2019-09-15 - Promises to Keep

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Title: Promises to Keep

Homura with her new purpose comes upon Mikoto with hers. The fight which follows feels as inescapable as it is unsought.


Mikoto Minagi and Homura Akemi


Asakusa Traditional District - Azuma-bashi Bridge

OOC - IC Date:

2019-09-15 - 2015-06-28

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Rag'n'Bone Man - The Arrow https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5J3tuPOlsU
so the story goes
we weren't high enough, high enough
don't you need this 'no more'?

What is there to say, on the nature of regret?

It is a thing Mikoto Minagi feels keenly, even if she has only confessed her guilt to her allies. It haunts her, here on the surface, where she is not protected from the ghosts of her actions. She seeks their suffering, in all its wretched forms, and always, always...

... always just a little bit worse than she'd done before.

But there are so many regrets, for a girl like Mikoto. Regrets she can name - regrets she cannot bring herself to name.

This isn't just any bridge, illuminated in the light of the city at night, neon brightness refracted into the water.

Azuma-bashi crosses water: Mikoto crossed a line.

Why - why, she wonders, has she brought herself here? Here, of all places. They are sins which never existed, faults from a worsened world. It is better, now, better for everyone else - though their salvation came after Mikoto's, her privilege as the Lord's sister. (A different salvation, between them.)

But here she stands, striding slow over the bridges' surface, long after the world has found their rest. There are no cars crossing, this late at night: it is the time of trucks, hauling goods for the next morning, and the last one passed a few minutes prior. Tokyo never sleeps, but even the busiest cities have some span of dormancy - a time when even the most dedicated night owl finds some warm hollow to sleep in.

are you strong enough, strong enough
to lose it, to fool yourself?
so hard to understand

She comes to lean on the side of the bridge, by its centre. A little grunt, as the pressure hits a tender spot inadvertently. Thanks to her pendant's warmth, her utter defeat yesterday has not left her broken... but it's still sore. She winces, she remembers --

'...the pain helps... ease the tension - some. Like a release... and a distraction that keeps it from building up.'

"It doesn't," Mikoto mutters, bitter, into the wind. "... it doesn't help."

The grimace curls her lips, as she looks down at the water. She looks down and she sees oblivion between reflected lights: water at night is a void. Her eyes are not bright enough to shine against it, so far down.

It feels like a metaphor.

She pushes herself off the side of the bridge - she keeps walking - and feels her anger build with every step. She wasn't lying, yesterday. She's not angry at them, her enemies, the magical girls.

... she's angry at herself.

Attacking a civilian celebration on the beach, striking at a flutist's recitation when she didn't know the first thing about magic or monsters...

Ah, she thinks.

That's why she's here.

Near one end of the bridge, she stops. She draws her blade - shrugs her case back onto her shoulder - reverses her grip. Mikoto holds Miroku, one hand held against the flat of the blade and the other at its hilt, staring down at her reflection in the black metal. It should be steel, acts like steel... it isn't steel.

That feels like a metaphor, too.

'You are the saddest person here, right now. It's written in your sword.'

She blinks, and a salty droplet falls from her cheek to black obsidian. Not its usual meal; still it feeds a hungry blade. They are all of them hungry, bellies emptied in hours, ravenous for the next meal - the next disaster.

They are well-bred and finely crafted.

With a sad, small noise, her eyes lid under tense cheeks and drawn brow. They scrunch shut; she shakes her head, braids whipping at the sides of her face. A frustrated little growl builds swiftly to a scream, anguished and angry and alienated, and Mikoto's hands find the hilt of her blade --

-- and she finds herself whirling --

-- and plunging Miroku into a yawning dark portal on the bridge's surface, light energy crackling out in an explosion which cracks through the surface of the Azuma-bashi bridge.

Foundations split asunder. Concrete showers down into the black void of water below.

It will be destroyed.

guess i didn't wanna change
this hold on me, this hold on me

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

Homura Akemi has long waged war against sleep. It robs so much /time/ from a person, and time has been the one of the teenager's most precious resources for decades now. Her entire existence is no longer intent upon a dread deadline, but old habits die hard.

Tonight her restless legs take her to Shitamachi, to retrace dark steps. Once, she and Mikoto chose this place for a deadly ambush, and in the premeditation she'd taken great pains to make sure a certain girl would not be there to witness the murder of her best friend. In the end, no part of it went as planned. Sayaka Miki survived; and ultimately Madoka Kaname saw everything, /everything/ Homura did.

She still does -- somehow, somewhere.

Without breaking stride Homura Akemi looks upward, even though she knows the impulse is illogical. The being which she knew as Madoka is not up any more than she is down -- is... everywhere, is... nowhere. Homura looks up nonetheless, because that is where you look when you look for God. Older habits die hard, too.

All she sees are the overhead lights of Azuma-bashi Bridge and the dull greyblack of the city-lit night sky beyond. She feels lonely, instead of any ineffable presence.

With a deep sigh she drops her eyes and sees Mikoto Minagi down the bridge's span, at its end.

