Those who study the subject have long suspected that soul gems are an affront to the true nature of souls, an inherently unstable crystallization of a continuous fluid that is bound to someday dissipate. Full with the emotional urgency of a human contractee, in the moment of the wish the soul rebels against the existing nature of things, fracturing reality itself, and sealing itself away from an unjust world.
But the energy of such a rebellion can never be forever maintained, and from the moment of contract, the soul inevitably blackens, recovering only with a steady diet of grief cubes, powering itself with the accumulated pain of our uncontracted brethren.
It is only natural, then, that at the end of a magical girl's lifespan, when the energy runs out or the gem is shattered, the soul dissipates, returning to the continuous ether from which we all spring.
An appealing story, but it has never quite made sense to me. There are a number of conflicting observations that can be—and have been—made, but the most important involve soul gem disappearance. The mechanics of the standard theory suggest that the final failure of the soul gem, the fracturing of the gem itself, should release a tremendous amount of energy, as one would expect from an unstable state inevitably toppling. This final dissipation should seem almost like a relief, like the return of the soul to a more natural state.
Of course, it is nothing like that. The process is incredibly painful, but ends in no release of energy whatsoever, a result that even the Incubators claim to find mystifying.
My research partner and I find this dissatisfying. The theory makes too much sense to end in such an odd anticlimax. We believe there must be some other force that prevents the energy of the phase transition from manifesting, something that either collects or nullifies the energy. But what?
The Incubators are one candidate, but their protestations on the topic seem too legitimately displeased to sustain a lie like this. For my part, the comment that if they were really collecting this extra energy, they wouldn't bother denying it, rings true. After all, what's a little energy between friends at the end of life?
For further insight, we have turned to collecting interviews from those who have witnessed this form of death. While a delicate task, it has proven fruitful, especially when combined with certain observations made in the unethically gathered research notes of Mikuni Oriko. There is a strong sense in the data that the shattering of the soul gem is no mere transition of the soul back to a more natural form, but more of a phase transition in the true sense. The energy of the shattering gem is not lost, but instead contained in a new, more stable and powerful form.
There is some other force at work here, and if it is acting to drain magical girls of magic that should rightfully be theirs, it is in the interests of both humans and Incubators to learn what, or who, they are…
— Akiyama Akari, Official Research Notes
"With the perspective of time, I believe I am beginning to grasp the Incubators, just a little."
"A laughable statement, I know, from one such as I, to talk about the perspective of time for a race to which a few hundred years is less than the blink of an eye, but I think it true nonetheless."
"A race, old beyond imagining, that has lasted this long because it has mastered the art of long‐term stability. Nothing threatens them, nothing even so much as perturbs them, except the fact that they cannot master entropy."
"An old, decrepit race, that cannot achieve the perspective necessary to see their own flaws, or to know that their own much‐vaunted unity, and sanity, is the source of their troubles. It takes a cosmic perspective to know better…"
— Akemi Homura, redacted quote from "Akemi Homura, an Official Biography," (MSY Internal), 2405. MSY‐classified material is viewable only with permission from the Leadership Committee.
Azrael Maslanka remembered the clouds and skies of her homeworld, in the years before her people had destroyed themselves. Back then, life had seemed full of promise, and the warm sun on her wings had felt like the favor of a benevolent deity.
She sighed, twitching her spinal thorns under the jacket she was using to conceal her back. She swallowed down another wave of claustrophobia as she returned to reality, remembering that where she was actually located was the inside of a tiny asteroid‐locked science station, with corridors she couldn't even fully stretch her wings in.
What even gives? she thought spitefully. I thought my psych file said clearly that I hate being in closed spaces like this. Sure, I got a big room, but this is worse than most starships.
She knew she was just grousing, though. When the Chair of the General Staff called for you to travel to a remote secret base, you went, since presumably it was important. It also wasn't all bad: it turned out that, of all people, Shizuki Ryouko and Nakihara Asami were here too.
In fact, that was ostensibly why she was here—she was supposed to be helping train the two of them for their next mission, though she sincerely doubted that was the real reason.
She supposed it at least gave her the opportunity to further embarrass herself by her attraction to those less than half her age.
Better than Sakura Kyouko, she snarked.
She sighed again, the attempt at humor not making herself feel any better.
Well, whatever, she thought. She'd been through worse things than simple cabin fever, and seen things that made her own childhood experiences seem tame in comparison. She could stand a short meeting with the all‐important Tomoe Mami, especially if it got her finally on the glide path to another mission.
That was what she told herself, but she was still so wrapped up in the topic of space that the first thing she did stepping into Mami's quarters was to look around, checking out how much space a Field Marshal would get on this science station.
About as much as she had, it turned out. Someone had read her psych file, after all.
It was only then that she noticed that the programmable wall was covered in what looked like pictures of historical events, scribbled notes, and a prominent picture of Akemi Homura. She noticed then that a hologram of her and Homura posing together was circled just underneath it, and next to that a publicity shot of her and Ryouko.
She couldn't help but stare, enough that Mami stepped over hastily to her side.
"Oh, sorry! I didn't mean to leave that up there! Yes, I know about you and Homura. It was, uh, part of my investigation into her disappearance."
Azrael blinked, wondering abruptly if this was going to be about Homura. Someone had come to ask her about Homura after the disappearance, once long ago, but she didn't have anything to offer. She still didn't, of course.
"I see?" she responded, making it into a statement. "I'm a bit surprised that that's what this meeting is about."
"It's not. Not directly, anyway," Mami said, and it occurred to Azrael for the first time that Tomoe Mami, whom she had only met a few times previously at official functions, looked decidedly out of sorts. It might have been her imagination, but she was pretty sure her hair was slightly out of alignment.
"Take a seat," Mami said, as a large set of modular furniture parts hurried to reassemble themselves, scrabbling along the floor, something which never failed to give Azrael the willies. "I'm sorry I didn't have it ready in time. I've been so busy."
Azrael sat down a moment later and tried to relax, even though she was convinced she could still feel the chair moving underneath her.
"No, it's, uh, fine," she said, trying to be polite.
"I'll have the synthesizer make us some tea," Mami said, sitting down in another chair across the table that had just appeared in front of her. "Or would you prefer another drink?"
"Tea is fine."
The silence that followed was oppressive, and Azrael wished she at least had something to chew on. Instead, she could feel her back spines twitching nervously. If there was one thing she envied baseline humans for, it was the fact that they didn't have their backs flashing emotional signals—even hidden under a layer of clothing, it was obvious sometimes, and the skin‐tight sheaths her people had sometimes worn hid nothing at all. It was so much easier to just keep your wings on.
Abruptly, she realized she had zoned out, and found Mami leaning onto the table with her hands clasped in front of her mouth, peering at Azrael with an unsettling look. What was going on?
"I'm sorry to have to bring you out here," Mami said. "It's not a place that suits you, I know. You must accept my apology."
Azrael shook her head.
"It's my duty, after all."
"No, not really," Mami said, unclasping her hands and leaning back in her chair. "I came up with an official reason for this trip, but it's not the real reason. I brought you here for a personal favor."
