I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
— Walt Whitman, "I Sing the Body Electric," Leaves of Grass.
One would think that after centuries of continued investigation, the physical (or metaphysical) interpretation of the mathematics of quantum mechanics or, as it is now known, Field Theory, would have been clarified at least somewhat, but that has proven not to be the case. While the mathematics of the theory are reasonably self‐consistent, attempts to interpret the physical meaning of the theory in human terms, in a way not reliant on mathematical formalism, continue to lead to puzzling concepts, many of which have disturbing philosophical implications.
Over time, the field has transitioned into two main camps. On the one hand, there are the mathematical realists, who insist that the mathematical objects underlying the theory are reality, and the formalism is the true platonic ideal of existence, of which our experience is only an approximation. On the other side, you have those who insist that this lack of physical intuition only indicates our failure to truly understand the depths of the theory, pointing to gaps in our knowledge that likely still exist.
This latter position has been significantly buttressed by the events of recent years. The revelation of seemingly impossible alien technology, as well as the existence of Incubators and their assorted, seemingly unphysical technologies, point clearly to an incomplete understanding of the world, and theoretical physics is experiencing a new burst of interest and study. Someday, perhaps, we may know if the multiverse is truly a real phenomenon.
— Joanne Valentin, excerpt from blog post on Irxiv, 2447
Asami fiddled with her soul gem ring.
It was a nervous habit she had developed recently, a tic that showed itself whenever she found herself faced with an unpleasant situation. She knew it was there, but she found it difficult to suppress the urge, especially now that she no longer had Ryouko's soul gem on her finger. The sensation of something missing seemed always to be with her.
She had turned the gem over to the scientists at the Prometheus Institute for the revival process. They had estimated it would be done within the day, but there had since been unspecified "delays", and now she was looking at another three days of waiting. She was paranoid, and Kyouko had even indirectly confirmed to her that she had plenty of reason to be paranoid, but… Ryouko's father himself was heading the revival team, and if anyone had a reason to do a good job, he did.
As for the unpleasant situation she was facing, that was a consequence of the fact that she was back on Earth at all, a fact that even Ryouko's mother had found puzzling. Kuroi Nakase, her sister, Meiqing, and Sacnite had returned to Earth as well, but they were staying in visitor accommodations elsewhere in the city.
Leaving Asami, very reasonably, back with her parents, where she didn't want to be.
"You know, I'm not sure it's a good thing those security agents are gone," her mother said, trying to peer into Asami's eyes. "They were awfully nice, and you know, I did feel more secure with them here. We were so scared for you, after that explosion at the lab. I can't believe you two decided to go back out there after something like that. I would have at least spent some time recovering."
The security detail—actually two rival security details from Ryouko's confusing Matriarchy heritage—had followed Ryouko's soul gem to Prometheus, where Asami genuinely wished them the best in protecting Ryouko. She was glad they weren't with her, though; the two groups were hardly friendly with each other, and had spent nearly all their time openly trying to shove each other out of the picture, while simultaneously buttering up everyone affiliated with Ryouko with almost groan‐inducing friendliness.
This included the junior magical girl team leads—one per each team, both hardly older than Asami herself—actually shoving each other in the doorway when they had first arrived on Eurydome, an affair that Meiqing had to intervene to stop. It had been comedic at the time, but the whole thing had quickly gotten tiresome.
Her mother quietly shoved more chicken cutlets onto her plate, almost as a matter of course. Asami had learned to give up arguing with her mom about food. Her mother clearly felt comforted by the gesture, and it really wouldn't hurt her to eat it—and if Asami were being honest, she really had trouble eating much at home nowadays, since she was always struck by the urge to leave the table as soon as possible.
Asami glanced at her younger brother, Riki, who she sensed looking at her. He immediately cast his eyes away from her. He had been… rather bemused to learn that the girl he had had a crush on had become his sister's girlfriend. Well, he had never been the most perceptive of brothers.
"For me it's the opposite," Asami's father said, from the other side of the table, cutting into a piece of meat. "I'm glad they're here if they're necessary, but the fact that they're necessary only makes me more worried. I'm worried about your safety."
"I'm sure she'll be fine, dear," her mother said, placing one hand lovingly on her father's arm. It was the kind of casual contact that signified a thriving relationship—Asami would know, having secretly gobbled all the relationship advice writing she could.
It also made her vaguely sick to her stomach. She remembered well when her father had hardly ever been home, when her mother had been a terrible cook, and when the two of them had screamed at each other regularly at the dinner table.
She would have been crazy to miss that, and didn't, but…
At the heart of her wish to keep her parents together had been a desire for a normal loving family, of the kind you could find in stereotyped dramas, and the wish had kindly fulfilled her desires.
It took her a while to notice, but she missed who they used to be, defects and all.
Her father used to take her with him on benders through bars in the city, a practice that drove her mother up a wall, but that she had secretly enjoyed—it certainly beat dull hours doing homework, or trying to keep herself entertained when she had no friends to speak of.
Her mother had hardly been much more sober, and had a habit of drinking heavily on occasion. She didn't get violent or angry—instead she got moody, and seemed to be lost in her past. On occasion, she had gathered her daughter to her side and dispensed advice about topics that she was certainly too young to know that much detail about.
None of that happened anymore, and it was those things she missed. Not the bars, not the "advice", just the people her parents had used to be.
They weren't the same people anymore, and she had done it to them. It was that knowledge that ate at her now. How was that much better than the cult leader on X‐25 implanting memories into clones, making them into who they were not?
"Are you okay, Asami‐chan?" her mother asked, looking at her with concern. She hadn't been eating.
"Oh I'm fine," she insisted, poking hurriedly at her food. Sometimes she wondered what exactly her parents thought of her, and whether or not it was obvious that she was avoiding them. That was the kind of thing that could be easily written off to her being a teenager, she knew, but she wondered if they suspected at all that there was a deeper reason.
And she couldn't speak to them about it. Not now, not ever.
"Look, it's probably necessary that we address the elephant in the room," her father said, trying to give her a meaningful gaze. "I'm glad everything turned out alright on this X‐25 mission, and our friends are still buzzing about seeing you on the news, but did you really have to go on a mission like this? At the very least, if your girlfriend really wanted to go, you didn't have to follow her. It'd be one thing if they didn't give you a choice, but they did. Your mother and I weren't happy to hear that, you know."
Asami sighed. She had considered taking the easy way. She could have simply told her parents that they had been ordered to go. They wouldn't have had anything to say then, and they would have had no way of knowing otherwise. Who would they have asked?
But… she had felt her parents deserved better than that, that they should know the truth, at least this time.
She had known what their reaction would be, and that it would not be much different than how they had responded to the news that she intended to travel to Eurydome with a brand‐new girlfriend and live with her there. Then, their approval had been grudging at best, and only because Asami had couched it as the only way she could get off the front lines.
How, then, to explain her decision to go on the X‐25 mission?
"We didn't feel entirely safe staying on Eurydome after what happened at the lab," Asami said, "and Ryouko was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic staying there. Sakura‐san made a personal request for us to go, and we thought it sounded reasonable."
Asami left out any mention of Ryouko's aunt, who she had been told in no uncertain terms to pretend didn't exist.
"Reasonable?" her father asked rhetorically, cutting into a chicken cutlet with his knife. "Taking on a mission like that? If your girlfriend was bored, she could have gotten a hobby. If she's the kind of girl who actually wants to be involved in things like that, then I have to say I have serious concerns about this relationship. I can only say it sounds misguided on her part."
"Don't be like that, Dad," Riki said, surprising Asami by speaking before she could.
His parents looked as surprised as she was. Her younger brother didn't ever involve himself in these kinds of conversations, a defensive habit that stemmed from before her contract, when Asami often spoke for both of them to spare him from her parents' wrath.
"Not everyone can just 'get a hobby' to do what they want," Riki said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting a career in the military. Look at how much Shizuki‐chan has been in the news! Besides, it's not like she's a regular member of the military. She's always doing special forces type stuff."
"Shizuki‐chan?" Asami's mom asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Shizuki‐san. I slipped. Anyway, I know it's probably not easy for nee‐chan to be involved in this kind of thing, because she obviously doesn't like the violence, but that's for the two of them to hash out, right?"
