A/N Foreword: So as per the description, this is a one-shot AU "what-if" fic based on Chapter 71 (Einundsiebzig, but listed as Ch72 on this site due to the prologue being Ch1) of Corisanna's amazing PMMM/Bleach crossover fic "As N Approaches Infinity". Obviously, this is not canon to the main story of As N Approaches Infinity.

The proper Chapter 71 wasn't actually out until I'd nearly finished writing this and I didn't read it until after I finished - but Kyōko's "who-are-you-what-are-you-doing" line to Orihime was inspired by (read: more or less ripped from) a teaser for the chapter.

The whole thing's written mostly from Kyōko Sakura's perspective, because. It's Kyōko. And her perspective is fun to imagine. (I will also admit, it was partially inspired by that huge-ass fanfic starring her and Sayaka, you know the one, the second longest fic ever in the Madoka section). I tried to keep the naming scheme and how everyone refers to each other as close as possible to Infinity.

Warning - without reading the first 70 chapters of Infinity, this one won't make much sense since you'll be wondering about stuff like how Mami Tomoe knows Hitsugaya and Urahara and why Kyōko was pissed at her and other important bits. But on the bright side, this also means there are 70 chapters of awesome which you have yet to read. If you, the reader, persist in reading on without knowledge of the main Infinity story, the most I can do is a give brief rundown, as spoiler-free as I can make it. Feel free the skip the rest of the foreword if you've already read up to Ch70 of Infinity. It really doesn't do the whole thing justice, but in summary:

The main "As N Approaches Infinity" story proper follows Homura who, during one of her failed cycles, wherein Madoka and everyone else died early, wanders depressed into Karakura Town where she meets and ends up bonding with Ichigo Kurosaki's sisters - who, it turns out, both made the contract with Kyubey during the Xcution plot in Bleach, unbeknownst to anybody else in Karakura. Through them and a spoileriffic series of events, Homura eventually meets Urahara and learns about the Thirteen Shinigami Divisions and attempts to procure their aid. However the cycle still ends tragically when Walpurgisnacht fails to descend on Mitakihara as usual - where the bulk of the Shinigami are waiting - but instead hits Karakura Town and everybody ends up dead as everything goes up in the flames of Yamamoto's last-ditch suicide Bankai. Forcing Homura to turn back time again. Except, of course, this time she has a whole new army to leverage against Kyubey and two new girls - Karin and Yuzu Kurosaki - to protect.

With the aid of Yoruichi Shihoin, Kisuke Urahara and Tōshirō Hitsugaya - posing as a pet cat and an uncle-nephew spiritualist duo to everyone bar Homura - she manages to keep Mami Tomoe alive, prevents Nagisa Momoe from turning into a Witch and stops Madoka and Sayaka from contracting... as of Chapter 68. But in the following chapter, while looking for a magical girl-turned-Witch, Mami and Tōshirō intrude into Kazamino and run into Kyōko, - who, it turns out, has apparently been missing some Grief Seeds and is now dangerously low on Soul Gem. And being Kyōko, she assumes it was them stealing the Seeds and attacks and ends up turning into the Witch Ophelia, much to Mami's shock and horror.

But this is a Bleach crossover and Orihime is hax. Arriving at the fight, Homura convinces Mami that Kyōko can be saved and the three take down Ophelia, retrieving her Grief Seed for Orihime to rewind back to a Soul Gem. That's Chapter 70.

Chapter 71 deals with what happens after...

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Einundsiebzig AU
Smoke and Mirrorless Flowers

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"I still don't think we should do this. Even if it works like you say, it doesn't seem... wholesome."

"You yourself admitted that she's highly combative. If we happen to trigger a fight-or-flight response when she awakes, there's every chance she could end up breaking loose. That would be a disaster. The Incubator has been watching this place 24/7 ever since we moved in. At least if we do it this way, we mitigate the damage if she happens to be seen."

"But why hasn't she woken up yet, anyway? You told me it would happen as soon as we put the Soul Gem in her hand."

"Oh, that. That would be because of the ample dosage of barbiturates I took the liberty of delivering into her bloodstream right before we started. I imagine her last memories would have been... well, probably rather like yours before you awoke. So I thought it best to do something to calm her nerves beforehand. Fear not, Miss Tomoe. She'll be up and about, new as new can be in short order."

"You drugged her?!"

"Technically, it wasn't actually her at that point. Yet."

"If it even is her right now. Are you quite sure this... procedure... will work?"

"Why, of course! It worked quite well on the other girl we brought back before. Admittedly, there wasn't much of a choice in her case. Her old one was long gone before we found her."

"So you've actually done it before?! But wait... where'd you get this one from anyway? Don't tell me you dug up a-"

"Ah, don't worry, it's nothing so unhygienic as grave-digging or scrounging from a morgue. All the ones we use are 100% new and unused. Satisfaction-guaranteed."

"'New'?!"

"Absolutely. Never had a soul touch them before. I happen to have some... contacts overseas. One of which is utterly devoid of any sense of ethics whatsoever, but one can't deny how remarkable some of his group's accomplishments have been. Even if some of them are highly illegal. And they know how to deliver on a tight schedule. They've already been able to grow bodies right from test tubes for a while - their main concern was actually growing a living soul to provide one with consciousness."

"So these have been... grown without a soul? Uh... Did they... actually manage to grow a body with one?"

"Well... let's just say they've had slightly less success there and leave it at that."

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Kyōko blearily opened her eyes. Harsh brightness glared down from the low-hanging lamp above her, forcing her to immediately shut them and open them again more carefully, peeking again at the ceiling through squinted eyelids. Her head felt dizzy.

What exactly had happened? Was she even still alive?

Her most recent memories were somewhat of a haze, a jumble of sensory images and flashes. The clearest memory that came to her was when she'd seen Mami Tomoe in the park. Definitely remembered seeing that.

Feelings of betrayal like that didn't fade fast.

She'd just known there'd been someone filching all of her grief seeds around Kazamino for the past several weeks. Hadn't known who, but had her suspicions. And then the moment she'd caught sight of those goddamned blonde pigtails-

Fuck, she'd seen so much red right then and there.

Everything after that was much more of a blur. There'd been a fight, she remembered that much of course. She'd leapt at Mami intending to straight-up murder her, witnesses be damned, only for some albino tomboy of a magical girl to jump in. She'd never seen that one before, but her and Mami had definitely known each other, no question.

And what did you know, the asshole had ice magic. Clearly planned to counter her fire, despite Mami's obvious lie of a piss-weak denial of any involvement. Although, now that she was thinking more clearly, maybe it had actually been the albino partner who'd been doing most of the poaching and not Mami directly - not that it mattered, she was still guilty by association. Bitch knew Kazamino was her stomping ground.

So then she'd fought the albino. But her magic had been dwindling and she'd gotten smacked in the ribs by ice. And then... and then...

The powerup.

She didn't know how else to describe it. All she knew was that, at the apex of her rage and indignation, with despair creeping in and when she'd been all but prepared to make (another) deal with a devil in exchange for exacting vengeance on those who had wronged her... something had snapped.

A limiter on her Soul Gem, perhaps or something else. A limit break. Whatever. It was like the world had twisted around her and then suddenly, there had been a glorious surge of hot, vehement, burning power coursing throughout her entire being. Alongside an uncontrollable urge to burn down everything around her, but then she'd already been feeling that since before the powerup, so that didn't concern her too much.

...Then what had happened?

She'd been big. And powerful. And angry. She'd always had the ability to conjure up solid mirages before. And she'd been able to make so many of them at once in that moment of power. A whole bunch of mini-ones with burning spears. Her own spear had grown and morphed into an awesome, mean, double-bladed tool of destruction. Hell, she'd even gained a horse, like one of those cartoon super princesses! (Or wait, had those ones been unicorns? Eh, details.)

Surely she'd stomped Mami and her ice-cream-machine-wannabe buddy into the ground?

But wait, no, it hadn't just been those two. There'd been another one, hadn't there? Some girl in purple, firing bullets everywhere the way Mami did except her guns were a whole lot smaller and she didn't just do guns but bombs also.

Right. The three of them had carved their way through the waves of minions she'd sent at them and then they'd all ganged up on her and - even though she'd managed to slushify the white-haired bimbo's little popsicle stick and nailed her with a heat beam - Mami Tomoe had still been able to snare her with a whole bunch of ribbons and then had her head blasted off with the sea of guns she'd conjured up-

...Wait.

Yeah, no that was right. She'd been shot apart by Mami Tomoe. The details were hazy, but she remembered the pain of it, at least. That had happened. No way to survive that. So, did that mean she was dead?

"Maybe I'm dead and this is hell." She mumbled to herself.

She tilted her head to the side to take in her surroundings. Wooden ceiling, tatami mat floor, paint peeling off the wall across from her... sure didn't look very much like the hell described in the stories during her early childhood.

Then again, the childhood stories also said witches rode on brooms and wore pointy hats and what a big fat lie that had turned out to be. Although the bit about burning them at the stake worked, if you ignored the fact it was usually more effective to have the burning stake driven through the witch than simply tied to one.

"No." Came the unexpected reply. "This place may look like a dump, but you'll have to trust me when I say Hell looks a whole lot worse. Smells a lot worse too."

Her eyes widened.

Well fuck, she knew that voice. That was the ice bitch from before.

Without even thinking, she manifested her spear and sprang up, launching herself in the direction of the voice to skewer its speaker. Or at least she tried to. The launch was successful, but the spear didn't appear next to her like she was expecting it to, as her Soul Gem wasn't in ring-form around her middle finger as per usual but for some reason instead sitting in egg-form on the tea table in the middle of the room, which caused the spear to fly right past her outstretched hand and embed itself in the wall.

She tried to turn the attack into a magically-enhanced punch anyway, only to have her wrist caught in one hand before it landed on its target.

"You're still recovering. You shouldn't be doing that."

Kyōko instantly whipped her head towards the speaker and only now did her vision catch up with her reflexes.

"...What the fuck?"

Her eyes bulged even wider than before and, for a long moment, she just stared nonplussed.

The face which she'd been meaning to plant her fist into, that was definitely the right one, no doubt about that. White albino tufts jutting out above a pair of cold blue eyes, framed by wire-thin eyebrows and a pointed jaw.

It was what was below the neck that had caught her off-guard.

Not the fact that there was a shirt missing and that the left side of the chest from shoulder-down was extensively wrapped in bandages (and likely heavily scorched underneath), the sight of which gave Kyōko a brief, yet immensely deep sense of satisfaction upon witnessing.

It was the fact that there was a shirt missing and the right side of the chest was not covered in any sort of dressing or bandages, exposing a stark lack of a certain something that should have been present on any magical girl above a certain age.

Or any non-magical one, for that matter.

"Y... You're not a girl!" She half-choked.

"That's right! Tōshirō Hitsugaya here's actually a boy!"

She swung her head past the ice bit- boy's shoulder. Mami Tomoe stood at the sliding door entrance to the room, a fucking grin like a peeled banana lingering across her lips.

Kyōko bared her teeth like an animal and ripped her arm from ice boy's grip.

"You!" She growled, "You- Fuck you! I change my mind. This isn't hell, this must be heaven, because someone above just granted my prayers and gave me a second chance to drill a third nostril into that backstabbing face of yours!"

She slid her eyes towards the spear stuck in the wall - allowing the boy's gaze to follow her eyes and flicker towards it - and then made an unexpected dive for her Soul Gem lying on the table.

In a flash, she was transformed and brandishing her spear as easily as she'd ever done - easier than in recent days, actually. A brief glance informed her that her Soul Gem was bright red and about half-full again. Mami must've gotten soft and used a Grief Seed on it, perhaps intended as some form of guilt-ridden apology.

If she actually thought that would stop Kyōko from chopping apart those annoying pigtails and roasting her ass like those cakes she always forgot she had in the oven whenever she left to fight Witches, she was so dead wrong.

"Rraaaagh!"

