Beginning with wary gratitude, and transitioning through a sort of vague perplexity, public opinion of magical girls has now stabilized at patriotic adulation, a state constantly reinforced by government media efforts. For all their flaws, magical girls are collectively seen as humanity's heroes and saviors.

Parental opinion of magical girls has followed a very different trajectory. While the parents of teenage daughters genuinely admire and applaud the efforts of the magical girls in the field, privately, the consensus is clear: Not my girl. With the usual exceptions, parents worldwide quietly hint, imply, or outright say to their daughters not to contract, ever. Ham‐handed government regulations aimed at prohibiting the practice have only made parents more suspicious. Having your daughter become a magical girl is treated in the same way joining the military once was.

But getting your teenage daughter to follow your proscriptions is a challenge at the best of times. What do you do if they go ahead and contract anyway?

For this special edition, we have conducted extensive interviews with parents, prominent psychiatrists, military officials, and even magical girls themselves. Our staff writers have collated the best advice they could gather into informative articles aimed at easing the transition, beginning with the realization that it is not the end of the world.

— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" introduction, excerpt.

First out of the vehicle, Ryouko was surprised by a burst of light behind her. The bright red radiance, against the backdrop of the dead of night, cast the doorway in front of her in an eerie scarlet pallor, causing her to turn in surprise.

She found Kyouko transformed and clad in red, holding her spear at arm‐length, considering it.

Finally, Kyouko grunted in annoyance and abolished the spear entirely. There was no dignified way to carry it inside.

"Should I transform too?" Ryouko asked.

"No," Kyouko said, grabbing her shoulder briefly as she passed Ryouko. "We don't want to overwhelm them all in one go. I only changed because it makes things easier to explain. You should know how these things go."

Ah, that's right, Ryouko thought, following Kyouko into the building.

The Visit had a legendary aura of its own, popularized by rumors, internet articles, and the popular media. It haunted the nightmares of less patriotic parents, and it was always the same. Your daughter appeared at the door, tailed by a magical girl in full costume, carrying her weapon. It was well‐known that the military and the MSY preferred that it always be the same. It got the point across faster.

They ascended the elevator in silence, Ryouko feeling a sudden profound reluctance to keep going.

When they reached the forty‐second floor, the doors slid open, and Kyouko nudged her to go first.

Ryouko approached the doorway of her family's flat, her pace slowing. It wouldn't help, really—she had already asked the door to open in anticipation of their arrival, which would be a sure signal to her family that she was back. Still, she couldn't help but—

"Aah!" she vocalized as Kyouko shoved her again, causing her to stumble into her own doorway.

Resting her arm on the doorjamb, she turned her head to look inside, where her family was watching her with a combination of worry and reproach. Her mother was in the middle of getting up from the sofa where her father was sitting, and her grandfather was seated at the kitchen table. They were all clearly waiting. It was 1:30 AM, which meant they'd normally be out of the house.

"Just what were you doing, young lady?" her mother demanded, stalking over. "You know you're forbidden to stay out this late."

"I'm sure she had a good reason," her grandfather said, also getting up. "If she said it was important, then it was important."

"Well, you could have at least explained better," her mother said, grabbing Ryouko by the shoulders and looking her up and down. "Do you know how worried we were? And the location tracking service was on the fritz, so we couldn't even track you."

"Ah, well, about that…" Ryouko began, avoiding eye contact.

"I believe I can explain that, ma'am," Kyouko said, stepping through the door, awkwardly maneuvering her spear through the doorway. For some reason, she had resummoned it, despite the obvious hazard it posed indoors. Ryouko moved aside, partly to get out of the way of the spear.

"What are you…" her mother began, glaring at the newcomer.

The words died stillborn.

The three of them, now all standing, stared at Kyouko, and it didn't take a mind‐reader to know that they were all calling up their facial recognition routines to confirm what they were seeing.

"Sakura Kyouko, at your service," Kyouko said, bowing formally, face solemn.

She looked around the room.

"I believe we have a lot to discuss," she said.

She faced an extended silence.

Ryouko's mother was the first to respond, leaning onto the half‐wall next to the door with a sudden defeated expression.

"No, after all we've—" she began, eyes darting around manically.

She stepped back, looking at her daughter as if she were an alien beast.

"Tell me you didn't," her father said, walking over, obviously gritting his teeth to suppress a stronger reaction. "Tell me this isn't what it looks like."

He grabbed Ryouko by the shoulders.

"You know our opinion of the contracting system," he said, eyes intense. "We've warned you, numerous times, what it's like. Even knowing all that, you'd contract?

Ryouko avoided his gaze.

"It's a life of misery, Ryouko," her mother said, and Ryouko felt that, strangely, the woman wasn't quite looking at her.

"That is not true, Kuroi‐san," Kyouko interjected, abolishing her spear now that it had served its purpose. "Combat may be a trial, but most magical girls live perfectly happy lives."

"Ryouko, how could you?" her mother asked desperately, making a beseeching gesture in her direction. "After everything I said—"

"I assure you," Kyouko interjected again, watching the woman carefully. "She has excellent mentors. She is likely to ascend the ranks quite handily, and that improves both survival and quality of life."

Her statement didn't quite address the central point, but it was doubtful that anything would.

Ryouko's mother looked down at her hands with a shell‐shocked expression. She seemed almost frozen.

