2019-03-04 - TIMELINE 3: Wedding Bells Knell! Desperate Situation!

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Title: TIMELINE 3: Wedding Bells Knell! Desperate Situation!

Homura needs a Grief Seed, or she won't be able to save Madoka. Mikoto is caught in a Labyrinth as she blames herself for the Golden Age invasion. Their paths cross again, but this time, it's not Mikoto making the call to save Homura.


Mikoto Minagi, Homura Akemi


Ohtori Academy - Underground

OOC - IC Date:

2019-03-04 - 2014-09-15

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
 BACKGROUND   MUSIC : Mikko Tarmia - Theme for Unknown https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUmGM_VtWzw

Mikoto was separated from her friends, when an Orphan assaulted them. She forced the issue; she separated the monster from her injured party. She handled it. She was left alone.

She has not found any friends since.

Only a boy, who laid the blame at her feet.

And how - how can she take responsibility for something like this? What can someone like her do, when she cannot even defeat the golden-masked girls who make up their elite? She has tried, God help her, she has tried. But they know just what to say. They know just how to wound her without needing a weapon in hand.

All she can do is fight.

Fight, and keep fighting...

It does not feel like a full day of this has passed. It feels so much longer. Even she is worn down. They do not know what to do. Do they realise she does not know, either? She is a warrior, well-bred and finely crafted, but she has never been in a war zone before. At times training was hard, but always there was an end to it.

Oh, she thinks. But there is an end to this, too.

'Remember. You have a deadline. And so does this island.'

And she does not know who, only where, and if she does not figure out what to do then the Crimson Rook's lies will have truth to them, and she will not be able to do anything because she will die too.

And Mai will die too.

Oh, she thinks.

When did the cave start smelling so wrong?


Suddenly the rocks aren't, and Mikoto finds herself in lavish hall. The walls are slathered with artful invitations, on off-white paper which has been smoothed out from where it was crumpled and thrown aside. Intricate characters bleed into the paper, half-illegible.

		#### ####### ^ND ###### ######
		6D/69/6E65 ^RRI^F 0PM

There are eyes underneath the writing, stitched into the paper. Two pairs. Tassels hang in from behind them, and the fine silk cloth is a sickly off-yellow, the optic nerves of a craft project. The rightmost tassel ties in with the leftmost of its mate. They're holding hands, isn't that nice?

Flick, flick, back, forth.

They are watching. Look, every little movement. How many pairs? There is an invitation above the door Mikoto must have entered from. An invitation a foot to the left. Next to it there are two pasted over each other. A nerve-tassel hangs forlornly, trapped underneath paper. It twitches. And there, on the ceiling. And there, on the walls. Ten... twenty... fifty...

It's your special day, so of course everyone is judging you. Are you really giving yourself up in that dress?

They are HOCHZEITSEINLADUNGÜLTIG, the Witch's Familiars, and their role is to find faults. 

The Hochzeitseinladungültig are looking at you. They are looking at you and every moment they are not the room gets... a little... darker. It's starting from the near corner. The one you are in.

And as the room gets murkier the eyes glow brighter, and there's light on the other side, glimmering through. The end of each nerve-tassel glows like a cigarette on a lonely night. They are laser-point lashes and they swivel about, searching for flesh.

Mikoto does not get out of the way of the light fast enough. It burns a long thin line along her arm - the long drag of hot ash on skin - and she hisses.

It's not so bad right now, but every second everyone looks at your disaster of a dress is another fraction darker, another set of eyes lit up as the Hochzeitseinladungültig stare.

Lights out.


A Witch's barrier is manifest, nestled by an ancient obelisk, engraved with old forgotten names in unrecognisable script. Perhaps once it was a monument.

Perhaps, a gravestone.

There is a victim within the Labyrinth, and she is fighting, but she is HiME, mortal blood in mortal veins.

Perhaps she's familiar. Perhaps she has brought it on herself.

The stone is smooth here, and the silence echoes.

There is no one watching, no one judging.


In through the barrier; it glimmers. At once it was a rocky tunnel and now, with warping view like a rippling pond, it is a grand hall; a foyer designed to receive hundreds of fine guests. But no one is coming to your party.

