Kyoko steals apples. She heard that in the past they used to hang kids for that, but the past is long gone, not worth thinking about, and if they’re going to execute her for anything-- well, she’s done a hell of a lot worse.
The day before she arrived in Mitakihara, she’d killed a girl in her hometown. Nothing personal- the stranger had intruded on her patch, which is usually how these fights start, and Kyoko had perched unseen on roofs and watched her scope out the metropolis after school and head home to kiss her parents goodnight before sneaking out the window to patrol again until dawn. That kind of work ethic gets you killed even when there aren’t any witches around.
But there was a witch around, eventually. There always is. Kyoko had watched the new kid jump into the barrier in her stupid frilly orange dress, and waited a while before following her. This one was a forest, or something like one; huge dead coral, pastel-coloured, clawing at the purple sky. Bright sparkling drops of something liquid were rolling down the spindly skeleton arms occasionally, and Kyoko avoided them warily. The barrier is the witch, so who knows what its furniture can do to you- better not to risk it, better to be on your guard.
She’d found the girl firing an oversized crossbow into the witch (a swollen lumpen ugly thing like a too-full trash bag, bubbling under its skin), a final shot. Perfect timing, really. The witch boiled and struggled and imploded with a sound like stepping on dog shit, and before the new girl had time to do anything but heft her weapon to her side Kyoko had sprung out from behind the coral and thrown the lance straight through her back.
It’s easier like that. The kid probably didn’t even feel it. There’s no point in being sadistic (though Kyoko’s met girls who are into that, and killed them all the same).
That was when Kyuubey had appeared on her shoulder, tilted his head to one side, and said brightly, “Mami Tomoe is dead.”
The grief seed from that witch and the bag of stolen apples are just what she needs to keep her going until Mitakihara, and when she arrives there she raids the supermarket, invisible, finds an empty house to dump her stuff in, and sniffs out the air. Hell, it’s busy. She can smell the lingering traces of Mami’s presence in the city, and on top of that someone whose scent is like a hundred different things hidden behind a screen of cigarette smoke- someone she’s met before, and would rather stay away from.
The new puella magi smells like freshly running water. Kyoko’s pretty sure she won’t last long.
After her first meeting with Sayaka, Kyoko punches the wall of the abandoned house until her knuckles bleed. It’s a waste of her strength and she hates herself for it, but the alternative was transforming and blowing up empty barns outside of town, or roaming the streets in search of a fight, and she can’t afford to be frivolous like that.
It’s just that—
She sits in the corner of the empty room, her knees tucked close to her chest, nursing her bloody fists and biting off too-large chunks from a loaf of bread. It’s just that she hasn’t felt like that during a fight in- hell, in years. And it’s just that she knows exactly what kind of girl Sayaka is, now, because it’s the same kind of girl Kyoko is. Or was, at least. But that’s nothing special; idealists are commonplace, why wouldn’t they be? Girls make the contract for all kinds of reasons- stupid, misguided desire to protect loved ones is hardly an unusual motive. Kyoko’s taken advantage of dozens of ignorant romantics and overprotective daughters and whatever the fuck else over the years.
Sayaka won’t last long. Kyoko’s sure of it now.
The thing that’s keeping her awake, keeping the scabs on her knuckles bleeding as she digs her nails into them, the thing that won’t go away is the thought that maybe she wants Sayaka to last.
They meet again in battle, this time undisturbed by intruders.
The memory of their discussion in the burned-out husk of the church, watery multi-coloured light refracted from the stained glass window onto Sayaka’s face, simmers in the back of Kyoko’s mind as they face off in the same alley as before. Their fight is different, though, this time; Kyoko barely believes it. Her ducks and parries and strikes are almost mechanical, until Sayaka stretches her arms above her head to slash toward Kyoko’s spear, and Kyoko sees the soul gem set above Sayaka’s skirt.
It’s almost black, clouded like water with ink spilled into it- diseased, and it makes Kyoko feel like she’s going to throw up.
She hurls her spear at Sayaka and it misses by an inch, springing back on its chains to hover above Kyoko’s hand as Sayaka sways and grits her teeth. While Sayaka’s snatching breath Kyoko lands on the ground, harder than she normally would so it shudders up through her bones, and stands facing Sayaka again.