"Ah?" Azrael said, almost involuntarily. This wasn't the line of conversation she had been expecting at all.
There was another pause in the discussion as a server drone appeared to place their tea and cookies on the table.
"You're a telepath, aren't you?" Mami asked, finally, rather bluntly.
"Yes," she said, resisting the urge to look away.
"You've never worked for the MHD or directly for the Telepath's Guild, right?"
"I would never have had the time to. I've spent most of my life in training or on missions," Azrael said. "It was a condition of the deal that let me keep my modifications. Of course I'm a member of the Guild though; we all are. But I don't think I've ever heard from them since my introduction letter."
Strictly speaking, she didn't know if Mami knew the truth about her, but it was obviously a pretty safe assumption.
Mami nodded, downing her cup of tea in one gulp.
Doesn't that burn? Azrael couldn't help but think.
"Did Akemi Homura say anything to you before she left?" Mami asked. "Any specific instructions, any hints to the future, anything like that?"
"Uh, no, definitely not. She was just visiting me to be friendly, I think."
Azrael's eye twitched, as she felt the definite signs of someone trying to probe her thoughts. It took her only a moment to realize it was Mami herself, despite the fact that Mami wasn't reputed to be a telepath.
"I don't know what has you so worried," Azrael said honestly, "but I'm not lying. Read my thoughts if you want to."
"As I expected," Mami said, expression and words enigmatic.
Azrael hid her unease at the situation by taking a slow drink of the tea she had been offered, enduring for the moment Mami's continued probing of her mind. What exactly could warrant this kind of examination? This was hardly the MSY Founder she had been led to expect from her public persona.
"What is this about, anyway?" Azrael asked, when she couldn't stand the suspense anymore. "Are you still trying to gauge my trustworthiness?"
Mami closed her eyes and put a hand to her head, looking for a moment as if she were exhausted.
"I find myself very conflicted," Mami said. "There is… I have uncovered evidence that I've been Reformatted. I don't know who did this to me, but I'm pretty sure the damned—the MHD, at least, knows about it. I have powers I have no memory of developing, dreams about people I can't remember, and a gap in my recollection of the events of the 2090s, but I just can't get any more than that. The worst part is, everyone I'd normally ask is exactly who I can't trust. I need help, from someone who isn't in my old circle of friends. It's a terrible feeling."
The field marshal looked almost relieved to say the words, collapsing onto her arms in front of Azrael. Azrael, for her part, could barely take in the words said in her direction, blinking blankly at Mami while the wheels of her mind spun in various directions.
How have I gotten involved in this—
This isn't an official—
"Why me?" she said finally. "I don't have any training on this. All I ever use my power for is to mind‐read colonists. The MHD—"
"I can't trust the MHD!" Mami snapped impatiently, before dialing herself back with a visible effort. "Like I said, unless I've guessed wrong, they're partly responsible for the Reformatting in the first place. There's no way they'd tell me the truth."
Azrael sucked in a breath, putting down her tea carefully to keep her hands from shaking too much. She tried to think back to her training, to what little she knew about the topic.
"Are you sure you even want to know?" Azrael asked, trying to be gentle. "Reformats are often done for the good of the individual being Reformatted, and I… I doubt it was done just to keep secrets from someone like you."
She cringed preemptively, bracing herself for an angry outburst, but it didn't arrive.
Mami just signed audibly, sitting up stiffly in her chair.
"I don't know either," she said, avoiding Azrael's gaze. "Of course I don't. I refuse to have my memory erased again, but I can't stay here much longer either. The only people who know are a few senior officers… The MSY is probably tearing their hair out trying to find me—it won't be long before they just read someone's mind and contact the base. I'm sorry to say, I don't trust Sakura‐san or Chitose‐san on this matter. My TacComp and I have gone back over the records, and we're pretty sure they're involved."
Azrael didn't need to be a mind‐reader to hear the conflict and strain in Mami's voice. She couldn't imagine what it was like—Azrael didn't even have any good friends, much less any friends who she had known for over a dozen times her current age.
She sucked in a breath. She had always felt a bit detached from the rest of the MSY, and didn't hold the same reverence for the Founders many of her peers did. It was difficult to get into the same mindset, when the MSY had helped found the monoculture that insisted her people were inhuman outsiders, and who had taken as a price for her wings her entire youth—a decision the MSY had tacitly acquiesced to, one that Homura had even once apologized for.
But a lack of reverence did not mean that she lacked simple human empathy, and it was obvious what a tough position Mami was in. Indeed, in a twisted way, her isolation from the rest of Humanity likely made her the best telepath to trust—provided, of course, that she had been willing to let Mami read her mind.
"What do you want me to do, then?" she asked quietly, speaking into the silence that had developed between them.
"I need someone to help me break the lock on my remaining memories," Mami said. "Whoever performed the Reformatting did an incredible job. My memories should be recovering on their own, but they're just… not. I've tried probing it myself with what telepathy I've recovered, but I can tell my skills are incomplete, and I don't have the time to retrain or break through myself."
"You're a telepath, then?" Azrael asked, risking a probing question. "I had thought…"
"Not by default," Mami said, intercepting the sentence before Azrael could finish it. "I seem to have started developing the ability at some point, perhaps as a result of having to spend so much time trying to conduct diplomacy of one sort or another. I have some faded memories of Science Division telling me that I was a brand‐new phenomenon, an elder magical girl developing new magical powers. That's fairly typical now, of course, but at the time no one had ever heard about it. I was apparently pretty good at it."
Azrael nodded along.
"I can't honestly say I've had too much advanced training on the subject," she said. "But you had trouble getting anyone else, I assume?"
"Yes," Mami said.
Azrael let out a breath.
"Alright, do you still remember the Tanaka posture?" she asked. "You can look it up if you don't. It's standard stuff."
"Yes," Mami said, somehow hesitant. "Hold hands, look into each other's eyes, and try not to fall in love, as Tanaka‐san so elegantly put it."
Her voice sounded dry on the last part, which was appropriate.
"Yes, that one," Azrael agreed, raising her hands for the posture. "Skin‐to‐skin and direct eye contact facilitates cooperative telepathic merger, should you so desire."
"Yes, I remember that now," Mami, clasping her hands in an almost airy tone. "Someone said that exact line to me once, as we were doing something like this."
"We can figure it out," Azrael said reassuringly. "I just hope it isn't anything too bad. Is there…"
My bodyguards have been warned, Mami thought, answering the question before she said it. They know what to do if worse comes to worst.
They don't like it, Azrael thought, as their eyes locked and she read the thought directly. But they respect your decision. Even if Xiao Long actually works for the MHD, she is loyal enough to let you try, now that you've gotten this far.
Yes… Mami thought, her mental voice echoing oddly in Azrael's mind, the distinction between their two thoughts already starting to blur. Azrael could tell that whatever it was that had happened in Mami's past, she definitely had undergone training at some point—it was difficult even for natural telepaths to so easily let go of the natural wall around one's identity.
