2018-04-13 - I Just Wanted To Pretend

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Title: I Just Wanted To Pretend

Mai and Mikoto have a lot to talk about.


Mai Tokiha, Mikoto Minagi


Mitakihara General Hospital

OOC - IC Date:

2018-04-13 - 2015-04-09

.***************************** Yamanote High City *****************************.
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+* Mitakihara General Hospital +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*
 Recently completed to great fanfare, this 42-story hospital is the tallest
 in the world, with a glossy glass exterior that folds two great wings inward
 towards the main entrance. Equipped with over 1,200 beds, Mitakihara is
 known as a place of last resort for those with difficult illnesses (and,
 ideally, disposable income). Designed with typical criticisms of health care
 facilities in mind, this ultramodern building eschews the usual bland
 pastels and workmanlike right angles for elegant, understated earth tone
 patterns and dynamic diagonal windows and paneling. Its patient rooms have
 large windows wherever possible to let in natural light, and are decorated
 to suggest a hotel-like atmosphere.

 There is substance behind Mitakihara's style; the latest technology
 dominates its every facet, from the touchscreen controls on its room-sized
 glass elevators to the particle accelerator in its basement used for
 precision radiation treatment. For all of its amenities, however, Mitakihara
 can be a quiet, lonely place; not all of its rooms are in use yet, and those
 that get lost in it can find themselves wandering empty halls.

 Mitakihara leverages its sheer size by providing a small, French-style
 garden on the roof for patients. Low hedges of pink flowers seem to sprout
 directly from the tiles, in a radiating circular shape, and an ornamental
 iron fence around the rim of the building ensures safety.
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+* Players +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*
<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.

It's strange. Mai Tokiha knows hospitals - she's spent so much time in them, after all. She and Mikoto have been here before, to get their flu shots, but... it's so much different, this time. The directions she has take her past the general ward, past the surgical ward... is Mikoto in intensive care?!

... no. Past that ward, too. It's a path which takes her up until the rooms become more personalised, more comfortable. And then, finally, she comes to a ward which looks as expensive as the hospital can manage. Considering it's Mitakihara, that's saying a lot.

"Ah," says a male nurse, "you must be Tokiha-san. I'll take you to Minagi-san." Through to... a private suite.

It's almost as alarming as the picture painted inside - even leaving beside the fact that Miroku is buried in the tile near the window, and the nurses seem to just be ignoring it.

Mikoto sits up, supported on the elevated slant of a hospital cot, blood and something clear being fed into her through IV tubes. A hospital gown poorly obscures a side which has been heavily bandaged, a little blood staining through. So, too, are there bandages on her leg and her arm, the white fabric around that upper wound obscuring the birthmark they both share. She's covered in bruises and little scrapes and cuts, and there's gauze over her cheek. There are leather straps on the side of the bed, currently open, but presenting a constant threat of confinement which must have been required at some point - the proof is in the faint bruises Mai can see, around her wrists and ankles, where she must have thrashed so ferociously against them. Machines surround her, beeping out constant messages about her heart rate and her blood pressure, fed by a clamp on her finger.

That heartrate ticks up a little, as she turns her head to see who's coming in only to see - "Mai..."

The word is pain-weary and completely, absolutely relieved, as if a small part of Mikoto was perhaps scared she would never see Mai again.

Mikoto smiles, as fragile a thing as the rest of her. She is so small, so utterly breakable. So utterly broken. What could have done this, to the implacable Mikoto Minagi? It looks like it hurts. ... it does hurt. It hurts a lot.

But warmth like a hearth-fire floods Mikoto's heart, because: "Mai came for me." It is the ultimate salve. She feels she can bear all of her pain, just so long as Mai is here.

"... I'll just be outside," the nurse reassures them, and steps out, closing the door behind him. Mikoto takes little notice. Her universe is Mai Tokiha. She's always been such a simple creature.

<Pose Tracker> Mai Tokiha [Ohtori Academy (12)] has posed.

She never came home.

After over a year of living together, Mai had long grown accustomed to Mikoto's habit of wandering off. It was normal. It was fine. It was all fine.