Asami had her own questions about what her brother had been thinking about Shizuki‐chan, but was overall grateful for the interruption, which had evidently derailed the train of parental disapproval. Her parents looked bemused for a moment—though only for a moment.
"That's a huge oversimplification, Riki‐kun," her father said, giving her brother a not‐so‐subtle look that signaled he was interrupting in business too important for him. "This is more serious than just a matter of what they want to do with their lives. Obviously you're free to do whatever you want, but this is the one thing that comes with the chance to die. It was bad enough that she made the contract, but now she's turning down the chance to work a normal job for a chance to go back to fighting. It's crazy."
Her mother grabbed her father's arm, glancing at Asami.
"Don't talk about death," she said. "You're upsetting her. You're getting carried away."
Asami didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The sad truth was, she wasn't afraid of death per se, not anymore. If there was anything that was stabilizing about having strong evidence of the existence of a Goddess of Magical Girls—one she had even talked to!—it was that she no longer had to fear the implications of death without an afterlife.
The only thing she was really worried about right now was losing her, the centralizing force that had opened her eyes to a broader world and given her a new lease on life after her wish had gone so painfully wrong, after a life that had been miserable. The force the Goddess had verbally instructed her to keep an eye on.
That was why she was visibly upset. Not at the idea of death, or even her father criticizing the risks she was taking. The–the nerve of it, for these imposters to criticize her contract, her wish that had brought them into being.
MSY doctrine implied that the soul was inviolate, but then what exactly had she done to her parents? What did it mean to have the same soul, but memories and personality that were so different?
She stood up from the table, not really sure yet what she was going to do.
"I'm not hungry right now," she said as blandly as she could. "I'll be in my room."
I'm sorry, she thought, as she walked away.
…subsystem test complete. Outcome nominal.
Stimulus response nominal. Thalamocortical feedback within predicted range. Randomized testing matches previous recordings. All outcomes nominal. Entering standby…
Don't just leave like that— Ryouko began, before realizing there was no Goddess to hear her thoughts, not here.
Easy there, Clarisse thought, soothing. They're just running some last checks before they wake you. I guess I'm your company.
It was Clarisse's voice that had been reading the test outcomes into her mind, Ryouko realized, though the voice had transitioned from smooth and mechanical to warm and human.
I guess you are, Ryouko thought. She should have been more distressed, waking up to an empty void deprived of sensory input, but the vision with the Goddess had clued her into what was about to happen—and she assumed Clarisse was doing something to keep her calm.
You're still alive? Ryouko blurted out crassly. I thought—if I ever lost my bod—
Yes, I'm surprised too, Clarisse thought. I had expected, best case, to be pushing up daisies in whatever afterlife this magical girl goddess has in store. She gave me an answer this time, you know. I do have a soul. Strictly speaking, my body was vaporized by the laser, but since your soul gem was kind enough to consider my body part of your body, it went to the trouble to rebuild me. It turns out, when you get revived from a perfect copy like that, your soul transfers. According to her, the soul, being free of linear time, isn't troubled by gaps in space‐time like that. It's very nice to have a reliable divine source for such troubling philosophical questions. I can think of a couple of starship AIs who might want the reassurance, if they'll believe me.
I… see, Ryouko responded, realizing that this was a distinctly odd conversation to be having at a time like this. But what happens if you duplicate—
Yeah, I got shoved back here right when I was about to ask, Clarisse thought. I've been kept occupied with making sure things are up‐to‐spec with your brain. They usually run these things through the clone's TacComp, you know, though I think they were surprised I got fully restored. Anyway, I hope you don't mind that I woke you a bit early to chat. I thought it'd be best to get this out of the way.
You woke me early? Ryouko thought.
Yeah, Clarisse thought. The doctors seem annoyed at me for it, but I'm ignoring them. There's something else I need to talk to you about, but now really isn't the time. They've finally decided to have me bring the rest of you online. Hold on.
For a moment, nothing seemed any different, but then sensation crept back into her awareness: the vague sense of being horizontal, the presence of her muscles and joints, the rhythmic movement of her diaphragm, the thousands of tiny sensations through which the brain kept watch over its domain. She felt the distinct, uncomfortable sensation of objects pressed against her skin, of things that, perhaps, even went under her skin.
Finally, a sense of darkness heralded the return of her vision, and she began to hear the quiet noises of the room around her.
"I can't believe it came back," someone whispered. "The Ethics Committee is going to kill us—"
She snapped her eyes open.
Her mother loomed over her with an expression of studied concern. From the corner of her eye, she could see her father caught between peering at a tablet with one eye and at Ryouko with the other.
And standing next to her mother was, of course, Asami, who she was at the moment quite glad to see. Like her parents, she represented a bedrock of familiarity in what was starting to seem like an increasingly warped world.
Asami was making an odd, scrunched‐up expression, holding her hands up to her face. Ryouko didn't understand what it meant until she opened her mouth to say something, and Asami dove forward, startling her.
She held the girl against her as she bawled on her shoulder, reflecting that this, after all, was real. The sensation of skin against skin, of hair twisting with hair, of hormones in the bloodstream. She wasn't sure if it were possible to replicate such things in the Goddess's afterlife.
I missed you, Asami thought.
It's good to be back, Ryouko thought, smiling.
She looked up, and her mother smiled down at her, then shook her head slightly. Ryouko knew what her mother was thinking.
First‐timers. Never handle it well. You get used to it.
She held up her hand and regarded it, drumming her fingers against the air. That was right, wasn't it? She should have been bothered by the fact that she was in a new body, that the one she had been born into, the one that she had once inhabited, was gone now.
And yet she wasn't. Maybe it was the amount of time she had spent in visions, maybe it was her parents' background, or maybe it was seeing Asami undergo the same thing, but it just didn't seem to bother her.
"You gave us quite a scare, Ryouko," her mother said, leaning over towards the two of them. "I warned you about taking missions like this. We're just glad you made it back with soul gem intact."
"Don't give her that kind of talk," her father said, striding over and pocketing his tablet in his lab coat. "She knew what she was doing, and she made it back, didn't she?"
Her father and mother glared daggers at each over the foot of her bed, and Ryouko felt the old discomfort returning. Her life on Earth was now completely gone—if it had ever been there to start with.
You don't know what it was like, without you, Asami thought. I don't have anything here anymore!
I think I might, Ryouko thought, looking at her parents.
They hugged there for a moment longer, but a sense of uneasiness had intruded into her mind‐state. She couldn't shake the feeling that there was something, or someone right behind her.
"I am sorry to intrude," Joanne Valentin said, appearing behind her from one of the back corners of the room, "but there is a bit to discuss regarding the circumstances of Ryouko‐san's revival. If I may?"
She looked at Ryouko's parents, who nodded, and Asami stood back up, looking a combination of embarrassed and defiant.
"Well, as I'm sure you've noticed, Ryouko‐san's revival has been substantially delayed. Part of this was due to her unusual genetics, though we have considerable experience dealing with cases like hers. The primary reason was, however, her upgraded Version Two Tactical Computer, which her soul gem saw fit to restore along with the rest of her nervous system. We have not previously had to restore a Version Two user in this fashion, so this unexpected result necessitated a redesign of the procedure."
They nodded, and she continued:
"I am happy to report, however, that thus far everything seems to have gone smoothly. With any luck, we will be able to clear her after only a few more days of monitoring."
There was a moment of silence while they waited to see if Joanne would continue.
"Well, this whole thing only makes the situation with the Version Twos even more complicated," her father said, glancing at Ryouko. "It is very lucky that she was moved to Earth, then, since we designed the Version Two, after all. Was it anticipated that something unusual might happen?"
"As you said, we designed it," Joanne said, giving her father an inscrutable look. "We've been on the look‐out for a Version Two bodyloss for a while, because we needed the data. I think the results here soundly affirm the value of said data. There was of course some risk associated with the interstellar transport, but there would have also been some risk allowing another facility to handle the procedure. Especially given her unusual genetic background."
"The Version Twos continue to be quite a puzzle, for sure," her father said.
I wonder if they've considered just asking one of us, Clarisse thought dryly.
That's not how this kind of thing works, Ryouko responded.
