Maybe it's the alcohol, but Junko swears she just saw a white stuffed animal toy trot past the window.
She leans over the table of her corner booth, squinting out the street-side window of her favorite lounge. Junko normally parks herself at the bar when she needs to relieve her sorrows, but Kazuko has gone home for the night, and she has no desire to make small talk with the servers. There's nothing, not a single passerby under the city lights, so she slides herself back into the plush leather and releases a sigh.
Just what I need - hallucinations. As if she didn't already have enough on her plate. Preparing the disastrous quarterly report for the shareholders, the meetings with the finance committee, and on top of all those surmountable obstacles, life had seen fit to gift her daughter with unspeakable cruelty. Madoka's best friend, missing for almost a week, had been found dead in a downtown apartment.
Fourteen years old… Junko reflects. Death is cruel at any age, but for a girl - a child - so unspeakably young, the injustice strikes her to the very core. Sayaka would have been the same age as -
A second time, Junko senses motion in her periphery vision - a flash of ghostly white retracing its steps. She forces herself to ignore it. Ridiculous, she chides herself, a conjuration brought about by one too many whisky chasers and the unfamiliar burden of a locked-off daughter.
But then there's a thump on the glass like the touch of a tiny paw. This time she indulges a side-glance outside, and what she sees makes her leap back in fright.
Red eyes. Staring at her.
The creature - not quite a cat, not quite a lop-eared rabbit - sits at the window with its paws folded at perfect attention, the rhythmic swish of its bulbous, white tail the only sign of motion. The eerie, unblinking stare of its red eyes burns the alcohol fog from her brain. She's undoubtedly awake now.
"What the -?"
It moves. Bounding up on its hind legs and pressing its face and front paws to the glass, mashing its glowing eyes against the window pane to examine her closer. Junko's heart is racing, but she's rooted to her seat, both in open astonishment and cold practicality. She could leap away screaming, but what good would that do? Who would believe her?
The creature rears back its head like a battering ram. The window gives an audible thunk at the impact, but where a small bird would keel over dead, the creature is unaffected. To a passing bystander, this would have been the begging tactic of a hungry animal - pressing its nose against the glass and pleading for scraps. From Junko's vantage point, the movement is anything but primal or instinctive. Nostril vapor fogs the glass in rhythmic snorts. Prehensile ears spread their finger-like tips over the surface, like a stalker restless to seize her. Its cherry tomato eyes are planted directly against the glass, their jellies ready to burst under the pressure.
It still hasn't blinked.
If the server wandered up right now, he would have cried out, wondering why this diseased creature was trying to crush its skull against the pane. Only Junko understood the intention. It was vibrating its way through the transparent barrier.
Paws and face fall through the glass and onto the inner ledge. A fluffy body and swishing tail follow suit, as though phase-shifting through an inch of glass were as effortless as pushing through a swinging cat door.
Junko follows as it bounds atop her table and folds up its paws, once more assuming that perfect posture. The unholy glow of its red eyes quirks up to meet her wide, violet orbs.
–So, you can see me.–
Junko doesn't hear the bright, boyish voice, per se. It's more of an echo rippling through her mind, bypassing the inefficiencies of soundwave-based communication to touch her very soul.
Junko raises a trembling hand across the table. She has to be sure. The creature observes her approach, but makes no move to stop her from stroking its head. It even leans into the caress, giving an appreciative purr. His fur is just as soft and inviting as she remembers.
The name rushes off her lips, hesitant and uncertain. But then he lifts his hind leg for that telltale ear scratch and her doubts rush away.
"Kyubey!" Junko's laughter is bright and breezy. "You little sonofabitch, how've you been? C'mon, gimmie some paw, little guy!"
It takes him a moment to remember their signature greeting, but then he hops up to touch a foreleg against her palm. Haa… she could knead those squishy footpads for days and never get tired!
–It's been a while, Junko Midorikawa.–
"Junko Kaname," she corrects, flashing the ring over her fourth finger. "Made a contract of my own since you last came by."
–Ah, a ring of wedding. So you've selected a mate.–
"Let's just say I met a real charmer. Y'know, you could learn a few things from Tomo."
–He certainly must have been convincing to sway you,– the creature agrees. –Or perhaps you were the one to take the initiative?–
Junko laughs, reminiscing on her Tomo's startled face that first time she cornered the laidback arts major in the campus hallway, slamming a hand above his shoulder and pinning him against the wall like a fly in her spider's web. Oh, she'd certainly been … persuasive.
