〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
〈One of the rarest categories of mages, soul mages are among the most obscure of mage classes, spoken of only in whispers among the upper echelons of the MSY. Endowed by either wish or training with the ability to directly alter the properties of soul gems, and sometimes even the souls of mundane humans, these mages have historically commanded both fear and respect from their own kind, capable of both terrible abuses and amazingly useful feats, feats such as the transfer of despair between individuals, the detachment of souls from bodies, the placement of souls in suspension, amongst others.〉⑤
〈Before the advent of the MSY, soul mages often had very short lifespans, ruthlessly eliminated by local girls fearful of their power. Those that survived learned to use their power to ensure their own survival, often growing extremely powerful. A disproportionate number lost their grip on sanity, each becoming just another of the insane mages that plagued the pre‐MSY world.〉⑤
〈Because of the fear and ostracism they often faced, MSY leadership took great pains to reduce the visibility of their soul mages, many of which could be legitimately reclassified into other mage classes. The kind of powers they wielded often had little use in the ordinary course of magical girl life, and those with particularly developed powers were quietly funneled into roles where they might be of most use, such as the Soul Guard, the Black Heart, or Governmental Affairs. In later years, they were also extensively used by the MHD for their ability to keep the soul gems of heavily injured girls inert while their bodies were being repaired. Nowadays, by far the most common use of soul mages is the attachment of soul gems onto new, cloned bodies.〉⑤
〈As a power class, soul mages are closely related to mind‐readers and mind‐controllers, as well as a variety of miscellaneous powers that exercise similar effects, e.g. body switchers. Pure soul mages—those who received their power by wish—are extremely rare, and the majority of those with soul manipulation powers wield it as an offshoot of their own, related powers, after decades of development and training. Those who are pure soul mages, however, often take the reverse path, with equivalent amounts of work.〉⑤
— "MSY Classification Guide," excerpt.
〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
〈The use of memory manipulation magic has been with the MSY since the beginning, and has been quietly controversial for just as long. A utility ability treasured by the most powerful of mind mages, the ethical ramifications of its use were troubling to even the earliest members of the MSY, forming one of the earliest sources of discord within the leadership.〉⑤
〈However, the practical power of such a skill was undeniable—inconvenient police investigations, bothersome government regulators, a non‐contractee who had seen too much—all of it could be dealt with by what seemed to be a wave of a hand. Even better, a girl who was in the depths of despair over certain events might be induced to simply forget about it, often a life‐saving opportunity.〉⑤
〈These considerations led to the power being heavily regulated, officially requiring the approval of the Secret Executive Subcommittee on Black Operations for any instance of outright erasure. In practice, however, the rules were heavily bent, and the adjustment of memory was often used—even abused—by branches throughout the MSY—the MHD, Governmental Affairs, the Black Heart. The Executive Subcommittee was only involved for the most extreme of cases, involving the excision of large volumes of memory with significant importance to an individual's personality—a "Reformatting", in the terminology. The removal—or, more commonly, the adjustment—of a single, minor memory was often simply overlooked.〉⑤
〈It must be said that in the case of magical girls, or of individuals who later go on to form a contract, a memory erasure is more accurately termed a memory suppression. While powerful dedicated telepaths could successfully excise a memory permanently from a non‐contractee, contracted girls often display a disturbing tendency to recover memories thought long sealed away. The successful sealing of memories in magical girls is an art form among advanced telepaths, and must be coupled with the isolation of patients from any reminder of the missing memory.〉⑤
〈It is unclear why memories are so resistant to removal. It is speculated that a person's memories are an indelible part of the soul, and that in a magical girl, the destruction of the relevant neural pathways does not preclude the eventual restoration of the synapses by the soul gem. Even in non‐contractees, the permanent erasure of memories is difficult by magical means, and only specialized, trained telepaths are capable of doing it.〉⑤
— "MSY Power Guide," excerpt.
Stepping off the plane, Ryouko rubbed her cheek absently.
It's probably not a good idea to touch it so much, Clarisse pointed out. It might give you away, not to mention you might accidentally knock it off.
Oh, right, sorry, she said, jerking her hand away, probably too aggressively.
The tiny metal cylinder attached to her cheek had been a gift from Mami, a miniature holoemitter capable of subtly reshaping her face so that she looked like someone else—someone who strongly resembled Shizuki Ryouko, perhaps, but who clearly looked different, and who anyone with a face scanner would be informed was a 14‐year‐old magical girl who might have reason to travel alone on a commercial scramjet. Initially, she had been afraid that no such girl would exist, but it turned out she was related to a bevy of them. Currently, she was traveling as a distant aunt she hadn't known she had.
The point was so that she could travel incognito, of course, without being recognized by the media or her new fanbase. If finding someone suitable had truly been a problem, a false identity would have been fabricated from whole cloth and inserted into the Governance database. So Mami had assured her.
It diminished her faith in the integrity of Governance databases, but she had to admit it was clever, and even cool. She had spent part of the flight over from the Singaporean space elevator examining her appearance within the holographic entertainment console—she was sure the aunt had inherited better looks than she had.
She paused at the side of the walkway, trying to peer at her reflection in one of the windows.
You're being too paranoid, Clarisse thought. You look fine.
They're not going to recognize me, Ryouko thought. It's terrible, coming back to see them again, and I can't even look like myself.
It'll only be for a while, Clarisse reassured. They've been told what to expect. Come on, chin up. If you linger too long, people will start to suspect something is up.
Ryouko nodded, and walked onward, taking a deep breath. She hadn't said anything, but she was appreciative of how supportive Clarisse was being.
I turned down the sarcasm dial, Clarisse thought, demonstrating her ability to intercept Ryouko's thoughts seemingly at will. For better or worse, you're still my host, and I have to take care of you.
That's surprisingly heartwarming, Ryouko thought. Should I—
Don't worry about it.
Clarisse's voice seemed to carry with it a trace of humor and a feeling of… well, warmth, which felt far more powerful than it usually did.
Are you manipulating my emotions? she thought, figuring that she needed to ask.
I'm just sharing some of mine. Did you know? We're programmed to bond to our hosts emotionally. So I'm like a little baseball‐sized clone of you, with motherly feelings. Lots of oxytocin involved in this.
Ryouko looked down for a moment as she stepped onto one of the intra‐airport transports, her luggage lifting itself into the vehicle behind her.
I'm not going to lie, she thought. That got a little weird there. Does it bother—
Yeah, I agree. It got weird. Let's change topics. Apparently, Governance is already assembling a production committee to make a movie about the wormhole mission. They're wondering if you'll consent to help out, especially the next time you're on Earth.
Do I have to? she pleaded.
They can't make you, no, Clarisse thought. But others can. As I'm sure you remember, your current standing orders—
'Cooperate with any Governance public relations or propaganda efforts that request your assistance.' Ryouko quoted. 'Conduct yourself in a dignified manner befitting a hero of humanity, and help to foster a sense of excitement in the public.'
She put her head into the window next to her, forehead first. She wasn't looking forward to it.
It's not very 'dignified' to lean your head against the window like that. The other people on the transport are looking at you.
I thought I was on leave, Ryouko grumbled.
You're on extended leave, in exchange for doing this. That was the deal.
I don't recall agreeing to this 'deal'. As I recall, it was foisted on me.
Many would kill to be in your position, Clarisse reminded. Besides, it won't be that bad. You'll be in a movie! You'll be played by a famous movie star! Think about it: your friends can watch—
I don't want to think about it, she groaned.
Ryouko finally sat back up, as the transport seemed to be approaching the waiting area.
Please don't use that tone of voice, she requested. You remind me of mama, except you're using my voice, and that is deeply confusing to me.
Then the transport doors opened, and Ryouko shuffled out the door along with the others.
She headed straight for the location where her family was waiting, locations marked on her internal map. They were waiting in a suitably discreet private room—it was not unheard of for members of the media to stalk family members of a famous individual.
Something occurred to her.
No, there's no need to introduce me to your family, Clarisse thought, again intercepting the thought. At least not immediately. It's not like I'm your new lover.
But you are attached—
It's okay. Really. I'd rather not. It'd be awkward.
Then Ryouko let the topic drop, because she was there.
She stood there for a moment as the door closed behind her, facing her parents, who were sitting on opposite sides of a long table, and her grandfather, who had also gotten leave, returning home much earlier than she had.
It's only been a couple of weeks, but—
Then, realizing she was safe, she turned off the disguise module.
"Mama!" she exclaimed, louder than she would have ever expected herself to, running forward to embrace the woman.
They hugged for a long moment, her mother running her hands through her hair.
"I missed you," her mother said. "You don't know how much I worried."
Ryouko nodded, without looking up, then released the hug.
