Magical Juggernaut Heather Crunch versus Patient Gardener Dahlia Marigold II: A Good Day to Tryhard

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“You totally killed Jade,” accuses Nakajima, fighting to breathe.

“She's just resting,” I respond. Though, from a certain way of looking at it, Other Nakajima was indeed KILLED! For she is sprawled on the ground in the hallways of the Seventh, and pale as a sheet! HOWEVER, she's not 'dead' so much as she is 'dead tired'! The skimpy apron heaves as she takes ragged breaths, her apron WET with SWEAT! It clings so close that, were I so inclined, I could see EVERYTHING through it! FURTHERMORE, the contours of her coverage cause me to realize something!

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“I think your sister's about ten pounds heavier than you are,” I inform Nakajima of my ocularly-acquired estimations, to which she sniggers snidely. Other Nakajima GLARES at me, and I remember some other, more important things. FIRST, that's not something you tell most people out loud! And SECOND, hydration is IMPORTANT, and I didn't see her getting ANY water! I got so caught up in my own hijinks that I didn't think of that during the run here!

I rummage through my inventory and bring out a canteen, but the Soul Temperer appears to be a step ahead of me, and is already giving her water. Well, peaches. Peaches are full of juice, right? But she also has a stone bowl full of water – where did that come from? - so I guess she's fine either way. In hindsight, when I had her working out, I probably should have given Slam water as well. She might not have had any on her person.

Well, what's done is done. So that just leaves...

“Crunchyyy, this suuuucks!” whines Nakajima, in better shape than her sister, as she is still standing, but OBVIOUSLY tired. She attempts to INVADE my personal space as I DEFTLY DODGE HER, which makes her POUT in SCORN! “I'm sweaty and gross and naked and thirsty and it's your faaaault!”

...Don't dump it on her. Don't do it. Fight the urge... And don't stare too hard, either. That's what she -wants- you to do.

“HMPH!” I harrumph, handing over the canteen. “You have a lot less STAMINA than I expected!” My OVERPOWERING WILLPOWER triumphs in the face of lust! EAT THAT, NAKAJIMAAAA! ALSO, DRINK PLENTY OF FLUIDS, NAKAJIMAAAA!

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“I make stuff that matters instead of being a gym bunny,” Nakajima fires back sulkily, holding the canteen above her head. Water cascades into her open mouth, some of it splashing on her face. When it's empty, she tosses it back to me. Or at me, since it was an overhand throw aimed at my head. I caught it before it would break my nose.

You're welcome.

Nakajima then spins around unsteadily to complain to her sister. “Jaaade,” she whines, stamping her feet, “Crunchy made me run!”

Cradled in the arms of the Soul Temperer, the rejuvenated Other Nakajima lazily eyes her sibling. Then she gives said sibling a thumbs up. “Your calves... look exquisite, sister," she replies, her voice still slightly hoarse. While it draws a chuckle from myself and the Soul Temperer, Nakajima frowns. Unamused, she advances upon her sibling with what is undoubtedly ill intent.

To prevent things from degenerating any further, I clear my throat to get everyone's attention. “It's about time, isn't it?” I ask the Soul Temperer, who has finally torn her eyes from Other Nakajima's body. When this fails to elicit the desired response, I furrow my brow in frustration and gesture towards the halls.

Comprehension dawns on the Soul Temperer, who tries again to play it off as though she meant to do it. “I could read your heart earlier, Truth-Seeker,” she lies, trying to look cool, “you wanted to express your regret, but could not form the words. Do you have trouble expressing your feelings?”

That's an unexpected question. My feelings aren't something I give a lot of thought to most of the time. Then again, most of the time I'm in my excited, hot-blooded take-on-the-world state, and I don't have any issue expressing -that-. Otherwise I'm probably sad, afraid, or upset. And I usually don't want people to know that. On the occasions I do want people to know, again, no problems there.