She stops in the middle of starting to walk again, and her Ohtori uniform skirt swings with the motion. The pause is born of a few reasons: Homura wasn't expecting to see anyone out on the bridge, much less someone who knows her; and that armored spaulder on Mikoto's shoulder is a second layer of unexpected, part of an outfit she's never seen before.

Then there's Miroku in her hands.

She looks so very sad, but the hairs at the back of Homura's neck rise and at first she is not sure why -- not until Mikoto shakes her head and looses that horrible lonely /scream/.

Mikoto may be too preoccupied with her extremely expressive bridge destruction to spot Homura, much less see how the other girl's eyes flare wide to better reflect that explosion. Then a smaller eruption occurs around Homura Akemi, magic the color of her eyes and her soul, and she's leaping off a slow-falling slab of concrete with dusky violet ribbons trailing behind.

There's no enemy in sight, no apparent reason to explain Mikoto's actions. Something is wrong, is very wrong, but Homura does not know what, yet. She has clung too close to her isolation, since...

Her mind races, though. She had her worries about the berserker, before. What has happened, since...? Dark-clad heels touch down on the ragged edge of the broken roadway, one-two, and Homura now holds an elegant black longbow before her, yet empty of bowstring and arrow.

'Use my name. Else I might not notice.'

Homura does not move to cross the twenty-some yards between herself and Mikoto, however shaky her current footing is. Instead she shouts, "Mikoto Minagi!" in a bid to get the other girl's attention -- with an internal acknowledgement that Homura has no idea yet what that might lead to. "What are you doing?"

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

There is only one higher power Mikoto Minagi answers to, a dark and transcendent thing, ineffable and undeniable.

(From above, a star shines...)

There are no enemies Mikoto Minagi answers to, as she crumbles Azuma-bashi: only the ghosts of what once was, and the guilt of what is come. Left voiceless she expresses herself through her destruction - her obstruction - her transgression; rebar her canvas, concrete her brush.

But they will answer; they must answer; and they will dance, his will be done.

Tap-tap go heels on broken bridge, and Mikoto whirls, golden eyes slit in fury, foot shifting back to launch herself forward --

'Mikoto Minagi!'

Once more shock blanches her face; she staggers, and does not spring into her assault. "Homura," Mikoto says, the mora numb on lips used to screaming. She scowls, as she thinks on it: all the other Puella Magi came back, but one.

Of course Homura would show up eventually.

But of all the girls she expected to demand answers from her...

"... Homura!" Mikoto snarls her name in threat, now, grasping her blade with renewed grip. Certainly, she has noticed her: Homura is the only threat worth noticing, on the approach. A growl vibrates through her throat as her terrible gaze scans over the unstrung bow, the lack of shield - no grenades, though perhaps she's hiding them, as she does --

Homura isn't the only one who doesn't know precisely what's happened to the girl she's facing down.

But what is Mikoto doing?

This she answers first with action: tearing forward on the crumbling bridge, blade screaming against the uneven ground. She's faster than she was - fast enough to slip past one of the bullets Mikoto isn't entirely convinced Homura won't shoot out of nowhere, no matter the lack of gun in her hand - but it's all the speed of a freight train, and then as now she commits to a path of destruction and she cannot easily sway from it. Up comes her blade, diagonal from below, and there is one thing Homura might notice in the approach:

The flat of her claymore, turned towards her, when it would be so much more effective to split her up from hip to chest.

She's not striking to kill, and she offers no explanation.

Instead, drawing close, she snarls, angry and embittered and cold: "/Pulling myself together./"

COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has used Obsidian Blade: Dauntlessness on Homura Akemi.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi perfectly dodges 34 Fatigue damage from Mikoto Minagi's Obsidian Blade: Dauntlessness, taking 0 Fatigue damage!  Critical Dodge!  Homura Akemi's Fade and Flash abilities activate!

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

It's surprise after surprise, tonight. Homura was not expecting an attack to follow so swiftly on the heels of recognition -- not from this girl, at least. Perhaps she should have asked /why/ Mikoto is doing what she is doing, but right now the /what/ comes at Homura with shocking swiftness, and requires her imminent attention.

To make use of her unusual powers, Homura had to learn to be very quick; she may no longer have those powers but she retains world-class reflexes. Still-

Still, there is something remarkably mundane about Homura's artful evasion -- something terrestrial about how she launches fingertips-to-heels away along the ragged edge of uneven concrete, never once blinking out of sight.

The titanic mercy of Miroku's broadside edge crushes the air she'd just occupied and the wind of that passage whips long red ribbontails across Homura's face as she straightens. Narrowed violet eyes study her former ally, her former... friend, sensei, braidsister...

Mikoto pushes in and lands the hit her Child did not. See how those famously emotionless eyes widen again, by increments? Another terrible thing Homura did to her former friend, sensei, and braidsister, in the name of a battle which she ended up losing. Mikoto remembers. So does she.

Homura takes a half-step back, and lifts her bow between them. Its slender curves rise taller than both girls. As the Puella draws, the weapon bursts to life, in string and power-wrapped arrow and flame atop its span. All the crackling light washes that parchment face in pale violet and throws the twist of her lips into sharp relief.