"You've got me all figured out, Kyu-chan."
Lord, it's like it was just yesterday! She still remembers Miwa's excited face, calling her to "c'mere, c'mere" and look at the amazingly cute animal she'd found behind the school. She thinks of their failed experiments to capture his photograph or reflection - "like a freakin' vampire," she'd exclaimed - and their uncharacteristically girlish screams when that spritely voice first bubbled into their heads. Not long after that, they'd been introduced to Nishimura-senpai and the secret world of the puella magi.
–This is quite the abnormality,– Kyubey muses. –An ex-candidate such as yourself shouldn't be able to see or interact with me like this, especially considering your advanced age.–
"Callin' me old, fuzzball?"
–Not at all, considering your species' average life expectancy.– Lord, dig past that cutie-pie face and he was as clinical as ever. –But I'm sure you're aware that you are well beyond the age range to form a contract.–
She remembers the almost pleading tone to his voice as her seventeenth birthday loomed closer –Junko, you still have time! You must make a wish and become a magical girl!– How his body and voice seemed to blur and fade with every passing day. How she struggled, like an addict going cold turkey, to shut him out just a little while longer, a pillow smothered over her head and her teeth clamped down in a vice. Oh, he'd tempted her good and hard those final days.
Now, having lived sober for twenty years, Junko can smile wistfully, separating the rosy wheat from the nightmarish chaff of her memories. He can't harm her anymore.
"So, Kyu-chan, did I just divide the universe by zero? All of space and time gonna start crashing around us 'cause I can see you again?"
–Merely a minor glitch, I expect. Given the anomalous events of the last month, I'm surprised I haven't encountered further such peculiarities.–
The last month, huh…? The conversation stalls as Junko digests that tidbit. Across the table, Kyubey continues to watch her, but she knows that's no indication of attention. She imagines the intelligence on the other end of that terrestrial puppet could be engaged in any number of side-tasks – scanning his roster of 'chosen ones' for status updates, monitoring the globe for flashes of witch activity; maybe typing a reminder into his alien iPhone to pick up blue milk on the way home from the office.
"So, you gonna join me for a drink?"
Kyubey tilts his head, a good approximation of human puzzlement. –No, my body is adequately hydrated at the moment, and I don't believe those nutrients would be beneficial to my system.– Lord, he really hasn't changed.
"Kyubey, Kyubey, Kyubey," she scolds. "Read the intent. This is one of those 'human social rituals' I kept explaining to you. When two old friends meet after a long time apart, they're supposed to sit down and shoot the breeze. Preferably over alcohol."
The table's ashtray has sat unused, but she polishes it off with her sleeve anyhow before drizzling a mouthful of her martini into the impromptu water dish. Kyubey sniffs the offering cautiously as he weighs his options.
–Well, this hemisphere has entered its sleep cycle, and I don't anticipate being called by any of the active magical girls in this area. –
"That's the spirit," Junko cheers, raising her glass and swigging generously. Kyubey responds in kind, bending down and lapping up a mouthful. His cherry eyes bulge a little, and he returns to the well for another drink.
–It's sweeter than I anticipated. My taste receptors are quite stimulated.–
Oh, she remembered Miwa uttering a similar, if simpler, exclamation when she'd first convinced her friend to sneak a bit of sake from her dad's stash. She doubted she could get the little fuzzball to parade with her in a drunken karaoke duet, though. Baby steps with this one. I'll make a booze hound of you yet, Kyu-chan.
–Your appearance has changed drastically, Junko. You seem very respectable by your culture's standards.–
"Well, I found a classier look than leather jackets and rolled-up tartans. Don't think I've lost my edge, though. I’ve moved on up from terrorizing the back alleys. Nowadays, I just terrorize the HR department."
A wave of nostalgia hits her. The dimly-lit lounge is a far contrast from the loud, plastic garishness of the old burger joint, but the booth is big enough to seat four. She'd always take the corner seat - easiest spot to hide her purse and the silver flask within; Miwa would cram in beside her, scarfing down fries and lamenting about her boy troubles in between mouthfuls. Kyubey always took the corner seat across the table, nakedly staring at her like an adolescent boy nursing a crush. Next to the little space rat, always cool and refined against their slouching punk aesthetic, always using a plastic knife and fork to disassemble her burger would be -
–Junko Kaname, are you crying?–
"Just reminiscing," she lies. "We had some good times back then, didn't we? Sneaking around late at night, saving curse victims..."