"Anyway, I wanted to personally convey my apologies for the delay," Joanne said, "and my thankfulness for your cooperation. On a separate, personal note, I'd like to say that I heard about the unfortunate incident on Eurydome. A real shame. I thought their experimental facilities were better designed than that, but I suppose they're no Adept Blue. We're going to have to look into other placement opportunities, since I doubt you have any urge to move to an asteroid."
Joanne's oddly unsettling eyes peered at Ryouko. There was something about them that reminded her of… well, something. She wasn't sure what.
So she doesn't know what really happened at the facility, Ryouko thought.
I wouldn't say that, Clarisse said. I get the feeling she knows a lot more than she lets on. And I can't tell what's familiar about her either—the memory trace is too vague.
"Ah, yeah, probably not Adept Blue," Ryouko said, finally remembering that she was supposed to say something. "I'm, uh, grateful for your hard work."
It had finally begun to dawn on her just how close she had been to losing Clarisse, in a metaphorical sense at least. She had gotten used to the comforting internal voice, and would have felt empty without it. It was odd, given that she had spent most of her life alone in her own head.
Joanne Valentin smiled and nodded.
"Alright, well, I'll stop intruding, but it's about time the technicians removed the tubing. Nakihara‐san, I wouldn't recommend you stick around for this."
Asami swallowed and shook her head.
"It's alright. I was here myself before, so…"
Joanne nodded, then turned and left the room, privacy door sliding shut behind her.
Ryouko had, of course, finally remembered to look under the sheets that covered her. She had forgotten entirely about the vague objects she felt on her, and what she saw… was morbidly fascinating, and more than a little disturbing.
Wiring that ran to all her accessible dataports, electrodes in strategic locations, and tubing that ran into parts of her flesh. She wouldn't have credited it was there—somehow, she barely felt them.
She hadn't watched all of Asami's procedure, so it was all very new to her.
"Don't worry," her mother said. "It looks scary, but pulling them out is quite painless."
A short while later they headed out into the waiting room, where Ryouko was stunned to find a surprising number of her friends gathered, including Meiqing, her old friends Chiaki and Ruiko, and none other than Sacnite, who ran forward to pull Ryouko into an unexpected hug. Ryouko indulged the girl for a moment, but kept her eyes open, querying her nomenclator on the identities of two new girls standing next to the group, openly glowering at each other.
Just as the nomenclator returned a result, one of the girls stepped forward.
"Greetings, Shizuki Ryouko‐san," the girl said, bowing formally and allowing her short hair to fall over her eyes. "I am Kuroi Eri, part of the security detail that has been assigned to you. My presence was requested by our matriarch and it is an honor—"
"Don't give her that bullshit!" the other girl—Shizuki Elanis—said, stepping in front of Eri and sticking a finger in her face. "We had a deal! This is our security detail, and you should introduce us properly."
Eri glanced at the other girl, let out a breath, then continued:
"Alright, part of the joint security detail that has been assigned to you. Our presence here was requested by both of our matriarchs, and it is an honor to finally meet you. While Elanis and I are relatively young, we are backed by established, though non‐magical, security professionals, and we have had combat training. I hope you'll understand that the war effort cannot spare true veterans."
Eri bowed formally again and Elanis followed suit a moment later. This was followed by sharp glaring, clearly accompanied by an angry telepathic conversation.
"Security detail?" Ryouko asked openly, letting go of Sacnite, who peered back at her with wide, wondrous eyes. It was odd to be so treated by a girl Ryouko could hardly even say she knew.
Courtesy of your matriarchs, Meiqing thought quietly, sidling up to them. They absolutely insisted, after all that has happened to you, especially whatever it is that happened in the lab you were staying in. Can't lose a valuable asset, after all. Personally, I'm not sure how much they help.
There's more than two, though? Ryouko asked.
Oh yes, though you probably don't have to meet more than the two leaders. They're all lurking around somewhere, monitoring the perimeter or something like that. They don't like each other, but neither of them will back down, so we're stuck with both of them.
Ryouko made a face.
"Alright, I understand," she said to Eri and Elanis, who were still clearly busy having an argument over their respective turfs. "Thank you for your support, I'm sure I will feel much safer with you around. Will you two be, uh, staying around?"
"Oh no, Shizuki‐san," Eri said, shaking her head. "We'll stay invisible, don't you worry. Isn't that right, Elanis‐chan?"
"I told you not to call me that!" Elanis said.
"Well I can't call you Shizuki‐san, since that would be confusing."
"You're just jealous she's not called Kuroi. Ugh, let's just go. We're embarrassing ourselves."
The two bodyguards filed out of the room, leaving an awkward silence in their wake.
"Ah, Ryouko, it's so nice to finally see you again. I was terrified after I heard what happened."
That voice, in shy Standard, came from Sacnite, though it took Ryouko a moment to recognize it. It was the same voice, but something about it sounded so… different.
"It's good to see you too," Ryouko said, bending over slightly to peer at the other girl. "How has it been?"
Privately, Ryouko wondered what Sacnite was even doing here. It also seemed to her that the girl was smaller than she had been before.
The girl moved her foot in small circles, looking down shyly.
"Well, the doctors said it'd be good for me to spend time with some of you, since I don't really know anyone else…"
Ryouko's mother tapped her on the shoulder, pulling her aside a moment later.
"The memory deterioration is getting worse," she whispered. "The MHD recommended slowly lowering her physical age back into something that more accurately matches her personality. She's in my care, for now. Just bear with it."
Ryouko looked back at the child, who was now clinging to Asami's arm. She wasn't sure how to feel about any of it, other than an empty sadness for Sacnite.
"Hey, it will be alright," she said awkwardly, patting the other girl on the head. "Look, I'm fine now."
"Yeah," Sacnite said, sniffing.
The door to the room slid open a moment.
"Absolute jokers!" Kyouko said, stomping into the room on a wave of anger. "As if I need to be screened!"
Kyouko didn't bother to explain her comment, brushing off her sleeve in dismissive anger. It was a loud, attention‐grabbing entrance, and Ryouko wasn't sure that was unintentional.
Kyouko cleared her throat a moment later, then looked at Ryouko.
"I heard you were back alive," she said, peering at Ryouko out of the corner of her eye. "I hate to interrupt, but do you mind if we had a little chat in private? There's something we need to talk about."
It was an unusual request, and Ryouko looked around at her friends before responding. They seemed as nonplussed as she was, but her mother shrugged and nudged her forward.
"We'll be fine," she said. "Go ahead. I'm sure you two have much to talk about."
As she walked toward Kyouko, she quickly reviewed the reasons why Kyouko might want to talk to her. It didn't seem—
Oh right, she realized, doing the mental equivalent of slapping herself on the forehead. She had sacrificed her body to save Kyouko, and it hadn't occurred to her yet that it might be considered a big deal, or even that Kyouko might have died despite it. For her, it had only been the span of one vision, but for the others it had been…
About ten days, Clarisse thought, before Ryouko had time to consult her chronometer. She hadn't even thought to check which day it was.
Kyouko nodded as Ryouko reached the door, shepherding her out into the long hallway that connected the waiting rooms of Prometheus with the world outside, carefully isolated from the rest of the building. At the moment the area was deserted.
"First off, I want to thank you for saving my life," Kyouko said, the exact moment the doors closed behind them. "It's been a long time since I've been in any really dangerous situation, and I guess I've lost my touch. I'm sorry for losing my head."
"That's alright," Ryouko said. "It has to happen to everyone at some point, right?"
She said the words without thinking, out of social instinct, and immediately regretted them. Was that really the right thing to say to an Ancient?
Kyouko gave Ryouko an odd look, but shook her head and said:
"Well, I just thought I should say something like that in person. I owe you, okay?"
To Ryouko's surprise, Kyouko stuck out a hand, smiling mischievously. It took Ryouko a moment to realize she was supposed to shake it, which she did. Kyouko's grip was painful.
Finally, Kyouko released her hand, grinning, before abruptly losing her smile a moment later.
Anyway, I had something else I wanted to talk about too. I heard your revival was a bit delayed. Did they tell you why?
Yeah, it's because of my Version Two TacComp, Ryouko thought, surprised by the sudden switch to private telepathy. Apparently my soul gem revived it, which they didn't expect, so they had to modify the procedure.
Anything else? Kyouko asked.
