2019-02-19 - TIMELINE 3: Under the Spreading Citrus Tree

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Title: TIMELINE 3: Under the Spreading Citrus Tree

Two girls with braids avoid Sports Festival together.


Mikoto Minagi and Homura Akemi


Ohtori Rose Garden

OOC - IC Date:

2019-02-19 - 2014-09-14

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

It's the Sports Festival, with grand accoutrement and polished presentation. But there is one name which has gone unrepresented in all the events: Mikoto Minagi. She does not want to draw attention to herself, not when her enemies wear Ohtori uniforms. She is better than most of these students, and her skill would be obvious.

After a dressing-down from Juuban's Haruna Sakurada, who finally found her after she failed to show up for tug-of-war, Mikoto has - mysteriously - vanished. No one's quite sure how she manages to slip out of everyone's clutches like that. But in the end, Mikoto has little interest in dancing to the School Festival's tune.

She has slipped away to the greenhouse, warm and contained and /quiet,/ shielded from the cheers and shouts of the festivities by its glass. Birds in their cages ruffle their feathers as she passes, but they are pets, so she can't catch them. She settles in between the roots of a tree which flourishes in the carefully-crafted environment; a fruit tree, though there is nothing worth taking from it now. Her black case rests beside her as she presses her back against the trunk, looking up at the leaves. At least they smell nice.

Mikoto is at least confident enough that Mai will be safe, during the Festival; she would not have left her side if she were worried. Their enemies would not be so brazen as to attack her midst so many bystanders. And if anyone is targetting Mikoto - well.

It will be easier to find them here, when everyone ought to be occupied elsewhere.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (9)] has posed.

It's the Sports Festival... and Homura Akemi really hates the Sports Festival.

The fact that it's at Ohtori this school year -- this /timeline/ -- does little to mitigate the memories of worthlessness and worse. Intervening years as a training puella magi have granted her some modicum of bodily control and strength she lacked before, but the girl herself still lacks confidence in herself. She's been avoiding event sign-ups as much as possible, too.

Besides... it all feels so strange and pointless, considering what she now knows. Distant.

Madoka is relatively safe at the Sports Festival, much like Mai. There is no true safety. Homura learned that right down to her marrow, but... One of her harder lessons, earlier this timeline, was that it is not physically possible for one girl to shadow Madoka Kaname every hour of every day. She's learning to live with the livewire panic that thrums within whenever they are apart; she will one day learn to read it, like a spider reads the vibrations of her web-strands. Not yet. But one day.

Much like her braidsister, she seeks quietude and solace. She still has her athletic shirt and shorts on, skinny sunstarved limbs on full display -- are her braids thicker than her arms? It sure looks that way -- which is another reason she seeks the relative privacy of the greenhouse with its weathered glass walls.

When she spots the root-cradled girl, Homura pauses in place like an uncertain fawn, one foot still lifted. She hovers on the precipice of a decision.

Internal anxiety drives her ever forward. She sets her foot down, and then the next, altering angles to walk right toward her old friend, taking special care to /not/ tread carefully. It feels strange, too, to intentionally discard a lesson Mikoto taught here, right in front of her treetop senpai. Fallen twigs crunch underfoot.

"Minagi-san...? Minagi-san, hi. Um, it's a really nice tree, huh? But maybe not for climbing..." Fidget, fidget. "I don't blame you for skipping it. But they'll really miss you at the obstacle course. You're so good at it, I remember..." Homura is not referring to this timeline.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Once upon a time, not so many times ago, Mikoto quite enjoyed herself at School Festivals.

This time around, she simply doesn't seem invested at all.

Funny how people change - isn't it?

Certainly Mikoto is wearing the uniform, the gym-shorts and the shirt which lets her skin breathe in anticipation of physical activity. She is sinewed in the manner of an acrobat, understated musculature which speaks to the ease with which she ascends arboreally. Not here, though - not today. Today she is at ground-level. It is deliberate.

Cra-crunch go fallen leaves not yet swept up and Mikoto springs to her feet, a hand grasping at the strap of her case to bring it with her, whirls to face -- "Homura," Mikoto blinks, in surprise, her battle-ready sharpness fading in an instant as she hears her voice. "Sorry... I..." She lowers herself back down, glancing aside, made uncomfortable by the fact that she reacted too quickly and too harshly.

"Um... yeah," she says, glancing up to the tree which is poor for climbing. But there's something Homura fumbled through in her fidgeting which makes her frown, the way the things Homura says sometimes do.

