2018-06-23 - LOTUS INCEPTION: Mikoto Minagi

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Title: LOTUS INCEPTION: Mikoto Minagi

An encounter by the train station, a hundred nostalgic reminders, and one piercing question destroy the house without exit. Eri tries to be honest with Mikoto - but only after steering her to a realisation and tearing truth from a world she despises. What kind of girl can't hear her own absolution?


Mikoto Minagi, Eri Shimanouchi


Mount Moto, Nishitama Park

OOC - IC Date:

2018-06-23 - 2015-04-27

.****************************** Tama Outer City *******************************.
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+* Nishitama Park District +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*
 The largest, but least densely populated area of Tokyo, Nishitama is on the
 westernmost border of the great metropolis, where city has become town,
 which becomes forest, which finally becomes towering mountain. Consisting
 mostly of woods and mountains, Nishitama is home to lush greenery, ample
 wildlife, and fresh flowing water that has yet to be tainted by the city
 below. Fishing and hiking are popular here, and in good weather,
 city-dwellers who long to stretch their legs can camp out in the forest
 without ever leaving Tokyo's borders.

 The spiritually inclined can find a wealth of opportunity in Nishitama's
 mountains. The nearby Mount Mitake has been regarded as sacred since time
 beyond memory, and a Shinto shrine at its peak safeguards its considerable
 power. Mount Mito was forbidden ground throughout the Sengoku era, a policy
 which preserved some ancient beech trees on its hills. Finally, the
 2000-meter Mount Kumotori is the tallest in the area, with a clear view of
 distant Mount Fuji and much of the region from its summit.

 All of this natural beauty is a mere hour and a half from Shinjuku Station
 even at the extreme end of the district.
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+* Players +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Erutan - The Place I'll Return To Someday https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXkcswJQ8hE

The world below is a strange and bizarre place.

There are so many people. An unbelievable amount of people - overwhelming, even just bringing the stranger to the train station so that she can make her way home. The train isn't crowded at all, and yet it's still too scary to think of getting on it and going into Tokyo. This isn't where she belongs.

Mikoto is scared, because maybe she's not supposed to be here at all.

The girl called Mai Tokiha is - nice. She's really a good person. But she'll be okay now she's within city limits again, right? So Mikoto sees her off at the station, and she leaves back through Nishitama Park, and she tries to ignore the feeling of loss which gnaws in her heart as she thinks of the train pulling away.

(It doesn't make any sense that she'd miss her, so she doesn't, right?)

She's not difficult to spot. Dark traditional robes, a strange bead about her neck, sandals - a black case about her back. She's different to everyone else. She's different, and she is far away from the people who understand.

The late afternoon sun is blood-red in the sky, painting the trees and the increasingly-untrod path all in reds and oranges and ochre yellows which rend Mikoto's heart for some reason she can't quite place. It's as if the park is all aflame. She must be thinking of spending long afternoons with her Lord Brother.

He'll be worried about her.

"Lord Brother," Mikoto murmurs, grasping a hand about that bead. "Lord Brother..."

He's always been there for her. She wishes she hadn't left the shrine, even if she had to protect that girl. The most important thing is to be with him, after all. It's a deep and gnawing fear, even if it's totally irrational -

- the fear that one day she'll wake up and he'll be gone.

But that would never happen. That would never happen, and he must be waiting for her even now. He's always understood her, and he'll surely understand why she did this. Everything will be fine...

Everything will be fine, so she keeps walking towards that mountain, further away from society.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Eri still has flecks of bark in her hair that give her an earthy feel even amongst the green highlights. She hasn't even brushed them out. Right now she's just someone around the station, checking her phone. And yet every so often - she looks at the girl in the robes.

Every so often she gets just a little closer. Her phone has a gardening blog up - she's not even sure it's real in this world. If her phone is real.

She has no idea - it's just a cover.

A cover to get closer to this girl.

"First time in Tokyo?" She asks quietly, "A girl as inaka as you stands out some..."

She holds up a palm, "Didn't mean that as an insult - promise. I love the country after all! You just looked a little lost and I thought I could lend a hand."

Right now she's smiling - and that smile doesn't even feel like a lie.

"It's Eri Shimanouchi by the way... what's your name?"

She's smiling - because after all. It's not every day that you get to meet a good friend all over again.

"So... where are you headed? These train stations feel like a maze... I swear... but hey who knows - maybe we're heading in the same direction?"

That's not even a lie - because here in this world.

Wherever Mikoto goes - she intends to go with her.

Right now she's in a green dress with some earthy brown patches - the skirt that trims up her thigh, and stockings that vanish beneath the hem.

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

Mikoto Minagi has never much been good at phones. Well, no - she doesn't really know about phones at all, does she? Those things some of the people are holding may as well be... anything.

They seem important enough, so she doesn't disturb anyone looking down at them. They're not paying attention to her, after all.

... except one of them is.

It's a quiet voice, but it still makes her startle. Because it's nostalgic - almost as if she's - but no, that's impossible. Yellow eyes blink up at the stranger, the total stranger, frowning in confusion.

But as she offers her help, Mikoto smiles, realising she must just be someone nice.

There's something in that expression which makes her heart ache as Eri introduces herself, and she doesn't understand it at all, so she ignores it. After all, there's no reason this girl smiling would be bittersweet. It's nice to see her smiling!

"I'm... I'm Mikoto. Mikoto Minagi." A pause between the words, as she pushes aside those nostalgic feelings. "Never been down here before." It's as good an explanation for any as to why she looks so country.

She looks away from the trains entirely - up towards the forbidden Mount Moto. "... don't think so. I'm going home... no one else lives there. Just my family. I gotta get back." There's an edge of nerves to her voice, a hint of uncertainty. "Don't wanna worry no one..."

She seems entirely ignorant of Eri's dedication. After all - she's only just met her.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"Well then Minagi-san! It's nice to meet you." Leaning over as if confiding a secret between them, "Hey do you mind if I call you Mikoto-chan? I know it's really familiar since we just met - but it just feels... right."

More right perhaps than Mikoto realizes.


Eri moves to stand in front of her, lacing her hands behind her back. Rocking back and forth between her toe and heels. Then gives her a long look as if in thought. Then finally as if coming to a decision...

"You know - I'm just going on a day trip to Ashikaga Flower Park - but I'm all by myself." She raises a hand, finger extended as if making a point, "No real plans to cancel! And I love the mountains - why don't I just transfer my tickets and I'll ride with you there."

She nods quickly as if this decision was sounding better and better. "So how about it? That way I can get you back - and noone has to worry!"

It all works out that way!

Then quickly confiding so it doesn't seem too good to be true, "And that way I have someone nice to sit next to on the Shinkansen. We girls travelling alone have to look out for each other - right?"

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

It feels entirely right for this girl called Eri Shimanouchi to lean over as if confiding some secret, though Mikoto couldn't say why. She blinks up at her again. "Um... okay!"

She's not used to that honourific at all, but it's fine. It's nice!

Mikoto tilts her head as the girl steps in front of her. She's not used to people, so she doesn't recognise the way she's steering them at all. Instead she just waits, uncertainly, as Eri rocks on her heels. She fixes the other girl with a quizzical expression. What is she doing?

She's - deciding she ought to come with her. "... no train to Mount Moto," Mikoto points out, as if it's entirely obvious. But she seems so enthusiastic about the idea that Mikoto is reluctant to shoot her down entirely - because she's a nice girl, and it's important for good people to be happy. So she continues, a little awkward, a little uncertain: "Guess Eri can walk with me..?"

After all, she's right - she's here because she was looking out for someone. It's only natural she'd keep looking out for people.