Ryouko turned her head slightly, wondering at the point of this line of questioning.
Not really, she said. That was the main reason they gave.
Well, that's interesting, Kyouko thought.
Before they could continue, the sound of footsteps behind Kyouko drew their attention.
Ryouko surprised herself by successfully containing her shock at the new arrival. It was the last person she would have expected to see here, or anywhere, someone who by reputation was almost never seen in person anymore.
But am I really surprised? she thought, reflecting on the contents of the vision she had just had.
"Well this is a surprise," Kyouko said, eyeing Chitose Yuma as she approached, flanked on one side by a spherical flying drone whose purpose Ryouko couldn't discern.
"I thought I'd come pay a visit to the girl who saved your life," Yuma said, casting a glance between the two of them. "There aren't many opportunities nowadays for anyone to claim the distinction of saving one of us. Of course, it helped that I knew you'd probably be here too. Do you two have the time to talk elsewhere? It's claustrophobic standing here talking in this hall."
Ryouko glanced at the sliding door behind which her family was still waiting.
"Only if it doesn't take too long," Kyouko said, gesturing with her head towards the same door. "Maybe send your family a message, Ryouko."
Yuma nodded, catching the meaning even as Ryouko followed through with Kyouko's suggestion.
"There's a botanical garden just down this hall," she said. "It's a place for outgoing patients to visit and relax, so it suits our exact purposes."
They followed Yuma down the hall, Ryouko wondering whether Yuma had been here before. Probably, she decided.
The botanical garden turned out to be indoors, though pure sunlight that seemed to filter down through the canopy left her blinking in confusion at first. She knew very well that it was impossible to get this much sunlight in Mitakihara without ascending to the top of one of the tallest buildings.
"It's an illusion," a holographic attendant standing by the doorway explained. "The ceiling is designed to resemble the natural sky."
"Ah," Ryouko responded.
Yuma led them to a clearing set near one of the sidewalls of the facility, where giant glass windows gazed upon a sunny view of Mitakihara from the sea—clearly another illusion.
Ryouko took a moment to pause and peer at the leaves of a nearby tall bush, pulling one of the branches over for closer inspection. The dark green tissue of the leaf was shot through with light green leaf veins and… tendrils of blue? Was this an alien plant?
"This facility is part of a project working on the computational modification of plant life," Yuma said, by way of explanation. "Sensors, transceivers, and computing modules that grow along with the plants themselves. There's a lot of potential for enhancing our terraforming capability, both for new colonies and the lost regions of Earth. Governance is particularly interested in the possibility of embedding computing capability into the ecosystem itself, so that vast computing power could be deployed without unduly disturbing the appearance of the existing biosphere. It's one of my favorite projects."
Indeed, Yuma had the look of a girl describing a pet project, and Ryouko caught Kyouko giving Yuma an odd look.
"That sounds a little disturbing, to be honest," Kyouko said.
"You say that about everything," Yuma said, rolling her eyes.
"That's because everything you do is disturbing," Kyouko retorted.
Ryouko watched Yuma for a long moment, the girl framed by the illusory sunlight and cityscape of the window behind her. She seemed so different from what she might have imagined—not the bright, happy heart of the Mitakihara Four the media portrayed, nor the dark phantom in so many of the stories, nor even the suave diplomat she had met at the birthday party.
This one seemed more real, more like the Yuma she had seen sitting with Mami and… MG? in her scarcely‐processed vision.
Yuma made no move to start the discussion, merely looking at the two of them expectantly.
"Any progress on knowing who exactly I was being saved from, then?" Kyouko asked. "Since you made such a point of coming here to see the girl who did it."
"Well, it's not the first time I've met her," Yuma demurred, ducking her head slightly. "But the last time was hardly a conversation."
She shook her head.
"Anyway, I won't say there was no progress, but… there hasn't been enough progress to report is I suppose the way to put it. But we'd be getting ahead of ourselves to talk about that here. How are you doing, Ryouko‐chan? The new body treating you well?"
Yuma stuck out a hand for Ryouko to shake, but for a moment all Ryouko could see was the Yuma seen in flashback in her vision: young, vulnerable, and incredibly dangerous.
The image passed in a moment, leaving her in shock at the difference four centuries could make—though she had a feeling "incredibly dangerous" was still an accurate descriptor.
Ryouko took her hand and completed the handshake, a moment too late. She hoped Yuma interpreted her hesitation as surprise that Yuma hadn't exchanged bows instead.
"I'm doing, uh, fine," Ryouko said a moment later. "I mean, I just got put back together, so you know, one moment I'm diving in front of Kyouko, the next I'm here."
She realized, too late, that she had lied out of nervousness, but what else was she supposed to say?
"Yes, I understand," Yuma said. "You know, they say us Ancients have a lot of experience, but most of us are still wearing the same ancient bodies. Ship of Theseus aside, you younger girls have experienced something none of us ever have. It's worth respecting."
"I suppose," Ryouko said, surprised by the politeness of Yuma's comment and, of course, unsure what to say. She didn't think she had time to look up what Yuma meant by "Ship of Theseus".
"Did they mention anything unusual about the revival process?" Yuma asked. "I heard there was a delay."
It was the second time the question had come up, enough that Ryouko felt a tiny twinge of suspicion, but Yuma's face seemed open and honest, almost a mirror of Sacnite's, and Ryouko couldn't help but be moved.
"There was a slight delay because of my Version Two TacComp," Ryouko said, unsure how much detail to give, "but other than that, nothing."
"Good," Yuma said.
She turned towards Kyouko, and for the first time Ryouko became conscious of an apparent tension between the two Ancients, conveyed most clearly in Kyouko's body language. The tension had lingered in the back of her mind and had colored Yuma's entrance, increasing Ryouko's wariness in turn, but only now was she fully aware of it.
"You see," Yuma said. "Your old hang‐ups almost got a wonderful girl like her killed. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Yuma's tone was jokingly accusing, but something in her demeanor suggested that it wasn't really a joke.
"Don't try to guilt me," Kyouko said, giving the other girl an odd look. "Not here, not now. It's only a fluke, and you know it."
"It's a fluke that could happen because you won't deal with it," Yuma said, leaning forward. "In the long run, this kind of thing will keep happening, even if it's only once in a long while, and eventually it's going to get you. You can't have these flaws! You just can't!"
"Who cares, Yuma? No one is going to live forever, and I don't care if I can't! I don't care about long‐term stability! I'll live until I die, and then that's it. Then I can see the Goddess, and I can move on."
Yuma openly staggered at the comment, looking shocked for the first time in Ryouko's brief experience. It occurred to Ryouko that this conversation had all the flavor of an unfinished argument renewed, and that Yuma had probably used her as a tool to corner Kyouko into a discussion she didn't want to have.
She knew she should have felt bothered, but the apparent earnestness of Yuma's dialogue roused her sympathy.
"Don't you say that!" Yuma said, child's face marred by sudden anger. "Don't you ever say that! I haven't spent all these years keeping you alive so you can waste it all on a death wish!"
Yuma's face blanched, instantly regretting her outburst. It seemed out of character for her.
Maybe she just finished telling MG about her past, Clarisse thought. I wouldn't blame her for being shaken after that.
You saw that vision? Ryouko thought, surprised even though she shouldn't have been. She simply hadn't had any time to think about anything, and here she was facing down both Yuma and Kyouko.
Yes, Clarisse thought, or at least that part of it.
Clarisse had done Ryouko the favor of accelerating their internal conversation, allowing Ryouko enough time to watch Kyouko react, face starting to twist in anger, before visibly restraining herself.
"I don't have a death wish," Kyouko said, voice quiet. "I'm just being realistic. You can't control everything, Yuma‐chan. That's your problem, isn't it? Trying to keep your hand in everything."
Kyouko looked down for a moment. Kyouko sounded very different from her normal self. Older, more thoughtful, perhaps.
"That's why you're here, to try to use Ryouko here to change my behavior," Kyouko continued. "But I don't aspire to keep all the variables under control. I prefer to let the Goddess handle that kind of thing."
Yuma closed her eyes for a moment at the response, leaving Ryouko to shift uncomfortably. Should she try to leave?
Before Ryouko could make that decision, Yuma opened her eyes again to respond.