–Nishimura was quite the efficient hunter,– Kyubey agrees. –It was interesting to note how much more neatly and speedily she dispatched her opponents once she met you and Miss Miwa.–
"Could you blame her? Probably wanted to impress her trainees."
–Hmm, you humans do put great emphasis on 'saving face' as you called it. At any rate, it would have been most interesting to observe the three of you in combat together.–
That's another social etiquette Kyubey never did pick up: how to keep the topic of conversation light and breezy.
"If you were so keen on having us work together," Junko mutters, a shadow crossing her eyes, "Maybe you shouldn't have let Miwa waste her one chance with that god-awful wish."
–The wishes you make are yours alone to dictate. I can only facilitate the process; I can't adjust the parameters myself.–
"If you'd made a simple suggestion -"
–The wish was Miwa's choice, Junko. If she'd considered the situation calmly, perhaps she would have added additional parameters to her wish. For example, 'I wish that Miss Nishimura would be resurrected outside the labyrinth?' Away from the witch that first mauled her?–
"Well she didn't, and you let her, and we both had to watch our friend die twice that day."
–If I'd hesitated to grant Miwa's wish, both of you might have been devoured.–
"You mean I would have been devoured. Don't pretend you gave a rat's ass about Miwa."
–Miwa had the potential to become a magical girl, and that made her my concern. But you are correct. Had my time or resources been limited, I would have prioritized you. I had never encountered someone with potential like yours, Junko.–
If he wasn't an unblinking little doll, Junko might have mistaken that for a flirty compliment.
–Do you regret not making a wish, Junko?–
"Never." It's out her lips so quickly, an automatic reflex. "No, I may have yelled and screamed at my mother every night, but I'd never wish that awful look upon her face."
If she closes her eyes, she can still see herself at Nishimura's funeral, still see her senpai's father struggling to stand tall, her mother fighting back the tears of incomprehensible anguish. She can still see the funeral urn, remember thinking in a detached way that they could have bought a child-sized one, the kind used for premature babies and infants.
There'd only been half a body left to cremate, after all.
"No, no regrets," she repeats. She'd seen the dark side of their little fantasy world that day, and it had drained every ounce of youthful courage she had. "Besides, I had Miwa's wish to think about. She had a two-parter, remember?"
Kyubey gives a flawless recital: –That Nishimura-senpai were alive again,–
"-and that the three of us could be happy together." Junko shakes her head and nurses down another sip. "I've been living life for the three of us, Kyu-chan. I think Miwa wanted it that way."
It'll be easier if we share the load, Jun-chan. Miwa would go off to hunt in the shadows, while she would bear the scalding light of day. Copying out two sets of homework while her friend was off on her underground war; inventing excuses when Mrs. Takashi called asking about her daughter. Teaching herself first aid, working a needle and thread over Miwa's wounds in the lamplight, so she wouldn't have to waste her magic on repairs.
Remembering to smile, when she could offer nothing more. She'd done something right, hadn't she? In the end, Miwa had been smiling when the police found her, sprawled in the alleyway and -
"Kyubey, I've gotta ask. There was this friend of my -" she fakes a cough, "- friend of mine who's a teacher. One of her students passed away this week. Sayaka Miki." No signs of physical trauma, no toxins or drugs reported in the autopsy. Like Miwa, it was as if she'd simply fallen asleep. "She was one of your girls, wasn't she?"
–Sayaka Miki? Yes, she did contract with me. –
Junko nods. It's all making sense, now: the missing senior girl at the school, Kazuko's excited news about the Kamijo boy and his miraculous recovery, her Madoka's evasive advice-seeking about a 'friend of hers'. This is spiralling all too close for her liking. Distance. She needs distance.
"I'm probably keeping you. You've probably got places to go, far-off magical girls to visit."
–No, my business will keep me within Mitakihara City.–
Junko reaches for her drink. Her throat is suddenly too dry to swallow. She needs to shift the conversation, but what has Kyubey ever been interested in besides contracts? An idea clicks. She spreads her hands in a 'ta-da!' pose.
"Hey, Kyu-chan, whaddya think?"
