2018-10-12 - Two Cats

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Two Cats

Madoka brings lunch for the watch over Oktavia at Haneda Airport. Mikoto discovers an unexpected ally. They share a promise.


Mikoto Minagi, Madoka Kaname


Haneda Airport

OOC - IC Date:

10/14/2018 - 05-21-2015

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> New Model Army - Whirlwind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWHznR2cLe4

To hold back - to interrupt - to prevent from developing.

There are a lot of ways to ask someone to stop.

Mikoto Minagi cannot be held back or interrupted or prevented.

Midterms are still going on. She's tried to attend occasionally, here and there. Mai would be disappointed if she didn't try. Midori's despairing look as she came in the middle of her exam was the only one which gave Mikoto any pause. Disappointing her is too bad, because she actually does well in her class, compared to all the others. She won't do well this time around. She just didn't have enough time.

She never has enough time.

That's why school is the first thing to go.

They talk about it, of course. Ohtori talks about everything. It's just words. It doesn't matter. She doesn't interrupt them - just stares, examines their faces, their silhouettes...

But there's no recognition, and they just think her weird.

The girls, too, even though she doesn't stare at them. She glares, sometimes, when she hears something particularly hurtful. If they suspect she can hear them, they are secure in the knowledge she will not act. It is strange accord.

Long as it's been, she does not just search Ohtori. She goes to Tokyo when she should be sitting her English exam; she casts a wide net. She does not know the limits of Fuuka. She's desperate. She's guessing.

She doesn't have enough time, and she needs to focus on what's important.

The sun moves in the sky, under cover of clouds which poured their hearts out before the dawn broke. It is how she keeps time, more than any number of numbers on flat screens in the city. And there is something else she has to do, now. She does not have a phone to coordinate; she volunteers assistance and trusts it will propagate. Neither does she have a phone to alter her plans once set.

Mikoto, set in motion, cannot be stopped.

She says she will help because she must work twice as hard so Eri can rest.

Redoubled, redoubled, redoubled...

She hasn't been sleeping well. She can't remember the details. She can guess.

She keeps moving, to Haneda, reaching it late-morning. She is on time today, more or less. She doesn't mind keeping watch during school hours, through noon, as the sun rises up to its apex. Surely whoever she freed must have run off to their own exams.

Mai will be disappointed that she has not seen to hers.

There just isn't enough time.

Is it a mercy, then, that she comes to a stop in the concrete lean-to they have constructed? That, for a few hours, she is obligated to tether herself, only able to stray long enough to warn curious onlookers from the travesty before her?

In this meaning, at least, she can stop. For a while. She promised, so it's okay.

She sits on a fallen concrete slab, Miroku laid in its case beside her. Her swinging legs are too short to quite reach a puddle which has formed from the early rains, pooling in the place where twisted rebar meets tortured ground. It is still, unlike the sinkhole which coils.

She wears a high-school uniform. She seems too small for it.

Some people are just smaller than others.

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Regina Spektor - Consequence of Sound https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L0bf2YKMDM

It takes Madoka a long time to cross the broken ground. It is in its way like watching a cat navigate a complex landscape, in the sense that she is much smaller than the obstacles involved, in the sense that she tends to pause, consider the latest pile of rubble, and then make her move all at once, and in the sense that sometimes she bites off a little more than she can chew. There is a good ninety second period where she's stranded on top of a big piece of concrete and obviously unsure how she's going to get down.

The answer is gracelessly, and in that way she isn't like a cat at all, except perhaps the clumsiest of kittens. It's not a bad analogy. She's fluffy like one, and timid like some of them can be. And brave like some of them can be, too. She always jumps down in the end.

Eventually she's close enough that it becomes obvious that some of her problem is that she is carrying something -- and when she's closer still, it becomes obvious that it's an overstuffed backpack. At first she wore it on her back but eventually it wound up on her front for even safer keeping. It is pretty large, especially bulging like this, and she is very small, and it makes her look even more like a child than usual, makes her own Ohtori High School uniform comically out of place.

Like Mikoto, she's missing her ribbon, but unlike Mikoto that's because she was wearing it until the other day, and now it's tied around the palm of a corpse. Madoka almost looks like a corpse herself; her eyes have lost all of their shine, her hair too, and her skin is chalky with exhaustion. There is a sense, as she carefully, painstakingly puts one foot in front of the next, that she keeps walking because it's the only thing left.

At last she's there, at the lean-to, even littler than she is, and exactly as little as Mikoto.

Her lips move, though her voice is so quiet that it's more necessary to read them than to listen. 'Tadaima,' she mumbled, she whispered, she sighed.

She reached out and touched it like an old friend. She, too, must have been here several times by now.

With great care, she eases her burden off her shoulders and into her forearms.

She's not strong like Mikoto, though, and, almost in slow motion, she starts to lose her balance -- and her grip on the backpack.