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But regret and gratitude... it's just hard to say 'sorry' or 'thank you' and feel like it's genuine. It's like I don't really mean it, thinking things aren't my fault (and sometimes they really aren't!), and using those words without sincerity is just -not done-. And every time I try, it just doesn't come out right. There's a lot of things that -are- my fault and I can't bring myself to apologize for them. And there's things I am grateful for, but I cannot show the grace to say 'thank you'. It's vexing that at my age I can't even show common courtesy.

I KNOW I did wrong with some things, that I was COMPLETELY in the wrong with some things, yet admitting it aloud fills me with dread that I just can't place...

It's because you're not sincere, that voice informs me. That voice can stuff it. I felt -horrible- for what happened to Slam, and-

“Seeker of Enlightenment?” queries the Soul Temperer. Seems I've been silent for some time now.

“I was thinking on it,” I tell her, then ask, “Is something like that really IMPORTANT, though?” It'd be a lie to say I wasn't afraid of failing this. If there's any way to change it to some other activity, I'm all for that. I'll tackle something like this, which doesn't really fix things that are already broken, another time.

The Soul Temperer isn't having that. She closes her eyes and starts preaching. “For one as splendorous as yourself to admit fault for something,” she explains, “it would show us lessers that you are still human, and give us hope to one day-”

“Your breath smells from all the butt kissing you're doing, Eurotrash!” interrupts Nakajima, waving her hand in front of her nose.

Indignation edges into the Soul Temperer's explanation. “And it would also place you above the Child of Chaos,” she says, her smile thin, and her words full of poison, “who wouldn't know guilt if it fucked her sister right in front of her.” Other Nakajima turns flushes redder than her own hair!

Nakajima bristles, retorting, “And Eurotrash wouldn't know shut up if it killed her family and made pinatas from their bodies!” To reinforce this, she waves to her sister. “Hey Jade, remember that time-”

“In any event,” the Soul Temperer says loudly over a very troubling conversation, “expressing your true feelings is an important part of your growth.” Pivoting around Other Nakajima – I -really- didn't expect her to go fully naked – the Soul Temperer uses her captive's feet to point down a hallway. “Which is why I prepared something while we were coming here, by asking someone to expect your arrival. Your task, then, is to earn that person's forgiveness.”

“But that doesn't make it important,” I insist. “How does this relate to preventing me from making bad decisions in the future?”

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“It is but a stepping stone in your path to redemption, Seeker of Truth. Being able to apologize will help you be true to your feelings, develop your emotional maturity, and make amends with those you have wronged before.” Sweeping Other Nakajima around to gesture to all of us – Other Nakajima gives a slightly panicked cry – the Soul Temperer meaningfully states, “But I think -all- of us can agree that making you be true to your feelings would be a tremendous improvement.” She glares at Nakajima when she says this, for some reason.

...Sounds like bullshit, but I'm not enlightened or whatever the Soul Temperer is. Or emotionally mature, either. So I can't really argue back any further on this issue. Damn. “Alright, fine. So where is the person who I need to be forgiven by?”

The Soul Temeperer answers, using a name I'm almost sure she made up, saying, “In the Garden Where The Sun Reigns Eternal.”

“Oh, -that- person,” I intone with a not-insignificant amount of dread. I should have guessed; it's the gardener I met on the first day here that I managed to take from calm and patient to pissed off within a week. “Yeah, I didn't really leave her with a positive impression or an actual apology,” I admit. She was absolutely -steaming- when the Warmaster separated us. I think there was actual killing intent behind that fake smile Miss Marigold wore while I was led away.

“Are you nervous?” The Soul Temperer's inquiry forces me to acknowledge the troubled look on my face. Not that I'd let them have that satisfaction.

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“HAH!” I scoff, puffing up with pride. “Don't be RIDICULOUS, I am merely ANXIOUS because I am EXCITED!” Clenching a fist, I boldly declare, “I am STOKED to accomplish this challenge lain before me!” The reactions of the Nakajimas and the Soul Temperer range from a tired sigh, to a giggle, to vigorous nodding.

Heh, they don't suspect a thing. I'm the best liar ever. No Callidus has anything on my acting ability.

With a destination in mind now, I start off toward my fated meeting. Everyone else falls in step behind me. Except for Other Nakajima; the Soul Temperer is still carrying her.

