"Nothing changes, nothing ever will
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill
Same old story, what's the use of tears?
What's the use of praying if there's nobody who hears?
Turning, turning, turning, turning, turning through the years...
Turning, turning, turning through the years
Minutes into hours, and the hours into years
Nothing changes, nothing ever can
Round and round the roundabout and back where you began
Round and round and back where you began..."
- Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer
SHATTERED SKIES: THE MORNING LIGHTS
ACT III: UNBREAKING
Chapter 38: Master of the House
La Fin de Toute
(formerly Galactica Palace)
Sayaka Miki sat on the lip of the battered half-asteroid that housed Dead End's palace, wrapped in layers upon layers of energy shielding as she gazed up at the stars. The shielding likely wasn't necessary, as her "body" was a mere facsimile; her actual being was compressed into the sapphire jewel she wore in an ornate silver ring on the third finger of her left hand. A Soul Gem couldn't get sick or die from the emissions given off by the melted mass of irradiated slag that used to be La Fin de Toute's exterior, nor could it suffocate in the airless void of space. Sayaka didn't care. She used the shielding and the oxygen bubble it supplied, even if she didn't need either, because they made her feel human.
Sayaka came out here to be alone. The lower-ranked Dead End soldiers were more than capable of repairing the palace… as long as they lasted, anyway. The grunts didn't need her help. Her specialty was brute force, and since Joker didn't have anyone for her to attack or kill at the moment, she was allowed to wander as she saw fit.
So she sat on the lip of the asteroid, her legs dangling over the side of its craggy, pockmarked face, and she gazed up at the stars. Without an atmosphere to distort them, they could shine in all their beauty, crisp and clear and brighter than they had ever been when seen from Earth. Most people thought that space was inky black from end to end, with only the stars providing light and color. Out here, however, only a few layers of shielding away from the endless void of space, Sayaka saw the truth. There were more colors in between the stars than she ever imagined: not just black, but deep, midnight blue and indigo, great wispy clouds of violet and royal purple and rose and vermillion, spread across a canvas dotted with stars as old as time itself, in a spectrum of colors all their own. Bright bluish-white stars and burning yellow stars and dusky red stars and little brown dwarf stars on the verge of dying out… The universe spread out before her, and she sat and watched it go by in a profound silence only broken by the sounds of her breathing and the pulse of her mock-heartbeat in her ears.
Dead End's vantage point above the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, made the view even more spectacular. Sagittarius A* itself was invisible, a gargantuan, disc-shaped hole in reality 27 million miles wide, where space just wasn't, but the vista of rest of the universe appeared to swirl around it, dotted with turning, interlocking rings of stars. Some rings moved clockwise and others counterclockwise, but they were always in motion, never stopping. Somewhere in Dead End's vast library was a detailed explanation of why they looked like that… Sayaka recalled bit and pieces of her science classes in school, which said that black holes curved not just light, but space and time around themselves. She supposed that the rings were what the effects looked like to an observer up this close, but the deeper science behind what she saw was beyond her understanding. She didn't need or care to know. Dead End had plenty of other people whose job it was to think about the stars and how the universe worked; Sayaka's job was to fight when she was told, and that was all.
Stars. Somewhere out there, among all those stars, she had a home, once upon a time. A safe place. A warm place, every atom suffused with a kind of peace she had never known, a perfect light and serenity that she had no words to describe. Most of her memories of that place were hazy, half-remembered dreams. Her only clear, consistent recollection was that she was… happy... when she was there. Happy, and at rest. Heaven? Maybe, or maybe something close to it.
And then Homura.
Vaguely she remembered agreeing to go back down to the harsh, cold, hard living world, into Homura Akemi's Witch Labyrinth, which leaked through the Incubators' Isolation Field that hid her corrupted Soul Gem from even Madoka's influence. She remembered that she agreed to take on some of Madoka's unfathomable power, to protect it while she was in there, hopefully unnoticed by the Incubators' unblinking eyes. She agreed, because Homura was Madoka's friend. Once upon a time, Sayaka believed Homura was her friend, too… of a sort.
