Among the astounding powers, seemingly immortal bodies, and sheer, absurd firepower, it is easy to forget that magical girls come with another, much subtler advantage. Nearly every girl is born into their contract with an instinct to combat, and an excellent understanding of their own skills and how to use them. Coupled with superhuman—no, supermachine—reflexes, even the greenest of rookies can be terrifying on the battlefield.
However, this must not be misconstrued. There is always much to learn, and experience is geometrically enhancing, as it is for all types of combat. Indeed, there is no need to pity those rare girls who find themselves with no instinct for battle—experience shows that these are often the most dangerous of all.
— Daughters of the Contract: A Documentary
The mentorship system began as a quite natural response to the isolation prevalent throughout the magical girl community. Few elder girls were heartless enough to allow new girls to flail about aimlessly, and new girls were always desperate for someone to cling to.
As populations grew, and societies contracted into urban centers, the number of girls finding themselves rubbing elbows with other magical girls increased dramatically. And while hostilities were common, the rewards of cooperation proved too dramatic to ignore. Pairs of magical girls became trios, then full‐fledged teams, rapidly accruing new contractees as members. The only restraints on their size were the shocking attrition rates, and local grief cube supply, which prevented multiple teams from settling in one area.
For a while, then, the ideal of mentorship was replaced by a new ideal—that of cohesion and teamwork. It was only with the rise of the MSY, and the placement of certain girls into specific, highly specialized roles, that it again became common to see pairs of girls operating as teacher‐student. Afterwards came formalization, and with that, certain benefits—death notices, most morbidly. This led, seemingly paradoxically, to a certain relaxation of formality. Mentors became more comfortable sending students farther away, and some girls began "mentoring" others hardly even in the same department.
— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.
Mami hated recruiting.
She hated how innocent the girls were, with their sweet, naïve smiles and their touching belief in Mami‐sama. She hated that her face and her voice were being used to sell so many on a choice that would likely mean their death. She hated everything about it.
Above all, she hated that terrible contradiction between her love for the girls and her embedded sense of duty.
Mami didn't have to take Ryouko and Simona up to the observation deck that day, after all. She could have sent them home, and let Ryouko's recruiting be someone else's business.
She couldn't let herself do that, though. She didn't want to dodge the guilt and shirk the responsibility. Let this girl, at least, hear it from her. Plus—and this was where duty kicked in—immediately after a demon attack, in the throes of emotion, was an excellent time to recruit, one she couldn't legitimately pass up.
Mami felt dirty, like one of those used car salesmen that had existed so long ago.
It was all a bunch of gamesmanship. The principal complication nowadays was the lack of secrecy around the contract system. Experience had taught both Incubator and Magical Girl that allowing potential contractees to talk about it with their more mundane friends and family members was a sure‐fire way to damage the purity of their wish and destroy whatever it was that gave a girl potential. Telling the girls to keep it secret, even giving them the reasons why it had to be secret, was less effective than had been desired.
Girls just couldn't resist. There was no longer the risk that they would be labeled delusional for talking, and the Incubators could no longer use whatever unsavory methods they had previously used to stop them.
Alright, so that last part was only speculation among magical girls, but fairly well‐founded speculation, at that.
Thus, nowadays, despite the impression given to the public that the contract decision was deliberate and carefully thought out, potential recruits were rushed through their contracts like so many sheep, with phrases like "one‐time offer" and "limited‐time only". This was done even if it risked alienating the girls.
It was, indeed, exactly like selling a used car.
Thankfully, in this post‐capitalist era, no one tried that hard to sell anything anymore, so the girls had never seen such techniques in their lives—on Earth, anyway.
Letting Simona stick around, instead of telling her to go home and talking to Ryouko privately, was a judgment call. Letting her stay risked the contract, but it also allowed Mami to truthfully say that the offer would probably be lost very soon, a very important sales point.
And Mami hated lying, too.
The guilt, like always, would stick with her for a long time.
Still, though, her job wasn't finished. Indeed, it was only just beginning—she would make sure of it.
"I can't believe you!" Simona was saying, emotional. "You became a magical girl, just like that? You're just going to leave?"
"What are you talking about?" Ryouko asked, overwhelmed, glancing back and forth between Simona and the soul gem in her hand. "Weren't you the one who understood why I wanted to get out? What happened to that?"
Mami had to intervene. The last thing she wanted was for the girl to have doubts injected into her so soon after making the contract.
In short, she needed to get Simona out of the way.
Mami cleared her throat, solely for the purpose of interrupting them.
"Let's discuss what to do now," she said, giving them a meaningful look.
She turned to Kyouko dramatically.
"You have free time?"
"I cut my sermon short to see what Mami‐senpai was up to," the girl said, placing a teasing lilt on "senpai". "So yeah, I got some time."
"Alright, do you mind escorting the civilian here home?" Mami asked. "I'll show the new girl the ropes."
"You've already been in combat, Mami," she said. "Let me take care of it."
Privately, Kyouko thought:
Those are my subordinates fighting down there, you know. Give me a chance to look cool once in a while! Don't steal all the fun.
Mami thought about it. She really wanted to be the one to show Ryouko around, but there were advantages to letting Kyouko do it. If she went with Simona, she could take the opportunity to program her into not discouraging Ryouko, and to indoctrinate her in a few other things. That would help.
"Alright," she said. "I'll take her home then. Don't teach Shizuki‐san anything funny, okay? I don't want to have to clean up your mess."
"Of course not, senpai," Kyouko said, winking.
"Come on, let's go," Mami said, gesturing at Simona, her expression making it clear she wasn't to be argued with.
Simona looked at Ryouko, clearly not wanting to be cooperative. Ryouko stared back.
"Come on," Mami repeated, tugging at Simona's arm and, this time, the girl acquiesced.
"Shizuki Ryouko, eh?" Kyouko said, as Mami and Simona walked off. "Interesting name."
Indeed it is, Mami thought, walking off.
As a matter of course, she had mentally looked up the names of both girls on the way up, so she wouldn't have to ask.
Kyubey jumped onto her shoulder as she stepped into the elevator with Simona.
Ryouko stared at the new girl, who was twirling her spear about in an impressive fashion.
"Interesting name," the girl had said, and Ryouko now found herself absolutely tongue‐tied.
Sakura Kyouko, her facial recognition service—her nomenclator—informed her when she queried.
Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)
Rank: Lieutenant General
Founder, Cult of Hope
A quiet sense of expectation registered in her mind, an implied recommendation that she read up on the "Cult of Hope". She dismissed it.
I guess I'm meeting everyone today, she thought.
Nowhere near as famous as Mami or Homura or Yuma, Kyouko was still a celebrity in her own right. She was one of the Mitakihara Four, after all, the nucleus around which the famous magical girl union, the MSY, grew.
Founding the Cult was nothing to sniff at, but it paled in comparison to the kind of legends Mami and Homura had carved out for themselves, or to Yuma's constant appearances within the Directorate.
In fact, to be perfectly honest, Ryouko didn't know much about the Cult at all. She thought of them as part of the persistent religious subculture that was still present everywhere. Put another way, the Cult was to magical girls as door‐to‐door Christian evangelists were to most of the world—or even all of Human space.
She hadn't recognized the girl at first, but it made sense that she would be here. She had just met Mami, after all.
With that thought, reality once more crashed in on her.
What have I gotten myself into? she thought.
She could feel the steady pulse of her soul gem, which had obligingly formed itself into a ring on her hand.
No, she would have to remember now. The soul gem was her.
She held her hand up, looking at it, noticing finally the green five‐pointed star that had appeared on her fingernail. She blinked.
"Is that—" she began.
Yes, it's normal, a voice responded in her head.
She jumped, then looked again at the girl in front of her. That girl was watching her with amused eyes.
"I thought for sure Mami had introduced you to the telepathy," Kyouko said, watching her. "I guess not. Maybe she didn't want to overwhelm you. And yes, the fingernail mark is normal. It's one of the lesser‐known signs of being a magical girl."
With that, Kyouko stepped forward and grabbed her hand, ignoring her slight recoil.
"Oh, a green star," Kyouko said, inspecting the nail. "How cute."
Ryouko couldn't read Kyouko's tone of voice.
Then, Kyouko dropped her hand.
"Summon your soul gem," Kyouko ordered.
"What?" Ryouko asked, blinking.
"Turn it back into its gem form," Kyouko repeated, tapping her foot. "Come on. You know how to do it."
She was surprised she knew how, actually. But she didn't have to think about it any harder than she thought about turning her lights off at night. It responded to her will even more fluidly than those lights did and, what's more, she seemed to know exactly what to do with it.
She swallowed, looking at her soul, glowing bright green in her hands, crested by the five‐pointed star that was apparently her insignia.
"Alright, good," Kyouko said. "I'm sorry to rush you so much, but if we don't hurry, the battle will be over. I intend for you to participate."
"You're a magical girl," Kyouko said. "You should have basic competence, even without training. It comes with the contract."
She rested her chin on the back of her hand, which held the shaft of her spear.
"I wonder what she would think of me doing this," she mused out loud, reaching into her dress and pulling out another of her strange chocolate sticks. "She'd probably be mad that I didn't treat her so nicely."
"Who?" Ryouko asked, tilting her head.
"No one," Kyouko said, looking back towards her. "I'm just an old lady talking too much."
Now, Kyouko thought. Transform. I shouldn't have to explain.
Indeed she didn't. Hardly had the intention to try formed in Ryouko's mind that the gem shot out bright streamers of green light, seeking to grasp her in their embrace. The light was momentarily blinding, seeming to ensheath her eyes—and then it was over.
Instinctively, she looked down.
She found herself wearing a bright green dress, a lacy affair running all the way from her chest to her calves, where it flared out and ruffled. The sleeves were similar, and the chest was ornately decorated with various green buttons, the centerpiece of which was the shining green star soul gem attached to the base of her neck, seemingly stuck there.
Conscious of a slight pressure on her left hand, she raised it—and found herself looking at a crossbow nearly the length of her entire arm. But yet, despite its size and obvious weight, it was hardly any effort at all to manage. It seemed almost like an extension of herself.
Specifically, it was an arbalest, and she would never have to load or prime it manually. Somehow she knew that.
Frilly, the other girl thought. Not many girls go for that nowadays.
"Sakura‐san," Ryouko began.
Kyouko, the response came. And use your telepathy. Just so you know how.
Kyo–Kyouko, Ryouko thought, finding once again that she knew instinctually how to do it.
Kyouko, she repeated, trying to look the other girl in the eye. I'm sorry. I only just contracted. I'm feeling a bit shaky. I want to talk to my parents—
Suddenly, Kyouko's face was bearing down on hers, outlined against the late afternoon sky.
"What kind of resolution is that?" the girl asked. "I thought you had a wish. You knew what you were getting into. You're getting a chance to train with the great Sakura Kyouko, and you want to bail out?"
The girls eyes drilled into hers until Ryouko, finally, shook her head, swallowing covertly.
Kyouko pulled back.
"Listen, rookie," she said, her voice serious. "You'll get your chance to say goodbye, but I'm not cutting you any slack while you're here. If there's anything I've learned in all my years, it's that it's better to toughen up early. Capisce?"
Ryouko nodded hastily, even before her brain registered her language module's translation of the Italian.
"I'm sorry," Ryouko said, bowing. "I'm just—"
"Don't apologize!" Kyouko asserted, and Ryouko flinched at the spearpoint suddenly at her neck.
"Now, rookie," Kyouko said. "What's your primary power? Demonstrate it to me, if you can."
Ryouko hadn't even thought to check, but the moment she thought about it, she knew.
The world shifted five feet to her right, leaving her briefly disoriented.
"I said demonstrate!" Kyouko snarled, seemingly not at all perturbed by her blink to the left. "You have combat reflexes, use them!"
With that, the girl moved her spear to stab Ryouko, with seemingly complete sincerity.
Before she knew it, she was looking at the back of Kyouko's head, raising her arbalest—and then she was on her knees, grabbing her stomach, feeling fit to vomit.
Physical injury detected, a machine voice thought. Emergency—
No, Ryouko thought.
"Sorry about that," the red‐clothed girl apologized, looming over her. "It was the only way to make sure you didn't actually shoot me."
The girl had slammed the blunt end of her spear backward into Ryouko's abdomen at almost the exact moment she had appeared.
"Don't feel bad," Kyouko said. "Every teleporter's instinct is to blink behind the opponent. It's a good instinct; I've just had experience fighting."
She offered Ryouko a hand up.
Feeling the pain recede slightly, Ryouko forced herself up without help, hand on knee.