“You're going to visit Ol' Batshit again?” asks Nakajima from ahead of me – somehow – while walking backwards. When I nod, she playfully grabs my arm and commands, “then carry me!”

I pull my arm back and frown at her. “Your 'exquisite calves' still work, you can WALK!” I SASS BACK! Unfortunately for me, she had a secret weapon – an almost heartbroken look of sadness upon rejection. My resolve breaks like wet tissue paper in the face of such underhanded trickery.


I let out a tremendous sigh. But I'm not going away empty handed: “Promise to teach me how to properly make pancakes and hashbrowns later and I'll do it.”

Nakajima finds the terms agreeable, and firmly wraps her finger around mine. “Pinky swear!” she exclaims while we shake on it.

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Good enough for me. I hoist her up in my arms and say, “Don't squirm or I'll drop you like a crappy anime!” Her incessant giggling proves that she understood, and she settles into my arms comfortably.

The garden's a lot further off than I remember. Either that, or it's different from the one I visited before. Somehow I manage to end up lost at a dead end. It might be that I'm just that scatterbrained today, though it could also be due to carrying Nakajima. Absorbed in her warmth. Her smell. Her...

...ANYWAY, after that, I relent the lead to the Soul Temperer and follow behind her. I'm starting to wonder if I can pull this off. I'd look pretty stupid if I failed after getting fired up like that.

“Y'know,” Nakajima says after a minute of uncomfortable silence, “you can totally just blow this off and say you're sorry, to us, for making a scene earlier, instead of trying to convince the crazy lady.” I think I heard the Soul Temperer grunt something up ahead, but I might just be imagining it.

“I'll do that AFTER I've succeeded here!” I -insist-. I -have- to do this right first. And besides, I'm not in the right frame of mind to talk to Nakajima for an extended period of time. Especially not to apologize. She'd trip me up with her laughter.

“Diiiid you know she's a psycho ex-Warmaster who killed people whenever she had a tantrum?” She asks me. I shake my head, only sort of listening. She frowns a little, probably because I'm still following the Soul Temperer. “She might not forgive you even if you do everything right,” she insists. I keep going and she frowns even harder. “She's, like, really scary! She's called the Empress of Dead Body Mountain for a reason! She'd turn you into compost!” she shouts, trying to wave her arms and only managing to wiggle in my arms.

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So I drop her, like I said I would.

Okay, no, that's wrong. I just stop and set her down.

Nakajima pouts when she realizes what's happening and stands back up. Balling her hands up into fists, she screams, “Fine, see if I ever help you again, you... you tryhard!” before storming off the other way in a huff.

You want to blow this off and chase her, taunts the voice. And it's right about that. But I'll just have to grit my teeth and bear it for now. This is -important-. More important than anything to do with feelings.

As it turns out, it -is- a different garden. One that is SIGNIFICANTLY GRANDER in SCOPE and SCALE! Flowers and bushes TOWER over my head, looking less like a field and more like a -forest-! FURTHERMORE, it is -much- better trimmed! It looks cleaner, and it smells less earthy than the other one. Maybe this is her main garden, her Eden, and the other was a side project. It would at least explain why I, an outsider with issues, was allowed to help out.

The Soul Temperer now trails behind me as I march forward, toward the heart of this sunflower sanctuary, birdsong providing quiet ambiance for my journey. I'm a little irritated about how useless she was regarding this whole situation. I was banking on the Soul Temperer being prepared. I figured she had a way to help me succeed, or some trick that I missed, but all she had for me were words of encouragement: “-You- will make you succeed, Seeker of Wisdom. I only push you out of the nest so that you may find your wings and soar.”

What a load of crap. If nothing's changed, it'll go the same as it has every other time. We may have had time to cool off, but that's not going to help anything. I mean, the worst I did towards Miss Marigold was start a fire; I've done far nastier things to other people without regrets. If I won't apologize for those, why would I start here?

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Besides, I'm pretty sure birds don't actually do that.