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

It is a clumsy approach, not difficult to spy. The elder kitten in this scenario, Mikoto watches Madoka's fumbling attempts to move forward out of the corner of her eye. A flutter of movement suggests that something is wrong: she is missing her ribbons. ... she wouldn't have retrieved them.

Mikoto wonders if she should warn her off, like the others. She's normal. She isn't involved. She's in danger, being here. She is in more danger than any of the curious onlookers. They are driven by interest. She is driven by grief.

She's a snack.

... and the thing which was once Sayaka can't be Sayaka any more, even if it has a piano.

There is a vindictive shard to her jagged heart which thinks it would serve her right to turn her away, but as Madoka hesitates on a slab of concrete she is still enough for Mikoto to turn and really focus on her face. Even at this distance, it's obvious to her. She knows what it is because she can fill in the gaps. She has seen Eri's face.

And the curl of her lip falls as she condemns herself for those protective feelings against someone who has lost everything.

She isn't a threat. She's a snack.

Mikoto lowers her gaze, returns her primary attention to the sinkhole. It heralds an unknowable thing. Better the monster she knows. She thinks Madoka would feel self-conscious, being watched when she picks her way forward so inexpertly. If she is a kitten, Mikoto will afford her the consideration of one.

At some point - though she cannot place precisely where - Mikoto realised she could not possibly turn Madoka away, because Madoka wants to come and see the thing her friend has become.

She's a snack, and Mikoto will just have to knock her out if the thing which was Sayaka gets hungry.

At least she can do that this time.

And eventually, eventually, the sounds of jumping and fumbling and footsteps come to the shelter, and Mikoto turns back towards Madoka again. It's well she does - Madoka says she's home and there is no volume to it at all, just a little uptick in sound against the silence, and maybe it could have just been a puff of exertion but for the way her lips shape the word.

Mikoto's lips part, and they do not quite manage anything, because she hesitates on the name. She does not know how to talk to Madoka.

She doesn't know how to talk to her, but her eyes are keen. They catch the way the weight of the backpack shifts, the attempt to compensate, the cascade of events which will in a moment lead to Madoka on her backside.

Splish-splish go sensible Ohtori flats in the puddle as Mikoto pushes herself off the concrete and steps forward, one pace, two, three, quick and surefooted.

She doesn't ask.

A hand goes around Madoka's back, grasping her before she can fall; the other hooks under the backpack, catching it in hardened grip. She is not transformed. She is still strong enough to catch a girl and her pack of broken hopes, to support them without stumbling.

"Careful," Mikoto says, because she can't ask if Madoka is okay. She already knows the answer to that question. And the word is a little awkward, a little unsure, a little guarded... but it is not snarled, or howled, or spat, as Madoka has always seen her. Off the battlefield and on it, they could so easily be mistaken for different people entirely, even leaving Recognition Inhibition from the equation. "... here. Let me."

She glances down to the backpack, and she will be happy to hold it for Madoka while she finds her balance again.

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

It is perhaps the ultimate proof of Madoka's current emotional state that she is unembarrassed by Mikoto's save -- by the closeness of the two of them as they're pressed together by gravity below and the backpack above -- by the injunction, awkward as it is, but caring also.

She just stares, dully, at the tiny expanse of middle distance between their two noses, for a long moment, too-long.

It takes a few seconds of visibly deliberate pulling-herself-together -- Mikoto can feel her regain her equilibrium, both literally as her weight returns to her own hips, and metaphorically as her eyes slide as slowly into focus as a raindrop down a shattered fragment of window, or down the side of an abandoned bus station.

But then she's there, and they're together, pink eyes settled upon gold.

"Thank you," she replies softly, like an echo of an echo.

Once she can, she reclaims the bag -- it really was heavy, and full of shifting, smaller things, making it even more complicated to carry -- and squats it down until she's on her knees and it's on the ground. Debris mashes into her stockings, but she doesn't seem to mind.

It transpires -- Mikoto can smell it before she sees it -- that the backpack is not full of broken hopes after all. It might even contain the antithesis. The opposite of war isn't peace.

Madoka is cheerless, though, as she extracts the bento. It is a precious thing, heavy black lacquer chased here and there with little flecks of silver. Wearily lifts it up towards the other girl.

"I made this..."

She trails off, loses focus, blinks at Mikoto, standing above her.

"...for you," she concludes a moment later, as though only just now in this moment discovering that it is true.

But it is true, and so is her smile, which dawns as unexpectedly to her as to anyone. Like her, it is a small thing, and inexpressibly sad. Her lower lip is larger than her upper, full and rounded with sorrow, like a lonely moon. And yet -- and yet -- there's something else there, some sublime complexity tucked into the corners of her mouth, as though if you poked her cheek with a chopstick it might be startled out of hiding and into flight.

It is a tiny fragment of a feeling, as though reflected strangely through a looking glass.

Her palms quiver beneath the bento, as though struggling to support the weight of the ones inside.