Mikoto frowns, grasping at her necklace again. There's a moment's pause as she realises she can't involve the people of Tokyo in her life. "... only far as mountain, though. It's too dangerous for Eri to climb." She completely fails to explain why it's fine for Mikoto to climb it.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"So it's okay? Great!" And suddenly she clasps her hands together. "Oh! So it's just a hike from here? I see I see! Well I certainly wouldn't mind that."

When Mikoto says that though - the girl laughs lightly, "Oh I get it - I don't look tough enough to conquer the mountain? Well I'm way tougher than I look..." She says as she flexes a single arm, the gesture leading to her to thread her fingers through her hair after.

The gleam of a green gem hits the sparkle of sunlight just right from the underside of her ring.

"But if it's like that - I get it! Well if you lead I'll follow as far as I can..."

Humming as the two walk along... Eri seems to be lost a little in thought.

"Eto... what was that you were saying when I first walked up to you... Ani-Ue? That's like Onii-dono right?"

She taps her chin in thought, then snaps her fingers in mid-air. "That's who you didn't want to worry - right? It sounds like you must have a really caring big brother."

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Akira Yamaoka - I Want Love (Studio Mix) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKpdDalhfks

"Tougher..?" Mikoto echoes the word, uncomprehending as to why she'd insist on such a thing, and realises why a moment later. She shakes her head. "Didn't mean... it's just... there's monsters on the mountain."

There's no reason to keep secrets about that sort of thing, after all.

And there's something about that ring...

... it's a nice ring. That must be why she's noticed it.

"Okay," Mikoto nods, smiling to her again. She's perfectly happy to walk in silence - silence doesn't bother her, after all. There's plenty of noise to capture her attention, even without a voice. Birdsong, and other people's footsteps - though less of them, as they begin drawing out onto the path towards the forbidden mountain.

She glances back over to Eri as she speaks again, her face lighting up as she asks about her family. "Yup!" She agrees, cheerfully, to both questions. "My Lord Brother's the best! Always there for me, and always listens to me, and always looking out for me! Lord Brother's like me, so I'm never alone!"

It's such a strange thing to even mention, when she never has to worry about such a ridiculous thing at all.

Mikoto pauses, for a moment, looking back at the train station behind them. "But... there was a girl. Got attacked, and... couldn't just leave there. So I brought back here..."

And it's strange, the amount she hesitates as she says it.

"... but, I don't belong here," Mikoto shakes her head. "And - and I never said where I was going. Just disappeared, so everyone'll be worried. So I wanna get back. 'Cause my Lord Brother would never leave me, so..." Her voice grows quiet, and it's her turn to share a secret. "... it's awful I left.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.


Eri doesn't sound so surprised. "I see - I see." She's so non-chalant about it. But it doesn't feel like she's dismissing Mikoto either. Instead she says quietly, "That makes sense."

When the conversation starts about her Lord Brother she looks thoughtful at first, "Wow he sounds like a wonderful guy. Don't suppose he's looking for a girlfriend?" Eri winks, as if she's being decidedly unserious. "Good guys are hard to find."

Mostly because she is.

She looks more thoughtful though after a moment as she stares ahead. "Never alone - huh?"

She's not one to point out that Mikoto was alone when she found her - certainly not - and looked lost - and scared.

She's not one to point out how lost and scared Mikoto Minagi must have been when she first started looking for him.

How completely dependent she is on him.

Her lip curls up... When Mikoto mentions that a girl got attacked, "Oh - wow. That's really good of you... who was she?"

Certainly Eri doesn't think she knew her or something right. Then again maybe she's thinking that the list of people Mikoto might encounter in her world is... fairly small. When Mikoto says it's awful she left, Eri takes a step ahead to get in front of her, in the way. Then puts both her hands on her shoulders in a comforting gesture.

"Hey... hey... it's not awful. Look - Mikoto-chan. You were just trying to help that girl right? There's nothing wrong with that. Okay? Helping someone out like that - you should be praised! I mean what would have happened had you let her go back by herself. She might have been eaten by scary monsters."

That doesn't sound facetious either. And so Eri lowers her forehead, which hides her eyes with her bangs, and smiles. "I was going to keep quiet about it but now I have to tell you. Because now I can tell you why it's a good thing."

Taking a step back, she taps the dirt of the road they're walking with a foot. Suddenly several hidden seeds that were scattered - that had no chance before - bud... then bloom. Becoming a small patch of beautiful wild flowers, "You see... I'm a magical girl. I have a destiny of battle fighting monsters. So you see - it's totally okay if I go up the mountain with you! And I can definitely say unequivocally that your Lord Brother will be proud of you for helping that girl if he's such a decent guy!"

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

"Huh?" Mikoto shakes her head and laughs. It's so ridiculous that she'd ask something like that without even having met him! Even if he is the best person. "City people are weird!"

She nods, to the girl's next question, with an affirmative noise. She's never alone. Never...

... right?

Mikoto clasps a hand to her obsidian bead and completely fails to notice the other girl's expression, only glancing over when she mentions the girl she saved. "... Mai. Mai Tokiha." Of course. "Never met a normal girl before... there's no girls on the mountain except me." Mikoto smiles, warm. "Mai was nice."

But she's not smiling when Eri steps in front of her again. She's got a pensive look about her, regretful and uncertain. She pauses, looking up at her with big golden eyes as she puts her hands on her shoulders. She can't deny that what Eri's saying is right, so she nods.

She watches, as Eri steps back, and -

- the flowers -

- how long has it been since she's seen her -

- no, she's never seen anything like this before. Mikoto shakes her head, dispelling the thought, and looks up at Eri with newfound admiration. "Eri's like me?! Wow!" The way she says it - she really has never met anyone like her before.

She's really spent her whole life on that mountain.

It was that mountain, right?

"Yeah," Mikoto nods, firmly. "Eri's right. Lord Brother will be happy! I mean," Mikoto starts walking again, making sure not to step on any of the flowers. "It's why I train so hard, right? 'Cause there's monsters. I gotta be able to kill them and protect everyone!" She sounds so sure about it.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"I know - right?" Eri all but cackles in affirmation of city people weirdness.

"Oh! You met Mai-chan!" She exclaims with a sense of... not quite astonishment, but still she seems happy about this fact. "I know her from school. So she was the first normal girl you met? I see - I see... and she came to you..."

Definitely not Mai finding Mikoto while on a Cruise Ship.

"That explains a lot." Eri mumbles to herself.

And yet - "Yep!" She lifts her leg up so she doesn't accidentally toe the flowers. "One hundred percent magical girl - nothing normal about me."

That's sadder than it sounds.

She nods quickly, "Oh yeah! Definitely! I mean - that's what being a magical girl is all about... fighting monsters..."

Pivoting on a foot, she suddenly walks just a few steps ahead of Mikoto, a cloud passes overhead, darkening her face a little as her tone drops, "... and protecting people..."

Despite Eri not being transformed, she keeps up during the hike. Even as they start to reach the base of the mountain. She does so without complaint.

"Mmm - should have worn jeans today..."

Well almost without complaint.

"So it's just you and your Lord Brother up there?"

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

"Came to me..?" Mikoto tilts her head. "... no, just climbing mountain 'cause bet. Didn't know I was here."

She doesn't understand what it explains, but, as they've established, city folk are weird.

Mikoto nods, as Eri reveals just how far from normal she is. So she really is like her - it's weird. It's weird, because Mikoto almost feels sad to hear Eri say she can't even be close to normal. Because she's supposed to be protecting everyone, she supposes.

Or because being different like Mikoto is actually kind of...