"Mama?" Ryouko asked experimentally, but the woman didn't respond.

"May I sit?" Kyouko asked, gesturing towards the dining table, trying to break the current flow of events.

No one said anything, so she walked over and sat down in the nearest available chair, drawing a bag of chocolates out and dropping it on the table, making sure the top was open enticingly.

"I thought it would be polite to bring food," she said.

A moment later, her grandfather sat back down at the table, resting his elbows on the table and his head on his folded hands, watching Kyouko.

"Please, mama," Ryouko pleaded, reaching over and shaking her mother by the shoulder. "We have a guest."

"She's earned this, Ryouko," her father said sharply, giving her a withering look. "You lied to us. You don't know how important this is to her. At least give her a moment."

Grimacing, Ryouko stepped carefully around her parents, heading over to the table. In response to her order, one of the sidetables next to the sofa reformed itself into a fifth chair, tiny electronic modules scurrying over each other and reconnecting in their new positions. She grabbed it brusquely, moved it next to the table, and sat down.

"Tell me at least this has nothing to do with me leaving," her grandfather said, watching her out of the corner of her eye. "If you were really that concerned, you could have just asked—"

Ryouko shook her head sharply.

"No, granddad," she said. "This has nothing to do with you."

Kyouko gave the man a strange look.

The old man closed his eyes, seeming to gather his composure.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Sakura‐san," he said, addressing Kyouko. "And I am afraid we have been rather rude to such a famous guest, but I had hoped that, if I were ever to meet someone like you, it would be under more pleasant circumstances."

"This doesn't have to be a negative conversation," Kyouko insisted, sounding professional. "Think of it as a new beginning. There are many possibilities as a magical girl. Surely I myself am proof of that."

Ryouko couldn't help thinking that Kyouko sounded like she was quoting a promotional brochure. Her manner of speech seemed to have lost its customary casualness. Something was off about her.

Ryouko's father, having finally walked over, shook his head sadly.

"I don't know what to say, Ryouko," her father said, looking at her with solemn eyes. "Whatever you wished for, it can't have been worth it. We told you. Your life is worth more than this. If it was that important to you, we could have helped you achieve it."

"What was it, Ryouko?" her mother asked, watching her with a penetrating gaze. "What did you wish for? What could be worth a terrible life like that? Tell me it at least wasn't trivial."

Ryouko's insides twisted. It was painful, being here.

"I—" she began.

"Her wish is her own business," Kyouko interrupted quietly but firmly. "It is not for you to judge. She doesn't have to tell you."

"I couldn't be happy here," Ryouko said, looking down at the table. "I don't expect you to understand, but I don't think this life is for me. I feel so useless here."

"At your age?" her grandfather said, looking at her with that disturbingly appraising look he had. "I might sound hypocritical, but you should have at least given it a chance."

"We talked about this!" her mother pointed out with sudden loudness, ignoring the fact that she was admitting to illegal activity. "You agreed that you never would!"

"You would have found something, Ryouko," her father said. "We knew you weren't doing well in school, but you would have found something. Everyone does."

"And so she did," Kyouko pointed out, levelly. "There is no reason to condemn her choice. It was hers to make. She'll be in good hands."

"I can't understand it," Ryouko's father said, shaking his head at her. "It's a terrible decision, becoming a girl like that. It was very immature of you."

If Ryouko hadn't happened to be looking in Kyouko's direction, she would have missed it, but Kyouko's right eye twitched, ever‐so‐slightly, and her face seemed to tighten.

"Whose hands?" her mother demanded. "The same military that treats you girls like nothing but weapons?"

"The military that is keeping us all alive," Kyouko said, voice frozen in cool anger. "Do not degrade her like this. I'll have you know that's prosecutable."

Ryouko's eyes widened, staring at Kyouko.

"Kyouko, please!" Ryouko pleaded.

Kyouko glanced at her and took a deep breath.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, bowing her head slightly. "You all know my history, probably. I still do not take reminders of it well."

"It's alright," Ryouko's grandfather absolved.

I could have sent someone else, Kyouko thought to Ryouko. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea, coming here. I'd forgotten how much I hate meeting the parents.

It's okay, Ryouko thought.

"It's the same military you elected to join," Kyouko commented, turning to look at Ryouko's grandfather. "It seems rather strange to disapprove from your position."

"I am two hundred and twenty‐four years old," the old man said. "I can make my decisions in that regard. She is far too young."

"I agree," Kyouko said. "But there is no choice in the matter. For what it's worth, girls in my generation contracted under far less favorable circumstances."

Something clicked in Ryouko's head, and she realized what was off about Kyouko.

She sounded old.

Before, she had spoken with a delinquent's accent and vocabulary, of the sort you only saw in movies nowadays. She had slept on Ryouko's shoulder, cracked jokes, and in general had defied what might be expected from a girl that nearly doubled her grandfather in age. Now, she sat with straight back, speaking formally, giving the impression that she and Ryouko's grandfather were peers. There was steel underlying her voice, as if to remind listeners that she was more than four centuries old, and could tear you to pieces if she wished.

It was discordant and unnerving, and the situation was getting out of hand.

"Please, mama, papa," she pleaded, meeting their eyes. "It's over. It was my choice. I want you to support me. Please? Don't let it be like this."

The moment stretched out.