In that other place, the warm place beyond, she saw things about Homura Akemi that broke even her legendary stubbornness. She saw all of Homura's pain, all her suffering, all the hardship that that girl went through, over and over and over, and she understood. It was more difficult than she ever imagined, but in that place, she let go of her bitterness toward Homura. Sayaka wasn't friends with her—at least, not like she was friends with Madoka, Mami, and Kyoko—but she understood, and she forgave her. When the time came to go back down there, to help end Homura's suffering, she agreed to do it without hesitation.
And then the betrayal. Chaos. Confusion. Being ripped away from that warm place beyond, likely forever. Her memories erased, suppressed and rewritten. Forced into the same kind of hell that Homura endured, a sequence of events playing out over and over and over and over, but as a puppet with no conscious awareness of it taking place... only the occasional vague, fleeting suspicion that something was not as it should be. That suspicion, she supposed, was her true self, trapped inside the false comfort of Homura's fake paradise, clawing and screaming to be let out. Crying in the dark with nobody to hear.
The moment Sailor Mnemosyne restored her memories, Sayaka knew what she had to do. She would endure any hardship, shoulder any indignity, obey every last order that Joker gave her, because as things stood, she and Homura Akemi could not be on the same side. Homura's suffering, horrible though it was, did not excuse betraying Madoka and trapping them all in that illusion for so long.
Homura's sin was monstrous and unforgivable. Due penance had to be paid.
KNOW THAT THE DEVIL WALKS AMONG YOU. HER NAME IS HOMURA AKEMI. The words that seared themselves in the minds of all capable understanding them were Sayaka's. The memories that the multiverse saw of Homura's betrayal were Sayaka's own. Thanks to Joker, everyone, everywhere knew. Wherever Homura was, however she justified her actions to herself or to others, it didn't matter anymore. She lay exposed to all creation.
Was she suffering? Did she regret what she had done? For that matter, was she even capable of feeling remorse? Had she ever been capable?
Sayaka didn't know, and didn't much care to know. She had a job to do, and that was that. She joined Dead End for a reason, and she would see it through… for good or for ill, so she swore.
These were some of the thoughts that Sayaka Miki had when she came out to the asteroid's edge to be alone with the stars.
These were some of the thoughts running through her mind when the communications node implanted behind her ear gave a piercing shriek, only audible within the two square meters of air inside Sayaka's shield bubble.
It was the rarest of all the alert signals: the alert that meant that Joker himself was under direct attack.
Sayaka didn't wait for orders. She had sworn to be Joker's most loyal soldier, and that meant taking initiative. She stood up, transformed into her battle costume, summoned a cutlass to her hand, and vanished, leaving the silent stars behind.
"Master Joker, what's—" The words were out of her mouth before she finished materializing, but her question was answered the moment she could see. She expected an intruder... someone else from the Lighthouse, maybe, or another of Homura's nasty little surprises like the nuke she dropped on them.
It threw her for a loop to see one of Dead End's own, Dark Tender, with her hands clenched around Joker's neck, holding him half a meter off the floor. Tender, known in her former life as Maria Hikawa, had slammed the harlequin into one of the palace's many immense support pillars. A spiderweb of cracks in the iridescent faux-marble behind him indicated that Tender had no intention of holding back.
"Ah, Mademoiselle Miki," said Joker, choked and muffled but still able to grin. "Impeccable timing, as usual… gack…"
"Well?" Tender's eyes blazed crimson as she tightened her grip. "Explain yourself! Explain the mockery that your minion made of my sister!"
