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The Flow of Water

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"Every peasant is proud of the pond in his village because from it he measures the sea." - Russian proverb

Fin E Ld Sin Laffinty had always been a rather perceptive and precocious person. It had quite baffled her ladies-in-waiting (who, to be fair, were mostly there for the rights to brag that they could see Prince Dizelmine on a daily basis and weren't of the brightest stock to begin with). Meanwhile, the royal mentors would be forever impressed with her aptitude for studies, however at the same time were completely thrown off by her often grave and winding interpretation of the subjects.

A flower was not just a flower. To Lan, it was a struggling life-force, precious and tenacious in its own way that ate (photosynthesis), exercised (respiration), and breathed (transpiration) as any other being. Also, she believed – and stated very firmly to anyone who might listen – that this was a miracle of its own that deserved protection for the very fact that it performed such functions. It was a mode of higher thinking that might be expected from someone who'd taken at least some basic courses in philosophy, but Lan seemed to grasp the ideas with absolutely no prompting whatsoever at the tender age of six.

Put another way, one might say that Lan excelled at over-thinking things.

Perhaps inevitably, this had several consequences. Even during her early teenage years, she had yet to understand the scope of how this part of her personality affected her.

And then, she fell in love with her best friend. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this particular person certainly had no over-thinking problems.

***

"It never rains, but it pours." - English proverb

Kyouno Madoka had almost completed high school. While her grades weren't horrible, they also weren't amazing, however the litany of extra-curricular activities she could boast on any application as Captain of the Jersey Club was going to be more than enough to make a reviewer take a second look. (After all, inter-stellar charity work helping to rebuild an orphanage via robot, then afterward assisting to serve soup at a food kitchen to refugees returning to a debilitated planet – with publicity pictures and news clippings! – had its own special sort of shine.)

It was a time that Lan met with trepidation. "You're still not sure?"

"Hmm, nope. Uncle wants me to go only if I decide for myself, and Onee-chan tells me the same thing," Madoka said, exasperated. She then put a bit of whine in her voice that Lan realized was an unspoken plea for her opinion. "They're not very helpful at all."

Lan allowed herself a frown; they were in audio-mode only in their Voxes, on their way to meet up with Muginami for another trip out to U-Go, so it wasn't as though Madoka could see it. After another moment of consideration, she winced. "Well, it's good that you have the freedom to decide, at least."

"Yeah, I guess..." Madoka still had the whine. "It's just, that's all I can ever think about, you know?"

Lan became silent. Madoka, in normal fashion, had very quickly dismissed the point she'd been hinting at. Being queen certainly hadn't been what she'd expected to make of herself a year or so ago, but it was something she knew was best (on many levels). But that really wasn't the problem. She wasn't unhappy because she didn't feel she had had a choice, she was unhappy because

"It's just so close."

Yes, she was so close to Madoka. Even now she painstakingly examined every curve of the green Memoria in her cockpit as it flickered slightly with each word Madoka spoke. Lan's duties as queen were many and varied, and travel between the systems took well on several Earth weeks on a normal basis. Madoka had her own obligations there, too.

Even this wouldn't be so much of a problem. But these regal duties usually required due concentration, something Lan found herself at a severe shortage of lately. It wasn't fair to the dignitaries, diplomats, and subjects; Lan knew this well. At the same time, she couldn't help but feel aggravation and maybe even some self-loathing with understanding that it was her own fault she couldn’t focus.

The distraction that entered – and Lan let run rampantly through her mind, because by this point she no longer knew how to stop it – was she felt herself thinking of Madoka constantly.

How she was doing. Where she was. If she'd eaten some of her Uncle's burgers. When she was thinking about taking a bath that evening (blush). Whether her schedule allowed her to eat lunch after helping out her classmates today, or whether she’d skipped right through it to eat snacks in class while the teacher wasn't looking. If she was wearing her hair in that cute topknot right this minute –

"I'm just not comfortable thinking about it."

Lan felt suddenly more than a bit dizzy, like the blood was draining from her face. Thankfully, Orca compensated for her in flight patterns.