"She is right," Kyouko said, when no one responded immediately. "Please, let's put this all aside for now."

Ryouko kept her head down, but Kyouko looked among the three adults, watching as their faces registered that, no, they really didn't have a choice anymore. Any arguing or pontification about the military, or about the ethics of contracting girls barely out of infancy, was now a moot point. Empty words, as meaningful as static.

Her father took a deep, measured breath.

"Alright, Ryouko," her father said, grabbing her hand and looking her in the eye. "Like you said, what is done is done. You are an adult now. I hope you're ready."

Her mother merely nodded.

"Alright," she said quietly.

"Yes," her grandfather said, reaching forward to grab one of the chocolates and toss it in his mouth thoughtfully. "There is indeed no choice."

Kyouko tilted her head at the gesture. Her parents followed suit, grabbing the chocolates and eating them politely.

"Maybe we'll even get to see each other," her grandfather said, chewing the candy. "Don't you, uh, magical girls get to have family visits and such?"

"That is correct," Kyouko interjected. "And that brings us to the real reason I'm here. If you don't mind, I'd like to brief you all on having a magical girl as a daughter. There's certain things you must know."

Her eyes unfocused for a brief moment.

Every other person in the room felt the internal ping! of an arriving message, the kind of signal that everyone was well‐used to ignoring during conversation.

"Read it later when you have time," Kyouko said. "But I'll walk you through it while I'm here. First off, yes, it is correct that you will be allowed to visit, although this will be restricted during initial training, and you—"

She indicated Ryouko's grandfather.

"—will only get one extra week of leave a year, and will still have to arrange visits for leave. Now, unfortunately, given how tight things are on the front, she will have to depart rather quickly, but she'll be able to stay around for about a week. Other than basic equipment provision and internal mesh reconfiguration, there won't be any other requirements during the time. We will arrange grief cube delivery at necessary intervals, but you're generally free to do as you wish. The message you've received contains details on where and when to show up."

They watched her as she took a breath to say more, eyes unfocused, clearly starting to recite an official speech.

"She has been automatically disenrolled from school, so you don't have to worry about that. Since your family now contains a standing member of the military, you're all entitled to benefits, including enhanced Alloc distribution, that you can read about later. As you may be aware, Ryouko is now officially emancipated, which entails a dissolution of much of your legal parental rights and responsibilities."

She reached into one of the recesses of her magical girl dress and pulled out a set of holographic brochures.

"In case you prefer physical media," she explained, sliding the brochures forward onto the table. "You are also advised that members of the local media may attempt to come interview you. Whether you accept is up to you. Governance, the Armed Forces, and the MSY would like to emphasize their gratitude, and the gratitude of humanity, for the sacrifice your family has made and will make."

Kyouko's eyes focused again.

"And now I imagine you have questions you may want to ask."

"You're damn right we do," Ryouko's grandfather said, leaning forward. "First, who the hell recruited her? Was it you?"

"No," Kyouko said, looking glad to be able to say so. "Tomoe Mami couldn't make it today."

"It was Tomoe Mami?" Ryouko's father spat out involuntarily.

"She saved my life," Ryouko commented. "Simona and I were the victims of a demon attack."

"You were attacked?" her mother asked incredulously. "And you didn't even tell us?"

"I was busy," Ryouko explained lamely.

"I am told she performed quite well, for a civilian," Kyouko commented.

Her mother and father glanced at each other.

"So what's your power?" her mother asked. "That's not verboten, is it?"

"She's a teleporter," Kyouko said, electing to answer the question for Ryouko. "And she carries a ranged weapon. She won't be engaging in any close combat if we can help it."

Ryouko's father glowered, clearly realizing that Kyouko was trying to perform a sell job.

"You mentioned mentors," he commented. "Shouldn't she only have one? Who are they?"

"Oh, yes," Ryouko answered, figuring that if she had to have this conversation, she might as well try to impress. "Mami and Kyouko here are going to be my mentors. It's definitely an honor."

"Mostly Mami," Kyouko demurred. "But knowing Mami, that means Ryouko here is destined for a role on her command staff. You have little to worry about."

Not that being on her command staff makes you that much safer, Kyouko commented to her, privately. But nothing wrong with lying a little to make everyone feel better.

Wait, command staff? Ryouko asked. Is that really true?

Yes, Kyouko said. But like I said, don't expect to be sitting behind a desk vegetating. Mami doesn't do things like that.

Meanwhile, Ryouko's father made a noncommittal noise.

"Well, now that there's no choice in the matter, it's good to hear she'll have opportunities," her father said. "I expect you to try your best to advance ranks, Ryouko."

"Of course," she said, and meant it, too.

Your parents seem surprisingly knowledgeable, Kyouko thought. They haven't even asked about the grief cubes and the soul gem. That's usually the first thing to come up.

They were researchers, Ryouko thought, mentally shrugging.

So the files say, Kyouko commented.

Her mother was giving her father a strange look.

"Well, Sakura‐san, I appreciate you coming out here," she said, voice carrying a clear undertone of dismissal. "But I think it's time Ryouko went to bed. Also, we need time to discuss things among ourselves. I hope you understand. Do either of you still have questions?"

She glanced around at her husband and father.

"I do," Ryouko's grandfather's said. "But I agree. It's time for her to go bed."

Ryouko glanced at Kyouko.

