2018-10-19 - Promise Only What You're Prepared To Deliver

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Title: Promise Only What You're Prepared To Deliver

Mikoto crosses a line. Homura exonerates her. The both of them are laid upon the sacrificial altar.


Mikoto Minagi, Homura Akemi


Tama Outer City - Nishitama Park District

OOC - IC Date:

2018-10-19 - 2015-05-22

.****************************** 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> Chris Vrenna - Pool of Tears https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZX4KUn259T8

The train station doesn't have so much traffic, this late in the afternoon, the cloudy sky painted violent orange shades as the sun begins its descent. There's a man walking out into the forest paths, a huge pack strapped to his back, a little girl's hand in his. There is a girl in a uniform which has not seen a single class this day, sensible Ohtori flats against gravel walkway.

His other hand holds a mobile; there's still enough reception, here, to talk. "Haunted?" The man huffs into the receiver. "Don't be ridiculous. After... everything that's happened, this is the best thing for us. We just need to get away from the world for a few days. If something were really wrong with Kawai, the government would have told us. I'll talk to you when we get back, ma."

He snaps his phone shut, shaking his head in irritation. He does not see the girl behind him, the way her eyes widen in shock and her jaw drops to accommodate the fall of her lips. He does not hear the way her breath lodges in her throat as she recognises the name of a site being tended.

And Mikoto looks at that little girl, and knows something awful must have happened to her, and she can't stand it. "Don't go!" She cries, to their backs. He half-turns to face her, scowl still on his face; the girl peeks out from behind his legs. "It's - heard there's wild animals attacking kids in Kawai." It is a lie. It is not so far from the truth. "Go to Seitoen, okay? Or Nakachaya..."

"What gives you the right to try and scare my baby girl like that?!" He shouts. "You don't know who we've lost! Don't be so cruel!"

Mikoto takes a half-step back as her eyes widen further. Her hand lifts, jerkily, curled as she tries to reach out, as if she could grasp them by force. There is no force behind the way her fingers tremble. There is nothing but sorrow to the arc of her brow. "I - I'm begging you, don't go --"

The man gestures, angrily, phone threatening to fly from his hand. His tone is even ruder than hers. "Of all the nerve - it's none of your business!"

Mikoto swallows, looking down. Her breath comes fast and shallow over parted lips. "... sorry. I'm, sorry..." With hiccoughing breaths, her hands drop to her sides and clench into impotent fists. She cannot bear to look at them.

She can still hear them.

"Daddy," the little girl asks, "why was she so upset..?"

"She's probably just acting out because of midterms," and his voice is gentler now. "Don't worry about it, pumpkin. We're gonna have lots of fun camping, okay?"

The little girl cannot hide her concern. "But what if a wild animal comes and eats me?"

"If one tries, daddy will beat it up! Now come on - we've gotta get camp set up before nighttime. I would've liked to get going earlier, but, you know, work... forgive me, Shigeko-chan?" The man implores.

And the little girl giggles. "Yup! I could never be mad at you, daddy!"

She forgives so easily.

She uses Mikoto's words.

Her name is Shigeko.

Mikoto realises, with a start, that her nails have dug into the palms of her hands.

"I..." the word dies in her throat as she looks up in some vain final hope, only to see them disappear behind a curve in the path.



"Be decisive, Mai!" Mikoto insists, puffing up her cheeks. "Mai knows what Mai wants, right? So it's not hard!"

She is, of course, talking about rice cookers. She's accompanied Mai to purchase one, after theirs finally wore out enough to be more fire hazard than fire help. But there are ones which will cook more rice, and more reliable brands, and then there are the cheaper varieties...

"It's okay, Mai," Mikoto insists. "'Cause we gotta!" The cord on theirs is too frayed, after all, and its smell is sharp as smoke.



'Don't you know how important you are to her? Don't you know that if you hadn't been there for her, she'd already be--'



'I won't let Eri hurt everyone. I'll make sure Eri's got enough to eat. I'll protect Eri. I won't let Eri turn black. No matter what... I'll be right here. I'll take care of Eri. Trust me, okay? Right now... all Eri's gotta do is rest. It was really hard... so it's okay to rest some. Does Eri have enough Grief Seeds?'
'How many is enough?'
'As many as it takes. Eri's worth it.'



It would be a triumph of love and courage, wouldn't it - if Mikoto was able to save just these two people?

But even if she didn't manage to sit her maths exam... the arithmetic is simple.