Because the hall is dark now, and there is a dark figure tearing through it, weaving through lattices of light. Mikoto's eyes glint in the darkness as she carves Miroku across the faces of the Hochzeitseinladungültig, and each one pierced collapses to show a brightly warped vision of Ohtori elegance - for just a moment, before the curtains are drawn aggressively closed, and the walls fall into darkness again. They grow back; there is no end to them.

The doors are locked. There are deep grooves bitten into them, as if a blade has been slammed into them again, again. They will not open. They are not doors.

She bears the flesh this trap was designed for, after all.

But it is not so simple to eat her; she is sharp and jagged at the edges. She wheels and catches eye of the newcomer and there is savagery to her eyes, as if the veil has lifted and revealed her for a beast. They are wild things; they widen. She sniffs the air.

She does not stop moving.

She already knows what happens if she slows down.

"Homura!" She huffs out past bared teeth, curled lips, and at once it is identification of a friendly and the outreached hand of someone drowning. She has ever been economical with her words.

There is no time for pleasantries.

Predator and prey; it knows you are here. The dynamic shifts in an instant. The door is a door: it opens. Entrance is not optional.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
 DIE   HINTERGRUNDMUSIK : Oktoberfestscochzeitsmarsch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dOthGfFRmE

It is a wedding aisle, and it is well-lit. Everyone will be able to see you make a fool of yourself. Red carpet rolls out past jagged painted lines of pews; dolls drape there, silk-strand hair and cotton faces painted on.

And they are inanimate but there are dancing girls, too, and their skin is blue velvet and they wear lovely pink-lace dresses, painted eyes and little crossed stitches where their mouths ought to be. They bear charming little woven baskets, each with its own cloth bedding. Why can't you be more like them?

They are BLUMENMÄDCHENTTÄUSCHEND, the Witch's Familiars, and their role is to betray confidences. 

The Blumenmädchenttäuschend are throwing rice. It wriggles as it lands. "Bugs!" Mikoto snarls, because look closer, it is not rice at all. It's a shower of little white larva, which is precisely what you deserve on your special day.

It's gross. They stand out on the aisle.

It's harmless, too, until it isn't.

Little bug faces have little bug mouths, with little bug lapel-pins for teeth. Take a magnifying glass to them; those lapels have magnificent detail. It's a little too small to see.

Especially because those little bug pins hurt.

They are REISCHLIMM, the Familiar's precious legacy. Don't smash them! 

Mikoto shakes off a handful and crushes them under foot. The Blumenmädchenttäuschend turn in their dance and wriggle in offence, and they open their baskets and rumours pour out.

Ah - wait. They're flowers. Thorny red roses which shoot out like crossbow-bolts, and when each petal passes it cuts like a razor. In the wake of the red are murmurs, and there is no sense which can be made of them, with keen hearing or without.

Mikoto snarls as her side catches a shallow gash, a thin frayed line along her gown. She bends at the knee and leaps over the next volley, to land behind one of the Blumenmädchenttäuschend-dolls. It has another face on the back of its head; it is not surprised. Every one of them is two-faced.

It reaches to the little 'X' of its mouth and pops in a finger and pulls out cloth and cloth and cloth and cloth, and it whips like a flag or a flagellate or the red silks used to enrage a bull. Mikoto does not flinch or blanch in the face of something which should not be, because it is enough that an enemy is before her; she carves through the cloth and through the doll. It smells like week-old meat left on the countertop and the Reischlimm crawl through the cloth which it's made of inside. Everyone is fabricated in the end.

These are not invitations; they do not hang idle on the wall. There are more of them than there are the two of you, and they are thoroughly offended by your presence and your actions, respectively.

But unlike the Hochzeitseinladungültig, their numbers are not infinite, and they are only made of cloth and cruelty and consequences. Perhaps Homura will see as one advances on her, opens up its basket of false promises and launches the roses like darts to a board. It wriggles forward, head-on, and strangely enough they never seem to be seen... by the... side.

Perhaps they are only made of back and front. Friends stand side-by-side, you know.

They are all too eager to attack two or three at a time, once singular tactics are proven not to work, one trying to wrap and wrap and wrap with silk cloth and another sniping lies like roses. When they run into each other they fold over each other in folds of limbs and trunk, and shove at each other until they are freed. It is a way to winnow them if their numbers get too great.

Mikoto does not bother with crafty tactics, but she doesn't hesitate for a moment as she hits them, even when they do not act like bodies should.

She's not really the concerning party here, though.