After all, wasn't uncomfortable thinking of Madoka in the least. Well, some of the thoughts were uncomfortable, but more for the way her heart raced when they came, and not out of concern for having them in the first place.

And just like Madoka herself, they always ran at full-speed, with no heed to her own opinions on the matter. Was there ever really any choice?

In fact, Lan felt pretty vindicated [about] it whenever she tried to rationalize her behavior. This was [about] learning more [about] her fellow Vox pilots, making them better bonded. Never mind that most Ovid Academy pilots were never trained to consider what kind of romantic candlelit dinner foods their fellow pilots would enjoy best. Or what moonlit beach walks they might go on afterwards.

Maybe she wasn't totally ignorant of the implications. All the better then that she knew she didn't regret them for what they were, she guessed.

"I mean, Lan-chan, I haven't even... I haven't even dated yet. Well, but I guess that's mostly my fault."

Lan hadn't either. Probably not for lack of trying on her suitors parts, but there you had it. What was the difference though, if she knew she didn't want to date them? Somehow she knew that one of their traits would be a pet peeve, and couldn't be ignored. Or maybe she knew the interest would fade over time, and at any rate she certainly didn't think about them constantly like she did a certain other person.

Perhaps it wasn't like that for Madoka. Maybe she felt pressured to make the decision by others around her, and was looking around to satisfy that. But wait, this was Madoka we're talking about, she never makes decisions unless sorely pressed, and just who back at home in Kamogawa would do that to her, anyway?

Unless it was just internal pressure, with some roots in the outside world, but clearly of her own making like what occurred several times when they'd seen the Rin-ne...

"That's just a lot to ask of someone to decide right now, when they have so many other opportunities available!"

By this point, Lan was thoroughly miserable, and while she might have normally given her input as Madoka so desperately needed (to hell with whether the opinion was biased), she'd already exhausted herself just following the other girl's rambling.

"I'm certain you'll make the right decision, Madoka-chan," she eventually said, in a flat monotone she normally reserved for official functions.

For her part, it seemed Madoka was either too wrapped up in her own thoughts or otherwise generally oblivious to Lan's change in mood, because the rest of the trip to U-Go went with no further communication.

***

"If you wish to drown, do not torture yourself with shallow water." - Bulgarian proverb

Although it wasn't likely to shock anyone, Madoka snores rather loudly. This is exactly what she was doing, dead to the world in a corner of the sterile and dull white-colored health center room that she, Lan, and Muginami had been given to discuss plans for the next day.

To be fair, they'd all been run slightly ragged earlier, hastily ferrying some important supplies from the landing location over to the makeshift hospital for proper storage before the provisions spoiled. Because U-Go had few to no remaining native working vehicles, this sort of work had been delegated to Ovids from each world, but mostly De Metrio (as it was much closer). Rehabilitating a prison-planet into something more reasonably livable for both planets was still a priority for all of them, however; this project was something both Le Garite and Demetrio could show as a point of friendship and progress.

Lan looked across the room in a bit of a daze herself. First to Madoka, who was in a position that could not be even remotely comfortable as she draped her arm across the back of a chair with her top half crookedly bent over to the bed beside it, and then to Muginami who had her chin supported haphazardly on the hand that was leaning on the table the two sat at.

Normally Muginami would've been the one to take initiative in their planning, but even her unflappable energy source seemed taxed.

"Maybe we should just wait until tomorrow to do this," Lan said quietly.

"Roger that!" Muginami responded sweetly with her usual crisp salute, and for a moment Lan suspected she'd been stashing some of her vigor just for that.

By some unspoken agreement, the two started stretching at the same time in their seats. When Lan opened her eyes, they gravitated back over to Madoka's form, attracted by a particularly loud snore.

Muginami chuckled delightedly. "Maybe Madoka-chan was saying she agrees."

Lan smiled, her eyes never leaving Madoka. It must have been easily a full minute or two before she realized she'd been staring quite intently (lovingly?) at the other girl's face. Startled, she looked back to Muginami, eager to confirm she'd not been noticed.

There was no such luck.