Not many people come to Nishitama.

Two people held in the grip of grief are wandering straight into the garden.

It's two people less than the familiars would otherwise have.

And Eri needs to eat.

It's dangerous to cry in Nishitama, these days. Perhaps even more, right now, when Eri's attention is divided by the enormity of what looms before her, when the plants flow out over the edges of their pots and their dividers. But there are places which are safer than others, the gravel paths between the flowerbeds.

Mikoto knows the territory. This is where Eri hunts, now. She used to know Ueno and Shinjuku the same way. At least, here, there are no unpleasant men who would be rude and cruel to see her like this.

Because Mikoto Minagi did not go to the Kawai camp site, and she did not slay the familiar Eri has been fattening. She did not betray Eri. She did not save them.

This is the monster she has to be.

And she is curled up between the roots of a great oak, sword-case resting beside legs pulled up to a tiny chest, and she is sobbing.

Even Eri would have saved them. Even Eri would have saved a child.

But Mikoto promised she'd take care of Eri.

Mikoto promised she wouldn't let her turn black.

And Mikoto has felt what her power does to the weak and innocent.

Standing aside, by comparison...

... it should easy, shouldn't it?

It should be easy by now.

It isn't.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Binoculars https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Kze-2qhHro

Caution, like so many other survival-oriented devotions Homura Akemi observes, is hers through unfair amounts of practice. She employs it more or less indiscriminately, though it does not always avail her in the end. This evening she hunts an ally... But it is still a hunt, and the caution grows rather than abating because of her prey.

The potential cost of keeping lethal allies runs high, like handling weaponized smallpox. Take all the precautions you like; you're still juggling death in fragile glass vials.

She crouches low atop the weather-blasted metal scaffolding of an abandoned cell tower in Eri Shimanouchi's territory, now, above the tree line with clear line of sight to the train station and its scattered travelers. An earlier search pattern revealed the supernatural impact on the area, so carefully cultivated.

Now she watches, with the aid of camo-green binoculars that some US logistics officer is going to have to explain the absence of. The high quality optics don't carry any of their words to Homura, but as silent dramas go it is clear enough.

The man and the little girl walking that telltale, unknowing beeline toward waiting despair; Mikoto and then the man in obvious disagreement; the two walking on, right into the hungry garden. Mikoto standing like stone on the path behind them, her back to Homura.

Time to close the gap, she thinks.


Homura reconsiders when she gets close enough to hear Mikoto's sobs.

It sounds too familiar to her, that sound. Muffled, wracked, like a girl is bent beneath the pain of a world turned inside out... Homura feels a hot rush of dismay, reminded of her own recent breakdown, and she shies away from the memory like burnt fingers flying off a stovetop. Dark and delicate heels shuffle to a stop among the fragile shoots of off-path undergrowth.

She feels like a lurking creep, standing behind a nearby tree trunk while Mikoto Minagi cries her heart out. But she doesn't come out, either. Not until the sounds of sorrow abate.

Even then she gives it a minute more.

Then Homura straightens away from the bark at her back and takes a single, long drawn breath before stepping around and out, into view.

Time to check in on her lethal ally.

"Minagi-san," she says by way of announcing herself, though Homura will not count on the sharp-sensed girl being surprised by her emergence. She says the thing she's been steeling herself to say since watching the man and the girl walk into the trees. "Are you taking good care Eri-chan's territory for her?"

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Tom McRae - Human Remains https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Wruex_HwC4

Mikoto Minagi is a jagged thing. Hers is black glass, sharp where it flints, and as grief clenches at her obsidian heart it cuts in a thousand fine edges. Her breath, too, is ragged over teeth and jaws. She feels as if she cannot breathe at all, as if the sin has lodged in her throat and refuses to leave.

She does not throw up; she does not pass out. She has endured too much to know the standard responses to horror.

She cries, and for a time, she loses herself.

It is the most human thing still allowed her - to cry.

The one thing which could not be removed.

And she is alone.

She cannot go to Eri like this. She cannot make Eri deal with this. She cannot let Eri know what she has allowed to happen. She must handle it herself, because she said she'd take care of Eri. She promised.

The sky is deeper red, when she comes to be aware of her breathing again. Her pale skin is darkened by the colour as the world is cast in sepia tone. The colours of dusk - and of dawn. A day begun, and a day long to end.

She didn't hesitate. She knew what she wanted. She was there for Eri. She made sure Eri had enough to eat.