What was it the philosophers said? someone thought, as Azrael peered into the other girl's eyes. They had been so sure that Volokhov was right about minds being fluid—and then they had discovered soul gems.
I've always been of the opinion that soul gems are unnatural, a crystallized prison for something not meant to be imprisoned, someone else thought. Perhaps that's why the Incubators can get so much power from them.
It's not just you. That's a fairly common view in the Telepaths' Guild. Though that's always seemed a bit too conveniently self‐affirming for me.
Then the world around them drained away, and Azrael felt herself falling into the other girl's eyes.
When she emerged again, she found herself sitting in the backseat of an archaic vehicle, in an unfamiliar body.
No, a car, they realized. And this body was one of an adult standard human.
Then the context for what was happening came back to them—her? The distinction seemed oddly unimportant. But she had been summoned here for an important meeting, one she had to attend.
"Tomatsu‐san?" her attendant asked politely, holding the door open for her. It was a bit of a needless luxury, having a human attendant in an age when the cars drove and opened themselves, but she liked to think of herself as providing jobs to those who needed them. In fact, there was that one time—
Focus, she thought, the command seeming almost to come from somewhere outside her.
Indeed, the world they were in had started to spiral away, and it took an effort of will to return, grabbing the handle of the door and stepping gracefully out of the car.
"Thank you, Akiyuki‐san," she said. "I apologize; I've been a bit distracted."
"Understandable, ma'am. The meeting room is this way."
She allowed Akiyuki to take the lead. He was a young man, only in his twenties, and she had taken him on after the death of his late father, who had been one of her most trusted attendants. It had raised eyebrows, taking in a male TNC in an organization that vastly preferred taking in girls, and had even inspired some lascivious commentary, but she chose not to care about such things. She preferred—
Mami! part of her complained.
Yes, she definitely needed to concentrate, she realized, as the memory snapped back into focus. There was something here intent on distracting her, pulling her away from the memory she was trying to find. Machina hadn't been able to help her, but maybe Azrael could.
She found Akiyuki waiting for her at the elevator in the underground car garage, giving her an odd look. She wondered why her behavior seemed to be impacting his behavior, in what was supposed to be a memory, but she didn't allow the thought to distract her. No, she would move forward, no matter how much she wanted to reminisce about the world around her.
You miss the past, don't you? the voice from earlier asked.
I do, she thought.
Why don't you ever think back to it, then?
I do! All the time!
But not this part?
She considered the issue for a moment, even as she watched an older version of Mitakihara through the walls of the elevator. The city shifted and morphed in front of them, vague and ever‐changing, a century of construction and development flickering through her mind.
Not in a long time, she conceded.
I feel like it would hurt too much.
Just thinking the sentence seemed to break a seal of some sort, enough so that she felt herself dazzled by the revelation. She avoided ever thinking about this part of history, without even realizing she was doing so. In retrospect, it had always been there, lurking in the rear of her mind, like an itchy woolen shirt that she could never take off but was trying to ignore.
Just what happened in those years? she thought, trying to think back.
It had been a time of rapid expansion and consolidation, the Charter had just been rewritten for the second time to allow for a much faster‐growing organization, they had just finished that damn nonsense in China…
"We're here, ma'am," Akiyuki said, interrupting her chain of thought. They had abruptly reached the top floor.
"Thank you," she said, stepping out into the hallway.
She took a moment to look around, peering down the hallways of the MSY's old haunt. She could tell now that she had passed some kind of invisible barrier—her thoughts felt crystal clear in comparison to the muddle they had been before, and she could detect the flaws that usually characterized this kind of journey into one's own memory. The details of the world around her were vague and inconsistent, becoming clear only when she focused her attention on them, as her mind invented something to fill in the gaps in recollection, exactly analogous to a dreamscape. Otherwise, only a few key things were clear: the clean, sterile smell of the building that she had always hated, the paintings that she had helped choose—naturally, the objects with the most salience in her memory.
This was how it was supposed to be; the clarity a telepath could bring to an otherwise murky recollection was unparalleled, and part of the problem with her previous attempts to break in was that it simply hadn't been that way.
Akiyuki waited impatiently for her to finish what she was doing, a behavior the real Akiyuki would never have shown. By now, though, it was quite clear that this was no pure memory—there was something communicating back to her, and she suspected she was about to get a direct audience.
She stepped forward, and opened the door.
For a moment she stood there blinking on the threshold, feeling oddly as if something had changed again. What was—
"Akemi‐san?" she said, in nearly automatic shock, even as she knew it was a ridiculous reaction to have in a situation like this.
The once‐First Executive of the MSY stood with her back facing her, leaning over the desk in the center of the room focused on something, just as she had seen her once, so long ago.
Yes, she realized, grabbing feverishly onto a memory she had lost. Homura had called her in once just like this.
But this was incorrect. It hadn't just been the two of them. There had been Yuma, and Kyouko, and others.
Homura's long black hair shifted on her shoulders as she finally acknowledged her arrival, and she couldn't help remembering how impossibly black it had always been, black enough that the rumors said it was augmented by magic. It was eerily beautiful.
"I always knew you would make it back here someday," Homura said, without turning.
"Was it you that did this?" she asked.
"If you thought harder about that question, you'd know the answer already," Homura said, with her usual diminished affect. "But that's not really your fault, I suppose. Before you ask: no, I'm not the real Homura or any part of her, and I don't have any more idea than you do where she is."
With a sharp gesture, Homura turned to face her, hair swirling behind her. Homura had always been like that, a living contrast between practiced calm and almost excessively decisive action.
"But it seems we have a visitor," Homura said. "I must apologize, but this is a rather private matter for Mami. I'm sure she appreciates your contribution, but if you'll agree to leave, I will in turn stop interfering with Mami's memory recovery."
"Who are you?" Azrael asked, though the words came out of Mami's mouth.
"I can't answer that," Homura said, shaking her head. "Not with you here."
"What if I want her to stay?" Mami asked, in the same voice.
"Then she may stay," Homura said. "I'm not the controlling authority here."
She left the obvious question unanswered, even as a heartbeat passed in waiting.
"You're not going to ask why I want her to stay?" Mami asked.
"I'm the one here who has to answer questions," Homura said. "I don't need to ask you questions. I'm a figment of your mind, after all."
"Are you really, though?" Mami asked.
"That's a foolish question, Tomoe Mami," Homura said, thought she smiled slightly to dispel a possible insult.
She may not have been Homura, but she sure acted like one, she thought—and that came from both of them. Mami, specifically, remembered a time when Homura had never smiled for anything. It had mystified them, when the pigtailed Homura they had known turned into the quietly intense, long‐haired Homura that everyone else knew. She and Kyouko just couldn't understand what might have caused it, but Mami had a better understanding now—after all, she was the one who was currently occupied talking with "a figment of her mind".
And, in the end, even Homura had changed over four centuries of life. Mami had seen that. Yet the Homura that had visited Azrael was almost like a different person all over again. There was a side to her that Mami had never seen. Mami could only wonder if Homura had gotten so enmeshed in her usual persona that she didn't dare show even her oldest friends anything else.
