A/N: Rising from the abyss with an update! Happy Birthday, ANAI! Happy Reset Day, Homura!
I disappeared for so long because my life caught fire in several ways at once and I shut down. For months, I could not write at all. I was being destroyed by stress. My brain couldn't get into imaginary land at all. It was distressing. Writing is a core survival tool of mine and I lost it.
This chapter is dedicated to the people on the ANAI Discord server in general but especially those who have been writing short round robin AUs for the last several months. They revived my ability to write with their ideas, demonstration of the creative process, teamwork, enthusiasm, and encouragement. They inspired me back into writing in small pieces. I am still struggling and this chapter is only out because so much was done already when things fell apart, but I'm better than I was.
I'm very grateful to those writers. Everyone, please know that they indirectly helped make this chapter.
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§ x § x §
§ x § x §
TIMELINE X + N + 1
Mami was very upset but she was not stupid.
Really, you could say she was upset because she was not stupid.
She had learned after-action analysis, to a degree. She had notebooks and notebooks full of it from picking apart her battle performance for improvement. She could do that here. For this. For-
"Akemi saw a Witch literally bite the head off one of her original team members then eat the body. That girl was blonde. Like you."
In retrospect, the way Homura had stared through her with that horribly blank expression when Sayaka said bite her head off had far more significance than Hitsugaya and his uncle had said.
Not like her. Actually her. She had died by-
Homura had seen her-
Like that body she found in the crater-
Mami shuddered. Again. Fought to not vomit on the couch. Rangiku squeezed her shoulders. It helped.
"Her first team leader went nuts and broke a teammate's Soul Gem and tried to break Homura's, but another teammate stopped the leader. By breaking her Soul Gem first."
Of the four of them, Mami herself had probably been the leader. She had started out hoping for new magical girl friends in Madoka and Sayaka, hoped she could teach them. Be responsible for them. Lead them.
What had she done? That other her. What had she been thinking? Why would she do that to her juniors?! She was supposed to protect them!
...Wait. If Homura's leader had been Mami... another of her, once upon a time, did that mean...? No. Yes. It did probably mean that Homura had once been one of her juniors. Back when she- when another of her- betrayed- tried to kill-
"Slow down and breathe, honey," Rangiku said quietly as her vision got blotchy and dark. The woman rocked her a few times. It helped. "I see those gears turning. Think through it slower. One thing at a time."
Right. Right. Deep breath. Okay. Right. Back up. Piece it together.
Okay. So that... reaction was after seeing someone she knew turn into a Witch. One of her juniors. Turned into a Witch. That fact still made her want to scream in terrified horror. Now why the... why did she do that? There was the terror of turning herself, but... in Kyō - in Kyōko's... labyrinth...
"You have a choice to make. Move forward and—"
"Choice?! Choice?! If Soul Gems give birth to Witches, we have no choice but to—!"
"Don't finish that sentence!"
No choice but to die.
If they were doomed to suffer immensely then turn into monsters that killed and ate people, the only way to prevent that was to prevent turning into a Witch. To absolutely stop Soul Gems from becoming Grief Seeds. There was no coming back- well, before Orihime- and Grief Seeds were always immediately eaten by Kyu- the Incubator. So the only recourse was prevention. And if that couldn't be guaranteed with survival, the only way to make sure it didn't happen would be to make the Soul Gem stop existing before it could transform. Before intense suffering and something worse than death. A... twisted mercy.
It made so much horrible sense and it terrified her that some version of her would actually act on it.
Pat-pat-pat to the side of her head, a tug closer, nails smoothing the flyaway hairs from her temple. Rangiku started humming softly.
It helped. Mami pressed closer to her.
All right. Okay. So some version of her did... that.
Why didn't she do it this time? Why didn't she attack Homura this time?
"We can save Kyōko."
Hitsugaya having the presence of mind to immediately purify her Soul Gem.
"I— I can think better."
Then Hitsugaya and Homura both when she shut down again.
"Get up. Do you want to save your friend or not?!"
"Do not be a damsel in distress, Mami. You are better than this."
The two of them. The things they said and did before they even fought anything, the things they said when facing... Kyōko's soul twisted by despair. It was like they had blocked off every avenue that led to... what she originally thought.
Mami suddenly had a lot of questions for Homura and Hitsugaya. Had the two of them not done the same thing... before? Not told her the same things?
...Not known to tell her the same things?
All right. All right. She needed to stop there for that... angle. She'd get nowhere without asking those questions first. Or maybe she wouldn't want those answers. Stop it. Wait. She could wait. Set that aside for now.
She took a deep, shuddering breath and tried to settle a bit. Rangiku's hum briefly went from soothing to pleased and she lightly bumped her chin against Mami's head. It felt like a compliment, somehow.
All right. She could turn... another way. Look down a different path.
Homura had started so distant. Wary. Cold and hard. But avoided fighting and gave her information. Was frustratingly vague in doing so, but now... It hadn't been some kind of power play or ploy to keep her wondering, it had been... like tiptoeing around a landmine.
Mami herself was the bomb yet to explode. That had exploded before.
"Too much information at once will overwhelm you. You are already overwhelmed. Hearing something worse so soon—"
" You need to regain your balance before the next step so you do not crack. Like the other girls. I do not want to fight you."
Mami shook again. Rangiku made soothing hushing sounds. It helped.