Go ahead, Kyouko thought. If he has questions, he has questions. I'm sure you're tired.

Ryouko nodded—even though she shouldn't have—and got up.

"We can speak separately," Kyouko agreed amenably, speaking to the old man.

In the end, it was well past two by the time Ryouko got ready for bed.

Finally changed, Ryouko staggered towards her bed, narrowly avoiding tripping over her telescope.

Read it later when you have time, Kyouko's voice mocked in her memory.

Not today, that's for certain, she thought, collapsing onto her bed.

She was supposed to meet Asaka tomorrow at one. She never slept this late; she would feel terrible in the morning.

She wondered what it would be like, not having to sleep.


She looked over to find her mother in the doorway.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," the woman said. "But I thought we should talk."

"No problem," Ryouko lied, forcing herself to sit up on her pillows. The woman walked over, sitting in the chair next to Ryouko's desk.

"I'm sorry, mama," Ryouko said. "But I've thought this through. Trust me. I know you'll be worried for me, but I guarantee you I'll survive."

I can't die before my wish is fulfilled, after all.

Her mother sat down on her bed.

"I won't lie, Ryouko," she said. "You've made a terrible decision. It's not about the survival. It's about the lifestyle."

Ryouko looked at her mother carefully.

"I disagree," she said. "That's all I can say."

The corner of her mother's mouth twitched upward.

"Well, I suppose you are my daughter after all," the woman said. "I just hope…"

Her voice trailed off.

"Hope what?" Ryouko prodded.

Her mother shook her head.

"You know what kind of work your father and I used to do," her mother said.

"Yes, mama," Ryouko said.

They had been staff scientists at the Prometheus Research Institute. Volunteers, like all researchers. They had essentially quit to raise a daughter, though they still showed up at the lab most nights.

"There's a reason we don't talk about it," her mother said. "It's not a pretty world out there. I meant it when I said that the military treats… magical girls such as you as nothing but weapons."

"I know," Ryouko said, bowing her head. "I did my research."

"Of course you did," her mother said, sounded a tad skeptical. "Just remember who you are. That's all I ask."

Ryouko looked up at her mother, wondering what she was trying to say.

The woman sighed.

"We talked about this, Ryouko," she said. "We told you about this. You agreed with us. What could have motivated you—"

"It's not up for discussion!" Ryouko insisted sharply.

She looked back down.

"So I lied, okay?" she said. "I didn't think it would ever matter, since I wasn't expecting to really ever get a chance at a contract. I don't want to live my life on Earth like a nobody! What help am I to anyone here? The world is bigger than this!"

Her mother closed her eyes.

"I wonder what it is about our family?" she asked. "None of us can sit still. I just wanted us all to live together happily. Was it that much to ask?"

"There's no reason we can't be happy separately," Ryouko pointed out.

Her mother looked at her.

"You're very cruel for a girl your age," she said.

Ryouko blinked.

"Wait, let me reword that—" she began.

"No, it's okay," her mother said. "But I have a bit of a request."

"Request?" Ryouko asked.

"Let me see you transform," her mother said, smiling just a little, and Ryouko thought she could almost catch a twinkle in the woman's eyes.

"What? Why?" Ryouko asked.

"Why not?" her mother asked. "Indulge an old woman."

Put that bluntly, her mother was right. There was no real reason not to. Except, well, the embarrassment.

Ryouko summoned her soul gem into its gem form.

She stood up. She swallowed her embarrassment…

And then, with a flash, she was done.

She exhaled slightly. She felt strangely nervous, and it didn't help that her mother, rather than being dazzled or shocked, was instead scrutinizing her carefully.

"Lacey," her mother commented. "And green. That's not what I would have predicted out of you."

"Alright, so it's lacey," Ryouko said, more annoyed than she should have been. "It's not like I got to choose."

"I guess it makes sense," her mother said. "And an arbalest. That's appropriate."

"How so?" Ryouko asked, confused.

The woman shrugged.

"Matches the costume," her mother said.

"And you know what an arbalest is?" Ryouko asked. "I didn't. Until I got this."

She gestured with her crossbow‐laden left arm, carefully avoiding hitting her telescope.

"Your old mom is quite the history buff, I'll have you know," her mother said. "Or used to be."

"I know, mama," Ryouko acknowledged, shaking her head in amusement. "I just didn't think it extended to things like this."

"It started on things like this," her mother commented.

Then, looking down, the woman nodded to herself.

"Alright, I'll let you sleep," she said, getting up. "You and your grandfather have been scheduled to leave on the same day, so I'm going to try and have a little party before you all go. I have to plan. Invite your friends."

Ryouko changed back as her mother headed for the door.

"You know, Ryouko," her mother said, stopping at the door. "Your father and I haven't lived alone together since before you were born. It might be hard to get used to."

"I'm sure you'll be fine, mama," Ryouko said.

The woman shrugged, then walked away, the door closing behind her.

Ryouko lay back down. Finally, she could—

The door slid open.

"Yes?" she asked, exasperated.

"I forgot to say," her mother said. "If you ever manage to meet your grandmother, tell her we're sorry."

"Okay," Ryouko agreed, just trying to get rid of her.

The door closed.

Wait, why? she thought.