Perhaps especially her oldest friends. Mami knew that feeling, now, and felt the usual pang in her heart that came from pondering her failure to save her.
"Leeching memories from the girl you asked for help?" Homura asked. "That's not very nice."
"It's almost impossible to avoid, Akemi‐san!" Mami complained. "I know you know that!"
"Well, it's true that Homura knew that," Homura said, smilingly condescendingly. "The question is why you know that, or why you know that Homura knew that."
With an abrupt fury, Mami found herself raising her hand to slap this mocking Homura, but with Azrael's help managed to control herself.
She took a deep breath.
"Well, you promised answers," Mami said.
"I implied that, yes," the girl in front of her said, dropping her gaze downward. "I said I wouldn't ask any questions, but I will ask one: Do you really want to know?"
"I'm not going to turn back now," Mami said, though she knew her voice didn't sound all that determined.
"Alright, then, let's clarify the situation," the girl said. "Azrael?"
A chair materialized to Mami's right, the slightly built Azrael appearing seated in it a moment later, complete with a tremendous pair of white wings neatly furled behind her back. She had her hands folded in her lap politely, as if waiting.
The separation was complete—mostly. She could still feel Azrael's stabilizing presence in the back of her mind, without which she doubted she would have been able to hold onto even a semblance of her calm. Before, the blurring influence of the flashback had muted her unease, but now it was back full force. Just what had gone wrong with her life? At the ripe old age of four hundred sixty‐five, she would have expected to be long past madness like this.
Who is this girl? she found herself wondering, examining the black‐haired girl in front of her. It wasn't Homura, not anymore, but she found herself unable to look her in the face. There was just, still, that hair…
"What if I were to intervene?" a new voice said, and it took Mami a moment after turning to properly understand that the voice was hers, and that she was looking at her own face, just ten years older, in a physical age group she hadn't had to wear for at least a few decades.
She put a hand to her head and staggered backwards, stumbling into a chair that had conveniently materialized behind her.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to interpret this," she said. "So you're me, then? I'm behind my own problems?"
"In a manner of speaking, though I wouldn't say you caused the problems, so much as tried to mitigate them."
"Speak clearly," Mami insisted, pitching her voice to make it clear she meant it as a demand.
"You were one of the first to develop a power outside your original skillset," the other Mami said, "and you were uniquely gifted at it. Those who studied it, including yourself, thought it had to be partly due to your wish, that wishing to be tied to life helped you to tie yourself into others."
The voice echoed oddly in her head, such that Mami found it mingling with her own thoughts. The memories came back to her in a torrent—reading others' minds with ease, practicing basic techniques with Atsuko Arisu, arguing with Yuma about the morality of developing more than just simple reading.
"The conventional wisdom about Reformatting is that it is always unstable in the long‐run," the other Mami said, almost as if reciting from a textbook or document. "Unless a practiced telepath reapplies the Reformat on a regular basis, usually at least once every half‐century or so, it becomes leaky, and eventually falls apart entirely."
"The logic is similar to what applies to the Soul Magics," Mami said, continuing the explanation herself, though she could not suppress a nervous look at Azrael, who probably wasn't cleared for this information. "The Soul is sacrosanct, perhaps even beyond this material plane, and as such inviolate to outside manipulation in the long‐term. Better results are always obtained with the consent of the receiving party, and the best results only when the party operates on itself."
"The Law of Cycles, or at least a part of it," the other Mami said. "Even at its greatest duress, as the soul gem itself runs out of power, the soul does not fail; it only disappears, perhaps returning to where it originally came from."
"That's religious claptrap!" Mami said, unsure even herself why her reaction was so sharp.
"Is it?" the other Mami said. "But you're the one who wrote it."
Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place in her head. Yes, the Law of Cycles, that rumored ruleset governing magical girls. She had once found it to give her solace, in a world where she knew she was only a few disasters away from disappearing like so many of her contemporaries. Even as Kyouko had laughed at her, and Homura had peddled her illogical beliefs about a magical girl deity, she had once carefully studied the matter. There had been… something wrong with the theory. If the Soul was so inviolate, then how did magical girls exist at all? What were the demons, and how were the Incubators extracting energy from them?
It had been a matter of importance to her once, before she had forgotten about it utterly. So much so that when Kyouko had founded her Cult, she had wholly refused to entertain any of her theories, even as Kyouko seemed so, so certain that…
"We're getting off‐track," Azrael said. "I'm sure that's fascinating, but that's not what we're here to talk about."
"Well, that's not entirely true," the other Mami said. "But it is indeed better that we talk about something else. Specifically, the fact that Reformatting is substantially more stable when the Reformatting is performed on oneself."
"Yes, I've gotten the message," Mami said impatiently, almost sardonically. "The most likely answer to this situation is that you and, and her—"
She gestured at the other girl.
"—were placed here by me, using these telepathic powers I apparently have. The amount of time the Reformatting has lasted isn't even the best evidence. The best evidence is that the memories stayed sealed even when I started to suspect that I had been Reformatted, even when I tried to break it. Memories just can't stay blocked like that when their owner wants them back, not unless the owner placed the block herself, using a piece of that self."
"Indeed," the other Mami said, looking up at the ceiling with an odd expression. She didn't look happy, or sad, only… relieved.
"A piece of yourself?" Azrael asked, looking worried. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know," Mami said, quite honestly. "I don't know why I said that, but the words came naturally."
"Memories always return because they are a piece of the soul," the not‐Homura said, in a maddeningly familiar voice. "That is the rule. It stands to reason, then, that the only gatekeeper capable of holding memories back would be the soul itself."
"A piece of the soul," Mami said, comprehension dawning. "Are you saying you're a piece of my soul? That I cut off a part of myself to do this? How? Why?"
"Haven't you always felt a little empty, Mami?" the girl said. "Tired, old, as if you have given too much of yourself away? It wasn't just the obvious. We—"
She closed her eyes for a moment, even as the Mami doppelgänger next to her finally turned her head away from looking upward.
"We have grown tired of standing guard here," the other Mami said. "Tired, and weak. How capable we are is a function of your will, and the times have changed. The world has changed. We did not stop fighting, but perhaps it is time you faced what you once could not. We long to return home. To you."
"Perhaps it is for the best that Azrael is here after all," the other girl said, smiling wanly.
Mami felt an abrupt longing deep within her, clawing at her very essence. A profound need, to finally put an end to a long vigil.
In that moment she made her decision, and the two apparitions in front of her sighed with boundless relief, seeming to dissolve before her eyes. She, too, felt a broad sense of relief, a sense that, for the first time in a long time, she was whole again.
Then she caught a glimpse of the girl's face as she dissolved, the girl she knew must exist but could never, ever remember.
"A… kari?" she asked.
Then she remembered.
Mami blearily forced her eyes open. She couldn't remember the last time she had been knocked unconscious. For a magical girl on a small team that was nearly tantamount to death, so it was natural that she could count the occurrences on less than one hand, and all of them had been after Yuma's arrival.