"Where was your Goddess all those years ago, though, nee‐chan?" she said. "Where was she for me, or Oriko‐nee‐chan, or Miki‐san?"
Kyouko's eyebrow twitched, even as Ryouko struggled to remember who "Miki‐san" was.
She was in the vision, Clarisse thought. It's not showing up in your NeverForget module, but she was the girl who used to be part of the Mitakihara team, the one Yuma had ramen with.
Kyouko paused for a moment, effort poured into taking a deep breath.
"You're doing it again," she said, peering at Yuma. "You're trying to make me angry, so you can make the point you want to make. What do you want me to say? I've had a long time to think about it. I am sure the Goddess has her reasons, so yes, Sayaka's death served a purpose, and sure, I should move on. That's what you're going to say."
Yuma peered back and nodded, slowly and purposefully.
"I'm glad I don't even have to say it out loud. So why aren't you doing it?"
"Because no one can do it on command, Yuma! That's not how it works! You think I haven't tried?" Kyouko demanded, now leaning forward to mirror Yuma. "It's like the MHD says. We all have our little eccentricities. This is mine."
Kyouko let out a breath.
"And I've had a lot of time to think back and sort my memories, especially now that I've got these boxes in my head to arrange things. The demons that attacked us the day that she died—Mami always said that they were so strong it didn't make sense, and Kyubey even mentioned the cubes being unusual. There was only one person at the time who might have had that kind of specialty. You think I want to hear you tell me to let her go? No. Not from you."
Yuma's carefully serious face fractured again, leaving her gaping, just a little.
"God, Kyouko, it wasn't—"
"It was Oriko, right?" Kyouko said, turning away from the others. "Yeah, sure, I can see that. I know it's what makes sense. I just…"
She stood there, facing the wall for a long moment.
"Just leave me alone, alright?" she said. "I don't want to talk about it."
Yuma stared at Kyouko for a long moment, then nodded.
"Alright," she said. "I'm sorry. There's nothing else I can say."
Yuma turned on her heel and left, moving with startling speed back into the hallway, drone following her closely. The sunlight on Yuma's back cast her face into relative darkness, which seemed all too appropriate at the moment.
Ryouko turned to leave as well, heading out of the exotic garden, but Kyouko held up a hand, startling her into stopping abruptly. Ryouko had gotten used to being the invisible party in this conversation.
"I'm sorry about that," Kyouko said, standing up a bit straighter. "Just a little old drama."
Ryouko cast her eyes to the ground. Once again, she had the sense she was supposed to go against her natural inclination, that she needed to say something, or else what was even the point of the vision she had received? The close connection of events couldn't possibly be a coincidence.
But did she really want to let Kyouko know what had happened?
"It really wasn't her fault, you know," Ryouko settled on saying.
"What?" Kyouko asked, tilting her head. "What are you talking about?"
"Miki‐san," Ryouko said. "That wasn't her fault. Yuma even met her beforehand. Oriko didn't tell her what she was doing, but she still felt bad about it."
"What are you—" Kyouko began, before pausing and giving Ryouko a careful look.
"How do you know this?" she said finally.
"I don't know," Ryouko said, shaking her head, answering the wrong question— "why", instead of "how". "It was a vision, showing me the past, but I don't really know what to do with it."
She avoided looking at Kyouko while talking, but from the corner of her eye she saw the girl taking a breath to gather herself.
"You saw Sayaka?" she asked.
Ryouko nodded, still avoiding the other girl's gaze.
"Only in flashback, though. Only as a memory of what happened."
"No one has ever seen Sayaka in a vision," Kyouko said. "Not even me, and believe me: I've tried. I know you can't control what the Goddess decides to show you, but I've only had a few visions, none related. Everyone else is getting to meet family members and friends, but for me, nothing. I'm starting to think Sayaka doesn't want to talk to me. I wouldn't blame her."
Ryouko finally looked up, finding Kyouko looking emptily at her hands. She was beginning to understand how exactly the Ancient had lost her cool on X‐25, and why Yuma had called it a weakness, as unfair as that seemed.
"She was obviously important to you," Ryouko said, "but I doubt that's the case. I haven't ever had the dead speak to me. Maybe it just doesn't happen much."
"Your vision," Kyouko said, turning her eye towards Ryouko. "How much of it involved Sayaka? Did you see anything other than how she died?"
"I didn't even see it. It was only a side detail. It was mostly about Yuma, actually."
Kyouko closed her eyes.
"A pity. I can't call the Theological Committee for this one."
Ryouko blinked in surprise. She had honestly forgotten all about the committee.
"I just wish I knew what the point of it was," Kyouko said, a moment later, shifting her gaze towards one of the trees, which seemed to be actively moving a branch towards the light. "I've convinced myself that everything serves a purpose, but why did she have to die? Why couldn't she be saved? Would she have gotten in the way?"
Ryouko waited long seconds for Kyouko to continue, but she stayed silent.
"I don't know," Ryouko said finally.
"Yeah, you can't say anything more than that," Kyouko said, straightening her back. "None of us can, not in this world."
Kyouko looked down at the floor, and Ryouko followed her gaze. The paved stone paths reminded her of the stone flooring of Kyouko's church.
"I wouldn't talk to Yuma about this," Kyouko said. "First of all, it's just not a good idea, and secondly, I suspect the topic will come up on its own somehow, eventually. That seems to be how it works."
"I got the feeling I was supposed to say something to you now," Ryouko said, "but I don't know that this has gone anywhere."
"Maybe it's a hint for me to try and visit the Ribbon again," Kyouko said. "I've thought about it after that mission and, well, this all seems rather coincidental to me."
Ryouko examined Kyouko's expression, thinking back to what she had managed to piece together about Kyouko's involvement with Kishida Maki. She didn't know much, only that they had been in a relationship, that it had fallen through, and that Maki had ended up nearly dead on the planet Apollo, reduced to just her soul gem, just as Ryouko had been.
There was more to it than that, obviously. It was apparent from Kyouko's behavior, and even Yuma's, how important Miki Sayaka had been to her, and now that she had seen Sayaka in the vision, however indirectly, it was impossible to ignore the startling resemblance between the two girls.
It can't be healthy, Clarisse thought. The massive age gap aside, the warning flags here are tremendous. I can't imagine that Yuma, Mami, or the MHD would have missed something so obvious.
Yes, but they broke up, Ryouko thought. It's over now.
Yes, and how do you think Maki feels about that?
Ryouko looked again at Kyouko, who was at this point as lost in thought as Ryouko was, and thought about Asami.
I can't imagine her doing that without knowing Maki would be okay with it, Ryouko thought. She was the one who said the first one is special. She seems like a romantic.
Really? Would someone thinking like that really have a relationship like this in the first place? Would Yuma and the others allow her to? They must know something we don't.
Ryouko shook her head, not because she disagreed with Clarisse's statement, but because of her unease with the situation. She had no solid reason for thinking so, but she had the impression of blundering about in a dark room.
"The first one is special, right?" Ryouko said, deciding the safest route was to simply acknowledge what was going unsaid. "That was Miki‐san?"
Kyouko peered into Ryouko's eyes searchingly, not the aggressive soul‐searing gaze of an Ancient who wished to know everything, but simply the gaze of a girl who wanted to know what was going on.
"Yes," Kyouko said, exhaling, looking almost embarrassed. "And, you know, I'm really obvious about it, right? Well, you can't really control your hang‐ups."
"How is Kishida Maki doing?" Ryouko asked, unable to think of another way to ask, but unable to let go of the concern. "I know you—"
Ryouko jolted at a smashing sound, startled by Kyouko's fist slamming against the trunk of a nearby tree—though the fact that the tree remained intact suggested a certain residual restraint, even if pieces of bark had fallen off, revealing what looked suggestively like circuitry underneath.
Kyouko leveled at finger at Ryouko, face twisting in and out of an angry snarl, but, despite a series of attempts, seemed unable to form any words, lips shifting back and forth between various false starts.
"Goddamn it," she said finally, turning brusquely away from Ryouko. "Now I've got neophytes like you giving me shit. I'd say it's none of your business, but the problem is you're right. You're right."
Ryouko saw Kyouko cross her arms, as if she were giving herself a hug. It was difficult to tell, looking at the girl's back.