Kyouko smiled mischievously.
"So you've got spirit. I like that."
"Who would want to accept help from a bully like you?" Ryouko asked, staggering a little.
She was angry. That blow had hurt, and she was pretty certain some of her organs had taken damage from it.
Come to think of it, why was she so blasé about that?
Kyouko laughed, and turned away from her, spear behind her back.
"You don't know the half of it, but don't take it personally, kid," she said. "By the way, did you happen to activate your emergency mode?"
No, Ryouko thought, since the girl wasn't looking at her and she didn't feel like speaking.
"Good," Kyouko said, chewing on her chocolate stick. "You would have discovered that most of the functions are broken or useless. They still haven't found a way for the magic and science to work together. They're working on it, though."
The girl turned, displaying a small, black cube. Trying to focus her eyes on it, Ryouko found she had difficulty doing so. It was fuzzy somehow. There was something… disturbing about looking at it. Somehow, it seemed blacker than black.
"Know how these work?" Kyouko asked. Ryouko nodded.
She tossed the cube over, then watched Ryouko hold it up to her soul gem to drain the—frankly minor—traces of corruption that had arisen.
It felt… strangely relaxing, Ryouko decided, as if a great weight were coming off her shoulders. And perhaps it was just her imagination, but she was pretty sure her abdomen was feeling better.
Also, she didn't feel that angry anymore.
The grief cube felt strangely slippery in her hands, like it was trying to escape.
"Now, teleporter," Kyouko addressed, holding her spear at her side. "Tell me some things for the record. What is your mass carrying capacity?"
"Two thousand kilograms," she said, knowing somehow. "Maybe more if I push it."
"Can you move objects you are not touching?"
"Can you teleport objects without teleporting yourself?"
"What is your maximal range?"
"Two hundred kilometers."
"Good. Then let's—"
Kyouko stopped midsentence.
"Is something wrong?" Ryouko asked, after a moment of hesitation.
"You're not lying, are you?" Kyouko asked, giving her a severe look, head tilted. "Two hundred? Seriously?"
"Y–Yes," Ryouko said, sure that was the correct number. Could she be wrong somehow?
"But I'd need grief cubes immediately," she added, not sure why the girl was looking at her like she was crazy. "So I couldn't do it more than once an hour or so, even with cubes. And I'd have to focus for a long time. In terms of jumps I could do consistently, I'm probably limited to about a quarter‐kilometer—"
"The standing record is sixty‐three kilometers," Kyouko said flatly.
Kyouko banged her spear on the floor, ignoring the cracks that appeared underneath.
"It looks like Mami found a gem after all," she commented. "She sure has a knack."
Kyouko leaned on her spear.
"Anyway, how does your teleportation operate? Do you know? It affects whether or not you can do anything else."
Ryouko thought about that.
"I'm not sure. I have this vague sense it's related to… manipulating space? I knew everything else, but I don't know this. I don't know why."
She knew, somehow, that she was moving space around her somehow, or maybe even punching a hole, but it was frustratingly unspecific.
"That's okay," Kyouko said. "It's like that sometimes. Just work on figuring it out. If you're lucky, you can get some secondary skills relating to it. If you're unlucky, you can even forget how to do it. Take it from me."
Ryouko nodded, absorbing the lesson.
"Can you do anything else right now? Do you know?"
Ryouko shook her head.
"Not in terms of skills," she said. "But in terms of weapons…"
She began lifting her arbalest.
"No it's okay," Kyouko said, waving her hand. "I don't have much patience for this kind of debriefing. Just make sure to show me everything you can later, okay?"
Ryouko blinked, then nodded. Frankly, that seemed a little irresponsible of Kyouko, but who was she to question?
"Let's just go ahead and register you," Kyouko said, looking upward.
Ryouko watched the girl's eyes unfocus slightly, a sure sign that she had switched attention to some internal menu. Ryouko relaxed slightly, turning to watch the fight still unfolding in the distance. It was starting to get dark; her parents would wonder where she was.
Suddenly, Kyouko chuckled to herself.
"Well, that's smart of her," Kyouko said. "Take the good ones for herself."
"What?" Ryouko asked, unsure if the girl intended for her to respond or not.
"Mami just registered you," Kyouko said, still looking off into space. "All I could do was input the additional information. That means that in about five minutes, you're going to be flooded with messages from the military. Welcome messages and stupid things like that. Read it later when you have time. Not now. For now, I'm going to mark you 'occupied'."
"You can do that?" Ryouko asked, confused.
It was her personal status. No one else could touch it.
"I can now," Kyouko said. "I'm your new commanding officer. Temporarily."
"Oh," Ryouko said.
Kyouko looked at her expectantly, eyebrow raised.
"Commanding officer," Kyouko repeated.
Realizing what was going on, Ryouko stiffened her back and raised her hand awkwardly to salute.
"Uh, I mean, yes, ma'—"
"None of that," Kyouko said, waving her hand. "I was just messing with you. We don't observe the formalities. Not among our own kind. But it's a good reflex to have."
"Oh, okay," she said, relaxing.
Kyouko leaned forward.
"And just so you know, you are now fully emancipated. Welcome to adulthood."
Ryouko looked back at the girl's amused eyes, wonder what she was supposed to say to that.
"I don't feel like one," she settled on, only half‐joking.
"Take a look at your personnel file," she recommended.
For a moment, Ryouko was lost. What personnel file?
Here, Kyouko thought, and the file manifested in Ryouko's consciousness.
That alone was interesting. Mind‐to‐mind communication of that sort was strictly restricted by the government.
Now was not the time to think about it.
Occupation: Magical Girl
Rank: Second Lieutenant
MG Classification: Teleporter
Immediate Commanding Officer: Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General
Primary Mentor (optional): Tomoe Mami, Field Marshal
Her expression must have given it away, because Kyouko smiled and said:
"It's a rare honor."
Ryouko nodded, even though she wasn't sure what exactly it meant.
"I guess you'll be the envy of everyone you meet, then," Kyouko said. "Since I ain't gonna let this one just float by."
And then, suddenly, a new entry appeared:
Additional Mentors (not recommended): Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General
"Well, then," Kyouko said, turning to face the scenery, not giving her time to respond. "Looks like they've almost got it over with. There should be a couple left for you to hunt, though."
"Kyouko, it's an honor—" she began, though honestly, she was confused why she was being singled out.