She's distracted from her thoughts as Eri pivots, and it's strange how ominous that line becomes when it's echoed back to her. Mikoto frowns, lips tugging down as she hums through them.


... strange...

She doesn't seem phased by the hike at all - but then, it makes sense. She's lived out here her whole life, after all. She walks pensively, silently, until Eri brings up her family again. And instantly, Mikoto brightens.

"Nope! My whole family's up there! Grandfather, and my uncles too! They're all really nice!" Mikoto smiles, sunny, as they begin the climb up the mountain proper - past the beech trees which have grown there for hundreds of years. "We all make sure monsters don't threaten anyone. Bet they'd like to meet another magical girl!"

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Eri actually snorts a little, putting both hands to her face. "That sounds like her."

Lowering her hands, she walks just ahead for a while.

And then once the question is asked. "Huh... your Grandfather... Uncles..." She hikes her bag up on her arm. "... and your Lord Brother. Sounds like the whole clan is there."

There's this low hum as she marches upwards. She's being careful to avoid bushes and briars that might catch the skirt of her dress, inwardly cursing the thing keeping them here for not putting her in practical clothes.

But of course it makes sense that it didn't.

It doesn't want her here after all.

"...and Miroku is with you too..."

Just when did Mikoto mention Miroku!?

Like never.

And yet Eri doesn't act like it's a big thing. "Well I'd certainly like to meet them if it isn't too much trouble. I promise I'll help you keep the shrine safe while I'm up there."

That's interesting wording. Mikoto never mentioned a shrine either - just a mountain and who lives up there. How did she know there was one?

As an aside - Eri glances sidelong at Mikoto and mentions, "I know a lot about HiME."

Oh well that explains everything!


"Hmmm. So Mikoto - here's a question for you... what kind of rules do you have to follow while you're up in the shrine? I want to be careful not to break any while I'm a guest."

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

"Yup!" Mikoto nods, cheerful, a hand going to the strap of her sword-case. "Miroku's always with me!"


Wait, how does she -

- oh, she knows about HiME. Instantly, Mikoto's questioning look is answered, and she nods, assured that this explanation makes perfect sense. "Oh, okay!"

And Eri's willing to help keep things safe, which Mikoto smiles about. "Lots of monsters on the mountain - but Eri'll be okay, right? Eri's dark and brilliant!" She pauses, after she says it, wonders why she chose those words in particular. It's a weird way to describe someone she's just met...

... but it feels like the right way to describe Eri Shimanouchi.

She makes a thoughtful noise, considering, as she walks. (How strange, too, that Eri knows they live in a shrine when Mikoto never mentioned it. But perhaps this is just another thing she knows about HiME.) She doesn't seem to have any trouble in her robes, almost as if the mountain wants her home as soon as possible.

"Well... Lord Brother's head of shrine, so what he says goes. Can't go in certain places, like inner sanctum. I can, but just me. Don't worry, won't let Eri go anywhere you're not supposed to! And... be respectful of shrine kami. It's what helps us protect everyone!" Mikoto smiles, and fully fails to mention what that kami might be called.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

The words hit home just a little. "And you're a Goddess of War - burning bright." She echoes back. Though up here on the mountain, it feels like Mikoto is something else.

It's like she's the single ray of sunshine that makes it through the dark canopy in a shaded forest.

Suddenly somewhat abstracted, she keeps marching, her footsteps occasionally crunching on dead leaves and twigs. "What he says goes." She repeats, then more softly, "Should have figured."

She nods at the rest, "... and be respectful to Miroku. Okay I can do that."

Rubbing the side of her head, she smiles, "Thank goodness - it's such a relief that you'll be looking out for me while we're up there."

She exhales almost pointedly before saying - "I'd hate to make anyone mad when I didn't mean to."

The thing is. Today she absolutely means to.

"So how long have you been training up here to be a HiME Mikoto-chan? I'm really new at this - I've only been doing it for ... two years."

She looks over her shoulder and winks behind the right lens of her glasses, "It's okay though, I'm really strong - promise. I can defeat any monsters no problem!"

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

There's something so familiar about that line.

... of course, that's impossible. Mikoto's never heard it before.

That's impossible, so clearly the confusion which briefly crosses her face is just because it's a strange thing to hear out of nowhere.

She blinks, as Eri enumerates the rules. There's something about her reflections which almost seems - well, there's no reason for her to be anything but positive towards it, right? So Mikoto smiles, again. "Yup!"

She didn't say Miroku was...

Well, maybe it's obvious.

Mikoto's expression is sunny, as Eri goes on. "Don't worry! My family doesn't get mad about stuff. Eri'll be fine!" It's a telling reassurance, in a world where she can move so easily through the brush. There are no trails, this far up, but Mikoto seems to know just where she's going.

She considers, again, humming through pursed lips. "... twelve, thirteen years?" She certainly looks to be about the age she should be - wiry, boyish, but someone who ought to be in highschool. "Remember it all, but time's not really important up here."

(Why wouldn't she remember everything about her life? She has an excellent memory, after all.)

"Eri's just started," Mikoto states, without any judgement behind it. She is entirely positive. "I bet Eri'll get much stronger!"

How strange, that Eri's somehow ended up ahead of her. After all, it doesn't feel unusual.

How strange, that they're still headed right for the shrine. After all, it's where she belongs.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"Whoa! They're that easy-going?" Eri comments then puts her hands together, "Amazing - your family sounds so nice Mikoto-chan."

There's something subtly off about Eri the moment Mikoto relays that it's been twelve... thirteen years. Eri's fifteen and Mikoto was sixteen as far as she knew.

It's simple subtraction. A first year could do the math problem with ease.

But by the way she tenses up - she doesn't like the answer at all. "That long?" The question sounds somewhat forced... "Y'know it's funny... when I was that age I was playing with dolls. Digging in the dirt..." Other more embarrassing things too. Things you wouldn't mention to polite company.

Because you just didn't talk about the embarrassing things you did when you were that young.

"How about that..." She trails off into nothing...

Before blinking, and shaking off that dark thought. "You think? Well here's hoping - I want to get so strong that nothing could ever threaten the people I care about - just because I exist."

That's a pretty positive and delightful goal to have! Definitely nothing could be dark about that.

At all.

It doesn't feel strange at all that Mikoto and Eri Shimanouchi are going to the same place - right?

It never does for her.

"So what about your Lord Brother - is he as strong as you? I mean... how'd he grow up? He can't be a Magical Girl because..."

She waves a hand in the air a gesture indicating it's obvious, "... you know. But I've met a few boys who could fight pretty well."

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

"They're really nice!" Mikoto chirps, in reply.

Nice enough to support her in learning to fight for so long. Mikoto blinks, uncomprehending, at Eri's answer. "Dolls..? Never really liked dolls. Dug around a lot though!"

The silence feels a little less placid, this time, but Mikoto tries not to pay it too much attention. Maybe Eri just... really likes dolls.

She nods, with an affirmative noise, as Eri shares her own hopes. "Yeah! I wanna be able to defeat any enemy so nothing can hurt us!" The pronoun goes entirely unexplained. "Don't mind living apart, if it means monsters come here. 'Cause I've got my Lord Brother!" Because if she has her family, she doesn't mind not having a normal life.

For some reason, even though they've only just met...

... the strangest thing is how natural it feels for them to be trekking along together.

Mikoto laughs, shaking her head. "My Lord Brother's strategist first. Lord Brother can fight, too - trains with me, and we fight together when monsters come - but Lord Brother learns lots of stuff about commanding, too. My Lord Brother's the one who thinks up how to beat tricky monsters!" There's something about saying all this to Eri Shimanouchi which feels agonisingly nostalgic, but Mikoto can't possibly place why. "And then, I'm strong enough to defeat them all!"