The hard, serious expression she wears makes perfect sense for the Homura that Mikoto knows. What she says...

"I... don't want to hurt you, Mikoto." It sounds like something one of those more cheerily-hued magical girls might cry out over heart-shaped beams, although they probably wouldn't utter it in a soft near-monotone.

Then Homura squeezes her eyes shut, which is also a somewhat unusual thing to do when menaced by an /extremely/ angry girl with a huge sword... but the subsequent white-hot flaring of the drawn arrow makes a stark explanation as Homura pours magic into the weapon. It detonates /immediately/ upon release, and the Puella is already half-turned and leaping clear.

She never /wanted/ to hurt Mikoto.

But today she follows words with action, because that arrow bursts into lumens and concussive force -- enough to seriously disorient if taken full in the face, but that's about it.

COMBAT: Homura Akemi has used Sound and Fury on Mikoto Minagi.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi fails to dodge Homura Akemi's Sound and Fury, taking 0 Fatigue damage!  Blind, Cripple, Diversion, and Stagger applied to Mikoto Minagi!

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

It's not the first time Mikoto has crossed blades with someone even more agile than she is.

It isn't even the first time this week.

By the beset growl which rips from her throat, it never quite stops being frustrating, without joy and denied satisfaction.

But Homura doesn't want to /hurt/ Mikoto, and she sees the little widening of her eyes and hears the flatness in her voice; the contrast confounds her. (She has not the context of tenfold years.) It's just a moment's pause, a moment to narrow her eyes and try to puzzle the difference in what she says now.

It's one moment too many.

Her breath crosses her teeth in sharp intake as she sees Homura draw her arrow. Mikoto knows the behaviour of arrows: she has fought alongside the Wind Knight, and she has fought against her. So when she sees that arrow flaring up, Mikoto twirls her weight to the side --

-- which would have been sufficient to let an arrow pass.

The arrow does not pass.

It /explodes./

All a sudden from her side Mikoto finds herself instructed in blunt force, with a strangled noise of surprise cut off by the impact. Miroku is heavy, but Mikoto is light: she is flung by the explosion, and for a horrifying moment it may seem as if she will plunge down the crumbling edge of the bridge into the black, black void below.


Perhaps she would have, were she not designed for this.

At an angle to the edge of the bridge she plunges Miroku into the concrete, uses her momentum to swing about it and back towards the sky again; forced to release its hilt to complete her manoeuvre, she spins and lands on the unsteady bridge again. She staggers on the landing, teeth agrit, and her nostrils flare as she blinks the brightness from her eyes.

A hiss of air puffs out, tongue clicking against the back of her teeth, and Mikoto growls as she reaches out with open palm. "Miroku!"

Obsidian spikes do not come.

Rather her blade shimmers from existence, with a sparkle to make any pure-hearted girl who doesn't want to fight proud, and embeds itself in the concrete before her. She grasps it - reseats her grip, where she has placed her hand too high up on the hilt - and twists it in the ground.

Unlike all those other accidents: "I mean to," sharp of word and blade. Black portals yawn open, around Homura, and from them lance /darkness:/ dark like secrets or surrender or suffering, sick with red energy, coursing straight towards her. The shadows pass through concrete and steel - they do not pierce; nevertheless they are terrible, and promise no salvation.

This is no darkness cast by light, the echo of something warm and good. No comfortable shade, assistant to brightness.

No: this is darkness which demands.

COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has used Obsidian Blade: Darkness on Homura Akemi.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi counters 11 Fatigue damage from Mikoto Minagi's Obsidian Blade: Darkness, taking 11 Fatigue damage!  Homura Akemi's Reverse and Tactician abilities activate!  Tangle and Trap applied to Homura Akemi!
COMBAT: Homura Akemi's counterattack, Ghost Step, partially gets through, doing 25 Fatigue damage to Mikoto Minagi!  Critical Counterhit!

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

Homura has never shied away from hurting Mikoto before, regardless of her feelings; and Mikoto has never meant to hurt Homura before, despite those times she has. The grey girl can feel the balance of power shifting between them, even as the wounded bridge shifts beneath her feet.

I have earned this, Homura thinks, and there is fear and black comfort both in the thought.

That doesn't mean she's going to sit still and take it, though -- she has a world to defend in the name of the girl she loves, and she can't do that if she lets the darkness take her (Mikoto's or her own). Not yet. She crouches into a ball with her bow crosswise before her as the portals unleash, making as small a target as she can of herself.

Vivid magic flares between her fingers, a small bright defiance of the incoming black, like a twinkling star...

She doesn't want to hurt Mikoto but she will defend herself. Leaping aside at the last moment -- and suffering a shadow bolt's sear across one calf, thanks to that -- she looses a violet-wrapped arrow at the other girl. Homura Akemi still deals in explosions, though they no longer come wrapped in cold metal; the arrow detonates, and with far more prejudice than the last. The Puella Magi suppresses her wince as she tumbles away, lips pressed flat.

