A/N: A couple chapters ago, I screwed up and said Nagisa didn't have a protective charm bracelet when she actually does. I will edit that eventually.

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§ x § x §

§ x § x §

ACHTUNDSIEBZIG

TIMELINE X + N + 1

The Incubator terminals that had been following the Kaname adults and Kisuke Urahara's ally went offline immediately following the collapse of the Asunaro barrier.

The Incubator terminal observing Mitakihara Middle School did not flinch at the distant magical and physical explosions, but twitched its ears in confusion when all the adolescents with magical potential simply disappeared. Query?

The Incubator terminal that had finally infiltrated the Freezer was busy.

The Incubator terminal that had been observing Urahara reported that he had blinked out of existence at the same moment the adolescents had. Query?

Searchi- reiatsu signatures all pinging from Ishijima's habitation. Without the reiatsu of the three spiritually weak adults.

?

The terminal that had been observing Urahara was reassigned to intercept the humans at Ishijima's habitation. It moved accordingly. That terminal allowed itself to be drawn into Dawn of Hyades' labyrinth- the other terminal was still busy- and followed the party of five humans at a distance. Curiously, they were bound to one another by magical ribbons and ropes. It observed their stand against the Familiars and noted that they were willing to assist magical girls they appeared to have never met. That could be useful in attempted manipulations.

The terminal that had been assigned to observe the school was reassigned to observe the shop. It moved accordingly.

Evacuated terminals were commanded to resume their posts with caution.

The Incubator terminal that had intervened in the Freezer avoided destruction amid the triple detonation of Soul Gems and acquired its target. Mission accomplished. Regrettable that the investment in the new contractee would not result in a powerful Witch, but she had been a potential bonus at best. It still achieved a net gain.

The Incubator terminal following the Mitakihara party twitched its ears in confusion as the entire group disappeared again. Query?

Searching. Searching.

The Incubator terminal that had intervened in the Freezer reported that its remains were suddenly warded and hidden by intricate illusions. Query?

Incubator terminals fanning out across the city reported no sign of the magical and spiritually-aware humans.

Curious.

The Incubator's wider consciousness processed information. Considering all it observed, the most likely explanation was some form of time manipulation. Considering the behavior of the allies, the most likely possessor of time manipulation was Homura Akemi. The two adult males were possibilities, but they did not disappear and reappear elsewhere unaccompanied like Akemi did. Teleportation had been an obvious conclusion based on limited information; everything that had occurred since the Incubator became aware of Homura Akemi now required reevaluation.

The Incubator did not grant time manipulation lightly. In the rare event it did, the grant always served a greater purpose and was given to a strategic asset.

It now had multiple pressing research topics:

What manner of time manipulation did Homura Akemi possess? It had two main suspicions which required further scrutiny.

When had she contracted and acquired time magic?

What had been Akemi's wish?

Why did it have no record of granting time manipulation? That had at least one possible answer: some manner of time travel. Which it generally only granted to the low-powered or weak-willed, knowing they could not persevere and could benefit the Incubator in the end while canceling out the loss in power investment. But Akemi was the polar opposite of low-powered and weak-willed. A mystery.

What had the Incubator intended to achieve by granting such magic?

Was the current state of affairs according to plan, or had Akemi and her allies broken free of its intended course?

Incubator terminals communicated rapidly. The terminal observing Nagisa Momoe's habitation interrupted with a query. A pause to process; a command was given.

The terminal observing Nagisa Momoe and her father wander out into their building's courtyard with other humans who were far enough from the Freezer to think they were experiencing earthquakes idly spoke to the doomed magical girl at its side, who was looking north at the site of recent battle.

Tomoe and her allies are occupied with the emergency, it said. This may be your best opportunity.

The magical girl looked down at the milling crowd with narrowed eyes. "Hnnnnn. I'll have to get her away from the others if you still want me to stay secret," she observed. Still capable of logic. A testament to her endurance. She would make an excellent Witch.

The Incubator terminal observed Momoe and the cat in her arms, then said, Perhaps I may be of some assistance.

§ x § x §

Yoruichi was so furiously paranoid that she seriously considered shedding her disguise and outright dragging Nagisa and her father to the wards, cover be damned. And that was before the spiritual equivalent of a Hollow-bomb went off up by the shop. Farther away than the shop. She hoped.

She had sensed that corrupted magical girl stalking them all damn night and all damn day. The girl hadn't made a move while they were out in public, trailed them all the way back to the apartment complex, and was camped outside. Yoruichi looked out the window once and barely saw her on a billboard a couple blocks away. Deciding it would be suspicious if she lay in the sill and stared at the girl, Yoruichi spent much of her time pacing and considering options. And then all hell broke loose.

Nagisa froze up in terror at the distant clashing of magic. The girl didn't react to the rumble, nor when her father swept her up in his arms and charged out the door, down the stairs, and into the courtyard. Yoruichi dashed after them and leapt off the stairs to land on Mr. Momoe, clawing his shirt as she clung to his shoulder. He tried to shrug her off, but gave up. He soon set Nagisa down but kept her close; Yoruichi hopped over to Nagisa's shoulders and ended up curled in her arms as she sensed their stalker change position and half-listened to the adults speculating about the distant booms and light tremors.

Then the Incubator's scent tickled her nose and she zeroed in on it as it strolled across the courtyard upwind of her.