Maybe it wasn't fine, but it's something Mai had learned to live with. Maybe Mikoto wouldn't be home in the afternoon, maybe she'd be off herding cats or prowling the night until the hour grew too late for coherent words...but she always came home eventually. Eventually, come the dawn, the bed would be warm once again.

When Mai finally got home after a terrible night, the bed was cold. When she woke up the next morning, though, to the prospect of trying to pretend the new school year would be normal...the bed was still cold. She was alone.

There was no sign of Mikoto that day. No sign of her that night. No prowling around, no plaintive hungry cry... By the end of the day, the girl was just left to stare unseeing into the gardens. Alone with naught but her worries...and, mercifully, help from an unexpected source.

"Hey, Sis. This might be kind of weird to ask, but...did you know Minagi-san was in the hospital? Akira noticed her name on the roster during my appointment this afternoon, is all..."

Visiting hours were long over, no matter how much Mai could plead over the phone. Getting to the right room would be easy...if she had any idea where it was. All she could do was wait through another cold night, and head to the hospital at dawn's first light.

Sugiura would just have to deal.


However heavy her worries, running through hospital halls is Simply Not Done - a lesson Mai had had to learn years before. Concern turns to worry turns to incredulity at the private suite - but she brushes her hands down her jacket just before entering. She might be in a dishevelled state herself - worry and malaise leaving little time for fully cleaning herself up - but compared with the girl before her, it would scarcely be worth mentioning. She might look like she just returned from the battlefield, but Mikoto looks like she was just dragged from there.

"Mikoto..." For a syllable, she tried to sound stern - because how dare this girl make her worry so, how dare she get herself into that mess - but the relief in Mikoto's voice breaks any ice Mai might have been able to hold on to. "...I'm here now. I'm here."

She approaches slowly, cautiously, because to disrupt all this treatment would be so much worse...and that smile strikes her with another pang. She comes to the bedside, lays a hand down on Mikoto's, and blinks furiously to get a clearer look. "...I'm sorry. Sorry I wasn't here sooner, that I didn't know..."

Mai can only trail off, faced with the sheer bulk of what she 'didn't know'.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.

Once upon a time, Eri told Mikoto that the best way she could help in the matters of Puella Magi was to stay by Mai's side. (It's strange, but she can't remember how she got into her room.) Those days seem so long ago, when the only resolution which carried on was their decision not to tell Mai, because Mai could be Mai's own worst enemy.

... because Mikoto hasn't stayed by Mai's side. Mikoto has run off, night after night, returning beaten or bloodied or worse. There was even a time when she was too battered to return under her own power, and Nao had to call Mai to pick her up.

But Mikoto has still been keeping secrets, still avoided talking about it, still kept Mai out of the loop. She's learned so well, from Mai Tokiha and Eri Shimanouchi both, to talk about Mai's endless stream of temp jobs and what's for dinner and whether they really have to do their assignments. To talk about these simple, happy things, and leave the painful aside.

Mai didn't know. Mai didn't know, and the weight of those words hit her in the way they couldn't have in Charlotte's Labyrinth, when Mikoto was so occupied with Mai's survival that she could scarcely spare a thought to her feelings.

... but wounds heal, and hearts don't. And Mai didn't know. Smoke clings to Mikoto's heart, dampens dry eyes.

Mikoto grasps her hand with the one free of tubes and clips, and it is tenuous instead of tenacious, and that alone speaks volumes to Mikoto's decimation. Mikoto's grip has always been unbreakable - Mai's seen it, in the way she always, always keeps hold of her sword. ... almost, almost always. And yet here, now, it's so weak.

"Mai," her voice wavers, with something terrible and heavy and utterly, utterly unknown. They haven't talked about it. They haven't talked about it at all. "... Mai." The heartrate monitor goes beep-beep-beep, a little more insistently.

