Author's Note: This fic is Mio x Minna centered, set near and after the end of season 2. If there's a season 3 or other follow-up this may end up as AU compared to that, but until then I'll try to stick to canon as much as possible. The first chapter takes place in the middle of season 2, episode 11, and future chapters will take place after the end of season 2.
To any of my readers who've followed me here because of other work, I highly recommend you watch this series to gain appreciation for the characters before reading this fic. It contains heavy spoilers for the series up through the end of season 2, and you probably won't understand a lot of Mio's motivation without having watched the series. I'm not trying to scare you off reading, mind you; I'm trying to nudge you into watching the series. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Many thanks to Shezaei Neko for all the help and advice she gave me in writing this!
Title: Something to Live For
Chapter Rating: T
Chapter 1: Cruel to be Kind
There were some things that Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke hated about being in command. Paperwork was near the top of the list, but narrowly beating it out was any time she had to drop the "Good Cop" facade – either to lay out punishments on her subordinates or to keep from doing something idiotic. She hated it more when she had to punish someone for trying too hard to help out.
Topping the list was when that subordinate was Mio Sakomoto. There were a dozen reasons why it was harder with Mio. Mio was the only member of the squadron who was older than her. Mio was the first witch to ever wear a Striker Unit; she was an idol to every living witch. Mio was her best friend. Mio was the only witch to find a way to keep fighting past retirement age. There wasn't a witch alive who didn't respect Mio.
But the very attitude which had garnered Mio this respect was going to get her killed. Her career as a witch was over, but she would die before admitting it. Mio couldn't use her shields, she couldn't use her sword to deflect beams, and she could barely even fly well enough to avoid being hit. Mio had always expected to die a glorious death in battle, and if she expected that this would be her last battle, then Minna couldn't trust her to stay alive.
When Minna sensed that Mio had left her room to go to the hangar, she knew that there was no other option. She could never stop Mio from going into battle with them the next day, but she could still prevent Mio from draining her magic dry overnight. If Mio had enough magic left to fly, she could still be useful, and Minna could set up the formations to keep Mio in the back and out of the line of fire. Mio's eye still worked, and as long as she could spot Neuroi cores, she could be useful. But none of that would matter if Mio used up all of her magic trying to train tonight and wouldn't even be able to fly during the mission. There was no telling what she'd do if she couldn't even properly support the team, but no possibility was good.
Minna waited in the runway while Mio tried to take off, ready to deploy her shields if Mio couldn't brake or avoid her in time. At the top of her game, Mio would have just stopped short to see what was going on or flown up and over her, depending on her mood. Tonight, all Mio could manage to do was to awkwardly avoid Minna before crashing to the ground. Minna winced inwardly for her friend, but she couldn't show any weakness at this moment.
Mio grunted, pushing herself up off of the ground. "Minna... You knew?" No comment about her crash, no attempt to blame it on Minna for standing in her way, her voice steady. Typical Mio. But typical wouldn't do tonight.
"I knew it would come to this someday." Minna forced herself to stand still. She needed to break Mio, as much as she might hate having to do it. And to do that, she needed to stay strong. If Mio saw an ounce of weakness in Minna, she wouldn't see the weakness in herself.
"I see." Mio still wasn't admitting the truth to herself. If Minna had to spell it out for her, she would.
"It's a double-edged sword. In exchange for strength on the battlefield, that magical sword eats up a great deal of your magical power." The first drops of rain hit Minna's head as she spoke, and it took only a few seconds before water was pouring from the heavens. She had never been more thankful for rain in her life. It might be just what she needed to help push Mio over the edge. That, and the harsh truth: "Reppumaru is shortening your lifespan as a witch."
That did it. Mio stood up and turned to the side, Reppumaru raised in the air. Minna had hit her weak spot, and she knew it, but she still wasn't giving up. "I can still fight!" Mio declared, charging Reppumaru with her magic. But just as quickly as her magic's glow had appeared, it was gone. And with that, Mio started to break.
"It's over, Mio!" Minna didn't have to worry about showing her own strength any longer. Tears started to well in her eyes as she finally gave her emotions permission to show on her face.
"It's not! I swear I will master the True Reppuzan!" Mio's body began to shake as she tried to force what little magic remained in her body into the blade. But despite these efforts, she couldn't put even an ounce of energy into it. She could have tried all night and accomplished nothing beyond making Reppumaru glow for a full two seconds.