This was a trap. It was baiting her away from Nagisa. Why would it bother? Had it figured something out or did it want to keep her from distracting the stalker? Or was her reaction intended to distract Nagisa? All of the above? Refraining from running off to attack the little monster would probably be out of character, but like hell would she leave Nagisa. The girl would either follow her into an ambush or be left exposed; the stalker seemed reluctant to reveal herself to the normals so staying where they were was probably best. But Nagisa needed to be put on alert to the threat. So.

Yoruichi snarled and shifted in Nagisa's arms as if to leap away, deliberately slow enough for the girl to react and hug her tightly. Nagisa turned to see what she was growling at and stiffened at the sight of the Incubator terminal. The girl stood rooted on the spot and Yoruichi had never been so glad to be hugged in a death grip so tight her ribs creaked. No escape for a "normal" cat. She eyed the protective charm bracelet on Nagisa's wrist and considered breaking the malachite bead herself to trigger the shield and distress beacon. That could distract their allies from whatever clusterfuck was happening up north, though. Which might be the Incubator's reason for coming after Nagisa now.

No option was attractive.

The Incubator withdrew without approaching or speaking. Yoruichi tracked the sense of the marching band magical girl; her tainted reiatsu moved again, this time rounding their position and going behind the Momoe's apartment building. Then... inside the apartment building? Then through the entire building, pausing at regular intervals.

What the hell was the girl doing?

A woman standing near the door of her first-floor apartment turned to look inside with a frown a few minutes after the magical girl passed unseen.

"Hey, does anyone else smell gas?"

The breeze shifted and Yoruichi smelled it a moment before the magical girl's reiatsu spiked and individual apartments started exploding. Mass panic ensued. Nagisa was separated from her father in the screaming, confused, running crowd and ran aimlessly herself.

Yoruichi realized their goddamn stalker had caused gas "leaks" in all the apartments and was igniting them as a distraction. Was that her idea, or the Incubator's?

She didn't have time to think as Nagisa rounded a corner straight into a stream of glowing pink hearts. The malachite bead on Nagisa's bracelet shattered and engaged the shield just before impact. They were blown back into the street, but the shield absorbed all the impact and bounced them across into an alley.

The enemy magical girl hopped rooftops and dropped on them from above, sharp end of her band leader's mace aimed at the shield to pierce it. She screamed, "Give me your Grief Seeds, you little bitch!" as she rushed down. Her mace sheered off to one side, failing to compromise the shield.

Bless Kisuke and Tessai's joint genius at spiritual artifice.

Yoruichi could hear Nagisa's heart hammering loudly; the little girl was too terrified to even scream. The enemy roared her rage and fired a huge blast of pink magic at them, but the shield still held.

That must have been the last of the magical girl's endurance. Her costume burst away from her body and her eyes went blank as her corrupted Soul Gem exploded and turned into a Grief Seed. Nagisa and Yoruichi were caught up in the dark gale and dragged into the new labyrinth among the sound of snare drums.

Yoruichi hoped the bracelet shield would hold up until their allies could show up- and that their plight wouldn't sabotage anything the main group was trying to achieve. She really would rather not blow her cover.

§ x § x §

It had been a long time since Kisuke encountered a compound mystery and disaster so complex and with so many actively moving parts that he wanted to scream in frustration, but here he was. How did it keep getting worse?!

When he and the others dropped the stop and entered the shop after their macabre adventure in previously-subterranean Asunaro, it was to alarms blaring and allies covering their ears and looking angrily confused.

Karin unfroze mid-snarl. "-ck's sake, what nAHHH! DAMMIT HOMURA!"

Kisuke ignored her- and his ringing phone. The timbre of the alarms told him exactly what was wrong; he turned on his heel and pointed back out the door. "You four, head down toward Momoe's residence. That's her distress signal, disappearance notification, and a possible Witch creation alarm. I'll call you with better coordinates in a minute. Go!"

Hitsugaya, Akemi, Tomoe, and Tessai all reversed course immediately and ran back out the door without a word.

Please remind me to note that we need more on-site tech staff and fighters next time, he mentally muttered to Benihime. Out loud, he shouted, "How long has that been going off?!" as he charged through the building.

"I dunno, like five minutes?" Karin said as she hurried after him. Other teenagers flocked in her wake.

Kisuke broke into shunpo, leaving them behind to get to the control room. He answered his phone without bothering to listen, snapped, "Call Isshin, I'm busy," hung up, and dialed Tessai. He was rattling off data to his friend when Isshin arrived with his phone to his ear.

"Kisuke, Akon says they picked up-"

"Hollow/Witch power spike in southwest Mitakihara, followed by disappearance?" Kisuke interrupted.

"Yeah."

"I'm on it."

Isshin sounded way more confident than Kisuke thought he actually was when he said, "Kisuke has it under control," into his phone.

Tessai's voice rose over Kisuke's phone. "Boss, we have explosions and fire down here! Momoe's building looks bombed out!"

If Momoe had turned into a Witch on their watch, Akemi would-

Screaming. Screaming sounded like a good option.

"Ah, found the labyrinth!" Tessai continued. "Going in!"

Kisuke stepped back from the console and dragged his hands down his face with a deep breath.

Please don't be Momoe's Witch, PLEASE don't be Momoe's Witch, P-L-E-A-S-E don't be Momoe's Witch-

Isshin eyed him sideways as teenagers started peeking around the doorjamb. "I take it Asunaro didn't go well?"

Kisuke couldn't help the humorless laughter that fell out of his mouth. "You have no idea."

Various muttering came from the hall. Isshin crossed his arms and looked worried. He held up his phone. "Touch base with our friends?"