Another her had cracked.
Another her had fought Homura.
No. Tried to kill Homura.
And yet Homura had...
"She almost died trying to save you that first night, you know."
"When she finally recovered, she was so angry and all she could think of was getting your Gem back."
If Sayaka was to be believed- and Mami had no reason to doubt her- then Homura had switched from wariness to protectiveness the moment she had been... incapacitated. And after the whole Sōju mess, and after the reawakening meeting didn't... end in Mami losing it, her coldness had... thawed. She had opened up, however carefully.
"I... initially had difficulty steeling myself like that to protect other girls. Even if it hurt them."
"What... did you used to be like? Before all this?"
"Shy. Soft. Naive. Passive. Timid. Optimistic, to a degree."
Mami had been sad for Homura then, but now... some other version of herself had helped her down that road, helped re-sculpt her from what she had been. Along with the rest of them, it seemed, but she had played a part. And if some other her had done what logic said she had, then her part had probably been quite significant.
She wanted to go back to that other Homura and protect her.
"We have to do something!" Sayaka suddenly shouted with determination as she threw her controller on the floor and jumped to her feet.
Mami startled and reassessed her surroundings. Huh?
"How 'bout you start with bringin' your magic to heel before the console fries from all the water?" Kyōko drawled, not looking away from the screen.
It was very humid, now that Mami paid attention.
"That's not important! And I dunno how to, anyway!" Sayaka said stubbornly. "We gotta help her! We have to do something! We're a team!"
"No, we ain't," Kyōko muttered, faking being distracted by the game.
"Yes, we are! And we have to do something!"
"Like what?" Kyōko asked sourly.
"We screwed up! I mean, other us'es screwed up! We have to- to- not!"
"You dunno what the hell to do."
Sayaka sputtered. "Well- well, what'd you do?!"
"Ask more questions," Kyōko replied like it was obvious. "All this bullshit keeps goin' down before they finish explaining everything and then there's even more to be explained. I ain't committing to nothin' til I get my damn answers."
"Do you not believe her?!" Sayaka demanded, somewhere between disbelief and outrage.
"Never said that," Kyōko said lowly, finally pausing the game to look at them sideways. "I believe her powers and that she must've known me and seems to know you. We dunno how, though."
"Obviously, she's been trying to help us-!"
"We dunno that," Kyōko objected. "For all we know, she could've tortured those details outta-"
"Kyōko!" Mami scolded, trying to head off Sayaka's impending explosion. "You don't really think that so don't say it to provoke her!"
Kyōko turned away in a sulk, caught out. "Tch."
"What's wrong with you?!" Sayaka raged. "How can you say something like that?!"
"'Cause thinking of the worst possible way somethin' might be at least makes me not as likely to just trust whatever someone says and get myself burned!"
Sayaka waved her arms and clawed the air in frustration. "But how many times have we not believed her?! And she's still trying to help us!"
"Well, if that's true and these people've tried to save us forty-odd times and keep failing, maybe we're better off without 'em."
"Oh, no, you're mistaken," Rangiku interrupted. They all looked at her in surprise. She had done an excellent job of blending into the scenery even though Mami was still leaning into her. "I was just read into the details today, so I still don't know everything. The brief was rushed. But if I understand correctly, this is the first full timeline Homura has had our help. I think she was by herself up until... I think near the end of the last... time. She hid everything from people who didn't know about magical girls until... something went different. But I'm unclear on the exact circumstances." The woman looked mournful. "If I understand correctly, she's been trying to save the four of you by herself for... a long time. And this may be the farthest she's ever gotten with all four of you still alive."
They all stared at her, dumbstruck.
"By herself?" Sayaka squeaked.
"It's all very complicated with who knew what when, what with people hiding things from each other due to misunderstandings, but Homura didn't know she could ask any of us for help. Something happened last time that made her do something new- go back to where everyone is from. She coincidentally stumbled into hidden things like the spirit world and the Kurosaki girls being magical girls and that changed everything." Rangiku looked down, subdued. "If I understood correctly, last time everyone..." She sighed before finishing, "There was no one left for her to protect here. I think."
Mami's vision swam with tears.
"That- that's not fair," Sayaka said through her own tears. "That's not fair."
Kyōko turned back to the TV screen, unpaused the game, and tilted her head to hide her face behind her hair.
Rangiku sighed again and idly twirled a strand of her hair between her fingers. "Everyone in this building agrees."
"We- we need to be better this time!" Sayaka said fiercely.
"Think you mean next time," Kyōko said gruffly.
"What?" Sayaka said at the same time as Mami.
"They could've only told us about the pause button. But they went for the extra-weird and told us about the do-overs. They didn't have to." Kyōko glanced at them over her shoulder briefly before letting her hair form a curtain again. "I don't think a different city bein' wiped off the map is the Happy Ever After they want. She's going back again, ain't she?" After a long silence, she inclined her chin and pitched her voice louder. "Am I right?"
Rangiku closed her eyes and sighed again. "I don't know. At the very least, your reasoning is sound."
Mami felt sick.
"That's not fair," Sayaka repeated in a small, tearful voice.
"Y'all want us to do something," Kyōko continued.
"I think so, but I don't know, and I'm not going to guess," Rangiku said. "Kisuke and Homura hold all the cards on our end. Things went sideways enough for more people to be told. I don't know what the plan was and I don't know what the new plan will be, unfortunately."