She turned to her father, who just smiled and nodded, then patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
She understood the gesture, though, and for a moment, just stood there, basking in the love, raising a hand to wipe at some moisture in her eyes.
It was something about their body language that dispelled the moment—something about the way her grandfather seemed to be grimacing slightly, something about the way her parents stood unusually far apart.
"Is—" she began, before realizing she didn't even know what she was asking.
Her mother's teary smile wavered, just a little.
Ryouko felt a sense of tensed anticipation seeming to come from Clarisse, and, despite the situation, sent a query. Maybe her TacComp knew.
I don't, Clarisse thought. But something is wrong. I think you've noticed.
Her mother looked down at her hands, blinking.
"We didn't want anyone to tell you, but there's no hiding it anymore. I guess you're old enough."
Ryouko met her eyes, then glanced around, at her father and grandfather, who looked suddenly grim.
Her mother sighed.
"We've divorced," she said.
It was amicable.
The words echoed in her mind, and it often had the past day. It bothered her deeply, for reasons she couldn't exactly pinpoint.
Why hadn't she seen it coming? In retrospect, it had been obvious. The arguments, the occasional bouts of hostility, the casual lack of romance—
No, that wasn't necessarily true. What was it Clarisse had said? Hindsight bias. It only seemed obvious because she was looking at it in retrospect. In the end, she had been the last to find out because that was what her parents had wanted. Ironic, that they could still work well together on something like that.
Or that was what she told herself, at least. It made her feel better, but the honest part of her knew she hadn't wanted to know, which had definitely played a factor in things.
So, instead of going back to the home she remembered, the view of the city she remembered, the bed she remembered, she had found herself in her father's new apartment, staying in the cramped guest room. The plan had been for her to spend most time on Earth at her mother's, but her grandfather was already there, and the crowded conditions of Mitakihara didn't allow for extra space for those who were only home rarely—or else one of her parents could have just kept the old flat.
So her father's apartment it was, and despite the obvious attempts he had made to spruce the place up, it was still clearly a bachelor pad. She might have expected better from someone over a century, but she didn't really. Her parents had colluded well enough to have the things she had left at home, including her clothes, ready and waiting for her, which she did appreciate.
It felt like her world had broken up, and she would have to rebuild it, but that was what she had wanted, wasn't it?
Clarisse had known, of course—not about the divorce, but about the marital acrimony. She had a hard time blaming her. After all, what could she have—
Ryouko shook herself out of her reverie and looked up. Her father was peering down at her from outside the vehicle, a touch of concern on his face.
"We're here," he said, gently.
He extended his hand to her, an unheard of gesture for him, enough to unnerve Ryouko slightly.
Nonetheless, she took his hand, allowing him to help her out of the vehicle.
She took a moment to peer upward, at the steel, glass, and stone edifice of Prometheus Research Center. It glimmered in the sunlight.
"Ryouko‐chan, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, papa," she said, smiling reassuringly. "Come on, let's go."
She led the way into the facility, whose door was already open, knowing she couldn't stay in front for long, since she didn't have access to a map of the building.
Her father caught up with her a moment later. For a while, she let him lead her.
She felt guilty; here she was, set to attend Asami's revival—resurrection?—and she found herself consumed by thoughts of her parents, rather than worrying about the girl whose event this was.
Strictly speaking, the scientists and psychiatrists had no evidence about what had helped precipitate Asami's sudden soul gem collapse. They only had an educated guess.
Ryouko had a bit more than that, even if she had chosen not to share it with anyone. She knew the importance of being there when they revived Asami's body.
But what would she say? What would she do? She had no idea—she only knew it would be emotional.
"Ryouko‐chan," her father said, again interrupting her reverie. "You know it's not easy for me to say this, but I'm sorry things had to be like this. I really am."
"It's alright," she mumbled. She didn't want to talk about it, not then.
"I said it's alright!" she snapped, much sharper than she had intended to.
She found herself looking her father in the eye. They had stopped in the middle of a corridor. Thankfully, there was no one around them at the moment.
"I—not right now, papa. I'm sorry."
They stood there for a moment, and then her father turned away, and started walking again.
"Alright," he said.
They entered a long hallway, flanked on both sides by nondescript sliding doors. Small groups of technicians hurried to and fro.
"This is part of the area where we perform revivals‐from‐gem—RFG, in the lingo," her father narrated airily. "Most girls have their spare bodies stored closer to where they happen to be at the front, and revivals are performed at colonial facilities, or starships. However, many have secondary backups here, and when circumstances permit the time, the gems are often shipped back here, since we have superior facilities. In the case of your, uh, friend, her clone simply wasn't fully grown by the time she suffered, er, bodyloss, so it was still growing. We were able to, well, accelerate its growth."
Ryouko noticed her father's hesitation near the end of his narration, but focused on only one aspect of it—it abruptly occurred to her to wonder if her parents knew what kind of friend Asami was, or might be.
Are they told personal details like this about the people they're reviving? she wondered.
Another thing she had to worry about.
They paused in front of one of the sliding doors, her father looking at her. He seemed worried.
"At this point, the procedure is almost finished," he said, swallowing. "There have been no significant anomalies noted in the neural architecture, and she has been allowed to reach a sleep‐like state."
She nodded, slowly, he nodded back, and they entered the room.
Relative to her expectations, the room was simple—other than the bevy of equipment that characterized a standard medical examination room, there was nothing really of note. She supposed any serious work might already have been done elsewhere.
Well, nothing of note about the physical room, of course. In terms of people, there was plenty to look at: Asami's new body, covered by a white sheet for modesty, Ryouko's mother, who exchanged nods coolly with her father, a male technician, a magical girl she didn't recognize standing in the back, Joanne Valentin, and, of all people, Atsuko Arisu.
"I am here to observe," Valentin commented blandly, at Shizuki Kuma's questioning look.
"Come on, of course I'd show up for this," Arisu said, noting Ryouko's dismay. "Besides, Asami‐chan's designated psychiatrist agreed to transfer her case over to me, so I can take care of both of you. Lots of synergy there."
Ryouko swallowed, nodding. It was entirely reasonable, of course, but she hadn't counted on such an… audience.
Then she realized she didn't even know what she was supposed to be doing.
"Just stand by," her mother said, seeming to anticipate her question, hunching over Asami. "There's a process to the wake‐up. We need to run some tests. All that's really necessary is for you to be standing over her when she wakes. The good news is, she's Magi Cæli, so we don't have to explain anything, and she'll have simulation experience."
Her mother paused, glancing at the technician behind her, who was deeply engrossed in the monitor in front of him, and even had a wire running from the device to one of his wrist uplink ports—wired connections were rare outside of the most delicate of tasks.
The technician's head shifted slightly, turning to look at Nakase, who nodded.
She lifted the front of Asami's sheet, peered underneath, and seemed to fiddle with something, probably one of the many leads running to and from Asami. Ryouko felt a twinge of discomfort, but forced it to pass—her parents probably dealt with so many of these cases that it was just another body to them. She hoped, anyway.
Her mother gave the technician a thumbs‐up, and the man turned back to his monitor. Then Nakase waved Ryouko forward.
She stepped forward only tentatively, so her mother grabbed her hand and led her over to the front of the bed.
Ryouko looked down, at Asami's head resting on the provided pillow. Laying there, default shoulder‐length hair spread out over her collarbones, bulky black spinal interface cable gripping the back of her neck, she looked strangely small, and vulnerable.
She met her mother's eye, then not sure what else to do, knelt down, so that she was eye‐level with the peacefully‐sleeping Asami.
"Be careful," her mother whispered in her ear. "Her last memory will be of being ejected into space. She might not wake up calmly. Don't worry, though; her TacComp will keep her from overreacting too much."
"Is everything green?" her mother asked, standing up before Ryouko had a chance to ask for details.
"Yes, I'm not sensing any issues," the magical girl standing in the back intoned. Though she didn't look up, Ryouko was surprised—she had no idea why the girl was here.
"My monitors are green," the male technician said.
"Then do it," her mother said.
For a long moment, nothing seemed to be happening—but then Asami stirred, turning her head slightly, her lips opening slightly to suck in a breath.
Then the girl's eyes snapped open, and she jerked forward slightly off the bed, faster than Ryouko could think to respond.
Ryouko's mother was already there to catch her, apparently long practiced at this sort of thing.
"Easy, easy," she said. "It's alright."
Ryouko was there a moment later, just in time to see a wave of confusion pass over Asami's face, as her TacComp temporarily paralyzed her muscles. A moment later, Asami relaxed, apparently having processed the situation.
Then she spotted Ryouko.
"Ryouko‐chan?" she asked, incredulous, trying to sit up. "How—"
"It's okay," Ryouko said, grabbing the girl's bare shoulders. A part of her noted sardonically that the modesty sheet was clinging tightly to Asami—it was probably programmed to.