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

Mikoto is unbothered by contact. Though, perhaps, it is not something she would seek out with a Chevalier - which is what she has labelled Madoka as, in her mind, given the side of the battlefield she always emerged from - supporting Madoka is an entirely functional thing, and she does not think to ascribe embarrassment to it.

A lot of girls are cold, these days.

Mikoto is still warm.

She supports the backpack, and she supports Madoka, because she can feel the way her weight isn't placed right. She supports her until those unfocused eyes find their way back from distant shore, and Madoka is with herself again.

Mikoto can understand going away, after all.

And then she's back, and she thanks her, and Mikoto glances away with an uncertain grunt, and there is something like guilt in her eyes, except that she cannot feel guilty.

It's not right for Madoka to thank her when she tried to kill someone so important to her.

She allows Madoka to reclaim her pack without complaint, and watches as she sinks down. It's better, probably. This way she won't fall over. And the tiny girl called Mikoto towers over her, and Madoka is so, so small.

It isn't fair.

They're thoughts which she is pulled from in an instant as nostrils flare. Madoka has brought food, she knows. It's obvious as she opens up the pack. It's a very nice bento box, and for a moment Mikoto blinks uncomprehendingly at it as Madoka hoists it up, as if presenting a blade.

Surprise melts into shock, similar concepts which are nonetheless entirely distinct on her face. Her lips part, two thin lines of white just visible beneath them. Bright gold eyes widen, brow drawn up, chin ducking down in a jerk with a sharp breath inward.

And then eyelids crease around her eyes as her cheeks draw up, the expression in them softening from alarm to a gentler thing, and they blink against moisture which gathers there. She fills her lungs with air again, jagged breath over jagged breath, and they flow over lips curved upward in a smile which might be relief, or gratitude, or a kinder shade of surprise altogether. It could be all three.

It only takes a moment, even if it feels like forever.

Mikoto's fingers tremble as they take the box, though perhaps not for entirely the same reasons.

Or, perhaps...

She looks down at the box, and blinks, again, once-twice-thrice. "I -" the word catches in her throat. She swallows.

There are a hundred things she could say. A dozen things she should.

"I was hungry," Mikoto settles on, instead of any of them. "Thanks."

Her gaze slides from the box to the girl beneath it, uncertain but, perhaps, just a little more empowered to ask. "... there's better places to sit down... if, Madoka wanted."

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Madoka makes a wordless little noise that Sayaka, that Eri, that any of her close friends have heard a thousand times. A nasal little 'nn', the most delicate and gentle possible rejection, opposition, negation. It's two syllables, n-n, and with each one her head shakes a little, a movement almost entirely performed by the chin. Left, then right. Her nose follows it, but it lags behind.

"I'm--" okay, she's about to say, and that smile, what's left of it, is the tiniest bit rueful before it disappears. She corrects herself like the dutifully honest young lady she is.

"I think if I stood up I'd just fall back down," she says instead. "But... this place, here, is enough, Mikoto-chan."

And somehow it becomes true, as she lets her weight fall backwards, her butt plopping softly down on the floor, releasing her knees, which fold to the side. Her feet curl around almost out of sight. Madoka doesn't seem particularly concerned about any of that, the motions of her body -- relieved of the burden of travel, of the pack, of even standing, she becomes as jerky as a marionette, as though the fruits of her synapses have extra far to travel before they get to the tips of her fingers.

Nevertheless, a thermos is produced. And from it, an unmistakably familiar scent: chamomile tea. Comforting, nostalgic. Eri's favorite, though not what she drinks most often. At least, not anywhere but at the Kaname house, where it was served to her every time she visited, once Madoka figured out her preference.

It wreathes the two of them in steam.

Plastic cups, the reusable kind, are produced and poured, and one is handed up. The other she sips from deeply, her nose disappearing within the cup.

When she emerges, she looks a little bit warmer.

"No, thank you," Madoka remarks so quietly that it's almost drowned out by the flavored water becoming air all around them. Steam has a sound, though you have to pay close attention to notice, and there has to be nothing else in the way of it (much like it's difficult to see starlight in Tokyo). "I'm glad you're here."

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

"'Kay," Mikoto says, as Madoka declines to find another seat. For all the clipped and casual nature of the word, it's not terribly light. It is a monosyllabic acknowledgement which sees no reason to argue or to add.

She just accepts that Madoka isn't going anywhere.

Having accepted it, Mikoto lowers her own self down beside Madoka, onto the damp debris-strewn ground. It is at least not entirely soggy. The overhang has prevented that much. It cannot prevent a scrap of torn rebar here, a lost luggage tag there. There's a teddy-bear sticker on it; it must have once belonged to a child's suitcase.

Mikoto slips it under her skirt with the hand which comes down to support herself as she sinks down. Better Madoka doesn't see it.

The other hand still holds the bento-box in firm grip, and Mikoto lays it in her lap, legs crossed about each other. She unfolds it, and there is a softness to her expression as she does.