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

There's no smile on her face now.

Whatever high that the Book of Darkness managed to put her on temporarily is gone - or at least suppressed by the weight of what she's hearing.

Mikoto's ideal world is one without monsters attacking anyone but her.

Her Lord Brother is a strategist. Her Lord Brother fights together - her Lord Brother commands. He figures out how to defeat tricky monsters.

He leads - Mikoto follows.

The girl keeps walking, just ahead of Mikoto.

Eri leads - Mikoto follows.

Putting her hand over her mouth and making this sound like she's going to be sick - she veers off the trail.

Even behind a tree, there's a nauseated noise - like something in her throat is dying - and then the smell of emesis as she leans heavily upon it.

Fumbling for a package of tissues out of her bag, she puts it up to wipe her mouth. "... damnit..." She whispers as she then frantically wipes as much as she can up.

Balling it up, she keeps it in her palm. She allows herself to breathe.

Then pushing a hand off it, she heads back for the trail. "Sorry... something I ate."

Truth is sometimes really hard to swallow - isn't it?

"Looks like we're... almost there..."

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

Of course Mikoto follows.

Isn't that how the world is supposed to work?

In this perfect world, she has her Lord Brother, and...

She makes a distressed noise as Eri veers off and retches, alarmed and concerned - even for someone she's just met. She's there when Eri emerges, reaching out for her with a hand. "Is Eri okay..?"

There's something about Eri suffering which wrenches Mikoto's heartstrings. Perhaps it makes sense; being sick isn't very fun.

"Can get Eri some ginger tea when we get there," Mikoto assures her, taking her explanation entirely at face value - not understanding for a moment why she might be upset.

After all, she's always fought alongside her Lord Brother.

He'd never just tell her to fight alone.

Mikoto is entirely sympathetic. "Not far now," she assures her, as they move through the woods. And soon enough, there's the first sign of civilisation up here.

It meows, because what passes for civilisation atop Mount Moto is a domestic cat.

Mikoto brightens, and meows in reply. "That's Kana," she explains, cheerful again. "One of my friends! Got lots of friends here!"

The cat slips through the thorns of the brush, and disappears. And past those plants - the gates of the shrine. Mikoto pauses at the purification fountain to wash her hands and mouth, and makes sure Eri does the same.

It's strange, because the komainu dogs which ought to be here are replaced with obsidian statues of an ogre which might seem entirely familiar to Eri.

Mikoto was entirely right - there are a lot of cats here, though few seem willing to venture out into the open with a stranger about.

There are people, however, who are more than willing to rush out.

"Mikoto!" The voice of a youth, though older than Mikoto -

"Mikoto-sama!" - and the voice of an elderly man.

And it's strange, because as they run to her and envelop her in a tight hug, Eri might notice the way her brother has the same style of hair she does - the same eyes she has - even a similar facial structure. It's almost like looking into a mirror, with a few minor adjustments. Her Grandfather is less uncanny - small, with deceptive strength behind his grip despite his age, hair which doesn't quite reach the top of his head. And those same catlike yellow eyes.

"Lord Brother!" Mikoto calls, in reply, clutching tightly to them. "Grandfather!" And they sound so happy to be reunited.

Like a true family.

"We were so worried," her Grandfather says, leaning back and stroking a hand through that short hair. "I'm so glad you're all right, Mikoto-sama." He straightens, looking over her shoulder to the girl she'd run ahead of. "You've brought back my dear granddaughter - I'm grateful."

"This is Eri Shimanouchi!" Mikoto chirps. "Eri's a good person!" She pauses, glancing back to her. "... but Grandfather, Eri's not feeling so good. Can Grandfather make some tea?"

Her Lord Brother raises a brow. "Why not invite her in for dinner? I'm sure we can make something mild enough to help."

And Mikoto's Grandfather smiles. "Of course, my Lord. Mikoto-sama, we'll be sure to take care of your new friend." He heads inside the shrine office, with a final nod to their guest.

It leaves them alone - Mikoto, her Lord Brother, and the girl she followed up the mountain. Mikoto stands at his side, just behind him, a hand clutching at robes just like hers.

For a moment, he just looks at Eri.

Those golden eyes...

... no, they're warm and kind. "Looks like someone finally ignored tradition and climbed the mountain, huh?" There's a light humour to his words - almost bantering.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"Yeah... yeah..." She says - looking a shade paler even as Mikoto steadies her with a hand. Though her color is coming back quickly. "I'm okay... and I'd like that..." She tries to give a smile, can't quite...

And instead says quietly, "Thanks."

And then... civilization meows. "So cute." Eri replies, "Nice to meet you Kana."

And yet the Komainu dogs... she walks past - double takes, then leans backwards to catch sight of the Obsidian statues. "Oni..." She says quietly to herself.

She's hardly a Shinto expert - but she's pretty certain Oni don't guard shrines. In fact that feels pretty taboo given what Oni are... but the familiarity goes beyond that.

This let's Mikoto get ahead of her, even as Eri threads passes by more meowing bushes.

Catching sight of a few strays that won't come out, she quirks an eyebrow. Even as...

"Ah." And that's when Eri gets her first glimpse of Mikoto's family. Her brother looks so similar. Even the eyes... and their grandfather.

Is that just a trait of the Minagi clan.

And when Mikoto introduces her. She putting her hands in front of her, she steps forward, puts her hands together - and bows. It's lower at least than she would for a casual greeting. Even if she's here to wreck their world - there's no need to be impolite. "Good day to you both. It's very nice to meet you."

Then looking a little embarrassed, "Ah. Yes... I got a little sick on the trail." And then Lord Brother - she levels her gaze on him. "Oh? Why thank you for your hospitality - please take care of me."

She can't quite smile either.

Not as he stares at her with those golden eyes. Even warm and kind - that light humor.

She understands it's an ideal. It's not the real him.

She also understands he's Mikoto's Lord Brother here.

She could rat Mikoto out - but why would she ever want to do that? Instead she pretends she knows what the tradition is. After all - it doesn't feel hard. Monsters come up the mountain.

"Mmm... a Tokyo girl like me isn't heavy into tradition. Butttt I actually ignored it for a pretty good reason. Once she told me that monsters came up the mountain - I just knew that I had to come here... you see..."

She smiles as she waves a hand at him, "...I'm a Magical Girl. I've come up here to help Mikoto-chan out." There's only the faintest pause, "So it's only fitting that I pay respects to the shrine and her Lord Brother isn't it? She told me so much about you on the way up."

She then winks, "Good guys are hard to find you know."

What... is she doing?

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

Eri can't quite smile, but it makes sense, since she's feeling kinda sick.

It makes sense, so Mikoto doesn't know why it makes her so sad.

"That's Miroku!" Mikoto informs Eri, as she leans back. "But just statue." That Miroku can be a protective figure as well as a sword - and an oni, despite their status - what a strange shrine.

What a strange shrine, where their kami would be the same as the things defending the shrine.

What a strange shrine, where everyone shares the same yellow tint to their eyes as the cats around them.

Mikoto and her Lord Brother are smiling, even if Eri can't quite manage it. Beside her brother, Mikoto's eyes shine with eager admiration as Eri declares she's here to help her. "Lord Brother, Eri's like me!" She adds, happily.

Her Lord Brother laughs - an easy, confident sound. "So hard you had to come all the way out here? My, Tokyo must be doing poorly. Or perhaps you're just not looking in the right places, hm?"