"It's alright. I'm here for you," she repeated, a moment later.
The reassurance fell from her lips far more smoothly than she would have ever given herself credit for, but what surprised her more was how much she meant it. In this time of turmoil, seeing Asami's familiar face meant more to her than she would have ever expected.
Asami's trembling eyes met hers.
"You're supposed to be dead," she said.
Ryouko tried to stabilize herself.
"Reports of my death—" she began.
She never finished the quip, though, because she was abruptly struck by a wave of unexpected mirth, one that she was helpless to stop, so that she found herself laughing, clinging to Asami's slender body like the only rock in a river threatening to wash her away.
"It's okay, Kuroi‐san," she heard Arisu say behind her. "Leave them alone for now."
"Are–are you alright?" she heard Asami ask, understandably confused.
Yes, Ryouko thought. The past day, she had felt her previous life, the one she had almost literally wished not to have, crumbling away, and in its place, she had—what? Uncertainty, a life where she was jerked back and forth, accomplishing great things, yet feeling no agency.
She had wished to find her place in the universe—she had imagined that there would be an actual, tangible place, that she would not be left adrift, as she increasingly felt. Perhaps she wasn't there yet; perhaps she was supposed to find this place, and she simply hadn't yet, but at the moment she wanted something she could count on.
She had thought that her home would always be there, but as her parents had so signally demonstrated to her, having left, she could never go back. She had to find something new.
And here was something new, something seeking desperately to tie itself to her. She could feel it within her now: she would reciprocate—she wanted to, if it saved her from floating alone in the wide, wide world.
"Ryouko‐chan?" Asami asked again.
"I missed you," Ryouko said.
Somehow Ryouko had forgotten about Asami's family, who were certainly interested in seeing their daughter again after she had a suffered an unspecified "critically‐serious" injury, one that necessitated significant organ regeneration. Only secrecy about the cloning program had kept the family from seeing her as she woke.
Ryouko had forgotten, which meant she was surprised when, a while later, after Asami had stood up, dressed, and been run through a standard set of tests, the two of them had been hustled out the door and down through the building to a family waiting area. Once Ryouko had realized where they were going, she considered staying away, but Asami's death grip on her hand convinced her to stick around.
Asami's entire immediate family had turned up for the occasion, which meant both parents, her 60‐year‐old brother, and her much younger 11‐year‐old brother. As Ryouko's mother explained that the "procedure" had gone well, and that Asami was up and about, the relief in the room was palpable—as was the sense of surprise at Shizuki Ryouko herself showing up, almost as if she had walked straight out of their newsfeeds.
Ryouko felt like an interloper, as Asami's parents and siblings fussed over her, commenting on her hair and inspecting her skin carefully, for all the world as if they would find a healing surgical wound if they just looked carefully enough. They couldn't avoid casting occasional glances at Ryouko, though, and surely they wondered what the meaning was of Asami clinging to Ryouko on the way in. Asami's younger brother, for his part, seemed vaguely awestruck by Ryouko's presence, taking long staring looks. Her older brother merely glanced at her appraisingly.
Ryouko might have known herself to be oblivious, but even she could tell what assumptions might have been made, and what questions might be asked when Asami was taken home. Indeed, she could tell from her own mother's look that she would get some questioning of her own.
"…and now my brothers are more protective than ever. Aniki keeps offering to use 'his connections' to keep me at home, and my parents won't stop feeding me. They keep saying the food will help me heal, and even though I keep saying my internal diagnostics check out, they won't believe me."
They were sitting at a table at one of the cafés near Ryouko's former school. She had arranged for Chiaki, Ruiko, and Simona to meet them here, but they were late. Ryouko was not surprised—Ruiko always made everyone else late—but the later they were, the more time she had to spend here being stared at by pedestrians. It was strangely unnerving, but she didn't feel right using the face distortion device Mami had given her.
I swear, if a picture of Asami‐chan and me shows up in one of those celebrity forums—
It wasn't all bad. The delay did give her some time to catch up with Asami.
"I can't say I've had the same experience," Ryouko commented, stabbing at her slice of strawberry cream cake with a fork. "My parents are too scientifically‐minded. And my grandfather—I don't know what to do about him. He's been in such a funk. He tries to be normal around me, but you can tell he's suffering."
Asami glanced downward at her hands, jewel‐like irises briefly refracting the sunlight.
"Oh, right, I'm sorry about that," she said. "I'm sorry… about everything."
"I think I'm okay," Ryouko said, more or less truthfully. "I'm more concerned about you. Is the new—"
"I'm fine," Asami said, perhaps a bit too quickly. "We had training for this in the MC. It's weird sometimes, thinking that this isn't the body I was born with, but it's okay, I guess. Although, technically they did manage to recover some parts of my body after the battle and reconnect them. I wish they hadn't told me that."
Ryouko, too, looked down, silent for a moment.
"You know, my parents were going to divorce too," Asami said, quietly. "I don't regret what I did, but sometimes ta‐kun—my kid brother looks at me like an alien. Sometimes, I wish I had somehow erased his memory too. It might make things easier. He idolizes you, though."
The last sentence was such a non‐sequitur that it took a moment for Ryouko to catch the meaning.
"What?" she asked, looking up.
"Oh, yeah," Asami said, looking down at the cup of warm tea she was cradling in her hands. "He asked me to introduce him to you, which is a little bolder than I honestly would have expected. I don't think he… quite understands the situation."
Ryouko watched Asami for a moment, unsure what to say.
"Ryouko‐chan," Asami said, still looking down. "You might have guessed, or they might have told you, but I didn't have to lose my body. One of the MedEvacs recovered the body, and it was still mostly intact. But when they announced that you were dead, I… I just couldn't… my gem destabilized, and the ship ejected my body for my own safety. I thought…"
A chill crept up Ryouko's spine. Asami wasn't the type to talk about the MedEvac recovering "the body," or to state that it had been "mostly intact." She remembered what it had been like, inside the tank, in her vision.
A moment later, Asami shuddered.
"I thought you were dead. And then I realized, I don't want to be out there. It's terrible. But where was I supposed to go? I can't stand my family anymore. I keep remembering the way my parents fought, and I can't stand how much they love each other now. Isn't it crazy? It's exactly what I wished for, but it scares me. I wanted to be with you, but then…"
Go hug her! Clarisse ordered, surprising Ryouko out her frozen state of shock.
Without really knowing what she was doing, she jumped up, hovered awkwardly for a moment, before deciding to hunch over and embrace Asami from behind. A part of her noticed that Asami was wearing something scented with vanillin.
"I don't want to go back," Asami said, starting to openly cry. "I don't want you to go back. Why do we have to do this? The world—"
"It's alright," Ryouko said, stroking Asami's hand and incidentally checking her soul gem level. "I—"
She thought for a long moment, then closed her eyes, wrenching at some internal lever with a mental effort that was almost palpable, dragging the structure of her mind into a new configuration. She could feel her worldview shifting, just a little, and for a moment it almost disturbed her.
Then she opened her eyes again.
"I'll be there for you," she finished. "What you asked me before: the answer is yes. I'll be your girlfriend. Come on, cheer up."
She took a moment to rub her head against Asami's, watching the tendrils of her hair twitch, then wrap themselves around Asami's, wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into.
I have to say this disturbs me too, Clarisse thought, shocked and confused. I did not expect this. It doesn't fit with my models of your behavior, for you to be so precipitate. Something is—
I don't know what to think either, she thought back. But I thought…
"Ryouko‐chan?" Asami said shakily.
"Yes?" Ryouko asked.
Ryouko looked up, the world snapping instantly back into focus.
Indeed, her friends were here, Ruiko looking off to one side, Chiaki looking deeply amused, and Simona looking shocked.
No, not shocked…
"When you said you were bringing a friend, I didn't think…" Simona began.
"Nakihara Asami," Ryouko said, standing up to make the formal introduction, something that was rarely done nowadays, in the age of nomenclators.
There was a round of light bowing, and then Ryouko's school friends took the additional seats around the table, a fifth chair wheeling itself over for Simona.
"Oh, sorry, I'll be in the bathroom," Simona said, excusing herself.
"Ryouko‐chan has said so much about you," Chiaki said, a smooth lie, given that Ryouko had told her practically nothing about Asami.
"Oh, uh, really?" Asami asked, innocently. She was clearly a little shook up, but at least the tears had been cleaned away quickly and—oh God, was she blushing?
"What's it like, in the military?" Ruiko asked, leaning forward.
"Oh, it's, uh, alright, I guess," Asami said. "I'm in the, uh, space corps, so things are a little different for me. The suits look a little silly when you're wearing them, but the scenery is great."
Ryouko watched her out of the corner of her eye.