"What use're you, then," Kyōko grumbled.
"Kyōko!" Mami scolded again, mortified. "She helped me!"
Kyōko went still, paused the game, and looked at them directly. Her face was inscrutable, but she eventually huffed and went back to her game with a gruff, "Thanks."
"Awwwwww, you're welcome~!" Rangiku sang.
They all sat and stood around in awkward silence for a minute. Sayaka was the one to break it. "So- so what do we do? At least for now?"
Kyōko huffed again."We don't know enough to do anything. And stop with the damned water before you make it rain inside!"
Annnd they broke out into snarly bickering.
Mami's mind suddenly cleared some. Something just... fell together in her head, neatly locked into place. She pulled herself up and away from Rangiku, straightened her spine, and clapped sharply before the bickering could escalate more. Both girls immediately shut up and looked at her.
We're a team, Mami thought.
She took a deep breath with her eyes closed, held it for a moment to center herself, then looked at them and tried to sound authoritative. "I told Homura that I trust her. I will stand by that, especially given her openness about the time travel when she didn't have to reveal that," she said with a nod to Kyōko to acknowledge her earlier point in her own way.
"Even if it's some kinda ploy to get us to do somethin'?" Kyōko asked skeptically.
"Yes," Mami answered with a firm nod. "At the very least, she deserves to be heard out. Question her if you want, yes, but we at least owe her the respect of hearing her out."
"Right!" Sayaka agreed. "We owe her a lot more than that!"
Mami saw Kyōko make another skeptical face and open her mouth to say something smart, so Mami headed her off with, "Probably. But if Kyōko has questions, then she also at least deserves to be heard. She has only known Homura for a few days, after all. It makes sense that she would be wary and want to ask questions." She gave Kyōko a hard look. "If she can be respectful about it."
Kyōko looked away with a scoff, but didn't sass back.
"I don't want to doubt Homura," Sayaka said sharply. "It sounds like we've done that enough for a lifetime and I don't want to do— to be like—" She couldn't finish the thought properly, but Mami understood.
I don't want to be like my other selves who hurt her. Who didn't believe her. Who didn't heed her warnings.
"Look at it as clarifying the situation to best understand the basis of any further action you take," Mami suggested seriously. "Rushing to do something you think may help may backfire." She paused, weighed her words, and added, "Right now, we have no way of knowing if... our other selves acted rashly before she could fully explain herself."
Sayaka bit her lip and looked newly cautious.
Good. They were both balancing out a bit. Good.
Mami steepled her fingers for a moment, closed her eyes and breathed again. A plan. This was her next test as an ally. They needed a plan. She needed to put one together. Neither of the other girls interrupted her thoughts. Good.
She opened her eyes and looked at her old partner. "Kyōko, find something to write with and actually outline all your questions. Use our old Witch after-action format and we'll review it together before the next meeting to see if we can add anything or split the asking."
"Tch. I ain't your-"
"Kyōko, please." Mami turned to Sayaka as Kyōko rolled her eyes and stood. "I'll at least try to teach you something until one of the others has the time to show you techniques for uncontracted people." She turned to Rangiku. "Unless you would be willing?"
"Willing, but not able until tomorrow," Rangiku answered as she stretched like a cat getting up from a nap. "I have things to do with the others tonight," she chirped. She winked and added, "So you two see what you can figure out, okay? One of us should be able to help more tomorrow."
"If the world don't blow up again overnight," Kyōko muttered as she rifled through shelves and drawers looking for something to write with.
"Well, yes, there is that," Rangiku said ruefully. She smiled. "You were saying, Mami?"
"Yes. Right. Sayaka, I can't guarantee anything, but I'll do my best. Will you do yours?"
"Yes! Absolutely!" Sayaka declared as she clenched her fists and looked determined. "I'm your student!"
Mami smiled her approval. "All right. We'll go out on the veranda just in case your magic slips."
"Take your masks so you don't choke on that crap in the air," Kyōko muttered as though insulting them.
"Thanks, Kyōko!" Sayaka cheered. "I forgot the smoke!"
Their bickering was less biting this time, so Mami allowed them to blow off their steam.
Just as she was getting ready to go outside, she glanced at Rangiku's face and flushed.
The woman looked proud of her.
§ x § x §
Yoruichi was trying to not be in a foul mood, but she really was. She used all her skill to not to show it. Rin was already skittish enough without a former captain showing her frustration. Especially given how his own thrice-damned "captain" probably expressed his frustration.
At least she had managed to wrangle Kisuke into sleeping for a few hours after he had a brief conversation with Ichigo about exploiting one of the Fullbringer brats. It annoyed her both that one of the brats was involved in any way and that Kisuke was forgoing sleep yet a-fucking-gain. Which was why Hakufuku had been involved in knocking Kisuke out of his hyperfocus to take a nap to avoid being a dumbass when everyone reconvened. The ass had seen it coming and fought most of it off, but drowsily took the goddamn hint. As long as she promised to go to Soul Society and obtain one of Zaraki's spare reiatsu-dampening eye patches without anyone knowing.
It was an easy-peasy mission for her, but still annoying. And she hadn't even gotten to see the light show that prompted it herself.