Kisuke gathered himself and snagged the phone from Isshin's fingers. Mindful of the teenage witnesses who weren't privy to shinigami, Kisuke bluntly said, "Put Jūshirō, his assistant Rukia, and an experienced tech on a train here from Tokyo now."

A silent pause. Akon's voice uneasily said, "Captain-Commander Yamamoto is here. He requests a status update."

"How nice," Kisuke said blandly. "I don't have time for a full-"

"Kisuke Urahara, you will-" Yamamoto rumbled. Joy for speakerphone. On the other end only.

"Genryusai Yamamoto," Kisuke said loudly, a touch of bitter mockery in his voice, "I will do whatever the hell I think will keep more people from getting killed. Get Jūshirō, Rukia, and a tech on a train here now and I'll give updates once they're on the way. I need them here and I need them to arrive visibly from a place that thing can't monitor so they can come and go without revealing our transit capabilities. That's a three-hour ride so get moving!"

They bickered a bit, but it sounded like Jūshirō and Rukia had heard him, snagged a tech, and gone off to prepare. Jūshirō was one of maybe three people who could do that without getting roasted by the old man. Bless him for using that privilege.

Kisuke wondered how things were going in the labyrinth down south. Was Yoruichi okay? They hadn't spoken in... Kisuke wasn't even sure when they had last spoken anymore. That was bad. He'd left her in the cold. Bad form, that.

"Akon, Nemu," Kisuke barked when he lost his grip on patience with Yamamoto's objections and demands for information. "I need you to make an appearance with an escort and I have a very specific script for you to follow."

"Ah, ignoring the old man and giving orders for him," Isshin murmured with his face somewhere between appreciative and a grimace. He turned to the doorway and wistfully said, "If things weren't so dire, I'd make some popcorn."

Ichigo, Ishida, and Sado all looked darkly pleased.

Kisuke's phone rang. He threw Isshin's phone back to him and ignored the squawking from it as he picked up his own. "Tessai?"

"Safe," Tessai reported. "Minor injuries. We have Momoe and the cat. Defeated the Witch, got the Grief Seed. Couldn't find a body. Gonna look for Momoe's father now. How do you want us to proceed?"

"Bring them up here," Kisuke barked. A large chunk of his tension dissipated at the news Momoe hadn't turned. "I want everyone who's under our protection in one damn place until we can figure things out."

"If he resists?"

"Then knock him out and drag him here for his own good," Kisuke replied, thinking of the threat he had overheard Junko make to the detective eons or an hour ago. He ended the call and shoved his phone in a pocket, then threw himself into an office chair and slung himself across the room to a different computer terminal. Kisuke snapped, "Isshin, is he ready to listen yet or will it be awhile longer before his tantrum is done?"

Multiple low ooooooooooo's came from the teenagers at the doorway.

You may regret that later, Benihime drawled. Still amused, though.

Don't care, Kisuke thought back to her.

You may later, she sighed reluctantly.

"He'd like to have a word with you, Kisuke," Isshin said idly.

Do not dare ruin the weft with your smart mouth in a fit of pettiness, Kisuke, Benihime quietly hissed. Do not give him cause to set fire to the loom in an equally petty fit. We have enough damage control to do as it is.

Kisuke inhaled deeply, held himself very still, breathed out, and ordered his thoughts. Slow down. Slow down. Slow down.

Haste makes waste. A stitch in time saves nine.

Haste makes waste. A stitch in time saves nine.

Haste makes waste. A stitch in time saves nine.

Kisuke held his hand out for Isshin's phone. If he didn't have witnesses, he'd put it on speaker; the balancing act peeved him. "May I speak frankly, sir?"

"Do you even know of any other way to speak?" Yamamoto growled.

"Several, but most would be inappropriate right now," Kisuke replied.

"As if you really care about propriety when you're like this," Isshin muttered.

Everyone present sensed the return of the rescue party. They must have used the timestop. A lot, actually. He'd worry about that later. Instead, Kisuke turned and pointed out the door. "All of you, go see if they need any help!"

Most pulled away, but Sakura narrowed her eyes and clung to the door jamb. "Think I'll stay outta the way," she said.

Karin paused, then turned back. "Yeah. Me too. Don't wanna crowd 'em."

"Yeeeeeahhhh, I dunno first aid or whatever anyway," Miki drawled as she joined them, innocently suspicious.

Isshin and Kisuke both looked at the three with the same calling-out-your-bullshit face. The girls stared right back with the same expression. Three impulsively defiant fourteen-year-olds with adrenaline-activated bullshit detectors.

Kisuke wondered if he was going to regret facilitating the three of them meeting.

"Girls, please go," Isshin said tiredly, a father who knew he had already lost the argument with his kids.

"Not til I know what kinda hell's comin' down on us," Sakura said bluntly. She turned to Kisuke. "You're pretty decent as a group but I don't trust you as far as I can spit." Then she raised her chin and half-shouted, "And I don't trust a secret exorcist leader-guy who wanted to keep me on ice to not pull some other shady bullshit!"

Karin and Miki chorused their support.

Isshin choked. Kisuke stared. The chatter from the phone fell silent.

Oh, she's precious, Benihime cooed. And such a good distraction.

Kisuke narrowed his own eyes in thought. He couldn't be snappy and judgey...

"You know," Kisuke said loudly, "Miss Sakura has a very good point!"

Isshin turned to look at him uncertainly. "She does?"

Sakura's eyes widened in surprise. "I do?"

Adorable, Benihime cooed. Hotheaded, but adorable.