She leapt at Mami in fury, ignoring that little voice in the back of her head that said she still hadn't been able to beat Mami even back in super-mode with the horse and the new double-ended spear.

And just like the first time, she was intercepted by Tōshirō, who had somehow pulled his sword of ice out of nowhere and parried her spear without being a magical girl or transforming.

What the fuck even was up with that? Had Kyubey run out of potential girls and started scraping the bottom of the barrel these days? Or was this boy one of those... what did they call them... trans-something-something? What the heck had the word been again? Like, maybe his wish on contracting had been to become a boy?

"Tell your boyfriend to get out of the way and come fight me properly!" She hollered at Mami.

An eyebrow twitched on the albino brat's face.

"She's not my- you know what, nevermind." He grunted. "Tell me, what's the last thing you remember?"

"Giving you that shoulder, and then Mami and her gun-buddy shooting me in the face. Or you gonna tell me that didn't happen?!" Kyōko sneered, "'Cause those bandages say otherwise!"

She split apart her spear and made a swipe at the albino's injured side with the topmost segment. The boy dodged backwards in time to avoid being hit, but this now left a clear path between her and her main target of vengeance. She rushed at Mami, spear-first.

And finally, at last, the blonde made to fight. Stepping forwards, she transformed and conjured a musket at the same time, blocking the spear with the barrel of the gun.

"Hey, what happened?!"

"Did she wake up?"

So it seemed like they hadn't been the only ones present in the run-down building.

The noise from the fight appeared to have drawn the attention of the other occupants, whoever they may have been, and suddenly there was a crowd gathered just beyond the entranceway to the room.

One... two... three... four... five...

Jesus. Six. SIX of them. All girls. All looking around middle-schooler age, except for one little one who seemed like she could've been an elementary-schooler. All brimming with magic that she could sense.

Six more magical girls!

She could even swear one of them was Mami's shooting partner from before.

"So it was this, was it?!" She grated out hoarsely. "This was why you were stealing my Grief Seeds?!"

"...What?"

Mami seemed confused at first, before realizing that Kyōko was looking past her and glanced behind in turn.

"No wonder you ran out of them back in Mitakihara!" Kyōko spat. "What the hell were you thinking, trying to feed this whole tribe of magical girls?! You know at first, I thought maybe the culprit was one of those girl gang psychos from Asunaro. Always figured they wouldn't last long what with seven of them all running around. And now I find out I might as well've been right -'cause here you are with EIGHT of them here, including your boyfriend!"

One of the onlookers murmured something about 'eight' and another about the word 'boyfriend'. Kyōko ignored them.

This was ridiculous. Even soft as Mami was, she should've known exactly what would happen if she'd tried to keep this many magical girls healthy in Mitakihara. There was just no way the logistics would've worked.

She growled and reached for her fire magic. She was going to burn this whole place to the ground. Even if Mami and her girls had been justified in their thievery by necessity, Kazamino had been her area. It had been her Grief Seeds.

She could take her little army and go invade somewhere else, steal someone else's resources.

"That's- that's not it!" Mami stammered as she pressed back against Kyōko's spear. "You're wrong! Please, Kyōko listen-"

"Fuck you, Mami!"

And suddenly there was now copious amounts of fire being flung around from the shaft of her spear, burning embers hitting the walls and the wooden panels and setting bits of the furnishing aflame as she simultaneously spear-dueled both Mami and her albino boy-toy Tōshirō in earnest, the latter of which was forced to split his attention between the spear and freezing bits of furniture to stop the fires from spreading throughout the room.

"Stop! Please!"

One of the other girls - some blonde-haired chick, a lighter blonde than Mami herself - unexpectedly ran into the fray.

More for warning than killing intent, she summoned a flaming spear right out of the floor in front of the newcomer while she lunged at Mami, swinging the chains of her de-segmented spear. Both her and her boyfriend were seemingly content to play mostly defensively and she grudgingly supposed they had a right to, having already beaten her once and now outnumbering her 8-to-1. But damn if she wasn't going to go down without a fight. Again.

The new girl shrieked and stumbled backwards as another one of the onlookers - some dark-haired girl (the one who wasn't Mami's gun-buddy) ran in and caught her before she could fall.

"Yuzu! Are you alright?" She glared fiercely at Kyōko after checking her charge. "You asshole! Could you just calm down for one second and listen?!"

The answer was no - but considering that she wouldn't even have spared a second to say it if she'd actually even heard the rhetorical question, the conclusion was so foregone it didn't bear speaking out loud anyway.

Instead, that same second she would've used to reply was spent dodging a simultaneous attempt by Mami and Tōshirō to tie her down with ribbons and ice, an attempt which might've succeeded if what they'd been targeting had actually been Kyōko and not just a mirage she'd conjured a body-length away from her.

Yeah, she was so pissed she was actually using Rosso Fantasma for the first time in- well, she supposed she'd been using it back during the super-mode too, so maybe not the first time in quite so long.

Taking advantage of Mami's momentary surprise at missing, she followed up by hurling her flaming spear right through where the illusion had been, hoping to hit Mami. But, unsurprisingly, Mami wasn't that slow-witted and dodged her weapon, which ended up impaling itself on the wall next to the entranceway, only millimeters away from the dark-haired girl's head.

A small wisp of smoke curled off from a lock of hair at the side of said head.

"Karin!" Tōshirō yelled, throwing a brief worried glance towards the girl in question.

For a long second, nobody moved.

Then Karin growled in fury and, with a flash of red light (that was a remarkably similar shade to Kyōko's own magical hue), she was clad in a red-and-white sleeveless dress and gripping a samurai sword, murder in her eyes.

The other girl - Yuzu, the blonde - stepped protectively in front of Karin, flared yellow and proceeded to transform into the frilliest, least-intimidating dominatrix of a whip-using magical girl Kyōko had ever seen.

If it wasn't for that fact that this was a bad omen for her own fighting odds, Kyōko would've rolled her eyes. It was completely their fault for running straight into the middle of a fight and being magical girls, it wasn't like they wouldn't have survived getting grazed by a single spear anyway.

It was enough to make her start seriously considering her options, though.

The room - the building, mostly - was a confined space that had stopped Mami from taking advantage of her usual range with her firearms and she couldn't unleash any big blasts without bringing the roof down on everyone. At first, Kyōko had believed this to be a delightful advantage for a close-quarters spear-fighter like herself, as all Mami had left to rely on in this situation were her ribbons. Meanwhile her partner Tōshirō, who did have a suitable weapon, was still obviously injured.

But then 6 more girls had shown up and it seemed like the onlookers weren't content staying onlookers. Now two more had joined the fight and they had melee weapons. Who knew what the others had. One of them could have a sabre or something.

She was just considering fleeing from the building and caving the roof down on everyone left in a brilliant explosion of chains and hellfire when the sensation hit her.

All of a sudden, it was a whole lot more difficult to breathe. And it was not because of the smoke from all the flames, which Kyōko had long since gotten very used to in all her fights.

No, it came from the feeling of her lungs being squeezed, like they'd just been fed into a juicing machine and her whole body was screaming of being crushed by a sudden, inexplicable increase in air pressure.

Seeing Mami and the other two girls visibly wince, she realized she clearly wasn't the only one feeling it.

"HEY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY SISTERS!?"

Just moments after the roar echoed from down the corridor, a black blur burst into the room at speeds that would have put many weaker magical girls to shame, leaping to stand right in front of Karin and Yuzu.

Reflexively, Kyōko summoned a number of spears from the floor, hoping to barricade off this new intruder and was dumbstruck when the intruder swung an arm and promptly beheaded all her spears before they had even fully emerged from the ground, kicking a cloud of dust and dirt in the process where they'd broken through the floor.

"Big brother!"

"Ichigo!"

Ichigo. That was a girl's name.

She narrowed her eyes at the dust silhouette, staring in trepidation to see what the newcomer would look like. She'd heard rumors of a black-clad magical girl who assassinated other magical girls using claws, reputedly capable of blindsiding them at ridiculously fast speeds even by magical standards. Could this be-

No, wait. Big brother...?

The dust cleared.

Standing there like an angel of death in front of Karin and Yuzu was a very pissed, very male figure brandishing a oversized, jet-black sword taller than Kyōko herself using a single hand. Sporting a bushel of orange-reddish hair atop a head several heads higher than everyone else, she really couldn't see where he bore any sort of familial resemblance to the two girls behind him claiming to be his sisters - but he was radiating an indignant rage in a way that was somehow physically tangible, not just to her, but everyone else present in the room too.

This. This was the source of the crushing sensation she was experiencing.

Girl or not, he had power. It was leaking out of him like that busted showerhead at that other hotel she'd camped at for a while. This guy was powerful.

Very, very powerful. Powerful.

Suddenly, the idea of breaking out of the building and fleeing seemed a lot more appealing.

Fuck Mami, she could kill her some other time. Her days would be numbered anyway, what with needing to share Grief Seeds with so many girls. And fuck caving in the roof, this wasn't a fight she could win anymore.

Best just to put as much distance as she could between her and them - especially this monster - for now.

"Brother," Yuzu spoke hesitantly, "I thought you were supposed to stay downstairs with-"

"Screw that, like I was going to stay put when I heard you scream and sensed the fight!" The carrot-haired youth exclaimed with - unlike Tōshirō's - an unmistakably male voice. "You said to give her a chance to speak with Mami and the rest of you girls first. Well, she's had her chance and she's clearly not willing to listen!"

"I told you it would be a bad idea for those two to be the first faces for her to see on waking up." The other dark-haired girl who was outside the room - Mami's gun-buddy - muttered.

"But Mami was the only one of us she knows and... she insisted..." The pink-haired girl beside her trailed off.

"Ugh. If only Orihime had been awake..." The blue-haired girl grumbled. "So much for the plan."

The orange-haired youth, Ichigo, (Kyōko wished she could have met exactly who the heck had thought it a good idea to name their baby son 'Ichigo') twisted his neck around to respond.

"Like I said before, you're waking up Orihime over my dead body! She needs the rest after everything she's had to do. Look, I can handle this brat myself! She's just like me, all you need is a good-"

There wouldn't be any better chance to cut and run than now, while the guy's head was turned the wrong way and everybody else was distracted by the conversation, Kyōko figured.

Flinging an arm behind her, she summoned a barrage of spears and directed them towards the exterior wall, hammering the structure with enough force to break open a sizeable hole and sending shards of concrete and dust everywhere.

She leapt towards it, Mami and Tōshirō moving to stop her. As expected, of course. She knew those two hadn't been as distracted as the two sisters, their brother and the crowd outside.

Mami attempted to snare her again with ribbons, but once more ended up hitting an illusory mirage she'd set up in anticipation of the attack while Tōshirō had opted to erect a frozen barrier across the hole she'd made in the wall - which she simply broke through with brute force, expanding the spear she held in her hands and channeling as much of her burning magic into the spearhead as she could.

Gathering her magic around her legs and feet and ignoring the yells from behind her, she leapt through the expanding cloud of steam and out of the building and to her freedom as quickly as she could, planning to hop run across the roofscape of the city outside - whichever city it was - until she could find somewhere she where could lay low and regroup.

She made it all of three meters away from the building before she was suddenly hit from out of nowhere with multiple binding spells across her entire body, landing with an unceremonious 'thud' on the lawn outside and sent rolling about like a sack of potatoes, bound from head to toe, stopping just before she ended up splashing into the koi pond.

A moment later, a human shadow fell over her face. It was followed soon after by a second. And then a third.

"I win the bet, Isshin. I told you it would be the wall and not the roof."

"Eh, you know it was 50-50 at best. Besides, I thought you were the one who told Chad to wait up there?"

"Perhaps. Although I do certainly wish you hadn't had to step outside like this, my old friend."

"Hey, now! What kind of father would I be if I wasn't there looking out for her when a daughter of mine gets into trouble?"

It said something that the second speaker's dress choice of white lab coat over the fruity Hawaiian shirt underneath seemed alarmingly normal in comparison to what the first speaker, the one standing directly over her, was clad in.