If she could stop time, she could...

...avoid these frightening new magics Mikoto is wielding. ...retreat easily, without fearing a black blade in her back. ...take aim on some vital spot with the leisure to make sure the shot flew true...


She can't. She can't, and she refuses to allow herself to long for the way things were -- that would be a kind of sacrilege. Some things have not changed, and Homura's ability to deny and deceive herself remains as intact as her reflexes.

She still /really/ needs to get out of this whole, though, and it seems that may mean putting Mikoto out of commission in some form or another. Well -- this is a test, then. Of her devotion, of her ability. She runs harder and leaps high, engaging some of the superhuman ability she traded her soul for, to gain the top of a red-iron lamppost. Her sable swallowtail catches the maritime wind, and its ripples reflect glossy violet from a newly drawn arrow.

What would the Covenant of Style have said in a moment like this? Ah, maybe something like...

"I won't fight you unless you make me, Mikoto. But I won't stand by and let you harm this place, either. This world is-" -is irredeemable, is an impossibly lonely place now, is... is- "This world is worth protecting!" To someone she loves, and therefore she will protect it.

Homura feels a bittersweet rush in the wake of the arrow's release, and then it is gone and she's left with the guilt and the desperation that comes with fighting an angry, bitter friend.

COMBAT: Homura Akemi has used Twilight Prayer on Mikoto Minagi.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi dodges 10 Fatigue damage from Homura Akemi's Twilight Prayer, taking 15 Fatigue damage!  Homura Akemi is Psyched!  Mikoto Minagi's Fade and Flash abilities activate!

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

Just as she says: Mikoto means to hurt Homura.

Her words are, as ever, exact in a specific sort of way.

'...what you have to do. What you want to do. Please tell me they're different, at least - that the idea of just going home and having supper still means something!'

There's no time to dwell on it.

Homura compressing herself is not an image Mikoto savours, the way her Lord Brother lingers on the sounds of misery. Absent joy she can, at least, be satisfied she has cornered her. But Homura is a girl possessed of a thousand tricks, by Mikoto's reckoning, and here is another: the way she leaps aside, looses another of those arrows which explode in precisely the way arrows don't. Mikoto springs away, and this time rolls with the expected explosion - going low to the ground, to stop herself from being flung through the air.

Thud-thud-THUD, and she was already sore.

She pushes herself up in a smooth motion, heedless of the complaints, teeth set in a line. Golden eyes seek out the swift-moving form of her foe - there, on the lamppost. (Why is it /always/ a lamppost, Mikoto wonders, deliberately.)

Homura draws her arrow, says the world is worth protecting. And Mikoto - Mikoto does not say that the world is good, does not praise girls or ramen or cats, does not delight in the knowing.

It is not that she does not believe in the world. In her mind she is fighting for it, just as fiercely as Homura.

But hers is a belief which leaves no room for warmth or delight.

In that instant Mikoto says nothing at all, because the arrow is coming for her, and once more her instincts cause her to bend at the knees and leap back from the blast. Light rushes past her; this time, she keeps her footing, straightening as the luminosity fades to the night.

"I know." Mikoto says, words a tomb of finality. "You won't." /Omae,/ arrogant and superior, and in a kinder tone it might have been a glorious celebration of closeness. Now --

"You're a magical girl. You're Puella Magi. You're our /enemy./"

It is the greatest curse Mikoto Minagi knows.

"And I'll make you," she promises, the only oath she can offer. She hefts her blade up, edge gleaming blue in the darkness. "It's an order... from my Lord Brother."

At once she leaps impossibly high into the air, blade coming up overhead - and even its flat edge, swung with such momentum, will resound like a bell if it strikes Homura.

COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has used Obsidian Blade: Devastation on Homura Akemi.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi fails to brace Mikoto Minagi's Obsidian Blade: Devastation, taking 25 Fatigue damage!  Mikoto Minagi is Psyched!

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Rage Against the Machine - Know Your Enemy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4smim2MNvF8

Magical girls -- Puella Magi -- are Mikoto's enemy? "I've been away too long," Homura comments to herself and Mikoto both in that soft, dry tone of hers.

At least Homura kept the secret of a Soul Gem's vulnerability from Mikoto, back when they were close allies... ah, but no. Mikoto knows /exactly/ how vulnerable a Soul Gem is, doesn't she? Cold anger rises in a dead heart, and may betray via a sharp look that this is still Homura after all, whatever heroic prayers she chants.

Restraint. She knows how to employ that, and does, and the look veils again. Mikoto rises and Homura charts that impossible leap with a tilt of her forcibly inexpressive face.

She lifts the unstrung bow overhead and begins to crouch, readying to slip down from her lamppost perch and let its red iron suffer Miroku's terrible force for her with her own weapon as backup--

--and her shadow-scored leg spasms and she just /crumples/ instead with a bitten-back cry, prone in an awkward heap beneath the blunt edge of incredible violence. There's an awful dull CLANG as Miroku bends the metal lamp-top into a V through the body of a skinny girl, and shattered glass rains down on concrete from the pulverized bulb.