Sayaka raised her cutlass blade and advanced. "Hands off, Tender, or I take them off for y—"
"You BITCH!" A black and yellow streak roared past, leaving her cape aflutter in the sudden breeze. "How dare you?! I'll kill you! I'll use your guts to scrub toilets, you filthy, stinking cuntsucker!" The streak landed on Tender's back, right between her costume's spread butterfly wings, and hammered the dark Cure's skull with electrified punches.
Of course it was Kanna Kise, Bad End Peace II... Joker's special pet project. Word went around soon after she arrived that Joker took extra special care in securing her loyalties. However he did it, the general consensus was that he did it too well. Physically, she was every bit as powerful as the other Bad End Cures, but emotionally, Kanna was a ticking time bomb. She was not just loyal to Joker, she was obsessed with him and his favor, to what most agreed was a disturbing degree. One wrong look in her master's general direction could turn her into a tiny, shrieking hellstorm of lightning and punishing blows. Even during her more stable moments—which were few and far between—Kanna was off. She delighted in the pain and suffering of both others and herself, the more violent the better. She was wont to launch invasions of the personal space of random passersby, during which she would typically launch into descriptions of her many perverse interests and fantasies in brazen, graphic detail. When not discussing those, she would babble to herself and anyone who would listen about things that made no sense at all, even by Dead End's admittedly low standards of sanity.
"Stupid…"Kanna snarled with each strike. "... lowlife… worthless chattel! Thinking you can touch my Master Joker like you're someone special! I'll rip out your lungs and tie them to your spine with your own sinews, I'll stick my fingers in your ears and tear your teeth out! I'll—"
Despite the rain of blows, Tender somehow held firm. She barely even flinched. Her eyes stayed locked on Joker's as her fingers closed on his neck.
"Kanna." Joker's tone made it clear that what came next was not a suggestion. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but stand down. I'm quite capable of handling this."
In an instant, Kanna acquiesced. Joker was the only being with even a tiny measure of control over her. All smiles, she hopped off Tender's back curtsied low. "Oui, Master. Of course you do."
The rest of the Bad End Cures, Happy, Sunny, March, and Beauty, came charging down the hall, fists aglow and ready to tear Tender apart at a single word… but at a ferocious, wide-eyed glare from Kanna, they skidded to a collective halt. Denied the violence they craved, their reactions were typical: Happy puffed her cheeks out and pouted, Sunny snarled through clenched teeth, March scoffed with her hands on her hips, and Beauty turned up her nose in distaste. None of them dared speak. They were teammates with Kanna, but the four of them knew well that despite their positions as Joker's favorites, the new Bad End Peace was tiers above any of them.
"Now, as for you, Tender..." Joker vanished from Tender's grip, reappearing out of a shadow three meters away. He brushed off the lapels of his costume and adjusted his mask, still bearing the X-shaped scar in the center of the forehead. "If it'll set your mind at ease, I can call your beloved sister here straight away. C'est bon?"
"Falling Sword." Tender's reply was to summon an energy blade to her hand, composed of dusky indigo light. "That's not the issue, and you know it! Iona was supposed to—"
Joker had already snapped his fingers. Two columns of shapeless gel rose up from the floor between himself and Tender, both wine-colored, one with a slightly more violet hue. The columns slimmed, refining their features into that of Droid Jamanen Model-JLX and Drone Fortune, her prisoner-cum-servant. Two pairs of smooth, green, jewel-like eyes stared at Tender, betraying no emotion…
"Pardon our intrusion. You called, Master?" said Jamanen in her bubbling, watery tone.
"Indeed, my friends. Tender here is a bit upset… she seems to think quite poorly of Drone Fortune's current state. Might you reassure her a bit?"
"Of course." Jamanen tilted forward at the waist, then directed her influence…
"Onee-sama," said Fortune, her voice resonating with the same watery timber. "Please don't be angry. I'm happy with my new body, and Jamanen is a kind Mistress. Besides, we're together again… we can be a family..."