"Here," Kyouko interrupted.
Kyouko stuck out her hand. Ryouko looked at the strangely shaped metal object with confusion.
"It's a soul gem cover," Kyouko said. "It has all sorts of fancy technology to protect your—well, you. It's my spare. You can use it until you get something more formal."
Ryouko took it, wondering how it would fit. It didn't look—
Kyouko grabbed it back, then leaned forward, pressing it to the star soul gem below her throat. The device came suddenly alive, liquefying and flowing to shape itself around the gem, and then turning transparent.
"You'll learn the details later," Kyouko said, nodding in satisfaction.
Then Kyouko turned once again to face the battle scene.
"Are you ready?" Kyouko asked.
"Not really," she said. "I still think it's too fast. But if you say so, I'll—"
"I said, are you ready?" Kyouko insisted.
"Y–Yes?" Ryouko said, not quite managing the tone she felt was being demanded.
Kyouko glanced at her, but didn't seem angry.
She sniffed arrogantly.
"Of course you're not. But—"
As she spoke, she reached into a hidden pocket on her dress, pulling out a small plastic box. Inside was a whole assortment of the chocolate sticks Kyouko had been chewing on.
"—I'll be there to save you in case anything happens. Trust me."
Ryouko looked between the box and the girl's face, wondering if she was supposed to take one or what.
Finally, she did so.
Kyouko withdrew the box, smiling.
"Can you believe it?" Kyouko said. "I have to insert my own custom design into every synthesizer I use. No pre‐existing models. What is this world coming to?"
Ryouko didn't know what to say to that, so she didn't say anything.
"Now then, ready or not—" Kyouko began, grabbing her by the hand.
Ryouko looked up in surprise.
Kyouko pointed with her spear at a small unattended cluster of demons.
"—take us there, teleporter!"
Ryouko nodded, swallowing.
If that's how it's going to be, then I'll make sure to impress her!
"I'll drop us in the middle of them, okay?" Ryouko asked, steeling her resolve.
"That's how I prefer it," Kyouko said.
"Simona," Mami addressed severely, as the elevator was mid‐ascent to the nearest skyway exit. She had just finished inputting Ryouko's registration, and it was time to get down to business.
The girl looked up at her, awoken from whatever miserable line of thought she had been engaged in. Mami did not look her in the eye.
"I would thank you not to undermine your friend at a time like this," she said. "Put your feelings aside. Her decision is made, and giving her doubts could only hurt her. I trust you understand what I'm saying."
Mami didn't look, and the girl didn't respond.
Kyubey, perched in its customary spot on Mami's shoulder, chose not to comment, especially since Simona couldn't hear him anyway.
Their elevator reached the designated floor, and they stepped out, Mami first. They approached Mami's personal vehicle, politely waiting at the correct spot. She let Simona get in first.
The girl's face was blank.
Kyubey, I'd appreciate it if you left.
She does not even know I am here, Mami.
It would make me feel better, okay?
Kyubey jumped off her shoulder.
Alright then, it said. I will see you at the spaceport. I have recruits to attend to, after all.
It almost sounded peeved.
Mami let herself smile slightly. Sometimes she swore the Incubator missed her. It could be relied upon to show up to greet her the moment she stepped foot in Mitakihara City, and also to say farewell whenever she left.
That was a foolish thing to think, of course.
And then she got in the vehicle too. It was time to change tacks.
She lifted a small door and reached into the synthesizer in front of her, pulling out two tea cups on a plate, setting it on the flat surface in front of them. They were already full and piping hot, and there were scones piled next to them.
Well, it was her vehicle, after all, and being a Field Marshal had its perks.
She gestured at the plate, offering. Simona shook her head.
"Look, I understand how you feel," Mami said, blowing on her cup as the vehicle gained speed. "But you have to think about how she feels. Even if you hurt, you have to see her off with a smile. It's the right thing to do."
Mami leaned over, giving her best "motherly Mami" smile.
For a moment, she thought she wasn't going to get through, but then Simona shifted her head downward, just a little.
"I feel like such a hypocrite," the girl said, tugging at her jeans. Her voice was hoarse.
"Why?" Mami asked.
The girl shook her head.
Mami waited, sipping her tea.
"We were supposed to go together," Simona began again, voice shaky. "Somehow…"
She understood, then.
"I'm sorry," Mami said, setting her cup down. "But it can't be helped. Does she know? Have you confessed?"
She felt Simona glance at her with shock.
"What do you mean?" the girl insisted. "I only meant—"
"Oh, come on," Mami interrupted, smiling cynically. "I've been alive for over four hundred years, and I spent a lot of it surrounded by girls who didn't have any male choice of partners. You wanted to stay together with her? In this context, what else could that possibly mean?"
Simona looked away.
"So I take it you haven't said anything, then?" Mami asked. "Ryouko clearly treats you as a friend."
"I was going to," Simona said bitterly. "And then those damn demons showed up."
The girl hugged herself.
"I want to blame you," she said. "For recruiting her. But how can I? We were just talking about how badly we want to leave. How can I blame her for following through, just because I wanted it to happen a different way? Just because she didn't see me as anyone special?"
Mami looked down at her hands. She had seen this particular tragedy played out at least a dozen times in her life. The details differed, the genders differed, but the feelings were always the same. Humans… were like that.
"I should have seen it coming," Simona said, shaking her head. "I fell right into it. All the signs were there."
Mami frowned, a little perplexed by the statement.
"Well, nothing can be done about it," she said, returning to what she needed to say. "And if you truly love her, you'll keep quiet now. Like I said, show her off with a smile, and let her leave nothing behind."
This time, Mami watched Simona carefully, but the girl kept her head down in silence.
Finally, she nodded, slowly.
With suspiciously good timing—Mami had ordered to transport to slow down to give them time—they were at Simona's home.
"You live alone, right?" Mami asked rhetorically.
Simona nodded, stepping outside.
"Then I won't intrude on your hospitality," Mami said.
But the girl was already walking away.
Mami smiled thinly. She remembered living alone.
The capsule door closed, but Mami let her transport stay idle, thinking.
She was glad she had come. Left alone, Simona could have become a major blight on Ryouko's happiness, coming at a time like this. She had headed it off at the pass, like a good mentor should. She didn't have to do Ryouko's initial training herself; Kyouko was an excellent trainer, despite whatever jokes Mami made about it. Still, it was reasonable to do something like this. A relationship would be more acceptable later, after the girl was more settled.
