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She's timid, Mami thinks. She's so, so timid. The girl shakes like a rabbit as she sobs into Kaname-chan's shoulder. Mami lays a gentle hand on the girl's head and gently removes the girl's glasses to clean the tear smudges off.

"Shh, shh, it's okay," Kaname-chan coos, stroking the girl's hair.

Mami summons some of her ribbons and wipes the tear streaks off. She reaches down again to put the girl's glasses back on her face. "What's your name?" Mami asks with as much kindness as she can.

"A-Akemi. Akemi Homura," the girl says through the tears, her voice muffled by the fabric of Kaname-chan's uniform.

"Well, Akemi-chan," Mami says, "you are incredible. Not many people could break out of a witch's curse like that."

Akemi-chan finally lifts her head off Kaname-chan's shoulder to look at Mami. Her eyes are red and her face is streaked with tears. "That ... thing ... was a witch?" she asks.

"Yes. And the two of us are magical girls who fight the witches," Mami says.

"We'll protect you. We promise," Kaname-chan says.

Akemi-chan looks grateful and happy, and smiles a thin watery smile before dissolving back into body-shaking sobs.

Mami and Kaname-chan both help her to her feet. "I have some new cake and nice tea back at my apartment," Mami says. "Would you like some?"

Akemi-chan nods.

 

***

 

She's cute, Mami thinks, with her glasses and braids and golf club held at the ready. Akemi-chan looks terrified, but she carries on bravely despite everything. She looks so tense that Mami wonders if poking Akemi-chan might make her curl up like a hedgehog. But Mami is more sympathetic than that; she remembers how absolutely terrified she was during her very first witch encounter after meeting Kyubey, and she had a more direct method of combat than Akemi-chan's time powers permit.

So instead, she lays a sympathetic hand on Akemi-chan's shoulder. "You know, you don't have to come with us," she says. "No one will think any less of you if you want to go home."

But Akemi-chan shakes her head. "No. I... I want to help. And I know I'm probably not much use, but you're both so kind to me, and I..." She takes a deep breath and exhales it. "I want to try and pay you back."

Akemi-chan's tried to explain when she became a magical girl a few times now, but her stories about time loops and everyone dying don't make any sense to Mami. Not even Kyubey remembers contracting with her, and no one's quite sure how long he's been around.

Akemi-chan practices hitting her golf club against the empty container again, her blows not making much of a dent against the steel. She frowns, disappointed.

Mami wonders if maybe some motivation would help. "You know, Akemi-chan," she says, "I have some new cake and nice tea back at my apartment. Once the fight against this witch is over, would you like to go back to my place for some?"

Akemi-chan's face fills with a tentative hopeful light. "That would be wonderful."

 

***

 

She's odd, Mami thinks. Akemi-san seems nice enough and all, but there's something unusual about her. She has an odd sense of precognition, like she knows things are going to happen before they do, or how she knew that Mami and Kaname-chan were magical girls without being told. Mami's asked Akemi-san before about how she got her own magical girl powers, but the other girl keeps avoiding the question.

Miki-chan doesn't trust her. Mami thinks it's odd that both of them would get the power to summon projectile weapons, but she's not willing to judge Akemi-san based solely on that.

Akemi-san's a decent fighter. Mami watches her fight the latest witch, a budding confidence in all of Akemi-san's moves. She always seems eager to fight with her fellow magical girls. She dodges the spinning wheel hands of the witch's ball gown-clad familiars, and jumps on top of one of the tables in the whirling, candy-coloured ballroom the witch has built around herself.

"Throw me!" Akemi-san yells at Mami. "The witch's weakness is the tiara she wears!"

Mami wonders yet again how Akemi-san would know something like that, but she casts out her ribbons. They wrap around Akemi-san and throw her high towards the ceiling. Akemi-san falls towards the witch, her Glock firing shots Mami can barely make out.

Akemi-san's bullets pierce the jewels in the tiara, and the witch dissolves in a wave of fire. Akemi-san blinks out and is suddenly standing back next to Mami as the barrier dissolves.