What can she possibly say? This is too dangerous for you, Mai. These things are too black for you, Mai. You're a good person, Mai. You don't understand things like this, Mai. You shouldn't have to, Mai. I love that you are good. I don't want you to have to be bad. Not like me. It would destroy you, Mai. Eri called you your worst enemy, Mai, and I don't want to see you destroyed, so I have kept this from you, Mai.

"... it's not Mai's fault," Mikoto pulls the words from a thousand jumbled thoughts which are more feeling than form.

<Pose Tracker> Mai Tokiha [Ohtori Academy (12)] has posed.

Once, Mai made the effort to think of the bigger picture. Those close to her were always a priority, for certain, and she didn't always pull off what her conscience might have demanded...but she would try. Then, the battle against Alyssa happened, and she...

Once she was...back home, she...started staying out of things more than before.

There were things she knew. She knew that Eri was throwing ethics to the wolves for the sake of survival, and she didn't act. She knew that there was a struggle among Puella Magi over this issue, and she didn't act. She knew that Mikoto promised to help Eri in these battles...

...and when she finally worked up the nerve to follow, it was too late to make any difference at all.

So much she knew...and so much she willfully ignored. So much she chose not to know...culminating in this hospital bed, these injuries.

A tenuous hand gently holds on to Mai's, and the weakness...the weakness, contrasted against an iron bar locked around her shoulders for a solid week, is heartbreaking. Mai's grip tightens in response - holds on to a weakened cat with determination not to lose her again.

"...I knew you were sneaking off to help Shimanouchi in her fights. I should have..." She shakes her head, blinks her way into clear vision again. "I didn't know how vicious things were getting. Not until it was too late to do anything but pick up the pieces. Why...why didn't you say something? Why did you let things escalate this far? Why did you get hurt?!"

Mai's grip is tight, and her eyes scrunched shut again. Even if she doesn't look at the tubes and sensors and monitors, she can hear that little beep-beep-beep, and there's no way to forget where this is. Who's sitting here. What this is.

She tried to not know, but she failed.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.

<SoundTracker> Akira Yamaoka - Please, Love Me... Once More https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKA2cExxtR4

Mai stayed out of things. Mikoto kept Mai out of things. Both of these are true. Both of these hurt.

Mikoto keeps getting hurt, worse and worse each time. She's gone so far beyond her abilities, this time, forgetting the promise of her own survival in the face of a loved one's need. Has no one been keeping an eye on her, in the way Mai always has in battle? Has no one told her when to stop?

The concept is so foreign to her, in the heat of battle. So easy to keep going. So easy to fight. She's always needed someone to look out for her. It used to be, that person was Mai. But then Mai died. Mai died, and Mikoto decided she couldn't lose her again. Mai died, and Mikoto started acting for her own good.

... she's learnt so much.

"Mai," Mikoto murmurs, as her grip grows tight. She tries to match it, and fails. Her heart feels so heavy, seeing Mai in pain. And then... she starts asking the questions they've been avoiding, all this time.

"..." Every word of Mai's piercing questions are like a steel press over Mikoto's heart. They grind down, inexorably, leaving no room for muscle or blood. Every ounce of her is crushed beneath them. She stares down at the hospital mattress, not daring to lift her gaze up. She can't handle seeing the emotions she's sure are on Mai's face. She can hear the fear of one who's been by a bedside before, the burning rage of one left behind, the regret of one who refused to ask.

"..." She doesn't care if the world thinks she's a monster. She'll be the most sublime monster in existence, for the people she loves. But if those people are sad - if Mai is sad - then whatever is the point? What was she fighting for, if not this? She has never fought in this war for ideals or material gain. It's always, only been her people. And now, the first amongst her peers sits before her - and she sounds like she's about to start crying.

"..." beep-BEEP-beep, go those treacherous machines, and Mikoto doesn't even notice the nurse at the door silently checking on her, deciding after a moment that it's just her natural reactivity, and the value of a visitor is more important to a girl like Mikoto. (Yumi has spoken to them about it, after all.) Mai is angry. Mai is scared. Mai is demanding answers. What answers could she possibly give, to satisfy the goodness of Mai Tokiha?