She had taken her own nap down in the quiet room where their three inconvenient clueless people were still knocked out, but was still grumpy. It was almost four in the morning and Orihime had fetched Kisuke to present Kaname's options. Which left Rin glancing at her warily from his post trying to salvage or modify sensors whenever she hurried down the hall and went into the room to find more tools and supplies. Because she was now in charge of making sure the cleaned tanks preserving dead girls still functioned. Figuring out how they functioned and tinkering with them. Which was neither terribly difficult nor extremely important given their own kidō stasis replacement, but still. Data was data and she had nothing else to do for now but save Kisuke and Tessai time by doing this until assigned something else.
Sometimes she regretted having the knowledge of spiritual artifice that came with being a prominent member of the Shihoin "Guard of Godly Gear" clan. Some of her little cousins would probably have a ball with this task. Yoruichi had always favored the "guard" part of the clan's title. But a skill was a skill and if that skill was needed, she'd use it. Dammit.
So she studied the hell out of the tanks, repaired what she could, and took copious notes alongside rough schematics.
One page of her notebook was dedicated to something unrelated to the artifice, though: a list of names. Every body bore an identical necklace and every necklace bore a name tag. Yoruichi did not want to jump to conclusions, but something Akemi had said kept ringing in her head:
"She said she wanted to label me correctly."
Was this something related to the Sōju monsters? Was Sōju part of some larger operation based in Asunaro? If Soul Gems had been collected to match these girls, where were they? Were they in the confiscated batch? There weren't enough bodies to match the Soul Gems Akemi and Hitsugaya had confiscated, though. Wait, they had no way of knowing if these girls had even been magical girls.
She could go on. But she didn't.
They couldn't afford assumptions like that. There was no way to know how it all connected and no way to find out in the immediate future, so Yoruichi focused on what was right in front of her.
The door behind her opened an hour after Kisuke had left. She could sense it was him. He didn't come in.
"That went slow," Yoruichi drawled around the penlight in her mouth. "Her mom pick apart everything you said?"
"Yoruichi, am I awake?" Kisuke asked mildly.
"Benihime insists I am," he continued, "but I rather think this is something between dream and nightmare."
Yoruichi juggled everything out of her hands and dropped the penlight from her mouth, then turned to look at him. Kisuke had this weird blankly pensive look on his face that she instantly recognized from those occasional woebegone inventor's remorse talks. Which usually required copious amounts of alcohol and-
"Kisuke you didn't even invent anything this time, what the hell."
"I suppose that contributes to the surreality," he said lightly.
Yoruichi pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes then dragged her fingertips down her cheeks. She would be patient. "What happened now?"
"I'm caught between fascination and screaming," he replied. He sounded so calm.
That was fake.
Given that and his facial expression, Yoruichi ventured, "You're excited by the puzzle and feel guilty about it because our circumstances are so fucked and it is- it might be an objectively terrible thing."
Kisuke's lips turned up into a smile of self-mockery. "Got it in one." He ran a hand through his hair and added, "It could be extremely good or extremely bad. Or maybe just frightening."
Yoruichi palmed her face and sighed. "What now?"
"I think Kaname was a party to the memory transference."
"You'd guessed that already," Yoruichi said idly, recognizing what he wanted and falling into the role of external, unimpressed sounding board to measure the direness of things outside his own head.
"No, no. You don't get it. Like... lasting? With... an identity glitch? Ten hours after the event. And she described my mental state as screaming. While seeing herself as Homura. Basically told me I should be putting Homura's Soul Gem on her. I think."
Yoruichi arched her brows. That jumble sounded... at least significant, if not alarming. But he also referred to Akemi by her given name and that was both cute and reassuring- Kisuke had more permanently sorted her into one of his I-give-a-damn-about-this-person's-overall-wellbeing-on-a-personal-level-beyond-usefulness-and-academia boxes. It was an order of magnitude shy of loyalty, like Ichigo, Tessai, and herself, but it was a major leap. Box possibly placed on an upper shelf near Hirako. Huh.
"She didn't remember saying it when she was more lucid," Kisuke continued. "What the hell happened in this feedback loop?! Why did it affect memories? Share them? How? Can we use it?"
"You've skipped some steps somewhere," Yoruichi said drily as she turned back to her task to avoid staring at him. "Actually come in, close the door, take a seat, and start from the top."
So he did.
He sat beside her and slowly talked through the Kaname encounter while holding and handing over items she needed. It was backwards from what they had done as teenagers, but reassuringly similar. She stopped him at shaky points with pointed questions and waited through his glazed-over thoughtful silences. Projected measured reactions to various things to help him recalibrate his own reactions. Tore paper out of her notebook to give to him to scribble and draw incomprehensible jargon upon whenever he made the smartypants grabby-hands.
"Think you need to find out more before you go jumping off a cliff of guesses, Kisuke," Yoruichi eventually sighed. "You said Ichigo didn't seem particularly attached to reality when he came to, either. You don't know what Akemi was like when she woke up. You need to have a very calm and careful discussion with them about what they each experienced."
"But. Kaname saw Homura's Soul Gem as her own."
Yoruichi feigned a lazy shrug then jabbed the penlight up to shine directly in his eye to make him startle. "Do you even know where her Soul Gem is when she contracts? Was Akemi transformed in the memory Ichigo saw? Did he see it in first-person?"
"I don't know."
