Interlude Ⅲ: Manifest Destiny

In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①

While the growth of the MSY into a unitary global institution has come in hindsight to take on the glow of inevitability—a simple story that has charmed politician and popular historian alike—detailed examination of the historical record suggests plenty of reason for skepticism.

Yes, the MSY was the first magical polity organized along "modern" (late industrial corporatist‐bureaucratic) lines, but it was not expanding into a purely Hobbesian wilderness of untamed savages. The pre‐MSY world was streaked through with local organizations, ranging in size from a couple dozen to hundreds of members. Typically confined geographically to a distinct locale like a city or an island, these included everything from small, informal aid associations to extensive, loosely‐regulated trade councils, to hierarchies dominated by a clique of powerful enforcers, sometimes in the service of one so‐called tyrant.

Such groupings were not always easy to absorb. On paper, the argument was very compelling: the MSY generated huge tangible benefits in grief cube access, money, and plain survival. Less tangible benefits also accrued over time, including access to local elites, education privileges, and exclusive career paths.

But these advantages were only clearly apparent in the MSY core. Outside MSY territory, skepticism abounded, and emissaries attempting to grease palms often found themselves running afoul of cultural differences, local power structures, and frank distrust. Few were willing to give up their independence to a distant and foreign sovereign.

Nor was the MSY as fervently devoted to expansion as many modern readers imagine, especially not during the early years. Political disagreements developed about the scope and nature of potential expansion, and an abortive nationalist movement tried to keep the organization confined to Japan, convinced that expansion would be more trouble than it was worth, or even immoral. This was an argument that was overcome only by the inducements of commerce, continued foreign entanglements, and the expansionist vision of the Founders.

In the end, one of the MSY's biggest assets was its benevolent reputation, one which the organization would more and more consciously cultivate over time. Practical and financial inducements weren't always enough. Pure strength wasn't always enough. Even carefully‐drafted, meticulously‐tailored integration agreements weren't always enough.

Rather, the biggest successes were always those who asked to join. The bereft teams which had heard of the plentiful conditions. The trade organizations that craved a protected environment to operate in. The downtrodden who wanted to get out of the shadow of a local tyrant. These heard rumors of an organization that could whisk away their problems, just over the horizon, and became the success stories that bred the next generation of positive rumors. Positive rumors that, in time, became positive media; surreptitious MSY‐internal news reports and entertainment that were eventually deliberately disseminated outside MSY borders, always heavy in depictions of mages living lives of comfort, travel, and parenthood—cherished dreams in many places.

This reputation—originally only the result of idealistic founders—eventually became an overriding constraint on MSY activity. When things were bad, aid had to be given. Blatant, or even not‐so‐blatant coercion had to be carefully concealed. Influence campaigns had to be deniable. In no‐win situations, the MSY absorbed outsized blame. And if one problematic magical girl or team simply refused to listen to reason…

〈And of course, no such organization could stand to be without its intelligence services, or its deniable actors. The MSY acquired these in the form of the Black Heart, the dramatically‐named organization that would eventually scout out and monitor magical girl activity around the globe, as well as engage in all manner of less savory forms of manipulation. If the MSY was unique, it was perhaps unique only in how late it took this step—a luxury of moral purity, maintainable only in the absence of serious foreign threats.〉③

Over time, then, the rosy mid‐expansion reputation of the MSY waned, especially as rival organizations started successfully consolidating regional influence ahead of the MSY's arrival, offering comparable benefits alongside local rule. These were typically isolationist—the Caribbean's Sevité Association and Iran's Magi were emblematic, decrying perceived MSY imperialism—but a few were growth‐oriented, most notably Europe's Système Magique Cordial, and the competition led to a global scramble for the weakly‐organized territory that remained.

As these new borders were drawn, it even seemed as if the magical girl world would settle into a multipolar state…

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

"Given recent events, it has become clear to this committee that our knowledge of the world beyond our borders is enormously inadequate, a fact which has had operational and strategic consequences for our activity. Attempts to ameliorate this blind spot with Soul Guard and other ad‐hoc initiatives have proven woefully insufficient."

"Moreover, the need to occasionally take unusual or special actions to counteract emerging threats has proved immiscible with the other activities of the Soul Guard, requiring different skillsets, unique resources, and an exercise of discretion that is of far different scope and depth."

"This committee is pleased that the Rules Committee has seen the necessity of amending the Charter to conform to current conditions, and will act with all due speed to enact the proposed changes and reorganization of the Soul Guard."

— Leadership Committee Signing Statement, MSY Charter Amendment #11 and Rules Committee Act #4223; MSY Charter Revision #11 signed by Executive with a vote of 8‐2, hereby referred to membership for final approval; Rules Committee Act #4223 "For the Creation of New Special Intelligence Group" signed by Executive with a vote of 8‐2. Signed on behalf of the Leadership Committee: Akemi Homura, First Executive. Witnessed: Chitose Yuma, Head: Science Division.

〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①

〈Executive hereby directs Directors Chitose and Tomoe to assemble a committee to study the problem of forming the new Black Heart Division, and to report findings in one month. Recruitment, meetings, and findings should be carried out and reported in strict confidentiality, with appropriate measures left to the discretion of Chitose and Tomoe.〉③

〈Allocated budget for this undertaking will be 50,000 Internal Currency (IC), with an additional 150,000 IC available at request from the Executive, given satisfactory justification. Funding will be allocated from the Soul Guard special operations fund.〉③

〈Executive hereby appoints Chitose Yuma as the provisional head of the new division.〉③

— Secret Executive Order #1, approved by unanimous consent. Signed on behalf of the Leadership Committee: Akemi Homura, First Executive. Witnessed: Sakura Kyouko, Head: Logistics, Grief Cubes, and Supply. Dated: May 1st, 2071.


kono yo no hoka no
omoide ni
ima hito tabi no
au koto mo gana

As I will soon be gone,
let me take one last memory
of this world with me—
may I see you once more,
may I see you now?

— Izumi Shikibu

South Korea, October 2067.

"I just want to make a difference. I wish to. All of this, all of our suffering, all our experiences. It must all be worth it."

Those words resonated in Akiyama Akari's ears, the naive utterings of a naive teenager, a lifetime ago.

Several lifetimes ago, really.

But even though that naive teenager was long gone, she had a tendency to leap through time to give Akari grief even now, all these years since those words had made her soul gem shine. After all, her wish still hadn't come true.

A high‐pitched whine rang in her ears, and she watched on an eyepiece as Captain Han's exoskeletal augments drove the battering ram forward. The front gate of the apartment building blew off its hinges instantly, and the TNC auxiliaries dove in, rifles at the ready.

Akari held her breath, tense despite being safely away from the action in an unmarked van outside the complex. She found it hard to watch, the auxiliaries holding terrified civilians at gunpoint.

"The first floor is clear," Han said in her earpiece. "Get the doctor in here. We have something."

The girl next to Akari, Sato Yamanako, began pulling her outside before she could react.

Once, Akari had wondered why the MSY even bothered attaching mundane auxiliaries to Soul Guard raids. One explanation was simple—it made them look like a government operation, an explanation their agents in Seoul would back up if anyone asked. Even better, they could sometimes avoid using magic at all, which made things nice and tidy.

The other reason made a lot more sense to her now. They were professionals, often furtively‐recruited ex‐military, and they leavened the massively‐overstretched Soul Guard deployments with experienced, disciplined veterans, complimenting their own pre‐2060 veterans.

Yamanako pulled her into the darkness, using the line of police‐like vehicles to hide them from prying eyes, passing operatives watching the windows and broken‐down doorways, backs bulging with exoskeletal attachments.

Their paperwork was in order, their uniforms were accurate—they looked just like a Special Mission Group operation.

They stepped into the building, and Akari kept her gaze fixed on the route laid out in her eyepiece, nodding silently as she was waved onward by gunmen at each doorway, every person and detail starkly highlighted by magical darkvision—the power had been cut.

Finally, they reached the door Han had summoned her to.

As she understood it, the usual procedure was to clear the entire building before bringing a non‐combat mage like Akari in, but she had impressed upon them the importance of getting in fast as possible—traces of magic could disappear very quickly. Plus, as a magical girl, she wasn't exactly helpless, even if she felt a bit out of place at the moment.

I need you to say focused, Akiyama‐san, Yamanako said. Take a breath and tell us what you see.

Akari took a breath, feeling her body armor rising and falling. She felt embarrassed and ridiculous, being this anxious. She wasn't a regular demon hunter, but she had faced danger before. Why did being on this raid unnerve her so?

Her magic gave an answer, as she sensed something… unpleasant in front of her, filling her stomach with twitchy butterflies, just as she heard rapid footstops through the building above her.

She checked her eyepiece to reassure herself: the noise was just auxiliaries and a couple of magical girls, positions marked on her map. There were no hostile contacts yet, magical or otherwise.

She swallowed once, sharply, and surveyed the room in front of her. It was clean and organized to the point of sterility, with a table, a chair, a bed—and a girl lying on that bed, insensate. No windows.

"Area is clear," her earpiece said, in crisp, efficient Korean. "Delphi, you will need more time with the victims?"

"Y‐yes," Akari said, barely keeping her voice inaudible, relying on the vibration microphone on her larynx.

She stepped forward, casting her gaze down on the woman in front of her. This—this was familiar, and that calmed her.

"Subject is in her early twenties, and appears unconscious and unresponsive," she subvocalized, crouching down to get a better look. "My initial sense is that she has had her energy drained, but not the way a demon would. Telepathic probing suggests mental inertness. I will now apply a contact probe."

She reached forward, placing two fingers on the woman's forehead, cringing as an unfamiliar magic zapped across her fingers like static from a door handle—if static electricity were malevolent.

"Subject has significant traces of magic from a magical girl, presumably a soul mage. The record will note that at this time I am the only known MSY soul mage in South Korea. However—"

Cut to the chase, a voice said on her earpiece. We both know who it was. Seoyun, the Witch.

Akari let the comment pass. That was Yeseul, the local who had summoned a Soul Guard team to the area. In accordance with a years‐old agreement with the MSY, some of the local teams in Seoul had bartered away commercial access rights in exchange for grief cubes and promises of protection.

That was why they were here.

Akari continued:

"The damage here is consistent with local reports of a magical girl, known only as Seoyun, who is allegedly capable of draining energy from humans and using them for magic. Subject is currently in a deep coma and does not seem likely to recover without intervention."

Akari stopped there, gathering her thoughts. Could it really be possible? Draining energy from humans instead of demons? And could she do the reverse?

So it's just as they said? Yamanako asked.

Akari nodded.

Goddamn, Yamanako thought.

A ping on their eyepieces summoned their attention—Han wanted to speak to them.

"Come in," Yamanako said at the doorway.

Han stepped through a moment later, and Akari had a moment to glance over his appearance—body armor, equipment pouches, and exoskeletal augments combined with an owl‐like headset to give the impression of a soldier who was part robot, even if most of it wasn't under the skin.

Next to him stood the much less extensively kitted Takanashi Megumi, whose white and purple magical girl costume was adorned only by an eyepiece, throat microphone and some pouches of equipment.

"We've cleared the building," Han said. "But it looks like whoever was here has cleared out, and not too elegantly. There's a few apartments with leftover contraband, but only mundane stuff. And the girl here."

Far too many buildings just like it, and not just in Korea. A vast swathe of people with no work, nothing better to do but languish on government charity and whatever else they could scrounge. The rest of them could do no better but try not to see it.

"They knew we were coming," Megumi said. "And why would they leave this girl behind? There's sloppy and then there's sloppy. Things don't line up."

Yamanako turned slightly, looking over the body Akari had just scanned.

"This doesn't feel sloppy," she said. "They could have just forgotten she was here, but the room is way too clean if they just forgot about an entire room."

"What are you suggesting? They wanted us to find her?" Megumi said.

"I don't know," Yamanako said. "Maybe it's a threat. Maybe they're trying to tell us to come and get them."

She turned towards Akari.

"Based on what you've seen here, could you identify Seoyun if you met her?"

Akari nodded.

"Yes, I could. I sensed more than enough magic to recognize her."

"What about from a distance? Long‐range sensing?"

"Tough to say," Akari said. "Probably not unless she was doing something that required a lot of magic. I've never met her, after all."

"You think maybe she left a calling card?" Han suggested. "Sometimes, syndicates like to let it be known who was involved. Seoyun works with one, so maybe this is a similar idea, designed to intimidate the powered civilians."

Magical girls, he meant.

They contemplated the idea for a moment.

"In the short term, it doesn't matter," Megumi said. "They still got away, and we made enough of a racket that they have to know we're after them. That's not good no matter how you spin it. Looks like you'll have to stick around."

"I volunteered for a few weeks anyway," Akari said, sighing. "I was looking forward to doing a little touristing, but I'm here for a reason."

They stepped aside, letting in a pair of medics and an autostretcher. There was little the TNCs could do—it would be up to Akari to find a way to fix her.

"Well, I hope you know what you're in for," Megumi said. "Things can get real bad, real fast."

South Korea, November 2067.

"I really expected capturing all of you to be a bit harder."

Seoyun wasn't even using telepathy, feeling free to taunt verbally, and why not? The team they had brought—Megumi, Yamanako, another girl named Ogata, and a pair of local Koreans—lay incapacitated or dead, some of them confined to soul gems around Akari's fingers.

Seoyun had outmaneuvered them. While they had tramped around the city for weeks trying to track her down, she had organized a secret conference of the local magical girls. The locals hardly trusted her, but she had turned them against the MSY with a combination of artful lies, unfortunate truths, and subtle magical manipulation. The MSY was trying to take over, she said. They were sending a wave of foreign magical girls to seize the city, aided by traitors in their midst.

And right in the middle of this conference, an MSY task force had showed up to raid an apartment complex where a well‐liked healer with anti‐MSY tendencies lived. Unlike prior raids, it had turned into a fight, one that left the healer dead.

That news had been broken to Seoyun's gathering in the most dramatic way possible, allowing her to all but declare war on the MSY. Attacks on MSY‐aligned teams and businesses began almost immediately, bolstered by Seoyun's criminal allies, whom she had cultivated via tales of the fates of the Yakuza and Triads.

The violence spread out over several kilometers of the city, overwhelming MSY reinforcements and auxiliaries. The head of the Soul Guard herself, Tomoe Mami, who had been in Seoul for an unusually long time at this point, was sucked into the fighting—much to Akari's benefit, saving her neck in the nick of time.

Then, at Mami's suggestion, they had aimed straight for Seoyun.

Now Akari herself was helpless, confined in a cocoon of magic ribbons, only her head exposed. The only thing she could do was look into the eyes of the girl who had trapped her.

Not Seoyun, at least not directly. No, the girl whose soul Seoyun had co‐opted, Mami herself.

Was this how she would die? Her wish unfulfilled, at the hands of one of the MSY's own? How painfully meaningless.

Akari gritted her teeth, trying to focus, despite everything.

"How did she get to you, Tomoe‐san?" she asked, hoping to buy time, or a hint towards escape. "We knew her soul corruption spread like a contagion, but who got to you? Was it before we even met?"

Keeping Mami under control was no small matter—Akari could see the strain it was putting on Seoyun, despite her cocky facade. She could also see that Mami, as old as she was, was already in the process of breaking free. Seoyun probably couldn't sustain it for much longer.

Akari flinched as Seoyun's sword pressed itself into her neck, cold steel a hairsbreadth away from slicing it open.

"You're not going to talk your way out of this," Seoyun said. "Why make this harder than it has to be?"

"What do you want?" Akari asked.

"Your consent," Seoyun said. "Don't bother pretending you don't know what I'm talking about. Give me your power willingly, and the end will be quick. Otherwise—well, have you ever wondered what it's like to be tortured by a soul mage? I've got endless creativity."

Akari struggled to resist a wave of panic, clenching her jaw to keep from showing any weakness. Magical girls could resist torture by hiding in their soul gem, and while a soul mage like Seoyun could counter that, Akari was a soul mage too, and fighting Akari on her own ground would strain Seoyun's ability to keep Mami under control. Seoyun knew all this as well as Akari did. As long as Akari called Seoyun's bluff—

Akari screamed as pain pierced into her side, too sudden for her to immediately shut it out.

"I'm impatient," Seoyun said. "And I'm not going to wait any longer."

Seoyun pulled her sword out of Akari, then slid it back in between another set of ribs. Akari choked on her own blood as, from the corner of her eye, she saw Mami's head twitch slightly. Despite the pain, hope blossomed in her heart.

"Is this all?" Akari spat. Mami's face was impassive, but Akari could sense a quiet pulse of magic emanating from her. She needed to keep Seoyun distracted. "And here I thought we were equals as soul mages. Guess I was wrong."

Seoyun's lip curled.

"Don't tempt me," she said. "I didn't spend my whole life in cushy business towers."

Akari felt a hand push through the hole in her side, magic sparking—she squeezed her eyes shut, doing her best to focus her own magic on Mami, instead of countering Seoyun's attack. She needed to make it look like she was in agony as she failed to resist her.

It wasn't that hard, to be honest. The screams of pain were real.

The ribbons that bound Akari were Mami's magical constructs, up until now relatively inert. But they were changing, filling with traces of Mami's soul, just enough that Akari could touch it.

She made contact, letting the world slip away as she reached into the other girl's soul and sought out the kernel of Seoyun's influence, the darkness in the core of the gem.

It only took a few seconds.

Seoyun's head snapped around as she noticed what was going on, and she summoned a sword in each hand, one to cut the connection between them, the other to slice through Akari's soul.

Both hands were blown apart before they got there, blood spraying onto the ground, clinging to the ribbons, and metal of the muskets that had done the deed.

How? Seoyun thought, as she stumbled forward onto the ground. You only had seconds—

Gleaming gunmetal blew off her head, Mami's hand grasping her soul gem seconds later.

Akari was free then to fall limp, clutching at the wound in her side. Despite everything, she felt triumph. Her life would have more acts. She still had a chance to matter.

Akari! Are you okay? Mami thought, hurrying to her. More ribbons were already threading out to support Akari, the gold strands warm with Mami's true self.

Akari could only smile wanly as the other girl healed her. She hadn't freed Mami from Seoyun's control that quickly. She had simply, with Mami's own assistance, turned its focus toward Akari herself.

Of course, once Akari truly dispelled the effect, the whole affair became a bit embarrassing, though Mami seemed to take it in surprising stride, turning her attention immediately to stabilizing the situation.

With Seoyun's influence gone, the fighting cooled, though there was no getting rid of the very real casualties—or the very real feelings that Seoyun had used to drive the conflict in the first place. It took nearly half an hour to put together a ceasefire and soul gem exchange, driven partly by the arrival of serious government force.

Amidst the chaos and pressure, it was a while before Akari began to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. Indeed, it didn't begin to fully dawn on her until they limped back to base, watching news reports on their eyepieces detailing the uncontrolled violence and exotic banned weaponry.

"This is a disaster," Mami said, shaking her head. "We're already asking the Incubators to help us with that cover‐up. Heads will roll."

She was ostensibly addressing the entire crew but looking at her.

"Is it really that bad?" someone asked. "This was a poor neighborhood. There's incidents all the time. Why can't we play it down?"

"They're still people!" Mami said, voice shrill. "We can't play down something like this!"

She paused for a moment.

"The politicians will have to care about something like this, whether they want to or not. The damage is too extensive to be a normal incident, and the Korean media is already all over it. Whatever story they come up with, someone will be held accountable. The Soul Guard will be held accountable."

She turned towards Akari.

"And you'll be at the center of it."

Akari wanted out. She wanted to go back to Japan.

She had signed on to work with the Soul Guard because she wanted to feel like she was improving things. Instead, the work was frustrating and demoralizing, something epitomized by the conflict with Seoyun. Akari had tried to stop her, and people had gotten killed. What had it really achieved in the end?

On top of that, the incident was now being trumpeted as a possible terrorist attack by North Korea and was making waves in the international news, with attention coming in from both Mitakihara and foreign mundane capitals. Special response teams were en route to sift through the evidence, mediate with the local government, and work the political situation with the local magical girls.

As Mami had promised, that meant she was the girl of the hour, whether she liked it or not, though they promised her role in events would be kept out of BakeNewsko, the MSY media arm.

That helped, a little, but her reputation was only part of her concern.

After the first set of interrogators—a combination of suave career TNCs and less‐than‐polite Guild telepaths—she was given a break to chew quietly on a sandwich, and then Mami stepped into the room.

The others stepped out of the room, and when the door closed, Mami set down a plate of cookies, evidently intended for her.

Akari wasn't sure what to say. Was now the time to admit that she had touched quite a bit of Mami's soul? She had spent more time with Mami than the others.

She took a breath to steady herself, deciding she would pass on the cookies for now.

It was very tempting to try and read Mami's mind, but Akari knew better. If she was caught, it would look awful.

"I assume you've already been briefed on what I told the others," Akari said. "Besides, you were there."

"That's one way of putting it," Mami said.

Akari studied Mami's expression, trying to glean what she could. She seemed worried.

It was hard not recontextualizing this within what she now knew about Mami. It felt like a violation to even have such thoughts, but… she couldn't avoid knowing that if she were Mami, she would most fear anyone learning about her insecurities.

Was that what this was about, then?

She swallowed, as subtly as she could manage. It seemed so prosaic, with the disasters going on around them, with the international media speculating about war, to be worried about something like that. Surely Mami would be focused on something else?

"Well, I'm, uh, curious why you would choose to visit me," Akari said, realizing that she had let the silence stretch on far too long. "There's not much else to talk about."

Mami tapped a finger against the table, then picked up a cookie, staring at it for a moment before setting it aside on a napkin.

"I don't like having this conversation," Mami said. "But I do think it's important I do this, rather than some security agent. You see, intrusion into the mindspace of a Director‐level mage isn't just a personal issue, it's also an issue of organizational security. That's why it's a very good thing we were able to capture Seoyun, in the end."

Akari kept her face frozen.

"I know Seoyun saw something. I know you saw something. That's what the documentation on soul mages says. You're not in trouble, but we need to know what you know, what she might know, and what kind of lingering influence might remain. We need to know the details of what you did to me."

Mami paused, then sucked in a breath.

"And I'm personally responsible here, you know. This was the highest‐level mindjack in MSY history. I'd consider submitting my resignation, if I thought there was any chance it'd be accepted. As it is, I need to take responsibility."