There's a Puella Magi in the Labyrinth, and Homura is not welcome at the buffet.

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

Given enough magic, a puella's body can knit back together from terrible damage. Cracked ribs unbreak; internal injuries seal; mottled bruises dissipate beneath pale skin like smoke. After the expenditure of a precious Grief Seed Homura is left with memories of injuries instead of the injuries themselves. She remembers the stomach-quaking fear engendered by the Black Bishop's arrival through flames, and the awful lurch through the air and even more awful crunching stoppage.

What she retains of Eri's arms around her limp body, of Mikoto shouting her name and Georgia's anger, is hazy like a dream instead of a memory. Their entrance to the caves beneath the Island blurs until the immediate danger of the Orphan attack woke her. They lost Mikoto, then, and could not find her again. Not long after her costly mending, Homura and Eri heard incoming trouble and took separate tunnels in their exhausted and hasty evasion.

No amount of backtracking helps. Homura gets utterly lost in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, and she daren't even cry out for her friends in case the wrong sort of thing hears. Worse, the violet in her Soul Gem is in the minority now -- inky darkness, the majority. If Homura is very careful with her magic expenditure, she has maybe a single fight left in her.

The inescapable conclusion is that her next fight must be a hunt.

Homura needs to kill a Witch.

She need not hunt long, not in these caverns teeming with eldritch wanderers. She finds her prey anchored to an obelisk and does not spend time wondering at its carvings, though years ago she might have. Even as capital-Witch Wrongness drags her away from the cold caverns, Homura feels mixed fear and relief. She pulls the Desert Eagle from her shield and whiteknuckles its grip in the Labyrinth's darkened reception hall.

She is late to the party, and she is not alone.

Homura knows, now, that even if it was just her and the Witch she would not be alone, a knowing which makes Witch-hunting even more strange and terrible but not so much so that she forsakes it. The stakes are too high. Still -- right now it is not just Homura and the thing which was once a puella like her.

Someone who is still a girl is here, too: a friend whose desperate bid for survival writes obsidian calligraphy across the almost-invitational Familiars. Like pushing out the tides with a sword, and as effective: they keep coming.

"Minagi-sa...n!" she shouts, and the name hiccups as the other girl's eyes seek hers and she's given a glimpse into savagery. Homura remembers, then, how Mikoto clove Orphan and Georgia both... but Mikoto's shouting her name back, and there is recognition in it and need, too.

The door opens, and the lights come up.

Everyone is waiting for them, everyone stares with painted eyes, and amidst deathly peril Homura feels keenly the suffocating weight of all that regard, all that judgement. Her severe, light-and-dark coat and black leggings are no attire for such an occasion, are they? Shouldn't she change into something more appropriate, more... vulnerable?

With a shiver the puella suppresses the urge to release her henshin right there in the Witch's bridal nest. She pulls up her weapon, heavy and hard-edged and grey, and as the rice-larva rain down upon them both Homura squints through her glasses and down the Deagle's sights at the Blumenmädchenttäuschend filling the pews.

Aim -- inhale -- exhale -- pull trigger.

Homura rocks where she stands with each concussive shot, but she doesn't overbalance or lose her grip, even as the metal bites into her hands. A full clip of bullets flies out, eight .44 Magnums like eight airborne hammerblows.

Then the bugs are biting her and Homura can't help a girlish shriek for the visceral awfulness of it -- she shimmies in place to try and dislodge them, which is when a Familiar-doll advances on her to express its offended sensibilities more directly.

Cruel red rumors fly her way, and Homura has always suffered especially keenly at the hands of social unkindness. The roses give her a skewering, and she does not even have time to pluck their stalks free of her legs and arms like one might remove horrible splinters. Mikoto is in trouble, and so is she.

She runs for Mikoto, rumor-thorns stinging as she goes, and tries to get side-by-side with her friend. "Hang on, Minagi-san! We'll get out of this!"

In the very back of her head Homura questions herself -- does she want to save her friend, or to preserve the girl SEARRS wants? The rose-rumors dig into her skin, like vicious barbed thorns. So she's shaking her head, braids flapping, even as she shoves the empty Deagle back into her shield and draws a menacing length of black-barreled shotgun instead. "Watch out!"

And she's trying to blast at the snaking cloth as it reaches for them, to blow it apart before they're gift-wrapped for the impending reception.