Okay, fine, she thinks I can do it. That's... well, actually I'm grateful for the vote of confidence. Not that I'd -tell- her that, mind, but I do appreciate it.

Maybe that's it. No, it's not that it fixes whatever is stopping me. Rather, thinking I -can- do it if I try instead of lamenting that I -can't-, gives me a greater chance of success. So rather than complain, let's... think... Even if it's useless, I want to give it my best effort.

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With this in mind, I close my eyes and shut everything out. My senses dull until they are unnoticeable, and my body goes to autopilot. And then, I start thinking.

Forgiveness isn't just given, it is something that is earned. To earn forgiveness, one must, at least, show they are repentant to the party that they wish to be forgiven by. To show they are repentant, they must express remorse. To express remorse, one must feel guilt. And one feels guilt because they believe they did something wrong and it's their fault.

Do I think I did something wrong? I caused damage to the garden. That's wrong. However, though I did cause damage, was it truly my fault? For instance, pulling weeds on the first day... I was trying to do it properly, but by accident, I had started tearing up Miss Marigold's sunflower patch. That was a bad thing, but it was not done out of malice or spite – it was an accident. It was me getting caught up in the moment and not paying attention to where I was going or what I was doing. It was me being neglectful of my surroundings.

Am I the kind of person to be neglectful? It's not that I don't care, right? I was absorbed in thoughts of self-improvement, towards being the kind of person that isn't careless. Was I being careless then? Am I still careless? Am I a careless person? I can't be, though, there -are- things and people I care about. So I can't be neglectful, so it's not my fault, is it? But other people can say they are sorry, even though they are not careless people. How do they do it? Is there a trick to it? I can't believe that all of them are lying. That's just not feasible. So if it's my fault, I'm not neglectful, but because I was neglectful, it was my fault. That would make me somebody who is careless, selfish, and self-absorbed. Which... which isn't entirely wrong I suppose, if I get right down to it. I have been acting that way for the longest time.

No, no, let's not go there. Thinking about it like that makes my stomach churn. I can put myself down all I want and bounce back later, but now I'm doing it with -facts- and -reasoning- behind it and it makes me feel physically ill. My very being feels like it's under attack. The core of me, of Heather Crunch, is at risk of being compromised by these accusations. And to admit to them would be to admit that I am the antithesis of everything I strive towards. Am I strong enough to do something like that? Can I truthfully say that I was not only wrong, but I, myself, am wrong? That I am, fundamentally, a wrong person? I can't believe that. Not because it's impossible, but because if I go down that road, I'd probably end up in an awful place I'll never escape from.

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Maybe I'm overthinking it. I'll come back to this later.

Okay, there was the fire. That was my fault. I did intentionally start a fire. I knew that I was starting a fire. I started the fire, with the intention of burning something. I wanted to burn down the hornet's nest. I was told that I needed to get rid of it and all the hornets in it, as I had shown an aptitude for destroying things. I thought that fire would be the most effective means to do so. The sword would have caused massive collateral damage, and some of the wasps could escape from that. The tape... I didn't think of the tape. I could have surrounded the entire thing in tape and suffocated them. If I did something wrong, it was that I didn't use a safer method. That's not my fault, because that didn't occur to me. But it is still my fault, because I started a fire and failed to contain it. And it not crossing my mind is my fault, because I wasn't smart enough to think of a safe alternative. It's my fault for being an impulsive idiot. If I accept that, I can feel guilty about it. But am I feeling guilty for the act, or because I'm stupid?

...Wow, I don't even need that voice to put myself down. I'm doing a great job all on my own. Christ. Normal people are able to do this, so why can't I do it? Am I inferior to everyone else? Am... Oh god, am I a sociopath? That can't be right, though! That's too much! Just because I made mistakes doesn't make -me- a bad person! It's just human error!

Yeah. That's right. Just because I have made mistakes, doesn't mean I'm not great. That was the moral of the story. Logically, that makes sense. I'm not perfect, but that doesn't make me a villain. Even the most revered historical figures had their flaws. Can I actually do anything with logic when this is a very emotional issue, though? I'm not a very logical person most of the time. I'm very heat of the moment.