That one was wearing the most ridiculous outfit she'd ever seen - dark coat over mottled-green jinbei nightwear, topped off a with striped bucket hat and pair of wooden geta sandal clogs. She couldn't see the attire of the man further back, but could see his face - bespectacled, with a thick bushy mustache - and more importantly, feel the magic emanating from the clasped palms he held up.

All three of them were not only male, but identifiably well past their 30s.

A pretty boy like Tōshirō was one thing. Even a young man like Ichigo she could accept.

But this... these were... What in all bloody hell had Kyubey been doing?

She couldn't move her arms or legs, but was able to tilt her head slightly, offering herself a slightly better view of her surroundings than just the sky and sun and the three half-silhouettes talking above her. Like a glimpse of the tip of the building she had just escaped from.

Sitting there on the roof right above the wall she'd broken through, with a pair of heavy legs dangling over the edge, was the largest, most solidly-built masculine individual she'd ever laid eyes on, skin tanned and rippling with muscle visible through his shirt and across his forearms, one of which was clad entirely in a black-and-purple protector gauntlet of some sort.

Upon seeing her stare, the man raised the gauntleted arm - which proceeded to magically melt away into a natural, tanned human arm - and gave her a silent wave.

That man had magic too.

What the fuck.

She couldn't take it anymore.

Perhaps it was the sudden exertion after waking up, perhaps it was the murderous aura she could still feel emanating from the house, perhaps it was instinct-driven terror of being bound and surrounded by a group of unfamiliar old men, their sandal-and-hat-wearing leader nudging her with his walking stick.

Perhaps it was all three combined, she didn't know.

All she knew was that at that moment, her eyes rolled up into her head and Kyōko Sakura fainted on the spot.

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When Kyōko next came to, she was in another, smaller room (though ostensibly in the same building as before) and planted on a chair and - to her complete and utter lack of surprise - found herself bound to it, her ankles, waist and wrists tightly restrained by magic. Her Soul Gem was also not lying freely on a table this time, but instead clasped between the palms of some orange-red-headed magical girl who she hadn't ever seen before.

Looked pretty old for a magical girl - high-school age at least and seemed like she could've been older - but at least she was a still conceivably a youthful girl, unlike the... no, now was not the time to be thinking about it.

"Who the hell are you and what the fuck are you doing with my Soul Gem?" Was the first thing she spat.

The girl just smiled warmly at her and Kyōko realized there were two pixie-things flitting around her hands, enclosing her Soul Gem in a force field of some sort.

"I'm restoring it!" She said brightly. "You used up a bit of it in that scuffle I heard you were having earlier. My name is Orihime Inoue! It's nice to meet you, Kyōko Sakura!"

So. This was the Orihime the others had mentioned earlier.

"I don't remember telling you my name." Kyōko narrowed her eyes.

"Oh..." Orihime seemed a little upset. "Did I get it wrong? Ichigo can be pretty bad with names sometimes, I guess maybe he gave me the wrong one by accident? I'm sorry! Let's try that again - my name is Orihime Inoue! It's nice to meet you! What's your name?"

"Uh... no, you got it right the first time." Kyōko mumbled, slightly nonplussed by her behavior. "What do you mean 'restoring it'?"

Did that mean what she thought it meant?

Before her eyes, she watched her Soul Gem brighten slightly within the force field. And then the two pixies parted from her palms, twittering something unintelligible. The force field faded and they flew up to the side of her head and... turned into hairpins? Maybe her Soul Gem was hidden behind her hair or something.

"It means exactly what it means." Came a different voice from behind Orihime.

Mami's voice.

Kyōko stiffened in her chair and her eyes shot up towards her.

She couldn't see the bindings on her wrists, but she'd thought that the ones around her ankles and belly had seemed familiar. Felt familiar.

They were Mami's ribbons. No wonder.

"I told you before it was all just a misunderstanding. That time really was the only Labyrinth in Kazamino we went into! You see, Orihime here can purify Soul Gems without the need for Grief Seeds. So I'm sorry to hear you were missing some but we weren't the ones taking them. We don't need them, after all!"

What. What? What.

"You expect me to just believe that?!" She exclaimed incredulously.

"You saw what Orihime can do for yourself!" Mami argued insistently. "We actually planned for that to be the first thing to show you once you woke up, but Orihime was so drained from restoring your Soul Gem the first time round, she had to go to sleep. So Hitsugaya and I volunteered to watch over you until she woke up... although I guess that didn't turn out to be such a good idea."

Damn right, it hadn't been. Though in fairness, she couldn't say whether it would have been any better or worse waking up to the orange-haired guy with his overwhelming killing aura or an unfamiliar crowd of other magical girls or - God forbid - those creepy old men from outside.

She turned her attention to Orihime and squinted at her, trying to feel her power. She'd felt it from the force field before and if Mami was telling the truth...

"...Seriously?" There was actually a girl who could do that? "And Orihime doesn't have to use up her own Soul Gem for it or something?"

"Uh-uh!" Orihime shook her head, smiling cheerfully. "It just makes me a little sleepy, so all I do is take a nap. And then I'm all~ better~!"

Kyōko's jaw dropped.

That was a thing? How was that even a thing? That was like... cheating or something.

Although, she supposed, it did explain how Mami could feel comfortable with putting up 7 other girls, their magical brother, her magical boyfriend and their magical uncles (she still didn't want to think about that at the moment) and not get worried about running out of Grief Seeds.

And it probably explained how Orihime had made it all the way to high-school age too. Not really much need for fighting and risking her neck when all she needed to do was take a nap to keep her own Soul Gem full.

"...Well." She said eventually, after a very long pause. "That must be convenient. How did that happen, anyway? Was it the wish she made? Or did she just happen to find it was one of her powers after becoming a magical girl?"

"Oh, I'm not a magical girl!" Orihime chirped.

"You sure about that?" Kyōko responded skeptically, eyeing above her midriff. "I mean, I get if you prefer otherwise, but you sure don't look like a boy."

Orihime only giggled at her words, before attempting to stifle it with one hand.

"She's never contracted." Mami clarified. "Not like us. She means it when she says she's not a magical girl."

There was an element of something in her voice as she said it, but Kyōko couldn't quite work out what it was. Nor did she spend much time dwelling on it, being too distracted by the contents of the words themselves.

"Never contracted?!" Kyōko murmured in shock, "Then... where'd her magic come from? What the heck is she?"

"How rude!" Orihime puffed her cheeks. "I'm not a what, I'm Orihime!"

Before Mami could make a reply however, the door to the room swung open and a larger figure stepped in.

"Where her magic comes from? Now that's a very good question!" Came the cheerful interjection.

Oh, fuck. It was the creepy old man with the striped bucket hat.

One of the ones who had nailed her with the binding magic outside the building, rudely cutting short her dramatic escape and who'd then stood leering over her bound form like some garden-variety... well, there were simply too many words she could've finished that thought with.

"The answer to which is..." He continued breezily, "...nobody actually knows!"

He grinned widely, pulling a paper fan out from some pocket of his mottled-green coat and spreading it open across his face.

"Our dear Miss Orihime Inoue is special and one-of-a-kind! Unique, limited edition, only available while stocks last!" He joked. "Although you really should be thanking her. She is the one who purified your Grief Seed, after all."

Kyōko just stared.

"What Grief Seed?" She asked, even more confused than before. "I didn't have any on me, you were stealing all of them from- well, someone was stealing them all from me. If I had one I would've used it, you know that."

She still wasn't completely sold that Mami hadn't been behind some of it, even if Orihime made for a pretty convincing argument.

At the very least, Mami had intruded in Kazamino once by her own admission, which was still once too many times for her liking.

"...Ah. It seems we have a bit of a communication issue. My nephew told me you remembered fighting him in the Labyrinth?"

"...Your nephew?"

A certain white-haired magical boy slid into the room past his fan-waving uncle.

"Me." Tōshirō said.

So bucket-hat really was somebody's uncle. Hot damn.

"Oh, I remember fighting Frosty, alright." She smirked darkly. "But it wasn't in the Labyrinth. Since, you know, you'd already cleared that out by the time I got there. It was in the park. No worries though, I'm not picky about location - you let me out of this chair and give me back my Soul Gem and I can give you a rematch right here, right now!"

Mami Tomoe visibly winced.

"You don't remember... what happened after that?" She asked tentatively.

"You said you remembered giving me this shoulder." Tōshirō prompted her, gesturing at his dressing.

"Oh, yeah, that. Not sure exactly what it was that happened after you iced my ribs, but once I find out how to get the horse back and put that second blade on my spear, you can be damned sure I'm going to be taking full advantage of it."

She didn't quite understand why everyone in the room cringed as she finished her proclamation.

"What?" She challenged, "You can't tell me that wasn't one hell of a power boost, you guys even needed a whole three of you to take me down."

"Kyōko..." Mami drew out her words slowly. "Do you remember what was -around- you at that time?"

Kyōko herself squinted, trying her hardest to recall it. She hadn't been focused on the environment then so much as squashing the interlopers who had dared to challenge her sovereignty.

"...You mean the castle? Yeah, I think I remember that... hell, I think I even made that, didn't I? And it was real fine fucking fortress too! Better than my usual spear-fences. I really gotta work out how to do that again."

"...Kyōko." Mami almost sounded exasperated now. "That was a Labyrinth. That was your Labyrinth."

Kyōko blinked. She still didn't get it. Mami couldn't possibly mean that thing by 'labyrinth', so she must mean...

"You really thought it was that much of a maze? Ahah!" She snickered, "Don't tell me you got lost in-"

"A Witch's Labyrinth." She bit out, cutting her off. "Your. Witch's. Labyrinth."

"Don't be ridiculous, how could that have been a Witch's Labyrinth?" Kyōko objected, "Only Witches can make a Wit.. ch's... lab... ..."

Her protestations awkwardly trailed off as the penny finally dropped. And at last, the implications of what Mami had been stressing finally caught up to her.

...

...

Oh.

"...I knew the powerup was too good to be true." She ground her teeth in disgust, sagging in her seat. "Huh. Funnily enough, that actually makes me feel better about losing to you. Since, you know, it wasn't a real powerup."

She glanced up and looked at the others. Tōshirō's expression was blank, poker-faced. His uncle, she couldn't tell; most of it was blocked off by his fan. Orihime's smile looked a little bit strained. And Mami had a look of pity in hers.

Pity. Fuck that. She averted her eyes from Mami.

"So I was a Witch, huh?" She muttered.

She'd never found out what happened if someone pushed their Soul Gem too far. Not like she herself had ever needed to before. Not until back in the park.

So overloading your Soul Gem in rage turned you into a Witch yourself, did it?

Damn. Why didn't she find that as difficult to believe as she would've liked?

"Well, a 'Witch' as you magical girls know them to be." Tōshirō's uncle tossed his hands up in a shrug. "The ones we're more familiar with ride on brooms and fight dragons in Europe. I suspect the ones you know are actually closer to another kind of creature we refer to by a different name, but the jury's still out on that one. We'd need to do more research first."

Most of that went past her head, so distracted had she been by the revelation that she didn't actually have more hidden reserves of power in her Soul Gem to tap into and thus probably wasn't in a position to win any repeat fights against Mami or her white-haired friend. Not unless she wanted to lose control and turn into a Witch.

Tch. And that had been such a nice twin-headed spear.

Unless... perhaps. Perhaps the Witch powers could be partially-tapped into and controlled somehow?

"Yeah, great, you do that." She gave him a half-hearted sneer. "Who the hell are you, anyway? You're obviously not a magical girl and if you try and tell me you are, I'm probably going to break these ribbons from laughing. How the hell did Mami get involved with all of you? And where the hell am I?"

"Now that's a lot of questions!" He snapped the fan shut, revealing a broad grin. "I'm so glad to see we're in a more inquisitive mood than before! But to answer the first, I am Kisuke Urahara - humble proprietor and manager of the Urahara Shop and modest dabbler in the spiritual arts."

"'Spiritual arts'?"