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Raising up the fingers of a single hand, she shakes it from side to side, "Not quite! More that most guys don't get it when I can't answer their text right away because - you guessed it! Fighting monsters. Don't have time to fix them lunch - or even learn how because... monsters..."

There's this long-suffering sigh, "You wouldn't believe how many that rules out. Even the best of them still have expectations of how their girl lives."

There's a light shrug, "And from what Mikoto-chan was telling me - you know all about how I'm going to have to live up here. You've got a..." There's this light pause which probably means nothing, as she selects her word choice, "...different set of expectations for the girls in your care."

There's probably nothing telling about that smile. Probably not.

Clasping her hands back together, "I'm mostly teasing anyhow - though hey if you were actually interested - that's another story. Though... hey..."

Eri has this long pause as if she were confused about something, "You know I never actually caught your name. You're not gonna leave a girl hanging mid-introduction are you?"

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

Mikoto's Lord Brother chuckles, at that light banter. "Yes, that's true. But you know, expectations aren't such a bad thing. A few limitations can really help girls shine." He is perfectly friendly.

Because it's perfectly normal.

"My Lord Brother will take good care of us!" Mikoto chirps, and she doesn't seem disturbed by the implications at all.

Because it's perfectly normal.

It's perfectly normal that he is her Lord Brother -

- and that he's known by title alone.

There is a long pause after Eri's question.

There is a long pause, and Mikoto frowns deeply, looking up at her brother in confusion. "Lord Brother..."

The boy who looks down at her and smiles is a mirror image of her, down to her short crop of hair. He ruffles hers, and looks back over to Eri, gesturing with an open palm.

"... it's hardly appropriate for me to give my name out to someone I've just met. Shrine rules, you know."

Shrine rules Mikoto seemed confused about until just a moment ago.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

That lengthy pause just has Eri staring at him expectantly. She is staring though. If she's blinked - he hasn't noticed it since she's asked the question.

She's staring even as he looks at Mikoto and ruffles her hair. And then he answers.

Eri's eyes slowly shutter in a slow blink. "Oh my mistake! I didn't realize it was a rule or anything since Mikoto-chan gave me hers so readily."

Eri rubs the side of her head, "Huh. Well it makes sense if it's a rule for her to just call you Lord Brother. Otherwise she could just give it out on accident."

There's a light shrug, "But I mean of course she knows her brother's name."

She says that so non-chalantly... I mean it's a fact most people should take for granted right?

That family knows the names of family.

"Anyhow - is there anywhere I can just... take a load off my feet for a while? I didn't really dress appropriately for mountain climbing."

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5ke731a3V8

Of course it makes sense.

Of course it...

Mikoto glances away, brow furrowing, humming discontent through thin lips. In the dream, as in life, it is impossible for her to mask her feelings; it's so obvious that Eri's light comment disturbs her.

Her Lord Brother is... her Lord Brother is...

He places a hand on her shoulder, protectively - or possessively. "Of course she does - she just can't tell you."

He speaks for her so naturally, as if it's perfectly normal.

Mikoto looks down, with a sad little noise which might have been assent if not for how wounded it sounds.

"You're welcome to rest in the shrine office, of course," her Lord Brother speaks - he speaks so much more than she does, doesn't he? - gesturing to it with his other hand. "I'm sure we can find you something better to wear."

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Eri doesn't say anything to drive it home further. She hates playing this game. She hates manipulating Mikoto. She could stop any time...

She could just tell her Lord Brother to point blank tell her, and push the issue until it happens.

However then she wouldn't learn anything.

And unfortunately - the more she learns - the more she thinks she needs to learn this if she wants to have any chance of winning her a happier future.

She just watches Mikoto making that sad unhappy noise, she knows that even Mikoto doesn't know.

It's obvious.

She hates this guy talking over her. Hates him. Even this lily whitewashed version of him.

She just forces herself to smile. "Thank you again for your hospitality."


In the shrine office - Eri tugs at the violet robes that don't fit her quite right, from her seiza position. It makes sense that they don't. Mikoto is the only other girl at the shrine after all.

She is well aware that she is an outsider. An interloper. In this case it's more metaphysical than social... but all the same...

Her fingertips tap across her knees in a quiet rhythm. As she thinks, breathing in the air.

She can see why Mikoto likes it here.

She also knows why she can't let her stay here.

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

It is so devastatingly easy to manipulate Mikoto Minagi.

It is so devastatingly easy, and the way her Lord Brother steers Mikoto away, speaking to her in a low, reassuring tone of voice after gesturing Eri to the shrine office, with a winning smile and a breezy, "You're quite welcome..."

... it seems so obvious why.

Mikoto isn't smiling any more. The sun has set on her face and in the sky, night creeping in past the day. A full moon rises above the mountain.

It's always a full moon here.


The robes don't quite fit - a bit too small, a bit too ill-fitting. A bit too unwelcoming.

It's the little things.

The way the cushion is a little too uncomfortable - the way the room is a little too cold.

It's a beautiful place which utterly forbids her presence.

And yet, she's been invited by the most important person in this world -

- so the door slides open, and Mikoto's Grandfather arrives, a tray of tea held in his hands. It smells green, with a distinct hint of ginger. He holds it steady, even as a cat weaves past his legs affectionately. He comes to Eri; he sets down the tray in front of her, and sits beside her, in practiced seiza.

"I do hope you're feeling better, Shimanouchi-san," he says, and he sounds entirely genuine. "But I must ask - are you sure you wish to stay here?"

How he knows she means to stay when he wasn't even there... well, perhaps he overheard it as he was going to the shrine office.

Or perhaps it's not worth pretending when Mikoto's not here.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

As Mikoto's Grandfather enters, she straightens up and wears a smile again. She even makes this little bow from her seiza position. She's not especially practiced at it so it's just a little dip. And... then her hand just lightly touches the cat as it rubs against her.

"Thank you. I'll gladly partake of your tea."

She at least knows some minor customs of the tea ritual though - even if this isn't one that's formal. "Ah. Much. And I'm sure I'll feel even better after this cup of tea. It smells divine." Picking up the cup under one hand, she uses the other to tip it up to her mouth.

Allowing the scent of ginger to permeate her - it's then that he asks that question.

She holds the cup up to her mouth a little long. Then begins to lower it.

Her face is all smiles, her eyes closed behind her spectacles, "Ara. Here I thought we were just going to have small talk over tea. I'm a magical girl aren't I? I have a destiny of battle against monsters - and monsters come here. Why wouldn't I want to stay here?"

Her eyes slowly open, half-lidded. A little predatorial despite the lack of the yellow gleam. "I guess it would be imposing on your hospitality overmuch if I just stayed forever though. Mmm?"

Still all smiles as she agrees. "Mikoto-chan might be disappointed if I just... decided to go though." Now the smile fades, "And she's had to bear so much disappointment in her life when it comes to the people she loves abandoning her - ne? If I just snuck away in the night - why it might just crush her."

Staring straight at him, her eyes bore into him, "Why don't I know you? Why did you leave her?" A beat, "Before you do anything rash - if you answer my questions to my satisfaction - I might decide it's more merciful for her to stay here rather than... taking her back into the world that did this to her."

She says this with razor sharp calm.

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

There are cats everywhere, here.

There's another one by the window - staring in with big yellow eyes.

Mikoto called them her friends...

... how many other children were at her shrine, aside from her and her brother? She's only seen him, her Grandfather - a few adult men passing by in dark glasses who must pass for her uncles. (They were perfectly warm and friendly.)