She looks back up to her, head canting, brow knit, as if she is trying to figure out whether Homura is making fun of her. "Never did that," she says, simply; she is not as good with her words, this time around. Mikoto did very few exercises, during Juuban's festival. Mai cajoled her into trying a couple - but certainly not an obstacle course.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (9)] has posed.

Once upon a timeline, Homura Akemi would have jumped to high heaven when Mikoto sprang up so fierce and ready; she probably would have ended in an ungainly heap on the greenhouse floor, plus a knee-scrape or two.

Mikoto taught her how not to flinch, and even if the lesson was interrupted Homura still learned from it. Besides, the weight of everything has happened between adds lead to her feet. Experience desensitizes.

So: Homura's violet eyes widen and her small mouth goes round, but she doesn't squeak or windmill or fall over. "Ah, no, I'm sorry! It's okay. I didn't mean to interrupt. Um, well... I guess I did." They exchange apologetic embarrassment for seconds that stretch.

It doesn't get any less awkward. "At Ohtori? You were paired up with Umokeshi-san and..." And she realizes, making the connection between all the confusing strands of deja vu. "And... nevermind." The blood heating Homura's smooth pale cheeks rises in part from chagrin, and in part from frustration. She kicks a clod of dirt and dark particles fly.

"Sorry," she says again, after, but the frustration colors the words.

"Things have just gotten so... weird," says the girl many would point fingers to as a font of weirdness. She looks to Mikoto and longs for one of their grueling training sessions, longs to look up to the other girl, to rely on her strength and friendship as she did before. It displays as a harried sadness, an expression that comes easily to Homura these days.

She squats in place, maybe a meter from Mikoto and her tree, and starts patting the kicked earth down flat again. "Maybe they always were," she murmurs, eyes downcast.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Once upon a timeline, Mikoto was horrified to realise what she had done, a dawning realisation which spoke to something terrible.

That horror is not on her face now; it's a much more normal sort of embarrassment. She shakes her head, with a noise of negation. "Not interrupting," she says. And even if she does, even if someone capitalises on Mikoto apart from the crowd, Homura can handle herself. She is awkward and ungainly in a fight, but she can fight regardless; Mikoto has not offered much in the way of advice, because Mikoto is no one's sensei. She doesn't even remember her lessons. There's no way she could lead someone else.

The confusion is normal enough, to Homura's eyes; she has seen it enough, from the golden-eyed girl who fights far too fiercely on those few occasions she can be roused to battle. She does not recognise Niramo's last name - because she is outside Mai's orbit, Mikoto has hardly noticed her at all. There are many names Mikoto is not close to, who she once knew so fondly. Names like Usagi Tsukino, or Kasagami Araki, or Endo Naoki - or even Mami Tomoe, who is now so much more wary of Mikoto's collateral damage.

Mikoto does not realise she is missing so many friends. With a few precious exceptions, friendships hard-won on her own effort, Mikoto associates with the people Mai associates with; and even then, there are many of Mai's friends Mikoto simply cannot mesh with. Chie Harada, for instance, who keeps trying to determine the truth behind the many rumours which surround Mikoto, to her eternal annoyance.

But to Mikoto's point of view, she has always had a small circle of friends, and she's fine with that. She's here for a specific purpose, after all, and it wasn't to make friends with everyone in Tokyo. It's just a nice side-effect of being here.

"It's okay," Mikoto says, as Homura apologises, because Mikoto doesn't think Homura is trying to make fun of her on purpose. Homura is just... confused. More confused than anyone she knows, but maybe that happens, sometimes. And Takeo did say that sometimes he has memories which aren't his. Maybe Homura just has memories which aren't real.

Things have gotten weird, she says.

For some reason, that makes Mikoto look sad, too.

But it's only as she continues her supposition that Mikoto looks away again, humming discontent through closed lips as they draw down. For all she is strange she speaks of dark and awful things, and Mikoto thinks that perhaps she would understand better than most of the girls who had not made their promise. Her voice halts over the words, uncertain: "Can I - tell Homura something?"

She waits, and listens, and soon enough presses forward. "... Midori's not lazy," she explains, of the history teacher who has been suspiciously absent, even during the Sports Festival. Mikoto takes a breath; it shudders. Her brow curves up, with the sorrow in her eyes. "Midori's dead." Her hands tighten in her lap.

"Miyu cut Gakutenou in half. Midori's Child." Homura has spent enough time around Mikoto to know the terminology by now, even if Mikoto has never shown her own Child to the world. "Homura... we..."