If you don't want to talk about it, I'll change the topic, she thought to Asami.
I think I'm okay, Asami responded, with a trace of uncertainty.
"What rank are you?" Ruiko asked. "I hear Ryouko is a Captain now."
"I think everyone has heard that," Chiaki said, a little reproachfully. "Asami is probably still a Second Lieutenant. I'm guessing you don't get promoted this early unless you save the world or something."
Ryouko smiled sheepishly at the obvious reference.
"Yeah, that seems to be true."
"How was it?" Chiaki asked, waving her hand vaguely. "You know, the mission."
For a moment, Ryouko remembered all that had happened, the events flashing before her eyes. Meeting Clarisse, Eva dying in front her, the sniper she had killed, Misa sacrificing herself, her visions—
"It was pretty harrowing," she said, "but I got to meet some interesting people."
Chiaki nodded. Ryouko and Asami shared a look, and they didn't need some mystical "couple's connection" to understand each other: there were some things that just couldn't be conveyed, even if they wanted to. Was this what it was like, coming home, talking about things that seemed so mundane in comparison?
"They might be making a movie about it, apparently," she added.
"Oh really?" Ruiko said. "How exciting!"
"Yeah I'm going to talk to them about it later," Ryouko said.
Chiaki cleared her throat lightly, getting their attention.
"Look, Ryouko, I, uh, was sorry to hear about your grandmother, and your parents. I don't know how to say this, but if you need a place to stay, I've talked with my parents—"
"No, it's okay," Ryouko interrupted. "It was amicable."
She had, of course, informed Chiaki about her circumstances earlier. It was just like her, to go out of her way to try and cover for Ryouko, even if it was just in case.
There was a brief moment of silence, as all four of them contemplated the situation.
"Ruiko," Chiaki said, "why don't you go check in on Simona? She's taking quite a while in there. Check if something is wrong."
"Wrong?" Ruiko asked. "What could possibly—"
The girl quailed under Chiaki's glare, then seemed to understand something, face dawning in comprehension.
"Ah right. I'll go make sure she's alright."
Ryouko watched her as she left.
"I was wondering about that," she said. "Sometimes Simona worries me. I feel like there's something going on with her. She didn't seem happy when I first contracted, and—"
"Don't worry about it, Ryouko‐chan," Chiaki said, sighing. "Let me worry about what's happening with her. You just stay the way you are and worry about… wormholes or something."
"She seemed really unhappy for a while there," Asami mused out loud. "Do you know what her family situation is like? Maybe hearing about Ryouko's parents bothered her or something."
Chiaki gave Asami a strange look, then shook her head, chuckling slightly.
"Oh wow, uh, well to be honest I've never heard anything about her parents. But, as I said, let's not worry about it."
Ryouko thought about what Simona had told her once, that she hated how her parents fought. At the time, Ryouko hadn't thought the comment to be particularly relevant to her own parents, but now, she supposed, they had something in common.
She supposed it was better that she not bring it up, however.
"Anyway," Chiaki said. "I've taken the liberty of doing a little planning for the rest of the day."
The girl reached into her bag, withdrawing one of those old‐fashioned little handheld work tablets she was so fond of.
"As you know, we've taken the rest of the day off to be with you today," Chiaki said, pulling up a calendar on the tablet. "But I thought it might be fun to pay a visit to the school. They put your picture on the wall, with the other magical girls, and now that you're such a big deal, the principal wants to do some kind of event in your honor. Even told me to tell you about it. Now, personally, I know you'd hate that kind of thing, but you know what a stupidly big deal the local schools make out of it. Personally, I think he just wants to take Fukuzawa Anko Academy down a notch."
It occurred to Ryouko that Chiaki's tablet did have its uses, for exactly this kind of group planning, but also that it would be useless in the military, where they could have summoned all sorts of virtual planning interfaces and shared workspaces that would work just as well. She doubted it would matter to Chiaki, though; the girl had a bit of an artist's soul, and would probably make some sentimental argument about needing to hold something physical in her hands.
"Fukuzawa Anko?" Asami asked. "Wasn't that just another name for Sakura Kyouko?"
"Yeah, they decided to keep the name for historical reasons," Ryouko explained. "But anyway, the last thing I want is to have to give some sort of speech in front of the whole school. Oh Goddess, that'd be terrible."
"Goddess?" Chiaki echoed, surprised.
"Well, I'm sure you can just say you're busy or something. But I still think a school visit would be nice. Afterward, I figured we could go eat somewhere for dinner, maybe come back here. When I heard you were coming back, I was thinking we'd do another sleepover at your place, but that seems like it'd be inconvenient now. I think my parents would be okay with doing it, though."
Ryouko blinked at the torrent of words from the usually stoic Chiaki, wondering what had gotten into her.
"Well, actually," Ryouko said, prompted by a reminder from Clarisse, "why don't we go somewhere a bit more upscale for dinner. I've got a lot of Allocs now, and I don't know how to spend it all. It'll be my treat."
Chiaki twisted her lip slightly, considering it.
"Okay, I don't see why not. Are you coming, Nakihara‐san? I don't want to force you if you have anything planned—"
"No, no, sure, I'll come," Asami said, waving her hands. "I'd be glad to. And you can call me, uh, Asami."
"Sure, Asami‐chan," Chiaki repeated. "I'm glad you're coming. I want to see what kind of girl could win Ryouko‐chan's heart like that."
It was said so matter‐of‐factly that it took a moment for Ryouko and Asami, who had managed to forget that topic entirely, to process what she had said. Asami blushed instantly beet‐red, which had the effect of forcing Ryouko to keep her composure under control, since, well, she felt one of them had to.
"I, well, uh," she began, not exactly coherently, but then she spotted rescue, in the form of Ruiko and Simona reappearing from the restroom.
"Apparently, her parents called," Ruiko said, strangely quiet.
Then the girl glanced at their faces.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Everything is fine," Chiaki said. "Mostly."
Ryouko was sure something wasn't "fine", at least when it came to Simona, but, as Chiaki had insisted, she tried not to worry about it. Other than that, the rest of the day was actually quite enjoyable. It was soothing, in a way, to lose herself in the kinds of civilian concerns she had disparaged as so mundane. They had dodged their way through the school hallways mid‐class, mostly avoiding the crowd of celebrity gawkers which would have inevitably developed otherwise. Ryouko had no desire to mingle with a crowd of acquaintances who were suddenly fascinated by her life story, and Chiaki had made sure it wouldn't happen. They even managed to successfully dodge any encounters with the school principal.
There was one odd occurrence that night, though, which stuck in Ryouko's mind for a while. She had asked Clarisse for advice on a suitable restaurant, and the device had performed quite well, choosing a restaurant that, as it turned out, catered heavily to the mages of the MSY corridor. Yes, the food was a bit expensive and, in Ryouko's mind, pointlessly elaborate, but it seemed the restaurant was used to catering to minor and major celebrities, and Ryouko was rapidly hustled into a private booth. The clientèle of the restaurant admittedly turned their heads to look at her, but did not openly stare.
They did stare, however, when a certain Mitakiharan Incubator, which went by the nickname Kyubey, nonchalantly strode through the front door of the restaurant, passed a row of tables, and jumped onto Ryouko's lap. It was awkward, since only some of them could see it, and Simona seemed disturbed by its presence.
Kyubey claimed it was only there to visit her, but didn't Incubators always have ulterior motives?
It even stuck around for the sleepover afterwards, and it seemed, perhaps less than surprisingly, that Incubators were not good at catching hints. The alien made several off‐color comments about irrational human emotions and how illogical same‐sex relationships had been before reproduction was possible. That was sufficient to earn the beast an unceremonious ejection from the room, Ryouko herself doing the honors of picking it up by the forelimbs like a cat, dropping it outside the door, and locking the door behind her.
At the end of day, they were obliged to spread out throughout the flat to sleep. Some creative rearrangement of the modular furniture provided two extra sofas to sleep on, which still wasn't really enough to provide for five people. Ryouko and Asami could have simply ducked out, since they didn't need the sleep, nor were they likely to sleep a full night—the very concept seemed strangely alien now.
But, out of a sense of camaraderie, they tried, volunteering to use the floor. After some hesitation, Asami cuddled up against her, which she accepted, taking the opportunity to intertwine their hair again. A heart‐warming gesture, yes, but she also secretly found it amusing.
It was surprisingly pleasant.
Are you sure I should be here? Asami relayed, asking the question for what must have been the twentieth time.
I told you not to worry about it, Ryouko insisted. I didn't want to be here alone.
I guess, Asami said, looking around nervously, at Ryouko's parents seated nearby, and at the woman giving an oration on the podium. A former comrade‐in‐arms, the woman had apparently fought together with her grandmother for years.