"Mai..." Her name is plaintive on Mikoto's lips. Even now she speaks, she can't bear to look at her oldest friend, the girl she loves most in all the world. Her shame is too great. She's left Mai alone. Left Mai's side. Left Mai sad and scared because Mai didn't even know what was going on. Was it worth it to defend her from this? Was it worth it, to give Mai so many regrets?

"... Mai..." The questions hang in the air. It takes Mikoto so long, to work up the courage to speak. If they weren't uninterrupted, she might have never found her words. But all there is is Mai, and her crushing fear and sorrow. If only there were a building to fall on her, in this moment. If only there were some disaster to save her from this.

"... Mai," Mikoto swallows, and takes a deep breath. BEEP-beep-BEEP, go the scary machines, as all the words tumble out like a closet packed too tight and suddenly opened. "Because... because, Mai shouldn't have to fight! I'm, sorry, Mai." The words are so genuine, tripping over each other to escape a too-tight throat. She knows Mai didn't want her to fight. She's always known. She doesn't explain why she's apologising. She thinks it's obvious.

Mikoto blinks those big yellow eyes against the dampness there. "But without help... Eri'd die! And, I know Mai wouldn't let that happen, 'cause Mai loves Eri too! If I didn't help, wouldn't Mai instead?" Maybe not as quickly as Mikoto did, maybe with a thousand of Mai's standard reservations, but fighting all the same. "Wouldn't Mai get hurt instead? Mai... Mai, you... were gone..." Her volume fails her, words creeping to a whisper. She's always hated to say it. Mai felt how she clung for so long, after all. "... but Mai came back... I don't want Mai to go again!" Desperation clings to her words as she insists on it, tears clouding her eyes.

Her shoulders hunch as she shrinks in against herself, pulling painfully against the wound in her side. She cannot possibly pull her hand from Mai's grip, but her elbow pulls in towards her side, uncomfortably. "So - so I help Eri instead. I can do it, 'cause I have instincts..."

Instincts which let her defeat Witches even when her senses fail her and terror replaces the blood pumping through her heart. Instincts which let her fight magical girls and boys without hesitation. Battle instincts from a lifetime of being honed like a blade, which Mai simply lacks. There are so many good things about Mai - her food, her smile, her laughter, her strength, her warmth. There are so many things to celebrate. And there are so many things she will simply never, ever comprehend. Mikoto loves her goodness, wants to protect it... but she can only ever defend her with sharp obsidian edges.

"... and know bad things." Mikoto's arms pull in against her ribs, and it's only Mai's grip on her hand which keeps her from aggravating the wound there too terribly. The words echo something Eri told her, when she first recruited her to this dark task - that Mai doesn't think she's a bad person, only that she's learnt the wrong lessons.

Yes, it's true, she knows bad things, things Mai would never even entertain. They might be bad, but they're bad things which help her survive and protect her friends. And isn't it a good thing, to protect friends from things they can't handle? Isn't that what Mai's been teaching her, all this time?

"To do these things... Mai would need to be a monster," Mikoto whispers, voice tiny, overladen with grief. Her chin tucks against her curled chest, head tightly bowed. Making herself so, so small, as if she could disappear entirely from the sorrow of Mai Tokiha. "Could Mai do that, for Eri?"

Certainly not. It would kill her to try. But Mikoto can, and Mikoto will, because it's the only way to protect her friends - to protect Mai from the fighting, and to protect Eri by fighting alongside her. She has to be able to bear this pain from doing what must be done, this guilt over the deaths of so many people who weren't even combatants, this shame of fighting on the side which Mai would judge her for supporting. She has to, because if she can't, what chance does Mai have? And if Mai couldn't, what chance would Eri have alone? They'd have no chance - no chance at all. But she can do this for them.

"... I can. Because I love Eri. And I love Mai. I'm what Eri needs, so Mai can live peacefully. Mai couldn't do that if Mai knew. Mai would want to help. And then Mai would feel bad... and Mai would cry... and... and when Mai cries, I cry too-!"