Then Kyouko shook her head, just as Ryouko had earlier.
"I'm going to go," Kyouko said. "I've got things to do, think about. Your family is probably wondering what the hell we're doing out here. I'm wasting your time and embarrassing myself. See you."
Without even a glance back, Kyouko strode away, following the same route Yuma had, raising one hand in a backwards wave goodbye.
"Ah, goodbye," Ryouko said.
She wondered if the other girl even heard her.
Sometime in the early 2070s—several lifetimes ago—Mami had heard that their old middle school, by then an aging, out‐of‐date facility, was going to be the victim of yet another round of local government budget cuts. It was a reasonable decision—at the time there were increasingly fewer children to actually use the school facilities—but Mami was as ever the victim of nostalgia and wanted desperately to save it.
In the end, Homura proposed that the MSY offer to take over the institution, in exchange for paying for renovations and running it as a tuition‐free private school. It was not merely an exercise in nostalgia and charity—there was a strong argument for the MSY taking over the management of a good number of local schools, to better accommodate the needs of newly contracted magical girls. Their old middle school seemed as good a potential pilot school as any other, and the proposal was approved.
It was Kyouko who eventually suggested that they convert part of the campus into an open air park, and rename the whole institution Miki Sayaka Middle School, secretly dedicated to those magical girls who died too young. That had been an unabashed exercise in sentimentalism.
Nowadays, there were very few ground‐level spaces left in Mitakihara City which still had a clear view of the sky, and Kyouko rarely visited any of them, but she always had a particular affection for the park that adjoined the school. It… helped her to think about the past, and put everything that happened into a bit of a longer perspective. Despite the jokes Mami and Yuma often leveled at her, Kyouko knew she was entirely capable of thinking about the long‐term.
The school buildings shimmered in the distance, sunlight gleaming off the window‐filled architecture that still characterized the institute. Crowds of uniformed students milled about, either openly staring at her or ignoring her entirely, depending on how well‐connected they were in the MSY. By dint of its location and the connections of its early students, the pilot school for the MSY had gradually grown into the MSY's largest, most prestigious institution, vertically integrated from the lowest primary school levels all the way up to university‐level training facilities. Kyouko wasn't proud—the elitism and nepotism of the Matriarchies were, in her opinion, a disease that threatened the egalitarian ideals they had founded the MSY on.
Kyouko stuck her hands into the pockets of her hoodie and ducked her head, stomping forward while sucking on the stick of candy she held in her mouth. It was one of those fancy futuristic candies that had been a fad a few decades ago, changing flavor regularly to prevent the user's taste buds from habituating to the experience. They were passé now, but Kyouko liked them.
She let out a sigh. "Sentimentalism", "vertical integration", "nepotism", "egalitarian", "habituating"—she only had to listen to her own thoughts to realize that she was a vastly different girl than she had once been. As much as she resisted the dead long‐term stasis that the MHD pushed on its older Ancients, she just couldn't avoid picking up a certain level of maturity simply by continuing to live.
She stopped in front of the tiny dedication plaque that was hidden in a quiet corner of the park, uncomfortably aware that her style of dress and very face made her stick out like a sore thumb.
A moment later she knelt, brushing the faded lettering carved into the centuries‐old stone slab embedded into the pavement. The many years had done far more damage to the stone than they had done to Kyouko, a role reversal that to her still felt subtly wrong.
Miki Sayaka Park
Let it never be forgotten that we stand on the deeds of the dead, the forgotten, the never‐remembered.
Homura had insisted on the exact wording of the plaque, for reasons Kyouko had never quite grasped at the time. She understood now, though.
Why was she here, anyway? She didn't belong here, not among the young, the fresh‐faced, those without centuries of history weighing down on their shoulders. She lived in constant fear of falling into an endless rut, and clung to the Goddess in the hope that She would know the secret to the conundrum of eternity, the secret of how to balance stability and self‐renewal. It was true, what she had implied to Yuma—that she suspected there was no answer. In that case, it was better to die while living life to the fullest, than to live forever while not really living at all.
She pulled her hood over head, well aware how ridiculous she looked having to try to fit her massive hair under the hood. Like many Ancients, she had never consented to having her hair modified into those little tentacles everyone had nowadays. It wasn't that they creeped her out—but doing her hair, running her brush through the luxurious strands, washing them and cleaning them and arranging them… it was undoubtedly therapeutic, and even recommended by the MHD. Plus, when it was always possible to just cheat with magic when you were in a hurry, it seemed lazy to demand your hair to do all the work for you, no matter how oddly sensual the idea seemed sometimes.
It couldn't be a coincidence that the only artifacts they had of the Goddess were hair ribbons, right?
Why was she here?
She stood back up a moment later, turning decisively away from the plaque. She knew why she was here—she was afraid of the answers she might find if she went where she really needed to go. She was just buying time, but another one of the downsides of being old was that she understood herself too well not to know that.
There was nothing the stone plaque could say to her, nothing the students gawking at her or even the sky above could tell her. She knew where the real answers might be.
She just hoped someone would talk to her, this time.
Despite what might be expected it was unusual for Kyouko, head sister of the Cult of Hope, to visit the Ribbon of the Goddess. Officially it was to avoid the perception that she was exploiting her position to commune more frequently with the Goddess.
Unofficially, of course, that explanation made no sense.
She waited in line like all the others, though, even though she knew her schedule was full and she couldn't really afford the time. She greeted the other girls in line with well‐practiced poise, even stopping to coo at a baby or two. It was second nature to her at this point, something that didn't even require her to pay attention, not really.
Still, it was difficult to mask her impatience with the long line. She understood how little sense it made, to have avoided coming here for so long, only to become too impatient to wait when the time finally came.
Like it or not, the moment came soon enough, and she managed to conceal her slight hesitation as she transformed and knelt on the warm stone paving.
For a long moment she felt the eyes of the room on her, and thought nothing would happen.
It was the crashing of waves that first made her realize things had changed.
Her eyes snapped open, her ears filling with the distant roar of the ocean and the cacophony of seagulls.
She was still inside the church, as it turned out—but not the building she had built, painstakingly reconstructed by hand by the magical girls of her flock. No—the sunlight that shone through the broken stone walls and shattered stained glass made that clear. It was the church as it had once been—ruined, gutted by flame, abandoned to the elements by a godless world.
But… here? What was it all doing next to the ocean? Her family's church had been nowhere near the shoreline.
"Hello?" she asked, rising to her feet cautiously.
She could feel the brisk breeze caressing her skin, and smell the salt water that it carried, and hear the whistling noise it made over the ruins of the building—but there was no one around to greet her.
She let out a breath, looking down at her hands. This vision was, so far, qualitatively different from any of her others. Those had been vague, dreamlike affairs. This…
Well, this was reality, with the same fundamental, instinctual certainty that she felt whenever she woke up from a long dream. Her thoughts were clear and her eyes open. The only thing missing was the quiet drumbeat of electronics in the back of her mind, that uniquely modern sensation she had gradually learned to get used to.
But how could that be?
Listen to me doubt what She can do, Kyouko thought. I'm a terrible preacher.
But still, there was no denying that there was no one there to talk to.
She stepped past the charred ruins of the church's pews, heading for the double doors that had once served as the main entrance of the church and which still stood defiantly against the ravages of time. She could have easily stepped straight out through what had once been a wall, but she preferred not to.
As she crossed the threshold, though, she felt her foot hit something soft.
Looking down she felt a wave of… nausea? Distress? Fear? She didn't quite know.
She swallowed her feelings anyway, bending down to pick up the stuffed rabbit. It had been Sakura Momo's favorite toy, one she had carried around so much that it had gotten worn and dirty, one that Kyouko had gotten tired of having to play with.
The last time she had seen it was as a partially scorched husk, buried in the soil next to what she and Mami had agreed could have been the remains of her sister's body. They didn't really know, and the police had cared so little that the corpses had been left to smolder where they fell. Maybe if they had cared a bit more someone would have realized Kyouko was still alive.
And here it was again, torn and stained, covered with patches sewn on by their mother, but unburnt.
"What the f— is this?" she said quietly, uncaring that the unseen Goddess would hear her. "Why remind me of this? It's better off buried."
"Bury me, then, nee‐chan."