Ryouko understood Asami's discomfort, though; in her shoes, she would have also found it awkward to attend a funeral for a person she didn't know. But, Ryouko wanted company, and she felt she could be a little unreasonable.
It was a small, intimate affair, held in a local funeral home which catered primarily to the families of military personnel—as all such funeral homes pretty much had to, nowadays. There were just over a dozen people in attendance—mostly immediate family, some military friends who happened to be in the area, and a few of the other "old folks" that had known her grandmother in life, even if only barely. Ryouko had not been sure her father would attend, given the circumstances, but he was here, along with both of his parents. She supposed it made sense; he had lived with his mother‐in‐law for years, after all, and had never been on particularly bad terms with her—or at least, not any worse than the terms Nakase had had with her. Plus, his parents had been on positively great terms with Nakase's parents; her grandfather had made a habit of staying over, every few months or so.
It was all so painfully amicable.
There were, however, two anomalies on the guest list.
Kuroi Kana was probably the easiest to explain. Kana was, after all, directly related to Kuroi Abe and had vouched her intention to reconnect with this branch of the family. Ryouko also supposed that it probably didn't hurt for Kana to try and get on her good side, though she got the impression the matriarch wouldn't be so crass as to try and influence her at a funeral.
Atsuko Arisu was a little tougher to explain. She was supposedly Ryouko's psychiatrist, of course, but the situation didn't exactly seem to warrant—
A memory struck her, interrupting her train of thought. Weeks ago, just before she had left, before, there had been another party, for her departure, and Arisu had appeared, even when there had seemed no need to. She had thought about it, before she had been interrupted by Kuroi Nana's arrival.
It took her a moment to realize that the memory had been inserted by Clarisse. At the time, they had considered the possibility that—
Do you really think she's related to me somehow? she thought, asking Clarisse.
She keeps turning up at these family functions, Clarisse thought. And, come to think of it, you've never asked your parents if they know who she is. They've never seemed bothered by her presence.
It couldn't be that simple, could it?
It couldn't hurt to ask.
Ryouko glanced at her mother, seated at her left, casually three spaces away from Ryouko's father, seated on the other side of Asami. She bit her lip in frustration. She couldn't ask out loud, not in the middle of a funeral oration, and as a civilian, her mother couldn't simply receive relayed thoughts—it depended on her mother checking her messages explicitly, something she doubted her mother would do at the moment. She would just have to wait politely.
She turned her head again, craning her neck so she could see Kuroi Nana, seated to her mother's left. The two women seemed incongruous sitting side‐by‐side, one merely a teenager and the other clearly older, but they had identical postures, heads bowed in either memory or thought.
Ryouko spent a moment mulling over whether to call the woman "Nana‐san" or "Nana" or what, before using telepathy to ask:
Auntie, I'm sorry to bother you, but do you know why that woman in the back is here? Atsuko Arisu.
The girl looked up, first at her, then at the back of the room, where Arisu was seated.
Oh, that's right; it's not officially mentioned, Nana thought. Well, she's my mother's grandmother. Distant relative for you, but she has every reason to be here.
Ryouko didn't have to fake the astonishment that crossed her face.
Our family tree is pretty obscured, Nana thought. I've never really been sure why myself. I gather it has something to do with Unification War history. If it bothers you, take it up with the Matriarch herself. She's here, after all.
Nana tilted her head, gesturing at the matriarch two seats to her left, then turned back to face the speaker. Ryouko's grandfather was seated between Nana and Kana, and despite all that happened to the family over the years, the two of them seemed to be doing a decent job of comforting him—he had broken down a bit earlier.
Ryouko was left at a bit of a loss.
I guess that's one question answered, Clarisse thought.
How can she be related to me and still be my psychiatrist? Ryouko asked. Isn't that some sort of conflict of interest?
Not if the system doesn't know about it, I suppose, Clarisse responded.
Why didn't she tell me? Ryouko asked.
She probably didn't think it was that important, Clarisse thought. Besides, you were bound to eventually find out. Seems reasonable enough.
In truth, Ryouko was a bit incensed, but didn't know what she was supposed to say. She thought about asking Kana or Arisu directly, but it seemed… well, an inappropriate moment.
Is something wrong? Asami asked, looking at her curiously.
Ah, nothing, Ryouko thought, since she had no idea how to explain it. Just some family conversation.
Your family has so many magical girls in it, Asami thought. It's kind of amazing.
Yeah, I guess.
Amazing is one way to describe it, she thought.
"I met her a few decades into my practice," Kuroi Abe said, voice strong and surprisingly firm, leaning slightly over the podium. "This was back when clinical immortality was still a bit new, and required occasional maintenance, especially for the older folks. She came in one day—I remember being impressed by the way she carried herself, the exotic curve of her back. She looked a bit older than most people you meet—her systems needed retuning, and she was due for an upgrade anyway. I was no longer a young man, but I remember thinking, as we flirted, that she was old enough to be my mother, and I was crazy to consider the possibility."
"She quit being my patient, of course, since that really isn't alright, and we started dating. She told me about her life, about the War, and I remember the sense of tragedy that I felt—that I still feel. She'd lost friends to the war—lovers, even, and I had been her first try in a long time. I wondered what it was she saw about me."
"Sometimes we'd walk along the river, and she'd just stop and stare, far out at the water, and I would wonder what she was thinking about. She told me that she could never forget the past but, now that it was gone, she could try her best to make a new future. She wished that, with all her extra years of life, she might find happiness."
"And we were happy, for a time. My family was not exactly happy about our marriage, but I was long past caring. I remember our wedding, just the two of us, with no family anywhere—that she knew about, anyway—and then we had a honeymoon in Brazil, where her mother was from. She had never been there, and we spent a month touring the ruined rainforest. Her mother had lived in the favelas there, long ago, her father a foreign aid worker, but other than that, her mother had refused to ever say anything about her past. I could tell that she wondered."
Here Abe took a deep breath, seeming to steady himself a little.
"I wish… I wish things had gone better after that, that circumstances and fate had not been so cruel to us. I wish that the past had not haunted her so. I do not begrudge her her choice to leave, but I am an old man now, and she was… all that I had. I can only try to move on, and see what my eternal life now has in store for me."
After the eulogies had been given, they were given an opportunity to walk up to the coffin, to pay their respects. Her body had never been found, so it was purely symbolic—they didn't even have any ashes that they could keep.
Standing there, in front of the casket with its white flowers, in the formal clothes she rarely wore, Ryouko felt a sense of tragedy. She had never known her grandmother particularly well; the eulogies given by her mother and grandfather described a warm and loving woman, one riven by conflict and tragedy. But for all the relevance it had to her, they might as well have been describing a stranger. Ryouko could not bring herself to feel saddened at the death, not directly; instead the sense of loss she felt was of lost opportunity, of missed chances. All she had were a few memories, and a moment on a riverbank, long ago.
It's strange, isn't it? she thought. With immortality in hand, it's so easy to forget what death even means. Yet here I am, and I can't feel a thing.
She sighed, closed her eyes in front of the casket as a formality, and turned away, looking for Atsuko Arisu.
Instead, she found a girl she did not know watching her quietly. It was one of the magical girls who had attended the funeral, one of her grandmother's friends.
Ryouko moved to walk past her, assuming that she was only here to stare at a celebrity—something Ryouko had gotten a bit used to over the past couple of days—but the girl surprised her by grabbing her by the arm.
I need to speak with you, she said.
Ryouko looked at the girl strangely, activating her nomenclator.
Occupation: Magical Girl
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
MG Classification: Elemental mage, fire.
I'm sorry; I'm not very good at this, the girl said. But I was a childhood friend of your grandmother. She had a message she wanted me to give you, in case she never got a chance to give it herself.
Ryouko tilted her head slightly. Quietly, she checked the woman's age. At just over three hundred, she was about as old as her grandmother, so it checked out.
A message? What about?
I don't know. It's encrypted so only you can open it. All I know is that it's a memory recording, and quite large.
A memory recording? Ryouko thought.
Give me a moment, the girl thought, staring Ryouko in the eyes.
Ryouko looked back into those eyes for a long moment, deciding that, yes, the girl could be that old.
Done, Clarisse thought. Recording transferred.
She told me it was a secret she's been holding onto, that she didn't want to go to the grave with her. I didn't think—
The girl turned to face the casket and for a moment, her eyes seemed to glimmer.
Then she turned away.
Well, I don't know what was so important that she couldn't tell me, but I'm done here. I'll be seeing you.
Wait! Ryouko asked, belatedly, as the girl traipsed away, ignoring her.
"What was that about?" Asami asked, appearing over Ryouko's shoulder.
"I don't know," Ryouko said. "But…"
She looked around the room again, for Atsuko Arisu, but the woman had seemed to vanish into thin air.