"Oh, yes," Kisuke said loudly as he swiveled his chair around to face the girls. He gave them a conspiratorial smirk-and-wink. "I agree that we owe the girls at least a bit of transparency."

"What are you doing, Kisuke?" Shinji's voice said in the background on the phone. He sounded like he was anticipating a train derailment.

"In the spirit of cooperation with magical girl society-" Kisuke saw the girls and Isshin all quizzically mouth magical girl society?- "I'm going to have this debriefing and planning session on speakerphone!"

Boop!

"-N'T YOU DARE, KISUKE URAHARA!" Yamamoto's voice blared from the phone.

"Damn, calm down before you stroke out," Karin said with a raised brow.

"Yikes," Miki said disapprovingly.

This counts as petty, doesn't it? Kisuke asked Benihime.

Yes, Benihime replied as she threw a basket of silkworm cocoons into boiling water in their Inner World. She radiated satisfaction. But it is strategic pettiness by proxy.

With the push of a button, Kisuke had bound the military leadership into at least pretending friendly cooperation to avoid driving off their best sources of intel, made the suspicious teenage girls feel included and vindicated, and hopefully inspired a few captains to rein in Yamamoto's anger at anything the girls stabbed at with their sharp tongues with "they're only children, don't let yourself be provoked by little girls." The girls were smart enough to have some legitimate criticisms. It was worth having to word himself more carefully. It forced the command structure to word themselves more carefully to avoid revealing that they were an actual spirit military.

Isshin looked like he was slowly understanding the ploy. Shinji's laughter was tinny through the phone- he got it and appreciated it. The Visored had largely forgiven the command structure headed by Yamamoto but would never forget. The growl was probably Yamamoto.

"Hey, kids! How ya doin'?!" Shinji called out. "Who we got here?"

"It's Kyōko, Sayaka, and Karin," Urahara said cheerfully.

"Ohhh, we got a Kurosaki up in 'ere!" Shinji crowed. "Where's your brother? He off causin' a ruckus as usual?"

"Dealing with the literal disaster upstairs," Karin called. "Which, like... what the hell are you all gonna do about it?"

"We were just getting to that," Kisuke interrupted. He crossed his legs and set the phone on his knee, beckoned the girls closer, then settled back with his arms folded.

"We dunno much about it yet, girls," Kyōraku called out as they approached. "Kisuke, fill us in?"

"First, please tell me how you reacted to the situation so I know if I need to put out even more fires," Kisuke said. "Did you follow standard protocol?"

"Nope," Shinji said. "Yamamoto had us all hold back til we heard from you to prevent that. Give that squirrelly little abomination the impression we're slow on the draw."

Kisuke raised his brow. Shinji was helpfully pointing out a potential olive branch. He would be foolish not to grasp it. Couldn't overdo it, though. So he let out a gusty sigh of relief and tiredly said, "Excellent. I appreciate not running into an extra complication and that makes cleanup so much easier." Praise without excessive gushing.

The old man understood anyway and gave an unimpressed HMPH, which Karin reacted to by silently putting her hands on her hips, pulling a fake arrogant face, and swinging her head to the side and up to put her nose in the air like an offended snob. Sakura and Miki rolled their eyes.

"All right," Kisuke said with a grin. He needed this entertainment. It soothed him. "Something strained the barrier to breaking. There was an extremely large Witch, but we are not certain that was what caused the collapse. After the barrier broke, the Witch created a labyrinth that looked like a copy of the city and dragged all the city's inhabitants inside," he explained as the girls and Isshin's faces fell and they paled. His description of the battle that followed made them look ill; when he finished with the triple self-sacrifice, a long silence ensued both in the control room and on the other end of the phone. Kisuke drew a deep breath and added, "We investigated the site of the original disturbance and... I honestly do not understand what we found at all. We warded and hid it after Miss Akemi confiscated the most obvious evidence. I need to go over it again without adrenaline screaming in my brain. Really pick through the site for smaller evidence. What we found is... ominous."

"Elaborate," Yamamoto barked.

After another long silence in which Kisuke pondered his phrasing, Shinji asked, "How fucked is it that you dunno what it is?"

"Well," Kisuke replied slowly, "There was a crater fifteen to twenty meters deep and a city block wide. At its center were the remains of an underground chamber. Within that chamber, we found thirty-one cylindrical tanks. Within each tank was the soulless body of a teenage girl."

Silent horror all around.

"They had trace amounts of identical magic on them that felt like a structured spell, so I think they were under some form of magical stasis that failed," Kisuke added. "So we put them all under stasis ourselves before... taking possession of them." He sighed and added, "We also discovered the dead bodies of two more teenage girls. One was decapitated. We didn't see her head, but it could be hidden in the muck or it could have been eaten by whatever bit it off."

"Bit?" Karin said hesitantly.

"There were teeth marks," Kisuke explained. He drew a curved line from shoulder to shoulder to demonstrate to those present. "All the way down to her collarbone."

Miki blanched and gasped softly. "Oh, no, did Homura see-?"

Kisuke nodded.

"Fuuuuuuuuck," Karin said, summing up their thoughts as Isshin put his head in his hands. Sakura looked wary- she didn't know that story yet.

"So ya stumbled on a clusterfuck within a clusterfuck," Shinji summarized. "A mystery clusterfuck matryoshka."

That startled a laugh out of Karin, who immediately slammed a hand over her mouth to try to catch it. Miki looked surprised and Sakura looked... interested. God help them.