She can't feel so sad - not here. Not if she wants to help Eri. She'll be a liability, if she comes to her like this. She'll just be another snack.

Mikoto tries to take a breath, and it shudders. Again, and again. Breathe in, breathe out. They tremble as they deepen. Her hand trembles as she lifts it from sodden knee to scrub at her face, motions made rough by grief. It matches the pain pounding through her skull, the familiar headache which comes from crying too many tears.

She sniffs, remembers the tissues they have reminded her to carry by now, pulls one out to better care for herself.

It's only afterwards she realises she isn't alone, nostrils flaring as her gaze turns to the trees. There is caution in her eyes, too, which does not entirely abate when the presence resolves into Homura Akemi. That hand which so recently returned a tissue to her pocket drops, to Miroku's strap.

Eri's education was complete, after all, and her first thought on seeing another Puella Magi transformed in her territory...

But Homura is her friend - Eri's friend - and she does not miss the way Homura refers to Eri, when she speaks so remotely of everyone else. With some effort Mikoto releases the tension in her shoulders, unflexes the fingers which had grasped at the strap of her sword-case.

The question reminds her why she was crying.

Mikoto's lips tug down in thin line. "Yeah," she replies, and there is a dull sort of resignation to the word. "... Eri can rely on me." There are layers of meaning to the phrase.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

In announcing her approach openly to the bearer of Miroku, the violet magi continues a practice bound up in practicality and respect. A startled Mikoto leads nowhere good, for Mikoto or herself, in this situation. There may come a day when Homura does not announce her approach to Mikoto Minagi, but that day is not today.

And -- even forewarned, even freshly-come from her sobs, there is her battle-readiness. She tried to stop the man and the girl, but... she did not insist. Both things are favorable, at least for the time mage's aims. She focuses on that rather than the costs.

Homura offers Mikoto Minagi the only emotional safety she herself understands: loneliness.

She does not comment on the trace signs of sorrow on Mikoto's face or in her voice, makes no mention of what she saw or heard. She offers no tissue from her own pockets. And in so doing, Homura believes she spares them both.

No... deep down, she knows she only wants to believe that. Homura shies away from that knowing, too. It's as practiced a reaction as any in her repertoire.

"Good," Homura says, her gait smooth as she continues to approach throughout Mikoto's raising and lowering of hackles. "She needs you now more than ever."

She stops outside what's considered a polite conversational distance, in this land of sardine-packed trains and city streets, but that is standoffish Homura Akemi for you. It is also a bit of extra insurance: critical space for reaction time, just in case Mikoto reacts... poorly to the topic. Homura has imagined several targets on her back since her cruel revelations at Haneda.

"Neither of us want Sayaka Miki's fate to take her, as well. She is too important to us both." As usual, ambiguity thrives between Homura's selected words. There is space there for Mikoto to believe that Homura cares like she does.

There is space for Homura to believe she doesn't.

She watches Mikoto very closely, in the wake of broaching that topic. "There are ways to help her. You're already good at them." She needs Eri Shimanouchi to live, and here is a girl eager to lay everything on that line. Well; so is Homura.

She pushes the other girl into the hungry garden, her own sacrifice of innocence embodied in Mikoto Minagi. "As things get harder, she will need more help. So it's good she can rely on you."

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

Mikoto finds no kindness in the eyes of Homura; only instruction.

It is its own form of comfort.

It is plain, as Homura approaches in body and in word. Mikoto thinks she hears care and consideration in Homura's words, on the topic of that precious girl Eri Shimanouchi, and she has no reason to question it. She thinks she hears enough to trust her.

She wants to be able to trust her.

Even if she is a monster, let her find solace in other monsters.

Homura will see the way the tension drains from her, leaves her with the exhaustion of her grief again. The way her gaze lowers as she grunts assent, nodding as she swallows at a lump in her throat which won't quite leave. The way her knees lower, her core exposed as she resettles with legs folded below her.

And the way those eyes brightened by recent tears snap up to Homura again, as she tells her there are ways to help. The way her breath quickens over parted lips as her heart hammers in her chest.

There is desperation, there, driven by pain and sorrow.

Homura barely needs to push.

"Yeah..." And perhaps it seems she will just trail off, again, except for the way her brow knits. "Can I - tell Homura something?"