Was it pain that flashed across Tender's face, or a trick of the light? Still she held her sword with the point aimed at Joker's heart. "You know you have my loyalty," she said, a storm gathering on her brow, "but my understanding was that Iona would be brought to our side the same way I was, after being honorably defeated in battle. This…" She seemed to struggle for words. "This monstrosity… you've stripped her of her dignity, of her pride…"
Jamanen fumed, crossing her arms. Her malleable body began to swell in size. "Excuse me?!"
Joker put his fingers to his forehead. "Tender, dear, how she came to join our side shouldn't matter. She's here, and she's just as you knew her… only, you know, a bit more drippy. Besides, even if I ordered Jamanen to reverse the process—"
"No, Master, don't do that!" squealed Kanna from the sidelines, who had been watching with rapt attention. "She was so boring and underwritten after she stopped being all angsty! I like Iona-chan this way, now she's soft and squishy and fun to play with~!"
As usual, Kanna's nonsensical outburst went largely ignored. "Indeed, cherie, but let me finish, please. Even if I ordered Jamanen to reverse the process…"
"It's impossible," Jamanen finished, with just the hint of a smirk. "She is entwined with me. Her body, mind, and soul are mine, part of my very being."
"But Iona…" Tender paused. She looked right into the Drone's jeweled eyes, pleading. "Are… are you really happy to be this way?"
Silence. Fortune's features could have been frozen solid, for all that she reacted. "Don't worry about me, Maria," she said after the long pause. Her lips curled into the shape of a smile, but the rest of her face was blank and impassive as a wall. "I'm happier than I ever was as a human. I love Mistress Jamanen, Mistress Jamanen is kind to me."
"That's that, ain't it?" said Bad End Sunny. Smoke rose from her twitching fingertips. "She says she's fine. So, we gonna fight or not?"
March sighed. "Doesn't look like it."
"Hmph." That was all the response Beauty would deign to give the world.
Slowly, Tender dropped her arm and let her sword vanish. "Forgive my impertinence, Master Joker," she said, turning away. "I was out of line."
"That you were, but it's all in the past now, non?" said Joker, clapping his hands. "Everything all settled and squared away. No need for any more fuss."
"Of course not, Master," said Jamanen. "Come along, Fortune, let's return to our chamber."
The two melted into puddles, which melded together into a single mass before sinking out of sight.
Sayaka thought she saw Tender grit her teeth before she turned on her heel and disappeared in a streak of light.
"Mademoiselles," said Joker to the Bad End Cures. "If you'd be so kind, please spread the word that the alert is canceled."
It was Happy's turn to curtsy. "At your command, Master! We'll make sure everyone is ultra happy~!"
They scattered… all save for Kanna, who had finally noticed Sayaka's presence. "Oh hey, it's Fish Lips Sayaka-chan!" In a rush of air, she was millimeters from Sayaka's face. "You showed up right away! Good girl, good girl!"
Sayaka grimaced as Kanna stood up on her tiptoes and patted her on the head like a faithful lapdog. Just like trying to decipher her bizarre chatter, efforts to discourage her shows of "affection" usually weren't worth the trouble. At least she wasn't running current through her fingers as she did it… this time. "It's my job," Sayaka said flatly.
"Well, yeah," said Kanna, "but you kinda suck at your job most of the time, don't you? You fucked up and got killed or Witchified all those times in your show, you let Homura-chan and Madoka-chan get away back during the invasion, and then you lost Sakura-chan and the pink spore…"
"Now, now, Kanna," said Joker, watching them both with undisguised glee. "Mademoiselle Miki does her best, as do we all."
Kanna barely listened. She attached herself to Sayaka like a blonde, perky leech, pressing her slender body against Sayaka's upper arm and shoulder. "Your fake body's got crazy strong healing magic, right? I just think you could have so much more fun with it. Experiment a little!" Her golden eyes sparkled. "What if someone ripped your arm off? Could you stick it right back on like nothing happened, or would you need stitches? Or glue, maybe?"