And she would have thought about it some more, but her eyes felt so heavy, and her blankets were so warm…

"With all due respect, Kuroi‐san," Kyouko said, twirling the wine glass in her fingers. "I'm a busy girl. I can't sit here forever answering questions, especially if you're just going to ask about the military. They have brochures for that. I'm here to answer questions about magical girls."

She kept her intoxication controls on, which meant that the helpful little nanites in her bloodstream stayed busy breaking the alcohol down. It was polite to accept offers of drinks, but she didn't want to lose her focus.

At the other side of the table, the old man harrumphed, holding his own glass.

"'Girl', you say. Everyone knows how old you are. You're nearly twice my age. I don't know why you all like to pretend to be so young."

Kyouko raised an eyebrow. What a cheeky old man.

"Don't dodge the point," Kyouko said, looking at him. "I'm saying I have work to do. If you're going to sit here and ask me about weaponry, I could easily be doing something else."

Kuroi Abe swirled his glass, looking down into what remained of the authentic French Merlot.

"Yes," he said. "But you won't. In fact, I'm willing to bet you've cleared your schedule for the rest of the night."

Kyouko kept her face passive, even though he was spot‐on. She had indeed cleared her schedule, handing off her prepared sermons to one of the other priestesses. As Mami's message had said, if she wanted to be a mentor, she should be prepared to take some responsibility.

Not that Mami didn't owe her for this. Even if Mami had military duties, she would have to pay back in other ways.

"You're treading dangerous ground, boy," Kyouko said.

"I asked around, in the past," the old man said, shrugging and ignoring her threat. "The first thing you girls do after the family visit is to try and hang around as long as possible, seeing what things are like, how the family is reacting. Gathering information, to relay to your MSY Mental Health Division later. I don't mind. Ryouko is going to need all the support she can get."

"So you kept me here," Kyouko said.

"Yes," the old man said. "I figured you'd appreciate the help."

She hadn't needed the "help". She could easily have monitored the household from the outside. But no matter how canny the old man was, he had no way of knowing that.

"Well, if you don't mind me asking," Kyouko said, leaning forward. "Why exactly were you asking about something like that? It's not exactly common conversation material."

"On this planet, Ryouko is practically all I still care about," the old man said. "That, and my daughter, but she can take care of herself. Ryouko, I'm not so sure about."

He set the glass down and leaned forward as well.

"Let's just say I've had reason to suspect that this might happen, someday," he said.

"The incidence rate of magical girl potential is only about one in ten thousand," Kyouko commented. "That's a rather specific thing to worry about."

"I don't have much else to do with my free time," the old man said. "I might as well scout out all the possible angles. And her personality seemed about right. I don't really approve of her decision but, unlike my daughter, I am willing to accept that it is her decision, my previous criticism aside. If I didn't understand her urge to leave, I wouldn't be leaving myself."

"So you kept me here to talk," Kyouko said dryly.

"That's right," the old man said. "I thought I could fill you in on our family. Maybe save you some work."

In truth, Kyouko didn't enjoy doing these at all. Navigating family dynamics was tricky work, and magical girls tended to be more likely to come from dysfunctional families. It was made worse by the way the hysterical reactions of some parents grated her. She hated being reminded of her own past, no matter how indirectly, and the damn "Visits" were always awkward.

Nor did she particularly enjoy conversations with nosy two‐hundred‐year‐olds. It was made worse by the fact that she was always forced to adopt a more adult persona to reassure parents. The older folk that saw that then became convinced that just because she could act Ancient if she wanted to, it made her one of them, despite her teenage appearance.

She didn't like being one of them.

As if on cue, one of her internal monitors asked for attention.

She listened to what it was relaying to her.

"—and that stunt where you encouraged her to advance the ranks, as if it were perfectly natural!" Ryouko's mother was saying. "You sounded like you were proud!"

"No I didn't," the father asserted back. "You're putting words in my mouth again! I was just being reasonable. What would it help, if I acted all hysterical, like you? I'm only giving her the best advice I can. Telling her to try and get promoted is only logical."

"That's just like you," the woman responded. "You don't even think this is a big deal, do you?"

"What the hell are you talking about? I'm not happy, you idiot!"

Kyouko gritted her teeth despite herself. Parents.

The old man looked at her curiously.

"We wouldn't even be in this situation if it weren't for you!" Ryouko's mother said.

"Oh, not this again. You have no proof—"

"You're the one who thought it would be a good idea!"

"And you agreed with me! Enthusiastically, if I recall right."

"Now who's making things up?"


"You know what—"

"What is it?" the old man asked.

"Her parents are arguing," Kyouko said, still listening, head tilted.

Something about the conversation didn't make sense…

"How do you know?" the old man asked, unable to hear it through the soundproofing.

Kyouko sighed internally. Those chocolates had contained stealthed surveillance bugs, designed to last about a week or so. It was standard procedure, but she could hardly admit that.

She pointed at her ear instead.

"Magical girl, remember?" she said. "We have better hearing than the rest of you."

The comment was even technically true.

The old man grimaced.

"You want to talk so bad," Kyouko said. "Explain to me what's going on."

She shot him an audio transcript, and suppressed a smile as he grunted in surprise at the military‐level direct message protocol.

"Their marriage has been on the rocks for years," the old man said, sighing, a while later. "To be honest, before Ryouko was born, they almost divorced. The child license arrived at just the right time for them to agree to give it another shot. They thought it might bind them together, somehow."