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

Mikoto's name skips like a record and perhaps, some other time, she would have recognised the flinch. Now she is shaped by desperation, that terrible admixture of fear and anger, and she does not think at all. She does not realise how sharp her ragged edges are, exposed.

Homura is dressed for battle and Mikoto for ballroom, save the boots her friend gave her. It is well that she did; the Reischlimm bite at exposed skin, constant aggravating background noise.

The dolls on the pews are easily shot; they fall to the ground. The Blumenmädchenttäuschend are easily shot, too; though they wriggle about with jerky movements, they are not evasive things. Bang, bang, bang; aim for the centre of mass and they are torn through by the lead. Red cloth flutters out and out behind them as they fall, and when they crumple the Reischlimm crawl from the holes.

A Blumenmädchenttäuschend opens its basket of rumours on Homura, and Mikoto tracks rose to flesh and tears through in revolutions, soundly carving it from shoulder to hip. The basket tumbles to the ground. Petals spill from it; they wilt. You never did appreciate their favours.

She is hanging on to the one ledge given her: the hilt of her blade. Homura's knuckles are not the only things grasping white, in the Labyrinth. Her breath tears shallow past open lips and she hears her name and she says again: "Homura!" In that curt, clipped way, the way she has always spoken in a battle, and their edge is dire.

Homura knows Mikoto very well; surely by now she must know that when she is overwhelmed, names are her final refuge.

They'll get out of this, they'll get out of this, and she hears the promise distantly and she must believe it is so, because this is one of Homura's, she must know how to handle them though they are wrong, so wrong, not moving like joints should. Everything here offends what she knows and she wants to tear it to nothing.

Flutter goes the cloth as it wrap-wrap-wraps, and one of Mikoto's eyes is squinted shut from the bruise the Black Bishop has given her and she cannot see her flank in that moment. But Homura can, Homura does, and Mikoto ducks from her path as she brings up the shiny black metal of a shotgun. Bang, bang, and silk becomes shards of ribbons, fluttering in the air. Bang, bang, and down goes the Blumenmädchenttäuschend. There is a hole where its hip ought to be. It doesn't have a basket any more.

All a sudden all the inert dolls straighten, some in pieces where gun or blade has torn them. They turn and look right at you with empty little eyes.

You know what it is like to be noticed.

Down the aisle, through the wedding-ledger, across the threshold they are forced, step over step, into a happy home. The rich furniture is dishevelled. The servants have not dusted. The fine china is broken. Isn't it everything you ever dreamed of?

Pulled further, further, and here is the heart of the house. Here, with curtains drawn and the scent of death in a dark bedroom, Hochzeitseinladungültig staring accusation, lies

 The Witch, A D E L I N A 

It is a corpse swaddled in fine white silk, wrapped-wrapped-wrapped until only small details may be seen, glassy eyes, bloated fingertips; blue lips still grasp a lit cigar between them. Reischlimm-maggots crawl from between the layers of cloth. And perhaps at first it seems Adelina is rotting.

Oh, no.

Wrapped-wrapped-wrapped and it is a man's jaw but the bridal veil is a woman's, set at an odd angle, like a mask pulled to the side. Tightly, tightly pull white-pearl claws at the end of silk rolls, lace pouring out like seafoam on a wave. Don't let go.

6D/69/6E65, say the walls. 6D/69/6E65. 6D/69/6E65. 6D/69/6E65, printed on every surface. 6D/69/6E65.

And the veil opens and teeth are stitched in, and Adelina's roar is a thing more felt than heard, Hochzeitseinladungültig rattling and falling from the walls. They create searing little puddles of light where they come to rest; don't step on them. Oh, but it might be difficult to watch your step, with the way Reischlimm pour from her lacy maw and flood the ground. They wriggle into the light; they are consumed. They are a million little pinpricks of white on the dark floor.

At the same time as this - Adelina is not constrained by concentration - those silk rolls pour out from her body in waves, like waves, flowing and wending and seeking out girls. There are white pearls at the end of them. They are round. Regardless of their smooth surface they are sharp; they should not cut, and they do.

You need much, much prettier dresses.

Mikoto snarls as she dives in a roll to evade the flowing-flowing silk, pits of light sizzling little ash-lines across her gown. A Reischlimm catches behind her ear, bites at the sensitive skin there with its lapel-pin teeth. She jerks her head sharply to the side, the bruised side of her face aching as she grimaces.