It is easier to show her; Mikoto draws up the sleeve of her shirt, revealing the birthmark there, pale red in the form of a strange star. "... HiME make a promise, Homura. When we choose to fight, we bet our lives." It is how Mai understood it; it is the easiest way to understand it. Mikoto does not remember accepting Miroku, but she knows she has taken the same debt, on a bone-deep level.

"It's - hard, killing Child." They are massive, technomagical beasts; even the smallest amongst them are armed to the teeth. And it is so strange to hear fear, from Mikoto: "... Miyu didn't even have to try. Gakutenou's fast. Couldn't even react. It... Midori..." She curls her arms around herself, cold in the warmth of the greenhouse, and blinks tears from her eyes.

It takes her a moment to continue.

Finally Mikoto shakes her head, swallowing. "Midori knew the price. We all do, Homura. But - but no one's ever... this never... it's, hard, Homura. 'Cause it really was always this way." And here she comes to why she has thought of it, though there is nothing weird about their destiny.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (9)] has posed.

The assurances that Homura didn't interrupt, that she's okay, don't soothe away the raw fidgety nervousness. She nods, though, ever polite. And then... again, because her friend Mikoto wants to tell her something.

Maybe listening will help. Maybe she'll learn something.

She settles back onto her butt on the ground, drawing her knees up so her chin has a place to perch. The nervous chewing of her bottom lip ceases when the word "dead" comes out, and Homura stares at Mikoto. Did she just get paler, somehow? Like porcelain painted white.

"I heard about the fight..." she says, very quietly. "Tomoe-senpai didn't bring us." She's glad Madoka was nowhere near it.

The skinny girl rocks forward onto her heels to better peer forward at Mikoto's bared arm, but her nervous gaze keeps skittering to Mikoto's face instead, then away. "A promise," she repeats. "To fight. That sounds like..." And she swallows, hard. Her mouth becomes a fearful little line, her eyes gain a strained look around the edges.

With some effort she stays quiet until the other girl finishes. The tears she sees in Mikoto's eyes feel like they burn in hers, and Homura looks down at the silvery wish-contract encircling her own finger instead. Grief welters.

"It was always this way. It was just... it's not a fair price, Minagi-san! It's not fair, none of it is fair." Homura's standing, now, with her small hands in fists. She trembles like an overtuned violin string. "Even when you think you know, you don't, not really..."

Her shoulders, high and tight, slump. "And now she's gone. Sugiura-sensei, I mean." Because Madoka's just on the other side of school -- Homura didn't lose her at all. Right? Like nothing bad ever happened... "I'm sorry, Minagi-san. I wasn't in her class yet, but I always heard she was... um, really cool. And it's just... it's awful, and scary." Everything is, these days.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_lMcYcRCPk III - Return To Zero

Is it unfair?

Did they not realise the burden they were shouldering?

How young was Mikoto, when she took hers?

"Midori annoyed me," Mikoto says, and her voice is thin. "Wanted everyone to get along. Told us we should fight together all the time. But... Midori did right things, even when it was hard. Midori was a good person." She looks down, braids shading either side of her face. "... only one who thought I was good at school, too." Because physical education doesn't count, not really.

Her mind skips as it tracks over what Homura has said; she puffs out a breath. "... Mami helped me," she says, because she heard her name. She has to remember their last names, because Homura uses nothing else with so many people. Mikoto never does, but by now Homura must know her yobisute addressal isn't meant to be rude. "Good thinking." She doesn't specify what thinking that might be; if it gets back to Mami, Mikoto has enough faith in another veteran that she'll know.

And it skips, and skips, and perhaps she is avoiding acknowledging it, but it looms overhead like a great twisted star.

Stubbornly Mikoto sits in silence for some time, but silence is no stranger, to Mikoto. She does not speak as often as other girls. Perhaps it is expected. She breaks her silence, eventually.

"Why's it not fair?" She asks, mildly, looking up to Homura, across an ever-widening gulf. "We bind ourselves to our Child. If someone's cut open, they die, Homura." And at once she looks at her and looks past her, through her, and her voice is laid on distant shore. Perhaps it is grief. "If Homura thinks no fight ever killed anyone..."

Mikoto tries to avoid killing them, but it is only because Mai would be sad.

It is so evident that it is a new paradigm for her, now, when she fights with bloodlust and battle-rage, and she does not turn her blade aside.

"We're ones who aren't fair. Child's overwhelming, Homura. Seen Kagutsuchi, right? Or Gakutenou, or Cassandra..." She snorts, a frown crossing her face as she adds: "Duran, too." Another name from someone she used to be friendly with; it took so long to repair that ship. "Even if they tried, most couldn't hurt them that bad." She does not mention her Child.