She is offered tea before she can quite get to eating, a warm and soothing thing, and Madoka at least doesn't have to reach up to deliver it this time. Mikoto's fingers curl around the cup, and she brings it to her face. Sniff, sniff.

... sniff.

Let's not dwell overmuch on which of those was scenting the chamomile, and which was stifling emotions which swell in her throat as Madoka thanks her again.

Or the way it keeps Mikoto looking down at that steam, instead of devouring what Madoka has brought.

"I've only ever done stuff to make Madoka feel bad," Mikoto says, and her words are muted, too. Shame creeps in: "I even..." She shakes her head, then, braids flicking every-which-way. "... don't thank me."

But that's probably not why Madoka is saying it, after all.

She just lost...

Mikoto can't quite look at her. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere." It's meant as reassurance, so why does it sound so dark?

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

The bento is far from professional-grade, much less Mai-grade, though there was a time Mikoto knew Madoka because she was Mai's coworker at Linden Baum. Before they both got fired for missing work during the Searrs Invasion. It's easy to imagine her in that pink maid uniform, humming happily to herself as she prepared the meals, but it would be imagination only.

Madoka cooked in a nightshirt. She cooked blank-eyed and headshaking, refusing help from her worried Papa, who came downstairs when he realized his eldest was up far too early, slamming away at the stove. Not all the salt is from a shaker.

If she knew how to play the piano perhaps Madoka would have pounded the keys until her fingers bled. If she knew how to write she might have slashed poetry across page after page.

But she knows -- sometimes a bit clumsily -- how to make a bento. And she knows how to draw.

And, it seems, she knows how to sculpt.

The little sausages are kitties. The apple slices are kitties. There are tiny cat faces drawn in ketchup that must have been put through the eye of a needle across the folded mini-omelettes. The savory ones have their tongue sticking out and the sweet ones are smiling.

She really did make this for Mikoto, didn't she? Maybe the bag is so heavy because she made a bento for everyone she thought she might meet, here in this horrible place.

The carrots and bell peppers have been carved into little flowers and scattered around the edges of everything, like a bright little garden. Her tomato blooms are particularly spot on, and they are good, though not as achingly fresh as they might be in a few months when the garden is ripe. The ones Papa grows indoors are never quite the same.

Drawn in seaweed across the rice section is a single kanji:



"That's not true at all!"

It erupts out of Madoka as abruptly as an earthquake, with so much force that it jars a fresh pair of tears straight out of her, though no more.

More would mean she couldn't glare up at Mikoto, really looking at her, now, as present and vital as the season of rebirth promised by her kanji. They're sitting separately but they're suddenly infinitely closer than before when one was in the other's arms.

"Don't you know how important you are to her?"

Chamomile tea sloshes onto her wrist as Madoka gestures a little too hastily with one hand, but she ignores the rising band of pink.

"Don't you know that if you hadn't been there for her, she'd already be--"

She can't finish the sentence, her throat filling instantly with grief as she shoots an agonized look out at the sinkhole.

Eri would already be like that.

She closes her eyes, and more gently puts her cup down on the rubble with a tiny little 'tap'.

"Don't tell me how you make me feel," Madoka sniffles, trying, again, to pull herself together, with only marginal success. Her hand, now free, makes a tiny, pale, uncallused fist in her skirt. "You've never asked."

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

Mikoto's expression softens because everything here is cats, and it is instantly clear that Madoka did not decide in the moment the bento was made for her. She prepared this beforehand. She made it with intent.

It only makes the guilt lance in harder.

Perhaps that's why she says what she does. Denies it.

The reason doesn't matter.

She says them, and Madoka erupts. She glares at Mikoto, and Mikoto, that implacable girl who has torn apart innumerable things on the battlefield, jerks back as if frightened of gentle, kind Madoka.

Certainly, she is shocked.

It's easy to forget, when the sin becomes so routine, that she has ever been at Eri's side, has never once faltered in what she had to do to keep her alive, if not happy. All the times she has wrapped up against her, even as she became so slow to respond.

Crying for her when she forgot how to make her face work.

And then Madoka says something else, and Mikoto's gaze drops down, a dissatisfied noise humming through closed lips.

'Don't worry Mikoto. This will all be over soon.'

'Don't tell me, don't worry. Don't do that to me, Eri. Not when Eri's hurting this much.'

So that's why.

Mikoto's eyes squeeze shut, for a moment, tears leaking from them. "I'm sorry," she says, the words hobbled in their contrition. "I was," scared, "mean..."

Silence reigns as Mikoto looks down at the little kitty-faced sausages, and she feels regret, because she is not sure she deserves them, either.

"Eri's important to me too," she says, finally. "Eri's really important to me."

Tick, tick, tick, and the steam curls around her face. Give her time. Mikoto does not speak easily.