Yoruichi spread her arms wide. "There's your starting point, Kisuke. You can't make any sense of that little feelings-magnet until you have more of an idea what that was a reaction to. You may be reading too far into it." She gave him a skeptical look and gestured at her own face to show lack of alarm. "You're tripping over the front of your own geta, Kisuke. Walk before you run."
Kisuke sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Right as always."
Her friend sat straighter and looked around their impromptu aquarium morgue as though waking from a dream and just noticing his surroundings. "Learn anything?"
"Oh, yeah. It's simple as far as stuff you do goes, but that tells its own story."
§ x § x §
Ichigo was tentatively pleased with how things were winding down. Urahara had briefly stopped by to take him down the hall and privately tell him about Yukio- joy- then ask how Homura was doing in general and let him know that Madoka was awake and okay. He seemed kinda dazed, though. He had taken Ichigo's vaguely positive answer at face value and left. Homura had become stable and calm, face... soft. It was stunning for her, especially while coming off the night she had. Ichigo would gladly take it.
He and Dad happily complied when Karin and Yuzu booted them out of the room to talk as just the three of them. When Dad closed the door, he glanced at Ichigo and excitedly whispered, "Sister time!" in a tearful voice. Ichigo could only grin in response.
Sisters. And Homura had called him Nii-san when she was out of it.
His grin widened.
"Everything settled?" Chad asked quietly.
Ichigo looked down at him and almost laughed. "Oh, yeah. Better than I'd hoped."
Chad weighed his expression carefully, decided Ichigo wasn't minimizing something painful, and nodded acceptance. "I'm glad."
"Do you want us to stay at the door while you go to Urahara?" Uryū asked.
"Nah, they'll be fine," Ichigo said as he waved them off. "She's conscious and okay and I'm pretty sure the twins can handle booting out anyone who bothers them. Thanks for watching. For having our backs."
"Always," Chad murmured as Uryū quickly looked away.
He really did have the best friends. Seriously.
"Wait, where's Orihime?" Ichigo asked.
"Watching Kaname's room after checking in with the magical girls, last I heard," Uryū replied as he stood and stretched.
"And where is that?"
"Urahara has crammed so many rooms and halls into this godforsaken building that I only know the general direction," Uryū said grumpily. "She may be sleeping by now, though."
Ichigo cringed. "You two missed a night of sleep doing this for us. You should crash for awhile."
They agreed. Ichigo and his father headed for the dining room while the others headed down the deep hall to claim an extra bedroom. Ichigo didn't expect anyone to be up so early in the morning, but the entire Kaname family was there. The dad was cleaning the kitchen and the mom was wrangling the sleepy-screechy toddler in his high chair while trying not to hover over her daughter, who had a bandage on one hand and was fretting like she wanted to help with the toddler. The family looked up at his entry and smiled tiredly.
"Well, look who's up!" Dad cheered quietly as he walked in ahead of Ichigo. "How are you feeling?"
Madoka smiled tiredly and looked embarrassed. "Better, thank you," she said with a breathy almost-giggle.
A whisper in his head, a breathy almost-giggle: "I had just this one left."
Ichigo stiffened. Dad noticed, dammit.
Madoka looked past Dad and locked eyes with Ichigo. She looked thoughtful, then flushed and said, "Oh, Mr.- um, Ichigo. Thank you? I mean, um, thank you. For calling us. It helped."
Screeeeeeeeeeeech went his mind as it jumped its rails.
"Uh, you're, uh... welcome?" Ichigo stammered. What the hell was he supposed to say to the girl? He hadn't realized she had even heard- wait, she had turned to him when he was calling them, hadn't she? He thought. Maybe. It had been eye-searingly bright. But he thought so. And Homura had remembered him trying to help. Why was he surprised?
Madoka tapped one finger against her chin and looked up to the ceiling in thought. "I don't really remember a lot of what happened, but I know you helped. Your magic burns like fire!" Her eyes went wide. "I mean, in a good way! It's very safe and warm and- um-" The poor girl trailed off into embarrassed mumbles.
Ichigo strode forward and ruffled her hair. "No problem," he laughed when she meeped. Adorable. Reminded him of Yuzu; just a lot more shy. "Glad I could help. I don't really know what I did, either, so the three of us're all in the same boat, yeah?"
Madoka jerked her head up to stare him in the eye. "Is Homura all right?!"
"Yeah, she came out of it awhile ago. Got some good sleep, had a good talk, having some sister time with the twins, now. She's good."
Madoka relaxed with a sigh of relief.
"Sister?" Mrs. Kaname asked.
"Oh, yeah, she's ours now," Ichigo said with a laugh. Dad struck a silent victory pose.
There was more subdued chitchat and Ichigo let himself be cajoled into having a snack, but he was soon dragging himself down the deep halls toward the various labs. Rin was surprised by his presence and pointed to a door that took him down another hall. Had Sandal-Hat crammed a university lab complex in here along with the dormitory, or what?
He eventually found Urahara seated on the floor with Yoruichi in a room occupied by tanks containing the bodies of teenage girls. He had heard about them but seeing them in a museum display of school uniforms and pajamas was chilling. It was too easy to imagine Karin and Yuzu in them. He forced himself to look down at Sandal-Hat and wave his loose notebook pages in his hand. "I'm ready when you are," he announced.
Urahara leapt to his feet and led Ichigo back through the hall and into a small office. They both settled in chairs and stared at each other. Ichigo hesitantly handed his abbreviated report to the man and watched him read. There would be questions soon.