"You know it better as 'magic'."

"Which you happen to be able to use because...?"

"...That would be telling." His grin widened even further. "But since I feel like telling, I'm going to tell you. That not all people with who have magical potential are girls. And certainly not all of them need to make a contract with a little white rabbit to realize that potential. It's quite possible to nurture it the usual way - with many long hours of dedication and training."

"So you're saying you're some sort of... self-trained wizard or something?" As she muttered it out, a thought occurred to her. "Hey, is that what Frosty is too? And Orihime? You said she wasn't a magical girl... And what about all those other ones, are they actual magical girls or just... 'special' like her and you?"

"Well, how about I let them answer that themselves?" He stepped back towards the doorway and proceeded to call out: "Girls, you can stop eavesdropping now, I don't think she's in the mood to practice the javelin throw anymore. It'll be safe, I promise!"

Haha. Very funny. Kyōko growled, straining against the binding ribbons.

She could probably still manifest a spear from her Soul Gem if she tried, but it would probably hit Orihime before anything else, given that she was still cupping the gem. And it wouldn't do her any good when the only part of her body she could move freely was her face.

There was a shuffling of feet from outside and then the six girls from before all trooped into the room like a parade of Christmas lights. She counted off their heads as they came in. Black, yellow, pink, blue, black, white... OK, so two of the lights were broken.

Blue took one look at Kyōko tied to chair and instantly grimaced.

"This makes me feel like I'm watching something shady and criminal happening, somehow." She commented.

"Uhm..." Pink glanced timidly towards Mami. "Are those ribbons really necessary? They look like they kinda hurt."

Mami appeared pained and somewhat apologetic and looked towards Kyōko in turn.

"If I release the ribbons, will you be able to promise not to attack anyone?" She had a pleading tone in her voice. "Please?"

"Hmm. I dunno." Kyōko deadpanned. "Think I'd be able to pull off a win against seven magical girls and two wizards while Orihime's got my Soul Gem?"

"Actually, Sayaka and I aren't magical girls." Pink said, gesturing to Blue, at the same time as Orihime chirped: "I can give it back to you now if you like!"

Kyōko visibly rolled her eyes at their antics.

"...Probably not." Mami conceded.

Probably not, even with her Soul Gem.

And just like that, the bindings fell away and Kyōko was finally able to stretch her arms out - which was the first thing she did, immediately followed by using them to snatch up her Soul Gem from Orihime's own offering palms, subsequently muttering a quiet 'thank you' to the latter after a moment of pause.

The room was silent for the several seconds she spent standing up and rubbing at her wrists and ankles trying to get some circulation in them, after which Blue - Sayaka - stepped forward to speak.

"So..." She began somewhat awkwardly, "...I heard you turned into a Witch. Well, I just wanted to say, I know a little bit about what that feels like since, well, something similar kinda happened to me too. So if you ever need someone to talk to-"

Kyōko straightened up and turned to face her, scrutinizing her visage.

"You turned into a Witch?" She repeated bluntly, "I thought your friend said you weren't a magical girl? How'd that happen, then? Are you 'special' like Orihime too?"

"Um, we're not like her either, actually. We're just... well, ordinary girls." Sayaka stammered, "And... well, it wasn't really a full Witch, more like a half-Witch or something..."

Ordinary. Bullshit.

She could feel their magic easily from this distance. If they weren't magical girls, they must have been wizard-trainees or something.

"...after it hit my forehead and like, I could feel my whole body just transform and I remember what it felt like. It was like I was being trapped in..."

Then, as she listened to Blue ramble on, an idea suddenly hit Kyōko like a tsunami. Half-Witch? Maybe-

"Say..." She interrupted Sayaka, cutting her off in middle of stressing the word 'horrible', "Do you remember if you had any... control over it? Just... say, if it happened again, do you think there's any chance that it might be possible you could use the... Witch power... without going completely crazy?"

Sayaka jerked back, caught off guard by the question.

"I... uh... well, to be honest, I was only transformed for... well, maybe thirty seconds or so... I... I guess I... really couldn't say...?"

"Oh." Kyōko sighed in disappointment, ignoring the various alarmed expressions the inquiry had generated from around the room.

"Hey." She was approached by one of the black-haired girls - the one who'd transformed and wielded the katana before. She sounded annoyed. What was her name again? "Look, if you're interested in messing around with Witch powers, you should go talk to my brother, he's kinda an expert in calling on evil energies and all that. Plus he knows a bunch of people. But I'm gonna tell you right now, you're not making Orihime bail your ass out every time you screw up and accidentally turn back into a Witch, got that?"

"Eh, it was just an idea." She shrugged. "So I take it your brother's the guy with the carrot-hair? Or is it Frosty? Are you guys all family here or something?"

"Oh, excuse us for not introducing ourselves!" The blonde girl - the one who'd had the whip from before - stepped forward and bowed. "We really should have done that first! I'm Yuzu Kurosaki and this is my twin sister, Karin!"

Right. Karin and Yuzu. That had been their names.

"That's Tōshirō Hitsugaya." Karin jerked her head at the albino. "And he's not our brother - him and his uncle are just friends of the family. Ichigo's our only brother."

"Madoka Kaname!" The pink-haired girl smiled and nudged her blue-haired friend, "And this is..."

"Ah, right - I'm Sayaka! Sayaka Miki!" The girl in question started. "Yeah, uh, we're not related to anyone here, Madoka and I just go to school with Mami; we're a year under her."

"Homura, aren't you going to introduce yourself?" Madoka turned to her black-haired friend standing beside her.

Her. That had been the purple-dressed magical girl who'd fought her alongside Mami in the... her... Labyrinth. Mami's shooting partner.

"...Homura Akemi." She muttered reluctantly. "...I'm certain you remember me from before. Even if you didn't know my name then."

"Heh, damn right I do! Lemme guess," Kyōko smirked. "You're either Mami's new partner or protégé . I can tell you've picked up a few tricks from her."

She swore she saw Homura's eyes widen for a fraction of a second, before falling back to their initial size.

"Newer than you think." She stated. "I only transferred into her school a few weeks ago. That battle was only the second time we've actually worked together."

"Seriously?" Kyōko raised an eyebrow in honest-to-goodness surprise, "Well, you sure fooled me. Could've sworn you'd been doing it for a lot longer. And that's saying something, coming from me."

So that was six of the seven, which left...

"I'm Nagisa Momoe!" The white-haired girl curtsied. "Pleased to meet you! And, um, well... I only just moved to Mitakihara recently. I didn't know any other magical girls apart from Miss Mami and myself until I met Miss Homura and Miss Madoka and Miss Sayaka outside the hospital and then... well now I think about it, I guess I... nearly... turned into a Witch at that time..."

Kyōko's eyes bulged.

This little white-haired creampuff had pushed her own Soul Gem so hard in a skirmish against them that she'd nearly hit the point where she ended up turning into a Witch?

She looked like she was, what? Only eleven or twelve?

Whoa. Who'da thought. Guess it was always the quiet ones you least expected.

"So." She said at length, scanning the whole crowd. "What do you guys want with me, anyway? And don't expect me to believe you only brought me here to patch me up, 'cause if that was all you wouldn't've stopped me leaving before or tied me to a chair."

She suspected something along the lines of 'forcible recruitment'.

This was a big group they had going here and they'd just confirmed they weren't all blood-related or even that they'd all known each other very long. By their own admissions (assuming they weren't lying) Homura and Nagisa were both new to Mitakihara, which meant those two at least were fresh meat - Mami's new indoctrinees.

Mami herself was probably a new initiate to this little wizards' commune of magical men, since Kyōko had never heard of her ever having a boyfriend before and she knew she'd've heard something if the girl had been sauntering around Labyrinths with Tōshirō for very long. She figured that the original core group had just been the men and the sisters, who'd probably been roped in by their brother. She still wasn't sure how Pink and Blue - Madoka and Sayaka - quite fit into it if they were just Mami's schoolmates, but she had her suspicions.

It seemed likely, she thought to herself, that these wizards had approached Mami first, having noticed her influence over Nagisa and Homura and deliberately targeted her for recruitment, in hopes of also pulling in all of her little followers with her. And then possibly stumbled upon Madoka and Sayaka with their latent magic when she'd joined up.

Devious, and it screamed of building up a power base to her.

...Although to be fair, Orihime was a very attractive bargaining chip if her powers truly worked as advertised.

"Well, about that!" Urahara stepped forward, clapping his hands, "What do you say we get into the nitty-gritty over a nice meal somewhere airier? I daresay some of us have yet to have lunch and this storage room wasn't really designed to house so many bodies unpackaged at once!"

Kyōko's ears perked up at the mention of the 'M' word, her stomach involuntarily rumbling slightly at it. She hadn't had a full meal that evening, only a few snacks she'd picked up while desperately seeking the Labyrinth that had been there. She certainly wouldn't say no to a free lunch.

Her mouth relaxed and opened slightly as she entertained the thought.

Then she snapped her jaw shut.

"How do I know you're not going to drug the food or something?" She squinted suspiciously.

Urahara just laughed.

And laughed.

And kept on laughing.

Karin turned towards the old man with a deadpan gaze and an accusing expression. Yuzu plastered a watery smile on her own and said:

"Well, as long as Urahara doesn't get near the kitchen, it should be OK! How about I do the cooking for everyone?"

"How do I know you're not going spike it either?" Kyōko challenged her. "And I notice you didn't actually say you weren't going to let Old Creepy over there into the kitchen."

"What are you implying about my sister?" Karin demanded, rounding on her. "Yuzu wouldn't hurt a fly!"

"Oh, really?" Kyōko raised an eyebrow. "That whip of hers only for show, then? Just sits back and hides behind you and big brother every time there's a fight?"

Orihime stepped in at this point to break up what was ostensibly in the midst of becoming an ugly personal altercation.

"Why don't I do it then?!" She offered cheerfully. "I personally promise that I won't let Mister Urahara or any strange drugs anywhere near the food or the kitchen!"

This was immediately followed by a strangled choking noise from outside the room and the muffled sound of something hitting the floor. Which sparked reactions from Yuzu and Karin, the former of which opened her mouth and then shut it without saying anything while the latter swiveled her neck to glare at the doorway.

Kyōko just eyeballed Orihime.

"And I'm supposed to believe you more because...?"

"Oh, you! Don't be so silly!" She chastised. "Just think about it - I'm not going to hurt you, because if I was going to hurt you then I would have done it while you were unconscious because that way you wouldn't have to feel any pain!"

The absurdity of what one could only describe as the insane troll logic at the end of this cheerfully-directed proclamation was not lost on Kyōko Sakura.

"...Isn't the whole point of hurting someone the pain?" She pointed out at length.

"Huh, I guess that's true..." Orihime scratched her head. "Although that makes me wonder if there's a way to hurt someone without causing any kind of pain, like tickle torture maybe? Although I've also heard people talk about how terrible that can be, but then again it's not painful so maybe it's not as bad as they say..."

Kyōko realized then and there that were levels of airheadedness in the world that no actor, no matter how good they were, could ever hope to emulate without actually shaking a few screws loose from their own train of thought.

"Nevermind, I believe you." Kyōko cut her off midway through her rambling further about the ethics of smell torture. "Just make sure there aren't any drugs in the food."

"Of course!" She firmly bobbed her head. "That would be insulting to the food!"

Kyōko huffed, privately agreeing with the sentiment.

"There mightn't be any drugs, but that doesn't mean we'll escape food poisoning." A hoarse call sounded from the outside.

"Eh, can't be that bad if it's freshly cooked." Kyōko sniffed, recognizing the voice as belonging to the brother of the two Kurosaki sisters. "Bet you've never had to live off supermarket scraps before."

Because it turned out some places kept stuff way past when they should have when they chucked it out and Kyōko Sakura had used up precious magic fighting off food poisoning more than once.

And that had still been better than using it up repairing all the damaged tissue and blood loss from her own stomach wall eating itself in hunger.

How bad could a hot meal be?