"... and Eri's important to Madoka, right?" Mikoto ventures, finally, glancing over to her in a way which could for all the world be described as 'shy'. "So - so I don't get it. Why would Madoka call Eri stupid? It really hurt Eri!" Tears spring to her eyes anew as her voice finds volume again, more despairing than aggressive. "Eri calls herself stupid all the time now... and, Madoka still said something like that..."

Mikoto notices her grip tightening around the cup.

She puts it aside before she burns herself.

"... I really hated Madoka for that," Mikoto admits, looking at the cup rather than her. "Because Eri's trying so hard, and - and it seems like everyone's against Eri. Being someone's first friend... it's really important, Madoka! Not, knowing any girls, then, someone's kind, it's..." And perhaps she is not just talking about Eri, any more, as she stumbles over her words and grasps for them in her distress.

"That person is special," Mikoto finishes. "She matters more. Madoka mattered more."

Madoka told Eri she was stupid, and no matter what Mikoto says, she can't make her believe otherwise.

It's not delivered with any particular sense of jealousy, because Mikoto is just telling Madoka the truth. Mikoto is important to Eri. Eri is important to Mikoto. They both have people more important than each other.

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Mikoto doesn't make Madoka ask -- she just tells.

It is somewhat refreshing, in the funhouse mirror maze of Sayakas, Homuras, Kyoukos and so on, to have someone simply and honestly unburden themselves to her. And, for what it's worth, it is rewarding -- Madoka is a very good listener. It is, possibly, her best trait as a friend.

She sits quietly, without fiddling with her hands or with her tea. She leaves her eyes shut during the apology, and the confession... gives Mikoto the privacy she clearly needs. And, when Mikoto's tone changes, Madoka opens her eyes at the right time -- their glances meet -- and remain, not locked in a contest of wills but simply together, simply looking.

Madoka looks at Mikoto and Madoka sees and Mikoto may know what it is to feel seen.

A little bit of confusion glazes her over at the part about calling Eri stupid, but a little while later she seems to follow, and certainly she nods quietly along with all the rest, and makes soft little noises of affirmation.

Her gaze finally slips away along with the sound of speech, is drawn outward once more, past the rim of the lean-to and into the carnage of the terminal. She isn't able to see the one who lurks within, but a vision of her is obviously dancing there, right in front of her eyes, and it isn't wearing a visor or conducting with a giant sword.

"That person really is special," she quietly agrees. She lifts her teacup. She takes a sip, then looks back over at Mikoto.

"And... I couldn't be everywhere at once. That's why I'm glad that you could be there. That you are there."

Pausing, she recalls the memory, and when she says it out loud she is obviously quoting herself. In the detached way that she recounts it, it is impossible to hear the heat, the agony, with which the words were said.

"'I won't hate you. And I won't hate her. You can't make me hate anyone... that is my choice.'"

But they're inherent to the piece, like a melody in minor key. The pain is there anyway. And the meaning to her -- the impact of their last conversation upon her heart -- is self-evident, given her retention of it.

Oh yes, Eri's important to Madoka.

"'I just hate... I hate this. I hate everything.'"

Madoka sighs, deeply, as she gets to the conclusion.

"'Why do we all have to be so stupid,'" she says. Not 'Eri no baka'. It isn't a jeer. It isn't mockery. It isn't even really directed at Eri at all.

It doesn't matter, not if it made Eri feel so badly.

Her eyes reclose, and she rocks back and forth a little, the misery fresh all over again. "But I was wrong," she moans. "We aren't stupid at all. This didn't happen because we were all too stupid to figure out a better way. At least," she gulps down a sob, "At least Eri knows that now. At least she knows, we all know, the truth. Not knowing... is worse than knowing, even though it's hard..."

She'll be crying for a while.

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

Madoka recounts her memory, and it is Mikoto's time to watch her, and to listen. And Madoka will find that she is an attentive listener, too.

It's a skill picked up from letting everyone else do the talking.

The tears which well in her eyes, though - that's not a skill. That's a different feature entirely.

That's the honesty of a heart which loves and loves and loves even as it's caught in jagged thorns.

"I was wrong," Mikoto says, finally, and the words are quiet. She doesn't say why. It's obvious.

She scooches over, a little, towards Madoka, carrying the bento with her. That cute little luggage tag is revealed by the motion. It's an innocent thing. It has been decimated.

'It feels like I've done that too much though... I'm... tired... of finding out things are worse than I thought Mikoto-chan. Tired of learning just how cruel the world is... finding out its even worse... that I'm even worse. Learning more just so I can try to figure out how to live with it... and myself again.'

They have been decimated.

'Sometimes there are things people wish hadn't happened in their lives. And... it's easier to deny them than face the truth. When things hurt to remember - you just don't. My senpai told me once it's like... putting your hand to a hot stove. If remembering it is like touching that stove again - you just don't. You try not to think about it. It becomes too painful otherwise. So you just run from it.'

She has been decimated.

"... sometimes truth hurts too much," Mikoto says, gently. "Sometimes it's..." She pauses, and something pained veils over her eyes. "... a hot stove."

