2018-10-30 - Danger and Donuts

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Title: Danger and Donuts

Sailor Pluto questions Mikoto about the events of the Kanda Matsuri festival parade, and comes dangerously close to getting an answer.


Mikoto Minagi, Setsuna Meioh


Yamanote High City - Haneda Airport

OOC - IC Date:

2018-10-30 - 2015-05-25

.***************************** Yamanote High City *****************************.
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+ Haneda Airport +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*
 Built at the juncture of Tama River and Tokyo Bay, Haneda launches its
 planes over the water. Its control towers command a view of a landing strip
 that seems to have ambitions of becoming a bridge across the sea, jutting as
 it does against the bay, surrounded by a rectangle of bright green grass.

 As each of its three terminals was built about a decade apart, they have
 different styles. Terminal 1, deemed 'Big Bird,' is the oldest, and has
 rounded, boxy construction, with an interior similar to an opulent gold-hued
 shopping mall. Terminal 2 features wavy, cylindrical architecture, and its
 mall is sleek silver. Terminal 3, the newest, has a downward-curving roof
 that swoops weightlessly toward the sky, and a more businesslike, modern
 interior. All three feature numerous restaurants and amenities, including
 some oddly traditional-looking eateries, though Terminal 3 has a tendency to
 turn into a ghost town at night.

 One of the busiest airports in the world, Haneda is also one of the most
 orderly and punctual. It handles domestic flights, while its sister outside
 the city, Narita, handles foreign flights. The recently opened Terminal 3,
 however, has taken some international traffic, mostly from Asia. There is a
 lesser-known fourth terminal, as well, that handles VIP traffic away from
 prying eyes.
*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+* Players +*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*+*

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

The week sees a new franticness to Mikoto, which Yumi's presence over the weekend had temporarily abated. Instead of informing her of her fatigue, her Sunday rest has only reminded her of how much she has left undone. She was exhausted, when she was given leave to switch off and do nothing so that Yumi would have company. She was so utterly, utterly exhausted. Fear is such a tiring emotion.

But she has to keep going. She can't give up. She can't let anyone down.

If she just tries her best - if she gives everything she has - she's not letting them down, right?

She has to believe she hasn't failed.

It's getting harder, and harder, and harder...

Her failures haunt her whenever she is alone, and she can't manage to forget. So she keeps moving - she keeps busy - she tries not to find herself alone. There is not a moment in her day she is not acting in service of someone or another. She even comes back to Haneda, after the early morning's watch, to help again.

Perhaps this is one more thing she has learnt from Mai Tokiha. Perhaps... not.

It's getting worse, and worse, and worse...

The watch is at times singular, but there are often two to a shift. It's safer that way, if the thing which was Sayaka goes on the prowl. Mikoto Minagi does not have a phone, and cannot keep her allies - or her enemies - abreast of her movements. When she is late to join Setsuna, as the air shifts cooler with the increasing hour of the afternoon, the Time Senshi's only explanation is silence.

What a terrible bedfellow.

And so, Mikoto's movements go unreported. She was so sure she'd seen him, in the crowd. She had to be sure. She was disappointed. She is always, always disappointed, because she is not trying hard enough.

She hurries forward now, over jagged concrete which the reconstruction has not had time to see to. The jacket of her winter uniform is open, in protest of the lingering heat, even as the sun creeps closer to the horizon. It is the only hint that she even attempted to go back and attend class today, after Lera's watch. Despite her pace, she doesn't trip on the debris - she's used to navigating paths she's not supposed to tread. A bag held in one hand contains a cardboard box with something good-smelling inside - she's brought food for the unfortunate soul she left hanging.

It's not uncommon. Though no one could describe Mikoto as 'friendly' to the Chevaliers - she is prickly and standoffish at the best of times - she is, in her own strange ways, attempting to communicate nonaggression. And the pinnacle of pacifism in Mikoto's mind is, of course, Mai Tokiha, who calmed Mikoto with ramen so many years ago.