Miki-chan eyes Akemi-san suspiciously. "How did you know that was her weakness?" she asks.

Akemi-san shrugs, looking away. "It just seemed like the spot," she says, but it seems like there's something more she's not telling.

Mami decides to try and diffuse the situation before things start to get tense. "I have some new cake and nice tea back at my apartment," she says to the group. "Would you like some?"

"Sure," says Kaname-chan. "I love your teas."

Akemi-san looks over at Miki-chan and then back away before answering. "Okay," she says. "That could be nice."

 

***

 

She's cold, Mami thinks. There's something distant about Akemi-san. She's very good at her duty, but she rarely works with any other magical girls, preferring to fight witches alone.

So it's not a complete surprise when Mami's hunt to show Kaname-chan and Miki-chan what a witch looks like ends with finding Akemi-san standing alone in the middle of a disintegrating witch barrier on top of a department store. The wind blows her long, loose black hair about, and she reaches up the arm with the buckler strapped to it to push it out of the way.

"I killed the witch," she says flatly. "You don't need to bother."

"Oh. So we're not going to see what a witch looks like?" Miki-chan asks. There's a disappointment in her voice.

"Maybe next time," Mami says. She walks closer to Akemi-san. "Let us know the next time you go out hunting, and we'll come with you to help."

"No." Akemi-san's voice is like ice. "I can slay them all myself. I don't need any help." She eyes Miki-chan and Kaname-chan. "And you shouldn't be dragging civilians into this."

"Hey, we can go if we want to," Miki-chan says. Akemi-san doesn't answer.

Mami tries to be tactful about the situation and reach out to Akemi-san. "You know, I have some new cake and nice tea back at my apartment," she says. "Would you like some?"

Akemi-san is silent for a minute before answering. "No," she says. "But thank you," she adds on, as an afterthought, before she turns and leaves.

 

***

 

She's hard, Mami thinks. There's something painfully sharp and cutting about Akemi.

Akemi was a mystery. She had no interest in working together with anyone. She barely spared another word for any of her fellow magical girls.

So it's a surprise to find Akemi working with her in the fight against the latest witch. They're trapped in a world made of ice that looks like something straight out of a sumi-e painting. Eyeless penguins keep launching themselves at the girls from cloud-like floating icebergs.

Akemi fires fast and furiously, spattering black penguin innards on the sumi-e rocks below them. Mami stands next to her, summoning and firing her muskets as fast as she can.

"It's nice to see you fulfilling your duty and going on a witch hunt for once," Mami says. Her voice is polite and even, but vitriol lurks just under the surface.

"I don't care about the witch," Akemi says. Her cold voice betrays no emotion when she speaks. "The witches are pointless. There will always be more."

"And it's our duty to destroy them whenever more appear."

Akemi pauses with her guns and turns to look Mami in the eye. "You don't understand. None of you do. We're all misled fools."

"Speak for yourself."

Akemi turns away again. "None of you ever understand, even when I do tell you." There's something raw hidden in the coldness of her tone that Mami can't quite seem to grasp.

Mami blinks and Akemi is suddenly somewhere else. A grenade goes off, exploding the ice witch in a spray of snow and blood. The witch's barrier dissolves, leaving Mami and Akemi in a back alley with a terrified Kaname-chan and Miki-chan huddling together off to one side.

Akemi picks up the witch's grief seed and throws it at Mami. "Don't bring them with you anymore," she says.

"I think--" Mami starts, before realizing that Akemi has disappeared once again.

 

***

 

She's monstrous, Mami thinks. Akemi is. They all are.

They are abominations that should not exist, feeding into a broken system that will make horrors of them all, and they were too blinded by wishes and cute skirts and pretty jewels to see the hideous truths lying underneath.