Homura rolls free of the murdered lamppost and thuds to the shard-strewn concrete below, and the ache of this second impact through a body now made of bruises finally drives a muffled "ngh" from her. Two halves of what was once an elegant bow clatter to the concrete right after.

An old memory comes to her, then, of Mikoto using her sword and her strength to halt the crushing momentum of an industrial crane. She'd thought her sensei could stop a train with her sword, then. Now, she has been taught that the sword /is/ the train. She pushes through the pain and springs to feet made nimble again through the application of sheer steely will. "Your Lord Brother..." Of course she recognizes that phrasing, that... title. Who among Mikoto's friends would not? And Homura was that, once.

One arm extends from Homura's side. Her fingers close through crackling violet magic and take hold of a newly-summoned bow.

With her head down, she takes quick stock of her surroundings... then looks up at Mikoto. She draws without looking, arrow nocked and pointed away and to the side, almost casually lowered. "What about Eri? Or your roommate, Mai?" She knows Mikoto well enough to lob those names her way, too, even if she has to call them through gritted teeth thanks to the obsidian beating she's taken. "Have you finally discovered who you're loyal to, and who you aren't?"

Having taken her direct shot, she now looses the indirect. Still without looking she lets her arrow fly, and it impacts with the pavement yards away -- there's a flash, an explosion -- and the arrow emerges from the point of impact?!

It zings off in a perfect line at an entirely new angle and crosses a hundred yards in an eyeblink, only to ricochet in a bright flash off of yet another doomed lamppost, which creaks and falls after. The arrow travels on, its violet magic noticeably dimmer now...

Another strike, another explosion, and now an entirely black arrow flies bullet-straight through the air, unnatural in trajectory and accuracy both. It streaks for where Mikoto's back was half a second earlier from what may be an entirely unexpected angle of approach. This one won't explode when it hits, but it is still an arrow, after all.

COMBAT: Homura Akemi has used Impossible Shot on Mikoto Minagi.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi braces 16 Fatigue damage from Homura Akemi's Impossible Shot, taking 13 Fatigue damage!  Critical Hit!  Cripple applied to Mikoto Minagi!

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Nobuo Uematsu - Memories of The Day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2owQtQEUr-U

Mikoto has felt the glass of a Soul Gem beneath her fingers, trusted to her iron grasp, tightening, tightening, /tightening.../ until that fragile Fabergé shattered to a million green pieces, hope freed from the bottom of the jar.

She remembers /her/ fingers closing on Eri, crushing the life from her while that life was still hers.

It's blurred at the edges. She thinks she knows why, in the manner of a hot stove. All for the mercy of Eri Shimanouchi; no less painful to accomplish.

But yes - yes, Mikoto knows the vulnerability of a Soul Gem.

She knows it all too well.

Her sword does not fall on Homura's Soul Gem, restrained or otherwise. Her aim is no accident. She knows the weakness Homura wears, and consciously she declines to take advantage, because she remembers enough.

It's for the best.

Mikoto does not know how to employ restraint well, and her attempts are clumsy and dangerous still. Homura crumples and Mikoto does not relent in her assault, does not arrest her movement or twist away: she falls on the wounded girl, crushing her under the broad flat of her blade into the perch they all love so much.

She lands near Homura, and perhaps her mercy is in the way she does not immediately follow through, does not slam her down before she can rise.

(Can she bleed every drop of blood and come back from it, Mikoto wonders. One way to find out.)

Mikoto shattered Homura's bow but there again she summons it - no, she corrects herself, she is no HiME and that is no Element, surely she has summoned /another/ - and golden gaze levels on purple, darting for instants to note the casual dip of her arrow.

She has never been able to hide anything - not the way her eyes widen at the incision, the pain which floods the gaps; lips parted and teeth apart, brow knit and tension writ across her face.

Disloyalty is the worst sin a girl like Mikoto could be accused of, and she still...

She catches movement from the corner of her eye and her gaze jerks back down to the bow again, now loosed. Mikoto whirls, bracing against an explosion which has, to her mind, clearly /missed/ --

-- except --

-- there's still /movement./ Mikoto shifts her stance, fluid in her own motion, as her mind assesses the exclusion zone Homura establishes. But it keeps going - keeps going and it's not /right,/ the way it moves, it's not /like/ an arrow, and the confusion costs her precious seconds.

(That confusion, perhaps, is its own little tell: Mikoto was surprisingly adept at facing the wrongness of Witches. When errors in reality were ascribed to the enemy, it was simple to face them. Now...)

She hears the air splitting behind her and finally it is all she can do to whirl and face it, bringing her blade up between herself and the arc.

There is one key problem with her defence, ingrained though it is. Mikoto, operating on instinct and experience, fails to account for the new information she has not yet managed to fully process:

This arrow /does not arc./

Straight it shoots, and lodges itself firmly into - her /vambrace,/ she's at least quick enough to put that wrist between chest and projectile. The unexpected impact sends her staggering back, reverberating to her bones. She feels the bend of the metal, against her skin, and when she looks down she finds Homura's arrow embedded into steel.