I don't know why I can't have a family event without ghosts appearing everywhere, she thought.
"Give me a moment," Ryouko said, sitting down into a convenient chair. "I'm going to see what this memory recording is. Say I'm busy if anyone comes looking for me."
She was greeted by the quiet patter of rain, falling on an umbrella.
Memories reconstructed from before the installation of perfect recall implants were always a bit vague, but this world seemed particularly dreamlike, a quality which the gray, overcast sky only contributed to. Details faded in and out of sight: the smooth sidewalk shrugging off torrents of water, a particularly red car passing by, a bright, animated ad for fresh mochi, her mother's hand grasping her own.
She looked up, at the slender brown face looking back down at her, from a perspective that seemed to tower far above her. She was tugging at her hand, since she had stopped to gawk at the ad.
"Maybe later, okay, filhinha? Come on."
A few pieces of context trickled into her mind. They were visiting her grandfather, who was at the hospital. Her grandfather was a very old man, and very sick. He had always been sick, it seemed to her. Certainly, she couldn't remember when he had ever not been.
She let her mother lead her by the hand, away from the ad and into the ornate edifice of the hospital, a building she now realized was in front of her. They went through the building silently, past the automated security desk, into the beautiful, empty elevator, with its bright buttons and clear glass walls.
It only took a moment to reach the room, where the rest of the family already huddled. There wasn't much to it—grandmother sat next to the man in his wheelchair, holding the old man's hand. Her face, lined and wrinkled, had nonetheless always contrived to make her look young. It seemed impossible that she would ever grow sick, but sad—well, her face looked very sad—
And then there was her father, who had apparently been pacing the room, face grim. He headed over immediately at their appearance.
"How is he?" her mother asked, somberly.
"Not well," her father said. "The cellular damage to his brain is starting to cascade. It can only be a few months now. He wants euthanasia."
"I see," her mother said, as the child below her puzzled over the meaning of the sentences.
"Well, we knew it was coming," she said.
"He wants to see his granddaughter," her father said.
"I know," her mother said, pulling her towards the wheelchair. "Come on, filhinha."
"Grandpapa," she said politely, and the old man smiled. Her grandmother lifted her into the old man's lap, the man held her for a moment, and she squirmed. Truth be told, she didn't like being around her grandfather too much—he smelled funny—but he was always kind to her. Plus, it didn't seem nice to her to say things about a man who was sick.
Her mother stood in front of her, eyes wide, and a moment later she blinked, the picture taken. Her grandmother put her back on the floor—she was too heavy for him to hold for long.
There was a moment of silence.
"I asked—" her grandfather began.
"I know," her grandmother said. "We'll leave now. I hope you know what you're doing."
And just like that, the others left, the dreamlike quality of the memory causing them to seem to vanish from the room. All that was left was her, blinking in confusion, and the old man.
"Grandpapa—" she began.
But then, with a quiet sliding noise, one of the doors to the room opened, and a woman strode in.
No, not a woman.
The girl stood for a moment just inside the threshold, seeming to regard the two of them. The girl's long black hair, with its red ribbon on top, shifted as she tousled it, and, for just a moment, the girl's eyes lingered on her, seeming almost to pierce into her, and she understood why she had mistaken her for a woman.
"Do they know I'm here?" the girl asked walking forward.
"No," her grandfather said. "I didn't tell them who I was meeting. With Arisu being a telepath I can't rule out her knowing, but she generally respects my privacy."
"It's a bit crazy. They wouldn't have listened to me at all if I weren't dying."
"Well, there's still time to take me up on my offer," the girl said.
"No," her grandfather said sharply. "The last time around, I was young. I wanted to experience more of life. That's why I let you pay for my treatment. Now, I have a family, I have children. I don't think I should linger anymore. Especially not if it's going to cost… resources."
The last word was said with a glance at the child, the kind of look that adults got when they were trying to hide something.
"Not many even know that kind of life extension is possible," the girl said, a slight smile quirking onto her lips. "Otherwise, the demand would be insatiable, for such a limited resource. Atsuko doesn't know, for instance. But, think about how she feels."
"I know, and I am sorry," her grandfather said, looking down for a moment. "But I wouldn't feel right, staying alive here like a leech. Besides, I've always wanted to meet this sister of mine."
The girl smiled slightly at the joke.
"She insisted that her grandniece be here, you know," the girl said. "I'm not sure why. Maybe she likes that you named her in her honor. I do wish she'd explain herself to me a little, at least some of the time. Though I suppose she doesn't speak to me enough as it is."
"You have a sister, grandpapa?" the child asked, quizzically.
"It's a joke," her grandfather explained, blandly. "Mind pushing me to the window, Homura?"
"If you insist. It's a robotic wheelchair for a reason, you know."
The girl walked up to the wheelchair and smiled warmly down at her, patting her on the head. She pouted, making an angry noise. She hated when adults did that.
"Remember when I was young, and I used to call you onee‐chan?" the old man asked, as the wheelchair headed for the window.
"Please do not remind me."
"I had the biggest crush on you."
Homura made a face.
"I just told you not to remind me. I felt bad for you, you were so awkward."
Her grandfather chuckled and the child wondered what was going on in the conversation. The girl and her grandfather were talking almost like equals, and onee‐chan was something you called an older sister, but the girl was obviously much younger.
"Well, thanks for introducing me to Arisu, anyway, though I'm not sure if I should be thanking my sister instead."
They reached the window, the child following behind them.
"As I recall," the girl said, "the only way I got you to agree to a date was to make it a precondition for your life extension."
"I'm going to have to talk to her about that. No one likes a manipulative and bossy older sister."
"Even an omniscient one?"
"Especially an omniscient one."
There was a lull in the conversation, during which the child chewed over what "omniscient" might mean. Why couldn't adults just use easier words?
"Look out there," her grandfather instructed.
She did so, and there arose perhaps the clearest memory of the entire dream.
Mitakihara City looked dank and gloomy in the rain, which fogged the windows with moisture. Clustered around them were the gigantic towers of the hyperclass, shimmering and beautiful in the sunlight, but gloomy now. A bit farther away, the other parts of the city were visible: the robotic assembly plants, the university, the military base, and especially the public housing, derisively called the slums by some.
"There's a storm gathering," her grandfather said. "Things cannot continue as they are. Here, we keep the lower class satisfied, with free housing, free food, free everything, practically, and even then, there is resentment, at the hyperclass, at us, lounging around in the lap of luxury. Here we are fine, but what about elsewhere? What about the places where they receive nothing, where children starve in the streets? The kind of place where my daughter‐in‐law was born? What will happen there?"
Homura was silent for a moment, meeting the glare of the wheelchaired man.
"Of course there is a storm gathering," she said. "But what would you have us do? We have mitigated things all we can, intervening where we can. Any further and we risk war. The kind of cataclysmic war that could end our race."
"Your MSY is corrupt, Homura," the old man said. "Corrupt, decadent, and lazy. I know what they say, in your halls of power. I know the paralysis that keeps you chained. They just can't face the sacrifice that must be made. Not from the comfort of their mansions and boats and tea parties. The hyperclass blights this world, and we're part of it, whether you realize it or not."
"Don't speak to me of sacrifice," the girl snapped. "You have no conception of the price that must be paid."
Her grandfather looked out at the skyline meaningfully.
"The price must be paid eventually. That is the problem. Better now than later."
There was a pause.
"Is that what you called me here to say, then?" the girl asked.
"No. Not the only thing. It's about Madocchi here."
He grabbed the child by the shoulder, surprising her, since she had become nearly motionless, mesmerized by the conversation.
"Given what's coming, what I've seen, I want her to have a normal life. No contract, no MSY, no nothing. I know she's at high risk for one, but I don't want her to have to see what's coming, and I don't want her involved. I don't even want her to know about the MSY."
Homura stared at him, aghast.
"That's an absurd request," she said.
"Well, I'm making it. Respect this dying man's wish."
"I've already talked to them, and they agree. They don't know who I'm meeting, but they do know what I'm asking. You know her mother's history. Arisu won't be happy, when she finds out, but she might not ever learn it was my request. It's not that unreasonable, is it, with your influence? Even the Incubators would have to respect a request you make."
Homura looked at him, harsh and cold, and it was terrible to see, but her grandfather returned the look levelly.
"Very well," she said. "But only because it is you. Will that be all?"
"Then let me erase her memory. If you're really serious, this conversation is too much information for her."
Her grandfather looked at the girl askance.
"You can do that?"
"I've trained myself to. It's not very powerful, but she's a child—her memory is fragile anyway. As long as she doesn't receive too many reminders of it, or learn too much of the truth, the suppression should hold."
For a long moment, the two adults looked at each other.
"Alright, do it," her grandfather said.