Reviewing the events of the day, Mami frowned. This new grief cube issue was troubling. Grief cube distribution was the lifeblood of all magical girls, and even the slightest hint of irregularity would be enough to sow discord throughout their ranks. Besides that, there were genuinely troubling aspects to the whole issue. A computer problem would have almost been preferable, since it would be easy to understand and address. A system that appeared to be functioning perfectly, but produced imperfect results—that had disturbing implications.
She would have to tread carefully. A combination of covert investigation and private inquiries would be required.
Mentally, she started to issue a classified order—then paused. She reworded the message to ask for a personal meeting. A better idea than putting it in writing.
And yes, Yuma should be talked to, but Kyouko could take care of that.
She leaned back, relaxing.
Then, with nothing better to do, she checked her messages.
The set of messages that asserted themselves at the edge of her consciousness was merely the small subset of her messages that her personal AI, Machina, rated important. In truth, there were probably many more important messages than just that, but her assistant provided her with only what she could realistically read in one sitting.
She grabbed a scone and began munching at it, reading the ones that most interested her first, letting them dump their contents into her memory.
She raised an eyebrow. Really? Kyouko was going to jump in on this? What kind of game was she playing?
Well, it can't hurt, I suppose.
Then she read the next one and really raised her eyebrow.
Two hundred kilometers? Now that's impressive. It might be useful.
She reached for her tea, sipping. It was still hot. Thermoceramic was amazing stuff.
Her next message was a voice message from Admiral Xing. He was very annoyed at General Blackwell, and wished to express his feeling that Blackwell's lack of cooperation—Mami grunted in annoyance. The two men's feud was growing tiresome.
She made a note to Machina to schedule a meeting with the both of them. It was time to sort this out.
What am I doing? she thought. I still have six hours of vacation left, and here I am doing work.
Well, what am I supposed to do? she thought. It'd be impolite to show up and interrupt Kyouko now, and I have nowhere to go.
She sighed. She really should have made some friends.
She returned to her messages.
So, the production committee of Akemi and related propaganda committees wanted her to schedule an appearance at a screening for recruitment purposes—she felt her desire to keep reading draining away by the second.
I really should schedule something though, she thought. She had already gone to the trouble of allowing them to interview her, and had even done a little publicity…
But, she thought. Maybe a movie was just the thing. Not a public appearance, which she was certainly not in the mood for, and for which it was too late anyway, but if she could sneak herself into a holotheater, she could check out just what kind of terrible historical inaccuracies about her Hollywood was peddling now.
Of all the cities to stay the same over the centuries, of course that city would.
She hoped it wouldn't be too bad, given how interminably long the interview had been, answering questions about Homura's hairstyle and personality and history and so forth.
At the very least, it would be an amusing way to spend a couple of hours. She was genuinely curious.
She told her personal transport to get moving, finishing her scone. She could feel her mood improving already.
The trick, of course, was to get into the theater incognito.
There was a brief period, just a few seconds, where Ryouko had to focus, and she could feel something shifting around her—
And then they were there, in mid‐air, already falling into the middle of the cross formed by a major, deserted intersection. There, the crowd of demons was already starting to shift, sensing something above them. She had no time to even regret dropping them hundreds of feet above the ground. Why had she done that?
"Do your best!" Kyouko exhorted, and the girl propelled herself forward despite the lack of anything to push on.
Ryouko shook her head. It was time to focus.
Below her, the demons were starting to look up, at her and the darkening sky. There wasn't much time left before they would start attacking her.
She spun in the air, pointing her arm downward. Summoning an explosive crossbow bolt, its tip an angry green pulsating mass, she fired, glancing to make sure wasn't about hit Kyouko.
I'm fine! Kyouko thought to her. I can take care of myself, rookie! Just warn me next time! And don't worry about property damage!
The street below her erupted, ejecting fire and debris high into the air, brilliant against the twilight. She understood, then, why she had placed herself so into the air. It gave her the high ground.
And then she blinked to ten feet to her left, allowing the beams from the demons which she had missed to strike her previous position.
It really does come naturally, she thought.
She twirled in the air, extending her left arm downward, arbalest bolts deploying and firing at an absurd rate, the string of the bow humming with speed. Her spin spread the bolts outward in a wide arc, spearing demons in a wide circle below her.
Between her arbalest and the stationary green bolts were the narrowest of strings, barely visible. But they were enough to connect her to them through the gaseous air.
With a thought, she blinked again, only a few feet—and took with her the strings, and the bolts, and a good large chunk of every demon she had speared.
These demons, now missing large chunks of their bodies, or their heads, or even their entire lower halves, disintegrated, unable to maintain themselves.
And once again, searing beams crisscrossed the spot where she had been.
As she readied her next salvo, she realized that, somehow, a smile had crept onto her face.
I'm enjoying this? she thought, with a start.
A demon just below her caught her eye—and she blinked to her side, as a beam tore through her former position.
One beam? she thought—and then she blinked again, dodging another shot.
What is—and then she was forced to blink again.
—it. They've chang—
They were trying to wear her out. She couldn't keep up constant blinking forever, and they weren't letting her gather energy to fire, or giving her the time to teleport farther. She was already being forced to jump upward slightly each time to maintain altitude. She was surprised she could still even think.
Rooftop? No I'll—
—lose momentum! I—
—but what can I—
The ground erupted just below her and to her right, taking with it a small set of demons.
She spotted Kyouko jump out of the explosion, clearly having driven downward into the ground with her spear.
A group of demons in the vicinity turned to focus on the new threat.
The rest continued to try and keep Ryouko in the air, but their rate of fire slowed. It was the opening she needed.
Now's your chance! Kyouko's voice called out in her head.
She blinked straight down to the ground, pressing her hand to the pavement, even though she didn't really need to. She was right in the middle of a dense pack of demons, who hadn't even yet realized she was there.
Again, a small smile snuck onto her face.
And then she was on the other side of the street, hand still pressed to a thin layer of the same pavement, surrounded by the bottom halves of over a dozen demons, which quickly vanished.
The street was clear. They had almost gotten her. She couldn't maintain constant blinking like that. She was nearly out—
She heard something behind her.
She blinked back to the other side of the street, the beam again nearly hitting her.