Akari stared into the other girl's eyes, and found herself briefly transfixed.

The memories were a jumble in her mind. More than anyone, Tomoe Mami was surrounded by friends, colleagues, juniors. It shouldn't have been possible for her to feel isolated. And yet, Mami had spent so long searching her own eyes.

"It was an emergency," Akari said. "I had to move quickly, and countering Seoyun directly would have been risky. So I figured out what she was doing. Very common, for this kind of thing. She made you fall in love with her."

She paused, trying to keep her face impassive.

"It's harder than it sounds. It takes a lot to strip away all the layers of complexity a soul builds up over a lifetime, and focus everything on a simple, primordial emotion. But, since she had basically done all the work already, I was able to just… co‐opt it. Make you love me instead. It helped that your loyalties already pointed in the right direction."

She stopped talking, realizing that she was starting to ramble. Mami looked pensive, worried, disturbed.

"I thought it was something like that," she said. "I remember what it felt like."

"It's normal to feel some lingering feelings," Akari said, answering the question Mami hadn't asked yet. "Some of the thought patterns can persist afterward."

Especially if they feel natural, she appended mentally, but did not say.

Mami stared at her for a few seconds, and she could see the traces of vulnerability around her eyes. It was difficult to ignore.

"That's it, though?" Mami asked. "No other effects, other than, uh, being a bit attracted to you for a while?"

Akari cringed. A part of her enjoyed the notion, but knowing that it was all a magic effect…

"Well, I saw some core memory impressions," Akari admitted. "Nothing really sensitive, mostly childhood memories, emotional events. I could go over them with you, if you wanted."

She really didn't want to. There was no good way to tell anyone that she had seen the terror of nearly dying in a car crash, or the pain of seeing one's home destroyed.

Mami took a deep breath.

"No, not right now," she said. "I think I have to, though. But if you promise there's nothing that's a security risk, we can wait a bit. I can schedule something."

"That'd be nice," Akari found herself blurting out.

She watched Mami get up and walk away, staring even after the door had closed.

Then she ate a cookie.

Akari was released into the city shortly thereafter, with the strict admonition that, in the wake of what was now called the Songpa incident, MSY members should not leave the MSY sector of the city—a few square blocks laid aside for corporate branch offices and non‐mundane trade activities.

After what had happened, Akari was initially happy to oblige. She felt no desire to expose herself to danger again, and imagined herself happy to retreat to her comfy hotel room.

Days passed however, and she changed her mind. The MSY sector was nice, clean, and corporate, which meant it had none of the night markets, roadside restaurants, or bars she had grown used to. There wasn't even a place with a good view of the river! As a magical girl, she had enjoyed weaving across the rooftops of the city, children screaming and food grilling below, stopping occasionally to chat with a local hunting party leaning on their weapons. Now, she was stuck in a box, the empty meeting room of Seoul.

So she and her surviving colleagues dined in the local high‐end establishments, looking out over a city of lights they couldn't visit. It seemed inappropriate in the wake of what had happened, especially with Yamanako's soul gem still in a facility in Mitakihara, being attached to someone else's cadaver.

When the time came, she attended a somber ceremony for the dead—mostly non‐magical—and found herself with Ogata and Megumi, an invisible social wall separating them from the TNCs. Han had been the father of two kids, it seemed. The MSY would provide for them well.

Mami had already returned to Japan. That was a shame—she would have definitely been at the event.

Afterward, they retired to a lounge. They had discussed finding something else to do, maybe some karaoke, or some time in the spa, or even doing one of those "multisensual food experiences" the kids were into these days. Nothing appealed.

Instead, they drank, and Akari remembered to call her mom, who had been frantically trying to reach her again after hearing yet another rumor of a North Korean terrorist attack.

The lounge was members‐only, and Akari perked up when someone changed the channel on the TV panel from standard—full of giant heads engaged in heated speculation about new tensions with North Korea—to MSY‐gov. Normally about as interesting as listening to an Incubator, it seemed the Rules Subcommittee on Crime and Enforcement was holding a hearing on the Songpa incident, and was about to call none other than Tomoe Mami to testify.

The chatter in the lounge died down, and the barkeeper enlarged the panel, allowing its holography to stretch over a meaningful chunk of the wall. The committee room was high‐level corporate Masters of the Universe, with big paneled windows and leather chairs, but still arranged so that it was obvious who was interviewing whom.

"Our next guest I believe needs no introduction," the woman seated in the center said, the text "Takara Emi, Chair" briefly appearing over her head.

Mami appeared in‐scene a moment later, taking a seat behind an electronic display helpfully emblazoned "Tomoe Mami, Soul Guard Director", stylized to look like paper.

Mami's eyes darted around the room, the recognizable gesture of someone turning on a pair of information contacts.

"I take it you know why we called you here?" Emi asked, leaning forward.

"Of course. The Songpa Incident," Mami said, face level.

Emi nodded, then leaned back, preparing to speak.

"A great tragedy, and a blemish on the reputation of our organization. The MSY prides itself on its competence and professionalism, qualities which were not evident on the ground here. Despite the recommendations of the recent working group…"

Akari could feel her attention slipping, and turned her attention to her drink. There was a reason no one really enjoyed watching these: a substantial portion of the time would be devoted to the committee members, and indeed Mami herself, establishing their political positions and signaling to the masses.

The issue and surrounding controversies were divisive enough that it behooved every civic‐minded magical girl to know the basics: the MSY now had business interests around the pacific rim, and bartered relationships with the local magical girl groups—freedom to operate and local assistance—in exchange for provisions of grief cubes and hard cash. That was the standard arrangement, though there were several exceptions, China being the most important.

From Akari's point of view, there were two main camps. One side, the Nationalists—though they hated being called that, preferring "Japanists"—wanted to keep the MSY a Japanese affair, with no foreign entanglements other than what was necessary for strictly financial reasons.

The other side—which included most of the business community, as well as old guard luminaries like Tomoe Mami and Akemi Homura—argued that blocking MSY expansion incurred huge financial and moral costs, and didn't even prevent foreign entanglements to boot.

The Nationalists had been dominant once. In 2059 they had even managed to make their approach part of the Charter.

But then the warnings started coming true. MSY Finance was hobbled overseas, resentment and mistrust brewed from China to Peru, and the Soul Guard continued to get dragged into foreign scuffles, stuck honoring old promises of protection.

So, policy had loosened a little, things got more complicated, Soul Guard deployments got larger, MSY corporations invested more overseas, entire cities started needing protection and—

—well, somewhere on the other end of that, the MSY's contradictory approach had triggered an incident so big, so violent that the Incubators had to help pass it off as a possible attack by North Korea. The one she had just been a part of.

Akari's attention perked up, as she saw Mami straighten in her seat and prepare to speak.

"Speaking for the Soul Guard, we all regret what happened," Mami said. "This incident is already the subject of an inquiry by the Executive Inspector, and our training and procedures will be revised accordingly. The fact of the matter is, both the special relations team and the response teams reacted according to established protocol, and behaved commendably when confronted with a dangerous situation involving hostile adversaries. It is a testament to the skill and professionalism of the officers that we suffered only a few permanent losses, though we regret considerably that we were unable to prevent extensive mundane damage or serious losses in the auxiliary detachments. In addition, we regret the losses we needed to inflict on the local magical girl population."

It sounded convincing to Akari, for politician‐speak, and she knew, better than almost anyone, that Mami meant most of it. She was proud of her officers, and hated losses on either side.

But it didn't seem to convince anyone else. For instance, the first Representative to respond complained that Mami's use of the term "adversaries" revealed an adversarial mindset when it came to foreign magical girls, the most forced argument Akari had ever heard.

The rest of the session was little better, leaving Akari with little sympathy for either side, at least in a political sense.

"Meaningless," she said, when it was all over and Mami had stepped out of the room. No decisions had been made and no lessons learned. Instead, both sides had raked Mami and the Soul Guard over the coals, for being simultaneously too soft and too hardline. And yet there wasn't even any threat that Mami would be removed—her position on the Executive Committee was elected, Founders were nearly impossible to unseat, and division head removals were controlled by the Leadership Committee.

"Even so," Ogata said, looking at her askance. "It might not be a big deal to you, but it's a big deal to all of us stationed out here. And you saw what it's like out here, for the rest of the world. There's a reason it's the biggest political issue."

Akari ducked her head, suitably chastened.

"I just hate that we're not getting anything done. All we're doing is arguing, and half the time we're just making everything worse. Seoul was fine until we came here."

"You'd prefer Seoyun was still active?" Ogata asked. "We rooted her out. And I'd hardly call Seoul fine. Have you seen how poor some of these girls live? We made things better."

"Did we? Maybe, but it sure seemed like her whole plan was just to get to me," Akari said. "So all those people died for what?"

"You're not making sense," Megumi said. "The drinks are going to your head."

Akari started to retort, then bit her lip.

They were right. She wasn't making sense. She just… didn't know what she was doing out here.

She ordered another drink.

Japan, December 2067.

For a while, especially after she returned from Korea, Akari began to think that Mami had forgotten about meeting with her—or, perhaps, chosen to forget. It would have been understandable.

Just as she was starting to give up hope, Mami contacted her, calling her in person in the midst of lunch with her elderly parents.

Mami asked her to meet in the financial district, in one of the D&E skyscrapers, known internally as Executive Tower, because it housed the administrative staffs of several Executive Divisions.

Here the city was clean, bright, and tastefully decorated, with the cuisines of the world around every corner. Everyone tried to live here, if they could.

The impossibly clear doors to the tower slid open at her approach, and she ran her ID past a scanner at the security checkpoint, nodding at the guard. It wasn't that they didn't have biometrics—but who knew what magic was capable of? It was just harder to fabricate biometrics and a physical ID.

That wasn't all the security, either. A few meters later, she turned into the elevator area, then found a discreet alcove on the side. There, she summoned her soul gem for a fraction of a second, the spectrometer taking its readings.

That gave a magical girl the authorization to continue onward. Supposedly, the Division Heads themselves were subject to even more scrupulous checks, though they entered via their own private garage.

Akari entered her floor into the panel, waited for approval, then stepped into the special elevator, joining a couple of other girls and TNCs wrapped up in their own business.

She reflected on the anxiety she should be feeling. Anxiety about meeting one of the most important people in the magical girl world. Anxiety about her own place in that world. Anxiety for Mami herself.

Somehow she felt only a tinge of it. It was not what she would have expected.

Akari stayed in the elevator even as the others gradually peeled away, replaced by other staffers. Even at the higher levels of the bureaucracies, TNCs were inevitable—those with elite talent in fields where magic wasn't much of an asset.

Eventually the elevator cleared out, and she let out a breath of relief to be alone, until the doors opened and someone she recognized stepped in, accompanied by the distinctive whiff of cinnamon.

Akari couldn't help but tense visibly, especially when the woman leaned over, giving her a once‐over.

"Relax. I'm not going to bite. Here."

The woman with the long ponytail dug into the large paper bag she was carrying, pulling out a smaller bag filled with half a dozen churros.

"Here, from the shop two blocks down. Need to get them to her anyway. Don't tell her I got these. Have fun."

Somehow, the woman timed it perfectly, stepping back out onto a different floor and disappearing around the corner.

Then Akari was there, and as she stepped outside, she felt the distinctive poke of someone attempting a telepathic screening. She let them in, just a bit, then slid the door shut when they were done. They were just doing their jobs, she thought.

And whatever it was Sakura Kyouko had intended, she felt it would be best to go along with it.

She looked around as she walked, taking in the glass windows and subdued statuary, replete with hidden symbolism. Maybe there'd be time to take a deeper look later.

She glanced at the timestamp in her contacts, then opened the door.

Mami was already getting up, headed for her.

"Ah, Akiyama‐san, good to see you. Oh, you didn't have to bring anything. Hmm."

Akari handed over the churros awkwardly, frozen by Kyouko's admonition not to say anything.

"I, uh, happened across them," she said.

Akari made a small show of looking around the room, hoping to dodge more questions. It hardly looked like an office at all, with a side table on both sides surrounded by plush chairs and decorations, perhaps intended for group meetings.

And indeed, rather than leading her to the central desk, Mami led her to one of the tables, where there was a tray of candies.

Mami set the churros next to the tray, pointed enticingly towards Akari.

"Would you like a drink? I thought about having tea ready, but I didn't want to assume. Maybe some hot chocolate? I know that sounds really rich, but what's being a magical girl if we can't indulge once or twice?"

"That, uh, sounds lovely," Akari said.

Mami tapped the order into a pad on the table.

"You don't have to do all this," Akari said, raising her hands. "I'm just, uh."

She didn't finish the sentence, realizing that this didn't make sense. She was just here to tell Mami about what memories she had seen. That didn't exactly entail getting royal treatment.

"Well, I don't know how to start this conversation," she said, finally. "We're here to talk about what parts of you I saw. I saw a fair few."

She kept her gaze firmly on the table.

"You've always been lonely, though you try not to show it. Ever since your parents died way back when. You still wonder if you and Sakura Kyouko could have ever been a thing. You're worried about Akemi Homura—you think something's wrong with her, but you don't know how to talk to her about this. And uh, I'm not going to say the part about Chitose Yuma. I think you get the gist of it."

She looked up, and found Mami's smile a little brittle.

"You know, I'm glad you didn't mention that in our previous meeting," Mami said. "If that had gone on the record—well, just think of all the blackmail you're capable of."

"I suppose," Akari said, looking the other woman in the eye. She didn't look angry or worried; there was something else in there.

"I would never share anything like that," she said, finally. "We soul mages have enough suspicion on us already. Whatever rules the Telepaths' Guild has on this still apply to me."

"I know," Mami said, smile less brittle now. "I'm not worried about that. But now that you're here, recent events have made me realize that we're woefully unprepared against soul mages. The senior leadership have all had anti‐telepathy training, but this is something very different, isn't it?"

"It is," Akari said. "But I think you're overestimating the threat. Soul mages are very rare, and by and large, manipulating a person's soul is not as easy as reading their mind. It's not any easier, and isn't that different from standard mind‐control."

For once, Akari was on familiar ground.

"I disagree," Mami said. "Just because it's rare or difficult doesn't mean it's not a weakness. Not when the downside risk of a failure could be catastrophic. Then we have to defend against it anyway."

"I guess I can't argue with that. Are you proposing I set up some kind of training program?"

"Something like that."

Mami looked down into her lap, then back up again, meeting Akari's gaze.

"There's something else, though," she said.

Akari waited for Mami to elaborate, growing increasingly uncomfortable as the seconds ticked by and Mami hesitated, face working.

Akari felt herself tense up. If something was tongue‐tying someone as old as Mami…

"Um, what?" she asked, finally.

She studied the woman's expression. Like before, something was different there.

"Well, I," Mami began. "I know you said there'd be lingering feelings. I really thought about that, and I waited. But you know, it felt nice. I kind of miss it."

It took Akari a few seconds to realize what was being said, and then she froze in place, feeling a blush crawl its way up her neck.

"I, um—"

She had tried very hard not to think of Mami that way, deliberately avoiding the thought whenever it came up. It was a ridiculous notion, after all.

But now… well, Mami couldn't mean anything else, could she?

"Are you sure?" she finally asked, managing to contain her emotions for the moment. "The aftereffects can be very strange. It can help to ask someone you trust. Have you tried talking to Sakura‐san?"

No, what the heck was that? she thought to herself. Flustered, she had disgorged a set of meaningless, half‐remembered mind‐control recovery advice. It was hardly relevant to the situation.

"I have," Mami said. "I did my research, I asked the right people to get tested. I even talked to Sakura‐san."

She paused, closing her eyes and shaking her head, a small smile coming to her lips as she seemed to replay a memory in her mind.

"I… wouldn't have ventured to ask if I didn't think you might be receptive. I hope it doesn't offend you that I looked into your background a bit."

"Not at all," Akari said, dazedly.

"Then what do you say?" Mami asked, eyes soft.

It was quite a question to be confronted with suddenly. She had hardly been looking for a relationship, with her life as unsettled as it was. She had tried her hand at charity work, in the MHD, and now with the Soul Guard, and she had all but decided to reset her career once again after Seoul. She had lived out of hotel rooms for years now.

But did someone like Mami even care about things like that?

She couldn't say she returned the confession—not quite, not yet. Still…

"I wouldn't mind trying something," she said. "Though, goodness, um, I don't know what to say."

Mami's eyes lit up.

"Well, are you busy? I still have plenty on my schedule, but we could maybe do dinner."

Akari wasn't busy. She was still on standby for the Soul Guard.

"I could do that."

Things moved quickly from there. It seemed a bit unseemly, but after a few days she grew used to visiting Executive Tower, having a meal with Mami, and just chatting, with the occasional foray into teaching Mami about soul manipulation.

Akari found herself dreading her next Soul Guard summons, then feeling guilty about it. It was a familiar pattern—her personality, or perhaps her wish, did not permit her to relax for long, even after she had inevitably lost faith in her current line of work.

So this time, now that she had lost faith in Soul Guard contracting, she would resign, unless her skills were irreplaceable for the next assignment. It was probably for the best, anyway—she didn't want to damage Mami's reputation if it ever came out that she was seeing a subordinate.

The summons came soon enough: she was to appear at an unfamiliar address in Kazamino.

A short train ride took her into the city center, on the inner edge of shrinking Mitakihara. Here, the MSY's presence was represented by a few large office complexes, corporate outposts of the most generic kind.

She found her way into one, scanning her ID at the door and her soul gem at the security desk. Then she found her way to the right conference room and waited; the message had been vague at best about why she was here, but she was used to that. Soul mage work could rarely be referred to directly.

She settled in, grabbing water from the side counter, then synchronizing her phone with the room. She checked the calendar, then her update feed, then sent a few messages to her parents.

And when she finally ran out of things to do, she stared at the ceiling for a long time, feeling the comings and goings of the soul gems around her, eavesdropping on the edges of thought clouds, fantasizing about being back at the tower.

This close to HQ, it was doubtful she would be dealing with anything like Seoyun. More likely, she was being asked to help with an ugly case—a girl with a soul‐draining power, perhaps, or an unusual type of trauma. Nothing pleasant, but nothing personally dangerous. Probably.

Finally, the door opened and she looked down, then almost jumped out of her skin.

"Thanks for waiting," Akemi Homura said, an adjutant closing the door behind her. "My previous meeting ran somewhat late."

"No problem, Akemi‐san," Akari said, hollowly. "I wasn't busy."

"Indeed," Homura said, placing a paper folder onto the table, along with a cup of coffee, lightly fragrant on the air.

Akari stared for a bit, taking in the notion of the First Executive sitting across from her, rifling through some papers. Up close, she looked entirely ordinary, her incredible flowing hair confined to a ponytail. Yet the atmosphere she projected was completely different from Mami—businesslike, and Akari couldn't help but feel uncomfortable, like there was something she had forgotten to do.

"Indeed, you're not busy," Homura repeated, without looking up from her notes. "And that's a bit of a problem, isn't it? This Soul Guard attaché role isn't exactly filling your hours, nor is it giving you satisfaction. It's a waste of your abilities."

Akari felt compelled to nod. She wouldn't have put it in quite those terms, but Homura wasn't wrong.

Even if it felt a little like admitting she had been shamefully idle.

Homura clasped her hands together, tilting her head.

"That's why the Executive is establishing a new research initiative, geared specifically towards matters of the soul," she said. "We've decided that the current state of this kind of research is too haphazard, especially for so important a topic. We'd like to push it more aggressively, and put it under closer Science Division supervision."

Homura looked at her, clearly expecting some kind of response, but Akari needed to chew on the topic.

She ducked her head, and tried to figure out what was going on.

"I'm not sure exactly what you're getting at, to be honest," she said. "You want me to do research? I thought there would be something like this already. I'd hardly be expert enough."

"That's just the thing," Homura said, looking her squarely in the eyes. "It's a very important topic. A very dangerous topic. We've generally seen fit to pursue a policy of… enlightened neglect."

Homura waited a moment, then tapped the folder with a finger, indicating what Akari realized was a picture of her, from quite a few years back.

"You're wondering why you. The truth is, we've kept our eyes on you. On all the soul mages, of course, but your reviews have always been quite good, and you're old. Almost as old as us. That matters."

Akari shook her head.

"But what changed? Why start doing something now?" Akari asked. "Was it what happened in Korea?"

Homura motioned for her to wait as she flipped through her folder.

"We've gotten too big," she said, finally. "Even the most obscure attack vectors have to be considered. There have been more close calls than we've publicly acknowledged. We can no longer afford mere security through obscurity."

She gestured at a sheaf of papers she had pulled out of her folder, then smiled slightly, with more warmth than Akari had thought possible.

"If you agree to join, you'd have access. My personal opinion has been that this knowledge is likely to be dangerous, and ripe for abuse, but I have been persuaded that this is now the lesser evil, if under your supervision."

Akari tried to think it all through. Why would the First Executive personally try to recruit her, when she knew Akari was quite ready to take on a different role and shouldn't need convincing?

"What exactly are you asking me to do?" she asked.

Homura's lip quirked slightly.

"Mami‐san says you have potential as a researcher," Homura said. "You have the right kind of drive, and the right kind of intelligence. So, it would make sense to set you up a bit. Nominally, you'd answer to Chitose Yuma as Division Head, but in practice, other than the occasional report, you'll be free to do your own thing, hire your own people."

Akari couldn't help but be boggled. Her? Managing people? Doing research? And did Homura know how Mami knew her? Had Mami been involved in this?

"I know," Homura said. "This isn't something you're trained for, so we'll give you a bit of a mentor. Don't worry. Like us, you've had decades of prime adulthood. You'll find it makes you far more prepared than you think."

Homura didn't have to elaborate on what us meant.

A thought crossed Akari's mind, one she hesitated before voicing.

"Why aren't you setting up some kind of research institute? Something more proper, like the Demonology Center?"

Homura smiled, and this time the smile chilled rather than warmed.

"Would you put a dozen very rare, valuable soul mages in one place to do dangerous research?" Homura asked, smile unbroken. "I wouldn't. Not unless I had to."

She pinned Akari with her gaze for a moment, and then the smile faded back into something more normal.

"Take some time to think about it," she said. "A week, I'd say. And now…"

Homura shuffled the paper at her side, bringing another set of documents to the top, neatly clipped together.