She does not bring Mai's food to the watch, because she often relieves her enemies or joins them in their vigil, and her enemies do not deserve something so nice. Neither does she make her own, because she knows she is inexperienced in the kitchen, and she is trying not to give into her nature and upset the uneasy balance they have found.

So she buys food.

And knowing Setsuna would be here this afternoon, she's gotten her something good. Because Setsuna is not her enemy, even if she is afraid.

"Sailor Pluto!" She calls, in greeting, when she's in speaking distance of the makeshift lean-to of debris they tend to shelter in. She closes the rest of the distance, and holds out the bag to her, conciliatory. "... sorry."

That the sweets are the apology seems entirely obvious to Mikoto; the reason why she's apologising seems plain to her, too.

She will find, if she opens the box, that it is full of western-style donuts.

Mikoto hops up onto the large concrete slab she so often perches upon, legs swinging idly against the rough edge. "Any change?" She asks, and once again she doesn't bother specifying the thing which was Sayaka. It's obvious.

<Pose Tracker> Sailor Pluto [Infinity Institute (U)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Vivaldi - Winter (music box) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FT4Xa06aEXs

She is the solemn Guardian of the Time Gate and its secret profundities, nestled within the mists of deep mystery; she has stood steadfast sentinel upon the lonely edge of this gathering of heavenly bodies as all of them twirl round a brilliant speck of creation, watching eras pass while she fights her solitary battles against horrors from deep space.

Sailor Pluto is used to standing guard alone.

She paces the dizzy-thin length of a metal spar in the exposed ceiling high above the lean-to and reminds herself of that fact for the fifth time in the last hour. It's no wind-filled rooftop, not with the sky trapped beyond the roof and the airport's lurking darkness so terribly near, but it affords the senshi a hidden vantage. From up here she can better spot any would-be victims, and better track...

Sayaka Miki. The thing that was Sayaka.

The thing that could have been Eri Shimanouchi, instead, or Kyouko Sakura.

One pointed boottip screeks to a halt on metal. She crouches, leg muscles tense, gloved fingers gripping either side of the spar -- something shifted down below, just now. And it was a thing felt rather than seen, or heard... like the insidious emotional undertow dragging at her comes from a slightly different direction now. Pluto holds her breath, up in Haneda's broken boughs.

The depths stir, and the senshi bends where she crouches, her back bowing and her head drooping lightly on a long and elegant neck. Her gaze falls to the red reflection of warning lights in pools of standing water, far below. Eri, she thinks. Would the airport be choked by creeping vines instead of drowned?

Memories rise unbidden and unwanted, refusing her refusal. A ragged but familiar girl slips round the corner of a concert hall; she is making the rounds on her hungry garden in hair and clothes that need washing, tending her planted Witches before she tends herself. Distant strains of classic music from a doomed orchestra underscore Eri saying she's not sorry for killing the girl she loved, that she will not regret it. That she's not allowed.

Her hand was still warm, and solid, and human when Pluto clasped it. She didn't feel like a monster at all.

But Pluto remembers holding a precious green gem instead of a hand, too; and this is not the first innocent-looking girl she has known to host latent horror.

How far gone is her friend? How much further can she go?

What will they be forced to do about it, if this plan does not work?

Sailor Pluto has a terrible feeling that Eri will not blame anyone for acting on necessity, whatever the personal cost. Her fingers tremble in their grip; her forehead quietly kisses metal.

The sudden sharp cool snaps her alert, and her long eyelashes brush the surface as her eyes fly wide. Pluto does not even remember bending low; she straightens and shakes her head, but with care for the distance between herself and the uneven ground below. She flashes back on Mikoto's warnings about getting too close to a Witch while thinking sad thoughts.

The darkness within in the airport shifts again, and Pluto can swear she can sense an edge of anticipation to it. She shivers, and admits it to herself: I do not want to stand this guard duty alone any more. Where is Mikoto? And she feels a rush of shame, personal and professional, for the thought, but cannot take it back.

'Sailor Pluto!'