She does not linger on the question long; she presses forward while she has the courage. "Eri's in my care... asked for my help. I took responsibility." Mikoto hums, lips pressed together. "So I told Eri, keep asking. Reach out. Talk. Maybe it was mean... Eri doesn't always like to. But if I tell Eri to, Eri doesn't gotta worry about it, 'cause it's not really Eri's choice any more."

It's a perfectly logical way to comfort her, for Mikoto Minagi. To take the choice from her is a kindness.

It reveals much of her recent thought process, with all the portents inherent.

And it is its own little revelation, because Mikoto is singularly unsuited to command.

"Said I'd protect Eri, make sure Eri had enough to eat." There is guilt, in her eyes, as she frowns. "I... I could've tried to, get Eri to, try something else, now Sayaka's dead, but... what if Eri turns black? What if -" Mikoto shakes her head, braids flicking across her face. "If - if I told Eri it'd be okay - and it wasn't, okay..."

Mikoto swallows. "I lied. I said I wouldn't let Eri hurt everyone, but I can't keep Eri from being a Witch and keep Eri from gardening too. And, and Eri's so scared... so I've gotta keep Eri like this. So I said - no matter how many it took - Eri's worth it." She takes a breath; it shudders. "Eri's... always been worth it..."

Mikoto does not know about the trolley problem. If she did, she would think it a ridiculous question, because the answer is obvious to her:

Sacrifice five people to save one more important person.

But she has gone so far beyond five people by now - hasn't she?

Her name was Shigeko.

"I can do it," Mikoto insists, "for Eri, I can do it! I can, take care of Eri. If I mess up I - I'll still take care of it. I won't leave Eri alone!" She cannot know how bitter that might taste. And here she comes to the crux of the issue, the reason fear grips her heart so tightly: "I can't let someone I love die again, Homura. Won't get another miracle."

But her breath hitches in her throat, and her hand presses in against her chest. "But I can't talk to Eri about stuff any more... but it's okay. I'm tough!" Her brow arcs in sorrow as she tries to breathe around a constricted throat. "... I'm tough..."

'You care so deeply for Eri that I begin to worry she replaces yourself.' No plainer is Sailor Neptune's truth than now.

There is a fragility to her words, quiet and pained. "So I won't stop them - right? I won't, stop any of them... 'cause Eri needs Grief Seeds. I said I'd take care of Eri, so - so I've gotta be strong enough to..."

She cannot meet Homura's gaze any more.

Her name was Shigeko, and she was only a child.

"I think - I think there's something wrong with me, Homura," Mikoto confesses, quiet in her suffering. There must be something wrong with her - if she's willing to sacrifice so many strangers for just one person.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Sharp and ready violet eyes take in the details of Mikoto's elapsing tension. Homura's back stays straight and her lips still press to their usual thinness. What is the grey-hearted girl if not a set of perpetually clenched teeth? Still -- this is one more person who will not extract a price from Homura for cruel secrets kept and cruel truths told. Shouldn't she be relieved?

Instead she feels a perverse disappointment, a sinner denied the lash's bloody expiation. Homura knows she deserves far, far worse than this.

Mikoto wants to tell her something with those large and trusting eyes, so bright in the dwindling red of sunset. Homura forces the girl to forge through the ensuing silence alone with her courage, giving neither nod nor shake of head. Only her dark fine bangs move, wisping to one side in the rising night breeze. She stands in place, though, and she listens.

In the listening Homura learns a great deal of what she came for, and then some. In a kinder, fairer world, a girl going out of her way to check on the emotional well-being of her closest compatriots after a great tragedy would speak to that girl's empathy and thoughtfulness.

Homura Akemi's world is neither kind nor fair. It is genuinely difficult for the puella to remember a time before she became entangled in the wish-peddler's rigged game, but even that was a cold, grey existence to rival the lifeless static of a timestop. Heartfelt concern doesn't drive her on these errands. She's got one concern and one concern alone, regardless of any other emotions she will or will not admit to feeling: the disposition of a gentle and loving pink soul. It's the only color that matters any more.

She's checking to see whether her assets are intact for the coming battle, that's all. And Mikoto, Mikoto is a wealth of information, and speaks of things Homura can also speak to. What could be more normal to her than wholehearted obsessional devotion?

"If you lie to Eri and it keeps her going, then it was worth it to lie." One more thing, perhaps. "Tell her what you think she needs to hear, Minagi-san. You are tough, and you can help her hunt and help her fight, but you have been doing those things for her all along. She will continue to need that too. But it sounds like you already understand it will take more than that, now."