"I'd like to get to know you a bit better. What is it you want out of life?"

Akari blinked once, twice, then cleared her throat rhetorically.

"I, um, well, when I was a girl I wanted to make a difference. With the way things are, all the despair in the world. I didn't exactly know what I was bargaining with, but I've tried to stay true to that."

She paused, waiting to see if Homura wanted to ask something more. Instead, Homura motioned her to go on.

"Honestly, I don't think I've done that good a job. I'm sure it says that in your files. Thanks to the MSY I haven't had to worry too much about material concerns, but I haven't really been satisfied."

"You did some good work for the MHD while you were there," Homura commented. "Why did you quit?"

Akari took a breath, a few old images automatically flashing through her mind.

"It was too stressful," she said. "And I don't think I was doing very well. My cases ended poorly."

"You got some of the hardest cases," Homura said. "I don't think that's fair to yourself."

Akari swallowed.

"But no one could blame you for leaving," Homura said, before she had to say anything. "You had some similar successes with the Soul Guard, including this recent incident in Korea."

"I would hardly call that a success," Akari said, so relieved at the topic change that she spoke too quickly.

"Your involvement was a net positive," Homura said.

She closed her folder, then stood up, stretching a hand out for Akari to shake. Akari stared at it a moment, surprised both by the non‐Japanese gesture and the abruptness at which their conversation had ended. Had she said something wrong?

She shook Homura's hand.

"I look forward to seeing what you're capable of," Homura said, nodding. "Both in the lab and with… my friend. She could use someone, I think."

Akari was too shocked to interrupt, and Homura continued:

"She's a lot more vulnerable than she looks. I think you know that. Take good care of her. It means a lot to me."

Then Homura turned on her heels and left.

Akari accepted the offer.

She had known she would from the very beginning. Just like everything before it, the Soul Guard posting had failed to grab her, failed to elicit in her more than a sense of inadequacy. She had wanted to save the world from despair and this was all she was doing?

Her mother would have told her to settle—had told her to settle. She had told her that not everyone was destined to make big waves, and maybe her wish was trying to make her difference in a small way.

She couldn't bring herself to believe that, and so she found herself on yet another career path, riding an autocab out into Mitakihara Old Town.

Old Town was not called that for its historical architecture or its nostalgia. The term was brutally literal, referring to a sector of the city filled with empty, depopulated buildings that no one had ever paid to demolish.

There had been a few half‐hearted efforts by the city and various NGOs to make use of the area for parks, markets, and open space. Some had even been successful. But no one Akari knew ever ventured anywhere out of those few successes. As far as she knew, it was a den of drug labs, homeless squatters, and shifty operations which preferred isolation to amenities and easy access.

What she was doing fell into the last category. Working with grief cubes and soul gems was not just worth hiding, it was also potentially dangerous, especially to civilian populations. Isolation was simply good policy.

She knew all that, and she was still unprepared for what awaited her when her cab doors swung open and she could see something other than her tinted windows.

The streets were barren and the sidewalks overgrown. The mid‐rise office buildings around her were in no better shape, sporting faded signage, cracked edifices, and broken windows. What trees there were had grown huge and misshapen, ripping apart the pavement.

There was a peculiar kind of silence—the chirping of birds, the distant sound of wind, the clattering noise of a vagabond pushing a cart down the road two blocks away, thankfully not in her direction. The air smelled a mix of nature and dust.

The building in front of her looked no better than the rest. Only careful inspection revealed a set of concealed cameras, and that the doorway looked recently used and a bit too clean.

It was all rather unpromising.

"Not a bad place," Mami said, looking up the side of the building. "Plenty of space. Depends what's inside."

To her surprise, the door opened immediately when she tried to open it, registering her metrics like any good modern system. She had expected, perhaps, a soul gem scan.

Instead, she found herself staring down a magical girl just behind the doorway, whose magic danced over her skin as she passed. Was that the real security?

"This isn't a core facility," Mami whispered, leaning over. "Out here, it pays to be careful, and the only real security comes from magical girls. Though we have the basic mundane security."

In the atrium was a small arrangement of chairs leading to an empty security desk, behind which were the hallways and staircases that led into the rest of the building. This was the waiting area.

A pair of young women were standing five feet behind the guard, and it took Akari a moment to register the soul gem signatures, then that she hadn't noticed them any sooner. It took lots of skill to hide that well, especially from her. Moreover, why would anyone bother?

"Sadachi Shiori," the one in front said, bowing politely. "I've been asked to get you started around here."

She hesitated a bit, glancing at her companion, and then Mami piped up.

"Yuma‐chan. I didn't expect you to be here."

"I'm just here to observe, Mami‐nee‐san."

Akari's anxiety level spiked—this was the Science Division head? Akari hadn't been told she would be visiting.

She took a long look. Chitose Yuma was tall, fresh‐faced, with none of the hard edges Homura displayed so prominently. That belied expectations.

"Please don't be nervous," Yuma said, shaking her head, long hair fluttering in the air. "I just wanted to get out of my office a bit, see the rollout for myself. I won't be evaluating anything."

She seemed friendly enough, Akari supposed.

Shiori gestured Akari forward, and they made their way up the stairs. The first floor was intended for office space and lunch areas. The upper floors were where any work would be carried out, behind an array of glass doors.

Shiori showed them through a few of the rooms, where there were countertops laid out in parallel columns like a real research lab. Akari recognized much of the equipment: spectrometers for gem emission measurements, a custom photometer for corruption measurement—still an inexact science, at best—and a set of grief containment vessels. The last could have easily been mistaken for elaborately‐ornamented glass cloches, but Akari had seen their like before. There was a specialist in the MSY somewhere who made these, no two alike, the glass streaked through with patterns of color and sometimes brass.

"So have you decided what you want to do?" Shiori asked, when they seated themselves into her new office.

"I poked around a bit in the files I was sent," Akari said. "There's been a lot of research into complex soul manipulation, enchantment and the like, but not very much into fundamental topics like corruption, the soul‐body link, the despair spiral. I want to start there, from the basics."

Suddenly, she felt Yuma staring at her from the corner of the room.

"There's a good reason that hasn't been studied," Mami said, clasping her hands in front of her face. "All of that requires subjecting mages to unpleasant, or even dangerous conditions. Just an unfriendly field of study."

Akari shook her head.

"But very important," she said. "That's the kind of thing that would make a real difference. Imagine if we learned how to suspend a despair spiral, or stretch grief cubes a bit longer. I know that's treading on Incubator ground, but that would save lives."

Mami's look made her uncomfortable, so she appended:

"It's also dangerous to us as a group not to know what is possible. The magical girl in Korea, Seoyun—her abilities worked by interacting with corruption somehow. We have to know."

"It's a pretty good point," Yuma said, leaning against the wall. "The potential benefits are quite high. Provided the knowledge isn't misused."

Akari was starting to sense that there was more going on here than met the eye, but also that she probably shouldn't ask.

"There will be plenty of supervision," Mami said, looking at Yuma.

"There's some old research on the subject from back before the moratorium," Yuma said. "I'll send you the documentation. It's going to be heavily redacted, though. Not a very savory source. Mami‐nee‐san, let's speak outside for a bit."

The two of them stepped out, probably for a telepathy session that would have been impolite to have in front of others.

I wonder what that was about, Shiori thought.

Do you think she'll be alright? Mami thought, shaking her head.

If I didn't think so, I wouldn't have let this get off the ground, Yuma thought. Homura‐nee‐chan too, despite her concerns. I'm glad Songpa finally changed her mind, in a way.

Yuma made a face, tapping her fingers against her arm. Mami couldn't help but be reminded of when she was younger.

As long as there is adequate supervision and she doesn't try anything too stupid, the likeliest disaster is a demon outbreak. Even worst case, we'll only lose the lab. I know that sounds callous.

It does.

That's actually not the only reason I called you out here. I just received word: the Sato clan has voted to support RC7071. That gives us enough votes for passage, but just barely. Shizuki wants all hands on deck, now.

Mami felt her heart skip a beat.

"You can take my car," Yuma said.

Rules Committee Act #7071—numbered from the beginning of the current charter—had been submitted to the Legal Subcommittee nearly a year ago, by Shizuki Tsubasa (SR, Mitakihara). Since then it had slowly wound its way through the various committees, alternating between languishing in near‐death for long periods and sparking furious debate.

Significant parts of the MSY's political elite felt that the Charter of 2059 was seriously flawed, but opinions were divided between the Reformists, who felt that the Charter was only in need of some moderate refurbishment, and the Expansionists, who viewed expanding the reach of the MSY as a moral obligation, and were willing to make considerable concessions to make it happen.

This question of "Manifest Destiny"—a term borrowed from American history, and one that Mami wished no one in their faction had ever been stupid enough to use—dominated the political debate of the day, coloring considerations about centralization, grief cube management, corporate operations, and many other mind‐numbingly difficult topics.

Importantly, the public side of this debate included another faction, the Japanists, who had driven so much of the nationalist 2059 Charter. They had been much larger then, and their votes had been needed for the Charter to pass at all.

But since then, Akemi Homura's warnings against their policies had proved almost prophetic, weakening their public support and convincing many elected officials to switch sides. At length, especially after the Triad incidents, the Japanists were effectively shut out of the governing coalition. Their greatest victory had set the course of their destruction, a fate hopefully not about to be repeated.

Either way, Mami was here. A primarily Expansionist version of RC7071 had reached the floor, shepherded by Shizuki and Kuroi influence, including just enough Reformist planks to pass. As a member of the Leadership Committee, Mami was usually absent, her abstention on all votes a ritual formality. Except for times like this.

But as her and Homura's votes entered the tally, crossing the threshold needed to invoke Article VII and begin the referendum process, Mami felt no sense of relief or triumph, even as the Expansionist faction—and many Reformists—rose to their feet in applause.

Even as she gave her prepared speech, lauding all those they would save, all she could see was the work.

How many would she save? How many would she fail?

Japan, April 2068.

"You want to step down from the Soul Guard?" Akari asked.

"I'm thinking about it," Mami said. "I've brought it up with Akemi‐san and the Leadership Committee. With the new Charter, foreign relations is going to be a big deal. There's going to be a new Head of Recruitment and Diplomacy, and I think I'd be suited. I used to do a lot of that kind of work."

Akari frowned, closing her eyes for a moment. She hadn't been sure what to expect, when Mami invited her over to her apartment. The obvious thoughts crossed her mind, of course, but so far, all they had done today was eat cake and watch a movie—"Stars Crossed Over Venus", a sappy sci‐fi romance.

Still, Akari always enjoyed Mami's plush furnishings and expensive holo‐theater setup. She had also gotten the chance to lean her head onto Mami's other ample assets, which she appreciated.

Akari lifted her head slightly, turning to catch a glimpse of Mami's expression.

"That's not the only reason, is it?" she said.

Mami sighed.

"No, it's not. Managing the Soul Guard is taking a lot out of me. It's not the work. It's the… everything else. The case reports, the injuries. I'd be happier not knowing about any of it."

Mami ran her hand through Akari's hair nervously.

"It'll still be a lot of responsibility," Akari said. "And it'd mean dealing with outside magical girls. You saw in Korea how that can be."

Mami's hand froze. Akari reached up to gently place her own hand upon it.

"I know," Mami said. "I just have to hope it's different."

Akari let her hand fall back down, and Mami began running hers through Akari's hair again, as they were both quiet for a moment.

"Also, if I don't take the position," Mami said, a small quirk now on her lips, "Takara‐san will be the likely pick."

Akari cringed sympathetically.

She was tempted to let the conversation lapse there, as Mami clearly intended, but she knew the ultimate point had yet to be discussed. Mami would just keep worrying herself over it if Akari didn't act.

"If you took this role, you'd be away from Mitakihara more often, and for longer," Akari said.

Mami looked away, hiding a guilty face.

"I would happily bring you with me, whenever you could take time off from the lab," Mami said.

Akari thought about it, casting her eyes at the ceiling, then back, toward Mami's face. There wasn't a good answer here, was there? Just like Akari, Mami couldn't abandon the work.

She ought to give some answer, though. Of the two of them, Akari had far more relationship experience—though that wasn't saying much. Akari was still astounded to know that, somehow, she was Mami's first girlfriend. If they broke up, who knew how long it would be until Mami opened her heart again?

"We're both adults," Akari said. "More than that, honestly. We can make this work long‐distance if we have to. And if we can't, I promise I'll tell you before our relationship is damaged."

Mami was silent for a few seconds, before turning her eyes back towards Akari.

Thank you, she thought, with warmth.

Akari smiled back.

"We have all the time in the world to figure things out, after all."

Mami took the job shortly after.

With the new Charter came new changes in policy towards external magical girl groups. The initial expansion of the MSY across Japan had been fairly ad hoc, until the Charter of 2059 had made MSY membership mandatory for all magical girls within the MSY's claim of Japanese jurisdiction, and all but forbidden outside it. Expansion of the MSY beyond Japan would necessarily require a third model.

First, external magical girl groups—a solo magical girl counted as her own group—could now apply for "associate" status, which granted access to trade, training, aid, and travel privileges. This was similar to existing foreign arrangements—in China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the western seaboard of the Americas, which would be grandfathered in—but much more standardized. The only costs were adherence to certain basic rules meant to maintain peace, and the granting of reciprocal rights to the MSY's membership.

This was a deliberately appealing deal, meant to rope in as many magical girls and as much territory as possible, so that the MSY's cultural influence could more easily spread throughout the fragmented magical girl world.

Second, "associate" groups could apply for full MSY membership. Officially, to placate the Reformists and Japanists, the process was modeled on the European Union's, and required candidates to meet several substantial requirements: establishing a record of neighborly behavior, undergoing a trial period in the MSY's grief cube sharing system, and facing a "values‐compatibility" assessment, among other obstacles.

Unofficially, there were waivers and shortcuts for most everything, and the order of the day was getting anyone and everyone to apply as soon as practicable, or even to apply for them. For particularly inconvenient groups—say, those that had longstanding blood feuds with their neighbors—the MSY would sponsor a formal mediation process, sometimes outright paying settlements itself in the name of encouraging peace and progress.

It was Mami's job to handle all of that, conducting diplomacy, lubricating the MSY bureaucracy, and generally making things happen, by hook or by crook. She put together a new set of specialists underneath her to help, some from her Soul Guard days, especially those conducting dangerous in‐person mediation. Mami had confided mixed feelings to Akari about that—in‐person negotiations were a favorite assignment of hers, and she longed to resume them personally, even after the disaster that had led to at Songpa.

Meanwhile, their relationship progressed, in an almost banal fashion. When Mami was in Mitakihara, they went on dates, they cooked meals together, they helped each other train magic, and just had fun. When Mami was away, and Akari couldn't join her, they regularly talked online, late into sleepless nights: about magic, the Law of Cycles, the soul, grief, and other mysteries when Akari was worked up, about politics, ethics, the future, or the past when Mami was.

Akari finally moved into Mami's apartment, too. Kyubey, for once, commented that the action was logical.

Japan, December 2068.

In the year since she had started at the "lab", Akari had hired two junior magical girls as helpers, as well as pair of TNC technicians who stayed strictly outside the main lab space. They brainstormed, they poked grief cubes, they ate drone‐delivered takeout in Akari's office.

According to the classified records Yuma had given her, the edges of the corruption–grief‐cube–soul‐gem system were more malleable than commonly presumed. Grief cubes could be forced to take on more capacity, corruption could take all kinds of unusual forms, and, perhaps most worryingly, there were hints that soul gems were not truly immalleable constructs. The only rule consistently followed was that using magic led to corruption somewhere.

With this information—the research notes of a half‐dozen authors that Akari suspected were mostly not MSY—she had identified two initial promising directions, and a third she didn't feel safe taking on. After some negotiation, she had agreed to let a different researcher—one Tamaki Mai—take on the study of non‐grief cube corruption.

She would take on the energy gap question—the question triple‐underlined in one of the notes. The question was fundamental: there seemed to be no consistent mapping whatsoever between the amount of corruption generated and the amount of energy generated in the real world. Different magical girls generated energy levels spanning numerous orders of magnitude, and some magical girls—famously, Akemi Homura—could even amplify the efforts of others.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," one of her researchers said, projecting the latest set of numbers onto the screen in her room. "It's like there just isn't a limit."

That was Etsuko Hina, one of her researchers. She had come up with a scheme to probe the magic‐energy connection—find someone with a wish‐granted power, then contrive a scenario so that using the power would perform a variable amount of work. The hypothesis had been that the task would get progressively more difficult for the magical girl as the energy requirement increased.

Instead, the energy requirement seemed not to matter at all. The girl would simply generate more and more energy without changing the amount of magic used—until, at some unclear point, their experimental apparatus would simply stop working. How it stopped working varied, but at some point the magic would simply bypass whatever trick they were using and achieve its effect directly. Or snap the carbon rope they were using.

"Maybe there isn't a limit," Togame Nao, her other researcher, said. "The Incubators always say that they're using us for power, to save the universe. Maybe there's just a lot of power."

"I'll try to remember that the next time I'm getting overpowered in a demon fight," Hina said, sarcastically. "Really, though, you'd think that'd be more obvious."

"Maybe not," Akari said. "What historical records we have imply that we've been getting stronger and faster over time, and there have been a few records of mages achieving tremendous, impossible feats."

"After which they immediately died from power drain," Nao pointed out.

"Yes, but still."

The discussion only meandered in circles after that, and they headed home shortly after.

It would have been easy for Akari to simply step into a cab and leave, but as she stepped outside, she felt too restless to just go home.

That was how it always was, she thought. She was never happy just staying in a box, plugging away at her own little problems. Not while there were other things going on, just outside.

She took a breath, breathing in the moist, chill air of the evening, and looked around her. Why not take a walk? That would help her gain perspective.

She turned down the street, taking a moment to wave vaguely at the night guard, who peered curiously at her over the crumbling roof.

So she turned down the street, stepping gingerly over shattered and crumbling pavement, the weeds and ornamental plants so overgrown that they could barely be distinguished. Shadows lay deep between the buildings, and what streetlamps were intact had long since been cut off from the power grid.

This was hardly the neighborhood for wandering, least of all for an apparent young woman. It took only a short while for her to get lost entirely.

But someone like her could take care of herself.

The moon shone down upon Akari as she turned a corner, drawing her eye. With her inhuman eyes, she saws its splendor, and the way it reflected against the buildings, facades of ash that covered spindles of charred coal. It was easy to imagine the way they must have once been, full of narrow ambition and heavy industry. So, too, it was easy to imagine how the road weaved forward, as she knew it must, towards decrepit public housing, neighborhoods where the poor and aging of Mitakihara languished indefinitely.

The MSY wasn't powerful enough to save the world. It couldn't even save its own city. Against decay like this, what power they had seemed painfully hollow. If only they could just unlock more—

It would take a miracle to save this world.

Akari sighed and shook the thoughts from her head, then turned back. She needed to get back to work.

Japan, June 2069.

"I bet Mami‐san would be really good at it," Kyouko said.

Mami's ears perked up at the mention of her name. She had tuned out of the conversation, preferring to listen in to Homura's side of the table, where Yuma and Homura were debating the relative merits of sous vide cooking.

"Good at what?" she asked, catching Kyouko's eye.

"Telepathy. Mind‐reading," Kyouko said, lilting the second word as she pointed her chopsticks at Mami. "We were talking about how useful it'd be for your work."

Kyouko turned to talk enthusiastically at Akari, waving the chopsticks in the air.

"Hey, hey, did you know? Mami is one of the MSY's biggest experts in new power development, if you're going outside of what's natural for you."

"Yeah, I do know," Akari said, looking a bit subdued by the company. "She's, uh, told me."

"Bragged, you mean," Kyouko said. "Anyway, I dated a mind‐reader once. It was crazy useful, for all kinds of things."

Mami smiled slightly in polite acknowledgment.

"Well, it might be, but you know I've always found it a bit intrusive," she said. "So I don't want to go that way."

"But, I mean, is that a good enough reason?" Akari asked. "The MSY is one of the biggest organizations for good in the world. I've listened to your stories about all the problems you're facing. Would it really hurt that much? Learning some telepathy skills just isn't all that big a deal."

Mami blinked at her, wondering how exactly she could respond politely.

"We've tried telling her that before," Homura said, daintily slicing at a piece of ribeye. "She insists it's unnecessary."

"Not everyone is like you two," Kyouko said, rolling her eyes. "It's normal for some people to have scruples."

"Let's not do this right now," Mami said, raising her hands. "Let's just eat."

The conversation shifted elsewhere, but the topic stayed in her mind. Akari seemed a bit off the rest of the dinner, as if something was bothering her.

So Mami asked about it when the time came, later that night, after Kyouko and the others had found their excuses to depart her apartment.

"It's not that big a deal because telepathy isn't just breaking into people's heads without their permission," Akari said, shaking her head. "That's exactly the kind of perception the Telepaths' Guild tries to fight against. It can do all kinds of other things, like foster empathy, help mages work together, improve mood and morale. Help with relationships."

Akari's eyes glanced past her as she said the last line.

"It's sort of narrow‐minded to think of it as just some kind of insidious thing," Akari said.

Mami looked down at the other girl, who was seated on their couch, trying to read her expression.

"I…" she began, before pressing a hand to her face.

"I knew that. But honestly, that other stuff has never seemed that important to me. The divisions I've run have worked fine without any of that, so…"

She furrowed her brow. She knew there were others who were much closer to their lieutenants, but she just didn't run things like that. But with Akari, well, she was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and that, at least, gave her new incentives.

"Is this important to you?" she asked. "That I maybe learn a little telepathy?"

"It is," Akari said, shrugging. "But you know, I didn't want to ask just because of that. I've dated non‐telepaths. But it makes things a lot easier."

Mami stood still for a few seconds, tapping her foot on the floor.

"I'll think about it," she said. "Not for work, or espionage, but for us. Just… let me think about it."

Akari nodded.

Japan, February 2070.

The charter rewrite had turned the foreign situation into a chaotic mess.

Mami had expected that, of course. They all had. There was just no way anything so fraught with power and wealth and raw human emotion could become anything else.

Yet somehow, even though she quite literally signed on for the role, she found herself unprepared.

In just over two years, the official membership rolls of the MSY had more than doubled.