The old man smiled vaguely.

"Honestly, my wife and I didn't really think so, but we wanted a grandchild and we thought, 'Hey, why not? It might work.' It wasn't a great decision."

The smile faded.

"Well, anyway, it didn't work," he said. "They keep up appearances, though, for Ryouko's sake. That girl may be smart, but she's terrible at noticing certain things."

Kyouko nodded.

"Okay, but what's all this about it being her father's 'fault'? That doesn't make sense. How could it be his fault she contracted? Your daughter almost makes it sound like he did something."

Abe looked down at the table, and Kyouko could tell he was deciding whether to reveal something.

"Okay," he said. "So you know they used to be researchers, right?"

"Of course," Kyouko said. "But the files didn't mention what."

"They worked for the military," the old man said. "Working with magical girls, as a matter of fact. Developing weapons, data‐mining, things like that. Kuma thought it would be a good idea to inform Ryouko of some of the more unsavory details about you girls, to dissuade her from wanting to be one. Nakase agreed, at the time."

"Later, we found out that all we did was make her more curious. She tried to hide it, but we knew she was active on the forums, things like that. It was one of the reasons why I was paranoid about her contracting. To be frank, Naka‐chan is really being unfair here, but their marriage is at the point where they both find the silliest reasons to get angry at each other."

Kyouko nodded.

The old man shook his head in exasperation.

"All the women in this family are stubborn like that. Get it from my wife, I suppose."

"Was Ryouko close with her grandmother?" Kyouko asked.

"Very," the old man said. "The woman doted on her, even if she's too young to remember it much anymore. That's why I don't understand…"

He shook his head.

"Forgive me, it's a personal topic."

"I understand," Kyouko said. "Now, you two had two daughters?"

"Yes," the old man said, knowing what she was driving at. "Ryouko doesn't know about her aunt, though. Personally, I haven't seen her in over a century. We stay in touch though. I'm sure you understand."

"I see," Kyouko said, making a mental note of the matter. This would have to be addressed.

"Your family is pretty complicated," she commented, finally.

"Yes," the old man agreed.

"Hey Ryouko‐chan," the voice behind her said.

Ryouko turned and looked up at the stranger.

"Who are you?" she asked, drawing out the word "you" childishly.

"A friend of your parents," the girl said.

She was a teenager, wearing a long ponytail. She looked familiar somehow…

Ryouko stared up at the girl, waiting to know who it was.

"Oh, I wouldn't trust the face thing if I were you," the girl said. "That's not my real name. Don't bother."

Ryouko wrinkled her nose.

"That sounds suspicious," she said.

In a world where violent crime was virtually nonexistent, and your personal enhancement locked up your muscles if you ever tried, children were still taught to be suspicious of strangers. Not every possible crime was violent, after all.

The girl laughed.

"I guess it does," she said. "Your mother taught you well."

"Hey, hey!" a woman nearby yelled.

The primary school teacher pushed her way forward through the gaggle of children piling onto the group of waiting transports.

She confronted the teenager.

"The school surveillance doesn't list you as authorized to pick her up," the teacher said, pushing her face in front of that of the girl's.

"Take a look at my face," the girl said, pointing at said face.

The teacher frowned and did so. Her stern expression relaxed a little, but she shook her head.

"You're still not authorized," the teacher said. "I'm going to have to ask her parents about this."

"Listen," the teenager said, leaning forward. "Can I have a word with you in private?"

The teacher frowned, but acquiesced, gesturing at Ryouko to stay still.

"Wait here," she said.

Ryouko watched curiously as the two of them retreated to a corner to talk privately.

A long while later, so long that all the other children had boarded their vehicles, and Ryouko had gotten bored and was spinning pointlessly in circles, the two of them came back.

"You better not be lying," the teacher warned. "I'm more than willing to call the authorities if necessary."

"I'm not," the teenager reassured. "I just want to spend some time with her. That's all."

She held her hands up in a gesture of harmlessness.

"I'll be watching," the teacher warned.

"Come on Ryouko‐chan," the girl said, offering her hand.

"Who are you?" Ryouko asked.

"I told you; I'm a friend of your parents," the girl said. "I just want to be friends."

Ryouko considered for a moment, then grabbed the girl's hand. What was the worst that could happen?

"Thanks, Ryouko!" the girl said cheerily. "Now come on, let's sit on the bench over there!"

When they got there, the girl offered her a chocolate chip cookie to placate her. Ryouko bit into it silently as the girl talked.

"You're a pretty cute little girl," the teenager said. "You look just like Naka‐chan."

"Uh‐huh," Ryouko said, focusing on her cookie.

"Listen, Ryouko," the girl said. "Have you ever seen one of these?"

Ryouko looked at the girl's hand—and dropped her cookie straight down onto the floor.

"A soul gem!" she said. "You're a magical girl!"

"Yup!" the girl said.

"Wow!" Ryouko said, suddenly enthused. For a girl of her age, meeting a magical girl was like meeting a princess and a superhero at the same time—except that you had a distant chance of actually being one, someday.

"Can I touch it?" she asked.

The girl shook her head.

"Sorry," she said. "A magical girl's soul gem is too precious to be touched."

Ryouko nodded seriously. That made sense.

"Can you show me some magic?" Ryouko asked.

The girl put a finger to her cheek, thinking.