She presses forward despite it to plunge Miroku into the mountain of lace at its base, and it is barbed like wire, and it explodes out at that hint of an unkind touch again. In two parts it expands out, to either side of the girl carving into its flesh, and then -

- once more like jaws -

- the lace moves to snap shut.

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

There's something undeniably horrible about pumping lead into a bunch of wedding guests, even if the guests are Familiars and the wedding is meant to be Mikoto and Homura's funeral. It's all too effective. They go down so easily.

And yet it hardly seems to matter, because the wedding corpses just release more Reischlimm as if decay could not wait. If only Homura had the leisure of not looking -- but these are deadly enemies, and she must not take her eyes off their horrors however much she wants to.

Fire flashes from the Mossberg's muzzle with each slug, and Homura manages to buy Mikoto and herself some precious breathing room from the reaching red cloth.

The air clears around them and all those empty little eyes turn their way, and Homura can't help but shrink against Mikoto, shoulder-to-shoulder. She backs down the wedding aisle with shotgun raised, taking careful measured half-steps heel-first and sneaking sidelong looks at how the Labyrinth strains her friend. "Sorry, Minagi-san. I should have tried to get you out safely first..."

But could Homura take this Witch alone? As they step across the threshold she turns sideways and takes in the decrepitude, and something cold snakes up Homura's spine. "I-I've never been to a wedding before." What a horrible first time, the tone of her voice says. "Do those things have to have all those eyes...?"

Sweetly sickening, the true decay welcomes them into her bridal chambers. With both hands on her shotgun, Homura can't cover her mouth. Her cheeks puff as she *hrks* in reaction, then fights her bile back down.

The room teems with horror, and Homura must dance away from Mikoto's to avoid falling into those holes and getting swarmed by Adelina's white-bodied pets. They part, one girl snarling and the other gagging. Mikoto moves in; Homura dodges away, seeking distance.

Hungry veil-silk allows her none. Homura feels the sharp bite of pearls at her knees, her ankles, and then she's falling hard onto the darkened bedroom floor as her momentum yanks out from under her. On a bruised hip Homura twists, and cries out and pulls the Mossberg around, aiming it past her tangled-up feet at the twists of grasping white--

--it's all bouncing around so violently she can't be sure if she'll hit the veil or her own legs but she has to chance it--

--through her own gutting terror Homura hauls on the heavy trigger and with a WHOOM she's freed, at the cost of a searing slug-graze down the inside of her left calf. No time to sob, scared, at how close she came to blowing a hole through her own leg, though. Every instinct screams she has to MOVE, NOW, and Homura scrambles through the pain and fear.

Adelina does not appreciate their intrusion.

Homura buys enough space to look round for Mikoto, and sees her charge in Miroku-first. For a moment she thinks, will this be it? because Mikoto is powerful and Miroku is terrible, and it is hard for Homura to imagine anything withstanding so direct a blow from them. But she should know by now: every Witch has her surprises, and a Witch on her unending horrorshow wedding night is no different.


She drops the Mossberg and has a hand to her shield before the gun ever hits the ground. It freezes centimeters from impact, as grey and unmoving as everything else around Homura. Even in the timestop, she hurries. She can feel the power leaching away from her Soul Gem with every sideways second she steals, and her legs run red onto the greyscale floor.

There's no time to run up and be careful about pipe bomb placement. All she can hope, as she lobs two IEDs around the snapping lace jaws -- one to either side -- is that the explosions will have to break through the Witch's barbwire trap before battering Mikoto.

Then she spends a few more precious stolen seconds to draw the Desert Eagle and reload it. She's not good enough to do it quickly in combat, not yet. With a thumb upon a silvery flywheel amid esoteric clockwork, Homura sets the universe's clock to spinning once more... and prepares to run in and help Mikoto clear after the pipe bombs appear and detonate around her and the Witch alike, whatever state they leave her in.

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

Of course they go down. You hate them so much.

In one thing, Homura and Mikoto are of a mind; they do not look away. Mikoto puts her weak side to Homura and holds her blade in a defensive ward. She makes a disquieted noise of negation, partway between grunt and whine, and shakes her head as Homura apologises for not rescuing her.

She'll fight. Fight, and fight again and again and again and again and again...

In through the ledger and across the threshold, and Homura says she has never been. "Homura," Mikoto says in low rasp, and the word is foreign in a throat used to screaming as she claws for the words, "Homura, the enemy." Her mind roils and she cannot grasp them right. She tries.