"Tch," Mikoto hisses through her teeth, shifting her greatsword to a one-handed grip so that she can grasp the arrowshaft.

She pulls, gaze flicking from her work back to Homura, suspicious of leaving her unobserved. "They /come back,/ Homura," she explains in a low tone, as she works. "Even Grandfather, sort of, through the Book. People leave, or they die, and I cry lots and feel really sad, but... then I find someone else." She pulls the shaft free, and reveals her inexpertness with bows as she growls to find the arrowhead left behind. Crickle-/crack/ the length splinters in her frustrated grip, and she tosses it away, reversing the grip on her blade again. "I keep going." She pushes the end of Miroku's hilt against the side of the arrowhead. She'll apologise later, or with Homura's blood, whichever comes first. "But they come back, and they don't fit in the same. Things /change./ And it..." Here her expression softens, sadness or regret, and her guarded tone grows more muted by inches, "it used to be good, having more important people, even if it was different, but..."

Thonk. There it goes.

She shifts her grip to the other side, shaking the afflicted wrist with a noise of discontent, and finally settles both hands on red thread once more. "My Lord Brother came back," she says, voice firm again, "and it /had/ to be the same. Then Mai and Eri came back, and they didn't fit in no more. Understand?"

Part of her is explaining because she cannot speak her mind to the one person who matters.

Part of her is explaining to test the limits of Homura's newfound beneficence and reluctance to fight.

... part of her just doesn't want Homura to think it was easy.

Homura's opinion mattered to her - Homura's counsel mattered - and once upon a time Mikoto wanted to help Homura, too.

Once upon a time, Mikoto thought her days of being an enemy to Tokyo were over. She thought she related to Homura through past experience. The complexity is not lost on her - the way Homura now almost seems to stand where Mikoto once stood, the way Mikoto seems to abjure her attempts to reach out in just the same way.

Would it be different, Mikoto wonders - if she had the courage to tell Homura she knew how it felt, back there in those woods..?

It doesn't matter, she tells herself, and with the telling tightens her grip on her blade. If Homura really does stand where Mikoto once stood, then just as Mikoto did, Homura must understand why Mikoto acts as she does. It must be the same.

And yet, it's Mikoto going to great lengths to explain...

... maybe even she's not completely convinced it's analogous.

But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.

What matters is that there is an enemy before Mikoto, and she must fight.

"Too many people," she snaps, anger rising forefront in her voice again as acrobatic legs bend. "Too many promises!"

The yell rips from her lips just as sensible Ohtori flats kick up rubble, Mikoto launching forward from her ready position. She charges towards Homura, and unlike a wending arrow she is no trick: through the straightest path she charges for her, sharp golden eyes locked on her centre of mass, and her feet plant suddenly and she whirls in revolution. Once and once again the flat of her blade - it is still the /flat/ of her blade, no matter the tug at the corner of her consciousness - carves its own exclusion zone against the tortured remains of the bridge. At her second spin she lifts her claymore, and throws all her weight of momentum into a horizonal slash.

And that last word - that curse of promises - it cedes to a feral scream, ferocious and syllabic.

COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has used Obsidian Blade: Disequilibrium on Homura Akemi.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi fails to dodge Mikoto Minagi's Obsidian Blade: Disequilibrium, taking 44 Fatigue damage!  Exhausted applied to Homura Akemi!

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

Homura recognizes the mercy in the breather she's granted while regaining her feet. Mikoto may mean to hurt her, but perhaps in some small way she also means not to. It's not enough to wager an existence on, though, and Homura has never been the sort to throw her weapon down in a bid to end a fight.

No, she does as she always has: she gets up and fights on, whether she wants to or not.

And she /does/ want to -- wants to wield this bow which reminds her of another, pinker bow, wants to use these new and hallowed powers in the manner which honors /her/ best. But nothing about this terrible fight with her once-braidsister makes Homura feel closer to the girl she loves, and she feels trapped between who she believes she is and who she feels she must be.

What would Madoka do?

She doesn't know, just knows that the girl who saved her once upon a time -- saved her so many times -- would do the right thing, would face Mikoto with her beautiful mixture of love and bravery and light the way for compassion. The Puella's lips press flat and white with pain physical and emotional. When has Homura ever done the right thing? The wrong things for the right reasons, perhaps, but...

The grey girl fires her tricksome arrow and draws no satisfaction from how well its tricks land. Instead she feels a cool trickle of relief when it clangs into Mikoto's vambrace instead of piercing her back.

As Mikoto works the black and strangely smooth arrow free, Homura holds her empty and unlit bow at her side, not unlike how a soldier might rest her hand on the butt of her sidearm. She listens, with that old flat affect hard-projected over a wrack of tension and fear. Fear of doing the wrong thing... Fear of that terrible black blade. Fear like a live wire snapping around inside her. Her level violet eyes do not leave Mikoto once.

When Mikoto asks if Homura understands, she receives a head-tilt in return rather than a nod. Red ribbon and black bangs alike flutter, silent, but then the grey girl speaks when it seemed like she would not.