Mikoto shakes her head. "With that much power, cost makes sense. 'Course it's fair."

Is it more difficult, when she's struggling with the concept of fairness from another angle like this?

She takes a breath; it shudders. Her fingers smooth against her arms. "I just... never thought there was someone who could... defeat us so easily. Not even being able to fight back... I... I thought I'd be okay," and she does not say why. "But I'm still... kinda..." And the word is like sandpaper in her throat. "... scared, Homura," and she whispers the admission like she oughtn't say it at all.

"It's okay," she reassures her, dully, and perhaps it is no reassurance at all. "It won't stop me."

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (9)] has posed.

That Midori was annoying doesn't really invalidate the rest, to Homura; teachers are kinda supposed to be that, right? And the rest, the wanting everyone to get along... Homura squeezes her eyes shut tight for just a moment, remembering the Covenant of Style. Then she just nods, and keeps listening, her hands flexing from open to fist and then opening again.

During the long silence, Homura squats down again and starts poking at the dirt pile. She is used to Mikoto's long silences, grew used to them years ago, years before she ever met this Mikoto; she waits it out within her own pensive silence.

Which agitates, as Mikoto goes on.

At some point Homura finds a sturdy twig, slender but strong -- about the size of a long grape stem but made of dried fallen wood, a castoff from an overhead branch. She begins digging in short, hard downward strokes, as if Homura could drive all that agita into the ground and bury it. By the time Mikoto is done there is a sizeable divot carved out, palm-sized and irregular.

"It's just... not. You can't trust them, you can't trust any of it. You think it's fair, but then you find out it's not... You have to believe me." The very last is whispered. She doesn't shout those words so much any more, but she can't keep from saying them. Homura won't give up. She'll /never/ give up.

She gouges away with her twig, and the pile of displaced dirt grows.

"Yeah. I've seen them." And it is scary to think of someone, something, which could menace the likes of Kagutsuchi and Gakutenou, but... by this point Homura has seen terrible, terrible things. Like a Witch whose advent shook earth and sky alike. The mortality, though, the reminder of vulnerability...

"Not even able to fight back," she repeats under her breath, like it strikes a chord -- because it does. Then: "Sometimes fights... kill people. I know. I /know/." And by the harrow shading her face, it's true. What Mikoto says is not reassuring, exactly, but it does feel very familiar.

"But... if you bet your life so you can fight, and then you run into something you can't fight... then..." And she shakes her head. "You're right to not let it stop you, Minagi-san," she says, but that also comes out sounding more grim than supportive. "Even if it's the scariest thing you've ever seen."

Dig, dig, dig. Someone is going to be very cross to find this hole in her garden, later.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

She can't trust them, Homura says, and Mikoto feels her muscles stiffen underneath her fingers, and the hot glance she shoots Homura is not believing, not at all.

There is too much she is asking her not to trust, too much she tells her is unfair. Homura cannot know how tied the Minagis are to Miroku, how interwoven her family and her destiny, how long she has trained to fight. Or, at least... Mikoto cannot remember ever saying a word to her about it.

But she does not reprimand her with words; she hardly needs to, with a gaze like that. It settles back to neutrality as she continues to listen, softens as Homura insists she understands. Mikoto drops her gaze, brow upturned, because she knows Homura has seen something horrible. It's in the way she says it, the drawn lines of her face. "Sorry," she mumbles.

Homura offers support - and it does read as support, to Mikoto, grim as the words come - and she hums acknowledgement, dipping her head in a nod. "I won't hesitate," she says. "I'll defeat Alyssa and Miyu, and the others." She does not know them by their names; only their masks.

But surely she doesn't mean Alyssa Searrs, the shy little gradeschooler with an angel's voice? She is only a child.

Mikoto is unswayed; Mikoto knows how vicious children can be.

"'Cause I'm not like Homura or Mai," Mikoto says, tilting her chin up to watch the leaves. "I know what I'm doing. I've always known what I'm doing. Bothers people sometimes..." She shrugs, with a hapless little grunt. "... some stuff's more important than everyone liking me." Mikoto is a matter of tension in the community; there are few who appreciate how savage she can be, let alone her unreliable nature.

She doesn't mean to hit her allies, but sometimes they just get in the way at the wrong moment. Her sword is unwieldy, after all. It's not precise, like Madoka's arrows, or given to finesse, like Eri's whip.