It is well she does not need to speak to a Witch.

The silk seeks for Homura because it has to size you, or do you want to embarrass yourself with something store-brought? Grasping-grasping it pulls around and up from below when she falls, and in a moment it will wrap about chest, throat, mouth. Yes - she has to chance it. And the pain of burning slug which comes too close is at least incomparable to the pain of never leaving this awful, awful place.

In tatters that length of silk flutters, pearl-claws scattering to the ground, lost amongst the Reischlimm. Perhaps Homura will notice the way another ream does not immediately come to her, as if...

... the Witch is momentarily distracted.

Say, by a delivery.

It is hard to imagine anything withstanding Miroku's obsidian edge, and it is certainly true that the lace splits explosively, cleaved in twain. But a Witch does not obey laws or reason, and all the carving does is create two horizontal waves around her. Her eyes dart between them as they close and her legs bend low and the Witch's lace is taller than she can leap and she will not escape them, and then she does nothing at all, and neither does Adelina.

Mikoto is not the only one shaped by desperation, as Homura makes her hurried placements. There's no time to think about the details, about what happens when barbed wire is blasted. Get in, get out.

-- and Mikoto completes her jumping motion, and here is the shape of the next three seconds:

The IEDs detonate as the time-stop abruptly ends, and the edges of the lace are consumed. The explosions rock up from where the bombs have been placed, and they are faster than the closing steel trap of Adelina's jaws, and as they blast up the barbed-wire lace becomes a thousand stinging needles as it is rapidly reduced to its constituent parts. And if Mikoto were on the ground she would have been awash in them, but she is mid-air, and as the explosions reach her they toss her through the air like a ragdolled Blumenmädchenttäuschend, away from the mangled lace.

There are a hundred scratches on her legs, and she is whole.

A silk-roll seeks her while she is falling, while she is rocked and dazed from the explosion.

Bang, bang, bullets find the silk.

Mikoto hits the bedroom carpet and bounces, once, twice; Reischlimm are crushed beneath her. She groans and does not rise quickly, but Homura is there to cover her. And she does rise, flat palm to the ground, jerking back from a Hochzeitseinladungültig's pit of light to find darker ground as she brings herself standing again. Reischlimm nip at the skin between her splayed fingers and she shakes them off as her other hand finds the hilt of her blade again. She sways; she does not fall.

All this time, Adelina is screaming. You were supposed to be everything.

Well - not in a way they would recognise. It is a little rattling noise on the edge of their hearing, and it vibrates through the room, knocks the invitations from the walls. Sword and bomb have wounded it, oh, how those bombs have wounded it; silk erupts from it in long reams, an overwhelming maze of cloth to fit them and carve them and end them.

Mikoto sucks in a breath through her teeth and leaps again, and the silk courses in towards her and she presses her feet against it as it tries to catch her and springs from it in mid-air, and this is not logical either but there is no reason to be had in a Witch's lair. Screaming she swings her blade in overhead, straight for the stitched-veil maw on its head.

And since she is so high up, there is plenty of clearance down below.

Mikoto has one blade, and wields it with deadly efficiency; Homura has a hundred weapons, and some have explosive range and some simply have the weight of high-caliber bullets. There is a wound to aim for, and Homura must know what to do with a weapon by now.

Adelina screams and screams and screams and the silk falls to nothing and the smell fades and it is still dark in a cave but the darkness is different now.

Tink, goes the sound of a delicate little Grief Seed as it hits the ground.

THUD, goes the sound of a delicate little Mikoto as she hits the ground.

She lands on her side, sword-arm thrown out to the side so that she does not skewer herself on it. Mikoto hisses another breath through her teeth as she releases her grip, because she has at least fought a few Witches before, and she knows they are dead when the wrongness fades. She pushes herself into a sitting position; she stares at the shape of the obelisk and does not see it at all.

"Homura," she says, and now the enemy is gone her voice can tremble. "Homura." The mora fall over her lips and she wraps her arms about herself, shoulders curling in, chest leaning forward. She can feel her heart pound-pound-pounding against her chest, can feel the light rise and fall with her shallowed breath.