Yamamoto sighed deeply. "What is your proposed course of action?"

Kisuke explained his plan for making the Incubator think the shinigami- "the organization"- remained ignorant of its system. The girls listened, faces keen; they didn't seem to have any objections, as they kept their mouths shut. Even when Yamamoto gruffly poked at his ideas.

"So I'll send you the script and Jūshirō the debrief," Kisuke wrapped up. "Who are he and Rukia bringing with, by the way?"

"Rin Tsubokura," Akon answered.

"Ah, his expertise will be helpful," Kisuke said with an approving nod. The young man was often a nervous wreck but damn did he know his way around sensor programming and maintenance. He would also be a very non-threatening addition to their crowded base.

After promising updates, Kisuke ended the call, relaxed back into the chair, and sighed, "Thank you for your help, girls."

They all stared at him. Miki said, "Say what now?"

"Your presence and early objections reminded them all that they have new allies to play nice with," he explained, "and also showed that you were likely more willing to cooperate with my team than them despite your misgivings." Kisuke scratched the stubble on his chin and weighed each of the girls with his eyes. "They are at an information deficit and know it. They can't afford to alienate magical girls and their allies. You reminded them the old man has already pissed you off and forced them to slow down and consider my plan more seriously. Thank you."

That was an exaggeration, but not excessively flattering enough of one to draw attention. The girls looked cautiously pleased.

"Maybe you should make a habit of letting us in on all your bullshit," Sakura sniffed airily.

"Maybe so," Kisuke said with the ghost of a grin. "Anyway, please really do go up and see if there's anything you can do. I have a lot of typing to get done very quickly." He raised a brow in inquiry. "Unless one of you would like to take dictation?"

"BYE," Karin said as she turned on her heel and hurried to the exit.

"NAH," Miki said, following her.

"Hmph." Sakura took a lazy step back and raised her arms to fold her hands behind her head. She looked at Isshin and drawled, "You comin' too, Doctor-Man, or you gonna stay down here and talk behind our backs?"

Kisuke could feel Benihime's smirk at the blatant suspicion. They had notes to add to Tessai's note about Sakura having the makings of an investigator.

Isshin laughed awkwardly and followed Sakura out. Kisuke stared at the door for a long minute, settling himself in the glorious silence. Then he turned back to the computers.

If Tessai hadn't summoned him, he wasn't needed for anything pressing. Compartmentalization time. He had a lot of writing to do.

§ x § x §

Kyōko didn't really know what to expect when they got back to the recovery room. She felt like she was in an RPG with a slowly unraveling plot; she had the niggling thought that she had to pay attention to every little thing said for clues to get an advantage later in the game. So Kyōko stopped in the doorway and really looked.

Everyone who had been out fighting was filthy all over, but muddy from the knees down. Bosslady Mom and Chef Dad were sitting up groggily and the "detective" was still laid out on her futon, unconscious but uninjured. Madoka was fretting over her parents, but kept glancing over to where Yuzu had moved to fretting over Homura, who was seated at the low tea table and staring into space. Yuzu was speaking to her softly and generally being comforting, but Homura just intensely stared at nothing and didn't acknowledge them or the black cat in her lap; Kyōko thought she looked lost in disturbed thought. Orangeygo was seated on Homura's other side with one hand lightly resting on her shoulder, thumb rubbing soothing circles into her neck. She didn't acknowledge him, either. Orangeygo turned to look at his father, face pained and frustrated. Plainly, he wanted to do more to help but didn't know how.

"She's having a flashback, isn't she?" Sayaka muttered.

Manchild Dad sighed. "Looks like it."

"Damn," Karin said.

"At least she hasn't run away this time?" Sayaka said with a cringing attempt at optimism.

"Flashback to what?" Kyōko asked under her breath. She still thought the girl looked more like she was thinking hard, but info was info.

Her companions glanced at each other. Then Karin whispered, "She saw one of her original teammates have her head bitten off by a Witch. Seeing that headless body today..."

Oh. That was why they had reacted like that when Bucket Hat Magic Science Clown mentioned that.

"By the way, Kyōko," Sayaka added in a whisper, "never use the saying bite their head off where she can hear you. I found out the hard way."

Kyōko nodded grimly. She hated the phrase give them enough rope to hang themselves with herself. She could respect that.

Anyway, there was a new addition to the adults. A middle aged man lay on another futon. Frosty was making and applying handfuls of icy slush to some moderate burns. Mami sat near him with a hysterically bawling little magical girl in her lap. This must be the Momoe-and-father that had been mentioned between Bucket Hat Magic Science Clown and Tessai. Mami was patting the girl's back and hugging her, but looked traumatized and near tears herself. The older teenagers looked like they weren't sure what to do.

Manchild Dad put a hand to his mouth and whistled sharply. When everyone looked at him, he barked, "All right. Who has Grief Seeds? Let me see them."

The sniffling little kid in Mami's lap rustled under her poncho and held up two. Tessai held one up and said, "Plus the two in storage that Tōshirō and Homura got."

Manchild Dad nodded sharply, clapped once, and ordered, "Magical girls, heal yourselves then use Grief Seeds. I'll heal Tessai and Tōshirō and give Mr. Momoe's burns a little longer to cool before working on him. Then we can all get on the same page with what happened." He pointed at Orangeygo's friends. "You three get in the kitchen and start making tea and putting together snacks. And one of you see if Tatsuya's still asleep. Bring him in if he's awake."