#########

"OK, so lemme get this straight - the Witches only come from magical girls who've either lost it or run out of juice?" Kyōko clarified again as she munched on one of the mackerel doughnuts prepared by Orihime.

She knew it meant to be rude to talk with her mouth full, but that didn't matter to her since that would have required her to care about table manners. Most of her meals over the past year hadn't even been at a table. She reached for a stick of cheese-coated beef kushiyaki as she swallowed her mouthful.

She really didn't understand why Ichigo had been so apprehensive about Orihime's cooking. It really wasn't bad. The kushiyaki reminded her of Quarter Pounders from McDonald's. Especially after dipping them in the accompanying peanut-butter dressing. The mackerel doughnuts had even tasted somewhat like the fish burgers. His sisters hadn't had any problem with the stuff either.

From the opposite end of the table, a bespectacled man wrinkled his nose at her gluttony. Not the same bespectacled man as the one from outside.

Apparently, up until then, she hadn't even seen every member of the wizards' group now in the building - which she'd learnt was, in fact, a shop-house that acted as the Mitakihara Branch of the Urahara Shop. The older, mustached man she'd seen outside had been the goddamned shop assistant.

And there'd actually been one more who had apparently been outside on a delivery run during the whole incident and upon return had introduced himself as Uryū Ishida, stitching specialist. Both of cloth and the warmer kind of tissue, if his claims were to be believed.

No mention of the copious and distinctive magical aura wrapped around him, of course.

"All of them?" She clarified, "Not just some who happen to be girls who overload their Soul Gems?"

"As far as we can tell, anyway." Kisuke Urahara confirmed. "From what we've witnessed, the whole process is deliberate, self-sustaining cycle engineered by the Incubator as a clandestine way to harvest souls."

She had been introduced to the others as they'd sat down together for lunch and then been properly introduced to the Kurosaki sisters' brother Ichigo, who had by now changed out of his black cloak and into more casual attire, alongside the very man who'd given the poor guy his name. It technically wasn't even their first meeting - Isshin Kurosaki, the father, had turned out to be the man in the Hawaiian shirt and white lab-coat who'd stood over her outside, next to Urahara.

So she'd really actually met the guy bare minutes after wondering who'd been responsible for naming Ichigo. How was that for a backfiring wish. Kyubey would've been proud.

And speaking of the white furball, they'd also turned her understanding of his loyalties right on its head (alongside everything else they'd already upended) in all the time it took to wolf down a single marmalade-glazed cucumber.

So Kyubey was a nickname short for 'Incubator' and apparently, it wasn't just that some of the Witches came from magical girls - it was that the magical girls were, as far as they knew, the only source of Witches. And he'd been running the whole magical girl thing like the capo of some kind of global drug ring, except his girls were mules, suppliers and consumers all in one.

Once anyone made the contract, they became hooked on Grief Seeds like it was some kind of sorcerously-produced shabu, without realizing they'd suffer acute withdrawal and end up turning into a Witch if they didn't keep using enough Seeds.

Meanwhile, Kyubey had always made it sound like Witches had been born from an accumulation of negative emotions from the general public. This was something which she'd brought up with them, only to be informed that the general public did actually birth evil spirits from their ill-feelings, but it was a different kind of evil spirit and only happened after they died and even then only after having lingered as a ghost for an amount of time.

This little nugget of information might well have been intended to make her feel better about turning into a Witch (in some twisted 'well-it-could-happen-to-anyone' sort of way, which she didn't really need because that would require her to be particularly hung up about it in the first place), except not really.

Because.

Ghosts.

Which were apparently real too and needed to be exorcised lest they turned into 'Hollows', which could also be purified after turning, except they tended to attack and eat other people's souls in that form, so it was generally better to do it beforehand. This purification was apparently conducted by special exorcists with spiritual powers like Don Kanonji, who supposedly was the real deal and not just some two-bit hack of a TV celebrity like Kyōko had always believed and he actually had magic.

She'd almost figured her mind was just about to melt from all the insanity when they finally reached the part where they mentioned magical girls didn't just Witchify (or whatever the term was) by running out of Soul Gem or overloading it, like Kyōko had done (and assumed Nagisa Momoe had almost done) but could turn into one simply by being in a bad mood.

She'd flipped out at that.

What the fuck?

She didn't know what to believe anymore, but Kyubey's neglect of mentioning the crippling soul-addiction to Grief Seeds that came with being a magical girl made her relatively open to the idea that the little fucker really was as messed up as they were making him out to be.

At this point, she was even starting to wonder whether her father's murder-suicide had really all been his own idea or if that S.O.B. had somehow had a hand in it, hoping to fast-forward her transformation into a Witch.

One more question to add to the long list once she finally got her hands on him.

Every emotion that had run through her mind then had come cascading down, reducing into the single, familiar feeling she'd always been able to fall back to and rely on whenever she'd been feeling particularly overwhelmed.

Livid rage.

"Motherfucker. When I find that motherfucker, I'm gonna stick him up and roast him over fire."

She tore into a chunk of beef.

"Did I say 'Incubator'? My bad - that should really have been 'Incubators', plural. It does appear to have multiple versions of itself spread out all over the place to keep track of its numerous contractees. Whether they're puppet bodies remote-controlled by a singular being or some sort of hive-mind entity or even just multiple identical individuals who share information amongst themselves, I'm afraid we don't yet know."

"OK, well then, I'm going to find him and all of his clone cousins and then Ghost Rider won't just be a fictional movie for them anymore. It's motherfucking open season now and I'm in a mood for Kyubey."

"I've tried that before." Homura muttered. "Killed dozens - hundreds at a point - and it always seems to have more bodies. I think it recycles them somehow too. I've seen it eat the leftover corpses on occasion."

"Yeah, well there won't be corpses left once I'm through." Kyōko threatened darkly. "Or, hey, maybe there will be. Maybe I'll gather them all up and invite him to come get 'em just so I can add one more to pile."

She imagined stringing up a bunch of dead Kyubeys on a network of chains and waiting for a fresh one to approach, drawn in by their kin's own blood - and then coming down from above like an ancient hunter on her prey and skewering him on a spear.

Preferably a spear that was big, burning and double-bladed, like the one she had when she had been a Witch.

She wondered once again if there was any way to make her spear like that without fully turning into a Witch. Hell, she already had a fair amount of control over its form as it was - it mightn't be completely out of the realm of possibility.

"Welp, thanks for all the food." She abruptly stood up from the table, having licked the last slivers of beef from her skewer and tossed it down onto her plate. "Nice meeting you wizard people. And thanks for patching me up and sharing all the info and grub and everything, but I think it's about time I get going. Places to be, white fur to skin and all that. You know how it is."

She strolled towards the entranceway, idly picking at her teeth with a toothpick, ignoring the exclamations of the other girls and Mami's protestations of having more to say.

She didn't need to hear them. She'd already heard enough. It was time to go hunting. Doubtlessly, Mami and her new friends had prepared some grand recruitment speech ready to rope her into their gang, but too bad for them; it was wasted on her. She wasn't going to join them - couldn't stand taking orders from anyone. Never had, never would.

They could do their thing the way they liked and she'd do hers in her own way - with brimstone and lots and lots of fire. And iron, of course. Couldn't have a barbecue without a spit. Or even better, a grille.

Ideas on how to proceed kept burning through the front of her mind up until she found her pathway to the entrance of the shop obstructed by a magical wall.

Wait, no, it wasn't a wall. It reeked of magic, but it hadn't been conjured up by anybody in the dining room. Instead it had walked there by itself on its own two legs. She looked upwards - at an angle far too sheer for her liking - and stared in annoyance at its tanned face.

It was Chad. Or was it Yasutora?

He'd called himself that, but only after Ichigo had called him Chad. Eh, whatever. It was the big guy who'd waved at her from the roof just before she'd fainted. Who wasn't actually over 30 and somebody's uncle like she'd thought, but in fact the same age as Ichigo and apparently old tussle buddies with him.

"Could'ya move?" She demanded.

"Can't do that." He rumbled, "...Sorry."

"So you're telling me either I got to move you out of the way or make another exit myself?" She narrowed her eyes and threw down her toothpick.

Stealing a glance behind her she noticed while most of the others were still seated - albeit staring worriedly at the scene in progress - Mami, Tōshirō, Uryū and the two Kurosaki men had risen and were looking like they were one word away from springing at her. Mami somewhat more regretfully than the others, but still gripping her Soul Gem tightly (although not yet transformed).

Meanwhile, Tessai, the shop assistant, had stopped holding onto his cup of tea and now held his fingers crossed together while, bizarrely, Homura's pet cat which, until then, had been busying itself with a bit of leftover mackerel, had its hackles raised and it, too, seemed ready to launch itself right at Kyōko at a moment's notice.

Had Homura trained the cat to attack or something?

Either way, despite what she'd suggested, she knew there was no fighting her way out of it if all of six of them (minus the cat) were ready to stop her.

"Kyōko, please, come back and sit down." Mami begged her, "You haven't even had any dessert yet. I'm going to be serving up some cheesecake. Don't you want some cheesecake?"

Kyōko sent out a huff of exasperation and turned fully to face the crowd behind.

"Look," she growled, "if you're going to tell me to hold up just so you can make some big fancy recruitment speech about standing as one and working together and all that bullcrap, don't bother. I'm a solo act - although I'm sure Mami must've told you that already. I don't work with anyone, but me."

"Well... there was that." Urahara admitted. Despite still being seated and having made no moves to stop her, the bucket-hat wearing man had been the first to reply, "...but I'm afraid there's also a bit more to it than that."

"Like what?" She demanded hotly.

"Like Miss Inoue, for one." He inclined his head towards the girl in question, who was still seated at her spot.

Oh, she'd smelled this one coming from a mile away, ever since Mami had admitted how much they'd wanted to show off Orihime once she'd woke up.

She'd already given it some thought too.

"What about Orihime?" She leveled a stony stare at him. "Don't get me wrong, I really am honestly grateful she turned me back from a Witch and healed me and everything - but if you expect me to just rely on her magic instead of Grief Seeds from now on, you can forget it. That's just swapping one set of chains for another. Unless... can she teach other people to do the Soul Gem purifying thing?"

Dessert aside, that would be the one thing that had a chance of convincing her to stay.

But she doubted that was possible. Most magical girls' powers - aside from certain basic magics like quick movement and barriers - simply weren't replicable by others. Mami Tomoe could no more summon mirages to fight for her than Kyōko could conjure up a Tiro Finale.

Although Orihime supposedly wasn't a magical girl, so maybe-

"I'm sorry..." Orihime herself sadly shook her own head, "I really would do it, if I were able to, but... it's not really something you can learn..."

And there went that idea.

"Thought so." She sniffed. "So, like I said before, it's just switching out the shabu in exchange for crack cocaine or something. It's not any better. Carrot-head's sister had a point before - hell if I should just go running to her whenever I feel close to turning into a Witch. That wouldn't be fair to her and I'm not going to do it."

She'd made it this far on her own as magical girl, after all. She'd even farmed Grief Seeds, occasionally letting the familiar Labyrinths mature to full in order to maintain her supply.

The idea of being dependent on somebody else's power to keep going just felt all sorts of wrong to her at the moment.

"Actually, I don't mi-"

"I'm glad to see you harbor a decent sense of fairness." Urahara interrupted before Orihime could complete her sentence. "But that wasn't what I meant."

"Then what?"

"Let me ask you something: does that sense of fairness of yours extend to keeping your savior's life out of harm's way?"

Kisuke Urahara's eyes pierced into her, shadowed by the tufts of his low-hanging fringe.

"The hell is that supposed to mean?!" She scowled.

At the point, Homura Akemi, who, like Urahara, had been passively sitting at her meal until then, cleared her throat and looked up at her with an unreadable expression in her eyes.

"What he means," Homura clarified, speaking in a calm tone, "is that if you were to go after the Incubator as you would, you're going to show it that there is someone in existence who is capable of saving the lives of magical girls who have turned into Witches; you'll be letting it know that Orihime Inoue exists."