She considers her next words. They are careful, they skirt the edges of things dark and harrowing within. Careful, Homura. Peer, but do not peer too deeply.

"Knowing may make it harder for her. A tightrope walker cannot balance if they are fixated on the void below their feet. She needs to keep moving forward, and she cannot think too much about falling. Keep helping her the way you have been." Keep lying to your friend, Mikoto. Keep her well-fed on Witches fattened on little girls, whether you know their names or not. Don't think too much about who those Witches used to be, themselves.

The end of Mikoto's tale makes its own, separate impression. Homura is here making her important, impersonal rounds, after all.

She already employs very little volume, but Homura's voice is quieter still when she asks, "What is wrong with you, Minagi-san?" Of course, she doesn't get that this is a moral problem the sorrowful girl with the big black sword refers to. She speaks from uneasy trepidation.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Bear McCreary - A Cylon Spy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxHXvWKiqao

For all their sadness, there does not seem to be a shred of blame in Mikoto's eyes for Homura Akemi.

And perhaps she would speak of it - if not for Mikoto's own list of priorities.

She still cares about a few people, after all. And some matter more than others.

And others can't matter at all.

Homura says nothing to the asking, but Homura says little, and Mikoto is the last person to ever fault someone for that. She speaks, and those wide eyes search for guidance, because she was never designed to lead.

Someone, anyone, cries her lonely heart, I must follow, and I do not know which path to tread.

It is a plea she hears.

There is a sad little crinkle in Mikoto's eyelids as her cheeks tense, her brow draws up. She does not like lying. Eri has said she doesn't like lying to Mikoto, either. But - Eri is so sad, now. Eri is so sad she's crying again.

Homura's right. She needs to do more.

She is never doing enough.

Promises on promises on promises, and she is shattering beneath the weight of them.

'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.'

Mikoto makes a sad little noise, as she nods. Eri can't know. Just like Mai... Eri needs to be protected, too. Just like Mai.

Even if Mikoto so desperately needed just one person she could talk to, Eri's safety is more important, right?

And perhaps she would speak of it - if not for Homura's next question. Mikoto's hand curls at her chest, as she looks down at the leaf-litter of the ground. Some of the fallen leaves are still green. It is almost summer. It is a time of life.

All she's bringing to this forest is death.

"There was..." Shame and sorrow shake Mikoto's voice. "... a little girl. Shigeko. Lost someone. And I just... let her... go to Kawai, even though..." Even though it's being cultivated. It is a plain enough fact to a Puella Magi.

Mikoto's breath draws ragged over her teeth. "I don't usually, hear their names. But there's, lots of them, Homura. And they kill themselves and I don't - stop it... even Eri stops it sometimes..."

Her shoulders tense, again, but this time it is just to curl around herself, hunched as if to make herself smaller in the face of the truth. "That's not - normal, right? I'm not supposed to, be able to... just let it happen... I'm not supposed to think it's worth it, right? How they all, kill themselves, just so Eri will be okay... even little kids... I - I'm supposed to have a line, right? Something I'm not willing to do?"

Mikoto looks back up to Homura, trembling beneath that grey-steel gaze. "I don't got a line, Homura," she admits, and she is afraid.

"I'm just, scary," and in this she admits so much more than she means to, "and I do bad things, stuff other girls wouldn't. I'm..." Someone, anyone, "... different. And I'm, scared, Homura."

What frightens a monster most?

A black-glass mirror.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Is Homura Akemi the perfectly wrong person to confess this fear to, or the horrifically right one? That depends on one's point of view. Her own is, of course, thoroughly suspect.

Her unease waxes rather than waning as Mikoto explains. It gains layers. The other girl raises questions this particular puella has elided past to the very best of her ability. She's been outside of time so long that she no longer feels a part of society, whether civilian or mahou. Her existence attenuates; she is a girl winnowed, bare white bone in places, to fit her mission and nothing more.

It is no excuse.

Mikoto Minagi is more than tough. Her heart beats with rare strength; she turns to face the darkness inside of her. Homura knows she cannot hope to match that sort of courage. She has her own way of dealing with such questions, or more accurately, her own way of not dealing with them.

She does not want to think about little girls named Shigeko walking into Labyrinths. Homura still remembers experiencing that decompensating terror, so sharp atop raw despair like a heated knife through butter. Inwardly, she shudders away from the memory.