"Dunno." Obviously, Kanna was trying to get a rise out of her. Sayaka refused to take the bait. "I've never tried."
"Aww, boo. I bet you could do all kinds of other fun stuff with a ripped-off arm, though! If you moved the fingers juuuuust right, you could give somebody an amazing handjob. Like Violin Boy!"
"Kn-knock it off!" Against her will, Sayaka flushed hot with a mixture of shame and revulsion, turning red to the tips of her ears.
Having sensed that he had derived all the entertainment he could out of the situation, Joker slid up behind Kanna and laid his hand on her shoulder. "Kanna, dear, perhaps you should run along and play. Mademoiselle Miki deserves some rest… she did turn up first when the commotion started."
"Perhaps you two could schedule a few practice sessions together later, non? You're developing so well…" Joker patted Kanna fondly on the head, and she cooed in a way that turned Sayaka's stomach. "But you still lack that exquisite personal hatred that Miki carries inside her. An apprenticeship could be rewarding for both of you, couldn't it, Miki?"
"I don't know, Master." Sayaka's brow furrowed. Not exactly her idea of a good time, and dangerous to her health.
"Think of it! You learn from her, she learns from you…"
Kanna giggled and spread her two forefingers in her trademark V-sign… then she stuck out her tongue between them and waggled it in Sayaka's direction.
"I assure you," said Joker to Sayaka, "that's not even remotely what I meant. Still, it's something to think about, isn't it? In any case, Kanna, you're excused for now."
"There's still a bridle in my private chamber, just waiting to be broken in…" The harlequin flashed her a knowing wink and dropped his voice. "It's a new one, and it runs on batteries."
"Ooooh~!" Successfully distracted, Kanna peeled herself off of Sayaka and beamed at her master. "Master Joker, you're gonna spoil me rotten, I can't wait! Sorry, Fish Lips! Smell ya later!" A flash, a crackle of static, and she was gone.
Joker put a hand over his heart and sighed. "Such a delightful little scamp that one is! She's turning out better than I ever could have hoped… c'est magnifique."
"Master Joker?" Sayaka couldn't help but blanch. "Sorry if I'm speaking out of turn, but Kanna and the other Bad End Cures… you're not really doing that with them, are you?"
"Why, mademoiselle, you wound me!" said Joker, drawing back in mock outrage. "Hold your tongue! I admit, our Kanna has a bit of a debauched mind—an unexpected development, that—but the games between her, the Bad Ends, and myself are all strictly chaste. Gentleman's honor."
Somehow, that wasn't reassuring. "If you say so, Master," said Sayaka, knowing better than to press the point.
"And I do say so, best keep that in mind. Come." Joker beckoned with one long, clawed finger. "Walk with me, s'il vous plaît."
She did. Their footsteps echoed off the faux-marble pillars of the empty hall, ringing like the tolling of far-off church bells. "Master, permission to speak freely?"
"You always have it, dear, so long as you understand the risks of speaking too freely."
"Got it. Are you sure you're not being too soft with Tender?"
"Ah, Tender, Tender," said Joker, spreading his arms with a flourish. "That's what I get for turning her Seed. Her power, yes, but her will and personality, too. I'm actually rather impressed with her. It was quite brave to come after me by herself."
"I can't argue that, but don't you think the thing with Fortune might turn her against you? She was really pissed off."
"Heh." Joker sniggered to himself. "She'd be even more incensed if she only knew. A shallow cut is enough for Droid Jamanen to assimilate her prey. The method she chose for sweet little Fortune was… excessive. I'd go so far as to call it grossly inefficient. In terms of style, though, I must give Jamanen credit. Viluy's upgrades gave her such a devious little mind… I'd compare it to my own, but that wouldn't be fair to her."