"...Your promise to him comes first." There's a very brief pause before she goes on, in that smooth quiet voice of hers which is never soft. "They took space which should have been his, places which were meant for him all along. Change was a betrayal."

Whyever it is that Mikoto wants Homura to understand, it seems that she just might, or at least she is drawing her own meaning from it. They have ever been sisters in their devotional natures -- a more enduring sisterhood than the braids.

Maybe this understanding distracts Homura, softens her focus for a fateful moment; maybe she is too battered already to move the way they both know she can. Whatever else is true, she can react so very quickly but she cannot react quickly enough to avoid Mikoto's anger as externalized with her titanic Child.

The charge takes her full-force, and it is by the grace of a turned blade alone that Homura is in one piece instead of two after. Miroku smacks her sidelong and she goes flying through the air in a ragdoll arc, only to skip across the uneven bridge like a soft grey stone.

Somewhere amid the violence a sound escapes, tiny and high and pained and utterly against Homura's will. She hits a chunk of upended concrete and it ends her tumble with a final thud. Black hair falls across her face as she rolls to her hands and knees.

Mikoto called her enemy. What will happen to Homura, if Mikoto succeeds in beating her down here? Blunt of her fel blade or no...

Not yet.

Somehow she gets up, and somehow it is without further shameful vocalization of her terrible pain. Somewhere between them a lost bow lies; she pours magic into her empty hand and it fills with a replacement, black and slender and beautiful.

"I have a promise to keep too," she says, and does not explain anything about hers. She draws a deep breath, though it wrings a sharp red sensation from her chest.

Across a span of space gained oh so painfully, violet twinkles -- it builds, between fingers as they pull back, and blinding power builds around a single arrow. She takes as careful aim as a split second will allow her deadeye; Mikoto has demonstrated how quickly she can cross space. The flame atop her bow burns hot and bright, nearer white than violet now.

She exhales; she releases. There are no startled starlings to herald this arrow's flight, but this is a very different night.

Because Homura has not sniped at the most fatal place possible on her enemy; instead she drew down on her friend's leg, aiming to disable so she can make good an escape. It'll still explode when it hits, though. Homura is about as good at restraint as Mikoto is, when it comes right down to it. They're both trying, for whatever it is worth.

COMBAT: FINISHER! Homura Akemi has used Deliverance on Mikoto Minagi.
COMBAT: Homura Akemi has finished attacking.
COMBAT: Mikoto Minagi fails to dodge Homura Akemi's Finisher, Deliverance, taking 93 Fatigue damage!  Critical Hit!  Mikoto Minagi is unable to keep fighting!

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

Whether they want to... or not.

Sharply Mikoto demands Homura's understanding; quietly she renders it. Mikoto grunts affirmation, head dipping slightly in acknowledgement of her accuracy. She must love only her Lord Brother, and yet she grew fond of them.

It's just the pained shade over her eyes - between the thin of sternly-pressed lips, that intent expression - which reveals just how harsh Homura's words really are.


But that's why she had to stop.

And that's why she can't stop.

She cannot betray him, the most important man in the world, most noble and powerful and beloved. She cannot!

She is not distracted, as she charges forward, focused in on the one tiny speck called 'Homura'. She is not distracted at all, hurling her force into her, turning with her arc and starting after her with clear intent to follow through. Not distracted at all, until --

-- she realises, staccato beat after the noise: she heard Homura cry out.

Mikoto pulls up, eyes widening, breath hitching halfway up her throat, and watches her fall from uprooted bridgepart to the tortured ground. Her fingers tighten around the red fate-threads of Miroku's hilt, holds it there, in front of her. This is what she's doing... to Homura, someone she relied on.

Suddenly, Homura isn't the only girl here wondering what will happen to Homura.

She made a promise, Homura says. "Promises," Mikoto says, "are heavy, Homura."

It's not a warning, not really. Mikoto has known Homura has had her own secret purposes for some time now. (It isn't much time at all. It's forever ago.) More an observation, shared with all the weariness of...

... well, shall we invoke a salaryman?

Homura invokes something else, from that bow she has summoned from aether. It is aimed in the space between seconds; Mikoto has barely a sliver to take in the white heat of that flame. Her eyes catalogue the threat: her muscles respond, before she has had time to think a single thought about it.

Her instincts say move, and she moves.

She does not move fast enough.

In that approximation of moments Mikoto thought that straight arrow would fly to her centre of mass - she has seen her sniper bullet cave through a girl's chest, on this very platform. Her first movement is to protect her obsidian heart, and in her miscalculation of Homura's intent she runs old numbers. Her answer is useless.

Once more, Homura demonstrates her intent: 'I... don't want to hurt you, Mikoto.'

So much different, now, from then: 'If it all goes according to plan Sayaka Miki will be dead before she hits the ground.'

And that white-violet light explodes too low, at her side, and --

-- the matter of speed here cannot be understated. A fractional error is tantamount to failure: there is no /room/ for error, at the speed of light. No room to reconsider; no room to adjust.