Her Grandfather sips at his own cup of tea. It is, frankly, amazing tea. Its flavour is complicated but not spicy; it's just the right temperature. There are biscuits on the tray, as well. What a strange thing to have, in a traditional shrine - they look more like snacks which would fit in at a cafe.

But then, Eri knows just why that is.

Because monsters come here.

Mikoto's Grandfather regards her with his terrible golden eyes as she makes her speech, her declarations. He does not smile in return; his expression is imperious.

He is a Minagi, after all.

"Well, well, well." He lifts his tea to his lips; he sips, those yellow eyes closing for a moment. "... I can see you've thought this through, haven't you? It's a shame - a real shame." He lowers his cup; he looks to her, gold locked on green.

It might almost feel familiar, except...

"The truth is a troublesome thing, Shimanouchi-san. As much as Mikoto-sama values it, there are certain things which... well." He reaches out, to scratch one of those cats behind its ears; his eyes don't leave her for a moment. "Have you ever wished something in your life didn't happen, Shimanouchi-san?"

He doesn't pause to let her answer. "Even a good and honest girl like that - there are some things she'd rather keep buried. Don't you think it's unkind to come to her house with a shovel, knowing that..?" He swirls his tea in the cup; it flows against the side.

He tilts his head as he considers her, stern as steel. There is only one word for his gaze - assessing.

A pause stretches out, longer and longer. Finally, he tilts his chin up, as if having come to a conclusion.

"... why wouldn't Mikoto-sama want you to know why I left, I wonder?"

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Eri takes a biscuit. Not fearful of poison. She'd need to have a body that could die for poison to affect after all. Monsters have no need to fear poison.

And when he returns her look with that imperious one, her expression remains flat. Placid in it's dangerous. As inexorable as the tide and as unmoving as stone in this at least.

She doesn't say anything else when he speaks. All she does is gives a fractional nod when he asks if there was something in her life she wished didn't happen.

She doesn't answer if she thinks it's unkind - not yet.

She waits. She waits through that pregnant pause. She waits even as he questions why she thinks Mikoto wouldn't want her to know that. Her brow furrowing fractionally. And then smoothing out.

It's only then that she takes a bite of the biscuit. Takes a small bite. Swallows.

"When I was younger I valued the same - though it's more that my father valued the same. Truth. He always wanted to know exactly what I was thinking." There's no smile right now. "In this modern age some people might think that's admirable that he lets his little girl speak her mind - but that wasn't it at all. He wanted to know the truth - just so he could make certain I thought exactly as he did. It was his own form of control."

Her head tips slightly to the side, "I didn't get that until later. I didn't get it until I was punished for not speaking the truth. So he controlled me in the only way he had left. It's a funny concept isn't it? Using the truth to control someone. When it wasn't truth he wanted. It was his truth."

She looks off to the side briefly. "So if you're asking me if I know how troublesome the truth can be - you'll know that I agree with you. If you're asking if I know it's unkind what I'm doing... then I'll also agree with you. I'm not as good a friend as Mikoto-chan as I wish I could be. I'm often unkind to her... and selfish. But I can at least say that I love her and want what's best for her." She sounds mildly distant, abstracted, "Maybe that makes me just as bad as my father - or worse even - controlling her towards an outcome I think is best - rather than what she thinks is best."

She turns back to look at him, her knuckles taut over the biscuit, "... I don't care though. Because what she thinks is best was not decided by her. It was decided by the people who raised her to kill when she was barely out of diapers." There's a light crunch, as her hand spasms, and the biscuit crumbles. Her shoulders shudder as she takes a deep, long breath, allowing her hand to open and the crumbs to fall.

Taking another breath... "If you're saying that - then it means things are probably worse than I even feared." She whispers softly.

Then looks ahead at him, "You're not really her Grandfather. You're something designed to keep her happy... and maybe you even genuinely care about her beyond that - just based on who you are. Which means I'm going to ask you something from what you do know... and I want a serious answer." Dropping her hands to her knees, she gives him a hard look, "If you were her friend - and leaving her here in this fantasy land to let it euthanize her wasn't an option - what would you do in my position?"

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Motoi Sakuraba - Unexchanged Feelings https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZSOdpQuSUg

The biscuit is not poison; food is never harmful, in Mikoto's ideal world.

Perhaps that was the first sign there were monsters coming up the mountain...

... because there'd be no way for Eri to have eaten something bad for her, here.

But then, Mikoto's always been good at ignoring things which don't make sense, hasn't she?

Her Grandfather listens, stony and silent. It's only as the biscuit crunches that his eyes slide away from her, glancing to the side. He frowns. "I suppose you think she's the same as you," he says. "Perhaps there's an aspect of truth to that..."

Yellow eyes lid with emotion difficult to explain as she whispers. "Abandonment... is the worst thing Mikoto-sama can imagine, Shimanouchi-san." A note of hesitation in those quiet words, so much he doesn't say, so much he does.

Eri names his nature, and he inclines his head in a nod. He is not a person; he is a prison, infinitely compassionate towards one girl alone.

(To the house without exit for him who enters therein - to the road, whence there is no turning - to the house without light for him who enters therein.)

"I suppose, in your position... I would tell her the truth. It would hurt, of course. It would ensure her last moments are of suffering instead of happiness. But if I could not abide by mercy... there would only be one option available to me." He sighs, shaking his head. "And I see you have taken it."

He looks to her with those sharp-edged eyes. "You may not think yourself a good friend to Mikoto-sama, but she considers you one of her closest. And if you will not allow me to make her happy - there is only one option available to me." He drums the fingers of his free hand against his knee; it's never bothered him in the cold, in this world. "I will have to trust you, as she does."

A cat passes by, rubbing against Eri's flank. There are so many cats, here.

Mikoto's Grandfather pauses, considering. "... the truth is a tricky thing, Shimanouchi-san. It has a way of coming to light, even when it is buried deeply. I do not think Mikoto-sama will be able to ignore the truth forever." The light of the moon casts through the window; the way it hits his eyes, they almost seem to glint. "There will come a day she remembers."

It shouldn't sound so ominous.

It does.

"And when she does - there is something I cannot tell her in the world you come from." He bows his head. "My duties make such a thing... rather impossible." He fully fails to elaborate on what those duties are.

He breathes out, through his nose; the steam of the tea is disrupted by the air. "Please, Shimanouchi-san. Mikoto-sama must know that what happened was not her fault... and that I do not blame her. She... would not understand, were I to say this now. Thinking of it would only cause her pain."

The cat meows. There is no sound in return. Mikoto is far from the shrine office.

"... I do not wish for Mikoto-sama to undergo any more suffering. That is why I wish for her to stay in this world... where that suffering has been erased." Where the full moon promises the ability to explore after dark, instead of... "... she is happy here, Shimanouchi-san." There's a note of hopelessness, to those words.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

There's this light shake of her head when Mikoto's Grandfather says she must think she's the same as her. "No. I don't think we're the same - for whatever similarities exist that make me... feel close to her." There's this light pause, "I know she's better than me. The person I am now is shaped by the choices I've made. The person she is... was shaped by the choices others have made for her."

There's this moment of hesitation, this slow blink of her eyes. This singular second of vulnerability. "She deserves happiness. That's why I want her to have it."

That might sound hopeful at least - to the construct who wishes to ease Mikoto's suffering into a painless narcotic slumber. Until she overdoses upon paradise, her breathing growing slower... slower... agonal... gone.

After that. She listens. The abandonment statement brings a wince - another similarity between them perhaps?

Truth - to cause suffering. Out there - there might be nothing any of them can do. The world might be doomed - all of them might die. Cats wend there way around her as he details that he must trust her judgement. There's this wry curve on the corner of her lip. Self-depreciating in a way.