There are tears, in those big golden eyes, which Mikoto shuts tightly as she sobs. Those tears streak down her cheek, meeting a mild healing burn covered in gauze. In the face of that searing flame, she didn't even flinch - but she flinches, now, because Mai's inner fire can burn past every one of her warrior's defenses. She's helpless. She can't even beg for mercy.

<Pose Tracker> Mai Tokiha [Ohtori Academy (12)] has posed.

Mai Tokiha has, for a year, tried to teach Mikoto Minagi how to act in society.

Mikoto has learned some things about how to act.

...but not, perhaps, what Mai intended to teach.

The heart monitor in the background grows insistent as Mikoto's murmurings become plaintive - the tone, the state of the small body speaking, every facet of this tableau makes Mai's heart break just a little bit more. She can't hear Mikoto's thoughts, can't hear her determination - she's just left holding on to someone who seemed so strong and now seems so weak

and it's been ten years but nothing changes

every time the same old ending

There's a footstep at the door. Barely audible, quiet enough to not disturb the ill - but it's enough to send ice down Mai's spin, spur her to look at the monitor, look at the nurse with a face of broken worry. Whatever the nurse sees here, in the vitals or in Mai's face...it seems to be enough to satisfy them.

And then they're alone, and Mikoto's speaking again, and she has Mai's attention because how can she not?

All in a flurry, like a storm no one should have to weather, Mikoto throws answers at Mai. The first, most crucial, that Mai shouldn't fight because then she'd go away again-

Mai goes still, as if someone walked on her grave.

Then the ice returns. All of this was to help Eri...becoming a monster, to save one person. Mai swallows a lump, swallows her fear, swallows her fury...what will be first to emerge?

The confession, in the end, is met with silence. Or the closest thing that can be found here, at least - time's passage marked by those incessant beeps, as tears begin to fall. It would almost seem as if Mai was gone again, gone for good...save for that hand's grip, tight as ever.

"I thought..." Mai's voice is rough - whatever emotion she swallowed left its mark. She takes a deep breath, and speaks again - with a quiet fury, with a quiet fear, with a quiet compassion, all rolled into one. "I thought -you- were gone, Mikoto. You didn't come to dinner, didn't come home at all...I thought you might never be coming back. I don't...you...what was I supposed to do -but- worry?!"

She's still not letting go. Maybe she'll never let go.

But there's something that was said there, that can't be forgotten. "I...found out what Shimanouchi was doing. Found out why, and I understand, but...you're right. I would have had to be a monster to help her. I'm not sure I could have done that...I'm surprised I was able to stand aside." There's anger in her voice, even hatred - but it's a particular tone Mikoto might have heard before. That special venom that Mai reserves for judging herself.

"...but it just couldn't stop, could it? Even if I could leave things alone, there are...were people who couldn't. Whatever else, Mikoto...you shouldn't have been in this fight. Shouldn't have gotten hurt like this...but that's my fault too. I should have stepped in, said something, after that night I had to carry you home..."

She's quiet a moment. Neglectful of tears, wiping away neither her own nor Mikoto's. Her grip is trembling, now, and she starts murmuring quiet apologies under her breath. Maybe they're meant for Mikoto, maybe not...but they're being said.

"...I'm sorry. I should have been there, should have done what I was supposed to... I just wanted to pretend we were just normal students, was that so wrong?"

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.

Silence. Silence has the greatest gravity of all. Mikoto tenses in anticipation. Her side twinges in further protest. She clenches her teeth and ignores it.

Mai is angry. Mai is scared. Mai cares. Mikoto's breath hitches, as Mai starts speaking, starts talking about how she was gone. She can't say anything in her defense. Yumi said... she really did almost go.

And even if she's still here, she still left Mai alone at night. Mikoto always comes home eventually, even if she's dirty from a long night of searching or scraped up from a battle. She always returns. Except when she didn't - except when she couldn't. "... tried so hard to come back," Mikoto murmurs, quiet voice wavering underneath her tears. Mai doesn't know how hard it was to ignore the call to finish everything. The call to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The call to ensure safety through strength instead of retreating and betraying her very nature in the process.