He could not screw this up.
"I... trust... you," Homura had said to him, so very carefully.
"Nii-san," she had called him while nearly asleep, all her defenses down.
He. Would. Not. Fuck this up.
Urahara hummed. "You anticipated some of my questions," he said, sounding a bit impressed. "So it was like you were physically dropped there as an observer, not from the point of view of one of the girls?"
"Hmmmmmmmmm." Urahara skimmed it again. "Did she ask you to omit the specifics of the conversation?"
"Yeah," Ichigo said with a touch of challenge, daring him to argue.
Surprisingly, he did not. "I have notes from the previous me about when she told her story," Urahara explained tiredly. "I know the gist of it. This matches, with more detail." He looked up at Ichigo. "I'm more interested in these other details. Double images? And pain or disorientation when they happened?"
Ichigo relaxed. "Yeah. It was the weirdest part. It's hard to describe. Kinda like... uh... wait. Like when you pause a video- like, some animation or something- and it stops on one of those weird in-between frames between still... cells? Then keeps going."
Urahara looked intrigued. "Do you remember how many times it happened? Or at what points in the conversation?"
"Uh... maybe three or four times? It's... kinda blurry at points."
Urahara nodded and moved on. "This symbol. It... honestly worries me that this event managed to breach your Inner World. The damage isn't permanent?"
"Zangetsu said it's superficial and it'll be an easy fix," Ichigo explained. "We just thought you might learn something from it or want us to try something with it." He was glad he had a facet of his subconscious that thought ahead like that. In the confusing aftermath, Ichigo may have just swept up the glass powder somehow. "Hope that scribble's okay. It's... really blurred by overlapping... spins, I guess. And I'm not that great at drawing."
"It's fine, it's fine. Would you be willing to let me do some scans on you?" Urahara asked.
"Yeah, sure." Ichigo narrowed his eyes. "And the girls?"
"I'll ask, but I won't press if they say no," Urahara answered. "I did have passive scanners in the shop-" this didn't surprise Ichigo at all, ugh- "but they got fried. They were fine for the girls' resting power levels just like they're fine for yours." He paused to give him an amused smile. "All three of you flaring like that overcame the hardening I did on them."
"That... was a lot, then, wasn't it?" Ichigo asked warily.
"Yes. And I was too busy to tinker with them myself until I got Miss Kaname's reiatsu suppressed. Rin tried to fix the ones that were fried but switched to modifying new ones."
"How did you do that? The suppressing thing. And did you ask?"
"Oh, yes, I got permission from her parents. She was quite... incoherent when she woke up. Her... I suppose we should just call it empathy... was going haywire. But once I got Zaraki's eye patch on her hand-"
"Excuse me, what?" Ichigo interrupted.
"I fastened one of Zaraki's reiatsu-suppressing eye patches to the back of her hand. Surely you saw the bandage?"
Ichigo stared for a moment. His Hollow cackled himself breathless in Ichigo's head, gloating over having had the idea first. Well, having expressed it first; Ichigo was pretty sure Urahara had that option on the table at least since the front yard giggle debacle.
Don't ruin my fun, King, the Hollow complained. Don'tcha think he'd've used it before the mess if he thought of it?
Point. Unless he deliberately left the magic loose for some reason. Hm.
"And Kenpachi just... gave it to you?" Ichigo asked.
"Oh, no, I had Yoruichi steal a spare. He'll probably assume Yachiru left it somewhere while playing. I've heard she sometimes wears one around for fun."
Ichigo palmed his face. "Right. Fine. Whatever."
"Anyway," Urahara said, "once Miss Kaname's reiatsu was suppressed and she became lucid, I discussed it with her for a bit and she chose to keep it for now instead of other options."
"What other options?" Ichigo asked warily.
"Well, I can make her another bracelet, stronger than the one she exploded outside, but that would take time and probably require multiple bracelets," Urahara explained. "Ukitake could get another Substitute badge like yours, but I'd rather not risk her accidentally leaving her body. I could apply seals to her body, but they would require... body art. The other option is pushing her soul out of her body to directly apply a smaller, more durable seal to her soul similar to those that captains and lieutenants wear to come to the World of the Living, but that is... basically a nuclear option even I would rather not use. Bandaging that flat patch to the back of her hand was the simplest option for now. I asked her if she'd like me to make a glove instead, and she said that would be nice but-" Urahara grinned- "not if I have more important things to do. 'Oh, this is fine,' and wiggled her fingers at me."
Ichigo laughed. "She's a sweetheart."
"That she is."
"You know," Ichigo said, an idea popping into his head, "Uryū could probably handle making it into a glove. He was like... a sewing legend in the high school handicrafts club."
Urahara's face went happily intense. "You're a genius."
Ichigo laughed harder.
"We really should make the bracelets if they end up going back to school, though," Urahara said thoughtfully.
Their conversation redirected back to more questions about what he had seen and felt. Urahara didn't ask anything about the content of the conversation or even what the girls did, just things like whether the speech was clear or garbled in some way, whether the sound aligned with their lip movements, whether or not they had been in their costumes, and so on. Questions about how lucid Homura had been when waking, whether she had seemed to be in pain or confused about who and where she was. It was a relief. He didn't have to resist on Homura's behalf. He'd have to tell her that Urahara already had the gist of the contents of the memory in his notes from last time, but if she had willingly said it before... hopefully that wouldn't be a blow for her. She just needed to know that whatever she said to the man would likely be passed to his next self. Then he followed Urahara and allowed himself to be scanned by various weird tech. Urahara didn't press him to try to get Homura to agree to detailed scans.