"It'll be difficult to hide my power signature, but I should be able to manage it."
The child was already backing away, afraid of the implications of what had been said, but her grandfather caught her by the arm, and the girl raised one hand, radiant with an evil purple glow. Impossibly, the clothes she was wearing seemed to have changed.
"I'm sorry," the girl said, "but it will over quickly."
The girl grabbed her by the face with her glowing hand, grasping her skull with the fingers. She was blinded by the light, and pain seared her soul.
The last parts of the vision consisted only of that light, and the voice of Akemi Homura.
"Do you know what her mother wished for, Tatsuya? I do. I asked her. She wished for vengeance, at all costs. I hope it does not cast all into the flame."
Ryouko woke from the living dream confused, head throbbing slightly. The facts had come at her so quickly—that Atsuko Arisu was her grandmother's grandmother, she had already known, though indeed she had not known the truth of it. But the rest—her ancestor and Akemi Homura, talking about an elusive sister, one who, in context, could only be one person, or more accurately, one deity…
For once, she could put the pieces together. There had been no reason her grandmother needed to be at that meeting, except that a certain deity had asked for it. The memory had been sealed away, seemingly erased, and yet here it was again, fresh for her perusal. It did not seem far‐fetched to her that the reason the memory existed was precisely so that she could see it. Very teleological, but it was hardly surprising that things got teleological with an actual deity around.
One that was, for whatever reason, making it known to her that they were related.
What was it the Goddess had said? That she was born for things? Kyouko had even jokingly brought up something about a prophet.
Descended from a god, used by her as a tool, filled with visions—that sure sounded like some sort of prophet. Or at least that's how it was in the stories.
She had wished to explore the world, and here she was, exploring parts of it she hadn't even known existed. But she didn't know if she wanted to be a prophet.
Ryouko felt an irrational anger surge within her. Not at the way her grandmother had been treated, but at those around her. What was she supposed to do with this knowledge? What had been gained by hiding it from her? Why had her family ended up the way it was? None of those accountable were accessible. Atsuko Arisu had left and might not have even known what happened. The old man in the vision was long dead. Akemi Homura was missing.
She let the anger fill her, because it provided clarity. She didn't want to think about anything else. There was one person still available she could talk to, one who seemed to have a hand in everything.
That person had even said:
"Come see me again when this is all over, okay? I expect we'll have much to talk about."
Prophetic words indeed. Of course, that was hardly surprising, coming from a Goddess.
She seemed to have a human name, too, one Ryouko knew well. What was it Homura had said?
"She insisted that her grandniece be here, you know. I'm not sure why. Maybe she likes that you named her in her honor."
So, her grandmother had been named after the Goddess. The old man had clearly been related to her grandmother paternally—the ethnicity was a hint to that, if nothing else. Taken together, that implied the Goddess must have the exact same name as her grandmother. That meant the Goddess's human name was—
Kaname Madoka, Clarisse finished for her, voice a bit shaken.
By the time she reached the Ribbon Chamber, the force of her anger had cooled, probably much to the relief of Asami, who she had dragged along—and then teleported—with her practically by main force. She seemed to have frightened Asami, judging by the way the girl kept asking her if she was alright and offering to go buy her sweet beverages.
I said I'm alright, Asami, she insisted, too distracted to realize she had dropped her customary honorific.
They were waiting in line to see the Ribbon, so it was probably for the best she had lost her previous force of will; otherwise, she might have started pushing people out of her way.
Why are we here? Why are we visiting the Cult? Asami asked, looking around warily at the mixed‐race, all‐female assemblage of pilgrims gathered in the room. Ryouko had created a bit of a stir with her unannounced appearance and, given the Cult's beliefs about what happened at Kepler‒37, it was bound to create additional rumors. The whispering around her was already starting.
She didn't care, not at the moment. She needed to talk to the Goddess. Funny, that she should show up practically demanding to see a deity who was notorious for only showing up when she chose to, and enigmatically at that. She suspected, though, that the Goddess would show up as expected.
Asami stood there gawking at the stained glass that adorned the room, emblazoned with a hope and despair motif.
Are–are you religious now? she asked.
Ryouko wasn't sure how she was supposed to answer that. Technically, the answer was obviously yes, given that she was speaking of the Goddess as a reality and even had a little tête‐à‐tête planned with her for later. On the other hand, it felt strange to say, given that the Ryouko of just a month ago would have strongly denied anything of the sort.
She was saved from having to answer by the fortuitous appearance of none other than Kyubey itself, who materialized out of thin air on Ryouko's shoulder, causing both of them to jump slightly.
"Oh, h‐hi again, Incubator‐san," Asami said.
I told you already, it's Kyubey, the Incubator replied, sounding almost annoyed.
"Oh, right, sorry."
The Incubator's arrival had caused another stir in the crowd, since Incubators were—well, they didn't exactly have an exalted place in Cult theology, so it was very strange that one would appear at the Ribbon Chamber; though, indeed, Ryouko remembered it appearing the last time she had been here.
"Why are you here?" Ryouko asked, a bit suspiciously.
Just here to observe, the Incubator responded, swishing its tail behind her back. I am interested in these 'visions' that seem to interest you magical girls so much.
"I see," Ryouko said. "What value could that have to you?"
Plenty of value, Kyubey said. Even if the other Incubators disagree.
"Incubators can disagree?"
It happens, very rarely. In any case, I've been authorized to investigate this matter on behalf of my race.
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that."
I intend no harm.
Ryouko let the topic drop, subsiding into silence. The line advanced slowly, and she stroked Kyubey's tail to pass the time. The creature rubbed itself against her hair, which she used to pet it. It was strange, talking to a creature like a human while at the same time treating it like a cat. The Incubators supposedly didn't derive any enjoyment from the rubbing, but they were sure good at faking it.
Finally, they reached the front of the line, where one of the two honor guards was the same telepath she had met last time, with the absurdly ornate hat.
I told you last time to be careful with your thoughts! the guard thought. I like the hat.
Don't you mind‐readers know anything about privacy? Ryouko demanded.
The guard shifted positions slightly, seeming to think for a moment.
No, not really, she admitted. Anyway, I can't say I'm surprised to see you back here, after the wormhole thing. Ready to convert?
I don't know what's with you. For most people, one vision is more than enough.
Is that any way to talk to the 'Savior of Humanity'?
Don't let it go to your head, or you'll grow a hat just like mine.
Ryouko snorted, then realized Asami was giving her a wide‐eyed look.
Oh Goddess, that conversation wasn't private, Ryouko realized.
You've had a vision? Asami asked. Then, it's true that—
I'll explain afterward! Ryouko pleaded. After we visit the Ribbon.
Oh, I was just reading about that! It's a religious artifact that supposedly grants visions. Is that why we're here?
As Asami was asking the question, Kyouko appeared, stepping out of a side door to an area near the Ribbon.
Oh, this is just perfect, Ryouko groaned—to herself.
It seemed like a good idea to show up, Kyouko shrugged, seeing her looking. I doubt this visit of yours is a coincidence.
Finally, blissfully, the people in front of her finished, the forcefield turned off, and it was their turn at the altar. Ryouko looked around, then transformed, gesturing at Asami to do the same.
Ryouko took a moment to look at the Ribbon again, the seemingly ordinary piece of cloth enshrined in a transparent box that could probably survive most nuclear weapon detonations.
What do I— Asami began.
Do as I do, Ryouko instructed, dropping to her knees and assuming a praying posture.
She closed her eyes.
Ryouko found herself in a field of roses, patterned neatly into row after row. The sky above her was a warm white, seeming to suggest the presence of a sun without showing one. The soil below her feet felt warm and loamy, and she looked down, realizing that she was barefoot, and wearing nothing but a white dress.
She checked herself subtly. Yes, it really was just the dress.
"Is that really a dignified thing to be doing in a place like this? Also, it's called a tunic. The Romans wore them."
Ryouko startled, then looked around for the source of the voice.
She couldn't see it, but she felt she knew which direction it had come from.
She made her way through the garden gingerly, careful to avoid pricking herself on any of the roses. Calling it a garden seemed a bit of a misnomer, actually, considering that there was no visible boundary she could see. Just row after row of flowers, white and pink and red and blue and myriad other shades, stretching off to an impossibly‐far horizon.
She could feel the warm earth sticking to her feet as she walked.
She found the Goddess two rows over. This patch of roses was blood red, but the plant the woman was next to had light green flowers, flowers which seemed to shimmer in the invisible sunlight.
This time the Goddess had taken the form of an older woman, a bit older than the apparent age of Ryouko's mother. Instead of the elaborate dresses Ryouko had seen before, this time the woman was wearing only a simple white tunic, same as Ryouko. She had her pink hair tied back in a utilitarian ponytail, and was frowning at a pair of garden clippers she was holding. This time around, Ryouko could pin down why the Goddess looked familiar—she resembled her mother or, more straightforwardly, Ryouko herself. Ryouko could easily imagine her mother with the same frown.