It had been a very good idea, in retrospect, to concede such a large degree of local autonomy for new territory in the 2067 Charter. The MSY's bureaucracy could barely keep up as it was.

Prospects varied, of course. The situation in China had actually improved, since full representation and a formal system of delegated local rule was leagues better than the previous mishmash of indirect representation and overlapping jurisdictions. In the Americas, by contrast, frustrations were mounting over a heavy application backlog, amidst disputes over local politics, free trade zones, and petty tyrants. Southeast Asia had bright spots, like Vietnam, but overall the region was tense—too many attacks on girls who joined the MSY, too often repaid in blood. It was enough that Mami had asked to stop receiving detailed combat reports.

The problem she had to confront today was Korea. Well, not just the Korea she had expected, but also North Korea.

The world's longest humanitarian crisis, the open sore on the face of Asia, North Korea's horrendous politics had carried over into the magical girl realm. Over a century ago, true believers had fought a simmering war across the demilitarized zone long after most of the mundane fighting had stopped, and the scars of that conflict remained, even as North Korean refugees began to trickle south. Some were welcomed, others tolerated, and still others forced back, or worse. Raids became common in both directions—south for supplies and food, north for bountiful grief cubes. Bodies piled up.

A ceasefire eventually took hold, brokered by the Incubators, but the gaping cut of the DMZ and CCZ ran across the magical world too, dividing the two Koreas territorially, culturally, and institutionally, with repercussions extending throughout and beyond Seoul. Only the trade economy was different: the border was porous, and the locals had grown dependent on the flow of grief cubes south, in exchange for material goods headed north.

And that's what the MSY had stepped into. The teams that joined couldn't simply maintain the old patterns, not with the MSY flooding the markets with both grief cubes and material resources. This was fine for the residents of Seoul, but decidedly not for those further north, from either side of the border. They had grown dependent on arbitraging their way to a living in an otherwise precarious environment, managing the bilateral trade.

The MSY had predicted some degree of economic recoil. That, at least, was foreshadowed by their pre‐charter revision experiences, particularly in China. But they hadn't realized how essential the cross‐DMZ trade was, both economically and for the local identity. In a strange way the border girls were kindred spirits, closer to each other than any outsiders, despite the lingering hostility.

Now the entire region around the DMZ was in a state of inflammation, filled with a searing anger against the invaders who had come to destroy their way of life. Joining the MSY was out of the question. Those from just south of the DMZ filed formal protests and complained bitterly to the teams in Seoul. They harassed MSY operations and demanded compensation, with hints about escalation.

Mami had little intelligence about those from North Korea, but what little she knew suggested they were well past merely threatening escalation.

"How the hell did I let this become such a mess?" Mami groaned, placing her forehead onto the table. "This should be solvable, but it all just gets so complex. Just pay them off, the Rules Committee says, but then everyone gets jealous of each other and the committees start asking why you're spending so much money."

She wasn't exactly being coherent, she knew, but she hoped her tone was sarcastic enough.

"One should never be surprised," Homura said, in a passive voice. "When has helping anyone ever generated anything but annoying complications? But we'll get through it."

Mami didn't look up. She never said so, but she hated how insufferable Homura could be at times like this, smug like she had seen everything before. So what if she had overlooked one rural area? The MSY was expanding simultaneously on four separate continents!

"Anyway, the situation might be bad, but it's not really a threat to our overall position," Homura said. "The locals in Seoul see the benefits of working with us, and our enhanced procedures. The natural solution for the traders in the north is to work with us too. Assistance needs to be tied to cooperation. That's how incentives work."

This time Mami did look up, glaring Homura in the eye.

"You're saying we shouldn't help them so they'll be forced to join us," she said. "Even though we're the ones who upended their way of life."

"A favorable trade environment is not an inviolable right," Homura said. "Nor is subsidizing one a wise strategy."

Mami narrowed her eyes. This wasn't the first time she'd heard logic like that. It wasn't that it was wrong, exactly.

"Being selfish isn't why I'm here, Akemi‐san," she said.

"I'm not being selfish either," Homura said. "Getting these girls into the MSY will make them far wealthier than the border trade ever could, and triple their life expectancy besides."

They stared at each other for a long moment, anger against ice, until it was Homura who relented, turning her head away.

"You're right that it is cold logic," she said. "But we can't really do better. Not if we want to change things. I wish the world were different, but you don't get perfect solutions. Not without, well, a wish. I never really mastered the art of that."

Homura leaned back in her chair, gaining a wistful look Mami was familiar with.

Mami chose not to interrupt, glancing awkwardly around Homura's office. There wasn't much to see: the basic high‐end corporate furniture, a window out onto the city, the faint whiff of magic. The only dose of sentimentality was a framed portrait of an October Three party—not that anyone outside the Mitakihara Four could identify it as such.

It was only natural that Homura keep her eccentricity contained within her home apartment, she supposed.

"It's all academic anyway," Homura said finally, leaning back forward. "We both agree it may not be a great idea, and it would be a hard sell anyway. What are you going to tell the Rules Committee?"

Mami straightened out in her chair, finding to her surprise that her mood had improved.

"The truth," she said. "South Korea is too sensitive to safely play games with, not when everyone still remembers Songpa."

"They do," Homura said. "It really hurts us that we can't really know what's going in North Korea. If we did, we might be able to ease tensions, make this less sensitive politically."

"There's always diplomacy," Mami said. "If we even knew who to talk to."

"Of course," Homura said, folding her hands. "I didn't mean to imply otherwise."

Mami's contacts signaled her for her next meeting—more precisely, she had been muting the notification for the past fifteen minutes. It was really time she got going.

Plus, she conceded to herself, she really didn't want to have any more of that conversation. Yuma had been pushing for a while for some kind of foreign information service, a Soul Guard agency tasked with gathering data and contacts outside their borders, occasionally taking action as necessary.

That was how Yuma would describe it, at least.

It was an intelligence agency, of course, or so close to one the distinction didn't matter, and the committees were divided on the subject. Once they started going down that road, who knew where they would end up? Would they start manufacturing "incidents"?

It was tempting to think that because it was us, it wouldn't get out of control, but that seemed like a dangerous assumption to make. Kyouko and several of the others agreed.

The MSY could take a bit of uncertainty, for now.

Japan, March 2070.

The two years since their relationship started had passed surprisingly slowly—in a good way. Years were supposed to blur together at their age, and yet it felt as if they had known each other for far longer than they had, made more memories than the days would normally allow.

That wasn't to say life was perfect—Mami was away on diplomatic missions all too often, working and worrying far more than was healthy, while Akari and her team struggled to make headway against her chosen research topic, the energy gap.

But these were trifling concerns in the grand scheme of things. So why was some part of Akari still unsatisfied, some nagging teenage version of her asking, day after day, if she was really fulfilling her wish?

As much as she hated to admit it, part of the problem was probably just comparing herself to Mami. Internal statistical estimates suggested that Mami's Recruiting and Diplomacy work had saved over two hundred magical girl lives in the last year alone, not to mention the massive quality‐of‐life improvements for thousands more, and their families. Meanwhile, Akari had achieved only a failed series of experiments.

You're being too hard on yourself, Akari, Mami thought, entering the room with two cups of freshly‐brewed tea. Sorry for the aphorism, but it needs to be said. Again.

Mami sat down on the couch next to her, wrapping an arm around her.

Akemi‐san is still impressed you convinced Kyubey to let you experiment with extracting energy directly from soul gems, Mami continued, using her most persuasive smile. She mentioned it again the other day.

Probably because he knew it was a dead end, as long as the gem is intact, Akari grumbled, leaning into Mami's embrace. And besides, you helped me do that.

It was worth learning, Mami thought. You know what Chitose‐san always says about failed experiments. And there's no shame in making use of the resources available to you—even if someone might think an adorable young kouhai was taking advantage of her lonely old senpai.

Akari turned to face Mami, who returned a completely innocent look.

"I'm nearly fifty," Akari said.

"Oh, so now you admit it," Mami said, tilting her head.

Akari shook her head, laughing softly. Somehow, teasing each other about their ages never grew old.

She sat up, and took a sip of the tea Mami had brought out. There was no sense in letting Mami's expert work go cold.

They enjoyed their tea together for a while, but Akari couldn't fully shake her earlier thoughts from her head. Mami was older, yes, but by the time she was thirty, she had founded the MSY, achieving more good than Akari possibly ever could.

She knew Mami could read those thoughts, too. Kyouko had been right, the woman really was a natural telepath.

Perhaps that was why Mami was suddenly so silent, looking thoughtfully at her tea. Or was something else at play?

"I'm thinking about restarting in‐person negotiations in Korea," Mami said suddenly. "Those were productive, the last time I did them, and the moment may be ripe."

Akari thought she understood, even without a mind‐read.

"Mami," she began.

You know you don't need to stay, just for me, would have been the rest of the sentence, but Mami didn't let her finish.

"I want you to go with me," Mami interrupted. "I know how you feel, and maybe you'll find something satisfying working with me. You could let your assistants manage the lab while you manage my security. And there are some Korean experts that might be worth talking to, as part of our new partnership agreements. It would be partially a sabbatical."

Akari took a small breath. Mami had clearly put some thought into this.

"I know you wouldn't want to put your career on hold," Mami said. "But the research hasn't been moving fast, right? Maybe you just need a break, some time to get a new perspective. When's the last time you had a vacation?"

More than two years ago, Akari thought automatically, but bit her lip. What a thing for Mami to say, since the woman herself never took vacations either.

"I know we haven't gotten to spend as much time together as we'd like," Mami said, putting her hand on Akari's. "If we aren't going to take vacations, we can at least do this together. What do you say?"

Akari looked down. What was there to say? She could ask for time to think about it, but it was obviously a good idea, mutually beneficial. It felt like the only possible reason to say no, in the end, would be pure stubbornness.

It also felt a little like she had just been completely outmaneuvered in a diplomatic negotiation.

Sorry, Mami thought, suddenly about as sheepish as Akari ever saw her. It's just, I…

Akari could feel what she meant. Mami had been worrying about the malaise Akari was falling into again, had come up with this idea, and had gotten really excited by the prospect of going back to in‐person negotiations with Akari at her side. Overeager, perhaps.

Not to mention, there was always that worry in the back of Mami's mind, that Akari might tire not just of her job, but of their relationship too. This plan promised to beat back both threats at once.

The latter worry was unfounded, as always, Akari thought with special emphasis. Loving Mami was a lot easier and much more rewarding than Akari's endless struggle against her wish.

Alright, Akari thought, a smile on her lips. Let's try it. Those poor Koreans won't know what hit them.

An audio montage introduces the stream, highlighting the sounds and drama of major world events, as far back as the 2020s.

"This is In the Light, your weekly news podcast about happenings out there in surface world, and its impact on those us living down here."

"Hi everyone. I'm your host, Togame Miwako. This week… well, it's been a big week, hasn't it? And not in a good way. As easy as it is to forget about the wider world, events of this magnitude affect us all, especially if things go sideways."

"Here to talk us through all this is a special guest, Dr. Akino Toki, specialist on East Asian relations, who also happens to be my good friend. How are you, Dr. Akino?"

"I'm glad to be here, Togame‐san. These are dark times, with relations between North and South Korea the worst they've been in decades. That's not an accident, of course. The Incubators made sure all evidence in the Songpa Incident would point to the north."

"Why do you think things were done like that, Dr. Akino?"

"Please, you don't have to call me that. But, no one really knows. What happened in Songpa was beyond our ability to hide, so the decision was made to ask the Incubators for assistance. It was they who chose to pin it on North Korea, claiming that a fabricated terrorist group would be too implausible for such an apparently sophisticated attack. The logic was that the mundane authorities would eventually blame North Korea anyway, so why prompt an unnecessarily long and thorough investigation that could drag in MSY affiliates?"

"We all know the Incubators can't be relied upon to tell the whole truth. Was that their entire reason, Akino‐san?"

"As far as I know, yes."

There is a moment of silence.

"Of course, things have not been quite so clean. Pariahs or not, even North Korea couldn't launch a terrorist attack in Seoul without some kind of repercussions. For a while, the dance of sanctions and aid reductions and vehement denials by North Korea seemed to follow the historical pattern, with long‐time Korea watchers predicting an eventual show of conciliation by the north, leading to a cooling of tensions. This time, however, none of that has happened."

"To those of you listening, if you haven't already, I encourage you to pause and take a look on mundane news sources to catch up on the latest escalations. North Korea has begun raiding local shipping, as 'compensation for illegal and unjust sanctions', and has also managed to hack and steal a number of automated fishing vessels.

The US Seventh Fleet is deploying a carrier to the Sea of Japan in response, and just today, South Korean Ambassador Chung Ki‐nam has presented a case for further sanctions to the Tri‐Pacific Council."

"As you've said, though, Akino‐san, we've been in these kinds of situations before, haven't we? There's over a century of diplomatic precedent to work with. This can't really be worse than when they first started testing real ICBMs—I was alive for that, you know."

"This time could be different, Togame‐san. North Korea is not in a normal state.

The current ruler of North Korea is the aging Park Sung‐won, who seized control of the country in a coup nearly twenty years ago. Some sources claim he's on the verge of death, and while we haven't been able to substantiate that, he hasn't been seen in public in over a year.

It is important to remember that though North Korea has a reputation as an ironclad dictatorship, Park has never enjoyed the kind of absolute control his predecessors did. From what we can tell, he is reliant on the support of a number of key military officials, who have divided the country between them. If he is truly dying, it isn't clear what would happen or who would be his successor.

In that context, an international crisis is tremendously destabilizing. Mundane experts have long speculated that the attack in Seoul was part of some kind of domestic power play, and might not have had the approval of the entire North Korean state. While the North Koreans themselves may or may not know better, internal factions may have decided that the truth of the matter is irrelevant if they can successfully pin the blame on their opponents."

If Park dies, it'd be a good play—so good, everyone might try it. In the worst case, we may even see a civil war."

South Korea, April 2070.

I'm sorry to interrupt, Mami, you'll want to see this.

Mami smiled at the others in the room, politely turning her head to indicate that she was receiving a message. She could have kept it hidden, of course, but it was the little things that helped build trust. In this case, she was in a key meeting with representatives from Paju‐si, a city between Seoul and the DMZ, and she needed it to go well.

Then she frowned, listening to what Akari had to say. She glanced over at the two representatives, who looked back at her with curious looks. As was customary, communication was telepathic, which helped avoid language snafus.

We might as well all see this, then, Mami thought.

Pardon the interruption, she thought. There's been an incident.

She slid open a panel on the side of the table and tapped in a few quick keystrokes. The screen at the end of the table snapped to life, shimmering briefly as its holographic features spun online.

"This is the scene in Seogang‐dong today," a female announcer said, as a drone camera panned over a pair of toppled residential towers, one of which had landed directly onto a major freeway. Cars, smoke, and helicopters circled the area.

It took Mami only a moment to place the location. Seogang‐dong was central Seoul.

"Witnesses say that there was a rumble, followed by a collapse of structures in the area. It does not appear to be a conventional explosion."

The screen shifted, switching to long‐range surveillance footage of a freeway crossing, with on‐ramps, residential towers, and a bridge in the background. A glaring green glow enveloped the screen, followed by an ominous rumbling. As the glare faded, there was just enough time to see a huge circular chunk missing from one of the freeways and the adjacent towers, as if someone had come through with a giant laser.

The video started over, and now it zoomed into part of the detonation, a large square region focusing on the edge of a pair of skyscrapers, gathered from a composite of civilian footage. The same green flash appeared, plumes of dust, concrete, and glass manifesting out of the buildings, before the blast wave swept through the frame, blowing furniture, glass, and people out into the air, including a few objects mosaic‐censored by the news agency. The tops of the buildings themselves began to topple.

Then dust overwhelmed the scene.

That's no ordinary explosive, Akari thought, having stepped into the doorway while the newscast was playing. This isn't MSY territory, so it took us a while to get news, but every magical girl within four kilometers felt it. They're still trying to get the status of the team in Seogang‐dong.

"This is obviously a great tragedy, and we have no idea about the casualties, which authorities fear number into the thousands," the announcer said. "But after the Songpa Incident, the immediate question—"

"I want you to know, this had nothing to do with us," one of the two Paju‐si representatives said, placing her hand on the table and switching to accented, spoken Japanese. She was obviously shaken. "We came here to negotiate. There's no way we would try something like this."

I wouldn't rush to judgment like that, Mami thought. You would hardly be the prime suspects anyway.

Though we can't rule them out just because they claim innocence, Mami thought, at Akari. Hard to think they're lying, though. They don't feel like it at all.

Agreed, Akari thought.

Mami had to resist the urge to try to read their minds. It would have been a major breach of trust and her own beliefs. More practically, she wasn't sure she was good enough to avoid being caught.

She did glean a bit of surface emotions, superficially traceable. They seemed as distraught as one might expect.

My apologies, she thought, standing and bowing to the Paju‐si representatives. I must request we postpone our meeting, given current events. If you can stay in the city a bit longer, my associates will set up a new one. Of course, your lodging costs will be covered.

Of course we'll stay, one of the representatives thought. I think the terms of our discussion might be about to change anyway.

Hiding a grimace, Mami turned to leave the room, Akari in tow.

"We have to get over there," Mami said, stating the obvious. "Offer whatever teams we have for forensics. I'm sure the locals will want to know just as badly as we do."

Negotiating with the local magical girls wasn't quite as straightforward as Mami predicted. The situation was as chaotic as one might expect, with many of the locals opting to hunker down, and some of those who remained in no mood to allow outsiders in what was now a demon‐filled hunting zone.

What sealed it in the end was the reappearance of part of the original Seogang‐dong team—to be precise, one member of the team, who had been dug unconscious out of the ruins by a mundane rescue team. Waking up with what would have been crippling injuries to a mundane human, she had slipped away from the medical staff and taken herself straight to one of the local councils, screaming with accusations against another of the local teams, one she claimed had always been at their throats.

They denied being involved, of course, but no one could really prove anything either way.

And so, after precious hours had been wasted, the council had finally called the MSY, who might have the expertise to untangle things.

A skilled soul mage was a useful thing to have in an investigative team, too, and so Akari found herself stepping out of a Special Task Force vehicle into the disaster zone.

In that moment she found herself regretting either her arrival, or her magical girl status. The air that slammed into her carried with it the scent of fire and destruction—something any human could smell—but also more exotic odorants. The smell of dead or burning flesh. Of fear and despair.

The visuals had not prepared her.

She gathered herself with an effort, following the map that laid itself out on her contacts, and the guidance of their National Intelligence Service contact. Their uniforms protected them from the inquiries of other officers on‐site, though they got plenty of curious looks.

Without any buildings or trees to screen them, they were exposed to the elements, the sun bearing down upon them, some of it gleaming off of pieces of glass buried in the rubble. Only part of the debris had been cleared, and their path took them near sharp exposed steel and uncomfortably unstable ridges of concrete.

"The explosive charge used, if it even was one, was highly unusual," the NIS officer said. "Preliminary modeling by specialized EERs suggests that the energy waveform was highly directed, almost linear. Not like a standard explosion. But it is a mystery how it could travel a short distance and abruptly terminate."

He held up a presentation device, above which hovered an animation of the event. It held itself impressively still even as they walked.

"Needless to say, our analysts are completely stumped. It's not clear if there's anyone capable of this, much less who it would be. Or why they would choose something like this rather than a simple bomb."

He put the device away.

"However, the decision has already been made to classify these kinds of details, to prevent potential panic or further instability. However, this puts us in an awful position. Without a culprit to blame, the public will go wild, and who can blame them? The pressure is on to blame someone."

He looked at Mami meaningfully. She sighed.

"No, we don't have a good candidate yet. We don't want to do North Korea again, but what other options are there? And if we blame nobody, that just means we let someone else choose for us."

"Right, well, I hope your investigation here gives you some better ideas," the officer said.

He stopped, peering into his contacts; the ground had been clear for a while now.

"We're here," he said. "This is ground zero, according to our models. Not where you'd expect it, based on where the casualties are, but it matches the camera footage too. The device could have also been above us, near the highway. Assuming it was a device."

He paused, giving Mami a look.

"Thanks for the help," Mami said. "We'll be alright from here."

He nodded, then took out a cigarette and lighter, stepping away from them. He looked pointedly off into the distance, ignoring activity that was no longer his business.

Mami and Akari took the cue, leaving him behind.

Much of the MSY team was already here, blending in with some of the other investigators processing the site. Here, at ground zero, there was no one left to rescue, so they could at least operate freely. As Mami watched, one of the girls guided a familiar disguised as a small drone to look for magic traces, while another conducted a scrying ritual behind a metal privacy screen, something that involved three glass bowls of water, a soul gem, and a large mirror.

The wind picked up clouds of dust, driving a barrage of particles into their faces, reminding them to stop standing around.

"Any progress?" Mami asked, stepping up to the privacy screen.

"Some," forensic investigator Inoue Yoko, Clairvoyant, said, without looking up. "This was a high‐impact event, so I was able to get a really good read, but all I've managed to do is confirm that the source arrived in an autocar, as was already expected. No occupants, but there was a backpack in the trunk, and the car was driving south. Unfortunately, the trail drops off rapidly moving backwards from there. We've requested a warrant for the car's logs. I was just about to try to get up into the air and see if I could get a better read."

"That tells us at least that this wasn't simply a girl detonating her soul gem in a suicide bombing," Mami said. "It's worthwhile progress, especially if the logs have something."

"It's only some progress, and we probably need to move fast," Yoko said, shaking her head. "It doesn't tell us who did this or why. But that's not everything the team has found. You should go talk to Ruiko over there, she found a couple of fragments of magical residue that might tell you something."

I meant it when I said it was progress, Mami thought to Akari, as they walked away. It might not be everything, but it might be enough information to rule out any of the local teams. I hate to sound like all I care about is the politics, but there are very few magical girls capable of building a free‐standing, high‐energy magical construct. Probably fewer than ten on the whole Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, two live in Seoul.

Ruiko saw them coming, and turned to show them what she had found, a few scraps of something charred beyond recognition that she had gathered in a plastic bag. Akari could tell their value instantly, though.

She took the plastic bag, holding it up to her own soul gem for a closer look, closing her eyes. It whispered to her, a simmering brew of magical scents. Two flavors were predominant—the all‐too‐familiar taste of corruption, a malaise that seeped into one's soul just feeling it, and the flavor of someone's magic, someone she didn't know.