"So what?" She still didn't get it.

"What do you think the Incubator is going to do when it does?" Homura's brow tightened, "When I got in its way, it sent two magical girls after me. Mami was the first - she can tell you about that if you like. The second was an assassin from out of town, a magical girl serial killer who'd already claimed over forty other Soul Gems before coming after mine. And all I did was warn Madoka and Sayaka about making the contract. Inoue can bring back girls who've already turned - who do you think it's going to send after her when it finds out about that?"

All Kyōko could do was glare at her as the implications hit home.

The drug ring analogy was starting to seem more and more accurate. And right now, she was also starting to wonder whether she'd gone from being under the thumb of one ring to getting picked up by a competitor.

"...Are you trying to blackmail me?!" She almost spat.

"I'm stating the facts." Homura replied bluntly. "The assassin who got sent after me, Ayase Sōju, is now dead. But I have no doubt that whoever it picks to eliminate Inoue will be just as bad if not worse. As powerful as she is, Inoue is a healer not a killer - and far from invincible. And if she dies because, through you, the Incubator found out about her, it will be your fault."

Kyōko jaw dropped in an unmitigated display of raw incredulity.

"So are you telling me you just want me to just sit inside and never show my face in front of the Incubator?" She clenched a fist and swore, "You have got to be fucking joking!"

This was ridiculous!

It might not be fair to endanger the life of her savior, but it definitely also wasn't anywhere near freaking fair to expect her to just sit on her ass and not go after Kyubey at all. And if they'd somehow expected her not to after saving her like this, well then, they might as well not have bothered saving her in the first place!

Besides which, they were still only threatening the not-completely-assured possibility of harm towards someone who, as much respect and gratitude as she felt towards the orange-haired girl, was essentially a complete stranger that she'd barely known for-

"By the way, I realize that you yourself might only have known Miss Inoue for a scant few hours," Urahara suddenly uttered as if reading her mind, "but I can assure you many of the people in this room have been acquainted with her for somewhat longer and would go great lengths to ensure her safety. Have gone before, as a matter of fact, to lengths that were, quite literally, out of this world. So even if you yourself didn't hold any particular sense of indebtedness towards her and wished to disregard her safety entirely, well... I don't think they would let you."

The man glanced pointedly towards Ichigo and flicked his eyes towards Chad and Uryū.

Right, of course. They'd been the ones to react first. Orihime's lifelong friends. Who, from the looks on their faces, would probably - no, almost certainly - not let her walk out of the shop without putting up one hell of a fight.

Something about that notion caused a part of her chest to twinge painfully for some reason.

Even so...

"...You can't keep me in here forever." She challenged. "What are you going to do, tie me to a chair and lock me in the storeroom again? I'm not going to stay quiet and you can't watch me forever. The minute any of you turn your eyes away, I'm just going to break out and you're just going to get another hole in your walls."

"True, keeping you incarcerated here would not be viable." Urahara agreed. "But that doesn't mean there aren't other options we can take should we find ourselves driven to them."

"You're not going to kill me." She called his bluff with a scoff, "If you were, you wouldn't have saved me before. And even if you wanted to, I doubt Mami would have the stomach to let you do it."

She hadn't initially meant to say that last part out loud, but it had slipped out regardless. Ah, well, it wasn't like it made it any less true. She mightn't have split up with Mami if the latter hadn't forever been so damned soft.

"Well, ignoring that she's already killed you as a witch, I suppose you're right about that." Urahara admitted, "We're decent people here. Mostly. No killing unless it's needed. And in your case, it's not needed since as I said, we have other options available."

She narrowed her eyes.

But nobody else had moved or even made any indication they were going to move and she couldn't feel any magic stirring in the air anyway, which meant that rather than showing her and making good on the apparent threat, the creepy old man was just waiting for her to ask what.

Well, too bad. He could wait his shriveled butt off for as long as he liked. She wasn't going to humor him.

Urahara 'tsk'd' in disappointment and picked up his cane. Kyōko tensed, ready to transform.

There were a whole bunch of random objects in this wizards' shop that she'd already felt magic from, but the cane reeked of it even more strongly than the rest.

"Did you perhaps wonder why it was you fainted in the courtyard earlier?" He asked conversationally.

She just eyed him in confusion, instincts still on full alert.

"It wasn't your fault and it didn't just happen because you were stressed." He continued, "I'm sure you know even better than I do just how much it takes to send a magical girl into unconsciousness. More than a minor scuffle and a few bindings, for sure. No, I'm afraid it was mostly my fault."

Abruptly, Urahara swung the cane and - to her surprise - tossed it end-first, not towards her but instead in the direction of Ichigo Kurosaki, who yelped as the end of incoming cane caught him on the stomach, completely by surprise.

Her eyeballs nearly popped out of head while she watched what happened next in absolute shock.

Right before her very eyes a copy of Ichigo - one wearing the same black cloak she'd initially seen him in, immense black sword strapped to his back - fell out of his body at the moment it came in contact with the cane. Like a puppet with strings cut, the body proceeded to plummet towards the ground, only to be caught before it hit the ground by Uryū Ishida, who glared at the sandal-wearing culprit with no small amount of annoyance.

Several of the girls around the table 'eeked' - apparently, they hadn't been ready for that one either.

"The fuck?" She couldn't stop the gasp coming from her mouth.

"Hey! Gimme some kinda warning before you do that, you asshole!" The black-cloaked Ichigo shouted at Urahara in indignation, staggering to his feet.

"What did you just do to him!?" Pink - Madoka - cried out in a mix of horror and bewilderment.

Meanwhile, Sayaka was pale and Nagisa's eyes went saucer-shaped, mouths open but no sound coming from either. Karin, Yuzu and Homura, meanwhile, were completely unperturbed.

"Chillax, that's just his soul." Karin patted Madoka on the back. "Dunno how healthy it is to keep doing that, but it wouldn't be the first time he's done it. Or the tenth."

Sayaka swung her head towards Karin, eyes bulging.

"His s-soul?" Mami stuttered. She seemed surprised too, but not as much or as terrified as the other girls.

"That's his soul?!" Kyōko choked, "You just ripped out his soul?!"

This. Was seriously. Fucked up.

If their warning about Kyubey was to be believed, the beady-eyed con artist ripped out the souls of girls when he was processing their Soul Gems. And she believed it. If for no other reason than she'd just now seen hard evidence that such sacrilege was possible (and had been done to the guy at least 10 times if Karin wasn't joking).

God almighty, it was true. She'd gone from the grasp of one soul-sucking cartel right into the hands of another.

"Remember what we talked about?" Tōshirō looked meaningfully at Mami, who nodded hesitantly. "Ichigo can do it too, except he needs a tool to help him. Ordinarily, he uses a badge that he always carries around - but my uncle's cane works too."

"So, you're telling me if that hits a magical girl..." Mami trailed off.

"That's the gist of it." Urahara picked up his cane, having moved over to where Ichigo had fallen. "It's a spell that forces the soul from the body. In the case of a magical girl, it breaks her transformation too. Not much of a problem for most people, since even as a soul, you can just walk right back in again. But magical girls go unconscious once the Soul Gem fully separates from the body... and Soul Gems don't walk."

"Like Sōju...!" Sayaka gasped.

"More or less." He shrugged.

With the help of Uryū Ishida, he set the unconscious body against a wall and then started rummaging through its pockets.

"What the hell are you doing to my body?!" Ichigo yelped, leaping towards Urahara.

Urahara caught him by the arm and whispered something into his ear, which resulted in Ichigo catching his breath, nodding and then disappearing as he darted into the back of the shop.

Kyōko just shook her head, hoping she at least looked less unnerved than she felt at that moment.

"I don't know whether you guys are wizards, evil sorcerers, fucking necromancers or what-"

"Ouch, evil sorcerers and necromancers." Isshin Kurosaki winced, scratching at a bit of stubble with a finger, "Eh, we kinda prefer the term spiritual practitioners. Or spiritual specialists. Wizards are close, but we don't use the brooms."

"Call yourself whatever you like, I'd rather burn it up myself than let you do anything to my soul." She declared, "Or my Soul Gem."

"Found him. There we go!" Urahara triumphantly held up a little crystal sphere that he had extracted from some crevice of Ichigo's clothes.

Kyōko eyes snapped to what he was holding. It had a unique magic about it, highly compressed. In fact, it almost felt like a magical girl's-

Then Urahara peeled open the jaw of Ichigo's motionless body with one hand and popped the thing into it with his other like it was some sort of pill or a piece of candy.

Ichigo's body spasmed.

A moment later, he sprang up, eyes wide.

And quickly plastered a goofy grin across his face after swinging his head about and taking in the familiar faces of everyone around the room as well as the lack of any obvious weapons or evidence of destruction.

"Awwright, who's missed me and what are we celebrating?" His eyes zeroed in on Mami, "Ooh! Now there's a face I haven't seen before. I always knew my life was missing something!"

Kyōko ignored the fact that it hadn't been Mami's face the guy had been looking at when he'd said 'face'.

That was Ichigo's body, but whoever it was, that wasn't Ichigo in it. It wasn't his soul. Didn't feel anything like his soul.

"Let me introduce you!" Urahara thumped Ichigo's body on the back, "This is Kon."

"What? No, no, I'm definitely Ichigo Kurosaki!" Kon's head whipped towards Urahara in alarm, "That's right, right? Unless they're all, uh... I mean... can they... are they?"

Kon made gestures towards Mami and the other magical girls while sending looks at Urahara.

"Everyone here can see spirits, Kon." Karin deadpanned.

"Oh. Ohhh." Kon's mouth formed a wide 'o'... and then he scowled. "OK, fine. Fine, I get it. He's off doing his thing again and I gotta hold the fort until he's back, like usual. Sheesh, and here I thought I was getting invited to a party for once. Shoulda known, he never goes to any. 'Specially not with this lineup of babes - all in the wrong range for him."

Karin and Yuzu made faces at him.

Madoka, Sayaka, Nagisa and Mami all kept staring.

Kyoko didn't know what to think. Was this all just a show being put on for her benefit?

Because if not and she was interpreting these words right, it apparently meant this Ichigo guy had the habit of frequently popping out of his body to the point where he carried a spare soul of some sort tasked to look after his body while he did his thing as a disembodied soul.

Did she even want to know what the thing was that the guy apparently did for a living?

"Is he- was that a Soul Gem?" Mami asked.

"Nine out of ten, baby!" He winked at her, "Candy, not Gem! Soul Candy! But no worries, you can just call me King Of New-York!"

"Huh, is that what 'Kon' stands for?" Sayaka muttered in bemusement.

"No." Yuzu firmly refuted.

All of a sudden, Ichigo - or his soul - burst back into the room. Clasped in his hands was a bright orange stuffed doll. Kyōko thought maybe the thing kind of looked like a lion. If you looked at it from a certain angle.

"Here, I brought him- Wait, why did you go and put him into my body?!" Ichigo spluttered in indignation as he caught sight of Kon in his body.

Urahara merely grinned while the black-cloaked youth glared daggers at him

"Oh? You're done already?" Kon blinked at Ichigo, "That was pretty fast! Was it a false alarm? Or, wait, was this a party for reals? 'Cuz if it is, I take back everything I said about you earlier!"

"Said about me?! Just what did you tell everyo- actually, you know what, nevermind, I don't want to know. Anyway, this isn't a party, it's the Plan."

"The Plan?"

"Yeah, the Plan." He repeated. "The one we talked about last time. You see that girl over there? That's Kyōko Sakura. The magical girl!"

Before this point, Kyōko had lowered her guard somewhat, a result of how the sheer weird of the whole scene had somehow defused all the tension in the air.

But upon hearing this, Kyōko found she was bracing herself just in case the 'Plan' involved violence against Kyōko Sakura, the magical girl.

"What? That's Kyōko?! Oh, you mean that Plan!" He started, "Uh, yeah, about that - I kinda forgot what all my lines were supposed to be. So, um..."