But it is a thought which brings her to the Woman in Black, and when Mikoto looks back to Homura there is a vulnerability in her expression, the crease of her brow and the tension at her eyes. Would she? Would she?

"But - but Homura's important too, okay? Homura's my friend. I wouldn't hurt Homura... no matter what anyone says, okay?" Her grief lent her determination, before, but now it just tears open her words in their uncertainty. "Even if someone said I was bad, I'm not! Homura can trust that!" And now who is asking whom for belief?

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (9)] has posed.

Homura knows a silent Mikoto rebuke when she feels one boring into her, yellow and disbelieving. Her shoulders hunch. She doesn't take it back.

The mumbled 'Sorry' receives a shifting of eyes in return, a small shrug that isn't 'I don't care' but 'I don't wanna talk about it.' She is sure Mikoto can't mean Alyssa Searrs. It's not that common a name, but two Alyssas in Tokyo is less strange to Homura than that sweet girl being a threat, being someone Mikoto would...

A shake of her head, a flop of thick black braids, and Homura refocuses on her little excavation project. Soft digging sounds continue.

She looks up, though, when Mikoto explains how she's not like Homura or Mai. Her hand slows, the sounds stop. Homura had wanted so long, so badly, to be liked by... anyone, when it came right down to it. Then they did, finally, and...

It's a hard idea for her to swallow, that something could be more important that salving that loneliness, but by now she has swallowed harder. Homura tried so hard to get everyone on her side, when she first arrived in this timeline, and... it didn't help. No one believes her, and she has to save Madoka somehow. Still... She hasn't given up yet.

"I... I like you, Minagi-san," she says instead, and feels a bit miserable because even if this Mikoto has no recollection of a proclamation of love, Homura still remembers and /still/ feels bad about not having said it back, then. 'Love' is such a big word, though, for a girl who never heard it from anyone, even growing up. In Homura's world, it's so large and powerful it can only belong to one person.

She says it right as Mikoto begins to worry, and in so soft and quiet a voice that it's easily overrun. After, though -- she says it again, a renewed rebuttal. "I like you, Minagi-san! You're my friend, you've taught me so much-"

Homura visibly chokes on her next words before they reach her mouth, though. She has that look of someone who just realized what she's about to say. Her head drops, and she stabs at the earth.

Dig. Dig. DIG-

  • snap* goes the twig, a dry sound. After a pause Homura sighs and drops both halves of her little shovel into the hole she's dug for herself, and goes ahead and says it in a morose monotone. She can't help it.

"Of course I believe you."

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.

Mikoto doesn't press, after that shrug.

Everyone has something in life they don't want to talk about.

Everyone has something in life more important than social standing, too, right?

... the hard fact is, while the girls were fighting Nakewameke and Jewel Seeds, Familiars and Witches, Mikoto was searching. When the girls banded together against threats, Mikoto didn't get involved. Mikoto so rarely got involved, unless Mai decided she could not stand aside. And then sometimes she would involve herself if Madoka asked, or Homura, or Eri; but always it was for the benefit of someone she cared for.

Her motives are unclear, and her explanations terse, and it is so easy to dislike Mikoto Minagi - or to distrust her.

It is as if there are two sides to her entirely; the wordless force of rage who always goes too far when she bothers to show up, and the loyal girl who is so eager to see her friends that she pounces upon them.

Which, then, is Mikoto?

But Homura says she likes her, and gratitude and relief flood Mikoto's face, and finally she smiles. She has spent quite some hours puzzling over love, of late; this time it is the first time she says: "I love Homura, too!"

It always takes her a while to figure out how to say it so directly. One time, Homura was the first to hear it, though she may not have realised the gravitas.

But Homura chokes, and Mikoto frowns in concern, looking down at the shallow grave Homura has started on. She hears it; she hears it. "I..."

She hears it, but no matter how badly she feels for her friend, she can't say it.

If she said she believed her, it would be a lie.

Girls cannot become monsters, falling into a dark place.

"I won't leave Homura alone," she says, instead. "I don't gotta understand to listen to Homura." Even if she does not believe her, she can at least let her talk.

She shakes her head, braids flicking every-which-way. "And - I'm happy," she insists, with a small smile, as she looks back to her. "Never really thought... I'd teach anyone stuff. I'm the one who's gotta learn everything here... always feels like everyone knows more than me. Sometimes it's like I don't really belong here at all... but if I helped Homura, maybe I'm not just catching up? Maybe I can help, too."

She does not realise how she is helping.

She does not realise she no lighthouse, but an anchor, dragging Homura down to worse and worse depths.