Kyouko jerked backward, so surprised that she actually started trying to transform, only to realize that she couldn't.
She had never heard the voice before, but it was painfully familiar, and it took surprisingly little time for her to piece it together with the "nee‐chan" greeting and the teenager standing before her.
"Momo," she said wondrously, the name dropping off her lips almost involuntarily.
Looking at the girl was like looking through a funhouse mirror—at a reflection of herself that seemed to shift and distort. Her eyes seemed almost unwilling to focus on an apparition that looked so much like Kyouko herself, and yet was clearly not.
The girl was dressed in a plain white sundress and looked back at her with wide, innocent eyes, older than Kyouko had ever seen her.
"Is it really you?" Kyouko asked finally, even as her heart told her the answer.
"Yes," the girl said, reaching out a hand.
Kyouko ran forward and grabbed it, for a moment too overwhelmed to do anything but stare at it, marveling at the fine lines on the palm as she felt her soul weep. She had thought herself long past the point where anything could affect her this deeply.
"How?" she asked, looking up at the girl's smiling face, framed beautifully by the ocean and horizon behind her.
"Well, that's a silly question, nee‐chan," she said, teasing. "You're having a supernaturally‐powered vision, and you're questioning how you can meet the dead. I know you're smarter than that."
Kyouko shook her head to clear it, blinking away the tears that had started pouring from her eyes.
"Not that," she said. "You're… old."
Momo laughed, clear as a bell.
"You think age matters here?" she said. "You have always wondered what I would have been like, had I gotten a chance to grow up a little. Well, here I am."
Kyouko let go of her sister's hand, getting a bit of a hold on herself. She just had to think carefully of Momo as just another girl. Not the sibling she had cuddled and sheltered on those cold nights when her parents couldn't afford to turn on the heat. Just another girl.
"But why are you here?" Kyouko asked desperately. "Why now? Why did you wait all these years?"
Momo dropped her hand, meeting Kyouko's gaze for a moment before glancing away abruptly. To Kyouko, it almost seemed as if she had avoided looking Kyouko in the eye, though she couldn't imagine why.
"To me, it's only been a moment," Momo said. "A moment, and also an eternity. You think I had any choice in this? We're lucky we get to talk to each other at all. Like this, anyway."
Her sister turned away from her, to cast her eyes over the ocean that now loomed just before them. Had it been so close before?
"The Goddess has her reasons," she said. "I know that, but you've suffered for centuries, and I know that too. She decided it was finally time to relieve you of your burden. I would have relieved it centuries ago, if I could, but I guess that's why I don't get to be a god."
As Kyouko watched, wondering at how old her sister sounded, the girl crushed something in her hand, releasing it over the edge of the cliff in front of them. A moment later Kyouko she realized they were flower petals.
"In other realities I never died," Momo said. "In some, I lived a full life; in others we grew to hate each other, and in yet others I, too, made a contract, and died young. There are many things that never were, many lives I would have preferred to live."
Her sister turned back towards her, crying this time, and Kyouko's heart ached to see the face of a girl who never was, reaching forward.
"It wasn't your fault, nee‐chan. It never was. I forgive you, and I love you."
They embraced there, and for a moment Kyouko could see it all, all the time they would never spend together, the lives they would never live.
"I'm sorry," she said, the tears pouring out uncontrollably. "I'm sorry. I tried. I couldn't imagine—father never—I should have—"
"No, please, stop it," Momo said. "Please. I told you it wasn't your fault."
"You don't understand," Kyouko said. "When I buried you and mama, I wanted so desperately to join you, there underneath the dirt, but Mami wouldn't let me. She wouldn't let me stay."
The memory in Kyouko's mind overwhelmed everything, then. Mami holding Kyouko's hand as she sobbed, dragging her slowly away from the dirt grave where they had buried her family, telling her that it was alright, that she would learn to cope, someday, just as Mami had.
It was the right thing to do, but part of her had always hated her for it.
"I'm sorry you had to live through it all," Momo said, voice against her ear, "but it's not a sin to just live, and not a sin to be happy. I know you know that, but you've never believed it. It's been four centuries, nee‐chan, and I'm happy here."
Kyouko clutched her sister's body in instinct, eyes snapping open, but the girl was already fading.
"We'll meet again someday. We all will."
Then she was gone, leaving Kyouko on her knees in front of the roaring sea.
Yet the vision did not end.
Kyouko had expected the vision to do so with Momo's disappearance, leaving her a crying wreck in front of her followers, but the world around her refused to disappear, even taunting her with a seagull that landed next to her, staring at her inquisitively.
Finally, when she felt like her eyes had finally dried, she stood back up, wiping her arms against her shirt. Clearly the vision wasn't over, but then—
She stopped. The ruined church was gone, replaced by another edge to the cliff she was standing on. This time, however, there was a railing along the edge, with a small gap in the middle where it turned and arced away—a staircase downward.
Kyouko knew better than to ignore obvious hints like that, so she walked forward, grasping the railing and beginning the climb down the long, precipitous staircase. Whatever the intent of this vision was, at the moment she felt all too human—lacking the strength and finely‐tuned balance provided by her magical girl body, or even by the implants provided by Governance. It made the descent all too vertiginous, as she spent half the time reaching for strength and skill that simply wasn't there anymore. It made her feel young, painfully young.
Arduous minutes later she finally reached the bottom, where a picturesque, sandy beach awaited, the kind of beach she and Momo would have dreamed of visiting as children.
Her shoes dug into the fine sand, and she felt the urge to take them off.
Thinking about her sister felt different now. She had always recoiled from thinking about her family, all too aware of the grief that it would trigger, all too aware that she would imagine their eyes on her, judging. It was irrational, but in all her many years, the feeling had never really left her.
It was gone now, though, and the relief she felt resembled the blissful relief that came with the disappearance of an ache that had never quite been consciously realized— the relief of Yuma healing a missing body part whose pain she had been suppressing.
She looked up at the bright afternoon sun, wondering what she was supposed to do.
She took off her shoes and socks, placing them carefully next to the staircase. Surely in a place like this she could be confident that nothing would go wrong.
The sand felt warm under her feet as she headed down the beach. Perhaps, after Momo, the Goddess's intention was only that she take a break from her life to refresh and relax. Now that she was here, she was starting to realize how much she had needed it, even after spending years nagging Mami to do literally the exact same thing.
None of us take our own advice, Kyouko thought.
Then she stopped again, shading her eyes with the palm of her hand. In front of her, the beach was tapering away, replaced gradually by the stacks of rocks that often gathered at the edge of the sea.
And seated on a rock in the middle, another person sat, almost reclining, eyes fixed on the distant horizon.
Not just another person—the person she had come here to find.
Kyouko broke into a sprint, pushing the limits of her once‐again human body, as if afraid she would lose her if she didn't get there now. She didn't yell, though—she had an irrational fear that doing so would cause the girl to vanish.
As she lunged over one of the boulders, fixated, she felt her footing slip as she landed, realizing to her horror that she was going to smash her fragile human bones against hard rock, without the reflexes or strength to stop it.
She lurched to a stop, finding that she had rammed into someone's soft arms, rather than the hard landing she had expected.
"Oh geez, Kyouko, I remember you being less clumsy than that."
"Sayaka?" Kyouko asked, breathless.
The girl released her, allowing them to both balance precariously on the rocks.
"At your service," Sayaka said, bowing slightly. "Well, Sayaka in a manner of speaking."
"Manner of speaking?" Kyouko echoed emptily.
"Let's leave that for later," Sayaka said, adjusting the strap of her white and blue striped bikini. "It's not the most important thing right now."
She looked down for a moment, fiddling with her swimsuit.
"You know, before I made my contract, I saw a swimsuit like this in the store. I thought about buying it, but the thing about white swimsuits is that they get dirty so easily when you try to use them, so I talked myself out of buying it. I changed my mind and went back, but it was gone. It's funny, the things you regret when you have too much time to think about it."
Kyouko just stood there, agape, surprised that this would be the topic of conversation.
"Anyway," Sayaka said, shaking her head slightly. "You can think about whether that's symbolic or not, but I guess…"
Sayaka looked down for a moment, then shifted her position, turning towards the distant horizon.