"Don't worry about the lines," Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Just tell her what it's like to be you!"

She let herself relax again slightly. Oh, so it was that kind of plan.

"Oh, right! A-hem." Kon turned to address Kyōko directly, "So uh, since some of you magical girls seem to think having a crystallized soul makes you a zombie or a robot or something, I just gotta tell you - you really ain't got it so bad! I mean, at least you never had to live in fear of your makers hunting you down and trying to dispose of you, just 'cuz you got labeled defective goods on the production line-"

"Uh, Kon, I think you should skip that bit." Ichigo cut in. "I don't think we need that bit right now."

Mami was looking a little bit pale.

Kyōko was looking at him like he was dumb.

"Y-You were made?" Mami choked out.

"Well, yeah?" Kon blinked, "Soul Candy, baby! What kinda candy do you know that grows on trees? Lab-born and bred!"

Mami rounded on Urahara.

"I thought you said your contacts weren't successful at growing souls?" She said accusingly.

"Less success," he corrected, shrugging, "I didn't say no success at all. Kon was one of their lesser successes who was saved from suffering the same fate as his brethren."

"What happened to his brethren?" Madoka asked the question with wide eyes.

"What else do you think?" Kon snarked grumpily. "That's why, like I said, don't you ever see your own soul as a piece of rock or start thinking you're a zombie or anything, 'cuz no matter what it looks like, whether or not it's human, it's still a soul and it's not disposable. And don't you let anybody tell you otherwise. Or go about trying to dispose of your own soul, 'cuz that's just not cool!"

"I said I'd only burn up my soul if any of you tried to do something to it," Kyōko pointed out, "not that I had any goddamned urge to commit suicide."

Mami and Karin stayed awkwardly silent.

"Oh." Kon paused stupidly. "Well. That's good."

"That's why I told you to skip it!" Ichigo groaned.

"Well, what else did you want me to say?" Kon whined. "Did you want me to mention I'm spending my days boarding with a guy who's always cruisin' for a bruisin' and makes me look after his body whenever he starts roughhousing, without ever letting me get an opportunity to enjoy my melons? Protip - if you're gonna pick a body to hop into, don't pick this guy. All sweat, all day and a face that sends every hot chickadee nearby running a mile."

"I meant talk about what you can do!" Ichigo grated, tossing the orange doll he'd been holding at Kon, who caught it and made a face at it.

"Oookay. Yeesh." He held it up, "I guess you don't mean the part about how awesome my legs are? No? Eh, guess your body wouldn't do it justice anyway!"

With a gargling noise, Ichigo's body - Kon - retched and with a throaty cough, a little green orb - the Soul Candy - came sailing out of his mouth on a trajectory towards the doll he held up. The orb landed perfectly in the mouth of the doll just as Ichigo's body came crashing down, only to be caught again, this time by Urahara.

Then the doll stood up.

And it spoke.

"And there you have it, folks!" Came the proud voice, slightly higher pitched in the plushy than it had been in Ichigo's body, "The primo bonus of having a portable soul in a compact, crystalized form! You get your own pick of body, any kind you like - big, small, dead or alive!"

The small lion hopped around on the spot. Hopped - to the height of Ichigo's head, the latter of which had slipped back and faded away into his body just as soon as Kon had left, picking himself up and stretching his limbs like he'd just woken up from a nap instead of been separated from his body.

"Dead? What do mean dead?" Mami asked in confusion. "Aren't you alive?"

"Oh my dearest, your concern fills me with such sweet warmth!" Kon swiveled towards her. "Alas, this body is nothing but cotton and fabric - but fear not, for my soul has never been more alive in the face of your love and care! Although, if I might mention, this body is extremely premium cotton and fabric. All you need is a touch to tell the quality!"

Without warning, he launched himself right at Mami, who jerked backwards as she was hit with his full (though admittedly not very heavy) weight right in the center of her chest.

And was immediately snatched away only moments later by an irate Ichigo before Mami could realize where he'd been burying his head and carelessly tossed - much to Kyōko's own abject horror - in the direction of Kyōko herself.

Kon, naturally, angled himself to land face-first against her chest.

In the literal face of the oncoming projectile, Kyōko instinctively flared her Soul Gem and transformed on the spot, deflecting the thing that sort-of-looked-like-a-lion with a swift elbow chop. Combined the flare of magic from the transformation, this left Kon bouncing on the floor with a thoroughly singed backside, crying profusely.

"What did I ever do to you?!" He sobbed overdramatically, pointing a paw bitterly at Kyōko. "All I wanted was a hug! If there's anyone who deserves to get hit it's the guy who took your measurements while you were sleeping! When have I ever been that sleazy, huh?"

Kyōko froze.

"Who took my measurements while I was asleep?" She asked dangerously.

Her voice was low, menacing and she was transformed.

Everybody looked towards Urahara.

"Well, actually, it was Isshin." Urahara nodded smoothly towards him.

"Hey!" The man whined, "Why are you dragging me into this?"

"It's the truth." Urahara said with a shrug. "Besides, you are the licensed medical practitioner, not me."

"...Oh. Right." Kyōko deflated. "You needed to fix me up."

It had been a reasonable reply from Urahara and should have averted the crisis... had Kon not picked that moment to innocently drop another bombshell.

"That, and, y'know, to prepare your new body."

What.

"My new what?"

"The one you're in now." Kon grumbled. "I didn't even recognize you until Ichigo told me it was you. You look completely different from before! Eh, at least you can still change your hair later at a salon if you don't like it."

It took several seconds for the absolutely horrific entirety of what he had unwittingly revealed to sink in.

Urahara didn't give her that time.

"Don't worry about your old body." He spoke without missing a beat, "There's nothing wrong with it. It's currently being preserved in the basement of the shop. You can take a look and go back into it any time you like."

Kyōko placed a palm in front of her face and stared at it like she couldn't recognize it.

How had she not noticed? Her fingernails were about half an inch longer than they should've been. She'd always made sure to keep them trimmed - long nails tended to cause more problems in a fight than not and even if sharpened, magical girls had better things they could do at that range than scratch their opponents.

Now that she thought about it, her hair had never come in front of her gaze since she'd woken up, either. She'd gotten used to having her bangs occasionally drifting past in her vision, but it hadn't happened once in the time she'd-

Goddamn it.

She grabbed a fistful of hair from her ponytail and swung it around.

It wasn't red.

She slowly looked up, running her gaze across everyone in the room.

Except for Urahara, Homura and Kon, not a single one of them looked at her in the eye. Not even the fucking pet cat.

They'd known.

God damn it all.

Every single one of them - including Mami - had known it right from the very start.

The betrayal- no, this was beyond betrayal.

The only thing that kept her from screaming like a madwoman and lunging right at Urahara with her trademark giant spear had been his quick mention of her normal body apparently being readily available to return to.

"And you were saying Kyubey tell lies by omission." She drew out each word shakily, murderously. "Meanwhile, you were planning to tell me about this... when exactly?"

"Wait a sec, she didn't know?!" Kon squawked aghast, "What the hell, man?! You guys all seriously suck!"

Oh, hey. At least one person in the room was on her side. If you could call a laboratory manufactured soul... candy... thing that inhabited a plush doll a 'person'.

"When? When I knocked Ichigo's soul out and sent him to fetch Kon's usual body, of course." He replied smoothly. "Rest assured, nobody here was going to let you leave without informing you. I did say we had more to discuss and it wasn't just about Miss Inoue. I was hoping Kon could get you used to the idea of switching bodies before we told you. Ideally, in a manner a little more gentle than what we ended up with."

Even if she believed that, Kyōko couldn't for the life of herself imagine any 'gentle' way to reveal to somebody that they weren't in their own body anymore. The only two ways she could think of were 'blunt' and 'horror twist'.

"Put me back in my own body." She ordered, trying to keep the shake out of her voice as much as possible.

Trying to suppress the terrifying thought in her mind of the simultaneously surreal yet alarmingly real possibility that she could be facing a situation where her own body was being held hostage against her.

"Of course. We can do that any time." Urahara inclined his head. "That's Option 1. However, you realize that when we do, we will still have to restrict you from going to any place where the Incubator has even the slightest chance of seeing you. Being seen moving about in your original body would be disastrous."

"Fucking hell! Like you weren't already going to do that anyway!" She snapped.

"Actually, we weren't." Homura Akemi leveled her gaze at Kyōko. "Once you've been informed of everything, you're free to go wherever you want. So long as you promise not to make contact with the Incubator or let it know anything about us or Inoue, obviously."

So that meant what? That the new body had been intended to hide her from the Incubator?

She grudgingly supposed she could get behind that, as unnatural and alarming as the prospect was. As long as she could still get back into her own, regular body, of course.

She still had suspicions that they were intending to hold it over her head in some way.

"Or transform or use your Soul Gem anywhere near it." Urahara added. "That would be a dead giveaway of your identity, especially transforming. The new body is designed in a way to conceal your magic, but it can't conceal a release of energy that large. Or the transformation attire."

Now that was the problem. That was the one she couldn't get behind.

"Yeah, well, that takes us back to square one, doesn't it." She muttered as she inspected the rest of her newly-changed figure in sheer disbelief. "When the hell did it even happen anyway?! When did you switch my body?!"

And why had it taken her this long to notice?

"The very moment we brought you back. We merely put your Soul Gem in contact with this one instead of with your regular body."

So it hadn't just been after she'd broken the wall. It had been before that, too. From the very moment she'd woken up. She hadn't even been in her real body since having been defeated as a Witch.

Speaking of...

She glanced at her Soul Gem. It had dimmed slightly. Not very much, but slightly and enough so to be noticeable. She supposed that meant their tidbit about moods affecting Soul Gems had been true too, then. And yet they must've known what kind of effect the rapid chain of surprises and the emotional rollercoaster would have had.

"And you didn't think me finding this out could've put me in a bad enough mood to turn back into a Witch again?" She pointed out grimly. "Or was this some sort of test and you needed to find that out?"

"A test? No, not really." He shook his head, "We knew what might happen when you found out, but I had it on good authority that you'd be able to accept the knowledge about the true nature of Witches and Soul Gems without your emotional state being unduly affected. So I had faith you'd be able to take this in stride too. Rather, putting you in that body was a precaution."

She didn't know whether to be proud of that or what.

"A precaution? For what?"

"Our biggest fear was you prematurely exiting the building and getting seen by the Incubator. It has this place under constant watch. Unfortunately, I also had it on good authority that you were highly aggressive and might attack upon waking up, so we had to weigh up the risk of you breaking out versus that of you breaking down." He smiled slightly. "Obviously, you can tell which was judged to be the greater risk."

"Hey, wait. I did break out of the building." She rebutted. "While transformed. So it was all for nothing anyway, Kyubey would've known it was me."

"No, I'm fairly sure we avoided that. You broke out under a cloud of steam," Urahara sent a thumbs-up at Tōshirō. "And then we made sure to hit you with so many bindings it would obscure most of your transformation attire. The only thing it would've been able to see clearly was your face, which doesn't look anything like your old one."

"You just said he would've sensed my magic!" She objected.

A new body was fine, as long as she could do what she liked in it.

But they had a point about her magic - there wouldn't have been any mistaking that. She knew for a fact that her magic was exactly the same as it had always been. She'd used it herself.

"Doubtful." Tōshirō responded. "Kurosaki's spiritual pressure was saturating everywhere at the time. It was drowning out everything else. We got lucky in that regard."

"No luck involved." Urahara corrected his nephew. "I instructed him to flood the area with his reiatsu if he sensed there was a fight getting out of hand. He wouldn't even have been out of his body otherwise. The steam wasn't exactly luck either; I did allow you to you watch over her for a reason."

Unbelievable.

Evidently Tōshirō thought so too, as she caught a muscle twitching in his cheek.

"You deliberately had Kurosaki expose himself and his power?" Tōshirō shot at him, perturbed.

"Yes." Urahara didn't say more.