There was something else, though, the faint whiff of another mage's magic. Two magical girls? And something about the whole arrangement struck her as somehow familiar—

She opened her eyes slowly, feeling a chill in her heart. She looked around.

"What is it?" Ruiko asked, seeing the look on her face.

"Do you have a microscope? Or something similar?" Akari asked.

Ruiko knelt, reaching into her bag for a field microscope, which Akari placed on a small piece of flat rubble.

Looking into it, she found what she didn't want to see.

Tiny flecks of something glassy embedded in a charred matrix, pulsing in her eyes with residual magic—no, residual soul. The mix of corruption she had been feeling resembled her own experiments with darkened soul gems, conducted on volunteers.

Another few hours, and the evidence would have been gone, she thought. There was only one likely candidate for the glassy substance.

"This is a shattered soul gem," she said, preferring not to look up from the scope. "There's also residual soul magic, from another magical girl. Given that we know there probably wasn't an embodied magical girl in the car, this suggests it was some kind of forced procedure, with the soul gem likely serving as the bomb's power source."

Ruiko started to say something, face shocked, but coughed on something instead.

I would have thought forcing a soul gem detonation on someone else was impossible, Akari added, only to Mami. Like how powers can't be taken without true consent. Perhaps this wasn't a soul gem detonation, but rather a bomb which stole the energy from the victim's soul gem, somehow.

The silence was long enough for Akari to look up, and see a pained emotion contort itself through Mami's face.

She felt terrible for not noticing earlier, but she couldn't just mind‐read Mami with other magical girls around—their relationship wasn't public.

"Is it enough for you to recognize who did it?" Mami asked, finally, voice strained.

"If I met them," Akari said, quietly, handing scope back to Ruiko. "I haven't met all the magical girls of Seoul. Now might be a good time to."

It was none of them, of course.

In a way, that was a relief. Akari had no interest in starting an internecine conflict within Seoul, nor did she want to meet the kind of person who could come up with the notion of a soul gem‐based terrorist attack.

But it was no relief to the sole survivor of the Seogang‐dong team, who had clearly, desperately, wanted the culprit to be one of her established enemies. Akari had seen it before. It would make everything so easy; it would put revenge right in front of her.

And then Mami had gone and slipped the girl an MHD counseling invite. And a hint that, now that she no longer had a team, the MSY might have a place for her. Mami had made it sound so natural, when it could have easily been extremely crass.

It didn't lessen Akari's discomfort, though. It was not quite what she had expected, seeing Mami's work up close.

Akari looked up from the desk she had been sleeping on, unsure what had pulled her out of her lull. Something—

Oh. It was a familiar soul gem signal. One of her research assistants, buried among the noise of the many soul gems in D&E's Seoul HQ. She had been supposed to arrive soon. But that wasn't for a while, it was still—

Nevermind, she thought, checking her lens clock and rubbing her eyes. She had been out for way too long. Her earlier call with her parents had really drained her.

The Seogang‐dong bombing was still unsolved, and the perpetrator had mailed in a letter claiming responsibility, denouncing the MSY as colonialist oppressors, and claiming they had intended to target the MSY to force them to pull out. The traces of magic on the letter verified its authenticity, but gave no other identifying details. Probably as intended.

It was disturbing, that a second anti‐MSY soul mage had emerged in as many years. Akari supposed there were few other lone magical girls who could attack the MSY and hope to escape the consequences, using other mages as a shield more effectively than telepaths ever could.

Akari almost wondered if the MSY had gotten something wrong, in its reaction to Seoyun and Songpa. But given the circumstances, what else could they even have done? The MSY was more open and generous than ever, now, but sometimes that just wasn't enough.

She said hello to Hina as she got closer, opening the door for her assistant as she arrived, guiding a self‐propelled trolley of equipment into the makeshift lab space.

Akari had set up shop in Seoul with two objectives. Her first was to try and find the Seogang‐dong Bomber through their magical wares. The local Council was quietly purchasing magical items off the trade markets and passing them along, relying on Akari to scan them for a familiar magic signature. Magical devices changed many hands before arriving in Seoul, but if the goal was to find the culprit, "follow the money" was as serviceable a rule for the Soul Guard as it was for the mundane police, provided you remembered that grief cubes could be used as money.

But they had no luck. It didn't help that nearly all persons of interest flatly declined any form of telepathic screening or verification.

So while that part of the investigation continued, Akari was going to begin studying the concept and design of soul gem bombs. It was work that felt a tad odious, but she understood the criticality—perhaps she could figure out how to detect one from a great range, or how to train others to do the same. Maybe she could even craft a scanner.

Hina returned her greeting, then began unpacking onto the lab bench. She extracted a customized spectrometer, a containment device, robotic grief cube manipulators, and an entire assortment of enchanted hand tools, impossibly precise and capable of working on magical items without destroying their properties.

"Mind sharing your thoughts on this new project?" Hina asked when she was finished unpacking. "I know it was a bit of a sensitive topic, but the idea of a bomb powered by an unwilling soul gem is… novel, if horrifying."

"Right, I had some thoughts," Akari said, gesturing Hina to pull up a chair.

"Magical or not, the idea behind every bomb is pretty much the same," Akari explained. "Dump as much energy as you can, as fast as you can. That's true even if the mechanism of action is exotic. Here it was just a giant beam of energy, so the analogy works fine."

"There's a lot of possibilities to work through," she continued. "If you were capable of draining a soul gem all at once into a magical device, that would be good enough, but we know from our own experiments that it's very hard to drain energy quickly, and you'd risk blowing the apparatus up before the reaction completed. A fizzle."

"It is the simplest approach, though. Everything else I can think of involves storing the magic outside the gem, at least temporarily. If you could do that, you could even think about extending the process by providing grief cubes to refuel the gem, for as long as you could sustain it, using the gem as an intermediary for the grief cubes. You might even be able to spike the magic you drained with the corruption you generated from draining it. Plus, you'll be ending with a critical soul gem, and if you could siphon even just a little of the energy that vanishes when those are shattered or disappear…"

"That's diabolical," Hina said, with a morbidly impressed look. "Some kind of grief‐based yield enhancement would perhaps explain the enhanced demon spawns we saw in the area afterward. Maybe—?"

"Maybe, but let's not jump to conclusions," Akari said. "That could easily just be all the suffering people. But it would correlate with the corruption I felt at the scene."

She leaned over, putting a hand to her forehead.

"There's too many variables unaccounted for. We don't know what happens if you involve full grief cubes in something like this, and whether corruption can contribute to a reaction. We don't even really know for sure that a critical soul gem can't simply be triggered to detonate without the girl's consent. All we really have for that is a sort of educated hope, partially based on Mikuni Oriko's notes on power stealing. Those say that trying to forcibly seize a soul just leads to the Law of Cycles taking it away."

"We have a lot of experiments to run," Hina said. "But some of the things we'd want to test… where would we ever get test subjects for something like that? We had a hard enough time recruiting near Mitakihara for light corruption studies. But here? And would we have to work with near‐critical soul gems? And explosive arrangements?"

"No, you're right," Akari said, raising her hand. "It'll be dangerous work. We'll have to be very, very careful. And I honestly can't in good faith do anything but do soul gem testing on ourselves. I know; I know. But I'll do it if you or Nao‐chan are not comfortable with that."

Hina just stared blankly at Akari for a few seconds, before blinking once, twice.

"Shit, alright," she said. "If we have to. We'll have to come up with some new safety protocols. And run it by the ethics board."

"I already started the process," Akari said.

She paused for a moment, hesitating.

"What?" Hina asked.

"Nothing," Akari said. "I just realized, I have to figure out how to tell Tomoe‐san."

"Promise me you'll be careful, then."

Mami clutched at Akari's hands, causing her to look away.

"Of course I'll be careful," she said. "I know it's dangerous."

She took a slow breath.

"But I'm trained on this kind of thing. And Nao‐chan doubles as a safety technician. We'll be fine."

"That's not the only thing I mean," Mami said, leaning forward. "I don't just mean protocol. The kind of work you're planning here is… it carries the whiff of something we're not really meant to touch."

Akari stared at Mami for a moment. Mami sent a packet of feelings: worry and unease.

"I know," Akari said. "We thought about that. Everyone who has seen the plan has a bad feeling about it, but… you can't always trust instincts. Sometimes it's worth it anyway."

There were statistical analyses showing that the mood of older magical girls was significantly better than chance at predicting when things would go poorly, and ways to perform cost‐benefit analysis around that. It was a whole research topic.

Akari saw Mami make a thin‐lipped expression, and added:

"Look, I know you're worried about my safety, but I need to do this. We both know this is important. We need to find the culprit, and prevent any further bombings."

Mami took a breath.

"You have someone reviewing your experimental protocol? Doing spot checks? Let me volunteer. I'm pretty old, so I should have better instincts than anyone. I can switch with anyone you have."

Akari bit back an immediate "no", realizing it was irrational. Mami was good at performing instinct‐based gut checks.

"I do already, and you have more important work, I'm sure," Akari said.

"Not more important than you," Mami said, straight‐faced.

There was brief telepathic exchange of feelings, and Akari felt herself blushing.

"Listen," Mami said. "It's about time I paid you back a little. I'm the one dragging you into all this mess with me, with the bombs and all that. It's been nice, having someone there when everything seems to come crashing down. Those of us at the top, the older ones, everyone expects we'll be ready and steady, because we've seen so much, and that's true. But the attrition gets to you, and the years just keep piling on, and—"

She stopped, putting a hand to her forehead.

"I got carried away a bit, but you know what I mean, I think. You keep saying, part of having a relationship is handling life's challenges together. If you're going to handle mine, I feel I should handle some of yours."

Akari wanted to argue, but she knew, could tell from the telepathic milieu, that she had already lost.

"You shouldn't feel bad about dragging me into this," she said. "It's what I wanted, too, and now my research actually has a practical use. I'm actually quite pleased by that, even if maybe I shouldn't be under the circumstances."

"Well, I do hope you enjoy it," Mami said. "Because I like having you here, and I would dread having to go back to working alone."

South Korea, May 2070.

It took a moment for the secure room equipment to spin up, time enough for Akari to smooth the front of her shirt and ponder what she would say one last time.

Then the face of Chitose Yuma snapped into existence on the panel in front of her, and her time was up.

They exchanged courtesies briefly, she, Yuma, and Mami, before settling into the topic of the meeting: Akari's study of the Seogang‐dong bomb.

"We've made considerable progress in determining what's possible," she said. "Unfortunately, the news is not good."

"It turns out the bomb designs we're considering are all likely to be possible. In our limited testing, nothing seems to prevent it. For obvious reasons, we won't be able to venture a full‐scale test."

She had prepared a few slides, and on the presentation screen to her left, she projected a few diagrams of various potential designs.

She glanced around: Mami's expression had turned to a serious frown, but Yuma was unreadable. Fair enough; the details of Akari's "limited testing" weren't important to Yuma in the same way they were to Mami.

"The bad news is, we still don't have a good way of defusing a bomb, at least not without the personal involvement of a soul mage," she said. "Some of the more basic bomb designs could be simply disconnected, or blown up, but anything more sophisticated would detonate if tampered with, and I suspect the bomb we already saw was of this type."

She played an animation of the bomb activating, and this time Yuma reacted, shaking her head unhappily.

"But you did say a soul mage could probably defuse it?" she asked.

"In‐person," Akari said. "I could probably do it. Probably. I could probably also instruct others on how to do so."

Yuma made an unhappy noise, leaning back in her chair.

"I've already written down a few protocols on the matter," Akari added.

"Soul mages aren't very common," Mami said. "Even if they were all trained, we wouldn't be able to get good security coverage."

"The better news is, we now know enough about the likely process to build a handheld detector," Akari said. "In the end, any bomb should just look like a peculiarly‐shaped cluster of magic. It wouldn't even be hard to train people to look for it; we have a few mimics to train on. The real hard part is detecting it at a far enough distance, especially with an enchanted device."

She paused, then when no one said anything, continued.

"Unfortunately, that's a real problem. Long‐range magical detection has been a topic of study for decades now, but previous applications have focused on trying to find hidden or distant magical girls. Still, we've been working with an enchanter from Osaka on making the necessary changes, and should be able to produce the requisite detectors soon. It will be time‐consuming, so it's not clear how many we'll be able to make. And it will be expensive, though I'm told the GKCY will be able to cover it."

"For the duration of the crisis, yes," Mami said, clasping her hands. "Logistics approved a stretch cube allocation, and I'm sure we could ask for more if needed."

"Less than a solution at best," Yuma said, still frowning. "Not enough people to defuse anything, and everything else is too slow."

Yuma shook her head, shifting restlessly in her chair, and Akari sighed, closing her presentation. Yuma was right, but that was the unhappy truth.

"Well, that's good work at least," Yuma said. "Let's—"

Akari blinked as the stream seemed to freeze. She almost asked, then realized that Yuma had frozen, stopping mid‐sentence to stare at something in the middle distance, probably on her contacts.

"Is something the matter?" she asked.

"There's been a security incident in Mitakihara," Yuma said.

She looked through the screen at Mami, and Akari turned her head, realizing Mami had been just as frozen.

"It was in Mitakihara‐Kazamino International Airport," she added. Her tone was even, but just a tiny bit rushed—the tone of someone trying to report dire events calmly. "A group of high schoolers, new contractees, about a dozen or so, collapsed onto the ground right in the middle of the terminal. They had been on an MSY‐sponsored trip."

Akari clasped her hands to her mouth.

"An attack? Are they alright?"

"They're fine," Mami said. "They woke up after less than a minute, but obviously it made the news and they had to consent to medical screening. More important than any of that, they say they had a magically‐induced nightmare."

Yuma pulled out a tablet and tapped impatiently at it, her face working through a series of expressions.

"A voice trying to speak to them, a girl being tortured, someone asking them to save their friend—the only consistent part, the one they all share, is an experience of being overtaken by a large, rapidly‐expanding explosion while inside Mitakihara's airport. One that looks initially like a high‐energy vertical beam."

Mami shook her head.

"The similarity is obvious," she said.

Akari clenched her teeth briefly.

"Is the vision some kind of threat?" she asked. "Trying to demand something?"

"Probably not," Yuma said. "More like a warning, the girls say. What clairvoyants we have are converging on the area. Preliminary reports suggest it should be taken seriously, that whatever is going to happen will happen soon. Though whether that means tomorrow, two weeks, or two months from now is tough to say. Which means we have to prepare like there might be an attack right now."

Mami stood up abruptly, face tense.

"If we flew back to Mitakihara right away," Mami said, leaning in towards Akari, palms flat on the table. "Do you think you could make a difference?"

Akari looked back into Mami's pupils, feeling a thousand butterflies fill her stomach. Make a difference? Did she dare say it?

What is the honest answer? she thought.

She swallowed.

"Yes, I think so," she said. "We'll need a bit of time to scramble a response, me and uh, my assistants. But it's incumbent on us to try."

Mami stood back up.

"Okay," she said.

They booked the first commercial flight they could out to Kazamino, getting onto a plane only two hours later.

That was as fast as could be achieved in the circumstances—they didn't have any private jets stationed in South Korea—but the wait still drove Akari up a wall, her mood alternating between unbearable and delirious anticipation. They breezed through security, but it made no difference, because they still had to wait for boarding.

Mami noticed, of course, and admonished her to calm down, even though Mami looked a bit impatient herself.

Eventually, she found a way to settle down, working through detection and neutralization protocols in her head until their plane arrived at the gate and she could scan it for any bombs.

They would have to similarly screen arriving planes in Mitakihara as much as possible, as well as scan the perimeter of the airport itself. They could have drones in the air, and try to have agents on as many planes as possible, but was it possible to build so many detectors so quickly?

They'd have to find out.

"Akari, you'll want to see this," Mami said, tapping her on the shoulder.

"Ah, okay, what?" she said, startled out of her reverie. She had been unsuccessfully trying to watch a documentary on her laptop, trying to take her mind somewhere else.

Mami gestured at her own tablet, which was frozen on a still of a newscaster talking about Korea. Mami liked to watch the news, a kind of white noise while she thought about the MSY's problems.

Akari connected her earpiece and Mami tapped the replay button. The video started over, beginning with a "Breaking News" banner that spun across the screen, and followed by the frowning face of a female anchor.

"The North Korean government has released a statement acknowledging for the first time a role in the terrorist attacks within the South Korean capital of Seoul, including both the Songpa Incident and the recent Seogang‐dong bombing. The statement blames the attacks on rogue elements in the North Korean military, naming in particular General Lee Won‐Sik as the leader of a band of traitorous insurgents. In the statement, the government pledges to purge the traitors immediately."

"While the South Korean government has yet to assign responsibility for the Seogang‐dong bombing, this statement appears to confirm widespread speculation about North Korean involvement. Moreover, the statement dramatically escalates what appears to be an internal power struggle involving General Lee Won‐Sik, whose Second and Third Corps controls a major peninsula southwest of Pyongyang. Reports of combat in the region remain unsubstantiated."

"In a response to the press, embattled South Korean Prime Minister Lee Chung‐Ho expressed skepticism about the claims:"

"Claims by this nefarious government are not to be trusted, and this statement could easily be an attempt to evade responsibility for their evil attacks of late. Lee Won‐Sik could be involved, or he could be an inconvenient general to purge. Until evidence is presented, we must assume their responsibility, and I call upon the international community to continue efforts at providing the maximum possible punishment."

Things are already going sideways, Mami thought, pausing the video. Can you imagine what an explosion at Mitakihara Airport would do? We could be looking at war, against a nuclear power.

Mami, with all due respect, telling me this isn't exactly making me less anxious, Akari thought.

No, listen, what if it's all connected? Mami thought. North Korea is a black box to us too, but there's no way the girls over there haven't gotten control of something. The instability we're causing—it's spreading north. Maybe the North Korean government, or some faction in it, really is responsible for the Seogang‐dong bombing.

If that's true, what have I gotten myself into? Akari thought, narrowly managing to avoid relaying the thought to Mami. Not that Mami wouldn't hear it anyway, but the difference in intent mattered.

It could just be a natural response to events, Akari thought, instead. But if the bombing was by North Korea, what does that mean for us? What can we do about that?

Redouble our efforts at negotiation, maybe, Mami thought, clasping her hands together below her chin, staring into the seat in front of her. I'm sure there are girls in North Korea who would leap at the chance for the peace and prosperity the MSY can provide, if we could just explain it to them.

Akari frowned and leaned back into her seat, switching her laptop back to the protocol document she was working on. She could hear what Mami was thinking to herself, worrying about the political implications of the crisis, worrying that it might reinvigorate the Japanists and grind MSY expansion to a halt, especially if they failed to prevent an attack on Mitakihara itself.

Was this the way she was going to make a difference?

Japan, May 2070.

By the time they landed, they could feel magical girls scattered through the airport, and a team of mundane and magical escorts waited for them to deplane, guiding them politely towards the terminal's administrative offices, much to Akari's chagrin. It looked almost like they were being apprehended.

It wasn't surprising that they would be setting to work immediately, but something about this seemed even more tense than they had expected.

"I admit the show of force was probably a bit much," Yuma said, greeting Mami and Akari just inside the security doors. "It's unlikely any terrorist would even know to target you. But this isn't the time to take chances."

"Has something happened?" Mami asked, as they broke into a brisk walk behind Yuma. "I didn't expect to see you here in person."

"Not just me," Yuma said, as she pushed open the door to an office.

Akari startled as a small constellation of soul gems seemed to appear in front of them, concealed by someone's magic.

Her shock doubled when she realized just who she was seeing in front of her. A fair chunk of the MSY's senior leadership had turned out. Like Kuroi Kana, new head of the Soul Guard, or Chiyo Rika, Speaker of the Rules Committee. Or Akemi Homura, First Executive.

"With this kind of turnout, something big has happened," Mami said, looking around the small conference table. "Is it really safe to have everyone here?"

"We have an emergency teleport and barrier generators if needed," Kana said. "And if the explosion is big enough… well, it's not practical to evacuate the city."

The city? Akari thought, directing the thought at Mami too.

"If we tried to evacuate only the MSY and its affiliates, the news would most certainly leak," Rika said. "In any case, Sakura‐san is on the maglev to Hokkaido. That'll do."

They were given a few moments to settle in, as Yuma handed them some water and snacks.

"Akiyama‐san here is currently our foremost expert on the 'energy gap' problem," Homura said, gesturing at Akari. "Arguably our only expert, since we only reopened investigation into the topic recently. Let's talk about the news, Kana. No need to waste any more time."

"Right," Kana said, tapping the table. A projection appeared on the screen at the end of the room: what appeared to be a multi‐page document, with diagrams.

"We've received a new threat from the same source that claimed responsibility for the Seogang‐dong bombings," she said. "The manifesto part of it is the kind of stuff you'd expect. We're the evil foreigner imperialists, here to subjugate their country, this is our punishment. Even a charming reference to Hiroshima."

"More importantly, they're promising an attack on Japanese soil very soon, though they don't specify where. Without any other lead, we have to assume a high chance that'll be at this airport, and it'll be within days."

"But the reason we called you here is that they're claiming that they've found a way to unleash 'all of the real energy from a soul gem', and that it would have the yield of a thermonuclear weapon. As evidence, they even included a design, asking us to have our scientists verify. They claim they'll hold off if we publicly accede to their demand to leave Korea entirely."

"So, we need to know if it's really possible," Yuma said, looking at Akari, who had already been handed a paper copy of the threat. "Obviously, it will take you some time to look through, but we'd like any initial assessment you could give."

Akari swallowed to get rid of the tight ball of tension in her throat.

"Right, prima facie, it's not entirely impossible," she said. "Our—our experiments have already shown that under the right conditions, trace amounts of magic can be induced to produce enormous amounts of energy. We also know that the ratio of energy to magic jumps upward almost asymptotically in critical soul gems. Frankly—and this is in the notes we submitted to the Committee—it's hard to understand why failing soul gems don't explode cataclysmically. We still don't have a satisfying explanation. Our best theory was that the Incubators are doing us a favor by suppressing this result, but they deny it on direct questioning."

Akari ducked her head.

"Sorry for rambling a bit. At a glance, this device seems designed to keep a soul gem near critical, so it seems likely whoever these people are, they've reached a similar conclusion. But I have no idea if they can do what they claim. I'd need time to read."