Look where that got me, though. Logic is at least worth a try.

Let's try this again... Do I think I did something wrong? Yes. I caused damage to the garden when I was pulling weeds. I did not pay attention and I did the wrong thing by pulling out other plants that weren't weeds. That's wrong. I could have paid more attention and did not. That is my fault. Just because it wasn't malicious does not absolve me of responsibility for the act. I was entrusted with a task, with something -important-, and I failed at it. I didn't think about what I was doing. How do you even mistake sunflowers for weeds? That's beyond retarded. If you aren't blind, you should be able to see the difference easily. It takes willful ignorance to screw that up! Either that, or you are so utterly MORONIC as to be HELPLESS!

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...Ugh, this negativity is seeping in everywhere. I have to focus. I was on the right track, but I got distracted by negative thoughts. This is exactly why I'm here – to deal with these glaring flaws in my personality. I acknowledge that they are there. I just need to accept them and keep going. I have to -focus-. Even the Soul Temperer says it's possible for me to do it! It might be easier said than done, but I have to do it. I HAVE to do it!

So I messed up. I tore out some of the sunflowers instead of the weeds. In mere hours, I undid what could have taken weeks, if not months, of hard work, patience, and care. That is my fault, my responsibility. It wasn't anybody's fault but mine. For that, I am ashamed of myself. For doing harm to her garden, her labor of love, I am ashamed of myself. I am responsible for it, and so I feel guilty. I feel guilty. I feel guilty, right?

...Yes, yes I do feel guilty. That's good. Well, not -good-, but it shows I'm not a sociopath. The tearing up of flowers, the fire, all of it. All of it was my fault. It wasn't hers, it wasn't the Soul Temperer's, it wasn't the Nakajimas', it wasn't even the voice in my head. It was my actions and decisions that caused the damage. No, not just the damage, but the time spent instructing me and cleaning up after my failures. That's time she isn't getting back. That's time -neither of us- will get back. That's the price of my failings. Am I repentant for it? I do not know how to fix things, but given the chance, I would like to make it up to Miss Marigold somehow. And now that I recognize my failing, I can be sure to correct it. I -know- what I did wrong, and I have an idea of -why- I did it wrong. I was -hasty-, -overly energetic-, and didn't consider -all- my options.

I feel remorseful. I feel repentant. I am aware of what I did wrong. Now for the million dollar question: am I sorry? I... I -think- so. I regret what I did... therefore, I am sorry that I did it. So that means I am sorry. I'm sorry.

I, Heather Crunch, am sorry.

…Okay, let's not celebrate just yet. Just to be sure, I should try this with what happened this morning. Let's see... the circumstances were that I was stressed about Nakajima being so forward with her affections. I let my combat training take over because I perceived her as a threat. I viewed her as an 'enemy', even though, at that moment, she wasn't being hostile. It was just me, because I was afraid. And so I reacted with violence. And I gave unneeded and unwarranted exposition about my inferiority complex. Just because she mentioned Sayaka Miki. Even if I'm not her, I'm still me. Just because I'm not her, does not make me completely worthless. So for overreacting, that was my fault. I was wrong to overdo things like some third-rate tsundere. I don't -have- to react with violence or shouting. I don't -have- to be a bitch. I'm not Sayaka Miki. So I made a mistake. I was wrong. My reaction was wrong, and, though she isn't blameless, it is still my fault for reacting as extremely as I did. If I were to do it over...

...I'd tell her to put her clothes back on. Firmly, but not forcefully. And tell her to drop this whole 'romance' thing. There's no way it'd work out. It's better not to attempt something so hopelessly impossible as a relationship between us. It's better that way.

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...But then again, although being perfect is hopelessly impossible, that doesn't stop me from striving towards it every day...

“Seeker of Enlightenment!”

My eyes fly open as the world comes back to me. The first thing I notice is the face of the Soul Temperer, her brow knit in alarm, slowly relaxing upon my regaining consciousness. The second thing I notice is she has me by the shoulders, mashing my chest against the hers. Fortunately, she lets go of me and backs up, clasping her hands together. “You had stopped walking and started murmuring to yourself as though you were asleep,“ she explains, before I even have to ask why she was concerned, “Were you meditating?”