... the call to kill her enemies in their moment of weakness, so they would never cause trouble again.

But Mai doesn't know that. Mai couldn't have known that. Mai doesn't know bloodlust or battle-rage. Mai is not a berserker. Mai's always been the one stopping her; she can't possibly know how hard it was to stop herself.

She can't possibly know, except she can clearly see the effects, the weakness and the wounds.

But Mikoto doesn't realise that, under the weight of Mai telling her she thought she was gone. No - let's not use euphemisms. Mai Tokiha thought Mikoto was dead. Mikoto had worried her so terribly, had returned so beaten so often, that when she finally didn't, Mai had no choice but to fear the worst. Mikoto must be the most wretched monster in existence, to make Mai worry so. Her chest rises and falls as she sobs, openly. In that way... she's still so honest. She's never been able to hide her feelings.

And right now, Mikoto feels like she's failed. Feels like she's made a horrible mistake. Feels like she's messed everything up. They're feelings which are only compounded by the anger in Mai's words, as Mai condemns them with the assertion that she's surprised she could even ignore it. She hears the venom. But Mikoto, wretched Mikoto, can only imagine it's meant for her.

A horrible fear rises in her heart, clutches her, causes her to gasp audibly as images of Mai Tokiha with the Chevaliers fill her mind. Of Mai as - of Mai as a-! No, that's not possible, she wouldn't, she'd never -

It's always been temporary. You've never been each other's first priorities. This is a union of convenience alone.

Mikoto shakes her head, violently, and to all the world it seems as if she's upset that Mai couldn't be a monster. Her breath hitches, catches as her breath quickens. BEEP-BEEP-BEEP, protest the scary machines.

It couldn't stop. They couldn't stop. None of them could stop. Mikoto shouldn't have been fighting, Mai says, and Mikoto sobs. "Fuh-fighting's - I -" She stumbles over the words, unable to summon them correctly in the fear and sorrow Mai has inspired in her. "- gotta - help," and it's not certain whether she's explaining herself or pleading for it.

Mikoto tries, struggles to calm herself, deep breath, deep breath. She tries to order her words better, this time. "... Mai... Mai deserves normal life... Eri, too, but Eri can't... I, I wanted Mai to smile..." She wanted it so desperately.

<Pose Tracker> Mai Tokiha [Ohtori Academy (12)] has posed.

Mai's hand is trembling.

Mai's hand is holding on tight.

Mai's grip, if anything, becomes even tighter at Mikoto's murmur, like she's trying to embody a full-body hug in a single hand-holding. "...I know you did. You're here. You're...here..."

It's a cold wet day all over again, in spite of the sun's defiant shining outside the window.

There's a beeping at the edge of Mai's consciousness, pulling her from remembered trauma, and she sees and hears too late the hyperventilating. There's a quiet scrape, as the chair by the bedside is effectively discarded, as Mai's free hand goes to Mikoto's shoulder. "No, Mikoto, no - you don't have to fight. You help in lots of ways! Just...you getting hurt..." She stammers, lost for words in Mikoto's panic.

And then there's a noise at the door. "Tokiha-san? I'm afraid the guest needs her rest. One minute, then you need to go.

Mai whirls, a sharpness in her gaze - but perhaps wisely, the nurse has already stepped away to get something. One minute. One minute to say...whatever needs to be said, and she can't fix things, she can only break things-

She turns to Mikoto, her face...not angry, at least, not any more. The fear's still there, and she seems so lost...

But a shuddering breath, a squeeze for Mikoto's hand and shoulder. "It's - " A hiccup. "It's okay, Mikoto. A normal life...that doesn't matter right now. Just focus on healing, okay? Just get better, and everything will be okay."

There's a smile.

She might have had to force it into place, force it past the endless worry and panic and fear and why is she hurt in the first place -

- but whatever struggles it had to overcome, the smile Mikoto wanted is there, right now.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.

Mikoto is here. But in what condition?