A pale chin tosses upward. She smooths fingers through black strands with an outward flick, and a fine handful of hair snaps through the air.

There is something here Homura Akemi can focus on, and she reaches between the guilt-eaten flowers of Mikoto's introspection, plucks up a thorny thistle of a thought as likely to sting as bloom. There is a way she and Mikoto Minagi are more alike than not, a single-mindedness that Homura recognizes.

She steps closer with language if not legs. Her pronoun is inclusive rather than ambiguous. In her hard cold way, Homura Akemi is sharing. "We have to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. You said it yourself. Eri-chan would stop some of them. But she will need every Grief Seed she can get."

A tired Eri echoes back to Homura from the immediate past. 'And I've noticed... my magic consumption. It's increased over time. It would be untenable if I... didn't hunt as I do.'

"As things get harder... she will need more."

Homura pauses. Though she won't examine it too closely, she understands the personal cost of self as sacrifice. It would in so many ways be easier to die for Madoka than to do what Homura has done. So she pauses, but... she also continues. She follows her own advice, even as she gives it.

"If you have a line, that means there is something Eri-chan may be forced to do that you would not. What would that cost her? Would it be too much? Think on what you can bear in her stead. Think what you can spare her. And you can spare her both the doing, and the knowing."

We are sacrifices. This is what we do.

"Whatever we suffer, it's so they don't have to. If that makes us different then that is another thing we're keeping them from."

She undertakes to lead a trusting girl with a killing blade further into darkness, another stain on her own foreclosed soul that may help lead to the salvation of one yet unfettered.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Darren Korb - Forecast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToLBU-zJ2S0

Mikoto is not a Puella Magi, though she has her own worn grooves which let her fit so well beside them. Mikoto has not seen a tenth of the sacrifice the girl named Homura Akemi has witnessed.

There is a difference between training and experience.

Her training allows her to commit to these atrocities.

She does not have the experience to dismiss them.

Mikoto was caught in a Labyrinth, once upon a time, when Vita drained her powers from her in service of her all-consuming Book. Right here - in Nishitama. And her dark and brilliant saviour bore down on her with a cold gaze, and there was a moment Mikoto knew fear of the girl who was third in all the world, a moment she was not sure Eri would kill her or come to her rescue.

If she looks at their faces - she can imagine them being tossed and battered by a hundred rushing Familiars, too.

She is not a girl given easily to introspection. Her reflection is a thing torn from her over long months of sadness, layered over each other until she cried so much more often than she ought.

She finds herself wishing she could forget more than she does.

Awareness is a poison, and it creeps in slowly, along the ragged edges of violence and wrongdoing.

Becoming more and more aware of...

Homura speaks, and when she does, she speaks of both of them. Mikoto looks up at her with those big golden eyes, and she listens, sucking in a sharp little gasp of recognition as Homura surmises what Mikoto had feared.

Eri needs it all.

And Mikoto knows, as Homura says it, that she does not just mean Eri will need more Grief Seeds.

Eri will need more from Mikoto, too.

Go a little further, push a little harder, give a little more...

Is it possible for those eyes, so open to the girl who avenged Mai Tokiha, to widen? They do - as Homura speaks on the topic of the line. So too do the lines of her cheek drop with her jaw, as her breath shudders from chest to throat to lips.

"I can... do it for Eri..." Mikoto echoes, looking down at her hands, curved together against her chest. Eri said she deserved better than being her assassin, but is there anyone else who could do such a thing for Eri Shimanouchi? This is what she can do. This is what she has trained for, though she has so little experience by comparison.

She looks down at her hands and oh, awareness is a poison.

But it is so much more difficult to poison someone who has been envenomed their whole life.

And there is something that makes Mikoto look back up to Homura, uncertainty in her eyes. "But - Eri and I are the same," and there is a quivering to the word which suggests how meaningful it is. "We're the same..."

Homura cannot know how much Mikoto has sacrificed on the altar of familiarity.

Why it hurts so much to be unable to share her secrets with Eri Shimanouchi.

How many she has spoken of; how many she does not realise she has revealed.

To be different from Eri - that makes her cry, too.

"But..." Mikoto swallows at the lump at her throat which will not go away. "I won't turn into a Witch if I run out of magic. Or," a moment's hesitation as she remembers the word Homura used, "get corrupted. So - so I should do it. Eri was sad when I pushed myself, but... it's better, than Eri dying, right?" She searches those grey eyes for some confirmation of her place at the sacrificial altar.