Relief rushes through her, warm and welcome. "I am here!" she calls back, and makes a tiered series of leaps downward through the overhead construction. The final leap lands her in front of the shack and thus also the other girl, and her hair is a sparkling green wake. "It is very good to see you, Mikoto-chan." It sounds as genuine as anything she has ever said, and is followed by concern. "Did you run into trouble?"

Pluto takes the proffered box with a grateful nod and watches Mikoto find her perch, not opening it just yet. "There was... movement, just now, but not by much. It seemed a kind of restlessness." She pauses, and offers another disquieting thought that has occupied her. "Thanks to the way Eri-chan and Sakura-san operate, we know some about what happens when a Witch is well-fed. But what does one do if you starve... her?" A headshake; it's another worry to add to an impossible pile of them, even as she works her way past an uneasy pronoun shift.

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

Will they suffer a witch to live?

Where is the line drawn?

What would they do to Eri?

What would they do to...

Sailor Pluto is lonely, and Mikoto, in her manner, is just as alone.

But in such a superficial manner, they are not alone, any more, as Mikoto makes her approach. She smiles, to Sailor Pluto, as she lands in impressive graceful arc. "Yeah," she agrees, on the topic of it being good to see each other, with a nod.

"No trouble. Searching," Mikoto replies, a simple word which belies the depths of her compulsion and conviction. That she is looking for her brother has never been a secret. But she feels wariness she has not felt for years - and she does not elaborate.

She shrugs a shoulder, instead. "Not really good at time. Nothing to tell." No watch on her wrist, no phone in her pocket... "But I must've been late, 'cause sun's too low." It betrays the method by which Mikoto tracks the hours of the day - and perhaps suggests she is better at keeping time than she says she is.

Most girls, after all, are reliant on their phone's lock-screen to tell them the hour - or on opulent timepieces, so common to the nobility and money of Ohtori. Mikoto had none of that, in the mountains. The same dearth of experience which sees her pecking hesitantly at a keyboard has seen her with skills other girls would not even think about.

Of course - there were other things she gained in that remote home, which are foreign to the girls around her.

Like senses sharp as a beast, keen enough to pick out the lurking presence of a predator which is outside their comprehension entirely.

There is a reason Mikoto does not expose the malign power of her blade as she settles in to her watch. She is making herself the most available meal in as wide a radius as they can manage with the reconstruction at hand. She is using her prey-status as bait - because if the Witch does move, she will be able to sense it when it bears down upon them. And if the Witch moves, it will move towards prey.

If she cannot sense it, it is not moving.

That's the theory.

It's a shaky thesis, but she does not have magic which could even approximate a Puella Magi's ability to monitor Witches. All she has is a body which is a little more than the girls around her - or a little less...

Being country isn't the only way she's different, after all.

It is the only part she makes obvious.

"Restless..?" Mikoto echoes the word, frowning to herself. "No feelings for restlessness, Sailor Pluto. Witches aren't like us." This, she insists, despite their revelations. "It's just hungry," and her pronoun is perhaps even more stark compared to Pluto's.

A Witch is a thing which knows only hate and hunger, after all.

She hums consideration through closed lips. "I dunno either," she admits. "We hunt them when they're Witches. Don't really give them lots of time to starve. It's..." a moment's pause, as she thinks of the word, a cast of uncertainty to it when she thinks she's remembered the right one. "Inefficient? Leaving Witches unharvested. Could have Familiars growing there. Only need Witches long enough for more Familiars."

There is a level of cool remove to the way she describes the human factory-farm which Ueno and Shinjuku were, and which Nishitama has become.

As if it's routine.

Mikoto acclimatises so easily to horror.

Or, perhaps, the distance to her logical explanation serves another purpose entirely - one which Sailor Pluto might be entirely familiar with.

"But, guessing... same as any starved animal." Mikoto shakes her head, clicking her tongue against her teeth. "There's point before they get too weak where they're most dangerous. Nothing to lose." There is a distant sort of experience to her as she speaks.