What had she been doing—
The world abruptly sharpened around her, and she found herself pushing up out of the mud, heart filled with terrified haste, but body unable to manage any more speed.
As she staggered to her feet, she managed to take a peek at the soul gem on her finger. It was nearly entirely black, which made sense given her warped state of mind and the fact that she was clearly missing an arm. Somehow it seemed like only a minor consideration.
Akari! she thought desperately, casting her thought out wide over the burning world around her. The plane had gone down in flat countryside, and despite her last, mad attempt to slow its collision, it was clear from the gash cut into the earth below her, the scattered debris and still‐burning fires and body parts, that nothing human could have survived.
Akari! she pleaded again, as she stumbled forward, and this time she heard a feeble response far in front of her, more of a vague telepathic ripple than any coherent words.
She started to yell her name, then thought better of it when a sharp bite of pain made her realize that her throat was damaged. Instead she just started running, surprising herself with the speed she was still capable of.
The world in all its complexity, Korean diplomacy and international politics and Leadership Committee executive orders, contracted to a single point in front of her. Now there was just Mami, and Akari, and the narrow strip of hell between them.
Mami‐san, I— Akari thought, mental voice shot through with pain.
Just shut it out! Mami thought. You know how! I'm coming.
It's not—you shouldn't—
And then Mami was there, hurling aside a piece of metal as if it were personally responsible for all that had happened.
It took everything she had not to break down weeping at the sight of her lover. As it was, she collapsed to her knees, reaching towards the other girl with her one arm, yet not daring to touch.
I can tell you're there, Akari thought. The fire—there was an oil fire. I couldn't get away from it. I managed to shield myself, a little. I'm amazed I'm still alive.
Akari used telepathy because she couldn't speak, and didn't talk about seeing because she couldn't see. She could only stay coherent by shutting out the pain, moving her soul so deep into her gem that her body would have seemed more like a distant mannequin than a true part of her self.
Mami couldn't stop the flood of tears, knew that she shouldn't even try.
You'll be okay, she thought. The organization will come for us, and there will be healers. Don't let your gem waste any more energy trying to keep your body intact.
Can you find my gem? Akari asked. It should be somewhere… on me. Near my torso.
There was nothing Mami relished less than the thought of reaching her hand out towards Akari's ruined flesh, but they both knew she had no choice.
She drew on her experience, her age, and pulled herself together as best she could. She would seal her tear ducts shut if she had to.
Alright, she thought tentatively. I'll try to sense it.
It was the work of only a few moments, leaning forward to hover her hands over what had been the other girl's belly, searching for the trace of magic that would signify her soul gem. Tempted—so tempted she was to start trying to heal her, pouring her own soul into the task of repairing Akari's body.
But she knew she wasn't a talented enough healer to be nearly enough help, and she doubted even Yuma could have done much with the little energy left in Mami's gem.
I know what you're thinking, Akari thought, shifting her head slightly. You know it's a bad idea.
Don't move, Mami ordered, straining to keep her fear out of her thoughts. Just stay still.
I'm a telepath, Mami‐san, Akari thought. Or partly one, anyway. There's no reason to hide the truth. I'm not making it.
Mami avoided answering, finally finding the soul gem embedded partly within the flesh, as if it had been pressed inward by some inexorable force.
She could only close her eyes as she pulled, wrenching the bauble out with a sickening noise.
There was only a dim light remaining when she dared open her eyes again, but more, indeed, than she had dared to hope.
It— she began.
I saved my magic, Akari thought. I'm good at things like that, and it's not like there was much I could do with it. You were trying to stop the plane from crashing, so you're a bit exhausted.
I should have never asked you to come, Mami thought, letting her tears come to the forefront once more, water dripping uselessly into the ruined earth. You should have stayed home.
Who do you think is responsible for this? Akari thought. That was no natural plane crash. Someone brought it down.
Whoever they are, they'll pay, Mami thought, and she meant it as much as she ever meant anything. She was going to live through this for that, if nothing else.
Hold onto that feeling, Mami‐san, Akari thought. You need to live, for me.
What are you saying? You can—
The ruined corpse in front of her lashed an arm out with shocking speed, gripping the hand Mami was using to hold the soul gem with force only a magical girl could manage, staining it with even more blood than was already there.
Their hands glowed a painful‐bright white, along with Akari's soul gem, and without having to think Mami knew what was happening.
No! Please! Mami pleaded, even as she felt the draining tension at the bottom of her own soul subside and relax.
Listen to me, Mami‐san! Akari thought, fixing her unseeing gaze hauntingly onto Mami's eyes. You're the one with the reduced soul gem drain, not me. It's not in our power to save me, but you can live, with this gift.
Mami didn't have the words to speak, even as the light drained out of Akari's gem and into hers, and so it was Akari who eventually said:
I finally get it.
What? Get what? Mami asked, pleading for an answer she knew Akari didn't have the ability to provide.
I told you once I wished to make a difference, Akari said. I was so confused when my wish changed nothing, and all I got were some weird powers. I thought… I had found it with you, building the MSY, working to change the world, but now I really understand. That was only part of it. This is… destiny.
Don't say things like that, Mami thought. I can't…
She stopped her sentence there, instead letting their emotions mingle in the telepathic air between them. There was nothing that needed to be said that couldn't be conveyed more directly. Peering in Akari's mind, she could see that the girl's logic made cold sense: Akari had made a reputation in the more secretive arenas of the MSY with her ability to gauge and manipulate the ebb and flow of soul. She and Mami had traveled abroad, far afield of the MSY's rapid response teams, and they had crashed in the middle of nowhere, distant from any urban concentrations where local magical girls might take pity on them.
Simply put, there was no realistic prospect anyone with grief cubes could get here anytime soon, and the greatest chance they had of either of them surviving was to give everything to Mami, who naturally used less energy than other magical girls.
Mami swallowed. She wished she could take other girl's hands in hers, at the very least.
You still have a tiny bit of power left, she thought. Let me take your soul gem away from your body and try to find help. Maybe… a miracle will happen.
Mami felt Akari make the telepathic equivalent of a smile. How strange, that at a time like this Akari would seem so peaceful, when Mami felt her heart tearing to shreds inside her.
I wouldn't even be awake for the end, then, Akari thought. I'd rather you stay with me, and carry me down.
After all, she added in almost dark humor, we've never had a soul mage monitor the last moments of soul gem failure. It might be interesting material for our theories.
Mami knelt there for a moment, head bowed, nearly a century of regret weighing her down. How desperately they—the MSY, Yuma, and even Mami herself—had sought to defeat this final enemy, and how empty‐handed they had all come up in the end. The Incubators claimed immortality was possible, if only there were enough energy, but Mami was no longer sure she wanted it. At nearly a hundred, she should have been an old lady, ready to bury her regrets and her failures under the soil with her body, and instead she was still here, still unable to save those who depended on her, even the one who after all these years she had dared to love.
Alright, she thought, with a finality that hurt, I'll be with you to the end.
She didn't need to speak, or worry that Akari would sense Mami's immense guilt with her telepathy. They already knew the contents of each other's minds. There was nothing worth hiding.