Kyōko and Sayaka dithered in the doorway as Karin marched over to check in with Frosty, who looked tired and singed. Sayaka went to join Homura's orbit. Kyōko reluctantly made her way to Mami, stood awkwardly for a minute, and settled for sitting behind her and leaning back-to-back. It was all she could think of. Mami leaned back into her, so it probably wasn't the wrong thing to do.

All the other magical girls healed themselves and dismissed their costumes. Doctor Manchild healed Tessai and Frosty, then both hovered over the unconscious middle-aged man and muttered about his burns before healing them most of the way and having Frosty put new snow on them. Weird. At first, anyway; next, they did glowy magic stuff to Madoka's still-wobbly parents and the other lady and babbled things about magic and souls that Kyōko didn't understand. The clearest thing was "like a spiritual flash burn and shock," which sounded like something that would require magic to fix. Maybe they had been conserving their magic on that fluffy kid's dad.

"Everyone who's going out on the mission later: eat, wash up, and try to sleep until the backup comes," Dr. Manchild ordered next. Seeing him consistently acting like a responsible adult was weird.

Sayaka looked like she wanted to say something, but glanced at tired faces and kept her mouth shut. Kyōko didn't. She cocked her head to look around over her shoulder and barked, "So like... we getting any explanations any time soon?"

Because seriously: what the entire fuck was up with people being chill about stopping time?

Dr. Manchild sighed and turned away from doing glowy things to Bosslady Mom to look at Kyōko. "Yes. Soon. But we have some fires to put out first. Literally."

Oh. The ones Urahara had mentioned on the phone. Right.

The team that would be going back out disappeared down halls to clean up and rest. The rest of those conscious ended up drifting to to the game room, clustering together to watch the emergency coverage of the interrupted apocalypse. Before he went off to clean up, Tessai quietly explained some sciencey junk about why they weren't up there doing something about the hellscape on TV yet; Kyōko only paid enough attention to understand they'd make things worse if they didn't wait, then tuned that out to absorb things from the TV for later grilling.

The Nagisa kid was a mess even while clinging to Madoka-of-the-warm-'n-fuzzy-drugs, so the adults decided to sedate her and let her sleep some of it off. Kyōko thought that was a thin excuse to get the kid out of the way, but her crying was grating Kyōko's nerves so she bit her tongue. Orangeygo's giant friend carried Tatsuya into the room and set him down as Manchild Dad carried Nagisa out; the boy immediately toddled over to cuddle his parents.

The hours dragged. No one spoke. The same information repeated endlessly on the TV with minimal additions as normals tried to figure out what the hell was going on and how to handle it. It was like a mundane parallel to their waiting for information on the magical aspect. The jerks in the know didn't take it upon themselves to explain anything and the clueless felt oddly reluctant to ask. It reminded Kyōko of a time when she was little, sitting in a bare waiting room with her exhausted mother. She couldn't remember much detail, but knew it had been a hospital of some kind and they were waiting for... something to do with her father. The same cartoon had looped on the crappy TV in the corner so many times Kyōko lost track and started to lose her mind in a bizarre combination of boredom and burning desire to know what the hell was happening. The faces of those in the know were too much like her mom's had been for Kyōko to break the uneasy silence herself. They were stuck in a waiting room next to Hell.

It felt like days had passed when whatever backup crew showed up. Frosty, Mami, and Homura reappeared shortly before, fetched by Orangeygo after getting a text. Three magical presences popped into the wards, one weak and two strong. One of the strong ones shot toward them rapidly. Kyōko slipped into Threat Alert mode and prepared to transform. Then a tall man with long white hair swept into the room, face drawn with worry, and called, "Shiro-chan!"

Frosty sighed at the table and dropped his face onto his crossed arms. "...Dad," he mumbled.

Kyōko blinked. Okay. Not what she had expected.

Frosty's dad rushed to the table, dropped to his knees, and hugged the boy, who squawked in surprise. The man paid this no mind and sighed, "I'm so glad you're safe!"

Frosty's face went a hilarious shade of pink.

-Wait. Frosty's dad. The guy who was "so nice!" and had "almost thrown lightning" at that geezer on her behalf. Kyōko narrowed her eyes and weighed the man. Hmm.

"Yo, Ichigo," a low female voice said from the doorway. Everyone looked at the short young woman, but she only looked at Ichigo, face solemn.

"Rukia," Orangeygo said. Relief. Huh.

"Rukia!" Yuzu cried. She ran across the room and barreled into the older girl. "I'm so glad you're here!"

"Yuzu," Rukia said quietly as she lightly returned the hug. "I saw the news on the way up. I'll do what I can."

Tessai the Magic Giant had said something about bringing in a second Frosty to help chill out Hell On Earth. Rukia must be the one; her strong magic was like a crisp winter night and somehow made Kyōko think of the crunch of snow under her boots in silent snowfall.

Urahara appeared so suddenly that Kyōko couldn't help flinching. The man's face was lined and intense. "Rin," he barked.

"Y-yes, sir?"

A brown-haired figure shuffled out from behind Snowgirl. He was the scrawniest, wimpiest, most awkward little nerd-guy Kyōko had ever seen. He looked terrified of his own shadow. And what was with that bangs-in-a-ponytail hairstyle?

"Come. Now," Urahara ordered curtly before turning on his heel and fucking off into his techie hidey-hole again. The nerd kid- or just tiny guy?- hustled after him with a squeak, the huge pack on his back jangling as he ran.

Kyōko noticed that the older teens looked kinda disturbed. Snowgirl looked surprised verging on alarmed. "I haven't seen him like that since-" Rukia cut herself off. "You weren't exaggerating, Ichigo."