She's been that starved beast.

<Pose Tracker> Sailor Pluto [Infinity Institute (U)] has posed.

"Searching," she repeats in a friendly way, with a tilt of her head. Pluto knows of MIkoto's search. She asks no questions. There's something in the shortness of the answer. Instead she says, "All the luck in the world to your search," because who would not want a girl to find her long lost brother?

"I should get you a sundial for your wrist," Time's Guardian adds with one of those subtle, gentle smiles. She bears a single timepiece in the pocket of her civilian coat, but carries it for sentiment rather than any practicality. That her sword-bearing friend also follows naturally-oriented time senses endears her further to the senshi, even if their exact methods differ. "It is fine, Mikoto. After all, you did bring me..."

She flips the box top up, peers inside. "Donuts. Is that a cinnamon sprinkle?" A bigger smile, though there's a slight wince at the corner of her eyes. "Those are my favorite." The senshi wishes her stomach wasn't a pit of resentful acid at the moment.

"Which are yours?" With a twirling motion, she rotates the box atop her hand and strolls over. Politeness and chagrin over her lack of appetite both spur Pluto. She resolves to nibble her way through one, at least.

Mikoto uses 'it' where Pluto used 'she' and the senshi feels the difference, even as the other girl continues to colder, harder territory. She should be doing the same, but... soon they'll be helping the attempt to drag a girl back out of a Witch. And it could be vines cascading over the broken pieces of the airport instead of water. Sailor Pluto's inability to properly distance her heart from the terrible things they face strikes again.

She listens through the lurch in her chest, intent -- a good student, as always, when presented with a learned tutor. "You are maybe the closest thing to an expert in these matters outside the puella magi themselves. Thank you, Mikoto-chan. I don't doubt your guess, here. Maybe... maybe the starvation will weaken the Witch's hold, and make our coming task easier."

Pluto doesn't convince herself with that last. This world has taught her not to trust in hope.

But a recent karaoke confrontation with someone she misses and esteems greatly has shamed her. The senshi is trying to keep her fears to herself, and pretend. It still feels like lying to her. It's just that now, she does it. "Whatever we learn here can only help, later."

As if terrible truths cannot grow more terrible; as if they cannot become too much.

Pluto looks up to the perching Mikoto. It's the first time they've had a chance to talk quietly, since... "What happened at the parade, Mikoto-chan? I've been worried. It might not be a good time to talk about it, considering..." The hand not occupied with a box of donuts waves, a broad gesture encompassing Haneda and Tokyo beyond. "It is up to you."

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Akira Yamaoka - Acceptance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Sl7lkKWI_M

Relief floods Mikoto's face, as Pluto wishes her luck. "Thanks," she says, because she could not forgive herself if her dark seeming made them question him. If Pluto still supports her - it is one of many loads off her shoulders.

It's too bad she's still carrying so much weight.

She cants her head, as the resident expert on time suggests a sundial. "Real?" She asks, because she has never seen sundials which weren't ornate and extremely immovable affairs. She's never imagined one for her wrist. There is the sad and extremely metaphorical sound of a joke whistling overhead.

It's fine, though, because there are donuts.

"Yup!" Mikoto chirps, in good cheer, to Pluto's question. "Mine's pink!" She must mean the ones with strawberry frosting. She takes one of those donuts when Pluto and the box venture too close - she does not have Usagi's proscription against eating apology food - and munches on it, happiness crossing her face again. They're good donuts - there's cinnamon, and frosted ones, and a few filled with jam and custard. Those same senses allow her to smell out the best and freshest food, in far less time than it takes to ask the clerks or judge by sight. Despite the pit-stop, it did not take her long to retrieve them at all. She is decisive about shopping, when she deigns to do so.

'You though. You know what you want. And you do whatever it takes to get that. Because that's who you are... Isn't that right Mikoto?'

Eri wasn't wrong.

She's doing whatever it takes.

In donuts, and in...