“You’re dying,” she says, her voice higher than usual, “This is killing you, and you won’t let me—”
“I don’t want your help,” snaps Sayaka, the ends of her hair singed black from sparking metal where Kyoko nearly speared her in the throat, surrounding by a ring of trembling floating swords with their points aimed at Kyoko’s chest, “I don’t need—”
Kyoko leaps at her, hits the wall feet-first when Sayaka dodges, and runs up it to flip backwards, snarling- the scrape of metal on metal makes her spin round, raise her spear with a flick of her wrist, but before she can do anything with it Sayaka’s swords have struck one after the other, through the fabric of her shoulders and on either side of her waist and all down her skirt, pinning her to the wall. Kyoko notes in the seconds before her anger explodes that none of the blades have pierced her skin, and that must have been on purpose, so maybe there’s hope—
“I don’t need your help,” says Sayaka, again, her chest heaving like she’s been saved from drowning, “what could you ever do for me?”
Kyoko screams, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck your fucking martyr complex, fuck—”
Sayaka kisses her. All the swords drop to the ground with a clatter and disappear, and Kyoko realises all that’s keeping her from falling is Sayaka pressed against her, and the horrible helium lightness in her limbs from where Sayaka’s power is holding them upright.
It’s so sudden Kyoko couldn’t have seen it coming (so she tells herself), and it lasts maybe a second before Kyoko arches her neck forward, pulls at Sayaka’s lower lip with her teeth, and Sayaka’s eyes flicker open like she doesn’t know how she got there or what she’s doing. Gravity returns; the two of them drop a couple of metres to the ground, land in a heap, and scramble away from each other like feral cats to stand apart and stare, tense and furious.
Kyoko has no idea how long they stay there before Sayaka staggers, collapses, and in a burst of sky-blue sparks returns to her untransformed state. She’s conscious, at least- holding herself up on her elbows- but shivering and very pale, with dark smudged shadows under her eyes. Kyoko stands over her, won’t allow herself to crouch down at Sayaka’s side.
“I have a grief seed,” she says, “and you need it.”
“Don’t you dare give it to me,” says Sayaka, her voice hoarse.
Do you want to die?, thinks Kyoko, or I don’t want you to die, or don’t die.
It doesn’t matter. She picks Sayaka up and carries her home, across the roofs of Mitakihara, with only the birds heralding the dawn and lonely cars in the streets below for company. Sayaka’s out cold by the time Kyoko prises open the window and drops her onto the bed, and Kyoko watches her shallow breathing for a long time. She can’t bring herself to stay until Sayaka wakes.
As the train station shudders around her, all the colours of the floor and the chairs and the walls and the roof and the billboards and the tracks blurring into each other, stuttering, shimmering like light in water, Kyoko makes her decision.
Sayaka’s screams aren’t human any more; they slice right through Kyoko’s ears to stab her in the place where her soul might once have been.
The thing that used to be Sayaka has built a barrier of grand ambitions. There’s room for an audience of thousands in this fake concert hall, space for hundreds of musicians to play, great ornate red curtains and spinning golden wheels. It’s a lie, though; the seats are all empty, the players lifeless shadow-marionettes. The whole thing is a weird trick on the eyes, an illusion, bent around the edges like they’re submerged underwater.
The violins hurt Kyoko’s head, fill her brain and strain at the seams. The others have fled, but that’s okay- she knew they’d have to eventually, and she’d rather do this alone. She alights on the rippling crimson carpet, dodging everything Sayaka throws at her out of some lasting instinct, something physical that still wants to keep her alive.
Kyoko knows she never had a chance.
They were tricked; all of them, doomed from the start. Hell, Kyoko’s tried to outlast it- and succeeded, for years, bringing others down in front of her in the process. Sayaka never tried. Perhaps she was just a better person, no matter what she is now—
Kyoko grasps the flickering red shard of herself between her hands. She takes a breath and leaps into the chaos of sound and light before her, her hair whipped behind her by the speed of it, her eyes watering, the whole barrier around her exploding into dying flares of colour.
She’s never had a chance, but she has always had a choice.
Kyoko feels like she’s drowning and burning and dissipating into the air all at once, and the noise in her ears sounds more like singing than screaming.