She swears that's a sigh she hears in her head. –You know how difficult it is for me to respond to those sorts of generalizations.–
"I mean about me," she scoffs. Let's pull the topic back to safer grounds. "Back then, you were practically begging me to contract. I kept saying I wasn't anything special, but you told me I had some … what was it? Destiny! Cosmic destiny!"
–Karmic destiny,– he corrects. –The actions of your life were set to impact tens of thousands.–
"Yeah, that's it. So, how'd I do?"
A head tilt.
"Oh come on, now! I'm an executive for one of Japan's leading multinationals! I'm pulling a seven-figure salary. Gorgeous house, two fancy cars, a wonderful husband. I've got a beautiful … boy. So you tell me, Kyu-chan - has my destiny peaked, or are there greater things just beyond the horizon?"
Kyubey scratches disinterestedly at his neck. –I don't possess precognition. It was more of a general survey of your potential.–
"So, am I destined to make even bigger waves?"
–Oh, your significance to the universe was never dependent on your personal accomplishments, Junko. Though, admittedly, I'm only able to say that through hindsight. Your successes, your achievements - none of it ever truly mattered. The potential I sensed from you was entirely to do with your ovaries. The truly significant one is your daughter!–
Junko's heart stop. All of time stops.
But twenty years of climbing the corporate ladder has left her poker face flawless.
"Pfft, my what now?" She slaps the table and gives a merry laugh. "Daughter? Have I gotta scrub the wax from those adorable little ears, Kyubey? I have a son. His name is -"
–It's all right, Junko. There's no need to hide her existence from me. I've already become acquainted with Madoka, and I can confirm that her potential exceeds yours by a hundred - no, a thousand-fold! She could very well be the most powerful magical girl in all of existence!–
Underneath the table, Junko's fist clenches. "You've met Madoka?"
–Yes! She's been quite accommodating and has invited me over to your house on many occasions. She's allowed me to sleep in her bed, and I've bathed with her in your shower!–
Junko takes a deep swig, to calm the tremors running through her body. Her soul gem, she reflects, would have flooded black by now.
"You're out of luck, then. My Madoka is far too clever to accept one of your contracts."
–Actually she's been very close to contracting on multiple occasions. There have been … outside interferences, but it's only a matter of time. A statistical inevitability, really.–
"You always were good with math," she nods, tight-lipped. She's watching Kyubey through the distortions of her glass, watching his head twist and bloat as she twirls the stem against the light. Kyubey laps up the remainder of his drink, oblivious to the dragon he's roused from slumber.
–Well, that beverage was refreshing, Junko, and this meeting has given me much to consider on the topic of intergenerational candidate selection. Hmm, I believe I should say it was … good? Good to see you?–
"You learn quickly," she nods in a thin-lipped smile. "But you really shouldn't leave before a last toast."
–Ah, yes. Your primitive superstition of blessing.– Junko wonders if she's imagining the wobble in his posture, whether the alcohol's dulled his motor reflexes any. –Then… hmm, a toast to Madoka!– he declares.
Junko raises her drink in reply -
- and she smashes the martini glass against the creature's skull.
Kyubey doesn't cry out - oh no, that would be too satisfying - but his head gives a nice crack against the table, and for a beautiful moment, the slow-motion shards flipping through the air sparkle like elegant crystals. The diamond dust Nishimura would summon from her baton was never more beautiful than this, she reflects.
Then time resumes and she's on her feet, squeezing Kyubey's throat and pinning him against the table. The stem and base of her martini glass are no magical wand, but they'll do just fine. Junko flips the stem, angling its broken tip down like an ice pick and goes to town on his face.
It takes three of the servers to pull her away from her holy work: two to seize her arms, and another to keep her legs from kicking. A distant part of her mind realizes she looks crazy - hacking away at the wooden table with her self-made dagger, screaming bloody murder at the invisible demon only she can see:
"YOU - LEAVE - MY - MADOKA - ALONE!"
Then she's dumped unceremoniously into the parking lot, laughing and relishing the blood over her hands.
It's all too short a victory. The overhead lights flicker, and then he's standing on the hood of her car, a single red eye on a black shadow.
–You really haven't changed one bit, Junko. Always so violent…–
Kyubey steps into the light, and Junko gasps at the work she's done on his face. How is he still standing?