"So it is possible," Yuma said.

"Potentially possible," Akari said.

"But likely?" Yuma asked.

Akari took a long moment, painfully aware of the significance of the answer.

"No, not very likely," she said finally. "As I said, empirically these kinds of energy releases don't happen. I'd give it perhaps a twenty percent chance."

Yuma released a breath. Was it relief? Or something else?

"I wish it were zero. I hope at least that the airport vision was authentic. If it is, it's a huge blessing, since it at least lets us know what to prepare for. But really, there's limits to what we can do. We can try to keep the bomb from going off, but beyond that…"

She shook her head.

"We have plans for an MSY evacuation of the city, for members and their families. A Condition Four scenario, it's called. But even preparing for that would be enormously disruptive and couldn't be concealed. Without a more certain threat, it would be irresponsible to do anything more than get a few things ready, not with the risk of provoking a war with North Korea on the table. But it does not sit right with me."

She looked at Homura, who nodded in agreement.

"We've talked to the airport, at least. As far as they're concerned, there's been a terrorist threat, and they need to be ready to evacuate the airport, and it's easy to keep our people out of the airport. Hopefully, Akiyama‐san is right, and that's all that's necessary."

There was a moment of silence while everyone considered what happened if they—if Akari—got this wrong. Akari swallowed nauseatedly. She could not be wrong today.

"I want to be clear," Homura said, casting her eyes towards her. "I personally don't think a nuke‐like device is possible. I don't think this is the kind of energy anyone is really capable of releasing. But if you manage to get any greater certainty, we need to know."

Akari hid a grimace.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But we just don't have the theoretical understanding to say for sure either way. I'm not sure even the Incubators know better."

"They don't know better," Yuma said, even as Akari started to say they should ask. "The first thing we did was ask. They did say no one has ever done it before, but that's not really saying anything."

"I'm sorry then," Akari repeated, shaking her head. "I'm going to need time to consult with the rest of the lab to be sure, but the problem is, critical soul gems are not easy to study, for obvious reasons. We'd need to conduct more extreme experiments."

"There's no time for that," Yuma said, a sharp look in her eyes. "Not right now. These people have already shown they can make a plenty big bomb, whatever their claims. Investigate what you can, Akiyama‐san, but the highest priority is making sure no bombs make it to this airport. You should get to work."

There was another silence, and when it became clear the meeting was over, Akari and Mami stood to leave.

"We may call you back later, after the crisis," Rika said. "We need to assess whether broader security measures are called for. That might mean legislative work."

Mami nodded, and then they headed for the door.

With a good deal of coaxing, the clairvoyants were able to extract a bit more information: whatever was going to happen was probably arriving by plane, probably from the Korean peninsula. Probably.

The lack of certainty was maddening, but there was nothing they could do but try to cover every possibility they could.

Kana and Mami were left to secure the area, setting up a command center in a large maintenance area. Mami worked on setting up a ring of patrols around the airport, both land and air, coordinating with her old colleagues in the Soul Guard in a room filled with diagrams, tables, and guidelines.

It was a full‐scale effort—their contacts within the various airlines arranged to place their agents onto the regular flights into Mitakihara airport, and they bought tickets on the airlines they couldn't influence. Yuma reached out to their contacts in the Japanese government to lay groundwork for a potential city‐wide evacuation.

Akari wasn't directly involved in coordinating any of that. Instead, she focused on the nuts and bolts, instructing the enchanters on the crafting of bomb detection devices, and the patrol squads on manual detection.

The work, the tension, the chaos—it all wore on her. The techniques they thought they had proven in the laboratory proved maddeningly difficult to teach—magic was finicky and personalized, and they had not been prepared to train others on such short notice. The patrols they sent out were poor at spotting their test fakes, and the detectors their enchanters built equally bad. They simply weren't ready, and so she barely even slept, using magic to keep herself functional.

And all of that was without even considering the real central tension in Akari's mind—they still didn't have a way to reliably defuse a soul gem bomb, not without Akari's involvement, and certainly not at range. This meant that if they didn't detect an approaching bomb soon enough, it was possible they might as well not have detected it at all.

The last four days had been a mad, caffeine and anti‐sleep‐magic‐filled ordeal, spent entirely in the airport. Akari hadn't had time to look in a mirror, but she was sure she looked awful.

"Is it always like this?" she asked Mami, as they stood on the tarmac at the end of a patrol around the airport.

"The tension?" Mami asked.

"And the chaos, and the fact that we might die at any time, and it will be my fault," Akari said. "And the fact that everything is barely working. I don't just mean the detection rates. I stuck my head into your room earlier. It was awful."

"Sometimes," Mami said. "But not usually. We've never tried to do anything like this. At least not on this scale."

Mami looked fresh, her eyes bright, and if it hadn't been for their telepathic connection Akari would have had no idea it was just a very effective front. How was she managing that?

Mami caught that thought from her and nodded slightly, blinking up at the morning sun. They had decided that if someone was going to attack, it would probably be midday, when the airport was busiest.

"You'll learn," Mami said. "If we keep doing this. Having you here makes it better, gives me something to look forward to."

She reached out and took Akari's hand, and Akari nodded.

"I think it's alright, as long as you're here."

They looked at each other, and then Mami pecked her on the cheek.

"Wouldn't want to cause too much of a scandal," Mami said. "Come on. Let's get some ice cream from the vending machines."

"Positive signal on KAL Flight 1150, bearing zero‐three‐two, range 10 miles. All personnel move to respond. Repeat, positive signal on KAL Flight 1150…"

Akari stopped listening to their conversation, jamming the last of her cone into her mouth. That was a mistake—the surge of electric tension pulsing through her caused her to almost choke on it.

KAL 1150? They had a magical girl on that flight! How had anything gotten so close?

Potential answers snapped into her mind: not everyone they had trained was good at detecting their mock bombs, which themselves were just guesses about how the real bombs worked. If they were wrong—

She cut off the intrusive thought as she and Mami ran towards the back rooms.

"Flight 1150 has been redirected, yes ma'am," the voice on the radio was saying. "It's being sent to flight level 100 and will be holding over the Pacific."

"Make sure that the pilot is given the right cover story," Mami replied. "Remember we have to keep the passengers in the dark to give us time to evacuate the airport."

That way, if they failed—if the bomb went off—the loss would hopefully be confined to just one plane.

Akari nervously wiped her hands on her pants. I'm not ready, she thought, the worry emerging automatically from the pit of her stomach where she kept her fears.

She swallowed it. She had no choice. There was still only one person who stood a good chance of defusing the bomb.

The teleporter, Watanabe Tomi, appeared next to her in a puff of smoke, a stern‐faced Soul Guard veteran who nonetheless only came up to Akari's shoulder. Next to her was another girl, Yoshida Erika, whose main power was slowing time. Dressed similarly, with identical short‐cropped hair, they made Akari feel painfully out of place.

"Let's go," Tomi said, placing her hand on Akari's shoulder.

They had practiced three times in the days before. If the bomb was close enough for the maneuver to be performed, Tomi would teleport her to the bomb as quickly as possible, using a magically‐enhanced spotter in the control tower to help aim if a plane was involved. With Erika's help, Akari would assess the situation and determine what to do. Very likely, the answer would be for Tomi to send the entire bomb apparatus as far as she could over the ocean—but if Akari could defuse the bomb and save the apparatus, they would gain valuable intel.

There was no time left to think. Akari gritted her teeth as the sky, Mami, and airport swirled away into the smoke.

Akari found herself blinking at the grey metal of an airplane cabin door, nearly elbow to elbow with a uniformed flight attendant, nearly frozen in time pulling something out of the in‐plane microwave. She could only barely perceive the tray creeping outward slowly, and it would be a while yet before the attendant noticed her presence.

She swallowed. She would have much preferred the bomb be in the cargo hold, where they wouldn't have had to operate around mundanes, but at least Erika's field gave them a certain kind of stealth.

She already sensed the device, its signature obvious despite a layer of magic draped on top in an obvious attempt at concealment. How had anyone missed this?

Grimly, she pushed her way forward, moving aside a passenger waiting for the bathroom—carefully, to avoid catastrophic injury—and making her way into the aisles. The bomb might already be in the initial phases of detonation.

Their agent on the plane, Kobayashi Ume, was on her way too, Erika registering her quickly as an ally and soon immune to the time slow.

Ume pointed at where she thought the bomb was, but Akari didn't need the gesture. In the eerie silence of frozen passengers and too‐thick air, it shone like a beacon.

But something else was happening—a girl in an aisle seat started to stand. She looked like she was standing normally, maybe a little cramped by the chair and the passenger next to her—but in slowed time that implied a phenomenal, inhuman speed.

Akari picked up the soul gem reading a fraction of a second later, even as Ume jumped over to restrain her.

The girl put up a struggle, but Ume was much, much faster, and had her limbs pinned behind her almost immediately, though Ume just barely avoided smashing into a passenger's head. Instead, they lurched into an empty aisle seat, which shuddered and began to crack.

Akari sought out the soul gem. She hadn't expected this—why did the terrorists let the victim stay embodied this time? Was she a true suicide bomber, was that necessary, to access the full energy of the soul? There was no telling what a magical girl could do, even slowed down, but where was her soul gem? Not on the hand, not in any of the usual places. It was under the seat, in her bag—

She froze even as she bent over for it.

No. No.

She could feel the ignition sequence starting, and she lunged for the bag, heedless for a moment, churning her own magic outward. She had thought about this, practiced this. The time‐slowing field gave her some room to operate, but not a lot—explosions were fast.

The easiest thing would have been to smash the soul gem, and for a split‐second she considered the idea, but then—

Once she got past the concealment magic, it was obvious. The foreign magic was everywhere, its threads weaving through the gem far more insidiously than anything Seoyun had done. Was that an entire piece of someone else's soul?

Should I teleport it? Tomi thought. It's already—

She's being controlled, she thought. We can't just kill her. I have to try.

Could she pull the soul gem out of the device? Could Tomi teleport it out? No, it was too intertwined now. The magic was everywhere inside the gem, it could shatter the gem to remove it. The design of the device was just as the terrorists had promised, the full grief cubes alone made the use of any magic dangerous—

No, get a grip of yourself, she thought. You need to release the charge.

But release the charge where? She had expected that if she was this late, she would abort to teleport. But then—

There's no time, Tomi thought, strain in her thoughts. I know she's being controlled, but—

The fabric of the black backpack swelled like a horrible balloon, threads starting to tear, an eerie purple light bleeding out from between the threads.

Akari ignored it, reaching her hand into the light, ignoring the pain and heat as it began to scorch her skin to attempt to connect with the soul gem inside.

She blinked away tears from the pain. Not the physical pain—it was just a hand—but of the memories from the soul she was in contact with. Memories and emotions that hovered at the edge of perception as she dove in, deeper and deeper. What had been done to her? What kind of monster—

Teleport me with her, Akari thought, gritting her teeth. I can fizzle this. I just have to route it through my own gem. I can—

Instead, Tomi grabbed her arm, wrenching it away, her hand bloody and blistered, emitting a pale pink light.

No don't—!

There's no time!

Akari felt a piercing pain as the bag vanished, disappearing in a puff of smoke. The plane itself vanished a moment later, as they teleported out to the airport.

Many seconds later, a crackling, ominous roar sounded in the distance. The bomb had gone off somewhere over the ocean.

Akari looked down at her hand. Where was her—where was the girl's soul gem? She was sure she had it, but…

Rage bubbled up inside Akari.

"Do you know what you just did?" she seethed, suddenly lunging at Tomi, trying to grab her with her uninjured hand.

Tomi dodged and snatched Akari's hand by the wrist. She sucked in a breath, and they stood there for a long moment.

"I saved our lives," Tomi said. "Or your life, at least. There was no way that was going to work out."

Tomi's voice shook with tension, fear, pain.

Mami appeared at their side, interposing herself between the two of them. The message was clear, and a moment later Tomi dropped Akari's hand.

Akari tried to swallow her emotion, focusing briefly on Mami's ribbons, which now covered Akari's injured hand. A wave of comforting warmth passed through it, and she felt it healing.

Akari looked past Mami then, and saw Erika placing the girl's body on the ground. Moments away from life, she looked pristine, as if she were taking a nap.

Akari felt herself going limp.

"Threat is neutralized," Erika said over the radio. "Bomb teleported over ocean, under fallback protocol. Please send teams…"

Akari let herself fall, allowing Mami to catch her weight.

The only way she avoided crying was by replaying the bomb defusal over and over in her mind. But no matter what she tried, it refused to come out any differently.

You saved a lot of lives, Mami thought, in calming telepathy. Both of you. You have to hold onto that.

She paused.

You did well.

South Korea, May 2070.

If only had that been the end of it.

"That's the part I can't stand," Akari said, gesturing at the viewscreen. "All of this coverage is so positive, like we did everything perfectly. But it wasn't perfect. She didn't make it."

Akari shook her head, feeling the woman's eyes on her: Atsuko Arisu, one of the original MHD psychiatrists, and also Akari's boss, once upon a time. She was warm, understanding, professional, and on the in with the MSY leadership, for whatever that was worth. Mami had recommended her, not that Akari needed the recommendation.

Arisu was also conveniently in Seoul, as part of a special goodwill delegation.

"It's normal to feel that way," Arisu said, peering through her cosmetic glasses. "It's even got a name, as we've been discussing. I won't belabor the point by saying what you already know. Just, you're not doing anything wrong if you just avoid the coverage. You don't have to pay attention to all that."

"Don't I?" Akari asked, looking up at her. "Isn't it part of my job to know about all that? The politics matter. Mami can't protect me from everything."

None of it sat right with her. The wheel never stopped turning, and everyone in Mitakihara had rushed to politicize what had happened, from the administration lauding the "succcess" of the Soul Guard and proposing handing out decorations, all the way to the Japanists taking to the air with their smug I‐told‐you‐so's. Even Mami had gotten in on it.

She had asked Mami to keep her out of the official reports, and let Tomi become the hero of the hour. It was only fair, she reasoned.

Mami had obliged.

"Most of that isn't your job at all," Arisu said, shaking her head. "Not if it's getting to you like this. What matters is what you know to be true. You know the Park Tae‐hyun who died there, and it's up to you to honor and remember her."

Arisu was right, of course. Everything she said was perfectly logical. Akari felt stupid, being so unhappy over what was, inarguably, the most good she had done for the world in her entire life.

And even beyond her personal involvement, practically everything had worked out. The bomb had failed, the energy beam abruptly cutting off before exceeding the power of the one in Seogang‐dong. The incident had been kept off the mundane news, written off as a classified weapons test gone awry. And North Korea had even begun accepting diplomatic overtures—apparently they had captured and executed the general they had pinned Songpa and Seogang‐dong on.

The worst part was, Akari knew exactly why she was being so unreasonable. It was her own fault. She had thrown herself too recklessly into Tae‐hyun's soul trying to fizzle the bomb. She had formed a deep, personal connection with her, if only for a moment, and now couldn't get over her death.

Akari had learned from her time in the MHD all the established techniques for distancing yourself from your patients' minds, but they were meant for telepaths, not soul mages. Honestly, she was too far gone to even want to try.

If that were all it took to sever a connection between souls, she wouldn't be dating Mami right now.

"I know," Arisu said, grabbing one of her hands. "But promise me you'll try, okay? And come back here if it all gets too much for you. Remember: only work‐related stuff. Unless Mami‐san tells you otherwise."

Akari nodded. She had to try.

They said their goodbyes, and she took a deep breath as she stepped out of the impromptu office, casting her eyes out the window at the Seoul skyline, trying to focus on the work she had to get done.

Here in Seoul, the Council had asked for her expertise, had wanted her input on their new security measures. That was her business, whether it stressed her out or not.

And then there were the memories Akari had extracted from Tae‐hyun's soul gem—information that could be critical for the investigation. Memories that were painful to look at, that Akari felt almost obligated to look at, even aside from the investigation. Who else would remember?

She took another breath, steeling herself, and headed for the elevators.

From here, it would be forty minutes through the city, more with traffic. It would have been faster to transform and go on foot, but that was a bad idea outside formal MSY territory, and doubly so now—the Seoul Council had placed the city on high alert, with patrols watching for unknown magical girls. Non‐resident magical girls were requested to restrict themselves to mundane travel to avoid false alarms.

The Seoul Council, and by extension most of the magical girls of Seoul, held "associate" status with the MSY now. Often associate groups immediately applied for full membership, but the Council had so far been content to enjoy benefits of association without pursuing a more politically‐fraught full integration. The Songpa incident, and Korea's long distrust of Japanese influence, made that proposition controversial.

Akari had hoped to nap during her ride, and not have to think about such things, but her chauffeur turned out to be very talkative. A TNC with a magical girl daughter, one of several in the outskirts of Seoul that had joined the MSY outright, he was eager for reassurances that the various rumors he had heard were false: that the MSY would halt or even reverse expansion in Korea, that the MSY would start a war with North Korea, that Seoyun herself was somehow still alive and responsible for the latest bombings.

Akari didn't think she managed to be entirely reassuring. For one thing, Seoyun was still alive, though only a few in the Seoul Council, or anywhere else, knew that truth. Akari found herself wondering what Seoyun would have thought of all this, had she not been Reformatted by Arisu.

Finally, she reached her destination, a high‐end restaurant owned by one of the magical girls of the city, the private rooms lent to the Council for its meetings.

Akari looked around as she escaped her chauffeur—magical signals crowded the rooftops, an abnormally high level of security. She could also sense a more familiar, comforting signal: Mami, waiting for her just inside.

Mami greeted her warmly when she entered, telepathically checking up on her at the same time. Akari did the same—it really couldn't be said just how much it helped, not permanently keeping all your stresses and worries and frustrations to yourself.

If Mami hadn't picked up mind‐reading, this whole Tae‐hyun matter might have strained their relationship. As it was, the damage was largely limited to Akari's own mental health.

A waiter showed them past noisy tables full of food and alcohol, up a flight of stairs, and behind a pair of heavy wooden doors. There, a roundtable of girls—mostly in their late teens and early twenties, and not just by appearance—sat in session.

Mami and Akari bowed politely, then took a pair of proffered seats.

Let's get right to business, one of the older girls thought. I will speak for the Council. We've read the report your organization submitted to us. It is based on the word of this soul mage?

They used telepathy to bypass issues of translation, even if Akari and Mami both understood Korean well enough.

Yes, this is Akiyama Akari, Mami thought. You'll recall her involvement in the incident with Seoyun.

The details you provide here are very disturbing, Doctor. We knew Park Tae‐hyun was missing. We did not know these other details.

Akari swallowed. Those "other" details included memories of capture, coercive soul adjustment, memory wipes, and being turned into a living bomb module. The dry words she had written into the report did it no justice.

I stand by these words, Akari thought. It is unpleasant for me, but I retrieved these details from her soul gem on the plane. She did not deserve what she went through.

Indeed she didn't. No one does. She was not part of our agreement organization, but we still respect the welfare of our colleagues along the border. This incident has struck fear in all of us.

Tae‐hyun had been part of a small team operating near the DMZ, and had been reported missing a few weeks ago. Even in that chaotic region, this kind of unexplained disappearance was rare, and it had contributed to unease among the locals.

One of the other girls leaned forward, looking rather young for her position.

We've already done what we can in the city, and we've asked everyone to register their phones for GPS tracking, but our influence does not extend beyond the city. A more permanent solution is needed for these terrorists, and we want to know what you have to offer.

Akari glanced at Mami, who nodded slightly.

What we're offering is to take care of the problem directly, Akari thought. We have operatives who are ready to deploy and eliminate the threat, even if it turns out to be past the DMZ. We just need your cooperation in tracking them down. I have some of Tae‐hyun‐san's memories, and I believe I can help.

In addition, Mami added. We have teams that can offer training on detecting this kind of corruption, and with your approval, we can deploy some additional security throughout the city. That will improve your defenses, even if it doesn't solve the problem.

The Council turned to look at each other, clearly engaged in some kind of telepathic conversation.

You will have our cooperation in eliminating the threat, but we do not agree to this other offer, the older girl thought. You presume too much. We will take care of our own security.

This was a predictable response, and Mami hesitated for only a moment before bowing slightly.

I understand, she said. It wasn't my intent to offend.

Good hunting, the Council thought. We'll be watching.

Tae‐hyun and her two teammates controlled a territory that ran right up against the DMZ. That could have meant a dangerous, closely‐monitored life—some stretches of the DMZ were bitterly contested, often by networks of cooperating teams which could brook no challenges to their authority or intrusions into their territory.

But Tae‐hyun's group saw almost none of the fighting. Both sides of their border were rural and sparsely populated, and neither side could risk provoking the other. Instead, they maintained a long‐standing truce, staying strictly on their respective sides of the border, with the occasional cooperation on cross‐border spawns. Thus, they lived relatively peacefully, with routine hunts and regular trade with other groups.

It was this peace and predictability that had led to tragedy. Tae‐hyun had stayed behind from a regular trading trip, busy helping with her grandmother's funeral, and then had disappeared. It turned out, Tae‐hyun was a perfect target; all it took was a single suspiciously‐timed event to make her totally vulnerable.

Neither Tae‐hyun's team nor her family had seen anything useful, and the local mundane police had turned up even less. Tae‐hyun had gone to bed one day and simply not been there in the morning, only to turn up on a plane landing in Mitakihara with a soul gem ready to explode.

How had a missing teenager successfully booked a ticket and boarded a flight without being detected? Fake IDs, false passports, evading surveillance and pattern detectors—none of that was in Tae‐hyun's mundane or magical skillsets. Someone had to have helped her.

For a while, this was their only real lead, and they had been forced to search for those who could have helped her, both mundane and magical. Those were not to be found in Tae‐hyun's home region, but in the messy and secretive world elsewhere around the DMZ, a world they knew little about.

They negotiated for interviews with suspect after suspect with limited success, and for weeks they had seemed stuck, a period in which frustration started to hit everyone involved. Mami was constantly under pressure to leave Korea—both to help manage political fallout back home in Japan, and to reassure various new and prospective MSY members abroad—and Akari began to doubt her own place here. Were they going to fail? Despite what she had wished for?