She shakes her head, less ferociously now. "I can't..." make everything better, fix this, think of a solution, find a way to make everyone happy, not clever enough, not suited, mine is to follow, to fight, what else can i do, now i cannot even do that

Mikoto clutches at Mai's hand, as tightly as her weakened grip will allow. It is her one anchor to a world she loved so much before everything went wrong. She struggles to contain her sobs.

And then the nurse demands her rest. "No!" Mikoto snaps, fiercely, pushing herself up as if to stop him from deciding something so terrible. It leaves her gasping in pain - she has to use her injured arm, with Mai capturing the other like she has - and she sinks back down against the bed again, shaking from the effort. Her voice grows desperate, through panting breaths. "Mai... don't go..!" Beep-BEEP-BEEP, go those terrifying machines.

"Mai," Mikoto whimpers, a voice born of loneliness and pain and fear. "Mai, please..."

And after years, she must understand the implication of those words. Mai, please, I need you. Mai, please, I'm scared. Mai, please, this is a strange place, and there are so many enemies in the world, and I am trying so hard. Mai, please, it hurts. Mai, please, stay with me. Mai, please, don't leave me alone again.

It's okay, Mai says. But it was never okay. Mai pushes her feelings aside and smiles just as Mikoto wanted her to, but it's all wrong. It's all wrong, because Mikoto knows she's feeling pain, knows she's angry and sad and scared and she's just - trying to be there for Mikoto even despite all that because that's who Mai is, Mai is dutiful and kind and - and never - ever -

And Mikoto has brought this on her.

"It matters," she whispers, hoarsely. "... matters to Mai."

She squeezes Mai's hand, with her wavering grip. Swallows against the tears. "... Mai..."

How can she help Mai, now she can't even fight? When she is so totally, utterly useless?

"... I'll come back, Mai. We - we can have dinner and -" - and everything will be normal? How can it, when Sayaka is still at large, when everyone has a reason to kill Eri Shimanouchi? How can it, when Mikoto swore Eri's enemies were Mikoto's own? How can it, when Mikoto has now realised the dark influence in the back of her thoughts?

"- and -" the words are like sandpaper in her throat.

"- and -" not smart enough to finish that sentence either

The nurse steps inside, expression severe. "All right, that's enough. Come on. You can come back and visit her tomorrow, Tokiha-san." There's a quiet edge to his voice, as if to say, and maybe you can avoid agitating her so much next time.

Mikoto only clutches Mai's hand more tightly. It's only Mai's own influence which eventually lets her release it.

... it feels like she's letting go of more than just her hand.

<Pose Tracker> Mai Tokiha [Ohtori Academy (12)] has posed.

She doesn't want to let go.

She can't let go.

She has to let go.

Every second Mai can claim, she does. The grip on Mikoto's hand is firm, painfully tight when spurred by the shout of panic. Because she has to leave, and she has to be reassuring, and she has to keep that painted smile to keep Mikoto happy-

But the normalcy does matter, and Mikoto declaring this cuts like obsidian.

She doesn't have words. Can't have words. What heat there was, what fury, is now an empty cold - because things being nice and normal matters, and they never will be normal again. Things have changed, and...they won't go back.

Time never goes back.

The nurse interrupts Mikoto, and Mai starts - twitching at the reminder that time really is passing. Has passed. With both hands, she squeezes Mikoto's hand - just a moment, just a reassurance, just a reminder. "Tomorrow. I'll be back tomorrow, Mikoto. Just focus on getting healthy, okay? I'll make a special dinner once you're recovered."

This time, the smile is a little more honest - that much, that much she can look forward to. They can all pretend everything's fine for an hour, and then another hour after that, and...

Begrudgingly, cautiously, Mai stands up. Blinks until she can see clearly again, squeezes Mikoto's hand one last time - and lets go. Moments after that, the hospital room has but one HiME.

"....sorry. She...I...I'm not used to seeing her like that." Gaze to the floor in shame, brushing past the nurse without waiting for an acknowledgement, Mai hurries out of the ward, out of the hospital, to...who knows where. Maybe school. Maybe she'll work up the nerve.

Maybe one day things will seem normal again.