"It's not just that, you know," the woman said, without looking up. "Every magical girl who has ever met me finds me familiar. It's a kind of racial memory, Jungian unconscious, echo of the future—whatever you want to call it. It's just stronger for you."
With a decisive snap, she cut the branch she was holding, removing from the plant a single green flower. It had been hanging pendulously from the plant, seemingly too heavy to bear.
The woman smelled the flower, inhaling deeply, then stood up, turning toward Ryouko. She held the flower in front of her.
Uncertainly, Ryouko looked between the rose and the Goddess's always‐unnerving eyes. Then, she took the proffered flower, looking deep into the bloom.
The fragrance of the rose was overpowering, and as she watched, entranced, the shimmering green of the flower became even more jewel‐like, the petals seeming to curl together—
The Goddess's voice woke her from her trance. She looked up at the Goddess's jewel‐like eyes, and remembered who this world belonged to.
"I'm glad you came back to see me," the woman said, smiling warmly. "You have questions for me. Ask."
She looked down, at the earth below, intimidated by the woman's presence.
"Am I really related to you?" she asked.
"In a sense, yes," Madoka said. "I never existed in your world, but if I had, you'd be a distant niece. Objectively, that matters very little, other than producing a bit of metaphysical resonance, but sometimes even the most tenuous connection can become a treasure. For most Matriarchs, family is all that is left, and I have very little left to tie me to your world."
Ryouko nodded, even as she continued to chew on the meaning of the words. She did not really understand.
"I am a god, Ryouko, even if I wear a human face. That has certain implications. At the moment, you fear my presence and you fear my gaze, even though you do not understand why. I was human once, like you—part of me is human still. But if any of my old friends were here with you now, they would think me a stranger. Homura‐chan would demand to know what I have done with the Madoka she knew. But the truth is, I am her. One cannot live forever and truly stay the same."
Ryouko swallowed, nodding again. This version of the Goddess was different than the ones she had met previously. More overbearing, less kind—
"Less human. Yes, it is true. Sometimes, I can barely remember what it is like to be human. At times like that, my divinity overwhelms me, and I become just the Law of Cycles, just a Law. In the end, that is why I spend the time to focus on my family, on Kyouko‐chan and Mami‐san. I could have achieved my goals in other ways, but this helps me remember. Otherwise, the nature of infinity begins to weigh on me, and every magical girl begins to look like every other, every soul indistinguishable from so many others."
"Why all the secrecy? Why did you allow what happened to my family?" Ryouko asked, the words seeming to come unbidden to her lips, and the voice that answered her echoed in her heart.
"Omniscience is a terrible burden, especially when you are also timeless, so that you have infinite time to examine every possible implication, and to perform every possible task. In that kind of situation, you are responsible for every single implication of what you do, and the terrible thing is, no decision is perfect. I only have limited capacity to intervene, and every time I do, everything I do must be crafted exactly. The sad truth is, there is no karma in this world that I have seen, other than what society and I myself have enforced. It is entirely possible for me to save an innocent life, and kill thousands or even millions in the future, and equally possible for me to have someone killed, and in so doing vastly improve the world."
"But even beyond that, it is worth asking: What does it mean to have a better world? If I truly were omnipotent, and could intervene anywhere at any time, would a world where I did everything, and made every decision, truly be better? If, with a hundred visions, I directed the lives of a hundred girls, and in doing so saved a single life, would that life be truly worth saving? Everything depends on the values you choose to apply, and no set of values is perfect, not even the one I choose to use. The world was not ready for the existence of our kind, so we were kept secret until it was. In the case of my own family, where certain metaphysical connections allow me to exercise unusual control, events must be arranged with particular care. It is your special burden to bear this, to have less freedom to live your own life."
"Tell me, then: Will you presume to judge me for my actions, when you have no understanding of the implications?"
Ryouko's lip quivered, and the words of the Goddess weakened her, but she forced herself to look up, at those terrible eyes.
Then, suddenly, the woman was gone, and she found herself looking into the eyes of a girl, the teenage form of the Goddess.
"It's terrible, isn't it?" the girl asked, and this time it was a very human voice, with none of the cadences of before. "It all sounds so wrong. It sounds like the Incubators talking. I hated their logic, and you hated mine. You shouldn't bow your head to me, just because of what I am. You feel in your heart what is right, just like I felt in my heart, when I wished this new world into being. That is part of being human, that rebellion. I care about my family, and my friends, and because I do, your world is not as good as it could be. It weighs on me, but perfection can't be everything. I have the right to care. It is my right!"
Ryouko realized, abruptly, that the Goddess was crying.
"I—" she began again, reaching out, and the girl disappeared again, replaced this time by a young woman—only a bit older than Ryouko herself, but definitely older.
"Emotions are what make us human, Ryouko," the woman said, reaching out and grasping Ryouko's shoulder. "It's what gives us our power, and makes us special. You have heard as much, from the Incubators. It's sad, isn't it? The universe turns on sterile logic, so it is only natural that the Incubators do the same. Everything must become efficient, reach a final state. It is like entropy itself. Why is the gift confined to only us?"
Ryouko met the woman's eyes, and this time they were warm, and loving. There was no terrible omniscience in them, not this time.
The woman dropped her arm.
"Well, I suppose that is it for now. You have a lot to think about."
Ryouko scrunched her face at the dismissal.
"Wait, no. I want to ask you: What do I do now? I don't want to just hang out on Earth for the next few months. I made a wish to get away from that!"
The woman giggled, sounding strangely girlish.
"You think I would tell you, so bluntly?" she said. "I want you to live your own life, whatever my plans for you. Things have a way of working out. And you know, you and Asami‐chan make a cute couple, even if there's—well, for now, I think things will be fine. You know, I gave her a vision too, since I thought it would be cruel to leave her out. I'm giving her relationship advice, right now."
"Relationship advice," Ryouko echoed emptily.
"Oh yes," Kaname Madoka said, waving. "Anyway, goodbye now. Don't tell Kyouko‐chan anything!"
The material world lurched back into existence around her, without even giving her a moment to realize what had happened. Ryouko's eyes snapped open, and she looked up, finding the red eyes of Kyubey looking down upon her, from on top of the box that contained the Ribbon.
Next to her, Asami gasped, and she glanced over, finding the girl looking back at her. She looked awestruck.
Ryouko looked around, and found the crowd staring at her, Kyouko with arms crossed and one eyebrow raised.
"Was it really necessary to teleport us straight back to your room?" Asami asked. "I know it's within your range and all, but—"
"I'm not ready to face Kyouko‐chan, or any of that," Ryouko said, lying face down on her bed.
Asami furrowed her brow.
"Kyouko‐chan? You mean the Cult leader? Why '‐chan'?"
"Yes, her. And, sorry, my tongue slipped."
Asami rubbed her hands nervously, and Ryouko knew she had to say something. A vision could be a life‐changing experience, and she had been dragging Asami around like a doll.
Ryouko sat up.
"So, what did the Goddess say to you?" she asked, not sure what else to lead with.
"I can't believe she's real," Asami said, looking at her incredulously. "You knew? Do you talk with her regularly?"
Yes, apparently, Ryouko thought, answering the question in her own head—but not to Asami.
"It's complicated," she said out loud. "Anyway, what did she tell you?"
She was being a bit cruel, buffaloing Asami into telling her about her vision, before Asami had a chance to realize she should ask Ryouko about Ryouko's vision.
Asami rubbed her hands again.
"Well, I haven't been having a good time lately," she said. "I'm scared to go back into combat, and I don't want to leave you, but she made me feel better. Gave me a little perspective. And, uh—"
The girl cut herself off and looked away. Ryouko looked at her curiously, then realized she was blushing.
"Well, I, uh—"
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," Ryouko said, backing off. "It's okay. Let me go ask my mom if we can have some food. Well, not my mom—"
"She said if I wanted anything physical from you, I'd wait forever, so I have to be the one to bring it up."
Ryouko peered at her.
"What?" she asked.
While I hate to interrupt, Clarisse thought, transmitting the thought to both of them. I feel I should stop this now, and point out that you have surprise visitors. They just pinged you to check if you're available.
Ryouko pushed the previous conversation forcefully to the back of her mind.
Joanne Valentin and Shizuki Sayaka? she thought, incredulously, responding to them in the affirmative.
She bustled outside, where her father was hastily trying to make the front room look presentable. She did what she could to help him, and Asami appeared behind her a moment later.
"If I may ask," she relayed to Sayaka. "What is this about?"
"Well," Sayaka texted back a moment later. "We have a proposal for you."