A/N: Older story, ported over from Livejournal. Major spoilers for P3 and P4.
In truth it starts where it ends - but let's say it starts with the sound of glass shattering, with a rustle of velvet, with the steady click of the train against the rails.
Their first meeting can't be counted, because the woman in white is unaware of her presence.
Her master can leave the Velvet Room only under rare and specific circumstances, but his assistants are not bound by the same set of rules. He has asked Margaret to visit this woman - a dying god, a dead god, a god recreated - and observe.
The world's a cavern right now, whispers filling the hollows in the walls, and the woman stands in the center - or floats, over the swirling fog that fills the spaces as the dirt floor falls away. The cave's collapsing in on itself; the rocks fold like paper, and behind them there's grey-blue mist and tall red columns. It's unclear what the woman's trying to recreate, exactly what she remembers. Humans recast her from their lost beliefs and half-forgotten fears, just as the Master moulds his assistants from those who go before. Margaret, a form imagined in pen and paper as much as the shadows scribed in her book, understands this process better than most; knows the almost painful translation from scattered thoughts to form. Or scattered instincts, perhaps, but not memories. In this cavern, Margaret understands what is-
(There's a masked woman at a top of a tower, sword in hand, one black wing stretching across the bright green sky. That's one death, and this is another.)
- but she has no firm recall of what was; only half-realized recollections and vague sensations of patterns. The elements are connected - words, images, places - but the meaning in the links is lost.
How much do you remember, she considers asking, but the woman is absorbed in constructing her world - so Margaret watches, for a while, before returning to the Velvet Room.
The second time - the first, technically - the woman notices her. "I know you. You taste of him."
The world's changed since Margaret last visited, here and elsewhere. Here there's no cavern, only red and black pathways, and fog where there were stone walls. Somewhere else, there's a grey-haired, grey-eyed boy carrying secrets in his heart and head.
(Somewhere else again, a blue-haired boy faces the night.)
The fog swirls; the woman stares. "He's mine. I own him. Not your master."
She's delusional; controlling this boy is futile. Margaret knows that much from the other, the hollow boy who carried death against his back. Holding back the tide is impossible, but as wasted as they were, his actions belonged to him alone. The Room holds little power over the wild card and vanished gods hold none at all. Potential does as it chooses. Her sister was unable to accept that truth; Margaret, however, is a realist.
She watches the woman carefully. "You have two more. Why the boy in particular?"
"You pay no mind to the others."
It's a fair answer. Master has mentioned them simply in passing and Margaret has met only the boy, the one who troubles the woman in white. They form a trinity: despair, emptiness, hope. The elements do nothing to explain the purpose. "Why?"
The woman's smile is languid; near seductive. "To give humans what they crave."
(A saviour will descend upon this world to break the chains that bind us, and lift us to new heights.)
Margaret thinks of the tower, and stays silent.
The woman visits her, next time, and sits translucent against the blue velvet seat of the limousine.
"My business is not with you," she says. "I have no need for the invented."
Few things are more invented than a god - and few more carelessly - but pushing the issue would be pointless. Really, the woman shouldn't be here; this is only the second time Margaret has been the first to greet a visitor. She nods politely, hands rested on the book in her lap.
"Your master will not disrupt my plans," the woman says, mist wrapped around her like a funeral shroud, and the image flickers as if the Room objects to her presence.
"My master is not whom you should concern yourself with."
"You want the boy for yourself." The woman's pale red eyes shimmer, cast purple by the velvet behind her.
Margaret thinks of his last visit. This gap between consciousness and unconsciousness - the silence between a breath asleep and a breath awake - was never meant for humans, yet the grey-haired boy adapts with grace. He sat where the woman sits now, and they talked, though she doesn't remember the subject; just the ease of the words tumbling from her mouth and the way his lips curved into a smile.
(There's a boy formed from dust and potential, who believes what those around him believe, who echoes the thoughts of the nearest mind.)
A beautiful boy and the air around him tastes of secrets, but Margaret has no patience for mirrors. "I am not my sister," she says. The image before her distorts with the mist.
"Why the boy?" Margaret asks again.
(Somewhere else there's a goddess, sleeping in the land of the dead.)
"He belongs to me," the woman says.
The written word endures, and the scratches of ink sprawl across the book's pages. Margaret fills more paper with each visit the boy makes, transcribing carefully the new forms and voices in his mind. "You're aware of his progress."
The woman looks away. "The book means nothing."
Margaret traces one finger along the leather binding -
("I will find him," her sister says.)
- and across the grooves of the star etched on the cover. The book never grows or shrinks in size, no matter how much paper she fills. She turns the last leaf, a new one appears, and her breath catches in her throat each time - but the page is always blank. It's never hers.
But there's a page at the start that intrigues her. It's the only one she didn't write, and it shows a figure in red and black with a face carved from steel. The grey-haired boy carried him from the beginning.
(She'll never read her sister's book; that boy's secrets aren't hers to know.)
Margaret turns her book towards the woman. Her face shivers in recognition.
"You remember, then."
"The boy is not him," Margaret tells her.
The only sound is her fingers brushing against paper. The woman in white stares blankly at the page, a half-forgotten name on her tongue.
"I'm sorry," Margaret says, and slams the book shut.
"How much do you remember?" the woman asks, and the words hold anguish and malice both.
Margaret doesn't answer.
(Somewhere else there's herself, but that's irrelevant.)
The seventh time - the final time - is on neutral ground.
The world outside the Room is peculiar and unambiguous; a grid of stark lines and sharp angles, white on black. It's spring in Inaba, and the air shakes with the heavy pulse of the living. Margaret watches the attendant from outside the gas station, and though their eyes are hidden beneath a red and white baseball cap, she suspects they're mirroring her gaze.
"Why are you here?" the attendant asks. "Return to your master."
Pale skin, and grey hair spilling from under the cap. "Interesting," Margaret says as she walks closer. "You even wear the boy's appearance. Why?"
"I control him." It's muttered, barely a whisper. They stand inches apart.
"You're slave to the whims of humans." There's a sudden motion, a flash of blue - and Margaret wraps her hand around the attendant's chin, five manicured nails carving five perfect crescents. "Tell me what you desire."
The attendant doesn't struggle. "To grant them happiness."
(The woman tells the man: one thousand of your people, every day.)
"Tell me what you desire."
"To help them see the truth."
(It's winter, and Inaba disappears into fog.)
"Him. I want him to remember me."
Margaret loosens her grip. "He won't."
There's a triumvirate: the goddess, the assistant, the boy. It's how things work.
Through Kanzeon's eyes Margaret sees six figures fall in turn, each trying to protect the wild card, each victim to the Thousand Curses. The boy himself is the last.
(There's a boy asleep at the heart of the world, a hollow-eyed boy who died young and died alone.)
Izanami no Okami floats in the fog, bound and blindfolded. The world is silent.
(That was one death; this is another.)
Margaret folds her hands neatly in her lap, and waits.