She looks out towards the sinkhole, the thing which was special to Madoka Kaname.

She does not say that Eri cannot take much more of this.

It's obvious.

"I love Eri, so I'll stay by Eri until the end," Mikoto says, instead, and there is resignation to the words. "No matter what."

A hand reaches out, to grasp Madoka's, and she is not sure if she is trying to give comfort or receive it but God help her, she is trying.

"... then I'll deal with it."

The words are dull and distant and there is something behind them she does not care to name or even to look at.

It's what she's good for.

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> It's only the fairy tale (Music Box ver.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Br3KACc0Nw

They're like the poles of two magnets. Mikoto crosses a threshhold of nearness and Madoka snaps onto her, removing the last of the distance between them with a bawl. Their hands weave together, and Madoka's other arm curls around Mikoto's back, and she cries and cries and cries, right into her shoulder, until -- at least for the moment -- she is all cried out.

"Me too," she whispers. She loves Eri. She'll be there until the end. And she'll deal with it.

Mikoto can feel Madoka's breath deepening and steadying, and her fluttery pulse, which connects their tangled wrists, slowing metronomically. Most of all she can feel the words, the way each of them is shaped by lips and teeth and heart, because Madoka's chin wound up on her shoulder and their cheeks are nuzzled close.

She can feel Madoka's eyes reopen because her eyelashes are like the rising edge of a stage curtain, trailing across them both.

Pink is the color of wounds. It's the color of medicine. It's the color of the very first moment of sunrise, before the dawn becomes the dawn. It is Linden Baum uniforms and the cover of the school-issued sketchbook for girls. It is falling, fleeting sakura, fragile and delicate and, most of all, transient. It is crystal and stone and the path cut across the surface of the ocean by a dying day.

Madoka's eye gazes deeply into Mikoto's, veiled briefly by a second blink, then returned to full view.

"You're right," she disjointedly agrees with an earlier point (as though it's only just caught up to her), somnolent. Whatever manic energy had kept her on her feet until now, kept her moving, kept her cooking, has all been drained away by the storm of tears. "About the truth... you're right."

But there, right on the precipice of sleep, is a hidden and secret and powerful place. Madoka drifts through it as gently as a floating petal, rotates slowly, end over end over end.

"The truth... can be a weapon," she murmurs.

Vaguely aware that she's been practically on top of Mikoto for quite some time now, she shifts her weight onto her far hip, and slowly draws back. Her right shoulder, Mikoto's left, they're still touching, but Madoka's head winds up rolling back on her neck until she finds whatever's behind it. It turns out to be a sheet of aluminium siding.

She sighs, deeply, so deeply that it winds up coming out the other side into a yawn. One of her hands comes up and tangles with a beam of light that has paradoxically, almost offensively, entered the lean-to at an angle. Her fingertips tremble, as though she's trying to grasp the hilt of a sword but it's just too far out of reach.

"...there must be something stronger...than Kyuubey's truth...but I don't know...where to find it..."

Her eyes roll to the side, back to Mikoto.

And there's something there -- behind the exhaustion -- deeper than her grief -- something ephemeral, a ghost of a shadow of... another feeling.

Madoka doesn't seem to be aware of it herself. There's only room in her heart for one thing right now, and right now that is the girl next to her.

"We're the same, huh..."

What an odd thing for her to say. Other than their size, most people who looked at Mikoto Minagi and Madoka Kaname, sitting there next to each other; who knew them both, their strengths and their weaknesses, their habits and their secrets, would not call them the same at all.

"...we both love...so much...that it hurts."

Her hand floats back down, and it has failed to grasp a sunbeam. No miracle has gathered there. It's just a hand, small and pale and delicate.

But it's warm, as she reaches over to rest it on top of Mikoto's. And it trembles with the wish, the heartfelt wish, to take some measure of her grief.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Caroline - Pink & Black https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzp3xxtUCqY

Mikoto refers to the world yobisute. In a society where social distance is valued even where there is so little space for physical distance, where there are correct actions and those which transgress, she has never quite fit in. She is a creature of affection.

Contact is second nature to her.

Madoka claps in against her and there is no distance to Mikoto at all, not in the way she grasps her hand in firm and gentle grip, not in the way she murmurs: "Madoka." It is no imperative, and there is no judgement to it: but sadness, yes, and compassion, and recognition. She leans her cheek against her, and perhaps she has realised Madoka is more complicated than she thought, in the show of trust which is her own eyelids lower down.

She can't let herself be completely unaware, but she can afford to focus on Madoka for a little while. She trusts her senses enough to think she will feel if something goes awry.

Tomatos, she thinks, as a thumb smooths over Madoka's skin in supportive gesture as she cries. Madoka smells like tomatos.

Maybe some of that is the bento in her lap. She's keeping it balanced, even with the sudden addition of a girl her own size.

Maybe some of that is the effort Mikoto has not seen, the hours poured into kitchen to try and calm the storm in a tiny pink heart.