Mikoto talks of witches in the metaphorical terms they have made to make themselves feel better about their slaughter, and in this way she is able to afford herself some distance. She needs the distance. Pluto asked for facts, not for victims.

What does it say - that a girl who speaks so callously of Witches is still trying to save one?

She has not thought about what would happen to Eri. Not once, but for her deepest nightmares. She cannot bear it. She promised.

Mikoto blinks, as Pluto compliments her. Perhaps another girl might blush. Mikoto at least has the presence of mind to glance down, momentarily, and perhaps it might be seen as bashfulness. It is a pang, entirely unexplained, at Pluto's description of the Witch's state as a 'hold' over - Sayaka. She shakes it off with a shake of her head, looking back over to her. "I'm good at it, but I'm not expert. Eri's always teaching me stuff. There's lots I just can't get, 'cause it's not my business. I just kinda... fit in," she settles on, after a moment's pause.

How a girl who is not a Puella Magi can possibly cope with fighting the extradimensional horrors they call 'Witches' on a regular basis is, perhaps, the most bizarre question of all. Most magical girls have faced Witches now and then - but Mikoto spends an alarming amount of time fighting alongside the doomed girls.

Acclimatising so easily...

She wants to tell Pluto that learning things isn't always good, but she is afraid.

She thought her fear was a private little thing.

It isn't.

Her hand tightens into half of a donut as Pluto asks her question, pink frosting sinking over fingertips. Eyes widen, and she takes a sharp breath. And then she realises she must not look so suspicious, and she looks aside, shoving the rest of the pastry into her mouth. That's a good enough reason not to talk for a moment. Mai always told her not to talk with her mouth full.

What happened?

What happened?

She doesn't know what happened.

Every suspicion she has is darker than anything she does in Nishitama at night.

It's up to her, Pluto says, and Mikoto knows if she gives her reason to host her own suspicions she may not suffer her at all. It used to be enough just to ignore these questions, whenever they came up. It was expected that Mikoto would not deign to talk all the time. But she has spoken so much more often, since coming to the Shepherds. Perhaps she is laconic, but her silence would be suspicious.

She can put it off no more; she swallows.

"Just - saw kid in fight and - would've got hurt so, got them out." Her words halt over each other, because even if there is a shred of truth to it she knows that it is a lie. She cannot quite meet Sailor Pluto's eyes, because she is sure her fear is reflected there. She has never been able to hide anything.

She knows Pluto is clever - knows she heard Mikoto raging about how the power that float had taken was hers.

She knows the way she pleaded, when she realised she may have been in error.

The way she couldn't even defend herself until she realised the power she had wrought would harm a child whose mind had fled the horror.

She hopes Pluto does not know what happened to that child, in her arms.

She knows. She can't forget.

<Pose Tracker> Sailor Pluto [Infinity Institute (U)] has posed.

"Not real," Pluto replies, feeling bad over this and the donuts now. "Just my own small attempt at humor. Very... small." The mysterious and elegant and definitely never awkward senshi clears her throat.

"I am fond of pink, myself," she says, but Pluto's thinking of a princess and not a pastry. "Ah, strawberry. Your thoughtfulness brightens a dreary watch." It's true, because even if she can't quite enjoy the donuts herself yet, she can enjoy watching her friend appreciate them. It makes a very good apology, to her mind.

Another twist of her wrist and the box spins back to face Pluto. She surveys cinnamon-dusted deliciousness. Her stomach gives a lurch instead of a growl. Lips pursed, the senshi dithers; the box goes on the ground while she busies herself pulling off one long glove, shimmery silk inverting as she tugs from the elbow. No matter what kind of beating her signature garments take in a fight, Sailor Pluto is too proper to get sugar stains on her currently pristine gloves if she can help it.

"You do fit in." There's concern in Pluto around that, but perhaps not enough. She has not been on hunts with them, has not seen their extent and the full cost on Mikoto's soul; she does not know how concerned she should be.

As one of them delays eating food, the other eats food to delay.