Mami closed her eyes, and let their minds embrace. There was no need for eye contact, or hand‐holding, or all the usual tricks that were needed for telepaths who didn't know each other. It was natural as instinct, and the two of them together mourned the loss of half of the whole, even as that half prepared herself for death.
It was peaceful in its own way, the two of them more stable together than they were apart. There was in that inner world much more time, time enough to reminisce on better times, time enough to make last amends, time enough for calm.
Something is… wrong, Mami thought, as what they had expected to be a peaceful transition, a slow fade into oblivion accompanied by deep pain, managed by two lifetimes of experience in soul manipulation, turned… different.
A sharp, shattering pain seemed to strike them at her very core. Mami could feel Akari trying desperately to recede even further from the material world, but there was nowhere to go, since it was now obvious the pain came from somewhere else entirely.
As horrifying as that was, that was expected. What wasn't expected was the… other sensation that filled them. The sense that this was also the beginning of something new, something… terrifying.
Please, let me move your soul gem, Mami thought, herself reeling from the reflected pain. You don't need to suffer like this.
I… want to know, Akari thought. I've spent my whole life studying things like this. So many… unanswered questions.
It's not worth it! Mami pleaded. Not like this!
You don't understand, Akari thought, even managing to convey the ghost of a strained smile through their telepathic link.
There was a long pause, within which Mami wasn't able to answer coherently.
I said that I finally understood what… my wish was about, but now I suspect… there's another part to it, Akari thought. Can you imagine how valuable it might be to pierce the veil? Whatever it is that prevents the transformed state, locks us out of a tremendous amount of power. The implications could be… enormous. They might… change everything.
Mami couldn't stand it any longer, no matter what Akari said. It felt like a betrayal, snapping open her eyes and wrenching Akari's soul gem away from her body, but she told herself that Akari was delusional, that the famous despair spiral had grabbed hold of her and made her speak nonsense.
And yet even as Mami dashed away from the body as fast as she could manage, using Akari's gifted power, the connection between them improbably didn't break.
Akari had removed herself so far from her body that she was no longer even attached, and somehow, in some way, their thoughts still aligned.
No, Mami thought, a quiet whisper of a thought that seemed about as useless as she had been earlier trying to stop a plane from falling out of the sky.
Akari did not respond this time, and the pain was overwhelming, enough so that Mami could no longer sustain her run, falling uselessly to her knees on a patch of grass. She couldn't bear to break the connection forcibly, couldn't bear to just… leave… Akari like this.
And then she saw it, the crack working its way across Akari's pitch black soul gem. In it, she could see… she could see…
In that instant, she saw it, not with her eyes but in her mind, the image a mockery of all that either of them had ever struggled to achieve, an apparition of pure despair.
She saw, for a moment, something bright next to her, just out of sight.
And then it was over, the connection broken, the soul gem improbably vanished from her hand.
"How is she?" Mami heard Homura ask, through the thick reinforced door that was supposed to be magically soundproof. She had disabled that protection mechanism the moment they locked her in here—she had every intention of knowing what was being said about her, if they were foolish enough to say it out loud. If they weren't, she could eavesdrop on telepathy as well.
"Not well," Yuma said, "but at least she's stable now. I'm glad she didn't put up any resistance at being taken in."
"Why would she?" Kyouko asked. "She killed the ones responsible for the plane crash. I'd guess that's all she wanted. Trust me, you don't want to mess with Mami."
Mami looked down at her hands. The MHD's "waiting rooms" were designed to look as little like confinement cells as possible, lavishly appointed, stocked to the gills with snacks and drinks, and with an entertainment system that the average MSY member might have killed to acquire. Indeed, the table she was currently seated at was lovely, a polished stone masterpiece that Mami would have offered to buy in happier days. There was only the slightest oddities—a lack of sharp objects, only restricted access to the internet, and the faint background sensation of magic in the air.
She didn't see any of that at the moment, however. What she saw instead was rivulets of blood running down the skin of her hands, a memory she couldn't wash away, no matter how she tried. She had done more than merely survive—as promised, she had found those responsible, a rogue group of local magical girls opposed to the MSY's ventures in the area, who had thought it a good idea to take down a plane full of civilians just to stop a single diplomatic representative.
It had been quick work for someone of Mami's age, once she was calm enough to apply herself to the task. Traces of magic on the plane's fuselage were easily memorized, and it had been surprisingly easy even in her diminished state to find an unattended demon spawn and feed. After that…
Well, there was no way a half‐dozen neophyte magical girls could stand up to her.
"Honestly, she did us all a bit of a favor," Yuma said, sighing. "If only it had happened some other way. She's done a few things before, but never like this. She was always the best of us."
The best of us… Mami's thoughts echoed mockingly.
"Have you read the report?" Kyouko asked. "There's something she won't tell us, won't tell me."
"Of course I read the report," Homura said, managing to make a line that would have sounded impatient coming from anyone else sound neutral.
"From what the telepaths were able to glean while she was asleep, she's been dreaming about the death of Akiyama Akari," Yuma said. "It seems they were in a very close telepathic, perhaps soul‐based link as she died. There's something that happened—"
"Yes," Homura said. "If you'll excuse me, I need to talk to her."
The door to the room began to open a moment later, ponderous lock mechanism taking long seconds to unwind.
Mami let out a breath when the door finally opened, and immediately felt ridiculous for doing so. At this juncture, why was it that she still cared what Homura thought? What any of her friends thought?
She knew the answer to that question, of course. She still cared, about everything, even after what she had done. She couldn't bring herself not to. That, in the end, was why she had come back, rather than end it all.
The question now was, was she going to tell them the truth? About the true fate of magical girls? How could she, when it had sapped her own faith in the MSY, and her motivation for the work? What was the point of any of it now, if the lives they lived were a monstrous lie?
The door slammed shut, and Mami realized that she had lost herself in her thoughts, completely ignoring Homura walking up to her.
Homura tilted her head, gesturing at the seat across from Mami, and Mami nodded. Homura was like that, most of the time—only speaking when she felt it necessary. Around friends, it was rarely necessary, so Homura was often silent.
At the same time, though, it was only around her friends that Homura ever truly unwound herself, so she could be surprisingly talkative on occasion.
Mami watched Homura help herself to some of the tea on the table. As always, she envied Homura her seemingly invincible unflappability.
"You probably think I've gone crazy," Mami said, deciding to open the conversation on her own terms.
"Actually, not really," Homura said, peering at her with an unsettling gaze. "I know you were listening in, so you know what I already know. The truth is unsettling, is it not?"
Mami blinked, struggling to read the other girl's expression. She knew better than to try to mind‐read Homura—the girl had been practicing her anti‐telepath defense since the days of Oriko. More importantly, it was well‐known that Homura had some nasty traps in store for those who actually got in.
Homura nodded, as if answering Mami's implicit question.
"You knew? You knew and you never said anything?" Mami demanded, reaching over the table to grab Homura. Infused with a sudden rush of anger, she had somehow stopped herself from grabbing the other girl by the collar, which left her awkwardly grasping her by the arm instead.