It's a strange sort of thought, because she never would have guessed something like that.

Madoka is more than a bystander; more than a tragedy. Madoka has made her own efforts, is writing her own story, and here, now, she cries her own grief.

At some point - though she cannot place precisely where - Mikoto started crying too, chest shuddering with quiet little sobs. And it is so obvious, close as they are. The twist and tension in her cheeks, the way the skin jerks with uneven breath from parted lips, the way her nose twitches with each sniff.

They're not moving, but they're not still.

She can feel Madoka's eyes open, and hers flutter up in turn, the moisture there glistening in the light. Tears, if anything, make her eyes seem even brighter, as if she could light the room with them. But it's not joy shining in those saucers, not now.

This close, it might be obvious that the curve of her pupil is just... a little... off.

Maybe it's the water, distorting it.

Madoka takes the truth Kyouko gave Eri, the truth Eri gave Mikoto, and she follows it to its conclusion. And there is a light shifting, to her face, the subtlest hint of a thoughtful frown. "A weapon," she echoes, turning the words over in her mind and on her lips.

She shifts back, against the aluminium, and Mikoto leans back against it in turn. The hand which once caught Madoka's rests against the ground, between them, fingers curling slightly against a scrap of concrete. It's rough against her fingers. It was never meant to be shorn away like that.

Mikoto does not really know Kyuubey's truth; she does not even really know Kyuubey. But she can hear something there like yearning, and this she understands.

She blinks, once, at Madoka's conclusion, listens to trailing tired words. The motion disrupts a tear which had not quite managed falling. Mikoto bows her head; finds the gesture turns into a nod, as Madoka's hand finds hers again.

"It hurts so much," Mikoto says, looking down at their hands. "I always thought, maybe if I tried hard enough, protected Eri... maybe we could be better one day... but it never stops. Just keeps going," she takes a ragged breath, "keeps getting worse. I'm trying," her hand turns about to grasp Madoka's in tremulous grip, "I'm trying, but I can't, fight this..."

She swallows, a tension to her shoulders. "All I know is bad things. That's all I can do. Keep Eri here... even though... they kill themselves," and the word cracks with its grief. "And if I ever, don't work hard enough, Eri becomes a Witch and - I gotta kill it, Madoka. I promised I wouldn't let Eri hurt anyone. I - I mean - I can. I'm good at it. I'm not supposed to be. Witches are hard for girls who aren't Puella Magi. But I'm - I do okay. And Witches, aren't people any more, so, shouldn't be scared or, feel bad about myself for, being able to..." Her words jumble, a little, as distress muddles her. She takes a breath, tries to order her thoughts.

"I shouldn't feel like I promised to kill my best friend," she whispers, finally.

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Madoka's breathing shifts, inhaling sharply when Mikoto replies -- as though she's gotten her wish. Mikoto hurts so much, and now Madoka does too, through a whole new and awful lens.

Her expression comes back into focus, shedding layer after layer of sleepiness like a dancer, like a princess, like the land beneath the snowmelt. Perhaps this is the only thing that could have done that.

Madoka's other hand crosses herself to join the pile, and her fingers smooth down Mikoto's like she's the surface of the pool or very fine fabric, like a precious, precious thing that she is privileged to touch. Because it's true.

She's crying again -- she never really stopped.

"I know," she gulps, "I know."

Because that is what it's like. It's exactly what it's like. So of course they feel that way.

"I'm not so sure... that they aren't people any more," she admits. "Inside," she sniffs, "In there... I saw things... that I recognized. And that means, that all the Witches... they're all just girls we didn't know well enough to understand."

This is an upsetting enough statement that she has to pause and swallow, and a sharp little keen escapes her tortured throat like feedback from a microphone.

"But," she gasps, coughing a little to clear some air, struggling to find Mikoto's lowered eyes, bending to get under them so that they're looking at each other, "But it is not your fault that Puella Magi become Witches. And... Witches being girls... it doesn't make your promise bad, or wrong. It makes it right. Eri doesn't want to hurt anyone. None of them ever wanted this. Not anyone! But if they have to be stopped... being stopped by someone who loves them... instead of someone who doesn't know any better... is a kind of kindness... so it's right. Your promise was right."

She heaves a breath.

"...But it's hard."

Her torrential waterfall turns back into more of a drizzle, slowing. "It's so hard. Don't do it alone, Mikoto." Her grip on Mikoto's hand tightens, fiercely. "You mustn't... go alone. No one should ever have to be alone, for something as hard as that."

And then --

An unexpected, watery smile, like a sunburst through rainclouds. "Take me with you," she pleads. "I'm no good at anything, I'm no good at all, but... I will go with you," this time it's a promise. "Down, to Eri-chan. When it's time."

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

It is certainly true that Mikoto Minagi is a precious thing, well-bred and finely crafted.