"I don't see why not," she said, finally.

Ryouko leaned forward as the girl got up. Her friends would be so jealous of her when she told them about this!

The girl was briefly ensheathed by spectacular purple flash, and then her clothes were replaced by the elaborate purple costume of a magical girl.

It was lacey, with buttons, and the girl's soul gem formed a bright six‐pointed star at the base of her neck.

Ryouko just stared. The girl was the same color as Akemi Homura—but her costume was a lot cooler.

The girl carried a large wooden bow.

"It's a composite bow," the girl explained, aiming for the sky, summoning a bolt out of thin air.

She fired, and the bolt soared into the sky, past transparent tubing and buildings, before detonating in a radiant purple burst, resembling fireworks.

"Ryouko," it spelled in the sky.

Ryouko, who had jumped off of the bench to look, clapped ebulliently.

"Wow!" she repeated. "I can't wait to be old enough to be like you!"

Instead of being pleased at the compliment, the teenager frowned sharply, then returned to normal, her bow and costume dissolving near‐instantly.

The girl shook her head, voice suddenly getting that "seriousness" that adults had sometimes.

"I know it's cool," she said. "But you should listen to your parents before you make any contracts, okay? I'm serious."

Ryouko frowned, peeved. That was what everyone said.

"I guess I couldn't resist showing off," the girl said, smiling to herself.

Then she bent down, reaching eye‐level with Ryouko. Ryouko looked into the girl's eyes, and she looked back.

"I got you a gift," the girl said, holding up something in her hand.

Ryouko took it without hesitation, by this point thoroughly won over.

"Ooh," she mouthed, holding the bracelet in two hands.

"Listen, Ryouko," she said, patting the girl on the head. "It's very important that you keep all of this a secret, including the bracelet. Especially from your parents."

"Why?" Ryouko asked, sliding the oversize bracelet onto her wrist.

"It's very important…" the girl said, her voice dissolving as the world shifted…

"—that she not learn any of it!" her grandmother exclaimed loudly, causing Ryouko to startle, at her vantage point behind the door.

Ryouko looked up, marveling at how enormous the door appeared.

"But why?" Ryouko's father said. "Why shouldn't she know?"

"This family has lost enough to those damn Incubators already," the older woman said. "The last thing we need is for her to see a damn role model. No. She can't disappear a hundred years like that and just expect to come back home like it's no big deal!"

"You're being unfair," Ryouko's father said. "She had obvious reasons."

"The both of you quiet down," Ryouko's grandfather said. "We have a little visitor."

The sound of footsteps, then the door swinging wide open, causing an eavesdropping Ryouko to stumble and fall—

Ryouko startled awake, gasping.

What the hell was that? she thought, a few moments later.

She felt her forehead. She was sweating.

10:30:16, her internal chronometer told her.

She lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, nursing the headache and exhausting tiredness that came with sleeping off‐cycle.

Ryouko hadn't thought about that purple magical girl in a long, long time, even though that girl had helped start her quiet fascination with the topic. It was a childhood memory, one she had, indeed, never told her parents.

But the other part of the dream—she didn't remember that at all. What the hell did it mean?

Ryouko sighed. She wasn't going to fall back asleep without strenuous effort, even if she had yet to sleep a full night by her standards.

Struggling off her bed, she slid her feet into her favorite bunny slippers. She should bring them with her, she thought. They must allow a few personal effects in your luggage.

She stopped in front of her desk. At her thought, the topmost drawer slid open, the desk's internal organizers presenting her with exactly what she was looking for.

She picked up the bracelet, regarding it in the light. It was a fairly simple bracelet, but one designed to please a child. It still glowed softly after all these years, a mundane application of fantastic technology. A bit of artwork decorated the outer surface: a stylized shooting star, encircling the edge.

The emblem of the MSY, Ryouko thought, startled. She had never realized that before.

A moment later, she slipped it on. It fit perfectly, now.

As she dug through her closet for clothes, she chewed over her memories. Her memory of the purple magical girl had been just like a child's. She remembered the flashy bits, the name "Ryouko" written in bright sparkles in the sky, but the other details that had come up in her dream—she hadn't been able to recall any of that before.

Who the hell was she? Ryouko thought. What kind of person can walk around with the wrong name attached to her face?

And the part of the dream after that. Was that real? She hardly had any memories of her grandmother. She had been too young…

Her memories of her grandmother tended to be very specific, and this wasn't one she had ever recalled before.

Ryouko scowled, putting on a pair of pants. If she ever met the woman again, she was going to ask a few questions. Maybe she would actually answer them, unlike her parents.

Well, in any case, she had voicemail.

She listened to it as she shrugged on a shirt.

"I'm really sorry about yesterday," Simona's voice sounded in her head. "I was just a little surprised, is all."

Surprised, Ryouko thought dryly. Well, that's one way to put it.

"I want to make it up to you," the girl continued. "So I was thinking the four of us could do something, maybe go watch that movie you were supposed to go watch."

Oh wow, that, Ryouko thought. She had forgotten completely about that. Well, at least she had gotten out of that date in probably the most decisive way possible.

"I don't know, though," Simona demurred. "I think you might want to tell the others yourself. So I'll leave it to you to do that before I do anything."

Right, Ryouko thought.

She thought out an affirmative reply message, then an additional message to her other friends, kept very vague. She wasn't feeling ready for any phone conversations, so she left it at strictly text.