The churn in her gut, so perfectly mirroring the whirl of worries in her head, nearly preoccupies her enough that Mikoto's misdirection works. It's just that Sailor Pluto remembers, with a clarity borne of the shock of the moment, the panic and fear the girl expressed so bodily in that unprecedented flight. It's an image she's carried with her ever since.

She rebuts gently, oh so gently. "I have never seen you run like that. It is good you got the child out safe and sound." And oh, she does not know. "But what of you, Mikoto-chan? Did you get out safe and sound? Or did that youma... do something to your magic?"

To, not with. She is worried for Mikoto, not about Mikoto... so far. But she remembers Shinjuku, and she has a wise and busy mind. There are so many things Sailor Pluto does not understand about her friend, and she still believes that understanding will help. Mikoto may not agree.

With her glove-free hand she picks a simple glazed donut, so fluffy that her light grip still cracks the glaze. The look she gives it is not so different from the look an acrophobic hiker might give Mount Everest from base camp. She doesn't take a bite yet, just... considers doing so, very carefully. For Mikoto's sake.

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

"Oh," is Mikoto's eloquent reply to the explanation of the joke. There's no scorn there for humour which didn't quite land - she just accepts that it was something she didn't get, and moves on. She smiles, as Pluto compliments her thoughtfulness.

It is certainly true that Mikoto can be a surprisingly thoughtful girl - just as it is true she at times acts in utter thoughtlessness. Few people are one or the other.

Sailor Pluto says she fits in, and for a moment, the look in Mikoto's eyes gets a little sad. She fits in with monsters. With girls who are growing into horrors, despite everything she tries to stymie the flow. But it fits, doesn't it? Because, Mikoto is...

Mikoto is...

Pluto speaks gently of her cowardice and it is a lance of black glass through her heart, tone so familiar and all the more gripping for it. She should have stayed; she should have understood. In her ignorance, has she left her duty derelict? Did she fail in the one thing above all others: her most sacred vow?

Her face is blanch with the renewed horror of the possibilities, for one terrible moment, before she shakes her head to dispel the tension from lips and cheeks and brow.

Pluto asks if she was safe and a hand reaches, absently, to brush against the back of her shoulder. It tore her to shreds, even in a body which can withstand shattering force just by virtue of her magic. The child had no such power. She tried. She tried to put herself between them and the might she brought to bear.

And then Pluto finishes her thought and that hand freezes there, fingers twitching in. A thin scrape of frosting lines the scratchy path of her fingers, along her uniform. Surely Mai will be frustrated. They just had them washed.

It did nothing to her magic. All it did was show her how it looked... to everyone else. The malevolence which accompanies the drawing of her blade; the horrific destructive power she wields. All there was to it was hatred, and all there is to Mikoto's magic is hatred.

Help me, she screams, without saying a single word.

Distantly, she hears herself reassure Sailor Pluto: "I'm okay."

<Pose Tracker> Sailor Pluto [Infinity Institute (U)] has posed.

There was every indication that asking her questions would upset Mikoto, that it was a difficult subject. Pluto thinks herself ready for a strong reaction. She did not expect this paling horror, nor that frozen and harrowed look that follows.

'I'm okay.'

So familiar. It sounds just like 'Everything's fine.'

Did she looked that transparently stricken to Kasagami on the train?

Even if the senshi cannot hear the unspoken words in the silent scream, the pain dawns clear on her friend's face. It is eloquent enough. Mikoto fails to reassure her. Now, though, Pluto must decide: will she push again?

The truth is, if Kasagami had chased after Setsuna that night instead of letting her lie deflect, both girls might be a great deal happier now -- but that truth is beyond Setsuna's grasp right now, she is blind to it. The unpleasant truth that she knows but doesn't want to think about is that she did want Kasagami to chase her, in that moment. It shames her.

Sailor Pluto and shame have become more and more well acquainted, of late.