And yet - he does say something... that causes her to slowly slump back into a sitting position.

There's this exhalation, as she fumbles for the cup of tea, grasps it, and brings it to her lips for another taste. Maybe if it were spicy it'd be best. Instead it's calming.

As calming as it can be right now in such a moment. Keeping her eyes closed, the cup in mid-air. "If..." She elongates the word, "... if I could wield the truth as a knife against those who did this to her. I would not even think twice about it." A beat, "But in doing so - I'd be running her through as well. Perhaps it's the only way to reach her. Perhaps not. For now... I'll hold my tongue."

She does finally open her eyes, "You didn't even have to ask. I will tell her that if it ever comes to light- but I'll tell her that because I already know it isn't." An angry note enters her tone, "It's the fault of who you represent - all of them. They placed their duties above her welfare - when the highest duty family should have is protecting her from this insanity."

Clenching the edge of the tray, she pushes herself up to her feet. "So here's what I'll do..." She starts enunciating slowly, "... I wish I could tell her the truth about everything - everything I think about her circumstances - but the moment I do - she'll think me the worst traitor that exists. She'll probably even try to kill me." She says this in light acceptance, "So I can't. Doing that right now would make me lose all chance of giving her a better life than she has."

She tilts her head to look down at the wizened copy of the old man. "But if I left her here without saying anything I'd be an even worse traitor. Maybe all the choices she makes are tainted by what all of you did to her - but they're at least hers. She can at least be given one... in this. If she decides she'd prefer to stay here... I won't stop her."

She knows it's unlikely that Mikoto can make that choice - that she would. Knowing it's not real - she'll choose to fight. All the same... if she doesn't... then she's making yet another choice for her.

"And if she decides to come with me then I'll fight to the bitter end for the best future she can have. It might mean she'll have to suffer... sure... but at least she'll get a chance to actually live her life."

She closes her eyes, "And if the day comes when she tells them off - tells me off. Tells everyone off that ever wronged her... even if it means I'm gone from her life forever-" This stings - it's like she's turning another dagger upon herself. Someone who fears abandonment almost as much as Mikoto, "...I'll tell her I couldn't be prouder of her at least - before I tell her goodbye."

And then she steps past him towards the door.

Whether a salty droplet stains the shrine floor as she goes... well it's hard to say. She refused to let herself cry while he was watching.

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

Mikoto's Grandfather - no, the image the Book of Darkness has created - says nothing in his defence.

Someone made to make Mikoto happy cannot possibly defend who he was created to be.

Not knowing what she was created to be.

"Is it possible," he wonders as she leaves, "to wrong someone for the right reasons..?"

What a Minagi thing to say.


Mikoto is not in the shrine.

Mikoto's brother is nowhere to be seen.

There is no one outside but the cats, as Eri leaves this place which only Mikoto Minagi could find so comforting.

There's no one by the door, no one by the gates -

- it's only exiting into the woods that she might find a trace of her.

Hiccup - hiccup - sniff. One of the trees is crying. Behind it, a girl has curled up in robes which seem too small on her suddenly, as if they were made for someone years younger. Her knees are up about her chest, her face buried against them.

And she is alone.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

It's such a Minagi thing to say. Whether Eri hears it or not is up for debate.

Wandering the shrine for a while... she encounters too many cats and not enough Mikoto.

Even listening as close to the shrine sanctuary as she can go - nothing.

Her search is silent. She doesn't speak aloud. Doesn't talk to herself. Doesn't let her thoughts be known.

For all she knows... they're hiding her from her now.

It doesn't matter. She'll find her. There's only so many places you can go.

Taking to the trail in the violet robes... she starts taking a walk for tell tale signs of other monsters.

And encounters...

At first she leans over to check. And then she walks forward, her footsteps crunching on the path. She does not rush to her side - but she does go to her side right away.

Then as she reaches her she kneels down - and assuming she isn't stopped, wraps her arms around her, "Hey Mikoto-chan..." She whispers a little soothingly. "... what's going on? What happened?"

There's this overwhelming sense of dread, because this must have something to do with her Lord Brother... but... all the same, she's not going to avoid her until she gauges the situation better.

Mikoto is crying and Mikoto needs a friend.

And right now she's the only one she's got that isn't a dream cat.

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

Even the cats seem to be staying away, now.

That, more than anything, is the saddest part of this.

Well, that and the crying bundle called Mikoto Minagi.

Arms come around her, and Mikoto wails, wrapping her arms around Eri and burying her face against her shoulder. Her shoulders shake with her tears, and she doesn't explain what's wrong, not at all.

Not until she's able to try and calm herself down a little, though she still shakes in her arms.

"Eri," Mikoto's voice wavers, "... cats never liked inner sanctum, Eri. And... and my Lord Brother was always too important to get involved in fights with me." Her voice is utterly despondent. "... and we never had nice food, Eri. And... my memory's not good at all, is it? And..."

Those sorrowful golden eyes blink back tears. "... not just youma I was training to kill..."

She takes a shaky breath, and hiccups again. "I - I yelled at Lord Brother, Eri. I... I shouldn't... I can't..." Mikoto shakes her head against Eri's shoulder, fiercely. "... Lord Brother listened, too." There is a sense of disbelief to those words, even now, alongside the horror.

Her voice is barely a whisper, and it cracks as she asks: "This world... it's not real, right..?"

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

As Mikoto wails - Eri rubs her back soothingly. She has to be the strong one right now. She has to be.

She has to be so her friends can have these moments of weakness and not know she's all but falling apart.

Mikoto starts detailing the discrepancies between... this world...

And Eri starts taking stock of them and...

There's this slow blink of her eyes, keeping them pinched shut. Her hands still as she just holds her.

The most horrifying fact though perhaps is not the fact that she cannot yell at Lord Brother. It's the fact that Lord Brother listened when she yelled at him... is the reason that she realized...

"No it's not."

... because of that.

"It's not real. All of us were living out these... lovely dreams. Each of us had our own little world where we did it. Someone did this to us as... a mercy. So we could be happy before they killed us rather than... dying painfully on a battlefield."

There's a light exhalation, "I wanted to tell you sooner. I wanted to. I didn't because... I was scared. If I told you your Lord Brother wasn't real that you'd defend him... defend this happiness and... attack me."

She keeps holding her even now. "I wanted to ease you into the truth... so I did things that... would make you gradually realize this isn't... real. I'm sorry... I was coming to tell you the truth flat out right now but... you already found it out."

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

She has to be, because Mikoto is too wrapped up in her own misery to realise Eri is suffering too.

Mikoto's always been a little too self-centred.

A little too trusting.

A little too guileless.

A little too much of everything which makes her so easy to manoeuvre.

A little too much, and it's the things she doesn't say which hurt the most. That in her perfect world, as much as she doesn't view so many things as wrong or bad or worth changing at all...

... she was equal to her brother, and she could argue with him.

Everyone's been trying so hard to get through to Mikoto. Perhaps it's been working better than it seems.

Except that she shouldn't. Except that she can't.

Except that she's horrified.

Mikoto sniffs, a wavering noise of acknowledgement as Eri explains. "I..." She only clutches more tightly to her, as she realises that in a world where Eri was a stranger - she really might have -

"Eri, it's a lie! I -" Mikoto's breath catches in her throat, tears stinging her eyes. "I want it to be real, Eri. I... I want Grandfather to be here... and I want Lord Brother to be here, too... but it's not, Eri. It's not! It can't be! And I don't - wanna lie to myself, Eri."

She completely believes what she's saying.