Tōshirō's eyes flicked towards Ichigo, who didn't say anything. Whether Urahara's one-word reply meant that it had just been a willing sacrifice Ichigo had agreed to make or whether it was actually a deliberate part of some larger plan that involved Ichigo, he clearly wasn't in the mood to disclose.

"And what if I'd headed out through the roof or something?" Kyōko demanded. "You couldn't have known what I would do!"

"If you'd been calm and decided to chat, there wouldn't have been any issue, would there?" Urahara raised an eyebrow, "As for other ways out, well, there was really only the wall or the roof and Chad was waiting on the roof. Chad, because he would've blocked the Incubator's view of you with nothing but his body."

Which sounded logical and would've made sense except it wasn't completely right, because-

"I was going to bring down the whole roof!" She cried. "If I only decided to keep fighting back then and went all out, this whole fucking building could've ended up as rubble!"

"Yes, well. That was a possibility." Urahara admitted. "Which was why the backup plan - another one, at any rate - was Mister Uryū Ishida."

Uryū? The delivery guy? She swung her head towards him.

The bespectacled youth in question clarified before she could ask.

"In the worst-case scenario, it would've been my job to snipe every Incubator in the area that had line-of-sight on the property." He explained matter-of-factly. "I said I was out on a delivery run. But to be more precise, I was in the shop van... waiting for the delivery order to come through. Which, thankfully, it didn't. If I'd ended up having to make a delivery, it would have exposed the fact that a Quincy like me was working with everyone here. Still, better myself than Orihime. Or you."

The last two words rankled her. In much the same way as that twinge in her chest that she'd felt in that moment when she'd realized how much Orihime's friends were willing to go to protect her.

"'Or me'?" She scoffed bitterly. "Bullshit. You all just went the whole mile with your plans and even stuck me in a new body for Orihime's safety, not for me."

"No." He shook his head. "For you. I hope you do realize that we could easily have avoided all this trouble if we'd kept your Soul Gem away from a body or even just left it as a Grief Seed to begin with."

Kyōko stopped short at that.

Why had they saved her in the first place anyway?

She'd originally thought it had been solely Mami's idea, something born from one of her whimsical sentiments of guilt or pity. But had it really been?

She looked towards her ex-partner, who smiled softly and sadly.

"You know, when we ended up in your Labyrinth, I... I honestly didn't know what to do. I didn't know how or if it was even possible to save you. When I found out the truth about the Witches then... the thought of having to kill you..." Mami shook her head. "I don't know if I could've even done that. Honestly, I don't think I would even be standing here if Homura and Tōshirō hadn't been there. They were the ones who convinced me it was possible."

Kyōko looked towards Homura and Tōshirō, both of whom stared back evenly at her.

"I've seen too many girls like you fall before." Homura said. "And I promised Mami we would save you. A Grief Seed or an unconscious body doesn't count."

"No matter what you might believe, you are not bound for Hell yet." Tōshirō remarked. "You deserved another chance to live freely. We knew the hoops we'd have to jump through to give you that chance - including having a standoff like this - and we did it anyway."

"All of us here agreed to help save you." Ichigo summarized. "And we did it because we wanted to, not because we wanted anything from you. We're not trying to put you in our debt and we didn't do it because we owed Mami or anything. We did it because it was the right thing to do."

That...

That was...

Her chest was aching, hard. Did they really, truly expect her to swallow that load of crap? To really believe everything they had done, they'd done just because... they were good people?

That was horseshit!

"You're saying you're just a bunch of good samaritans?! Really?!" She spat with the most bitterness she'd felt yet. "You expect me to buy that?! You say you don't want anything from me - and yet you still expect me to just sit back, chill in some new body and hide away from Kyubey!"

"Well, that would be Option 2." Urahara said. "But no, not all of us here are purely altruistic. I agreed to help in part because I believed that you could help us in our struggle against the Incubator. And I still believe that to be the case."

"What, by not fighting?" She sneered, "And besides, after all this, you are going to have to come up with one hell of a good reason for me to want to help you."

She braced herself. She bet heavily that the coming incentive would be something to do with of the body of hers that was currently being held in their possession. Every single cynical sense she possessed screamed it.

But much to her surprise, it didn't come.

"Oh, no, absolutely by fighting. Physically." Urahara countered. "You want your revenge against the Incubator. We can give it to you, with your aid. That's the only reason you need. We knew, of course, that when we saved you, you would want to take the fight to it. And you can. Just not as Kyōko Sakura, the magical girl. This is Option 3. Do you want to hear it?"

His gaze pierced into her pupils, blades glinting in the glow of a wildfire. She stared back at him, who had finally gained her full attention.

"...I'm listening."

"We spiritual practitioners use spells that are slightly different in nature to those used by magical girls. Those of us who specialize in it know it as Kidō - the Demon Arts." He explained. "We can teach it to you. Miss Kaname and Miss Miki here have the potential and they will begin their training soon. If you join them and learn to how fight using a new system of magic instead of your old magical girl abilities, your magic will feel only similar but not identical to your old powers. This, combined with your new body, should provide enough differentiation to convince the Incubator that you are a separate person from Kyōko Sakura."

New system of magic?

"You can teach me new magic?" She couldn't keep the hint of skepticism out of her tone.

"Yes, if you agree to work with us." Tōshirō confirmed.

"You won't need to worry about hunting for Grief Seeds either!" Orihime chipped in.

"Along with concealing your reiatsu, your new body was tailored to possess a similar muscular structure to what you're used to." Urahara added. "Particularly in sensitive areas such as your hands and feet, which are critical to your dexterity. That way, you'll still be able move the way you're used to in a fight without having to recondition yourself. It wasn't made purely to hide your identity. You didn't feel much difference before now, did you?"

Well. That probably explained why she hadn't noticed until Kon had let it slip, even throughout her whole skirmish with Mami and Tōshirō.

This...

This was...

This was the recruitment speech she'd seen coming for a while.

But she sure hadn't seen it coming like this.

Then again, she supposed most sane people wouldn't expect recruitment speeches to include an attempt to promote the benefits of having a new custom-tailored body.

For a long while, nobody said anything.

"Kyōko?" Mami broke the silence at last, an uncertain expression on her lips. "What do you think?"

"...Was this what you had in mind all along?" Kyōko turned to her.

She was treated to a tentative nod from the latter.

"Ugh, dammit, why the hell didn't you just say so from the start?" Kyōko complained bluntly. "Wait, no. Don't answer that."

Because, obviously, she would have broken more than just a wall if the first thing she'd been shown had been a mirror. Or, heaven forbid, her own vegetative body.

And because nobody sane would ever agree to have their soul transplanted into a different body if given a choice. At least not Kyōko who, as much as she liked her vengeance, wasn't quite that insane yet. And especially not by people she barely trusted.

Which she had to admit - with another pang in her chest - was pretty much everyone but herself.

"So does that mean you agree?" A nervous smile broke out across Mami's face.

"I want to see my own body first. Once I know for sure it's fine, then we can talk more."

"Of course! Right this way, please!" Urahara motioned for her to follow.

Revenge. Granted with brand new powers and a spare body.

It sounded shady as hell. It sounded like something out of a bad movie. It sounded like it belonged to the purview of dark powers and heretical necromancy. It sounded like real witchcraft.

Kyōko liked the sound of it.

This was a deal she could get behind.

If she could learn these new Demon Arts perhaps she could even combine it with her magical girl powers. Perhaps it would lead to a way she could craft that awesome twin-bladed Witch spear again, without having to go full Witch.

She supposed she could even put up with working alongside other people again for the sake of it. This particular group at the very least might be... decent enough.

Espe- Even Mami Tomoe.

Feelings of betrayal didn't fade fast.

But having your life saved by the same person maybe helped just a little bit.

And a decent meal, a long talk and some magical bribery surely sped up the process a good deal more.

"Do I get to choose a new name for this body?" She inquired.

"First name, yes. Last name, no. The family name's already been chosen to line up with the false identification documents and the fake personal history you'll have."

"Oh, really?"

"Really. Or, well, the one the Incubator now thinks you have anyway. In fact, you also get a bunch of sisters. And a brother. You might've gotten off on the wrong foot with them earlier, but I'm certain once you get to know them a bit more you'll soon be getting along like a house on fire."

"...What."

"Actual adoption proceedings might sadly still need to wait until it's safe for Kyōko Sakura to come back to life. But for now, we're still glad to have you on our side-

-Miss Kyōko Kurosaki."

#########

A/N: The black-clad magical girl Kyōko initially mistook Ichigo for being was meant to be an Oriko Magica reference. And obviously, Kisuke's mention of witches in Europe and the wizards was a Burn The Witch thing. Kyōko's fantasies about her Witch spear and wondering whether Witch powers could be harnessed are references to her Doppel release in Magia Record (and who knows, given we're going to get a new Madoka anime based on the game, we might even see her actually go Bankai and summon her Doppel Ophelia on screen for real!).

Originally, there were supposed to be more objections to Orihime's cooking, before I realized Karin and Yuzu actually like Orihime's cooking (and Yuzu apparently does cooking with her in one of the Bleach novels) and none of the Madoka Magica crew would know anything about it.

It probably wasn't clear but Urahara was actually the one who made the body. Given that he's very capable of making reiatsu-concealing gigais like the one he wears and that Madoka and Sayaka appear about to undergo Kidō training anyway, I thought it was just too convenient of a solution to Kyōko's situation to ignore. Urahara's story he fed Mami about sourcing it from 'contacts overseas' was was actually two layers of misdirection, Kyubey-style. The story was referring to Kurotsuchi and the Twelfth Division, but he made it sound like some illegal cloning lab or shady occult practitioners instead... and then you realize he never actually said that the body came from there, only that he knew them.

And of course, the stinger ending had to be that. Because they can't have her breaking into ATMs, stealing apples and renting penthouses everywhere now they know she's been doing it. I mean, I can't really see Kyōko ever saying yes to being adopted, but the way the story is going, I can see Isshin at least making the offer.

And yes, if it wasn't implied well enough, Isshin and Kisuke actually held a fake conversation to make the Incubator think she was his daughter while Kyōko was unconscious and bound outside of the shop. The thought process behind that was actually inspired by 2 things: Firstly - that Karin and Yuzu never actually told Kyubey their last name and secondly - that the Kurosaki name is a Quincy family name and potentially one that Kyubey might recognise.

Ergo, the grand plan was actually to make Kyubey believe that Kyōko in her new body was a Quincy survivor. It was "only" a backup plan but there was actually even more behind it that Urahara revealed. Ichigo's reiatsu likely has a slight Quincy feel to it because of his heritage - Urahara could've even told him to try and play it up when releasing his reiatsu crush. And if they'd actually had to use the backup plan involving Ishida, his Heilig Pfeil would've reinforced the con even more (so himself being given away wasn't actually the big deal, it was the giveaway that they had working secret surveillance on the Incubators that would've been the loss). Kyubey already revealed he had a thing for contracting Quincy girls and Urahara knew that - he was actually trying to set up a long con to trick Kyubey into unknowingly approaching Kyōko in her new body after a fake falling out to try and pump her for info and get her to contract again and create the opportunity to lure it into a trap.

You know, the sort of thing you'd figure Urahara would set up to make sure that, no matter what happened, they'd still win in some way. I imagine he would've proposed to do it eventually anyway, even if Kyōko hadn't been seen early by Kyubey.

Finally, about the lack of Madoka's family: I initially wasn't sure whether they were going to end up actually being there and also thought they might not want Tatsuya near a potentially crazy magical girl who could violently fly off the handle, so I just didn't write anything about them. If it helps, you could imagine that if there WERE there, they were responsible for making sure they were seen/sensed ferrying at least 3 unknown individuals (along with an unseen, unsensed packaged gigai) in the shop van to Urahara's place - individuals who could later be mistaken for Isshin, his daughter Kyōko and a random fullbringer called Chad. And then afterwards been busy driving the van around while Uryu was hidden in the back waiting for the sniping order. And then randomly hanging in the background afterwards (XD).