Madoka repeats what Eri has said, and Mikoto shakes her head, little jerks of denial which reverberate down her arm and into the twitch of her fingers against Madoka's hands. Her lips part with the shallowing of her breath and it is not hatred or malaise in her eyes, when pink meets gold through great effort. It is fear.

She does not want to think that they could be girls under all the horror draping them.

She does not know why it strikes her so.

And as Mikoto realises Madoka is trying so hard to meet her gaze, hers rises again, though it is quivering in its uncertainty. She can see so plainly in her eyes the pain that lances in as Madoka says it is not her fault, and Mikoto realises she is already blaming herself for Eri's fate.

There's something in there - as Madoka says they could be stopped by someone who loves them - which makes Mikoto's breath hitch and tears flood her eyes again, and surely it is fear and love for Eri Shimanouchi.

"It was right," she echoes, and her voice is small.

Mikoto's breath catches in her throat as Madoka's grip tightens. She can feel the determination behind it, though Madoka has never held a blade for long hours. She can hear the compassion and the wisdom as Madoka insists she mustn't go alone.

Her breath hitches in a sob, cheeks rising as if they might obscure her eyes entirely. It is not a smile, though certainly her upper teeth flash into visibility as her muscles lift; it is just tension.

Madoka cannot know how alone Mikoto feels; cannot know the fear in her heart; cannot know the meaning to her words.

And for a moment it seems she might cry right through Madoka's brave plea, though she squeezes her hand in acknowledgement.

Well, for a moment, she does.

But Mikoto takes a ragged breath, swallows against the lump in her throat. "Madoka..." She wants to say that she is good for so many things, but she does not want to upset her again, and so it is just her name, wavering with tears. It is gratitude, a dawning sense of being understood.

"... yeah," Mikoto nods, after a moment to compose herself. "If nothing goes wrong... I'll get Madoka." It's an important distinction, because Mikoto knows it is possible that so many things could go wrong. And if they do, she'll have to take care of things immediately.

But she promises to try, at least.

It is gold searching out pink, now, as Mikoto turns her face to fix Madoka with a serious expression. "But Madoka can't hesitate, okay? Even though it's scary. I know Madoka's not a warrior... but if Madoka froze up and got hurt..." Sadness tints her again. "I'd feel bad. And it would... I dunno. I dunno if Witches can..."

Mikoto shakes her head. "... but the Eri I'm fighting to protect right now would hate it too. I know that much."

<Pose Tracker> Madoka Kaname [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

"Mm," Madoka agrees, when Mikoto echoes her, and she nods fiercely though since her head is practically sideways since she bent to get beneath Mikoto, it makes for a funny angle. It's even funnier, in a terrible way, when she cries along with her and the tears go falling off her face way too soon, practically across her ear. Not the usual, well-worn track. "Mm," she repeats, nodding again at the promise and its stipulation, also. "Thank you, Mikoto."

Madoka understands.

It is disturbing, really, how easily and completely Madoka understands. What has she been doing, these last few years? What has she seen? And how many Witches has she gone along to, how many executions has she witnessed?

How many bento has she made?

There's something in her eyes, the sort of knowledge whose fruit can only be torn from the tree of experience -- a veteran's expression -- that Mikoto may not expect but, more than most, would recognize. 'Even though it's scary' might have been a bit patronizing. Madoka doesn't seem to take offense, though. As Mikoto says, Madoka's not a warrior.

But it may have been bold of the HiME to assume that, of the two of them, she's been in the most Labyrinths.

Mikoto is turning now and Madoka turns with her, twisting with the motion, straightening her back. They wind up face to face and almost nose to nose, and the exactness with which their heights match has never been more obvious. Advantage goes to Madoka only by the tip of a red-ribboned bow.

"I promise," she says earnestly, if wetly, "That I won't do anything to make Mikoto or Eri-chan feel bad." She matches Mikoto for solemnity, though the thought of making Eri-the-Witch feel sad by getting eaten by her has left her stricken and pale, also.

Still, she seems like a trustworthy girl. The kind that keeps her promises.

Her knee twitches and knocks over her teacup. "Aa," she laments, as the puddle approaches their shoes -- they'll both have to move to avoid getting wet -- "Sorry."

She heaves the lightened backpack of bento to safety, and herself along with it, before reaching down with the other hand to help Mikoto up.

"I really am sorry," she whispers, and in that moment Mikoto can see herself reflected through a mirror pinkly -- and not just through Madoka's eyes. Her stance, which droops heavily beneath the weight of the world, is Mikoto's own, from just moments ago. Responsibility is crushing her.

It is not your fault, Madoka said.

But that's because she believes that it's hers.

It isn't all bad, though... accountability is a motivating thing. That secret feeling inside Madoka is still there -- as is the glint in her shockingly knowing eyes. Her throat bobs as she swallows. Her grip pulses in Mikoto's.

"I won't stop looking," she promises, too. For something stronger. Even though she doesn't know where to find it. "I won't ever stop."