She takes a shaking breath, another. "Eri... Eri saved me. I would've just... would've just..." Her voice grows smaller, as she curls into her.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Eri is just a little shell shocked with horror right now. Stunned - and fragile herself already. Yet there's only so much she can do with this.

"I... wasn't going to leave you here alone Mikoto... not unless you really wanted to stay. And I knew you wouldn't once... you realized it wasn't real and it... sank in."

Taking a few moments to steady herself, "Take some time... I don't... know how time works here but I think we have time. We need to go search for Mai-chan soon though. I haven't found her yet."

Eri does slowly draw back though, shifting her arms from around Mikoto's back to her shoulder, "Mikoto-chan. Listen... I want you to go back to what you said before. On how you shouldn't be able to yell at your Lord Brother... how it felt wrong to you that he listened."

She meets her eyes in this moment, completely serious. "I know your Lord Brother is the most important person in the world to you. I know that - that's why I got scared about telling you this one wasn't real. But you should be able to yell at the people you love if they wrong you - you should be able to argue with them. And they should listen to you when you do - because they love you. Maybe sometimes emotions will run high and they'll get upset - but if they love you - they'll come back around eventually."

But she knows something. She knows it's... not going to take hold unless she talks about something else. Gain ground. Because... Mikoto just voiced misgivings in the past and...

Her mouth works for a moment soundlessly, but then she slowly begins again, "When you told me you were upset about how people were dying because of how I live - and I told you you didn't have to do it anymore. I wasn't punishing you for speaking up. I wasn't - I promise. I was worried that I was forcing you to do something you didn't want to do. If you really didn't want to do it - if you were only doing it because I was forcing you - then I didn't want that." She says quietly,

"I don't want to force you to do anything you don't want to do... ever."

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

Mikoto swallows against a lump in her throat. "... Eri wouldn't leave me alone..." Her words, echoed back to her, are tremulous from tears.

And yet they are full of gratitude.

There's a sharp little sound as Mikoto gasps. "Mai!" The realisation that Mai might still be trapped in a world like this - well, Eri can see it on her tearstained face as she draws back. She's scared for her.

Because Mai has so much to keep her in a world like this, too.

It's a shock enough to shake her from her misery, just in time for Eri to try and reason with her. Gold meets green, and the confusion and uncertainty are writ plain there. Confusion, uncertainty...

... fear...

Because it's not right. Because she can't.

Because -

- it would make him angry.

Eri isn't angry, even as she talks about her disagreeing. Mikoto swallows, again, against a throat which feels so dry. "Eri, I..."

There's a sick feeling to her suddenly, like vertigo, as she considers the question of being forced to do something. She shakes her head to dismiss it. "... it's... it's okay to be conflicted, right? I mean, I... I might not like it, but... I still wanna help. I'm not just... Eri's not... making me do it."

Her voice is small.

"... being made to do it feels different, right?"

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"Never." They already both know the disclaimer. Unless Mikoto wanted her to go away - she'll never leave her.

A nod when it comes to Mai. There's concern in her eyes because... she knows even better than Mikoto how trapped Mai might be.

She knows that it might be even more difficult to extract her.

She can't see anything more than Mikoto's confusion and uncertainty, maybe she touches the edges of fear. "It's okay to be." She reassures her. "I'm conflicted all the time." She admits. Even being conflicted though - she's been backed into a corner of her own choices. It doesn't matter if she's conflicted. The path before her has been chosen.

But... that last line. Eri just stares dumbfounded. Then... "I'm... I'm glad to hear that I'm not making you... but..."

She leans over just slightly, staring at her with a little horror. "... Mikoto... has anyone ever... made you do something you didn't want to do?"

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

Mikoto looks down, shaking in Eri's grasp. Her breath shallows in her chest, and her shoulders hunch.

"No," she says, without any trace of irony, "but... but it'd feel like I didn't have a choice, right..?"

Or maybe it would just feel like falling.

She shakes her head, and takes a steadying breath. "Eri's always given me a choice."

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Eri eventually nods lightly, but it takes her a moment... "I mean... I guess... though sometimes... It's hard to explain... um..."

She seems a little lost trying to regroup, "It's just... sometimes people influence the choices... people make... unfairly... like... okay like..."

She looks up, "...let's say you were afraid I wouldn't love you anymore if you didn't do something I wanted you to do... and I knew you thought that. If you told me you didn't want to do it and I said... 'Well... Mikoto-chan... I guess that means I don't love you anymore...' even if it was a lie. That might make you want to do it right?"

She says lightly, "People sorta... manipulate other people like that all the time... though it's usually not that blunt."

She closes her eyes, behind her glasses, "I don't want it to be like that with us but sometimes... I'm worried that it is..."

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

Mikoto frowns, looking up at Eri as she tries to explain. She seems confused by the idea. "Why lie like that?"

Why would anyone be so obtuse about their motives as to say the opposite to how they feel?

It doesn't make any sense.

She hums concern as Eri closes her eyes, and wraps her up in a tight hug again. "Eri..."

It's just her name, for a moment, worried - and perhaps even a little vexed. Mikoto thinks, as she hugs her. Because... maybe people lie like that. ... it's true that Mai and Eri lie a lot.


Mikoto's tone is firm, insistent. "If Eri said something like that... it'd hurt me. And I know Eri wouldn't hurt me, because I'm Eri's friend." She's Eri's friend, not Eri's hers.

(In the end, Eri isn't the only one manipulating Mikoto Minagi.)

"If Eri doesn't want it to be like that... don't do that stuff, Eri." It's a plain, obvious solution. It's the sort of thing only Mikoto could say, in the face of all the pressures of social games.

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"I wouldn't say something like that..."

Eri says quietly. "Just that people do. It's just... the easiest way I can explain it. By making it really blunt... like..."

She has to think of a metaphor, "... Miroku's club."

Most people would know Miroku as a sword - and while her memories of Miroku as anything but aren't great... she at least has enough detail for that.

Looking Mikoto directly in the eye as she's so firm and insistent, she finally nods, "I'll try... I'll try my best..."

Taking a deep breath, she finally raises herself up into a standing position. "We need to find Mai... and the others. To go to other parts of this... wherever we are..."

And then suddenly the tree they're beside is just... the World Tree. It looks so dead, so bereft of life. A giant scar in the middle of it. "We have to go through the World Tree." She says it so quietly, somber. It's like she's at a funeral for some incredible miracle of the world. Now gone.

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

Blunt metaphors, like a club.

"Oh," Mikoto nods. That makes sense. Well, except for the part that Miroku's club actually has several rather sharp points. But maybe Eri didn't notice the spikes at the time. Eri had a lot of things to think about back then.

Or maybe that's part of her metaphor, that it looks blunt until it actually gets close and hits.

That would make sense, too.

Mikoto smiles, to Eri. It's the first time she's smiled since they arrived here. It's good to know she can still smile. "I know. And trying's important, right?"

It's not so long ago, really, that she'd said... 'We should try, because Mai believes.'

But now it's not Mai believing, is it?

As dark as they are, Mikoto's smile is awfully like a sunbeam.

Eri stands, and Mikoto stands, as well. She scrubs at her face, to get rid of the tears, and nods. There's an affirmative noise, and she looks determined.

It's a determination which is tinged with sadness as she turns and sees the World Tree.

"Yeah..." Mikoto trails off, and grasps Eri's hand, tugging her forwards - in through the trunk.

It's so like her, without even saying a word about it. Keep moving forward. Don't stop to mourn - or to think -

- just get it done.

"Mai needs help."

<Pose Tracker> Eri Shimanouchi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"She's hopeless without us really."