Her girlfriend watched her leave, that night, and it still lies between them -- an unlanced boil. Now Sailor Pluto holds a forgotten donut in her bare hand and takes in the unfocused remove in golden eyes. "Mikoto-chan... Mikoto," she repeats, the name a summoning. Come back, it says.

The next words aren't so easily found. Finally she decides on, "I have a hard time coming up with anyone I would believe, if they told me that right now." The donut gets waved in that same encompassing gesture from earlier, the one that tries to say without saying, Look at how bad things have gotten. Little flakes of frosting fly away, and more of that extra freshness Mikoto handpicked goes to waste.

"Maybe... maybe it is something you feel like you cannot bother Eri-chan with, right now. Or maybe it is a secret, and you cannot share it with anyone. I understand secrets. You don't look okay, though, Mikoto-chan. And... that is okay."

This is something gentler than a push across a threshold. Sailor Pluto simply sets out a bowl of warm milk and leaves the door ajar.

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

There is a trick, to approaching stray cats. Come too eagerly, and they will flee for their lives. Befriending them is, at times, a matter of ignoring them entirely.

It might be difficult to remember, with how tame she has become over two years of friendship.

Mikoto Minagi is a stray cat.

On distant shore she hears her voice, and she has heard it before. Different voices - the same tone.

'Mikoto it's me. It's me... It's me. It's me and it's okay.'

'Hey, Mikoto-chan. Can we talk? You're safe--I'll explain everything.'

'Mikoto! What... Mikoto, it's okay. You're at home, okay? Everything's back to normal...'

'Mikoto-chan... Mikoto.'

It is a tone which pleads with her to return when she has gone away. It is so much different to the command she expects, in this place. Commands - these she can execute perfectly. Requests...

Mikoto finds her breath shallow in her chest, and realises it is because she is in danger, and realises a moment later that Sailor Pluto is concerned for her and called her back to the world.

It's a strange contrast - Pluto's care, and the threat she feels. It's difficult to reconcile. Mikoto has always struggled with complexity in her relationships. She thinks in black and white, with little room for grey. She does not have room in her mind for the possibility that her loved ones might be wrong or harmful. She cannot think of it at all.

And so when Mikoto's gaze focuses again, and looks up to the stalwart defender of Time itself, it is with perfect vulnerability.

She doesn't know how to handle this.

She wasn't designed to handle this.

But it's true - isn't it? She has carefully avoided asking anyone involved if they're okay, because she knows they're not.

Pluto talks, and Mikoto listens, and still she looks so close to bolting, because to a stray cat any approach is a threat. But she does not approach head-on or swiftly. She edges about the topic, allows room for what cannot be said.

She makes a wordless affirmative noise, as Pluto tells her it's okay not to be okay, and her gaze lowers again. It is its own little surrender, as she clings more tightly to one side of a complicated truth.

It's such a troublesome thing, friendship. It reaches in at the least-opportune times. And before she can stop herself, she blurts out: "I'm not okay!"

It is all she can manage to say on the matter, as her shoulders tighten around herself. There are other ways in which she is not okay, and Pluto has kindly reminded her of the obvious.

There is only one course available to her.

"I can't - talk to Eri any more, 'cause, Eri's hurting too much. I said I'd, take care of Eri... and I will, even if I gotta do bad things... but, all this stuff, I'm not good at, and, even though I'm working so hard I..." Her voice creeps lower with the admission. This is something which scares her, too. "I keep letting Eri down, Sailor Pluto. Couldn't defend Eri's territory, or kill Eri's enemies, or stop myself from fighting ones Eri didn't want killed... or..."

Sadness floods her eyes, and she shakes her head, swallowing at a throat which suddenly feels too dry.

There is one thing she succeeded at - which Eri never would have wanted.

But she promised she'd take care of her.

<Pose Tracker> Sailor Pluto [Infinity Institute (U)] has posed.

Mikoto's eyes shift, from that haunted distance to a proximate and and poignant vulnerability. It strikes to the senshi's heart; she is a protector, first and foremost. She would protect this girl, if she can.