"No! Can't you see? It's impossible!" Minna's heart pounded in her chest. She hated having to do this to her friend, but there was no other choice.
"Please!" Mio said. Whether she was begging the heavens, Minna, or her own body, it didn't matter. She was done. "Please, just once! Just one attack! Let me perform a True Reppuzan!" It was over. Mio lost her grip on her sword and collapsed to her knees, tears breaking free from her eyes. Minna could finally let herself move to support Mio. She was there, in front of Mio for her friend's final plea. "Please... let me... Let me be one of the eleven! I'm begging you... Minna..."
Mio collapsed. She'd fallen as far as she could, and Minna was there to catch her. That... that I can do. "Mio..." Minna struggled not to cry herself while Mio let her own tears pour out. She needed to be strong. She would be Mio's rock, as long as it took and as much as it hurt.
She let Mio cry her heart out; she needed this. Mio had to have been holding so much back. The rain didn't seem to be letting up, so Minna decided to wait until Mio seemed to have calmed down, even a little, and then bring her back inside. It took a while, but Mio's sobs seemed to soften a bit, and Mio could feel her friend's arms moving a bit against her, as if trying to decide whether or not to return the hug.
Minna didn't give her the chance to make up her mind. "Let's get out of this rain. You need to get some rest if you're going to be any use to us tomorrow." Mio's sobs stopped as she heard this, and Minna took the opportunity to lift the two of them to their feet. She could tell that Mio wanted to follow up and ask her about this, or perhaps just thank her, but she didn't give Mio the opportunity. She turned away and picked up Mio's Striker Unit, carrying it into the hangar for the night.
She didn't turn back to Mio, trying to keep what professional distance she could while they were outside. She could sense the presence of someone else awake on the base, but she couldn't tell who it was or where without engaging her powers in full, and it really wasn't worth alerting Mio to the fact that someone else was up and about just to figure out who it was. She could wait until they were in private to show more emotion towards her friend – she intended to make sure Mio got some sleep if she had to watch the other girl fall asleep personally.
Mio followed her silently as Minna swung by the baths to grab a pair of towels. She passed one to Mio, who took it absentmindedly, as she turned back down the hall, heading towards her room. They'd have to go outside again to get to Mio's room, but her room was blessed with a spare bed that Mio could use if she didn't want to brave the rain again. The trick would be convincing Mio to take advantage of that opportunity without tipping her hand. Fortunately, Mio didn't ask any questions as she followed Minna. Perhaps she'd gone through the same thought process and figured out what Minna was thinking, or perhaps she was just too drained to care.
Minna let out a soft sigh as she reached the door to her room. She hadn't really thought this part through, so she wasn't sure if it would be best to talk about things with Mio, to try to get her to take a better outlook on her own future – which seemed nearly impossible at the moment – or whether she should just give her silent support. The latter option seemed better right now, particularly as Mio wasn't being very talkative. The catch was that she would really just be delaying the problem that way. She'd need to at least try to get Mio to think about her life after retiring as a witch, and have some goal in mind.
Minna went to her closet to get a spare nightrobe for Mio, hoping that the other girl would towel herself off and then try to get some sleep, but it turned out that Mio wasn't doing as well as Minna had hoped. As soon as the door closed behind her, Mio let herself fall down to the nearest bed, which happened to be Minna's, burying her face in her pillow. Minna couldn't tell if she was crying again, but she assumed the worst. With a grimace, she sat down on the bed beside Mio and placed a hand on her friend's shoulder, tossing the nightrobe onto the foot of the bed for the time being.
What could she say? Any way she tried to console Mio was just as liable to remind her of why she was in pain in the first place. She needed to give Mio something to live for aside from being a witch. And as soon as that thought crossed through her mind, her heart made sure to tell her exactly what it wanted her to say: "Live for me."
But she couldn't say that. She couldn't let herself get attached again. She was already far too attached to Mio, and she kept slipping. She'd done everything she could to keep herself from thinking of Mio as anything more than a friend, but it was a losing battle – all the more so after Mio had kissed her in a drunken haze. Did Mio actually like her back, or did she just kiss the nearest person available? There was no way to know, but it didn't stop Minna from wondering.
No, I have to stop thinking about this, Minna scolded herself. She couldn't be worrying about herself at a time like this. She had to do what was best for Mio. She just didn't know what that was. She gazed at Mio, trying to come up with something, anything. She went with the first idea that came to her mind, simply because it was better than nothing, and she grabbed Mio's discarded towel and brought it up to her friend's hair. She delicately untied Mio's ponytail and tried to dry out her friend's hair as much as she could.