Scowling, she blasted the demon responsible with a barrage of green bolts. She needed time. She simply couldn't keep teleporting so rapidly. She didn't know why, but she couldn't.
She spun around, slashing outward with her left arm, sending the next barrage of bolts out in a wide arc, trying to ward off the unexpected crowd of demons that had appeared behind her.
She jumped to her left, dodging several beams that had come her way anyway—and barely turned herself in time to avoid the beam that had targeted her new position. The radiant heat was hot against her face.
Running backwards while firing, she dug deep within herself, trying to gather another blink, perhaps up to the rooftop—and she couldn't. She was out, for now.
I have to get out of here. I'm not built for this kind of combat!
She looked at the mob of the demons advancing on her. Where had they come from?
I didn't think I'd die so quickly, she thought morbidly.
She raised her arbalest, gathering the energy for an explosive bolt, hoping desperately that none of them would fire on her in the seconds that would take.
The red apparition that was Kyouko shot out of a side street, slashing.
And then another. And another.
Even with her superhuman reflexes, Ryouko boggled at the multiple Kyoukos, despite appreciating the distraction they had provided. The explosive bolt lay in her bow, ready to fire.
Fire, fire! Kyouko exhorted. They're decoys!
Ryouko fired at the ground under the demons, shattering a large part of the crowd, and the illusory Kyoukos, who dissolved like the mirages they were.
Another Kyouko—and this time, Ryouko was pretty sure this was the real one—appeared above them, descending from one of the rooftops.
Prepare another! Kyouko thought. Ryouko nodded and complied, swallowing even as she watched Kyouko dodge and weave among the remaining demons, neatly compacting them into a smaller mass with some sort of red chain‐linked wall, even as their beams failed to strike home. She even speared a couple while she was at it.
Finally Kyouko leapt away from the pack, leveraging herself high into the air with her spear. Ryouko didn't have to be told. She fired into the mass.
Breathing heavily, she squinted. They were gone.
"That's why I do this," Kyouko said, diving down to land in front of her. "Nothing teaches like experience, and you won't find anyone better at keeping you alive than me. Today was my best chance."
The girl said it proudly, even as Ryouko looked down.
"Three lessons here, rookie," Kyouko said, pointing at her with a finger. "One, don't get overconfident."
Ryouko nodded, head bowed.
"Two, don't rely solely on your eyes."
Kyouko banged the side of a building with the blunt end of her spear.
"You're a magical girl. You can sense demons. I know you know that. So why did you assume you were clear if the street was empty? The demons can walk through walls, if they choose."
Ryouko gritted her teeth. So that was it.
Stupid. So stupid.
"Though that's unfair," Kyouko said. "I didn't warn you about that. Still, it's a lesson worth learning through fear, and that is why I didn't tell you."
"No," Ryouko said. "I should have known."
Kyouko looked at her, arching an eyebrow.
"I saw them do it, when I was attacked earlier," she explained. "I don't know why I forgot."
Kyouko gave her a strange look.
"Don't be too hard on yourself," Kyouko said, frowning slightly. "It's excusable. Anyway, point three. Always leave something in reserve, even if you have to back off to do it. I knew you were in trouble the moment you started dancing around like a pinball. Why didn't you escape to a rooftop?"
Ryouko bit her lip.
"It's okay to retreat, if you have to," Kyouko said. "The moment you knew you were being drained, you should have regrouped. The only exception is if you're trying to save someone, or you can't back out without leaving someone's back open."
"Finally," she said. "Communication. Always let your teammates know what's going on. I was keeping an eye on you, but when you finish training, people will be relying on you to tell them what's going on. You didn't say a single thing to me the whole time."
Ryouko nodded once more.
"Let me make it up to you," she said quietly.
Kyouko tilted her head, hair curling around the spear she was leaning on her shoulder.
"There's nothing to make up," Kyouko said. "Don't sweat it."
Ryouko looked up.
She could feel it. Another concentration of demons nearby. Not close enough to threaten them, but…
"Let me try something, then," she said. "I think my teleportation is partly recharged. I'm going to go on the rooftop."
Kyouko rubbed her chin thoughtfully, then looked in the direction of the demons they both sensed.
"Alright," she said. "But long‐range only. And teleport back here immediately when you're done. That's an order."
Ryouko nodded, then took a breath.
Then, she was on the rooftop, Kyouko in the street directly below her, looking up at her.
Ryouko took a moment to admire the twilight view, then faced the crowd of demons, allowing her standard‐issue ocular implants to bring them into sharper focus.
They were far enough away that they didn't even notice her presence.
She deployed one of her stringed bolts, breathing as she aimed the shot.
She had thought about this during her fall through the sky earlier, before she had been interrupted. From her position, she wouldn't be forced to teleport the string into solid matter—something she was essentially incapable of—nor would she have to do the same for anything on the other end. The positioning was perfect.
Exhaling, she fired.
The bolt shot through the air, leaving a green trail behind it. It soared over the rooftops, turned downward, and landed in the ground in the middle of the mass of demons, just as she had planned.
She teleported onto the building across the street, taking the string with her.
Then she abolished her string and, taking a few seconds, teleported high up into the air above the designated spot, looking down.
On the ground where she had left it was a small chunk of pavement—only a tiny chunk and it looked like it had snapped somehow.
She was disappointed. She probably didn't get a single demon.
"Well, what was that about?" Kyouko asked, when she returned.
"Didn't work," Ryouko said sullenly. "I guess it was too far. I wanted to see if I could teleport them from here."
But it would have worked if I had been closer, she thought. I can shoot the ground and tear the demons apart that way with less fuss.
But why hadn't it worked? She had been well under her mass limit, and she couldn't think of any other restrictions that would have applied.
"Well, then, rookie," Kyouko said, dropping her spear into the ready position. "Ready for another round? First, let's grab up the grief cubes we left behind and then, if we finish off that cluster you were trying to snipe, I think we'll be done for the day. And probably just in time for your bedtime."
Ryouko nodded, and grabbed Kyouko by the upper arm, preparing for the teleport.
"By the way," Kyouko commented. "You should enjoy it. It's probably the last time you'll ever sleep a full night. Now let's go."
Midnight found them both relaxing on a third‐floor skyway bench, tired from the day. Kyouko had been wrong. There was no way Ryouko would even come close to making curfew.
Surreptitiously, she had sent a terse message home, solely so the three wouldn't panic and start looking for her.
