way, she thought she was being very mature. After all, it was only sensible to know your own limitations and not try to be anything you weren't. And also... well, she couldn't be completely sure, but it seemed to her that her feelings for Kyousuke were growing from childish affection into something more adult. Perhaps — and she was sure she'd heard this idea somewhere else, from someone who would know better than she did — adults fell in love with people who completed them, people who could do the things they couldn't do for themselves. Men always seemed to be attracted to feminine women who were good at cooking. Music had been almost an obsession since that night at the concert hall, as vital and nourishing to her as food, so if she were to marry Kyousuke — the thought sent something in her stomach fluttering like the vibration of the strings for the very highest notes on the piano — wouldn't that be the same thing?
Still, from that time on, whenever she heard her mother playing, she felt just a little bit sad.
It was magic, pure and simple.
The girl with the golden curls appeared from nowhere and fought like she were dancing. There was music in the way she twirled, feet sweeping graceful arcs across the ground, and a triumphant crescendo of percussion in the gunfire that followed. To Sayaka, it was just like that time so long ago: the world seemed to be opening up just for her, revealing strange and beautiful secrets tucked away in its hidden folds.
She was developing a bad habit of falling in love at moments like that.
It was impossible not to want just a bit of that magic for herself, but Mami told her to think carefully, and she was old enough now to understand the wisdom of that. She understood that she was lucky, more lucky than someone as selfish and ordinary as her really had any right to be, and that wasting her wish would be an insult to people like Kyousuke and Mami who deserved so much better and were so much less fortunate.
At least, that was what she told herself at the time. But waiting for the perfect wish to come to her while she stood on the sidelines and watched Mami risk her life again and again — wasn't that the most selfish thing of all, really? An eerie kind of silence filled the moment she realized that, a silence thick enough to smother the explosive din of Homura battling the witch. Only the earlier sounds still echoing around in her skull, the sounds of bones crunching and muscles ripping, rang loud and clear and close. Who, after all, wouldn't rather be insulted than dead?
She couldn't sleep that night. She tried putting on music, but somehow, it didn't reach her. It was just so airy, so insubstantial. Once upon a time that had been part of the magic, but now it just seemed weaker than the clap of jaws snapping shut or the awful wet noises of teeth worrying flesh. Eventually she couldn't stand just lying in bed and sulking any longer, so she got up and began to pace around the house. Soon she found herself standing in front of the piano and, on a whim, tried playing it again for the first time in years. Somehow, it helped more than the CDs had; feeling the cool press of the keys on her fingertips and watching the hammers strike the strings made the music seem more real. She ran through every exercise she knew, and then the few simple children's songs she could remember, and it took practically no time whatsoever before all she had left was to start again at the beginning. If only she could write a song for Mami, she thought. If only she could play the music she heard in her head the first time she saw her. But Mami was dead, and Sayaka couldn't do a thing for her.
She could do something, though, when Kyousuke made it clear he wanted to be dead too. She could, and she had to. "It would take magic, or a miracle" he said, and she knew that was it, that was her cue to stop being so selfish, to stop expecting everything from him and never giving anything of value back. She was the person who could do for him what he couldn't do for himself, and even if he never learned it was her, she would go through with it, regretting nothing and asking for nothing in return.
She was a child and thought she could do anything.
Kyouko was something altogether different. "Even you must have heard of the food chain," she said when they first met. "Witches eat weak people, and we eat witches." Sayaka had heard of it. She'd heard that when you ate meat, you were also eating the plants the meat ate when it was an animal. She watched the other magical girl bite the head off of her taiyaki and felt nauseated, but could not tell whether it was the rage making her sick or the sickness making her angry. All she knew was that she kind of wanted to throw up and kind of wanted cut this girl's throat open.
That night, her family had fried fish for dinner. She stared at it for a while before announcing that actually, she'd been a bad girl and had some sweets earlier and wasn't hungry at all, and excusing herself to her room. Only the middle part of that was even a lie.