Through it all was also the constant fear of another attack. Even if the terrorists' nuclear‐scale design had failed, it was plausible they would attempt another bombing, rather than go to ground. Many days passed developing improved detection schemes, and experimenting further, trying to understand just why the bomb had failed. Had it only been because Tae‐hyun had been coerced?

Eventually—thankfully, finally—they made a breakthrough. One of the magical girls they interviewed carried not just the telltale signs of a memory wipe, but also magic traces Akari recognized from the bomb—the girl had been manipulated by the same soul mage into helping get Tae‐hyun onto the plane.

They pieced it all together then, between her memories and Tae‐hyun's. The evidence was not straightforward—a mishmash of details about how they had traveled and where they had passed and what weather they had seen, all input into an advanced inference machine—but just one city fit all the details, one that also happened to contain an enchanter's enclave, located only a couple dozen kilometers into North Korea, though a surprising one hundred kilometers west of Tae‐hyun's territory, beyond the western edge of South Korea itself.

From there, they were able to obtain an enchanted throwing spear sourced from the enclave. It bore no magical traces of their target soul mage, but the enchantment style could be fingerprinted by their enchantment expert in Osaka, and a reexamining of previously‐obtained devices revealed that most were products of this single enclave, despite bearing a wide variety of magic signatures. Indeed, the enclave seemed to be impossibly productive, distributing its wares through intermediaries across a huge swathe of Korea—most likely, the soul mage had discovered a way to produce enchanted objects using other magical girls.

Long‐range surveillance by clairvoyants provided the final confirmation, eliciting a pained gasp from Akari when she recognized one of the magical girls in the area from Tae‐hyun's memories.

Shortly afterward, Mami returned from a virtual meeting with a clouded expression: the Leadership Committee had weighed the options, studied the intelligence—and then ordered an assassination raid.

South Korea, June 2070.

If you don't want to do it, you don't have to. I'm sure we can find someone else.

Mami, I'll be fine. Besides, it's way too late to back out now.

They were silent for a few seconds, Mami with her hands on her shoulder, searching each other's eyes. It was a bit risky, so close to other magical girls, but they wanted the direct telepathic connection.

There was no real need to say anything else. Not really. They'd been over this ground already, and the truth lurked in the back of their minds, latent behind the telepathy, murky in their eyes.

Akari didn't think she'd be fine. Of course not. She also wasn't sure about what she was doing, and she had plenty of fear.

But despite all of that, she needed to go.

There's no one else worth sending, Akari thought finally. I know some of their tricks, and I recognize them.

Mami didn't say anything further. Instead, she sent a wave of emotions that stung Akari's eyes. It helped, that Mami cared—and that she understood. Had been through this herself, more than anyone so sensitive should.

I want to see this through, Akari thought. They killed Tae‐hyun. Who else is going to represent her?

Mami dropped her arms and took a deep breath.

Part of the point of all this was that we'd support each other, be together, and here you are going off without me. I would go with you if I could. If anyone would let me.

If she would allow herself, she meant. Tomoe Mami, Director of Recruitment and Diplomacy, could not risk her personal safety that far. They both knew that.

I know, Mami, Akari thought. But I'll… come back. I promise that.

Akari turned away and broke their mental connection, then opened the door out onto the rooftop.

Just as the forecast had predicted, it was pouring rain on both sides of the border that night, warm, fat droplets that soaked into the skin around rain gear and through costume. Unpleasant weather even for a magical girl, and they couldn't use magic to clear the water—too much of a risk to their stealth.

Dark and rainy—it all seemed suitable to her, and to their task. More so than sun, or even a pallid moon.

She joined the others at the edge of the roof, looking like so many shrouded ghouls in the darkness, looking over an island village in weather no one should be outside in. Visibility was low—no human could have seen the fortifications across the river estuary tonight, even though the northern shore was quite close.

The anticipation set her nerves on edge, and to dispel it she glanced at her companions. There were some girls who had been on the plane mission: Tomi, their now‐celebrity mission leader, face set in a grim mask. Erika, the girl who could slow time, face impassive, pistol on her belt.

Then there was Morimura Kaoru, in a set of armor that obviated the rain gear and would have gleamed in the light. An ornate pair of golden goggles completed the set. She was their spotter—her gaze pierced everything non‐magical, and her range was over a kilometer.

And in the corner was a key part of the team: their stealth generator, Sakamata Hana, in hooded cloak, holding up one hand that faded in and out of sight—practice, she said, and also a bit of a ritual.

A combat complement rounded out the group, specialized in forceful tactics. Three had been flown in from Japan, and chatted among themselves quietly. Akari hadn't gotten to know them very well.

There was also the local recruit, a new MSY member, Gang Jung‐min, a dangpa on the back of her robe. At a command, it would transform into a long‐range rifle. Handy for close and long‐range.

Akari hugged herself, wishing it were warmer.

We have verification, Tomi thought, one hand on her earpiece. Clear to teleport.

She meant that the clairvoyants had finished checking their insertion zone. With any luck, they would insert quietly, no one noticing the spike of magic that signified their arrival.

A pulse of energy, and their stealth field was up. From the inside, they all looked like phantoms, translucent and glowing slightly blue. To outsiders, they would be invisible and inaudible, and the stealth even erased some of the signs of their passing, such as thermal traces and the passage of raindrops.

There were limitations, though: it would not unbreak a window or unsnap a blade of grass, so they would need to move carefully.

The site they would teleport to was well into North Korea, just on the outskirts of their small target city. Satellite footage showed that it was buried in the middle of a large wheat field, sodden under the soaking rain. They would have cover, for now.

North Korea, June 2070.

For a moment the group was tense, senses casting out in every direction, even as they strained not to use any magic, and their stealth generator struggled.

Then they relaxed. There was nothing.

No, wait, Kaoru said, adjusting her goggles. I have a signal moving rapidly nearby. It's a magical girl.

A jolt of tension passed through the group again, as their hands tensed on their weapons and they spread out into formation, trying not to move too much of the wheat. It took Akari a mental effort not to use any magic.

Instead, they stood there like frozen ghosts, the blip of magic appearing pulsing over their senses too. It didn't seem to be heading for them, but it would get very close. Who had cursed them with this luck?

The water dripping down her cheek, the rain gear sticking to her face—Akari wanted it all gone so badly, and she almost broke discipline when a wave of magic passed over them.

But nothing seemed to happen, and whoever it was flew away.

What was that? she thought, finally.

The plants, Jung‐min commented.

The plants were taller, Akari realized, somehow resisting the water pulling them down. In fact…

She stepped over to peer at one of the stalks. It was completely dry, and staying so, the water falling off of it as if repelled.

She came out here to dry the wheat? Akari thought, stating the obvious. What, to improve the yield?

Probably, Tomi thought. You do what you gotta do. And I hear times haven't been good around here recently. Let's get moving.

They would move in the direction of the city, working their way carefully through the wheat fields and wilds, Kaoru scouting all the way. When they got close enough to scan part of the city, they would begin to circle, probing inward for their targets.

Piece by piece, new details appeared on Akari's headset—some towers by the nearby river, a local winding his way along a trail a kilometer away, distant bunkers—all via an enchanted paper map with a camera pointed at it, Kaoru infusing the necessary magic.

They moved slowly, giving Akari time to absorb the sight of the darkened countryside around her. What she saw was disheartening—much of the land was fallow, and the land that wasn't lacked signs of mechanization. They weren't close to any households, but she wagered they would look little better.

And then, all too slowly, the details of their target city began to fill their headsets. They had satellite maps already, of course, but Kaoru was able to provide live data—where people were, where there was activity, and eventually, where the magical girls were.

They were close enough now that it was unavoidable that they would see parts of the outskirts. What they saw was pitiful, dilapidated factory complexes that looked like a caricature, something from the imagination of an over‐eager movie director.

I never thought it'd be this bad, Akari thought. I mean, you hear about it, but…

People outside can't imagine how bad it is, Jung‐min thought, with a subdued venom. Or prefer to forget. And people inside try not to imagine how much better it is outside. You do what you have to, to deal with what you can't change.

Not that I've ever been here either, she added after a pause.

It reminds me of a quote I heard once, Hana said. The human eye is capable of failing to see even the most glaring injustice.

Tomi gave them both a look. The MSY might have been awash with the politics of expansion again, but this was hardly the time.

From what they knew, the magical girls here were the ones least affected by the sudden collapse of grief cube prices in South Korea. They produced enchanted devices, which had retained more of their value, though they did face new competition from abroad. Yet even they felt obliged to spend so much magic on local crops.

Akari didn't want to think about what the other border cities might look like.

It doesn't matter, Tomi thought. Places like these breed monsters, but it's still our job to get rid of them. Focus on the mission.

It bothered Akari a bit, working with Tomi again, hearing her say a thing like that. She still remembered what had happened on the plane, and even if she agreed now with what Tomi had done—well, that didn't make it easy to change how she felt.

Maybe she wants revenge too, Akari thought.

They began their circuit around the city. Within, the population—too numerous for Kaoru to pick out one‐by‐one—went about its business, which at this hour was mostly sleeping. There was, however, a magical girl reclining on a rooftop, close enough for Kaoru to pass Akari a blurred image.

Negative, Akari thought. I don't recognize her.

The low population of the city was a blessing—there were likely to be around a half‐dozen magical girls, a pittance compared to, say, Pyongyang's likely total of over two hundred.

There was a few minutes of tension as they crossed over one of the roads leading into town. Potholed and tech‐free, it was also thankfully deserted. Here, the satellites said they would be getting close to the core industrial zone.

Another candidate, Kaoru thought.

Still no, Akari thought.

They had nearly completed a half‐circuit when Kaoru signaled for them to halt. She needed to take a closer look at something, goggles glowing lightly with magic that hopefully only they could see.

Some kind of concentration of magical energy, she thought a few seconds later, sending a blurry image of an apartment block. Seems like the enchantment workshop we were looking for? I need to get closer to be sure.

Mark the location, but let's finish our circuit first, Tomi thought. Make sure what we're dealing with. There's no reason to rush. Not yet.

They found no more magical girls circling the rest of the city, nor any trace of the soul magic Akari was searching for. They would be forced to go closer if they wanted more information.

I don't like this, Tomi thought. We should have found more magical girls by now. Not just a workshop.

Technically that wasn't quite true: there were still parts of the city not covered by Kaoru's vision range. Still, Akari shared the sentiment, and the unease.

Moving closer meant entering the city proper without having positively identified their target. At that range, it was not safe to take much time scouting. They would have to decide and act quickly.

The water swirled around them as they churned down a sidewalk, getting closer to the enchantment workshop, every member of the team straining their senses.

That was how Akari noticed the pair of humans inexplicably out in the dark.

It was enough for the group to pause, just for a second, as they passed the alleyway. A man and a child, trading each other foodstuffs in the middle of the night, a sack of rice for a canister of powdered milk. Both silhouettes looked very, very thin.

The government here doesn't worry too much about keeping its people fed, Jung‐min thought. I heard it's worse than usual, recently.

Akari didn't have much time to dwell on the sight, as the resolution of Kaoru's scans of the workshop improved. Now she was resolving trace glimmers of magic, obvious pieces of enchantment equipment, and stacked grief cubes.

A shiver of unease, of anticipation passed through their group telepathy.

We still haven't found the actual principals, Tomi thought. Not yet.

But the number of places they could be was rapidly running out.

We need to take a closer look, Tomi thought. But be wary. They could be stealthed like we are, and the building might be booby‐trapped. After all, they shouldn't be surprised we might be coming for them.

Or we got shit luck and they're out, Erika thought.

Or that. But we can't assume, Tomi thought.

Normally, a team like theirs would have fanned out, dispersing themselves into a perimeter around the building while a few probed inside. But Hana's stealth field covered only about a dozen meters, forcing them to move mostly together.

Akari and Erika moved forward towards the ground‐level entrance, Erika powering her time‐slow field on for the first time, calibrated to avoid affecting the rain.

They had rehearsed this. Erika had the Soul Guard experience with magical traps, but Akari was the stronger magic detector. They would work as a team: Akari would stretch her senses to look for traces of magic—particularly those she recognized from the previous bomb. Erika would try to diagnose anything she found.

Predictably, there was no easy way in. The workshop was on the third floor, in an interior room without windows. If they wanted to maintain stealth, they'd need to work through the building.

So Akari closed her eyes, letting her soul detach a bit from her senses. Above her, two floors up, parts of the enchantment workshop pulsed silently in varying states of corruption, like flares in the dark. Beyond that, the world was almost dark.

Almost. There was a trace of light, the same color as some she had seen on the plane what seemed like so long ago.

There's something here, she said, gesturing at a grimy metal box just inside the doorway. And I recognize it. I think it was crafted by our target.

Erika moved closer. On closer inspection, it seemed to be an old‐style mailbox.

Basic detection device. Designed to release a burst of magic if it senses a magical girl. Easy enough to defuse; you just have to drain the charge before it can do anything.

Erika lanced the mailbox with a jolt of magic from her outstretched hand, ghostly underneath the stealth.

The process quickly became tedious, nervewracking under the time pressure they were under. There was another ward closer to the staircase, then an enchanted security camera, and then a shock device under the floor. It seemed to just keep going.

And still no sign of their targets.

They stashed their rain gear and advanced up the stairway, heading for the third floor, where the workshop was. They moved carefully, inhumanly graceful, followed by the rest of the squad, compelled by the limits of the stealth field to stay a floor below.

At this point they had to assume that the enemy magical girls were cloaked as well, and thus that they might be close enough to spot any minor inconsistency of stealth. There was even the outré risk of colliding with an enemy in the middle of the hallway.

But for now, there was nothing, just dingy hallways and closed doors, including the one they needed to enter.

They stacked up at the edge of the door, Kaoru following closely to scan the inside of the apartment. Here, at such close resolution, they could dispense with the paper map and headset and rely on telepathy directly to transmit an image.

It seemed to be empty. On their immediate right as they entered would be a kitchen counter, suitable for concealment from anyone or anything in the living area on their left, or in the main hallway that ran down the center of the apartment to the other bedrooms.

The living area seemed to serve as the enchanter's workshop, with a sofa pushed as far to their left as possible, to give more space for the long table in the middle. The table was cluttered with work materials: bits of wood, metal, and other materials, as well as hand tools. Two desk lamps flanked the sofa, all below a large rack of shelves filled with tools and supplies.

That was all well and good, but first, the door.

An impassive and frustrating metal barrier that stymied their stealth, it couldn't be opened carelessly—the large, blatant motion of a door opening and closing would create a visible distortion.

But they could at least try to hide it: Erika's time‐slowing field could indirectly mask their movements, especially if they moved with all the speed a magical girl could muster. Combined with an extra effort from their stealth generator, they could pass unnoticed, if no one was looking directly at the doorway.

Erika, Akari, and Tomi took off their soul gems, passing them to one of the combat team for safekeeping. The girl placed them inside a metal box along with her own soul gem, reinforced by a magic barrier of her own design. Then her shield glimmered into place in front of them.

It was always tempting to think oneself invincible behind the protection of so many different kinds of magic, but they all knew better.

The door flashed open and closed in less than half a second, all four of them glimmering through the door and taking cover immediately behind the counter on the right side, in the empty kitchen.

They crouched there, tense, eyes scanning the room. The seconds passed, but nothing happened.

Now Akari began to absorb the domestic details of a home well‐tended to: the tidy countertops, with jars of kimchi set out in a row. The simple wildflowers sitting in a jar on the far cabinet. The controlled mess sitting on the work table in the living area. It wasn't exactly how she had pictured the den of a terrorist. She had expected more fanaticism—more pictures of the enemy with spray‐painted targets, fewer flowers. That was stupid in retrospect.

These people are pretty well‐off, Erika thought, looking around. Relatively speaking, of course. Extra bedrooms, the top‐floor apartment—what are the chances they traded a few favors for this?

Not now. Tomi thought. Take a look at their equipment. Maybe we can learn where they are, or at least what they're up to.

Akari stood up out of cover, focusing her attention on the sitting room table, covered with all manner of strange artifacts: metal plates covered in runes, timers connected by wire to metal boxes, even what looked like a few origami birds.

A wave of vertigo passed over her, causing her to stagger in place.

Her instinct was to lash back. The feeling was totally alien, something she hadn't felt since she had been young, before her contract, and that terror primed a wave of protective magic, surging out from her soul gem.

Yet still, she paused, her experience pushing her to stop.

There was… someone in the air.

Her breath caught in her throat and she went absolutely still, snapping at her team to do the same. They all went as silent as corpses, shrinking their magic back into their gems.

Akari carefully breathed in. It was as if someone's soul had been smeared out, aerosolized. A mist so thin it was impossible to feel, yet the scent so cloying that Akari marveled that she could have missed it. Souls didn't usually smell faintly like rotting flesh.

Did it know they were there? Was it being used as a kind of magical sensor?

At her signal, the team readied their weapons, and Tomi prepared an emergency evacuation. If they had been detected, there was a chance that they needed to just blow the workshop and run.

Then Akari spooled the thinnest line of magic she could manage, reaching out to make contact with the wisps of magic emanating in the air.

Who are you? How are you like this? Akari asked. What happened to you?

Her magic probed its way forward, towards an invisible source, but it seemed for a moment as if she might get lost in the haze, or perhaps that the soul was too far gone for communication.

But then she saw a glimmer, and she seized it, until the light expanded in her mind's eye into circling visions of a girl in the crimson robes of the Korean Imperial Guard, fire sparking from her eyes.

Who goes there? the soul cried. You are unwelcome! Turn back!

Akari felt the soul's fire on her skin, saw the trappings of a fortress that had been insinuated into its mind, and realized she had been right: a soul mage had tampered with the soul, manipulating and twisting it into a magical sentry.

I am Akiyama Akari, she thought. And I am not your enemy. You are on false guard.

Here, Akari knew clever magic would only create more problems than it solved. Any further soul manipulation by her would be destabilizing—traumatizing—and liable to send the soul into full alarm.

Instead, she relied on their nascent soul link, laying bare her own soul: the honesty of her words, her dismay and grief at what had happened to this girl, the fury and disdain she had for its perpetrator.

The girl fell to her knees, hands on her head, mouth open in a silent scream as the realization dawned. Her world had been a lie.

Lines of energy began pulsing through the room, the magic of the sentry system pulsing in rapacious vines that filled the air, hanging from the ceiling as if placed there by an invisible hand. At their root, they drank power greedily from a pair of soul gems, hidden in a case beneath one of the lamps.

There was a stealth system too, Akari realized, and it was starting to fail. The vines and the soul gems had always been there.

I don't understand, the girl thought. I was—I was home—in the garden—but then—

Just rest, Akari thought.

Her words dissolved into the girl, who was in no state to resist.

Then the air cleared before Akari, and she let out a breath as she finally sensed their targets, two of them, in bedrooms behind a now‐dismantled stealth field.

But just as Akari tasted victory, the wooden box before them pulsed, a mechanism on the side sending out a great wave of magic. One last failsafe, finally overcoming Akari and Hana's magic. Instantly, the two targets jolted awake, magic already flaring.

Telepathy devolved to half‐formed impressions of intent. Erika was the fastest on the draw and was halfway towards the bedrooms when a bolt of white light snapped out of the floor, gouging a hole in the wood and trailing burnt sparks as it went. Despite the slow‐time field, it came breathtakingly close to her head and chest, gouging a spray of blood from her side even as she spun away.

Hana, Kaoru, and a ranged specialist bolted forward before Erika's blood had time to meet air—they needed to delay or seal off any escape attempt, and perhaps even get in a sneak attack.

But their actions triggered only more traps, numerous bursts of magic blending together into an incoherent mess as one of their combat mages cleared the room by force, a marble of green magic phasing through the door and ballooning to tremendous size, a maelstrom of air that tore at walls, ceiling, floor—and all the traps lying in wait.

The crash of Jung‐min's arquebus shattered the air yet further, joined by a staccato burst of explosions, Tomi teleporting grenades straight from her bag into the air around their targets.

Erika was moving forward again, this time with the barrier generator, Akari joining them to push straight through the still‐spiraling vortex inside a halo of light, barrier advancing down the hallway.

Then the barrier generator slammed her hands down, Erika sliding to her knees just behind, as a pillar of blue, two meters wide and two meters high, slammed into them. The crash of force meeting barrier sprayed off a gout of sparks, blinding Akari—but she didn't need to see her targets. She could feel one of their gems, just around the corner—

A crack like thunder for a second time, but not from Jung‐min. The blue pillar vanished, the enemy magical girl was dead, Hana was vanishing back into stealth—

But Akari's attention had been drawn abruptly somewhere else, to something familiar, and horrifying.

That's right, soul mage, their other enemy thought, turning the title into an epithet. I'd stay back, unless you want this going off right in your face. And taking the entire city with it.

The thought was desperate, enraged.

She's not bluffing, Akari thought, beaming the thought to her team. It's another explosive device, the same design as on the plane. She's powering it herself.

Their attack froze for a few seconds, an eternity, as they attempted to devise a plan that would let them capture or kill her before she could detonate. Akari herself was stuck a mere meter away from the doorway leading to the other magical girl, but couldn't close the gap in time.

But they couldn't afford to wait, or negotiate. They had made enough noise to attract every magical girl in the city, not to mention whoever might be in teleport range.

Tomi and Akari shared a glance, and a thought, and the girl holding Akari's soul gem passed it forward, as Tomi played for a bit of time.

You don't have to do this, Tomi thought. You could surrender, and we'd take you in. No killing.

And become a mind‐washed puppet? No thanks. I know how you foreigners operate.

Tomi grabbed Akari's hand, and teleported her at the enemy girl.

The bomb charged for detonation, but Akari seized a pair of metal attachments in one hand, redirecting the surge of magic into herself. Her breath caught in her throat, as she recognized the girl from Tae‐hyun's memories, her thoughts filled with an instant, automatic hate.

The other magical girl's fist clipped her face, Akari's head flinging backward. Her head swirled and the world spun, as the magic of their two souls slammed into each other, the other girl's magic pouring into Akari's gem, trying to overwhelm it and allow for detonation.

Murderer! Akari thought, uncontrolled over the boundary between them. Everything you do is an abomination!

I'm the abomination? How dare you!

Akari saw with sudden clarity the other girl in front of her, clothes ragged, hair stringy, but all cared for as best as could be done with little at hand. Her hand held a knife, and the knife was pointed at an older woman, one carrying precious food.