Do not be fooled by the span of words. They will lie: they will say it was a languid motion, easily seen, easily comprehended. Every breath between beats is misleading.

This was not a paragraph.

This was an /instant./

In that instant Mikoto is blown away by light which builds like a guiding star, flung headlong into the void where that bridge ought to be. Had she her way, she would collapse through the yawning hole into the black void below.

But Homura's light washes over the bridge far more quickly than a girl can fall: crumbling pieces of concrete fall upwards rather than down, the tape reversed as rebar knits together again, supports bitumen made smooth once more by the warmth of her magic.

Mikoto does not crash down into the water. She impacts with the repaired ground, once, twice, bouncing more like a discarded marionette than a beachball. One hand still grasps her blade; the other fumbles to find its way under her, trembling visibly. She mumbles something, some thought from before she had to arrest her thoughts in favour of action, some shred of consciousness to hold onto.

"... holding that weight..."

The Fallen girl huffs out a pained breath through her teeth, a strangled utterance in the back of her throat, collapsing back to now-even ground. Those teeth set in a line. She tries again.

<Pose Tracker> Homura Akemi [Ohtori Academy (10)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> The Beatles - Carry That Weight https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6B224XDJw6g

Promises are heavy...

As heavy as a gun in the shaking hands of a girl in braids.

"Promises are as heavy as wishes," Homura says in her quietest voice yet, after releasing her arrow.

Neither of them are moving fast enough tonight. It is almost as if two girls' hearts are not in this fight. Homura watches as her brutal but genuine attempt at mercy explodes and her eyes narrow -- against the light, against the other girl's pain -- but she does not move, does not allow herself to hunch and clutch her Miroku-crumpled belly. Long black hair and long red ribbons whip in the burst's backdraft.

Mikoto falls, but it is a short fall to restored blacktop instead of a longer one to black waters below, and that is another hard mercy wrought by the magic of girls. Homura stares at the girl she's shot down, who is only a few carlengths away and clearly in no shape to give chase. The HiME's will outmatches her body's ability to enact it; Homura knows what that is like, too.

She did that to Mikoto.

Some protector Homura is turning out to be.

Her knuckles whiten around her bow's grip. She's caught between shame and terror beneath her cool porcelain mask of a face. Normally so deadly decisive, the grey girl hesitates.

What should she do...? She thinks of the girl who saved her, and takes a shuffling step forward. She thinks of lessons on rooftops, and says, "Mikoto," but stops after that step, falls silent after that name. What is she going to do? Run up and hug the girl better? The thought is acidic and self-defeating, but that is Homura Akemi. She has not changed /that/ much.

Change is betrayal, after all.

The diamond on the back of her hand swims with darkness, and a cold lump of pain curls in her gut. Homura turns her head and gives Mikoto her profile. "It's a new world," she says, and the words are dry leaves falling. "You have your promise and I have mine."

She retreats by a step, with an audible scrape of her heel, and employs her considerable will in not doubling over as she turns to go. Homura is leaving Mikoto to her agony, again, and '/Pulling myself together/' snarl-echoes in her head. It's different now, she tells herself, but how can a girl who has lied to herself so often tell whether this is more of the same?

She breaks into a run, pelting away into the night, and that feels all too familiar, too.

<Pose Tracker> Mikoto Minagi [Ohtori Academy (11)] has posed.
<SoundTracker> Next to Normal - Wish I Were Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlwMZRKtGqg


Mercy: it drives compassion and forgiveness, looks clement upon the guilty, offers succour to distress. Nowhere written here is /kindness./ Sometimes mercy is elision, a moment to recover; sometimes it lies in a shot fired low.

And it is not soft but it is theirs, unfeigned and heartfelt.

If Mikoto had been the one to instruct Homura, rather than the other way around, she would have told her not to hesitate. Over and over again, not understanding its root. Do as she says, not as she does: how many times has Mikoto not followed through, this battle alone?

It's almost like...

... she's splitting her resources.

(A war fought on many fronts is already lost.)

Mikoto hears her name and lifts her head, weary golden eyes finding Homura in the swimming image of the bridge. "... Homura," she says, and for a moment there are no edges to her, muted by her sorrow. A moment - before that sharpness comes back, defensive pull of her lips to show teeth and narrowing of her eyes.

'Don't leave me!'

"Stay away..."

It is as much as the growling of a wounded beast; there is little Mikoto can do to ward her away, as she is. Perhaps she can pretend it worked anyway, the way Homura turns away. There is the sound of air hissing in through teeth, as Homura speaks on the world.

'It hurts, huh? To see your future stretching out ahead of you, to know what it really might be.'

A world where no one has to fight each other.

A world where Mikoto will fight them all.

A world with allies who do not speak of whether they will die, but when.

She has her promise and she can have nothing else.

Once again Homura runs from her and this time Mikoto does not reach out, does not call after. Once again Mikoto summons the strength to stagger up after certain defeat, and once again she retreats home.

Once again her Lord Brother looks her injuries over, with a thoughtful noise, and leaves her to attribute it to his concern.