Mami stares at her hands. She can't accept it. She can't deal with the fact that her hands stopped being her hands a long time ago, and now she's nothing but a glowing light in a gem, piloting her old body like the ghost in the machine. "So, we're really dead, aren't we? We're just animated corpses, doomed to fight until we turn into witches like Miki-san did. So it doesn't really matter what happens to us now, right?"

She summons a musket from nowhere, and rubs her hands along the barrel. "It's better if we just die now before we become monsters, isn't it?"

She aims the gun at Sakura-chan's soul gem and fires. The jewel shatters. Sakura-chan's eyes go blank and emotionless as she topples to the ground.

She points her musket at Kaname-chan next.

She never sees Akemi's bullet coming, and feels only a short flare of pain as it shatters her soul gem and plunges her into nothingness.

 

***

 

She's wrong, Mami thinks. Hopelessly, utterly wrong.

She watches coolly as Akemi struggles in the ribbons. How foolish. They're magical ribbons; no one but Mami can break through them.

Kaname-chan stands by nervously, as though unsure what to do. Mami tries to continue staying calm to reassure Kaname-chan that nothing's wrong.

"I-Idiot," Akemi says. "This isn't the time to do this."

Mami smiles politely but coldly. Akemi is nothing but a nuisance. She doesn't understand the proper way of going about things, or what a magical girl's duty should be.

"I don't plan on letting you get hurt, but if you struggle too much, I can't promise that won't happen," Mami says.

Akemi glares at her. "You don't know what you're getting into. This witch is in an entirely different class than all others so far." Anger and annoyance creeps into her usually controlled tone.

Mami ignores the emotions. "If you sit still, I'll let you out on the way back," she says. She turns to her companion. "Let's go, Kaname-san."

"O-okay," Kaname-chan says.

"Wait!" Akemi yells. She grinds her teeth in pain as the ribbons cut into her.

In a quiet voice that Mami can only barely make out, she adds, "Don't make me redo this one too."

Mami ignores her.

But when Charlotte's teeth sink into the soft flesh of Mami's neck, she wonders in the split second of consciousness she has left about how maybe Akemi was right.

 

***

 

She's strange, Mami thinks, watching her stare off into the sky yet again. In the two months since she'd transferred into their school, Homura had been kind, but distantly so, always staring out into space or listening to things Mami can never seem to hear. Mami's asked her about it a few times, but Homura always shrugs it off.

They sit together on the school roof at lunch, watching the clouds. Homura has her hair tied back with red ribbons again today, letting it fall down her back in long pigtails. Kyouko sits on the other side, nicking food from their boxed lunches whenever they're not paying attention.

"It's too bad about Sayaka-san. She faded away so soon," Mami says.

Kyouko shrugs, calculatedly careless. "She fought too hard too fast, 's all. You gotta pace yourself with fighting demons, or you'll burn out way too soon."

"There's always more demons out there," Homura says. "There will be new magical girls to take her place."

Kyouko grabs a piece of Mami's tamagoyaki and pops it in her mouth. "So d'you still stick with that same stupid story? That there's a maaaaagical goddess out there who takes the souls of fading magical girls and whisks them off to Heaven to be with her?"

"I do," Homura says. Her voice is strong and determined. "I know she's out there somewhere."

"Heh. That's dumb." She steals the last of Mami's tamagoyaki, and taunts Mami with it before biting in.

Mami tskes disapprovingly. Kyouko sticks out her tongue.

"Well, I think it's very nice, Kyouko-san," Mami says "Homura-san can believe it if she wants. It's nice to think that there's more waiting for us out there than just an end to our duties."

"Whatever," Kyouko says, and goes back to her lunch.

Homura's still staring off into the sky. Mami decides to see if she can drag Homura out of her spaciness a little, just for today.

"You know, I have some new cake and nice tea back at my apartment," Mami says. "Would you like to come over for some after school today?"

"If there's food, I'm in," Kyouko says without hesitation.

Homura takes a moment before answering, carefully considering the words.

"Yes. Thank you," she finally says. She smiles at Mami, and the smile is small but warm. "That sounds wonderful."