Was that what it was? It was different from when I was doing it at the waterfall. There was just nothing there but my thoughts. I didn't feel any sort of 'calm', though.

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Still, “I think I was,” I tell her. “But that's not all.” Grinning broadly, I put my hands on -her- shoulders. Her confusion and red expression are cute, but that's not important right now. “Soul Temperer, I found it. Thanks in part to your encouragement, I found the answer!” I release her with that declaration, leaving her awestruck self to adjust her lopsided hat and follow behind me once again.

Yes, I've laid all the groundwork for what I need to do. All that's left is for me to put my feelings into words, and seek forgiveness.

Miss Marigold waits underneath a cherry tree at the very center of the gardens, as I was told. Rather than wearing a sundress and hat like before, the woman wears a red plaid ensemble this time. She finishes stuffing a blanket and picnic basket into her inventory, confirming that she is currently in her magical girl costume. Her withering stare at my arrival doesn't inspire confidence, but I have enough already. I don't need any further help for what I have to do.

“Well?” the woman asks impatiently, arms folded across her chest. I look back at the Soul Temperer, and she nods her head.

Turning back around, I step forward and clear my throat. “Miss Marigold,” I say, my voice clear and loud, but not overwhelming, “I have come to apologize for what I did!” Having stated my intentions, I put my heart, my SPIRIT into my words and gesticulations! “Through my carelessness, I destroyed part of your work! Work that you poured your time, labor, and love into! I came here because I had wronged someone else before you, and sought to change myself; still, even as flawed as I was, you entrusted me with taking care of your Eden! And I repaid you in destruction and disappointment!“ I drop to my knees, getting mud all over the apron, and yell, “It was my fault! If I'd paid closer attention to what I was doing, and treated it with the seriousness it deserved, it wouldn't have happened! I am sorry, Miss Marigold! I am sorry for wasting your precious time, undoing your hard work, and ruining your slice of Eden! I know what I did wrong, and I swear that I won't make those mistakes again!” As a sign of ultimate humility, I bow down until my face mere inches from the dirt! “I seek your forgiveness not out of obligation, but sincere regret, and an earnest desire to make things right! I do not know how to make amends for what I did, but if it is even remotely possible for me to do it, then, even if it takes me as many months as it took you to grow your garden, I swear to make up for my mistakes!” Even after finishing my speech, I remain in prostration! Because I understand now! I know why she was upset! And I've conveyed my regret to the best of my ability!

The silence is sudden and palpable. The sound of birds chirping is eerily absent now. Even so, I will not look up! That would be disrespectful and undo what I'm working towards!

“Stand,” orders Miss Marigold. I push myself back to my feet and wipe the dirt from my clothes as discretely as I can. I maintain eye contact with the woman, as she deserves such respect, and wait for her response.

Miss Marigold stares me down with great intensity... then sighs slightly. “Well, Ah was prepa'uhed tah tell yew to kahndlih leave befoah mah tempah spiked,” she says slowly, her lips curled into a smirk, “but aftah that hahtfelt display, Ah have changed mah mind. If yo'uh sinceah about restitutiuhn, then yew can watuh these flowahs with yo'uh blood.”

The Soul Temperer gasps, while my heart settles into my stomach. After getting my hopes up, she proposed something unnecessary. Something violent. Something I want to do, but -shouldn't do-.

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“I don't really bleed, though...” I say, knowing how useless the statement is.

“Don't play coy, girlih,” Miss Marigold orders, showing an unsettling smile, “yew know exactlih what Ah mean.”

The Soul Temperer steps up to diffuse the situation, arguing, “This was not what we discussed-”

“Ah have altahd the deal, Miss Tenko,” Miss Marigold interrupts, a parasol manifesting in her hands. “If she wants mah foahgivenuss, she will have tah fight me foah it like huh life depended on it.” She points the umbrella back at us, deadpanning, “othuhwise, yew should leave.”