It takes a long moment for her to remember how words work, and in that moment she is a small thing, compressed on herself as if she could gain some scant comfort from the warmth of her own skin. "I don't, know what to do, Homura," she says, finally, and perhaps it explains why she was caught here. "I - I feel bad. I feel so bad..."

She has never had the words to describe her emotions.

She does not know how to disentangle fear from despair from anger from doubt from fatigue.

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

Homura helps shape those critical three seconds with her explosives, like they are directed charges. Combustion shreds lace, and lace shreds Mikoto, and of the two Mikoto emerges more intact. Homura's relief is far stronger than her dismay for the cost of that rescue, writ in red on Mikoto's legs; doing whatever it takes gets easier with practice, too. She is changing.

The Deagle clears its throat with several barking coughs, and clears the air of chasing silk. Homura shivers under Adelina's creeping rebuke, but doesn't slow in her aggressive defense of the recovering Mikoto. Her friend rises and Homura drops the empty gun into her shield, only to pull back out another capped cylinder with its payload of destruction.

She's quick enough now, of mind and of trained body, to read the shifting situation and react. Her treetop senpai goes high and leaves Homura the opening she needs, and she knows just what to do.

She takes aim, and she throws.

Red-hot fury and shrapnel shred Adelina's special dress and interrupt her special day, and Miroku snaps down from above with utter finality, and between the two forces of destruction a Witch macerates.

Homura lands on her knees and whimpers for the cuts on her legs, but scrambles up again without pause. She drags in a great cool lungful of damp cave air, eager to chase out the awful miasma from her nose, and expels it as: "Minagi-san!!"

The wan puella hurries over, but not so hastily that she doesn't detour to pluck up that hard-won spindle of magic from the shadow of the obelisk.

Then she's kneeling in front of Mikoto, nearly kneecaps-to-kneecaps with the other girl. Through smudged-up glasses she peers, worried. "It's okay, it'll be okay now. We beat it. Did you- did it... get you?" The answer is writ all over the other girl's face, in an expression that harrows Homura. "Oh..."

Mikoto looks and sounds so small, so lost. Homura... remembers that Witch-Kissed despair, even if she'd rather remember only what came after. She stares at her own knees, and dark bangs hide her eyes.

"Like something horrible crawled inside your head and found all the worst thoughts you've ever had, and just... dumped them out all over the floor? ...Yeah." Homura knows that Madoka and Eri would reach out to Mikoto, hug her or something, and through some special magic that would make it better, but... Homura feels so awkward under the best of circumstances, and the way things have been going this is a lot closer to the worst than the best.

Instead Mikoto gets a slow-reaching hand, hesitant to cross the gap before attempting to alight on her huddled shoulder to carefully pat, pat, pat.

"I don't know how you fought through it. I um... it's hard, it's really hard. ...I couldn't do it," she admits sotto voce, unable to shake what is now years-old shame. "Most people just need saving. And it was really bad in there. The Witches down in these caves... I hope they're not all like that."

Her hand pauses on Mikoto's shoulder and conveys a shudder. Eri isn't here. Mikoto doesn't know what to do. That leaves Homura in charge. She wants nothing more than to run off in search of Madoka, but Mikoto looks half-dead, and Homura can't just leave her, can she?

She chews her bottom lip, then says, "It'll be okay, Minagi-san. You just need to rest. Being targeted by a Witch... it takes a lot out of you. I'll keep watch, okay? Just a couple of hours, and then we need to keep moving. Find the others."

The deadline still approaches, and there is a relentless tension which has lived in Homura ever since the bridge to the mainland blew and she and Madoka got separated. If anything it has increased. Even Mikoto's dire state can't divert her.

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

Kneecaps-to-kneecaps, and Mikoto's are scratched and torn from fight after fight. Those golden eyes lift to Homura as she fills her vision, and they are not sharp and savage any more. They are harried - haunted. She hardly needs to say how she is feeling to answer Homura's question.

"Was never like this before," she says, her voice low and shaking. Those other few Witches she has fought, she fought on an even keel. "Endo said... it's our fault. It is, Homura!" Her voice hitches in her throat with her breath, and tears spring to her eyes. "If HiME weren't here it'd be okay! I gotta fix it but I don't, know how. I ran away, I - I can't defeat them, Homura, they say things..." Her chin ducks down, and her eyes squeeze shut. "... bad things..."

She'd mentioned it before - during the broadcast. There was no time to elaborate.