Orangeygo just sighed.

Kyōko looked down the empty hall. Possible confirmation the jerk wasn't always an asshole?

Frosty escaped from his dad's fretting- where had all that candy come from?- and grumpily said, "Let's head out."

Plans were tersely discussed, then Frosty, Frosty Dad, Snowgirl, Tessai, Mami, and Homura left.

Great. Time for more waiting.

Kyōko looked around the room and declared, "You all had better have some damn good explanations later."

Manchild Dad gave a weak chuckle. "We will."

"You'd better," Kyōko reiterated stubbornly.

Her patience was dangerously thin.

§ x § x §

Eighty-three minutes after the fall of Dawn of Hyades, the Incubator terminals that remained in Asunaro sensed the parting of reality that heralded the arrival of shinigami via senkaimon on the far north edge of town. All terminals sought better cover and assessed reiatsu.

Four shinigami, a spectrum of power levels skewing high. They moved slightly closer to the destruction and held position. A few distant terminals could see them on the roof of an apartment complex. The shinigami made no further moves.

Calculations were run; need to know what the shinigami might do merited risking a pair of terminals to investigate. Two terminals rolled in soot and dirt to make their white coats the same drab grays and browns of the dust and smoke coating the buildings and made stealth approaches. One terminal crept up the far side of the building across the street and stayed hidden in shadows to acquire a visual. The other terminal approached the building from behind, scaled the edifice, and padded along ledges to settle beneath the shinigami to acquire audio out of sight in the corner of a balcony.

The four shinigami stood as two pairs. The first was a small woman and a very large man wearing the captain and lieutenant insignia of the Second Division. Ominous. But the lieutenant looked bored and the captain displayed impatience, arms crossed and one foot tapping. They seemed like they did not wish to be present. The second pair was a man in a lab coat and a woman bearing the lieutenant insignia of the Twelfth Division. Also ominous. The man looked frustrated but the woman looked uninterested.

"Well? Where is it?" the diminutive captain of Second Division eventually snapped.

"Can't find it," the male in the lab coat said in defeat. "It may have gone back through the same Garganta after causing... this."

"It may have been a fight between Hollows." the lieutenant of Twelfth Division speculated. "Perhaps one tried to make an escape and was dragged back through to finish the fight. Or perhaps was followed and their battle ended in defeat of one, which then retreated. There are many possibilities. Even mutual destruction."

The captain of Second Division scoffed and turned on her heel. "I have a search to conduct in Hueco Mundo, then. Before they cause more chaos somewhere else." She jabbed her zanpakutō at the air and cut reality to make a senkaimon. "Omaeda!"

The big man jolted fearfully, said, "Yes, Captain!" and followed her into the corridor between worlds.

The female lieutenant sedately turned to follow. The male in the lab coat looked up from his device and said, "Lieutenant?"

"There is nothing else we can do here," she declared, turning emotionless eyes on her subordinate. "This is beyond memory manipulation. The closest witnesses were probably obliterated. Let the humans make of it what they will."

The male frowned doubtfully, glanced at the destruction, and said, "Yes, Lieutenant."

In moments, the fabric of reality knit back together behind them, leaving no trace of their presence.

Interesting.

The Incubator's greater consciousness spent the next hours analyzing the encounter and hypothesizing about shinigami knowledge. They seemed uninterested. Even though they somehow detected Dawn of Hyades' birth, they interpreted it as a Garganta and thought the destruction was triggered by a Hollow. They remained uninterested in anything save hunting the nonexistent Hollow, which they had simply presumed was no longer present.

Interesting.

The terminal observing the magic shop alerted the greater consciousness to the arrival of the white-haired man who had previously assisted with warding, this time accompanied by two unknowns. So the ploy to draw in allies was bearing at least some fruit.

The Hitsugaya father and son soon led a party eastward, veered north at the coast, and established an encampment on the roof of a building on the shore. Incubator terminals around the bay noted the gradual rise of icy reiatsu- the Hitsugaya boy and the female newcomer- and alteration of temperature and moisture in the atmosphere. Though the pair's influence was subtle, a fog bank gathered on the coast and crept inland; an hour later, a chilly mist began to fall on Asunaro. Water gathered on solid objects, but there wasn't enough of it to flood the trenches, cause sinkholes, or drown trapped survivors. Flammable structures became damp and the structural fires' expansion slowed, giving the powerless humans precious time to get ahead of each front and battle the flames by mundane means. Evaporation of the falling rain cooled the atmosphere and helped the rain clouds become self-sustaining, increasing the efficiency of the application of reiatsu.

Clever. The pair of humans would likely still be exhausted, but they would have gained an admirable return on investment of resources. From their point of view, that was. The Incubator saw no point in their actions. Still, their operations displayed creative problem-solving and admirable grasp of need versus ability.

And the shinigami had not displayed knowledge of the empowered humans and their base, nor of the Incubator's system.

Excellent.

§ x § x §

Mami hadn't quite known what to expect of their cooldown mission, but it wasn't setting up camp on the roof of a marina while ash drifted down on them like gray snow. Tessai pulled two cushions out of his pack, dropped them, and Tōshirō and Rukia sat. Back to back, both of their faces relaxed into trance-like slackness with heavy eyelids. Both glowed, Tōshirō ice blue and Rukia snow white. The air temperature plummeted. Mami shivered.

