The Xth Loop
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"How much longer?"
"And how much longer is that supposed to be?"
"Longer than any stretch of time that would satisfy you."
Homura Akemi kept her eyes trained on the familiar, the nameless Ghost Liner that she had formed a contract with what seemed to be an eternity ago.
'I use a bow, so you might as well call me Archer. One way or another you drew a Guardian of the balance, so consider it your reward for lucking out and gaming the system. That's what we call "keeping the tradition alive," ' he had said back then.
The man, the self-referred Archer, was being stubborn. Or, it could be said, she was the one being stubborn. Either way, the situation that had come to pass involved a man and a young lady who mirrored each other's obstinance. He normally towered over her, but now she was the one who looked down on him. He sat cross legged, like a resting martial artist, or a contemplative yogi. However, there was no inner peace to be found in him, as there was no hint of submission one would expect from their positions. Not from their physical alignments, the girl who stood over him, and he who sat beneath her. Not from their roles, that of master and familiar. His eyes did not have the wily confidence he was known to have at times. At that moment, his eyes were hard steel, worthy of the color of his irises. The man meant to defy her, to top from the proverbial bottom, to make his stance known.
"I'll ask again, and you answer this time: how much more do I have to wait until you're at full capacity?"
With a frown on his face, Archer sighed. "That's the question of the day. You asked for once, so I'll tell you straight up. You're not a magus. You're just a magical girl. You have no talent for it, and even if it turns out you do I can be of no help. Our recent activity has left me considerably drained. This circle I produced, for circulating the mana in the air? I'd receive more nourishment collecting dust. It's not even my specialty, and it was set up in a poor environment. The mana trapped in this workshop is stagnant. I can take, but with that trait I might as well be a shark trying to live off filter feeding. This place has a remarkably poor affinity for living things."
Homura reflexively clenched her fist, though she said nothing and betrayed none of the emotion he stirred.
"If you could manipulate this place's field, I'd whistle a different tune. But, you can't. On top of that our contract is weak. As it stands now I give more than I take.
"I'll be honest," Archer said, "I'm amazed we even came this far."
"The problem is that I'm not a magus?" Homura asked.
"The problem is that you're a magical girl, so same thing." Archer replied. "An apple can never become an orange, no matter how much it envies it."
"So, if I want to use you again any time soon, I should take different measures."
"Yes. You should take this more seriously."
"I have been taking this seriously!" Homura snapped, "I've not wavered from my goal once."
"Even so, we've been playing house and trying to live like we've merely been given a second chance." Homura's school life, his trips to town, Archer's words damned the both of them. "Normal life is worth protecting, but if you want to have it both ways then you need the ability to balance the two aspects. Right now, our combined efforts do not have the means to carry on as we see fit."
"I do not intend to let you sit around and waste away, recovering at a snail's pace. What can be done?" Homura asked.
"We've gone over this before," Archer said matter of factly, "I doubt we can strengthen the contract, so have me replenish my energy directly."
Homura ignored the implications of the former statement and zeroed in on the latter. "So I make you kill others and feed on their souls."
"I haven't degraded to the level of a lesser spirit just yet. I can still take lives with this much. There's plenty of bad people in this town, so it's fine, right? All I would need to do is receive the order." Archer replied.
There was something in his word choices, his tone, that gave Homura pause. He was her familiar. Of course he would follow her plans. Their's was also intended to be a partnership, albeit one not as transparent as it could have been, so that was another aspect of the shared dynamic to consider. It was agreed upon that they would do what they thought was best.
So if that was clearly the best course of action to take, why did it feel like he was testing her?
"What are you saying, Archer?"
"Me? Just stating the obvious."
"That's a half-truth. What would you have me do?"
"You should choose." Archer said, simply.
"Whether to have you stand by, or have you take action to restore your power?"
"Whether you act as a magical girl or a magus, I mean."
Homura narrowed her eyes at that. "You said that I couldn't become a magus."
"Correct. You can never become one, in body or in spirit. You can, however, choose to think a little more like one, if it can help you out."
Homura had little patience for his words, though there was advice in there she could take away from it. "What was that about apples not being oranges, now?"
"That remains true. It is, however, possible for apples to take on the flavors and scents of oranges if prepared in a certain way."
At Archer's words, Homura considered her options. "Does it even matter if you can decide whether or not to listen to what I say?" she asked another question of her familiar.
"I may be at liberty to do what I want, but at the end of the day you still have an authority over me. As long as a path between us exists you will have some power to exert over me." Archer gave an honest, stern reply, "What you should remember is that for each and every action there is an equal, opposite reaction."
"Let me ask you this, then: What do you want to do?" Homura asked.
"It's difficult and time consuming," Archer said, "but if I wait like this I can eventually reach stability enough for me to use my magecraft at will. I'd like to avoid taking innocent lives if I can help it."
"So you don't want the lives of those uninvolved on your conscious, so you'd rather I tell you to do it and be the one pulling the trigger instead."
Archer's visage tightened at that. "I'll do what it takes, regardless of my opinion, whether I'm told to or not."
"Do you all of a sudden think I won't do the same? I have my own share of sin, and I'll keep at it until I get what I want."
Still seated in the thaumaturgic circle, Archer crossed his arms. "Shooting former allies because out of mercy or because they turn on you and stealing from the underworld is different from this. This is a different kind of red you'd stain yourself with."
"If you're so concerned with me then why not take it on yourself and leave my involvement out of this?"
"Did we not give our word that we would work together on this for as long as we could continue to do so?" Archer asked, "Measures should be discussed before they are taken."
"This is going in circles," Homura groaned, fed up, "Don't you get it? I'll kill a hundred gangsters myself if that would give me a chance to save Madoka. The fact that you're willing to do it for me saves me time. I understand that I need to change up my tactics now that I have you in tow, but don't act like you're above it all. You have swords to spare, Bowman. Use them. The Witches will keep coming until the promised day arrives."
"Get out of there and restore your prana. Do what it takes." Homura ordered him.
Archer had no pride to spare for this development. As he said, his personal feelings on this meant little to him. Even if he took issue with Homura, he could not defy direct orders from his master. He knew that this was needed if Homura meant to utilize him as the asset he was. He could voice no objections in that regard. This did not mean that it wasn't an unpleasant business. Archer and Homura had decided that the lives of select others were forfeit when weighed against their objective.
For a single moment, he pondered which concept was a heavier burden to bear: the sacrifice of many for many more, or the sacrifice of many for the one.
Looks like you've finally begun to take this seriously, Homura Akemi. Archer thought long and hard on this to himself as he leaped into the twilight-marred sky.
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At that moment, it dawned on Homura that Archer was the type of man who got cranky when he was hungry.
Since I didn't want to rewrite the thing from scratch there will also be some, not too many, slight retcons. I'll inform you about these as they become relevant.