Homura's hand reaches out so hesitantly, and perhaps it was a mistake. Because Mikoto's hand reaches up over hers, and her face bends down to press her cheek against the contact, as if it were a lifeline. Perhaps it is. She is not thinking of Homura's timorous approach to affection, in that moment. And through that hand, perhaps Homura can feel her trembling.

But Homura doesn't know why, and Mikoto's head gives a little shake in place. "Don't... think lots," she admits, quietly. "When I'm fighting. Just, react. Just... destroy the enemy. No matter what... or who... it's thinking that's hard in fight. I thought, I had to help everyone, 'cause I'm trained. 'Cause I can handle fighting. But I can't - think like that," her cheeks tense with new tears. "Endo said I gotta take responsibility but I don't, know how to be responsible for everyone... I tried, and Homura got hurt, and... I-I didn't mean to!" A little sob interrupts the mora.

Something strikes her and she lifts her head, scrubbing at her face with a hand as she looks at her. "... Homura's okay," she says, relief in the words. And new sadness crosses her face as she realises: "Homura got hurt to save me..."

She reassures her that it will be okay, and Mikoto looks down and nods as she says she needs to rest. "I'm tired," she realises, with the prompting. "I'm... so tired." She has been going for so long.

About as long as Homura, in fact.

Mikoto splays a hand against the stone and lowers herself down - and if Homura does not get out of the way, she will find Mikoto's head resting against her leg as she curls around her. Her breath shudders in a sigh as she sinks in on the cold stone, and her eyes drift trustingly closed. There is a weariness to her gratitude; it is all genuine. "... thanks... Homura..."

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

"It's not your fault," Homura begins, out of a kind and friendly reflex, and at first she even means it -- how could it be Mikoto's fault that these people are targeting the HiME?

But then she's biting her lip, because when she really stops to think about it...

Wasn't the Witch that just nearly killed them the fault of some lost puella magi, in a way?

Homura has terrible knowledge, now, of the true cost of pledging one's soul for power. What is the true cost of becoming a HiME? Why does SEARRS want them so badly they're willing to murder every soul on Southern Cross? She doesn't know, which just makes Homura all the more uneasy.

And she has seen how terrifying Miroku can be. Like a Witch.

Her thoughts are no longer kind but fearful. Homura cares deeply for her treetop senpai; their friendship spans timelines. It cannot overcome the trauma etched deeply upon Homura's heart, though, that which drives her frantic state of being. Her desperate love beats too loudly in her ears. As Mikoto captures her shrinking hand Homura hunches up where she sits. She hates herself for thinking these thoughts but she can't stop, either.

So Homura pretends.

As hard as she can, she pretends to be less disturbed and upset than she is, because she doesn't want Mikoto to see it in her somehow, to ask Homura what's wrong. It's not so impossible, she finds, to retreat into herself; the fear makes it easier. Her shaking hand stills, so Mikoto is the only one trembling. Homura forces her teeth to release that sorely-chewed bottom lip. She blinks, and looks down at the knobby, red-smeared huddle of their knees, and the Grief Seed where she holds it in her lap, instead of Mikoto. That helps, too.

So what Mikoto can gather from Homura most, right now, is that very withdrawal. But Homura is still right there, isn't she? Her hand's still held fast, still cool beneath Mikoto's.

"I'm okay," she agrees, and, "You didn't mean to. I know, Minagi-san. We all had to run. You're okay, too. I... I know my bombs hit you, too. We're all just doing whatever we have to, to get through this." What will Homura have to do, to save Madoka?

It's a guilty relief when Mikoto makes to sleep, but Homura freezes as the girl who she still thinks of as her friend curls close to her legs. She jerks her head up to hide the guilty twisting of her mouth. "A-ah..."

Trust. Gratitude. Mikoto places herself in Homura's hands, and the puella swallows. "Sure, Minagi-san," she says. "I'll wake you in a bit, and then... we'll see if we can find any of the others, down here." She stays put because she doesn't know what else to do, and so Mikoto has a very guilty pillow for her nap.

Once Mikoto falls asleep she doesn't need to pretend any more. Homura leans her back against the uneven cave wall and holds up the Grief Seed, studying its black lacework intricacies. She thinks of hungry bridal veils and shudders, but does not allow echoes of horror to keep her from touching Seed to Gem for a much-needed cleansing. "We're just doing what we have to," she repeats, in a quiet and wobbly voice.