Alas, there are dangerous ways in which these two lonely girls are alike. Each of them has another person she would protect first, and Mikoto currently has a keener sense for this conflict and what it might bring them to, someday. She knows the lengths Sailor Pluto will go to, if not whom she ultimately protects... and that might be less secret than it once was, considering the number of times Puu has publicly defied apparent reason and risked all to keep a Small and precious Lady safe.

So it is that when she speaks her careful words, Mikoto does not bolt, but... neither does she confide in the darkest of her fears. Pluto does not know it, because the evasion is a cunning one; all the very best lies are not lies at all.

That painful blurting, the acknowledgment of such an evident emotional truth, sparks a sympathetic wince in Pluto that she shares with her friend. A shimmer grows in garnet as the girl goes on, and softens eyes shaped to express sorrow in all its subtle shades. "Ah, Mikoto-chan."

Mikoto hurts because Eri hurts, and Pluto hurts for them both. Her hand lowers, donut still untouched and feeling as heavy and leaden as her arm. No one is okay.

Later, her seeking intellect will sense the loose end and worry again at the riddle of the float and the fleeing girl. Later, when Mikoto is not making such a convincing offering of another fear, deep and dark and fearsome but not quite so secret, not quite so... dangerous. Their world now has a much better sense for the hazards a puella magi can pose, by the simple fact of her existence.

Pluto has worried at that, too, in the grit-eyed nadirs of sleepless nights. The only conclusion she has allowed herself, thus far, is that it is their very best case scenario if this plan to retrieve Sayaka Miki works... and that she does not believe in best case scenarios.

The rest of the conclusions, she is not quite ready to come to yet. Give its Guardian time.

Pluto gives herself a little shake. She replaces the donut among its mates, now distinguished by the five distinct marks where fingertips indented, and sets the box at her feet. Maybe they will get eaten tomorrow morning. A small hope, when large ones cannot seem to thrive.

"She is in... a great deal of danger. It might be more than one person can protect her from. You are doing your best. Right now, right here, you are helping her. She should be as far as possible from all of this. But you are right." Pluto reads between some of the lines, if not all of them. "This is a terrible thing. I am worried for her, too."

One brown hand is still without its glove and she offers it, palm up. It's a deliberate mirror of a gesture she has made to Eri Shimanouchi, on a few occasions. Take my hand, and for a little while we are not all alone in a world that is sometimes too cruel for words. A clasp of hands cannot last forever and cannot dispel the dark, but it is something. And it doesn't require more of those difficult words.

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

Is it deliberate - the way Mikoto tosses Eri to the wolves?

Or is it just the base instinct to deflect?

To make sure no one could possibly question why her obsidian heart clenches in terror as she thinks on things she does not understand and cannot forget?

No one can help her with that.

Mikoto takes a breath which shudders, shakes her head violently. "I can protect Eri! I can! I promised! I promised I'd take care of Eri! I - I took responsibility, I..." the words die in her throat, because she cannot bring up what else she has promised. Not to her friends, the Shepherds, who will do whatever is necessary.

She doesn't want to give them any ideas.

She draws in another breath, lifting her gaze to the offered hand. Trembling, she reaches out - and what a contrast between nobility-pale skin and the brown of Sailor Pluto's. Her hand is small, but it is strong; she is well-bred, and finely crafted.

She wants to say: who will take care of me, now Eri is drowning and Mai is all the more consumed by her brother's ills?

She wants to say: I am not used to being the one doing the thinking. I am designed to follow. I don't know how to take responsibility like this. I don't know what to do.

She says none of it, because she promised, and she has to take care of Eri. She has to make sure she will be safe.

"We can't give up on Eri," Mikoto says, instead. "If we all make sure Eri's okay... Eri won't turn black. Eri needs us, Sailor Pluto." Golden eyes raise to meet garnet, and Eri Shimanouchi is not the only one treading water. "We've gotta help."

Help Eri, she says, as she drowns.

She grasps onto that hand as if it were the only thing keeping her above the water. In this moment, perhaps it is.