"I don't know what I can say," she said. "I kind of just got chucked out here to talk to you, and no one really told me what to do. Sure, if I expand my perspective I can just look at the end of this conversation, but that kind of defeats the point, you know?"
Kyouko shifted uncomfortably, wondering just what she was supposed to say to that. None of the visions others had received of the dead had been anything like this.
Sayaka shook her head a moment later.
"I'm rambling. One thing I'd want to say is that if you were in love with me, or if you just wanted to save me from myself, you could have just said something, but I know that's not fair. I know you tried to say something, and I know I shut you down. And I know what the me from back then would have said if you tried to push any harder. Ultimately, it was my fate, more than anything."
Sayaka crouched down, dipping her hand into the water of a tidal pool, swirling it over the fronds and appendages of the life within. A red‐shelled crab darted deeper into the water, and a few small fish did their best to hide between the local sea urchins.
"Let me answer the questions you want answered, then," Sayaka said. "No, I haven't been avoiding you. First off, I'm not the one who gets to decide. Second, that's just not how it works here. It's very hard to be mad at anyone if you have enough perspective."
Sayaka stood back up, looking Kyouko back in the eyes. For the first time, Kyouko noticed something odd about the eyes, almost as if there was something swirling underneath—
Sayaka broke the eye contact a moment later.
"Anyway, the nice thing about being dead is that you can learn some of the meaning of your life," she said. "It's nothing so melodramatic as I needed to die so the MSY could live. There are plenty of worlds where I lived and the MSY still formed—but in none of those worlds do I contract. Without my contract, Kyousuke would have never had a music career. That's the sum and whole of it, other than some butterfly effect stuff with Hitomi's family and all of that. I thought it was a nice touch they named their daughter after me, even if she's nothing like me."
"You died for something as stupid as that?" Kyouko asked, incredulously.
"You're assuming everyone lives and dies for some grand reason, but that's just not true," Sayaka said. "It can't be true. The Goddess couldn't make it true, not with all her power."
She crouched back down to stir the water of the tidal pool a bit longer. A single seahorse appeared almost annoyed by the interruption, then just as quickly disappeared.
"It's what I wished for, Kyouko," Sayaka said, glaring at her with sudden sharpness. "It might not have been what I really wanted, but I thought it was important enough to sacrifice my life for. The Goddess chose to honor that."
Sayaka looked away from her.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's not really in your nature to understand."
"Of course I don't understand!" Kyouko insisted, barely restraining herself from grabbing Sayaka by the shoulder. "It's not worth your life! Isn't that obvious?"
Instead of giving any of the responses Kyouko expected, Sayaka simply… smiled.
"You have no idea how ironic it is for you to say that," she said, standing back up and stretching her arms out up above her head.
"But enough about me," she said, turning to face Kyouko. "What's done is done, and none of it is your fault. I'm here to tell you to move on."
She pointed at Kyouko with a single finger, but Kyouko simply looked away. What could she say that would faze this too‐all‐knowing version of Sayaka? It was the worst, almost like dealing with a mother who truly did know everything.
"I know it wasn't my fault, Sayaka," she said. "Of course I do. The only way I could have possibly have done anything was with experience I didn't have. I was too young to help you."
"We were all too young," Sayaka said, a trace of sadness lingering on the words.
The girl closed her eyes for a moment.
"There's a couple of things I could say here, but they all point in the same direction," she said. "You said you know it's not your fault, but in your heart you never really believed that."
"It's irrational," Kyouko said.
"Yes," Sayaka agreed.
She leaned forward towards Kyouko, making a conspiratorial expression.
"But you know, speaking of things that are too young and definitely your fault, isn't there a girl who looks just like me that you were sleeping with? That's scummy, Kyouko. Talk about January‐December. There's missing me, and then there's missing me."
Kyouko recoiled as if snake‐bit, feeling her jaw visibly drop.
"That's not—" she started to stammer, even as she realized the effort was futile.
She looked down for a moment, thinking about how to start over.
"Well, yes, of course it was like that," she said, without looking up. "A cheap thrill for everyone involved, until it wasn't. So I ended it, because I don't want to get wrapped up in something like that."
It was strangely liberating, talking with someone who appeared to know everything. There was no sense hiding anything, so she didn't have to make the effort.
But, geez, couldn't the messenger have been anyone else? The Goddess was playing a cruel trick having Sayaka berate her about this. She felt sixteen again, listening to Mami lecture her about how sloppy she was around the household.
"Well, better me than your sister," Sayaka said, sardonically. "In my opinion, anyway."
Sayaka waited just long enough for Kyouko to jerk in surprise again, before continuing:
"Wrapped up in what, anyway? A relationship? Something long‐term? You don't want to settle down, is that it? You want to stay young? You're four hundred and sixty‐four. Believe me, you're not fooling anyone."
Kyouko opened her mouth to give her standard retort, but Sayaka overrode her:
"And don't give me that bullshit about not wanting to give into long‐term stability, and getting old like that is death. You know what stasis is? Stasis is not getting over a first crush that was four and a half centuries ago! A first crush who didn't even like you back, not in this world."
Kyouko cringed, feeling the words bite into her heart. They were too true to argue with.
"So what you're going to do is you're going to visit this Kishida girl, and you're going to make an actual effort to make it work. I'm not going to judge your taste in age or body types—Goddess knows you're not the only Ancient who prefers a younger vintage. But I'd like you to make an attempt at emotional health, alright?"
Kyouko stood there with her head bowed, now feeling like a schoolgirl being lectured by the principal.
"Alright, I get it," she said. "I get it. I'm being stupid. I know that. I just—I miss you."
"I know," Sayaka said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. "I miss you too. I would tell you to hurry up and get here, but that'd be wishing you dead, plus time doesn't really mean anything and—"
"Not in this world?" Kyouko interrupted, feeling abruptly bold enough to ask.
There was a moment of silence.
"Ah, you're referring to my comment about not liking you back," Sayaka said. "Yeah, well, there are possible worlds where it could have happened. Just not this one. But I do have the feelings from those worlds, somewhere within me. Speaking of which…"
Sayaka grabbed Kyouko by the shoulders, causing her to look up.
"The Goddess knows you have suffered," Sayaka said, in an oddly‐cadenced voice. "She knows you have suffered more and longer than you should have. It is the fate we all share, but none deserves. In payment for this, she will give you a gift that she has given no other."
The voice grew increasingly resonant, filled with harmonics and sub‐harmonics that no mortal instrument could ever produce. In the dark corners of her mind, Kyouko heard whispers, voices, cracks at the edges of reality.
She looked up, and found herself looking into Sayaka's eyes, those eyes that had looked so strange before. She could see something inside them, something endless, something…
"What are you?" she asked, feeling the question vanish even as she asked it.
"What a silly question," the voice said.
And then Kyouko was swallowed by those eyes, and eternity burst through the seams of her mind. In one eternal moment, she saw her life as the Goddess did, in all its endless variations, all its joy and suffering. She felt it all.
—she drove her spear through her father's body, driven by the rage of seeing what he had tried to do, even as the terror of what she was doing coursed through her mind—
—her father patted her on the cheek, saying that he had been a fool, that he finally understood now, that he forgave everything—
—the soul gem shattered in her hand, and the horror finally caught up with her. Mami, she had—
—a warm summer evening in the park with some friends from work, laughing at the idea of magic being real—
—the kiss passed electric through her body, her first—
—she sensed Sayaka's soul gem disappear, once and for all, and she mourned even as she tried desperately to doubt—
—and then it was over, and she found herself blinking back at Sayaka's eyes, the other girl holding her head in place by the cheeks, letting go almost immediately.
"I can't talk about that at all, can I?" Kyouko said, putting one hand to her head as she staggered in place.
"Of course not," Sayaka said. "And as I'm sure you can tell, you can't really remember it either. Your mind simply can't hold it."
"What are you?" Kyouko asked.
"I am Miki Sayaka. Just Miki Sayaka. Not anything more special than that. Some day you'll understand."
The girl turned to walk away, and Kyouko knew better than to try to stop her.
With a gut‐wrenching lurch, reality fell out from underneath her, leaving her gasping on her knees in front of the Ribbon. The crowd around her murmured, but she didn't really care.
In the corner of her eyes, she had seen wings.