The message had said only: "Be home really late. I'll explain when I get back. It's pretty important." Probably the understatement of her life.
"No, don't worry about it," Kyouko had told her, spinning her spear again for no reason. "For as long as I keep you in active combat status, your parents are unable to track your location. Plus, you're emancipated, so you could shut them out if you want to. Public Services won't reveal anything to them, if they try to ask for help. Trust me, they'll never find you."
That's not why I'm worried! she had thought.
As for why they were relaxing here in normal clothes, instead of meeting the rest of the girls, Kyouko had explained that it wasn't her style to micromanage, and that they could surely both use a break. Ryouko wasn't sure she agreed with the reasoning, but Kyouko was the senpai here. Not to mention commanding officer.
It had been a little strange when the other girl chose to use her shoulder as a pillow, but she bore with it. Maybe it was what they did to rookies.
Kyouko had said something else interesting too.
You know, once upon a time, people had to worry about temperature, she had said. Not like your generation, which doesn't even know what it means to be cold or hot. It's freezing, but you don't even see anything unusual about neither of us wearing a jacket. It's damn amazing is what it is. I'm getting old…
Suddenly, Ryouko had a strange feeling, like someone was approaching. Not a demon, but a—
"Patricia has found something interesting, Kyouko," the approaching girl said, jumping out of the nighttime sky, clouds brightened by the city below.
Ryouko looked up, then at Kyouko, then back at the girl. Then, she couldn't help but stare.
The girl wore an armored breastplate and skirt, and had two scabbards for dual swords.
Kyouko lifted her head off of Ryouko's shoulder, blinking, then raised her arms and yawned expressively.
"Couldn't it wait, Maki?" Kyouko asked. "I told you I was training a rookie."
"Patricia thinks you need to see it personally," the girl said.
"If she says so."
Goddess forbid she send a message or use telepathy, Kyouko thought.
Like that ever wakes you up, the other girl thought back. So this the new girl?
The girl nodded in Ryouko's direction.
Yes, that's me, Ryouko thought. It's nice to meet you.
They didn't ask names. There was no need to.
A teleporter, Kyouko thought. A damn good one, it seems.
We saw, the other girl thought.
Kyouko got up, and Ryouko moved to follow.
"I can teleport us there, if you give me an idea of where I'm going," Ryouko offered, donning her costume with a burst of light.
"Don't waste your magic," Kyouko said, transforming in turn. "I'm not that lazy. We'll go the old‐fashioned way."
The other two launched themselves into the air, jumping off the sides of the buildings. After a moment, Ryouko followed, just a little unsteady. She may have had an instinct for it, but that didn't mean she was used to it. There was just something wrong about jumping out into empty air.
Which was just weird, considering that earlier she had gleefully teleported herself throughout the air without feeling a thing.
Now that she thought about it… it had been exhilarating.
There's something weird about this one, Kyouko thought to Maki, privately.
Oh, how so? the other girl thought, stepping off the glass ceiling of a skyway.
I've never seen a rookie with battlelust, Kyouko thought. But she was smiling like an idiot half the time.
That why you chose to mentor her? the other girl thought. I'm jealous. I've finally lost my place as the youngest.
Don't sweat it, Kyouko thought. Mami's going to be taking on most of the duty, if I know her. But I just know she's someone to keep an eye on.
If you say so, the other girl thought, pouting slightly.
She started dropping straight to the ground, and Kyouko followed.
Ryouko stalled on an upper platform, looking down at the three girls at the bottom. It was nearly pitch‐black, looking down at the lightless street, but she could see them.
Don't worry, someone at the bottom thought. The fall won't hurt you.
Ryouko could deduce that, given that Kyouko and Maki had both hit the ground and stood back up without any apparent scratches. Still, though, it was far. Maybe she should just teleport—
No, what the hell is wrong with me? I was doing fine earlier! I'm not going to waste power being stupid!
She swallowed, and jumped, forcing herself to keep her eyes open.
After what seemed like a small eternity, she hit the ground, bending down to absorb some of the force—and she was fine, as expected. Her bones didn't even seem to mind.
The sound of clapping drew her attention.
"Don't patronize her," Maki said, glaring at the source.
"But I'm being serious," the source, a girl with a long ponytail, said.
It wasn't the ponytail that caught Ryouko's eyes though, or the dual daggers planted in the belt of her dress. Nor was it the way her silhouette defined itself against the darkness.
It was the EM assault rifle she carried casually in her arm.
She turned to address Ryouko, Kyouko watching in amusement.
"I thought for sure you'd panic," she said. "I know I did, the first time I had to make a jump like that."
Ryouko's eyes widened.
"But it doesn't make sense!" Ryouko said, stepping forward. "I just got out of a fight, and I don't remember panicking at anything back then!"
"Battles are different," the girl—Shirou Asaka, according to her nomenclator—said. "Your instincts take over, and we all have good instincts. Outside of battle, it's hard to remember that you're not Human. Not anymore."
"It's one of the first things they teach you," Maki said, injecting herself into the conversation. "Vacuum chambers, being underwater, jumps from heights. It's not fun, but it gets the point drilled into your head."
Kyouko nodded sagely, giving implicit approval to what was being said.
Somewhere nearby, a girl cleared her throat.
Ryouko turned to look, and saw a girl, in costume, yes, but with no obvious weapons. She was obviously European and…
"von Rohr, Patricia"
Curious, Ryouko queried further.
Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)
MG Classification: Miscellaneous, Technological Specialist
MG Weapon: Drone Swarms
Immediate Commanding Officer: Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General
Primary Mentor (optional): None
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Rohr said. "But it's not safe to just leave them there. You should look sooner rather than later.
"Leave what?" Kyouko asked, but the girl had already turned away. Kyouko shrugged and followed. So did the others.
They walked around the corner of a building, heading down a narrow alleyway. Now there was no light at all except the tiny amount coming from the clouds above. It was enough, though, even for normal humans with their enhancements.
Looking forward while walking, Ryouko started slightly, recognizing where she was.
"What is it?" Kyouko asked, looking at her out of the corner of her eyes, spear braced casually on her shoulder, nearly taking up the entire causeway.
"This is near where we—I was attacked," Ryouko said.
She pointed straight forward, at the windmills visible at the end of the alleyway, spinning silently.
"We were sitting over in that direction."
"Interesting," Patricia commented. "This grows more disturbing."