For as much as Lan over-thought things, Muginami was actually very shrewd. When she was sure Lan had met her gaze, she narrowed her eyes minutely, and Lan knew for certain she'd been pegged. The action was quickly disguised as a prelude to a large smile, but Lan was already panicking, something she was almost positive shown on her face.

"Hm, Lan-chan, I've been meaning to ask you something," Muginami said, a certain purring quality to her voice.

Without another word, Muginami stood, bending over as such so that Lan was forced to look away from her cleavage to not be considered rude, and Lan took this as a respite to look instead look at a rather uninteresting (in that it was exactly the same as every other) spot on the completely white table.

It took everything Lan had to not flinch when she felt Muginami wrap her arms around her shoulders from behind. After all, it wasn't that she disliked Muginami at all, but that her heartbeat seemed abnormally fast in her chest, and as she changed her vision over to Madoka again because the spot really was not interesting enough, it honestly didn't feel like that rapid pace was going to stop anytime soon. To top things off, Muginami's breath now washed over her neck in a manner that wasn't entirely unpleasant from the girl's new placement against the right side of Lan's head, cheek gently pushing against her hair.

Slowly though, by reminding herself that Muginami wouldn't hurt her regardless, Lan's own breathing evened out. She found her posture relaxing into Muginami's warm arms. Her heartbeat followed suit, and for once, even as she watched over Madoka – which in the past had inevitably made her mind go off its rails on tangents recently – Lan felt at peace. She felt her chest fill with a deep breath, and reached up with her left hand to touch Muginami's arm in silent thanks.

Even the purr in Muginami's voice (let alone the question) as she leaned down slightly further to whisper to her couldn't reinstate her stress. "Do you like Madoka-chan?"

There was a half-second pause, and then Lan nodded silently, once, quickly. Afterward, it had seemed the most natural thing she'd ever done.

The smile she felt against her neck was infectious, but short-lived. "Then you should tell her!" Muginami said, and suddenly kissed Lan just behind her ear, causing a sharp, unexpected thrill up her spine.

Within a blink, Muginami was now in front of her, tugging at Lan's hands to get her to stand. Lan's source of comfort was gone, and now she became equally confused and panicked once again. "Muginami –"

"Don't you think we should get Madoka-chan into that bed properly? It's going to cause her muscles some hurt later if we don't," Muginami said casually, going on as if nothing at all had just happened.

"I– that is yes, we should, but –"

"Oh, I wonder how light of a sleeper Madoka-chan is?"

"She sleeps pretty heavily... don't you remember when there was that raid drill a few months ago?" Lan found herself grabbing clumsily at the lifeline Muginami had tossed to her.

"You're right! Then this should be easy~" Muginami practically sang the last. They had both made their way to the bed Madoka slumped across. The blonde turned at the last moment. "So, would you like to grab her legs?"

At that moment, Lan was sure she turned red as a supernova. "S-Sure."

"Great!"

***

"A drop of water shall be returned with a burst of spring." - Chinese proverb

The next day, Lan felt conflicted the entire time they were out on the missions. After dinner, she scurried off on her own, hoping to get some peace as she listened to the water outside.

"'You should tell her,' she says," Lan mumbled to herself. It was, if anything, the largest sign that she wasn't feeling herself; Lan never spoke her running thoughts aloud. It was dangerous, self-incriminating. Actually, this fact is really the first lesson any public figure learns, and it simply wasn't like Lan to forget her lessons.

U-Go's oceans were actually quite dirty and rust-colored, but during the sunset like this, one might pretend it was like the ones on Le Garite or Earth. The scene made Lan a little homesick, but mostly it was because she didn't want to have to deal with the concept Muginami had put in her head.

"It'd be so much simpler if I knew she liked me. Wanted to... be with me. But how do you just come out and say, ‘Do you like me?" Lan shook her head. "And not make it sound like some childish musing. I'd die of embarrassment first." Lan sat down on the ground and pulled her knees up to herself, putting her head against them. "But just the words themselves are so hard to say..."

"Uh, Lan-chan?"