He decided his little sister protection mission was a tentative success.
Can I fix my goddamn windows now? the Hollow sneered.
§ x § x §
Homura was wary when she, Karin, and Yuzu headed for the dining room at dawn, too awake to try to go to bed again. She stopped in her tracks in the doorway when she saw Madoka playing patty-cake with her little brother, but Madoka noticed her anyway and immediately stood from her seat.
"Mado...ka," Homura said quietly. "I am... so sorry."
However it had happened, she had caused Madoka to suffer. And that hurt.
Madoka dodged around the table and ran to her. Karin and Yuzu each stepped to the side as Madoka threw herself at Homura and hugged her. "You're okay! I was so worried! You're okay!" Her voice sounded like she was crying.
Homura's arms slowly came up to Madoka's shoulders and hesitantly returned the hug. It was... soothing.
Madoka's hug tightened, then she pulled back a bit and looked up, teary-eyed. "You are okay, right? Right? You look okay, but- no, you look sad. I'm sorry I did that! I'm so sorry!"
"My- my magic," Madoka stammered. "I couldn't stop it and I made it worse and- I'm so sorry!" She stepped back and waved a hand to show off a bandage. "It won't happen-"
"Are you hurt?!" Homura demanded, suddenly ill. "Did I hurt you?!"
"NO! No, no, no!" Madoka cried, waving both hands in denial. "This is- it's just holding a thingy on my hand that- um, it makes it so my magic doesn't- doesn't- do that again. Mr. Urahara said he'll get a better one in a glove but he wanted to hurry to get something for me and this was it."
Homura's eyes fluttered closed and she relaxed. "Good. Good."
"No one is hurt and neither of you are to blame," Isshin called from the table. They both turned to look at him. "Madoka, we knew your magic could latch onto emotions and exaggerate them from that thing with Sayaka and we didn't do something to help with that soon enough. It's our fault. We should've done something that night. No need to apologize to each other. We're the ones who are to blame."
Madoka scrubbed the tears from her eyes and grabbed Homura's hand. "C'mon, c'mon, Papa will make you some breakfast."
Homura allowed herself to be tugged to the table.
Madoka sat between her and Mrs. Kaname. Yuzu sat on her other side and Karin directly across from her- boxing her in like bodyguards. Both gave her stubborn looks. Ichigo and Isshin looked amused by that, too.
Homura ate whatever Madoka gave her and pondered the surreality. This wasn't going at all as she had feared it would. Madoka's parents even made relieved faces when they looked at her, not angry ones. Usually when things went badly when she was involved, people got angry. Well. The other girls got angry.
She wasn't really looking forward to when the other three girls showed up. But surrounded by Karin, Yuzu, and Madoka, with Ichigo and Isshin down the table a ways... she thought she could at least endure it.
§ x § x §
Kyōko woke slowly and was surprised by how well she had slept despite the phantom memories of the crunch-clatter-crunch of paper hooves and the glow of dim red lanterns swaying in the fog that lingered from her dreams. That Orihime girl having shown up at whatever-o'clock at night to clean their Soul Gems and drop off an air purifier probably helped with that.
Her entire world was on fire but she had somehow managed to reluctantly enjoy the planning session with Mami and Sayaka. They had dragged three sleeping bags into a circle and laid there with the list of questions she had come up with and picked at them, adding and rearranging and splitting and working through her logic while Mami and Sayaka's damp hair dried and they gave her information she hadn't known. Kyōko still had a lot of questions, but they weren't a screaming overlapping jumble anymore and that helped calm her more than she had thought it would. And Sayaka's magic still felt really wobbly, but at least she wasn't making the room some kind of cool sauna anymore. Their small plan had been pretty successful.
Progress felt... good. Even this small bit. And it had been a great distraction from thinking too much on what Homura's summary of things she knew about each of them implied. By which Kyōko meant Homura must have gotten incredibly close to her and she was utterly baffled as to how and why. Those had been deeply personal things that she didn't tell just anyone. Like... basically no one. She had let two things slip to Mami but Mami wasn't a gossip. Kyōko was kinda angry on some level that Homura had just blabbed those things in front of everyone but... yeah, that was pretty much the only way she could see herself believing that insanity.
At least Homura had the tact to simply call what had happened to her family "the end."
But why would she tell Homura those things?
It was something she both desperately wanted to know and was afraid to ask. It was not on her written list of questions and she doubted she'd actually ask. At least not in front of everyone.
Time to stop thinking about it again.
She glanced out the window and decided to call it orange-o'clock in the morning because apparently the smoke haze from the new almost literal hellhole to the north was still messing with the daylight. Not as badly as the day before, though. And the air inside was better than it had been. Good? She didn't really want to look at the TV for an update on what was happening up in Asunaro. What she had seen already was more than enough.
Mami and Sayaka were still out cold. She kinda wanted to stay and guard them, but couldn't think what from. So she decided to go get ready for the day instead.