Homura showed a rare flash of anger herself, smacking Mami's arm aside with a decisive gesture.
"What exactly was I supposed to say? Would any of you have believed me? Would it have helped if you did?"
The two of them locked eyes for a moment, and then Homura took a breath.
"In any case, it's not technically true that I've never mentioned it to you. I mentioned the Goddess saving us from a terrible fate a few times, though I had to be vague for a number of reasons."
"You did, yes," Mami said, frowning as she fought to keep herself level. She tried to remember everything Homura had said to her on the topic. A Goddess who represented the Law of Cycles, who saved them from a terrible fate—
She clenched her hands against the table, filled with undefinable emotion.
"I did the right thing not telling anyone, I think," Homura said, to no one in particular. "You're reacting far better than I expected you to. I suppose that's a testament to age."
"What is it exactly that you know?" Mami demanded, not really sure what it was she wanted to hear. "I'm tired of this mystery act. Akari is dead and I've been sitting here agonizing—I killed those girls, Homura‐chan. They were guilty, but I've never done anything in such cold blood, not even when I ran the Soul Guard. All of that, and I know you're just sitting here judging me. What's with you, anyway?"
The words spilled out in a torrent, and Mami knew she sounded unhinged, but she didn't care, because she was unhinged, and she was damn sure Homura knew it.
Homura let out a breath, one that was carefully calibrated to sound neither frustrated nor exasperated. Only… bothered by events.
"Forgive me, Mami," she said. "I am… not used to being honest. On this topic, it has only ever brought me grief, or at best disbelief. Yes, it is true what you and Akari have suspected—that when magical girls run out of energy, something must happen. As you discovered, what should happen is a profound metamorphosis, one that the Goddess now prevents. I know you never believed in this, but Akari is in a better place now."
Mami shook her head.
"I can't believe that," she said. "Believe it or not, I do remember what you said, and I can't bring myself to believe what you say. You weren't there. You haven't experienced what I have. You haven't seen what she became."
She felt Homura's eyes on her for a long moment, before the girl stood up from the table and walked over to the window, which was actually a holographic screen designed to give the illusion of a window.
"So what now?" Mami asked, after a long silence.
"Do you think you can keep the secret?" Homura asked. "Do you think you can still function as head of Diplomacy?"
Mami laughed, bitterly.
"What secret? We've been talking out loud about it for the past ten minutes. But no… I don't think I'll be able to keep it. You might as well lock me up in here for a long while, until I'm ready to face the world."
"I kept this conversation private, trust me," Homura said. "But what do you think will happen to the MSY in the meantime? How will people react to your absence?"
"It will be a disaster," Mami said, since she had had plenty of time to think about it all. "It doesn't exactly look good for us, having one of the leadership disappear at a moment like this."
"Yes, and if we pretend you were merely shaken up by the plane crash, we have to acknowledge that something happened, which would enrage our voting members. The negotiations are delicate enough as it is."
"I know that, but I'm telling you I can't do it," Mami said.
Homura played with her hair for a moment, a habit that manifested when she was nervous.
"I thought that might be the case," she said.
She turned back towards the window, hands clasped behind her back, seemingly deep in thought.
"Homura…" Mami began, waiting for the other girl to say something.
"What is it?" Homura asked, without turning.
"Have you thought about Reformatting at all?" Mami asked.
Homura turned, her eyes searching Mami's face for an answer. Mami could feel Homura's gentle probing of her mind, more of a request than an intrusion, since Homura wasn't powerful enough to manage more than that.
"Of course I have," Homura said, voice sounding distant. "I don't really believe in it—not as a tool for oneself, anyway. As a tool for others, perhaps. Besides, it's not like Reformatting lasts terribly long."
Homura and Mami watched each other for a long minute, Homura's deeply concerned expression more of a question than any words she could ever say.
"I've thought about it too," Mami said finally. "It would make this all so much easier. I could do my job as I used to, without the crushing reminders in my heart. That's what it is, in the end, that makes this so terrible. I can't bear to live, but I also can't bear to leave what we've done behind."
She left it at that, reviewing only in her mind all that had happened. The killings, the failures…
To her surprise, she felt then a glimmer of Homura's mind, either leaked out from behind her telepathic defenses, or deliberately revealed. She felt a profound sense, not of pity or worry or anger as she had expected, but instead simply of empathy, of understanding, as if Homura knew somehow exactly what Mami was going through. It was relieving to feel, even if Mami had no understanding of how Homura could possibly share her feelings.
"I am surprised," Homura said, closing her eyes, "but I suppose I should not be. I'd be lying if I told you I'd never considered it myself. But what's the plan for when the Reformatting fails? You're still going to have to deal with this someday."
"I'd like to think I will be older and wiser," Mami said. "More importantly, I know how to get rid of these memories for a long, long time. I just need help with the process, from someone with some telepathic knowledge."
Homura clutched her hands for a moment.
"I will respect your decision, then," she said. "It will be difficult, though not impossible, to hide the evidence of your past, but it helps that you and Akiyama‐san were always so secretive."
She paused, tapping her fingers on her lips.
"The truth is, I knew this was coming," she said. "I was warned that this is what you would propose. Ordinarily, I would fight this harder, but She is mysterious in her ways, as one might say."
"Your Goddess?" Mami asked, though she knew quite well who Homura meant.
Homura didn't answer, instead sitting back down in the seat across from Mami, ducking her head as if deep in thought.
"Have you thought of a trigger to place, for releasing the memories?" Homura asked. "Sometimes it's a good idea, as long as it's not something that can be accidentally released by anyone in particular."
Mami shook her head.
"I'd rather not think about it in that much detail."
"I wouldn't want it to be something anyone could trigger," Homura said thoughtfully. "I'd want it to be something only one of us could release, something magical."
"I guess I would know how to do that. It may not ever matter anyway, since the process will eventually decay."
"What is the process, anyway?" Homura asked.
Before Mami could say anything, a small white form started to appear on the table in front of them, and before the Incubator could even begin to say anything, Mami had already picked it up by the neck.
"Did you know, you little weasel?" she demanded.
"We know nothing about whatever it is you think you saw," Kyubey thought. "Nor are we aware of this metamorphosis Akemi Homura says exists. I was just here to give consolations for your loss."
"Let it go, Mami," Homura said. "Actually, I've been meaning to talk to you, Incubator."
Mami opened her eyes with a start, keeling forward onto the table, and into Azrael's waiting arms. Azrael's eyes were wide, as if she had seen a ghost, but not as wide as Mami's.
What the hell was that? Machina thought, doing the equivalent of screaming into Mami's mind. I should never have let you do this. Are you alright? Oh geez I need to review these memories…
"Are you alright?" Azrael asked, picking up Machina's thoughts from their now‐fading telepathic connection. "I tried to back out of the connection once your memories started coming back, but it wasn't easy. It will be alright."
That last sentence was directed at the way Mami clung to the other girl's shoulders, an awkward embrace considering Mami's larger physique.