Sayaka shuddered. "I don't know. It seems like a big risk, leaving Tender alone. You said it yourself, you turned her Seed, you're not controlling her. She attacked you once, what's stopping her from doing it again?"
"You're looking at it from the wrong direction, my dear." Joker swiveled on his heel, now walking backwards. "She knows now that nothing she can say or do will make her poor little sister human again. Threatening me is pointless, and killing Jamanen would kill Fortune as well. If she wants to keep Fortune alive, she has no choice but to obey orders… and now she knows I'm watching her, making sure those orders are followed to the letter. Brilliant, non?"
Sayaka had to admit that it was. Twisted, but brilliant… that described Joker in a nutshell. She walked a few more meters in silence.
"Something else on your mind?" said Joker after a while.
"It's just..." Sayaka paused to collect her thoughts. Her words had to be chosen carefully. "You don't seem too upset about what happened to the entity, either… considering all the trouble you went through to find it and use it."
"Ah, that." Joker sighed. "It would have been wonderful if it could have eaten the whole of Vertex Three, true, but it did ensure that there won't be any more Facets. The total number of Precure is now finite, and from this point on, it's just process of elimination. So all in all, it's a net gain for Dead End, especially considering what we've learned…"
"What we've learned?"
"Oh yes." A faint glow lit the eyes of Joker's mask, like lumps of coal beginning to burn. "This 'Fantine' character—and I'm quite sure it must have been Fantine—she knew how to stop the entity before it could finish its job. That alone gives us invaluable information, Miki."
Sayaka frowned. "I'm not following."
"It means," said Joker, "that she's an outsider, like the entity is. Was. Whichever. Someone or something from beyond our five Vertices… or at very least, someone or something that's been in contact with another outsider. Precious few beings can do what she did, Miki… which means that in all the multiverse, all the infinite possibilities, there's only a handful of people or things that 'Fantine' could be. Again, process of elimination. Once we find her, we likely find this Lighthouse of hers, and with that, the Three… and with them in hand, it all comes tumbling down, neat as you please."
"I see." Sayaka folded her hands behind her back. "And Akemi? What happens to her when we find the Lighthouse?"
"Pffft," said Joker, waving a dismissive hand. "Madame deville isn't nearly as important as she thinks she is. She has a hold on a decent amount of Kaname's power, but she can't hope to make full use of it…"
"Since she stole it." A growl built deep in Sayaka's throat.
"Yes, exactly. We're better off waiting for the inevitable moment when the little rose-haired twit takes back her full abilities, then making our move on her. Minus cosmic powers, and with Kaname as insurance, Akemi is less than nothing. She'll be yours to do with as you choose."
"I'm looking forward to it. Thank you, Master." Sayaka smiled grimly. "At least when everything is erased, it'll erase what she's done too…"
"'Erased?'" Joker stopped in mid-stride.
"With the Merry-Go-Round."
"Who told you that that's what the Merry-Go-Round does?"
"Last time I took her back to her quarters, Iron Mouse was babbling about overhearing it from Viluy. She seemed scared out of her wits by it… more than usual, I mean. She said you're harnessing the prisoners' pain to erase existe—"
Joker pressed a finger to her lips to silence her, his face splitting open into a fanged grin. "That's not what it does."
"Huh?" Perplexed, Sayaka took a few steps back. "B-but... There's no way Iron Mouse could have come up with that by herself, let alone tell a convincing lie about it. Why would she—"
"A safeguard," said Joker, his lips stretching ever wider. "A bit of useful misinformation spread among the rank and file keeps them on their toes. Keeping up appearances, and all that. The method is more or less accurate, but the purpose is something else entirely.
"Think, dear!" Joker gently rapped his knuckles on her forehead. "Why would I want to erase existence? That only grants the people of the multiverse an end to their collective suffering! That gives them something to look forward to, and we can't have that. No, what the Merry-Go-Round does is far worse…"
END OF CHAPTER 38
NEXT: FANTINE'S CONFESSION