"You're a puella magi," Kyouko said when she caught her outside Kyousuke's house the next evening, "so take what you want." And then she suggested something so horrible that Sayaka felt like a monster just for having stayed silent long enough to hear it. She never would have thought of it on her own, but thanks to Kyouko it was now in her head and she wouldn't ever get it out. She would stab through her own skull if she thought she could eliminate it that way, but she knew that the closest she could ever come was to eliminate Kyouko. That girl was so evil, Sayaka doubted she even counted as a person anymore, so there would be no reason for anyone to mourn her if she died.
The joke was on her, though; it turned out that she, Miki Sayaka, was not a person anymore either.
It also turned out that Kyouko wasn't evil, really. She shared her story and offered to share her food, and Sayaka could tell that both were a much bigger deal to her than she was trying to pretend. Sayaka was a little hungry, and the apple was a little tempting, but she knew she had no right to stolen food, nor even Kyouko's excuse of simply needing it, right or wrong. She realized she was being horribly insulting to Kyouko and even a little bit cruel, and she felt bad about that, she really did, but she also felt, for the first time in what felt like a long time, like she had some real measure of control over her own body and mind. The way Kyouko ate was almost as grotesque as the way she conducted herself as a magical girl, and Sayaka was determined to be as different from her as possible on both counts.
She never would have guessed that self-denial could be so addictive.
Everything after she ran away from home was a dark and drowsy haze. She could not be entirely sure whether she ever even slept. She knew she never ate. Realizing that made her angry at Kyouko for stealing when she could have just sustained herself on magic, and then angrier at herself for even unintentionally using any of her magic for her own sake instead of for protecting people who were really people and deserved it more than she did.
At some point, she found herself in front of a piano again. When she looked back on it later, she would decide that it must have been in a music shop, because she doubted that she would break into someone's home. She tried to play the songs she knew, or scales, or anything, but her fingers were as stiff as those of a corpse and could no longer manage even that much. She had pulled her soul away from her body too many times. She crumpled up and sobbed and hated Kyousuke for taking the very last drop of music she had away from her, then hated herself a thousand times more for feeling the loss of her own meager talent as though it were worth even a fraction of his. If both her hands were the price for one of Kyousuke's, she should be happy even if she had to cut them off herself. So why wasn't she happy? Why couldn't she be grateful for her miracle and devote her life to justice without regrets like she had promised herself she would?
Then she met the men on the train, and that was the end. She had been all right having no music of her own as long as she had Kyousuke's, but Kyousuke didn't even care enough about her to tell her when he'd been released from the hospital, let alone to stay by her side. In the same way, she had been almost all right knowing she was worth nothing in and of herself as long as she could find worth in protecting others, but when she looked at those two perfectly ordinary human beings, looked deep into their eyes with their awful laughter ringing in her head, she could see absolutely nothing of value in them. The whole world, with all the people in it, was as cold and empty as her heart, and there was no reason to keep fighting for it any longer.
It was Kyouko who found her at the last. Sayaka had transformed back into her school clothes at that point, erasing the bloody evidence on her sword and costume, so the other girl had no way of knowing that she was already dead. She listened to herself speaking of miracles and curses and other things that even now she only barely understood, and wondered distantly whether it ever could have been any different. Maybe if she had made a selfish wish like Mami told her she should do and Kyouko told her she should have done, the only curse she would have called down on herself was early death in battle. Maybe she still could have protected Madoka and carried on Mami's legacy without ever growing mean and lashing out at the people who just wanted to help her. Maybe if she'd said, "I wish I could play the piano at a genius level," she would at least have ended up with something to make her believe in her own value.
And maybe, she thought as she looked into crimson eyes filled with shock and concern, things could have been different with Kyouko. Maybe they wouldn't have hated each other at first if from the beginning she could have argued like a sensible person instead of a naive idiot, could have said, "I understand what you're saying, but becoming a magical girl earned me my heart's desire, and now I have to pay it forward. That's always been the deal, and I have no intention of going back on it." Maybe they could have worked out a compromise and become allies. Maybe if neither of them were alone, neither of them would have had any regrets either. Maybe it was children who fell in love with the people they only wished they could be like, and maturity meant being able to look at someone who was all the things you liked least about yourself and love them regardless.
It didn't matter now.
"I've been such a fool" she said softly — pianissimo — and the world went silent.