As soon as I meet her glare again, I can feel it. Something I haven't felt in a long time, not at this intensity. A strong, rage-fueled killing intent emanates from Miss Marigold in waves and almost makes me choke. This isn't simple bloodlust – this is a warning. A deliberate warning to every instinct of self-preservation I have: “Run. This person can and will kill you. Run. You can't win. RUN.”

An urgent pull on my arm frees me from my stupefaction. “Truth-Seeker,” the Soul Temperer whispers harshly, “this was a trial to learn to express yourself, and you have done that. Now, however, you should take her offer and leave.” Since she's transformed and I'm not, I stumble back under her stronger grip. “Loathe as I am to admit it, everything the Child of Chaos said about Miss Marigold is true. Even if you are the brightest star in the sky, that makes her a Great Old One that can unmake the universe itself. Only the Spiritual Liege herself is her equal. By all measures, you have passed your trial. If you leave now, I will not think less of you.” I'm dragged behind her like a ragdoll. But she has a point.

She has a lot of good points, really. I don't -have- to do this. I learned how to apologize, and I could do as Nakajima said earlier and just say sorry to them. It would be the same result – forgiveness – but with no risk of death. Fighting an ex-Warmaster is suicidal and stupid. Even I know that. No, I probably know that better than most people. There's only one possible answer for this, and the Soul Temperer knows that.

The uniform is engulfed in light as my greatcoat and hat materialize. Soon there's no trace remaining of the maid outfit. There's only me, in my magical girl costume, telling the Soul Temperer, “I would sooner die than go back on an oath.”

“Truth-Seeker...” the Soul Temperer says, her voice and eyes full of sadness. She understands, though. She releases my arm and nods at me, conveying that understanding. That some things -have- to be done, in spite of, or perhaps even because they're stupid.

That's not the whole truth, though. If it was a suicidal, pointless oath, like the one I gave, I would leave. I'd fought Miss Valnikov many times when she was in her prime. I know what kind of monstrous power a Warmaster commands. It's a no-brainer.

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But I want to do this.

Even if it is the stupid thing to do, even if it's a stupid thing that I -shouldn't- do, it's a stupid thing that I -have- to do. I CANNOT throw away this chance at winning REAL glory! Becoming a Rank Leader is not a major accomplishment, but if I can do THIS, I will FINALLY have my GREATNESS -irrefutably- acknowledged! Even if I fall into the DEEPEST, BLACKEST DEPTHS OF DESPAIR, NOBODY can argue against an accomplishment like THIS! It is a fight against a former Warmaster at FULL STRENGTH, rather than the emaciated, empty husk of Miss Valnikov!

Properly fired up, I flash a smile to Miss Marigold! “I ACCEPT your invitation to BATTLE!” I yell! Psyching myself up for this battle! A battle against a -monster- in the guise of a human being!

She curtsies, and I do my best to mimic her. “Give meh a gewd fight,” she says, “Ah don't expect yew to win, but try not tah disapphoint meh.”

I'm sure nobody expects -me- to win! Even -I- don't expect me to win! But that's just it; if I win in spite of everything, how AMAZING would that be? How AMAZING would -I- be? If I win, it WILL count, no matter WHAT anybody, especially -me-, says! That's why I NEED to prove I can do it! I HAVE to win! I MUST show the WORLD that I, Heather Crunch, am BETTER than Stringbean, BETTER than Sayaka Miki, BETTER THAN EVEN MISS VALNIKOV!

Striking a pose of -utmost defiance-, I lay down my challenge: “THEN I WILL -DEFY- YOUR EXPECTATIONS, MISS MARIGOLD!” I will my trusty blade, my giant Eversword, into my hands. Twirling it dexterously above my head, I end my flourish by holding it in a -single hand-. I then speak with a voice of -conviction-, of -strength- and -will- that makes even -me- believe it as an UNSHAKEABLE TRUTH, -PROUDLY- DECLARING, “I WILL -DEFEAT- YOU, AND BECOME A -LIVING LEGEND-!”

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"Entuhtain me, Miss Crunch!”