There's a piece of glass sticking out of one of those bulbous, red eyes, and long scars raked all the way down his face. Despite its injuries, the eye just carries on blinking and staring. It has to; the other is swollen shut and oozing blood. His lower lip is hanging by a thread, revealing the firmly clenched canines underneath. It looks good, Junko thinks, taking in his mottled fur and his sharp pants of air. It's like she finally got him angry.
Kyubey sighs into her head. –This is quite the inconvenience, Junko. It’s extremely difficult for me to request a respawn for non-critical injuries.–
"Stay the hell away from my Madoka!"
–You have no power or authority to command me, Junko Kaname. Your daughter's wish is her choice alone, and I will attend to her every need.–
Quick as a whip, he leaps off the car towards her. Junko flinches, certain that he's going to claw and scrabble at her in return. Kyubey merely trots up to her sprawled form. She tries to reassure herself - look, his ear-tails are dragging, he's avoiding pressure on that front paw. The truth is she's terrified. Watching this monster walk forth so casually after twenty stab wounds to the head, she can't help but whimper and scoot back.
What've I got to do to kill you?
–There's a storm approaching, Junko Kaname. When you arrive home, please take the necessary steps to prepare your family for evacuation. It would be terribly inconvenient if Madoka died from something as trivial as a hurricane.–
The warning is delivered in the usual cheerful tone, but the skeletal grin on his mangled face makes it sound like a threat.
The lights flicker again, and he's gone, a ghostly memory once more.
Junko drags herself into her car, and once the doors are locked and she's secure, she curls up and cries.
Kyubey never was one for lying. The storm hits hard the following morning, and when the evacuation orders race across the airwaves, she's already dressed and ready to go with emergency supplies packed for her family.
Madoka is silent the entire ride. To Tomohisa, it's a continued grief. Mourning the loss of her friend and retreating inward, but Junko sees it all so clearly now. Sees her daughter looking out - scanning the horizon with a terrible mix of dread and determination.
Nishimura had stories about storms like these, campfire tales of witches so dreadful they could twist the very elements to their will.
This isn't your fight, she thinks, willing their thoughts to connect. Someone else can take the burden! You don't know what it's like! What it'll cost you...
When Madoka mumbles an excuse about going to the washroom, Junko is close behind, a mother bear shadowing her cub. She can't see the little, white beast anymore - glitch corrected, she scowls - but Madoka certainly isn't mumbling and sobbing to herself as she takes in the fury of the storm. Her tiny fist clenches, and suddenly she's darting for the staircase, for the doors below.
Junko is on her in an instant, snatching at her arm.
"Where do you think you're going, huh?"
Madoka pleads her case, but all she can hear are the same lies and half-truths Kyubey pressed upon her all those years ago:
You have to become a magical girl. It's the only way to save your friend!
There's no time! You're the only one who can -
The slap echoes across the hallway. She's never once brought a hand against her child, and Junko immediately hates herself, that this is what she's been reduced to. She soldiers on, staring down her daughter in a last-ditch effort to tear the scales from her eyes.
You think you're being a hero? That this is some game? "You can't just go out doing whatever you want! Don't you know how much we'd worry about you if went out anywhere without saying any-"
Her daughter's voice is clear and calm. Resolved.
There's none of Miwa's false cheer, none of Nishimura's forced confidence. Just a somber acknowledgement - of the burden that's been placed upon her, of the sacrifice demanded.
Junko wants to run after her, to hold her little girl, keep her safe and protected, but Madoka turns her away. "I need you to trust me that I'm doing the right thing."
The mother inside of her can't help but reach out one more time. If this is our last time …
"And you're sure you're not making a mistake?" Her eyes scan the room for the devil's red eyes. "That no one's lying to you or trying to trick you?"
Junko releases her breath, feeling like she's expelling twenty years of her life in that rush of air. So this is it, huh?
Then let's go with a smile.
A playful shove on the back - the kind she'd offer when her child was dithering over clothing, or fussing over a presentation at school - a firm, 'you've got this' push to remind her that this mountain was nothing but a molehill.
Madoka wobbles once, then regains her balance.
"Thank you, mom. I love you."
Head held high with purpose, her Madoka rushes off into the storm. Junko forces herself to stand tall, waiting to see if her child will stop or stumble, so she can smile and shove her onward the instant she falters.
Madoka doesn't look back.
Make it a good wish, she thinks. Make it flashy. Something that'll send that pompous flea-bag's head spinning!
Make it count, she prays. Something that'll bring a smile to the whole world. The same way that you brought a smile to mine…