"You don't..." Mio mumbled into the pillow. She shook her head and turned it towards Minna, revealing her tear-soaked cheeks and a reddened eye. "You don't have to do that."
For some reason, Minna took this as an encouraging sign. Mio wasn't sobbing at the moment, and she was getting a bit of her resolve back. Minna didn't stop, though. She just moved closer to Mio so she could reach around the girl's head and keep drying her hair. "I know," she said. She brought a corner of the towel around to dry off Mio's cheeks. "But you don't have to do everything yourself."
Mio didn't miss the hidden meaning in Minna's words. Her gaze steeled a bit more as she looked up at Minna. "There are some things only I can do, though."
"That's true," Minna said, giving Mio a soft smile. She placed the towel down, trying to think of the best way to handle this. Her first thought was to mention the use of Mio's eye to spot Neuroi cores, but even that power might fade in time. If Mio couldn't fly, its use would also be limited. No, she had to remind Mio that there was still more to life. "Do you know what they are, though?"
This question seemed to catch Mio off-guard. She didn't seem to have a reply forthcoming, so Minna took a chance to dry herself off while she let Mio mull over the question. There were many examples she could have given – the original Strike Witch was hardly useless to the world, even after retirement – but Mio would be more likely to accept them if she came up with them herself.
After she'd gotten her hair mostly dry, Minna looked back down at Mio, finding that her friend was still deep in thought. She didn't seem upset though, so perhaps she was coming up with a few good ideas. Minna decided to leave her with that for the time being, and she went over to her closet to get out her own nightrobe.
From the girls she was in command of and their all-too-frequent disregard for common sense in battle, Minna had come to the firm conclusion that what got hailed as heroism or courage by the public was in reality just dumb actions combined with dumb luck. So she characterized it as idiocy, rather than courage, which led to her suddenly saying the words, "No one else can be what you are to me, for one example."
Minna silently cursed herself as soon as the words had left her lips, and her heart sped up into a panicked beat. She quickly finished changing into her nightrobe, trying to pretend that she hadn't just said that, while at the same time she tried to figure out just why she had. It was idiotic, plain and simple. She couldn't be giving Mio any more burdens to carry when she went out into combat the next day; she didn't need to worry about what Minna thought of her on top of everything else.
Perhaps she'd get off lucky and it would turn out Mio hadn't heard her, or wasn't paying attention to her. She didn't risk it, and she made sure to keep her back to Mio as she put her clothes away and lay down in her spare bed. It took her a full minute to realize that she'd left the lights on. She was going crazy, she decided. In trying to avoid looking at Mio, she was just making herself look more suspicious.
Letting out a sigh, Minna rolled over to face Mio. She had to face this. Except, what she ended up facing was the sight of Mio's naked body as she changed into the nightrobe Minna had provided for her. It should have been no big deal; they'd seen each other naked in the baths many times, but her mind was in quite a different place right now, and she quickly looked away. At least the good part of this was that it meant Mio probably hadn't heard her, or she wouldn't have chosen that minute to change. When the lights turned off a minute later, Minna let out a sigh of relief. Her relief lasted up until the moment when Mio sat down on the bed next to her.
"What am I to you?" Mio asked simply. Minna went into a panic, running those words through her mind again and again, trying to tease out some meaning in Mio's tone of voice, but she could find none. She might still be able to play this off. She could tell Mio that she was a good friend, and it would be the truth. Not the whole truth, though, and it wasn't the reason she'd said that. She couldn't lie to Mio, even a lie of omission, but she wasn't even sure if she could put her own feelings into words.
One dumb sentence had brought her to this point, and maybe one more would get her past it. Not letting herself think about this anymore, she opened her eyes to look at Mio and said the first thing that came to mind: "You're Mio."
Mio blinked. It took a few seconds for the statement to properly register with her, but when it finally did, Minna was rewarded with some dumb luck of her own: Mio laughed. It was a laugh that only Mio could properly deliver, and relief washed through Minna's body at the sound of it. She knew that this wave of relief wouldn't fade as easily as the last. She'd actually said the right thing, somehow. "Thank you, Minna," Mio said when her laughter had died down.
Minna watched Mio return to her bed and settle in for the night. She didn't see any reason to believe Mio might try to sneak out on her for training, so she let herself close her eyes and try to get some sleep as well. I promise you, Mio, she silently swore, I'll never let you give up on life.