"It's better if it's me..."

There's something sad to the surrender in those words.

"... 'cause I can handle it."

She's not allowed to die, after all.

But there's something in those memories which gives her pause, which makes her glance back down to the earth again. She has remembered Homura telling them - and all the things the girls told Homura. Silence reigns over Mikoto for long moments, even as she looks up to Homura again.

"... Homura?" Mikoto hums uncertainty. Even she knows Homura is private. But everyone had been so angry, and Homura has spoken to her of shared experiences, and Mikoto does not want her to wonder. "I'm not - mad. About what Homura said. Not at Homura. I'm just, sad, Homura couldn't tell anyone. That... understanding was useless." As useless as a Witch's mercy - isn't that what she'd said to her?

It makes sense, now.

"Won't ask why," Mikoto shakes her head. "If Homura won't tell me, I don't gotta know, right..?" It's a question which reveals the track her thoughts have run on so often, recently. It only confirms what her manner and her questions have already said. Her lips press firmly together as she tries to figure out how to say it. "But, I..."

I know what it is like not to talk to anyone, she wants to say.

I know what it is like not to trust anyone.

I know what it is like to be vicious and alone.

But every one she discards in the saying, because she knows. She knows, and so she knows how useless they all are.

She still remembers the way Natsuki tried to talk to her even as they fought, the way she sunk a ship to dismiss her claims.

Mikoto shakes her head, again, braids flicking every-which-way. "... I still like Homura," she says, instead, a measure of haplessness to the words. "I - I'm really happy Homura listens to me... and gives me advice. And, I'm really glad, Homura is looking out for Eri too."

Mikoto does not realise there is only one person Homura is ultimately looking out for.

Mikoto does not realise there is only one person she is ultimately looking out for, either.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Mikoto says she and Eri are the same, in that tone, and that is not something Homura can address, not the way she has been. She and Madoka are poles apart. The girl Homura loves is so very, very good, so kind and brave and worthy, and Homura is so...

So different.

She doesn't know about the terrible training Mikoto Minagi endured, the conditioning and the twisting of trust. She knows only that the girl before her has loyalties like steel, and that she is apocalyptically deadly when things go off the rails. Homura has never pushed Mikoto Minagi this far, in this particular way. The results may be... unpredictable.

But they also just might get her past the storm to end all storms, this time. This time she will get there with fine fierce allies. THIS time it will all go exactly as Homura plans, and this time there will be absolutely no reason whatsoever for Madoka Kaname to make a wish. She will see to it personally.

She's doing so right now.

When Mikoto says she won't turn into a Witch when she runs out of magic, Homura Akemi gives a single, emphatic nod. The searched-for confirmation is there, cool and sure. "You can handle it, Minagi-san. You are tough."

The next turn of subject isn't one she expected, and this time it even shows, just a touch: a quick widening and then overnarrowing of eyes, a short sharp inhalation. Very small signs, very subtle, but Homura is being watched by a girl keen to body language and with no small exposure to her silences, now.

She's sad for Homura. After everything that just went before, Mikoto is concerned about the feelings of the cold-countenanced devil on her shoulder. It winnows the violet puella further, makes it worse rather than better.

Mikoto understands, and she lets Homura off the hook. She still likes Homura. All of it is genuine, heartfelt, and harrowing.

She probably could tell Mikoto Minagi, even though the other girl clearly states her respect for Homura's privacy. She might even understand better than many. But... Homura will not, because Mikoto Minagi is as dangerous as she is helpful, as well-suited to destroying Homura's plans as she is to becoming a pillar of them. Maybe moreso.

And because Homura believes what she told the girl about the uselessness of understanding. Neither girl reaches out to the other, and they remain vicious and alone instead of edging closer to being vicious together.

Neither does she correct Mikoto about who she's looking out for. "I am glad you listen to me, too, Minagi-san. So few do." For a rare brief moment Homura Akemi sounds old, worn like a salaryman working past his retirement at a company that has never known his name. For a rare moment... she sounds exactly how she feels.

Then she buttons right up again, next words crisp and her back even straighter as she realizes and overcorrects. "I need to be on my way." At the very least she really, really wants to be, wants to get away from these too-trusting eyes. Is she really, truly glad Mikoto listens to her? No, glad would not be the word. "If something happens with Eri-chan... let me know. Keep her going, Minagi-san."

Not safe, or whole, or happy. Just... going.