Akari felt the knife enter her gut, blood spraying, and it took everything she had to keep her grip on the bomb, counter the illusion made powerful with real memory.

I did everything to keep my family alive, to keep my loved ones alive, and it was all ruined by you! You Japanese bureaucrats, no different from the party, stuffing yourselves while bankrupting others. A hundred years, the system here has worked, ruined in months, and do you even care who you starved? Fuck you! I'll kill you all—

The girl gasped in sudden pain, as Akari threw her own memories forward, the concentrated essence of all the torture and pain Tae‐hyun had suffered at this girl's hands, distilled into one, crippling moment.

And in that opening Akari stabbed her magic, needle working its way into the intermingling of their souls at the nexus of the bomb.

The girl stumbled in two places—the bomb warbled and guttered out as Akari's magic surged into its circuitry, snapping apart the runes and chasing the thread of the enemy soul mage's magic back upwards into her body.

Her gem shattered when Akari's magic touched it, filled with hate, and a thousand glittering stars fell to the floor.

It was done.

South Korea, August 2070.

The materials were simple, but the craftsmanship was careful, even exacting. In any other context, Akari would have been curious to meet the maker of this memorial.

"I helped her father make it," the girl next to her said, in Korean. "It feels a bit strange, since there's no way to explain to them that she's never coming back, but I think, deep down, they know."

Akari checked the other girl's expression, wondering what she intended, but there was no guile there, only a poignant sadness.

Akari closed her eyes, hoping her expression conveyed that she understood what the girl was going through. This was one of Tae‐hyun's teammates, Won Min‐ji, one of the girls who had left her behind for what should have been a simple family obligation.

"I'm not sure what to say," Akari said, replying in Korean. "I lost a team member once, long ago. She was my seonbae, and…"

"No, it's not your responsibility to apologize to us," the girl said, casting her gaze meaningfully down the way, towards a trio of girls huddled on the other side of the memorial. They looked like visitors from the city, with fashionable outfits and the newest models of self‐propelling luggage.

They weren't; the outfits and accessories had been gifts from the MSY, to help conceal a group of visiting North Koreans, magical girls that had slipped across the border, with permission from their counterparts on the other side.

Akari swallowed, preparing to speak.

I know, it's not really their responsibility either, Min‐ji thought. But they came anyway.

After you invited them, Mami thought, walking over from behind the memorial. Everyone was willing to make the gesture. That's always a hopeful start.

Akari hid her expression, looking back towards the memorial. There, photos of the "missing" Tae‐hyun were framed into a wooden assembly, complemented by candles and incense bowls. Someone had left a bunch of fresh flowers on the ground in front.

She was new to this kind of diplomacy, the way Mami had worked to broker this meeting, this… mutual gesture of understanding, that would hopefully be followed by a real discussion, and understanding. One that the MSY couldn't be disinterested in—they had been the real targets, and the ones to retaliate.

The other of Tae‐hyun's teammates gave the signal, and they shifted to their positions: Akari on one side with Mami, while Tae‐hyun's team flanked the other.

The three northerners approached the memorial slowly, holding sticks of lit incense. They bowed twice, then placed the sticks into the bowls.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Min‐ji walked to the monument.

Thank you for coming, she thought, bowing to the others. We know it isn't easy coming out here.

Telepathy wasn't strictly necessary, but it was wise—the Korean language had diverged somewhat between north and south, after so long a strict separation.

For something like this, it's not a problem, one of the northerners thought. In light of recent events, it was only proper for us to come pay our respects.

Seo Si‐won, Akari was able to recall.

Si‐won gestured at the memorial.

I'm sorry about what happened to her. Those in her city knew Choi‐ssi was having a hard year, but none of us knew she was up to something like this. And, well, we had always wondered how exactly she had managed to enchant so many devices, but no one felt it important enough to investigate. To our shame.

Akari managed to keep her face diplomatically neutral. The truth was, everyone in Choi's immediate vicinity must have suspected something was up, but many lives had come to depend upon her work. No one wanted to kill their golden goose.

Which made it all the more remarkable that these other northerners had stepped in to insulate them from responsibility. It would have been easy for the north to shove all the responsibility for what happened onto Choi's city, making it their problem.

Instead, the unprecedented had happened: a majority of the border territories had come together to send the magical girls just across the border from Tae‐hyun's team as emissaries. In a situation where difficult conditions kept the territories splintered and focused on local survival, this was the first time anyone in the south had seen them come together for anything.

Why didn't some of them come themselves? Min‐ji asked.

Frankly, they thought you'd kill them too, Si‐won thought, without even blinking. The hope was, you'd be more willing to talk to us.

Respectfully, Mami thought, we should take this indoors.

She tilted her head at a few mundanes watching them from across the street.

They made their way to the local team's hideout, in a cramped backroom of a local teahouse, in what should have been a disused furniture storage space. Instead, they had a moment to reflect upon the faded wallpaper, bunk bed, and stacked medical supplies. The small table only had room for four.

Min‐ji served tea on a chipped tea set.

Of course, we're not just here to pay our respects, Si‐won thought, once they all had drinks. As we've explained, we're also here to represent what we're calling the North Border Trade Organization. We hope to make it our responsibility to prevent further unnecessary deaths and violence.

She ducked her head for a moment, seeming to struggle for words.

The truth is, when I heard about Tae‐hyun's disappearance, it really disturbed me. We've never been enemies, out here far from the cities, and I hoped everything would be alright. It made me sick to know what really happened, and that we in the north simply weren't taking care of business.

She paused, gauging her audience.

But, I would be lying if I said we all got together because of Tae‐hyun. There have been serious discussions for a while about needing to band together. I don't know how good the information you have about us is, but we're dying up here.

The last sentence was clearly addressed at Mami, rather than at the Korean team, and Akari watched Mami meet her gaze for a long moment. There was a reason they had been seated across from each other.

The local trade networks have broken down, is that right? Mami thought. Not enough demand for grief cubes?

Yes, the girl thought, picking up her teacup for a sip. Our hunting territories are unusually rich. This has been enough to help us keep us and our families much better off than they otherwise would be. This has not been true ever since you showed up.

And I'm sorry for that, Mami thought, without missing a beat. Much of this is because of our free use of grief cubes to pay local South Koreans. There is already a proposal on the table to convert this into primarily won‐based operations, but it would be less desirable for our members and associates here, and considerably more expensive for the MSY. It has not been easy to convince anyone to commit to that after all that has happened.

Si‐won tensed, and Akari braced herself.

You're talking about expense when some of our families have trouble feeding themselves! Si‐won thought, slamming her cup down into the table. You're a fool if you think a message like that will satisfy anyone. Perhaps you don't quite understand, but our organization is driven by desperation, not finance.

The room was silent but for the rattling of her cup, thanks to telepathy, but it felt like the words ought to be echoing.

I know, Mami thought, without acknowledging the implied threat. But we are not the ones who have committed atrocities. We'd be spending our resources to support you. If it were up to me, we would already be helping. But things are not so simple. It's not just about our payments in grief cubes. We've also improved training and hunting practices throughout South Korea. Even without us, grief cube scarcity isn't going to come back.

Your people have forgotten what it means to be desperate, Si‐won thought, in almost a growl. What Choi‐ssi did, the bombings, the kidnappings, that was not in a vacuum. We have all suffered. With a response like that, what am I supposed to tell them when I get back? That you don't care? That things are only going to get worse? I don't think we'll be able to do a very good job of holding anyone back, will we?

The two girls stared at each other for a tense moment, Si‐won's eyes seeming to bore a hole into Mami's. Akari knew Mami could read the telepathic undercurrents, perhaps even better than she could now—the threat was genuine, not a mere negotiating tactic.

Mami leaned back, folding her hands on the table.

We're not offering nothing. For now, we can offer supplies, Mami thought, tone firm. While our organization debates the issue, I am authorized to trade food and other supplies for grief cubes at historical rates. I am also authorized to discuss other arrangements.

That depends on what assurances you want, the other girl thought. We're not what you are. We're just a voluntary organization.

She glanced around at the other two girls with her, one of which had been writing notes on paper.

Then, she visibly relaxed, the anger washing out of her face like so much sand, and Akari let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

But your supply proposal may serve for now. We will need time to consult with those still in the north. If we can agree on terms of trade today, then there will be opportunity to discuss other matters.

That's acceptable, Mami thought.

Afterward, there was a diplomatic dinner, hosted by Min‐ji's parents, who were being well‐compensated—in won—for the task. It was simple fare—pickled vegetables, tofu soup, rice—but satisfying, and the milieu was pleasant. The talks had gone as well as could reasonably be expected.

Which meant that when Mami and Akari finally drifted back into their hotel room, it was with the kind of satisfied exhaustion that came with a job well done.

What do you think? Mami asked, turning to drape her arm around Akari. Think we can handle the next crisis together too?

Akari laughed, looking pointedly downward.

If it will convince you to give me this view again, absolutely. Let's make this a lasting thing.

She felt, rather than saw, Mami nod.

South Korea, March 2071.

The Leadership Council emergency session was scheduled for eight in the evening, mere hours after first news began to arrive from the MSY's governmental contacts, and while the rest of the world was starting to receive their breaking news reports. The notice was so short that there wasn't time to recall all the committee members from their posts around the world.

Mami knew very little: the North Korean leader was dead, there were mass arrests and tanks in the streets, active combat in peripheral areas—and a new government consolidating its hold on power.

Any other details—well, that was what the meeting was for. She would have preferred to meet in person, but with no time to travel, and leaving Korea at the moment a bad idea anyway, she would have to teleconference.

She stepped into the secure room, tolerating the poking of the guard telepath at the door, which swung closed a moment later, ponderous magical lock sealing with both a clang and a sizzle. Here, behind electronic and magical shielding, they would discuss secure business.

She settled into the surprisingly plush chair, exchanging her personal contacts for a pair soaking in a slot in the table. She waited for a few seconds while they synchronized and authenticated with the equipment around her: a curving optical resolution monitor and projector support equipment, part of a standard executive teleconferencing package, complete with optional quantum security and decidedly non‐standard magical protections.

The monitor chimed, and the projection came online, wall projectors augmenting the images on her contacts, relaying an image of the Yamazaki memorial conference room, an ordinary corporate conference room augmented with several priceless wall scrolls and the same kind of security Mami was ensconced in.

The resolution of the pseudo‐holography was a bit lacking; the technology was a work in progress.

She was seated just to the right of the head of the table, where Homura sat, glowering as she reviewed something on her contacts. The rest of the table was nearly full, at least in simulation, CEOs and magnates in public, Directors and Second Executives in private.

Homura leaned forward a dozen seconds later, clasping her hands on the table.

"Let's bring this to order," Homura said, blinking rapidly to signal her contacts. "We have a potential crisis situation on our hands, and we need to decide on a course of action moving forward. Kuroi‐san, would you like to brief us?"

"You've all been informed of the basics," she said, looking out over the table. "And what will be more widely known among the public. We have access to more confidential information, filtered through our sources in the Chinese government. The new North Korean government is composed of existing military and political elites near the Chinese border, and they are sending heavy signals that they intend to pursue an opening‐up policy, with close alignment to Chinese interests."

"The Chinese are in turn reciprocating with a warm level of support for the new administration, along with promises of economic aid and investment; their diplomatic assets are making a show of consulting with the new government, and they've already handed over a few opposition members trying to flee the country."

"But opening up doesn't mean reunification, I take it?" one of the executives said. "It'd be way too soon to suggest anything like that, and it's doubtful that the Chinese would support such a move."

"Correct," Kana said. "Though they are promising a policy of peaceful development, once the transitional period is over. A bloody transitional period, I would add, with a number of purges and assassinations in recent days. Park Sung‐won has actually been dead for weeks, which is the real reason for the recent military activity. They're trying to crush the opposition."

There was a pause at the table as they absorbed that.

"First and foremost, how likely are things to stay stable?" Homura asked, placing her hand on the table. "These coup plotters sound like they don't intend to rock the boat. That's good, since I don't want to find out how good we are at stopping incoming nukes."

Perhaps Homura intended the last part to be a bit of a joke. No one laughed.

"The Chinese think they have a decent grip on power," Kana said. "And as I said, they're offering their own support. It's impossible to say for certain, of course."

"Do we want them to stay stable?" Homura asked, addressing the table with a gesture of her hand. "What do we think?"

"My opinion is yes," Shizuki Sayaka said, quick on the draw. "What this government is promising is the best anyone could reasonably hope for. It keeps things nice and tidy, and it improves conditions for people on the ground. There might even be the opportunity for business."

In other words, Sayaka was ruling out a long‐term push for Korean reunification. Not that she was alone in that; for many people, mundane or not, reunification at this point seemed like it would come with nightmarish cultural and economic difficulties, even assuming the political questions could be solved.

"Reduced tensions and increased Chinese support would go a long way towards helping the magical girls in the country," Mami added. "Not to mention reduced risks and financial burdens for us in managing the region."

She didn't need to elaborate. The plight of the border girls and their destabilizing influence on the Korean peninsula had become quite a political football, one that Mami herself had kicked more than once. They knew.

She let the discussion linger on that for a bit, gauging the opinion of the room. There seemed to be few willing to disagree with her and Sayaka's general assessment, judging by the few comments that were made.

"Even if we didn't want North Korea to fall completely into Chinese hands, what could we do about it?" Tanaka Yui asked, a few minutes later. "Very little, as far as I can see. Even if we could, as Sayaka says, we'd be courting disaster."

"Not to mention," Mami said, "that while we may have no influence in the North Korean government, we do have influence in the Chinese government, as well as more and more members and associates in northern China. The northern border has always been more amicable and prosperous than the southern—in time, we will be able to expand into North Korea through China, even if the girls near the DMZ remain distrustful of us."

"Or basically," Kyouko said, twiddling with a stick of mint pocky, "greater Chinese influence makes reunification very difficult."

"Right," Kana said. "What power they have will be used to suppress its supporters and propagandize against it. Perhaps worse, depending on how much North Korean sovereignty is eroded."

"But what I'm hearing is that this likely doesn't hurt us very much at all," Kyouko said. "Which is good, because I prefer not to mess in other people's business. What do the locals think, then? I mean the border girls."

"I haven't heard from them yet," Mami said, answering Kyouko's question. "But I believe they'll be a lot less concerned about the geopolitics than their local economies. If this coup ends up relatively clean, and China improves their living conditions, they'll take it. All the better, from their perspective, if they can shake their dependence on aid from the MSY."

"Have your division put together a report for tomorrow once you get in contact," Homura said, glancing at Mami. "Otherwise, it seems we're in agreement to let the political situation stand."

She looked out over the table for objections. There were none.

"Alright, what about South Korea?" she asked. "Tensions have been high recently. How are they taking the news?"

"Too early to say," Mami said. "They've barely had time to receive the news. But I'd expect wariness and pessimism. They've been very on‐edge since Seogang‐dong, and I'd think a coup in the north is the last news they want to hear, whatever the new government is promising. I've seen the internal plans; they're worried that if the north falls apart, they won't be ready for what's coming, despite all their preparation."

"Us neither, I'd say," Sayaka said.

Homura shook her head, clasping her hands together.

"We still need to be prepared for the eventuality," she said. "Now that we've stuck our hands into the pot, I think it's safe to say we'll be on the hook if the worst happens. Let's put a plan together, work out how many refugees we might have to take."

There was little to disagree with there, but as the conversation shifted, Mami couldn't shake a sense of… not quite foreboding. More that they simply weren't covering all the angles, that they had to be overlooking something. There were just too many unknown unknowns.

North Korea, April 2071.

Well, we avoided the worst‐case scenario, Akari thought. Which counts for something. Here's hoping it doesn't get any worse.

It's our job to make sure it doesn't get any worse, Mami thought. Though I guess that's a bit cliché to say.

She sipped her tea, a surprisingly decent blend given that it had come from a jug in an airport lounge.

More specifically, a lounge in Pyongyang, North Korea, where they were waiting for a plane to take them back across the Chinese border. With them were a bunch of civilian businessmen, and two official emissaries, one from China and the other from South Korea. They had just gotten back from talks with the new government. Mami and Akari…

Well, they had done that too, in their own way.

Things are still cooling down, though, Akari thought. It will be a while yet before we can really breathe easy.

The DMZ girls had turned out to be surprisingly split on the situation. Most seemed pleased by the influx of Chinese aid, as they had guessed, but some had been very cool, or even hostile. One of the friendlier girls confided in Mami that some suspected that the Chinese coup was also an MSY plot, a way to extend its tentacles deeper into the country—but that she was sure they'd come around.

It didn't help that a new organization of North Korean magical girls had, in fact, met with Chinese MSY associates in Dandong shortly after the coup, asking for help putting together their own associate application to the MSY. Based mostly in the northern parts of the country near the Chinese border, they claimed to have contacts high up in the new government, and to have even done some of its dirty work, with the aid of a few key members based in the capital.

Very big claims, and plenty to be skeptical of, but they had produced plenty of evidence, and three weeks of vetting had found only corroborating details and consistent details. Finally, the MSY had sent a trio of envoys to Pyongyang, who had reported back that everything seemed to be just as claimed. So too had the next five they sent.

So Mami had made the trip herself, piggybacking on their mundane connections in the Chinese government to make everything a bit more official. Misgivings by the DMZ girls aside, the opportunity was far too good to pass up.

Akari had to admit, she hadn't exactly looked forward to visiting the world's most reclusive and notorious state again, but it had all been tolerable enough. The country was, unsurprisingly, a lot more welcoming when you weren't there to kill people.

I have to say, Akari commented, leaning over to put her head on Mami's shoulder. After all this, I'm really looking forward to Italy.

Mami smiled, even as she rolled her eyes.

Who wouldn't? she thought, patting her head. You're not the one who has to wrangle with the Europeans—there's a copycat organization that's gaining ground there, you know. But, I'm looking forward to it too.

An announcement sounded over the intercom. Their plane would be boarding soon.

How is the investigation into Choi's devices proceeding back at the lab? Mami thought. Any new revelations?

Not yet, Akari thought, without shifting position. Hina‐chan's still working on the bomb apparatus we recovered from her, trying to repurpose it for another energy gap experiment. We've also gotten a couple test subjects signed up to let me attempt enchantment through them, somewhat like Choi did, but my hopes aren't high for that. It's far too invasive for the quality of product we expect, at least with my powers. I'm more excited to be helping Hina‐chan with her work.

Mami nodded, slowly, her hair brushing Akari's face.

Always plenty to do, she thought.

Akari sighed, wondering if now was a good time to fall asleep. She was Mami's security, but she had already done the rounds earlier, inspecting their plane both inside and out. There hadn't been even a whiff of magic.

Instead, she zapped herself with a bit of magic, ensuring she was awake and attentive. Not many things could happen in an airport lounge, but one couldn't be sure.

When it came time to board, neither she nor Mami could find anything on the passengers or any of their luggage, either in line or on the plane itself. They even strained their telepathy for signs of malice among the passengers.

As for mundane security—well, for that they'd have to rely on the security of the Chinese envoy. In his own words, he was getting on the plane too, and with him the interests of the Chinese and North Korean governments. They had every incentive to make sure nothing went wrong.

She settled in her seat next to Mami, looking back at the front of the wing. It was funny, in a way, for magical girls to be taking an airliner.

Then she looked over at Mami, who was hunched over frowning at her tablet, reading a piece of the mundane news, eyes intense.

There was nothing special about the moment, but she felt in herself a wave of warm affection, and in it she realized something.

She was happy here.

She shook her head at herself, and looked out the window again.

Epilogue Japan, April 2071.

Homura glowered down at the images below her, drone stills of the plane crash that had almost killed Mami. That had killed her soul, in a way, by killing Akiyama Akari, whose body Homura forced herself to look at.

There were other pictures too, pictures of the rampage Mami went on afterward, before they were able to recapture her, the damage severe enough that it could only be covered by the widening North Korean civil war.

"We were too damn careless," she said. "A conventional bomb! We couldn't see that coming?"

It was the end of the day, the sunrise pouring through the windows of Homura's high‐rise office. That meant there was no one else in the room, and she was free to speak to the person whose opinion she valued most.

"Of course I don't blame myself," Homura said. "I blame all of us. We've been too complacent, too secure. Things have been going too well."

She didn't need a two‐hundred‐page report to tell her that, even if there was one sitting unread in her computer.

"I know," she said, a moment later. "The cynical way to look at it is that it's just Mami, and she even lived, right? We salvaged her. The organization is fine. But neither of us is willing to say it is just Mami."

Homura shook her head.

"I liked Akiyama‐san, you know. You can tell her that for me. They looked happy together. She was a good woman. She was just looking for her place, and Mami was just looking for togetherness. Now Kyouko, Yuma, and I will be the ones going to the funeral instead, because Mami is…"

She gestured emptily with one hand, then dropped it back down, unhappy.

"North Korea is in civil war," Homura said. "People are dying. Everyone is wondering about whether there needs to be an intervention, but there are nukes on the board. We've had to start putting up our own patrols. Magical girls! For nukes!"

For a moment she forgot herself, one arm waving in the air, hair flying.

She settled herself, stepping towards the windows that opened out onto the Mitakihara skyline. From here, it was all too easy to entertain the delusion of being in control.

"We're putting a new proposal on the table, for the intelligence agency Yuma and I have been pushing for. After this debacle, we'll have plenty of support for passage, even if it requires a few tweaks to the Charter. It just makes too much sense."

"Yeah, the name is awful, but it was Yuma's idea," Homura said. "Though I daresay it gets the point across."

For a long time she looked out the window, at the massive urban confluence below, poor and rich alike, trying to process it all. What was one person in all of that, even someone like Mami? A cog in the machine, one Homura had reshaped by force.

"We're sealing the records," she said. "Akiyama's research will go cold, again. At least for now. It isn't time yet."

A thought in her mind, an intrusive one. She herself was still here, as part of the plan. Mami had suffered, as part of the plan. She would be here, someday, when Mami's memories of all this needed to come back, when the time was right.

Homura was nearing ninety now, if one counted her time outside this world, which she did. Events showed no signs of slowing down. How long would she be made to wait? This wasn't where she wanted to be.

"How much longer must I wait to see you?" she asked. "Can no one take my place?"

End Interlude Ⅲ: Manifest Destiny