The voice came from behind and less than a few feet away. Lan stood up suddenly, shocked, knowing without a doubt who that voice belonged to.

"No offense, but you just said it," Madoka laughed somewhat uncomfortably and rubbed at the back of her own neck self-consciously as she stood in the doorway that exited onto the beach.

Lan felt stuck between having her legs locked up to bolt, and becoming wobbly as gelatin. In the end, she went nowhere. "Madoka-chan, I..." was as far as she got. After being so verbose a moment ago, it felt ridiculous by comparison.

Instead, Lan tried to scan Madoka's face for any trace of a response. If she were being objective, it wasn't looking the best. Madoka couldn't meet her eyes and was still making some breaths as though she wanted to laugh a bit more, but nothing was coming out. Lan's stomach did a flip.

After an awkward moment or so, Madoka took a deeper, settling breath and then afforded Lan an acknowledging look. This helped a bit. "Look, maybe we should talk." And yet another stomach flip.

Madoka walked over to the space just beside Lan and then sat down, legs sprawled out straight before her. She stretched against them for a moment, but once she realized that Lan hadn't taken the hint, she looked up to her briefly and pat the sand next to her. Sit down, was the unspoken command.

Lan felt more than a little like she wasn't even a part of this scene. It was as though someone else heeded Madoka's silent request, who found herself grabbing at the sand with the hand opposite of Madoka, only to feel it sift through her fingers and leaving her nothing left to anchor herself to. Out-of-body experience, her mind told her. She wondered, in this sort of state, if she wished hard enough she could take away the words she'd spoken, and with it the probable rejection.

Even the possibility is what made it too hard to say to her face after all this time, let alone the probability, she reasoned.

With that in mind, she finally found her voice again and said, "Madoka-chan, I don't want this to ruin what we already have."

At this, Madoka's head bounced up suddenly. She seemed to search Lan's face for a moment. Then she started to laugh like a woman possessed. "What we have can't just be broken by that." When she finally caught her breath again, she continued, but more softly, "By a confession."

Even the word "confession" sounded so trite and childish to her that Lan couldn't stand it. She had never focused so completely on one thing before as she had Madoka. That it happened even when she didn't want it to, made it all the more frustrating and complicated than any emotion she'd yet to deal with.

"Be that as it may, it's also not fair to you. You have enough to deal with and decide for yourself right now," Lan said, trying to figuratively bury herself in a hole in the hopes that Madoka might pass her by.

Instead, Madoka gave her a perplexed look, and it was only making Lan more unsettled. "I don't know of anything that I'd rather be more of an important decision for me than how I am with you, Lan-chan."

Lan was struck by the sweetness (not to mention earnestness) of the statement.

Madoka continued, lounging lazily with one arm as a brace as she faced Lan more directly, "Nearly two years ago, I took a wild ride. On a giant robot." She grinned. "And the person who introduced me to that robot – actually no, to that brand new world – was an alien. A very peculiar alien who wouldn't take ‘no’ for an answer."

It was strange. These memories were definitely something the both of them had, but to get it from the other side made Lan feel a degree of awe. For once, Lan gave up trying to think her way around this conversation. She just listened.

"Then she told me I could ride it, and save Kamogawa. From there I thought, 'Well, like there's any choice!' and hopped right in." Madoka made some sort of pantomime of the maneuver and somewhere in the back of her mind, Lan felt a smile coming on. "And when I landed, that same alien was there waiting for me. But you know what? While everyone else was yelling and fussing over the robot, that alien," she paused meaningfully for a moment, "you, Lan-chan... you were worried about the silly bump on my head." Madoka laughed. "It was my own fault for getting banged up, and it wasn't like I was gonna die," here, Madoka made an exaggerated face, "but it felt nice to have someone care about me.

"But before all that, before I even knew you were an alien, or that you rode robots, or that you were gonna be living with me or that we'd be saving the universe together... Lan, I knew you were a comrade."

The lack of honorific meant more to Madoka than it did to Lan (who, in fact, missed it entirely), but as Madoka spun down on the point of the story, Lan already felt that niggling doubt re-emerging.