With force of will, Mami pushed herself away, looking at her hands. The recovered memories felt raw and fresh, as if they had just happened, more real even than what had just happened. In the wake of it all, she felt it all again: the painful emptiness of loss, the despair of knowing what lay in the pit of darkness in a soul gem.
Yet somehow it didn't seem as world‐ending as it once had.
So she had killed four girls in relatively cold blood, and lost someone she had loved, and seen terrible truth. But she had killed others since then, had lost friends, and seen truths that were in many ways just as bad. Her heart was harder now.
She wasn't sure whether to be glad.
It is as we predicted, Kyubey thought across the room, materializing on top of a piece of modular furniture they weren't using.
Azrael jerked backwards in surprise, but Mami only tilted her head slightly. She felt a little too numb to really be surprised by anything anymore.
"I've never seen you off of Earth," Mami said.
I followed you here, Kyubey thought, jumping onto the carpet. It was very important to us that we monitor how you handled this particular situation. This was both because of the information‐gathering value and because we were concerned for your well‐being.
"Concern? How touching," Mami said, with more sarcasm than she had used in years. She realized that with the lost memories had gone a piece of her personality. She had once been less… mild.
Indeed, Kyubey thought, unperturbed. After all, you are a key asset to us, and you yourself asked us to monitor you until this time came, as you surely remember now.
"I do," Mami said softly. It had been Homura's idea, even though neither of them would have trusted Kyubey farther than they could throw him, even if that was admittedly quite a distance.
"What are you going to do now?" Azrael said, eyes shifting uneasily between the Incubator and the field marshal.
Mami didn't respond, head swimming for a moment with the need to reconcile her thoughts and emotions from centuries past with her thoughts and emotions now. Azrael was right—there were many things to do, many topics to tackle.
She let out a breath.
"I'm going to build a memorial to the dead," she said. "Somewhere. I'm rich enough to make it as grand as I like, but Akari would have preferred something simple. But before that, I have some questions to answer, and people to talk to."
Sakura Kyouko? Kyubey suggested helpfully.
"Yes," Mami said. "But there is someone else that I can meet right here."
Ryouko didn't really know what to expect when she and Asami were abruptly summoned to meet with Mami again, with frustratingly inconvenient timing and urgency that sent them both scrambling to get ready. Was there some kind of emergency on the front? Was there an important surprise meeting with a member of the Directorate that they needed to attend? Did it have something to do with why Azrael was here? They couldn't help but speculate.
In the end, Azrael herself arrived at their doorway to escort them, looking as ill at ease as they had ever seen her and remarkably recalcitrant about why they were being called.
Thus it was that Ryouko found herself once again nervously facing one of the most powerful women alive, watching Azrael lean against the wall to try to hide the way her back spines were twitching. Whatever it was, it did not look good. Mami had even forgotten the tea.
Ryouko used the long moment of silence to look at Mami's expression and try to read what the situation was. The Field Marshal looked… different somehow, and distant, unlike the warmly‐welcoming archetype they were used to. Beyond that, she couldn't tell.
"You reported that you had a religious experience, shortly before you reopened the wormhole and sent the Cephalopod ambush fleet back at Orpheus," Mami said, with no preamble.
Ryouko could feel her eyes widen with shock.
"I never put it that way," she began, pausing for a fraction of a second to think.
"But you don't deny it," Mami interrupted. "After all, it's what your squadmates claimed."
Ryouko avoided eye contact, looking at Asami, then at Azrael, hoping one of them might help her out.
She's asked you about this before, Clarisse thought darkly.
She has? Ryouko asked.
In a dream state debriefing, Clarisse thought. It's obvious something is up, but I never got around to telling you. Earlier, while we were meeting with her and the Director, Machina warned me that Mami was in a potentially unstable state, and that she might need my help. I…
What? What is it? Ryouko thought, when Clarisse didn't continue, feeling Mami's pointed look on her.
Machina wants you to tell the truth, she said. She says it's very important, though she won't tell me why.
"I'm not speaking on behalf of Governance or the MSY," Mami said. "I have my own reasons for wanting to know what you really experienced. I have had… many friends die on me, and this aging heart wonders whether, in the end, Homura and Kyouko are right about all they've said."
Ryouko couldn't help but look in Mami's eyes then, finding a beseeching, mournful look she didn't recognize.
I think you should do it, Clarisse thought.
I think you're right, Ryouko thought, but that doesn't make this easy.
She sucked in a breath, casting the smallest of glances at Asami, who was watching her quietly to see what she would do.
She ducked her head, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
"It is true, what I said officially, that I had a vivid flashback of a physics lecture, and learned how my power worked, but I left out most of what happened after that," she said. "After the original flashback, I… was spoken to personally by an entity I've met before, the one Kyouko and Homura call the Goddess. I realized on my own that I could use my teleportation to escape from the moon, but it was she who gave me the idea to reopen the wormhole and send the enemy fleet back. I was given… a number of visions, so I could understand the military situation and why there was an emergency. I'm not sure what else I should say."
She took a breath and looked back up, wondering what Mami's reaction would be.
The woman looked thoughtful, though Ryouko thought she saw her hand shake a little where it lay on the table.
"It wasn't the only time you've had a vision like this, right?" Mami asked. "There was also the one that made Kyouko insist on abandoning the submarine plan at X‐25."
Ryouko glanced at Asami, then at Azrael. Asami wore an expression of concern, while Azrael looked rather thoughtful.
"Yes," Ryouko said.
She wasn't sure how to continue, but was surprised when Asami stepped in to fill the gap.
"I've had one too," Asami said, bowing her head seemingly instinctively. "It wasn't as important of either of Ryouko‐chan's, but I can verify that someone like the Goddess exists."
"But after all of this, neither of you have elected to join Kyouko's cult?" Mami asked.
"I don't know that I want to tie myself down into all that theology," Ryouko said, for once having already thought about what she would want to say. "I prefer to think about these things myself, for now."
There was a long silence while Mami closed her eyes, hair curls bobbing up and down just a little, until Ryouko wondered if she should say anything further.
"Thank you for your time," Mami said, before she could. "I think I've asked all I want to ask for now."
It was a clear start to dismissing the conversation, but Ryouko asked:
"If you don't mind my asking, why did you suddenly want to know?"
To her surprise, Mami smiled.
"I just wanted to make sure I understood things," she said. "I'm sorry, it's rude of me, but I'd rather not share more than that."
Mami watched the door slide closed behind the two departing magical girls, then said out loud:
"I know you're still listening, Incubator. What do you make of all this?"
It is very intriguing, Tomoe Mami, Kyubey thought, appearing on the ground next to Azrael. Strictly speaking, many of the things discussed violate physical laws, particularly the conservation of information. Of course, magic is all about violating that particular physical law, so I can't say it's impossible at all.
"Cagey as always, Kyubey," Mami said.
"What do you intend to do now?" Azrael asked.
I have the same question, Kyubey added.
"I need to visit Earth," Mami said. "Certain magical entities, real or not, have a lot to answer for."