Most of the people hiding out in the secret base were already in the kitchen and dining room when she got there. Another air purifier hummed in the background. Karin and Frosty were bickering, which seemed to be their main mode of communication. Glasses-Giant and Yuzu were cooking. Frosty's dad was hanging out with Manchild Dad. Orangeygo and Snowgirl were bickering, which seemed to be their main mode of communication. Orangeygo's three friends sat near them looking anywhere from amused to exasperated. That tiny nerd guy with the weird hair filled his arms with food and scurried out the far door. Homura and Madoka sat next to each other right by Bosslady Mom, Chef Dad, and the baby. Madoka was smiling and Homura's face was... soft. Cautious, but... soft. Huh.
Homura's caution visibly ramped up to wariness when Kyōko got all the way in the room, though. Also huh.
There was an empty chair next to Homura. From the layout of where everyone else was, it had probably been Yuzu's. Kyōko made a point of marching right up to it and plunking herself into the seat. She nodded and said a gruff good morning, then grabbed food off platters and ate as if she didn't give a damn about last night's bullshit. If she didn't immediately get up in Homura's face and put her on the defensive, maybe she'd give more answers later.
That was what Mami thought, anyway, and she was generally better with people. Well, at socializing; she tended to not dig too deep into niceness and miss things. Kyōko could do the digging but Mami was the expert at sweeting the hell outta people.
Plus Homura's baffled stare was hilarious.
Mami and Sayaka showed up soon after, both projecting subdued cheer and not asking questions. Homura's face got even funnier.
Kyōko didn't get a chance to comment on it because Exorcist Backup Team Two strolled into the room. She wondered why they had bothered sneaking over in the first place if all they did was sit around and chat and comf-
They had been there to help if things went south with them girls. At least in part. That bubbly, bouncy woman had been on Mami like white on rice through the entire talk and the after part in the game room and Tattoo Dude had been... staring at her a lot. Fuck. Was Snowgirl's posh, stone-faced older brother the excuse for his assistant to be present? Or was there another reason? She didn't think he had done anything. Not where they could see. Except for the hilarious pizza thing. Which had... been a major distraction.
She couldn't stop herself from squinting suspiciously at Posh Guy. He noticed and raised a brow at her. She scowled and turned back to her plate.
If she was right and they were basically babysitters... actually, she didn't know what she thought of that. It annoyed her, but at least Bouncy Lady had comforted Mami in a way Kyōko never would have been able to manage. Especially not after... that. Maybe Bosslady Mom could've done it, but she was busy with Madoka. Had these weirdos anticipated that?
"You look like your brain's about to catch fire," Karin said with a shit-eating grin.
"Well excuuuse me for havin' a lot to think about," Kyōko snapped.
Homura's face and magic shuttered into wariness again. Madoka looked worried. Sayaka tried not to look at her sideways but failed. Mami gave her a warning glare.
Karin laughed. "Right? This is all absolutely bonkers."
"Bon-ka!" the toddler parroted.
Snickering popped up around the table. Disaster averted.
Nice save, dammit.
A loud meow sounded from the door. Kyōko looked and saw that black cat that had appeared briefly the other day before disappearing somewhere in the maze of a building. It trotted straight to Homura, jumped up in her lap, and meowed and headbutted her repeatedly.
"Ah. Yoruichi," Homura said with mild surprise. "Where have you been?"
The cat meowed irritably and clawed its way up to her shoulder as she contorted under it so it wouldn't fall. It batted at the headband in her hair, bit it, and tugged.
"No, no! Bad kitty!" Madoka scolded with a pout. She reached up and pulled the cat away. The headband and some hair tried to follow. The cat's meow turned angry. "Did you miss your Homura? Huh? Are you mad at her for going away so much?"
The cat thrashed, squirmed its way out of Madoka's awkward grip, and jumped onto Homura's lap again. This time it hunkered down in an angry ball of black fur and yellow eyes. Homura reached down to pet it but it hissed and tried to claw her.
"Make up your mind," Homura said blandly. "And you are the one who has been hiding."
"Midnight the Conqueror strikes again!" Sayaka cackled. "Sneak attack ninja cat!"
Homura actually smiled a bit. Huh.
Breakfast was pretty fun, really, but started to get more awkward and quiet as they ran out of food and excuses to mess around. Kyōko helped do dishes with the toddler again to escape the start-and-stop conversations and used the time to order things in her head again. She and the others had decided to only pull out their actual lists of questions if things got... dodgy.
Having a plan felt good.
It was obvious that shit was about to get real when Bucket Hat entered the room without fanfare, face solemn. When all eyes turned to him, he took a deep breath and said, "Perhaps we should try this again."
General agreement. Shuffling around the table.
The baby was put down for a nap. Bouncy Lady was already next to Mami. Orangeygo took Kyōko's chair to bracket Homura between himself and Madoka again, forcing Kyōko to sit across from Tattoo Dude.
Hmmmmmm. Why him?
And why no one for Sayaka? Wait- she was by Snowgirl this time. Hmmmmmmm.
Kyoko wondered if she was over-thinking things. But hmmm.
"All right," Urahara said as he sat at the far end of the table. "Second verse, hopefully not the same as the first."
§ x § x §
§ x § x §
§ x § x §
A/N: My life is still very much on fire so I can't say when there will be another update. My drive to write has reawakened but following through is a struggle. It might be awhile again.
If you want to play with all us gremlins on ANAI Discord, you can find us at /UZJpPj9