"I knew that we were bound together by something more than just friendship. All the other things are nice, for sure. But nothing will change that," Madoka looked around a moment, as though thinking of things which were embarrassing. "We've gone through a lot, and done some really crazy and awesome stuff. And..." Madoka sighed once through her mouth, "okay well, so maybe the movie thing and Asteria-chan's jibes hit a little closer to home for me than I wanted to admit."

Unfortunately, Lan had reached a sort of breaking point. Of all things that had finally caused her to stop taking in Madoka's story for what it was, for a heartfelt recollection of her own feelings at the time, Lan ironically couldn't stand a confession made to her. It ended up causing her to do something else she didn't normally do. She spoke without thinking.

"You should still make the decision for yourself, Madoka-chan!" Lan said this with such force that it wouldn't have been surprising if the people with their windows open on the floor above them had heard. She turned her face and felt herself flush, tears rushing to her eyes. "You shouldn't have others' feelings influence how you make your own choices or who you're with or what you do in life –"

"Lan-chan!" Madoka interrupted her, leaning forward suddenly and taking Lan's closer hand, lifting it with her own. She gripped it tightly, bringing it to rest between them, just below eye level.

Lan didn't know what to do, but the lump in her throat was making it too difficult to speak, either way.

Madoka closed her eyes and began to talk again. "Whether you like it or not, just by being you, just by... by existing, you'll always influence how I make decisions in life. But the best part of that is, we're here. right here," Madoka squeezed her hand momentarily tighter, "right now because it was meant to be. We are whatever we make of it. We are what we need to be, whenever we need to be it."

At that moment, Madoka opened her eyes, and they were beautifully fierce. "As for me, I've decided I want it to be something more, and to hell what anyone else thinks. Are you telling me I can't make my own decision after that? Are you telling me the Jersey Club Captain can't finish what she started?!" The green eyes looking into Lan's were practically flaming with energy now.

If she were being truthful, it made Lan fall right back in love with her all at once.

"Of course not," Lan said finally, swallowing whatever had lodged in her throat like it was some bitter pill, even if the tears refused to leave.

Now Madoka's eyes gleamed with something even brighter. "Good! I knew I could trust you to understand!" Madoka squeezed Lan's hand one more time, and then gathered the other girl up in a hug as they sat there on the beach, the moon's light just coming onto the top waves of the water, and Lan's tears (now more of joy than any other emotion) leaking out onto her jersey shirt's shoulder.

This would work. Dammit, they would make it work.

As for later that night, they had a somewhat extended conversation with Muginami as well.

***

"Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet." - African proverb

The next day, they had no specific duties. This day was one of rest built-in specifically for the three of them to get downtime before flying to the next planet needing assistance.

In turn, this meant that Madoka had been left to her own devices regarding her decision the day before.

"M-Madoka-chan," Muginami laughed nervously. "Don't you think that's a bit... well." The blonde floundered. It was probably pretty bad if Muginami had no further words.

"What? Why?" Madoka didn't know any level between 1 and 10. "I think it's perfect! Midori and I worked really hard on it!"

They were several hundred feet in the air, looking down at the beach from their mechs. Upon its surface, quite visible from this distance, were a set of boulders in the shape of a heart. Inside were the letters "L+M+M".

Though the other two couldn't see it, Lan had covered her mouth with both hands in an attempt to cover the grin that overflowed them. "I like it," she said simply.

"See?! Lan-chan likes it! Success!" Madoka had Midori make some rather aggressive motions towards Hupo, then circled the two of them once.

Muginami laughed again, though less nervously this time. "I like it, too. But Madoka-chan, you read the briefing didn't you?"

"Huh? Oh, that super-long file? I read the highlighted parts..."

"Tomorrow they're going to be taking some photos of the medical center, showing off the new wing for the news outlets."

"Okay, so?"

"So, the new wing is right on the beach the rocks are on..."

Madoka didn't think about this very long. "Who cares?"

Lan was torn between loving Madoka's flippant attitude, and trying to think where her nearest stash of painkillers were.

This was going to be a PR nightmare.