Just before reaching the end of the alleyway, passing a side entrance into one of the buildings, she turned ninety degrees to the right, so abruptly she seemed to just vanish from in front of them.
But of course it was another passageway, wider this time.
"Here," Patricia said, pointing down, then moving aside so the others could have a look.
On the ground, inside a small concavity in the building, was a small pile of grief cubes.
They were almost entirely filled, Ryouko could sense. The malaise exuding from them was almost palpable.
"Leaving grief cubes lying around like this breaks Goddess knows how many regulations," Patricia said.
"Not to mention it's incredibly dangerous," Kyouko said, bending down to get a closer look. "A tiny bit of grief, from anywhere, and these could spawn demons. No magical girl is stupid enough to leave these lying around."
"And it can't have been an accident with the logistics drones," Asaka said, thoughtfully. "Saturated cubes like these are never transported around civilian areas. They go straight to the Incubators."
Ryouko looked down at the pile of cubes, a dark cloud settling in the pit of her stomach. She was new here, so maybe she was wrong, but something seemed—
"It's fishy," Kyouko said. "There's no reason these would ever be here."
She looked at Ryouko.
"Where exactly were you when you were attacked?" Kyouko asked.
"We were lying on the riverbank somewhere. I don't recognize this building, so probably not near this one, but…"
She stopped, noticing that the others weren't paying attention anymore. They wore dark, suspicious looks. She saw Kyouko exchange a glance with Patricia.
"You see why I was disturbed," Patricia said. "I didn't know that this was where those girls had been, or I would have been even more worried."
Ryouko looked around.
No girl would accidentally leave these cubes lying around, knowing how dangerous they were. Those flying robots wouldn't carry them around. That seemed to imply that…
"Kyouko," Ryouko addressed. "I'm sorry to ask, but this does this mean—"
"Someone left them here deliberately," Kyouko said. "And I'd bet a week's worth of meals that the pile was much larger than this when they did."
She crouched down.
"Whoever it was must have screwed up, for these to still be here," she said, turning one over in her fingers. "They were probably intended to all become demons. It would explain what that horde of demons was doing here, with nobody around. There's a reason no one patrols this district."
"Who would?" Maki asked. "There's no reason anyone would do something like this."
"I could have been a gambit by an Incubator to get Ryouko here to contract," Asaka said, looking at Ryouko.
"With no magical girls around?" Kyouko asked. "It was pure coincidence Mami was passing by. Otherwise, they'd be dead. They don't take those kinds of risks. Not unless they think there's a big payoff waiting for them."
You are correct. We did not put those cubes there.
They turned to look at the source of the thought, who had phased into existence behind them.
It looked exactly liked Kyubey, but Ryouko could tell—
"You're not Kyubey," Patricia said, almost accusingly. "I asked for Kyubey."
Kyubey is with Tomoe Mami at the starport, the Incubator thought. I am taking his role here, briefly.
The Incubator walked up to the pile of cubes. As Ryouko watched, disturbingly fascinated, the tear‐shaped insignia on its back lifted open, revealing the black chasm underneath. No—not merely black. It was the same color as the cubes.
It began adroitly tossing the cubes into the hole.
She hadn't been paying attention the last time she had seen this, when Kyubey was around, but now that she looked carefully, trying to see inside the Incubator's back, there was something… terrifying about it. Ineffably creepy.
She hadn't been aware this was how they processed the cubes. She had always assumed they just took them and stuck them in a machine somewhere.
"What do you think this means, Incubator?" Kyouko asked.
It is definitely very strange, the Incubator thought. It would have been a shame to lose a potential contractee to something silly like this.
Finished, it began to walk off.
My job is done here.
"Hey, wait—" Kyouko began, raising her arm.
But it was gone.
"Kyubey is nicer," Patricia commented.
"Patricia," Kyouko said, expression shaded. "Keep this matter within the Church for now. See if you can find out what's going on. If you can't, call in the MSY. Don't bring in Governance unless you have to."
Ryouko stayed silent. What did this mean? Was someone trying to kill her? It was the only explanation she could think of.
But that didn't make any sense.
She was still thinking about it by the time she finally started heading home.
Kyouko sat across from her in the vehicle, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of jerky.
"We'll get to the bottom of this," she said, looking up at the transparent roof of the vehicle, through which the lights of the city punctuated the night.
"I hope so," Ryouko replied, elbows on her knees.
"Hey, don't be so gloomy," Kyouko said. "We need you smiling, when we meet your parents."
Ryouko cringed. She had almost managed to forget.
"I prefer thinking about how I almost died," she said drily.
Kyouko laughed, spreading her arms out over her seat.
"It won't be that bad," she said.
"I hope not," Ryouko said.
"Well anyway," Kyouko said. "Before I forget, I told Asaka you were going to meet with her tomorrow at one. She'll get you your basic equipment, take you to have your internal grid reprogrammed, things like that."
"Okay," Kyouko said. "Two bits of wisdom I want to impart right now, so listen up."
Ryouko looked up, listening.
"One, what your wish was is your own private business," Kyouko said. "Mami heard it, and she entered it into the database, but other than that no one except the computers gets to see it. Maybe you don't care if everyone knows, but don't go around telling everyone. It's not how the culture works. You only tell your best friends. People like Mami and me, we're all exceptions to the rule."
"Second, do you have any climactic attacks? Anything loud and flashy? Some sort of finisher?" Kyouko asked.
Ryouko blinked. She thought about it.
"I do," she said. "But I have no idea what kind of situation would call for it. It doesn't seem to fit in with anything."
"Whatever you do," Kyouko said. "Don't let Mami give it a name. Just don't."
Ryouko tilted her head quizzically.
"But everyone loves Tiro Finale," she said. "And Rosso Fantasma is pretty popular too."
"Now imagine everyone expecting you to yell it enthusiastically every time you do it," Kyouko said.
"Oh," Ryouko said.
She thought about that.
"It can't be that bad, can it?"
"Just trust me, okay?" Kyouko said.
Still though, she couldn't shake the weird foreboding that had settled over her.
Nor could she forget the woman she had seen in the distance, just before she had made her contract.
She had recalled the memory, but it was too faded, and she had been too far, even with ocular implants, for the facial recognition algorithms to obtain a lock. And probably, she had had a good reason to be there, walking away from the area, right after the demon attack. It wouldn't do to suspect random pedestrians.
Still, it bothered her.