Tessai handed out thick blankets for the rest of them to wrap around their shoulders like shawls. "I doubt we'll actually be attacked by anything," he said, "but stay alert. Don't let yourself get in a torpor from the cold."

Alert. Ha.

Mami was bone tired and her adrenaline was spent. Her brief nap hadn't helped; she slept little, as had Homura. Mami glanced at the yet-more-mysterious magical girl and wondered what was going on in her head. Homura looked like she was making a neutral face but was unaware her tension bled through as knit brows and pursed lips. Her eyes stared into space, mind a million light years away though her gaze was directed at the city.

Cellophane crinkled as Mr. Hitsugaya opened a candy and gently said, "Think about one thing at a time, Miss Akemi. You're making this more complicated than it has to be."

Homura blinked owlishly, scowled, and swept an arm out to indicate the orange glow of the burning city. "What about this is not complicated?"

"Very little," Mr. Hitsugaya allowed with a genial nod as he slipped the candy in his mouth. "But you're distracting yourself considering that. That we can figure out together later. Focus on your most pressing decision to be made."

Homura stared at him for a long moment. He idly sucked the candy in one cheek and scanned the shoreline for threats. Mami felt like she was intruding somehow. Eventually, Homura archly said, "Oh? The decision has not been made for me?"

Mami wondered why Mr. Hitsugaya looked so sad.

"No," he replied. "We have our preferences and opinions, of course, but that knowledge is a power of its own. A power that is uniquely yours. We will not take it from you by dictating how much you explain. Even Kisuke agrees that doing so would be a betrayal."

Oh. Oh. Were they talking about the story behind the time magic?

Homura frowned doubtfully. "And what is your opinion?"

"That the question you should be asking is how far do you trust your friends?" Mr. Hitsugaya replied immediately. "Both those of us who do not know and those of us who do. You could ask yourself millions of what-ifs, but they all lead back to that question."

For a moment, Homura's face was achingly vulnerable; then she seemed to put a mask on, face smoothing into blankness as she turned back to the shoreline. Mr. Hitsugaya didn't press her; he just looked sad again.

Mami shivered at the first rainfall. She was becoming more and more uneasy about getting that explanation.

"I wish I was seeing you again under better circumstances, Miss Tomoe," Mr. Hitsugaya said regretfully.

Oh. It was her turn now.

"Y-yes. Me, too," Mami replied.

The man looked at her for a minute, sadly curious. "I don't want to presume, but it seems to me you've had a hard time of things these last few days," he ventured slowly.

"Yes," Mami replied, subdued. "But... I think I was- am doing better with... everyone around."

Mr. Hitsugaya smiled warmly. "That's good to hear." He nodded at Asunaro. "Kisuke said you had a rough experience with the... scenery, earlier?"

Mami swallowed hard. "I've... seen things, being a magical girl," she explained, "but... not like this. Never so many. Never... in the real world." She stopped, not trusting her voice, and willed herself not to cry. Her mind unhelpfully supplied imagery of the many dead and dying she had seen that day. At least the timestop had spared her the sounds.

She was startled when Mr. Hitsugaya brushed his hand on his shoulder- like his son had done earlier. He looked at her with sympathy and said, "The first time you encounter such a large-scale disaster is a shock, even if you've seen similar things here and there. It pains me that you kids experience anything of the like, but on such a large scale..." He trailed off and shook his head, then firmly looked her in the eye and declared, "We'll be here for you."

"Thank you," Mami said in a near-whisper. After a minute of thought, she ventured, "Tōshirō was... calm, and... comforting. Earlier. So was Homura."

Mr. Hitsugaya grinned. "I'm glad to hear that."

Mami fidgeted with her blanket. "Has he... seen...? Before?"

Tōshirō's father looked at his meditating son with deep regret. "Unfortunately, when your soul is as powerful as his, there is no avoiding spiritual trouble. Uncontrolled power is dangerous. Hollows seek you as prey. Once you become proactive, dealing with the dead and Hollows doesn't allow one to avoid such horrific scenes." Mr. Hitsugaya looked tired. "I hate that he is familiar enough with such scenes to operate smoothly in them, but the alternative could be so much worse." He turned back to Mami. "I have similar thoughts regarding magical girls. I am so sorry you were dragged into this. But I'm glad you're still here."

Mami looked away, cheeks warm. "It's- I'm... glad. To be here. With everyone. Even if..." She trailed off to look at the distant fire. After a moment, she came to a surprising realization:

It was true.

She was glad to be with them despite the carnage. It was true, not empty words.

Mami didn't think she could have handled Kyōko's fall and the Asunaro disaster without everybody who had plowed into her life these last weeks. They made her feel strong even in her weakness. Tears welled up in her eyes unbidden.

The prospect of learning their secrets loomed ominously. The prospect of not being told everything loomed... not as ominously, oddly enough. Not anymore.

Mami found words. "Homura?"

The mysterious magical girl looked her way, melancholy, and said, "Yes?"

Mami firmed her face. "I trust you."

Homura's eyes went eyes round in surprise.

"Whatever you do or don't want to say... I trust you," Mami elaborated.

Mr. Hitsugaya was surprised, too, but smiled broadly at them. "We'll get through this together, girls. Keep believing in one another and we'll get through this."

§ x § x §

§ x § x §

§ x § x §

A/N: I don't know why this chapter was so hard to write. My dumpster fire brain insisted most of it be scrawled on paper first. Blanked at computer, word-vomited on paper. *big shrug* I'm still not super happy with this chapter.

Don't be surprised if there's another wait for a new chapter. Life's busy and I'm tired.