"Good morning, Ryouko," her grandfather greeted as she stepped out into the main room.

"Good morning," she responded, yawning, glancing around.

Her father was apparently out, but her mother had gotten up from her early morning nap and was ready at the counter.

"I had the technician stop by while you were asleep, so you can have a proper breakfast," her mother said, setting out a bowl of rice, pickled vegetables, and a bowl of miso. "It's not like we're going to be short on Allocs anymore. Not with two family members in the military."

Not knowing what the proper response to that was, Ryouko settled for smiling sheepishly and taking her seat.

As she chewed through her food, her mother and grandfather sat and watched her with disturbing intensity, as if she might stab herself with the chopsticks if they didn't both stare at her hard enough.

"I was wondering," Ryouko said, looking around at the both of them carefully. "Now that all this has happened, is there, uh—"

She paused, thinking over how to word it. The fact of the matter was, she had always sensed that her family kept certain things from her. Now that she was technically an adult, maybe they'd be looser‐lipped.

"Is there anything you're keeping from me?" she settled on. "Things from your work, maybe? Anything that might be relevant? I know there's laws about telling things to girls of my age."

She doubted that, if there was, it had anything to do with laws, but it was a way for them to save face.

Her mother and grandfather glanced at each other.

"I won't say there's nothing," her grandfather said. "But you'll probably find out soon enough anyway. It's not something that's best explained right now."

"That's right," her mother agreed.

"I can't be satisfied with something like that," Ryouko said, making her gaze harsh.

Her grandfather shrugged, completely ignoring her attempt to convey an anger she didn't feel.

Ryouko sighed. It was always like this. She couldn't get worked up about it anymore.

Glowering, she settled into reading through her messages—specifically, the metric ton of military messages that had settled into her inbox the night before. Looking into the middle distance, she let the words insert themselves into her memory.

First, she read the one labeled as highly important.

Okay, she had a scheduled appointment for initial orientation and outfitting at the local MSY branch office at 13:00. She knew that already.

The next message was a quick primer on grief cube usage, indicating that she would receive a set of three in her family's delivery slot exactly three and six days after first contract. It went on to state that standard basal usage was actually about one every three days, but, as a new recruit, she was receiving extra, as a countermeasure against probable emotional turmoil. Recruits were instructed to try to stay as calm as possible, and to ask their nearest mentor, recruiting officer, or magical girl, for an explanation of why.

It also told her not to hesitate to request more, that allowing more than minor corruption was highly dangerous, and that there would be packaging so she could deposit grief cubes, either excess or used, back in the same delivery slot. It was highly important that she handle the cubes herself, and not allow any civilians to touch it, so if she wouldn't be home to receive the delivery, please issue instructions…

Ryouko moved on to the next message.

This one was the official welcome message from the military, full of patriotic indoctrination and other things like that. It admonished her to read all her messages carefully, and to ask her mentor or local liaison officer for more information, if necessary. That liaison was Patricia, she noted, though she didn't expect it to matter. The message also made sure to inform her of all the fantastic privileges and benefits she could expect as a member of the military.

After that, somewhat more interestingly, was the welcome message from the MSY. It informed her of the privileges she could expect from membership, including a very cushy additional Alloc stipend, as well as her responsibilities—the expectation that she vote in elections, serve as either juror or tribunal member in the Soul Crimes court if requested, and so forth. It listed and linked a dizzying list of additional resources to peruse, regarding standing for election, cultural traditions, internal days of observations and so on and so forth.

The message after that asked her if she felt she had sufficient meaning in her life, and invited her to attend a sermon at the local Church of Hope which, as luck would have it, was also the headquarters church, where you could often see the inspirational Sakura Kyouko herself speaking— She trashed it. No offense to Kyouko, but she wasn't interested.

Though now that she thought about it, neither Kyouko nor any of the girls with her had said a word on the subject, even though they were almost certainly all affiliated.

That was interesting.

And they just kept on coming. There was a primer on military protocol. There was an informational guide on Alloc distribution, conversion to local colonial currency, and the investment opportunities she might pursue in the colonies, if desired. There was an interesting guide on security clearances, from which she learned that she now had security clearance level one. There was a listing of local magical girls and other recent recruits, should she wish to socialize or ask questions—it contained an invitation to some sort of get‐together later. There was an informative outline of the legal and practical implications of emancipation.

Perhaps the most amusing message was the one labeled "Important Health Message". It asserted that "Contrary to common belief, being a magical girl has no effect on one's ability to get pregnant, and continued functioning of one's contraceptive implants is expected and normal. No attempts should be made to disable the implants." This message was paired with the admonition that "While we are aware that it will be difficult being away from home for months, frivolous use of magic is, as always, highly discouraged."

Ryouko had had to struggle to keep a straight face on that one.

And on and on the messages continued, until Ryouko felt numb trying to continue to process them all. Apologizing to her family, she never budged from her seat, and even had lunch sitting at that table, blindly transferring food into her mouth with her chopsticks. Her family watched her with concealed expressions as she did so.

Finally, she stopped, just before getting to a message detailing the mesh reconfigurations and enhancement modifications that she would have to undergo. It was getting late, and this message was long.

She figured she would find out soon enough anyway.

She got up, bade them farewell, and left for her appointment.