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“What do you think you're doing?” Marisa asked, indignantly, as I made my way to Alice. Though her qualms were with Mima, I found that I quickly became the target of her abuse. It was clear what I was going to do and why I wanted to do it. She just couldn't stand the idea. “Don't you dare listen to her, she's set this whole thing up!” Marisa yelled at me, her voice rising noticeably in pitch. Needless to say, all eyes were on me and the nearly-hysterical blonde.
All eyes except mine.
I couldn't help but smile as I locked gazes with Alice. She stared back, simple, almost child-like, bemusement coming into her eyes as she recognized me. I extended my hand towards her, leaning over so that I was closer to her. She stared at my hand, looking unsure of what she should do. I opened up my palm invitingly. After another moments hesitation she realized what I wanted and placed her own hand onto mine. I grabbed it firmly, but gently, and helped her stand up. Alice stared at me a little blankly, unsure what came next. So I took the lead, holding her hand and guiding her away from the table.
Predictably, we didn't make it too far. “This is a bunch of crap!” Marisa barred our way, arms spread wide on either side. “You can't listen to her, you can't do this!” she inveighed, “You're crazy if you think you can trust Mima just out of the blue. I don't know what she's told you but she's definitely up to something.”
“She might well be,” I said, stopping and shielding Alice by stepping in front of her. “It doesn't matter. Think about it, even if she did steal your powers somehow, what do you hope to accomplish right here and now?”
“If you help me, we can get them back,” she said. “She's dividing us, don't you see that?!”
“I don't think I can stand up to her,” I told her what I felt was the truth. “You'd have to have a good plan before confronting another magician under the best of circumstances,” I said, squeezing Alice's hand as I recalled one of her many lessons. Going in without preparation and knowing your opponent was not smart. “I want you to step aside. This seems like the first time I'll be able to help Alice for real. That's what's caused this mess to begin with. If I can fix that then we'll have all the time in the world to sort everything else out.”
“You're acting like a naïve little shit,” Marisa growled, completely losing her cool.
“I could say the same to you,” I hardened my stance. “You're not going to accomplish anything right now and you know it. Now get out of the way.”
“That's 'bitch, get out of the way!” She snarled as she crossed the last remaining threshold. Marisa lounged at me in an act of desperation. Not that it got her anywhere. I saw it coming. With my free hand I focused energy and, in a literal flash, I countered her. A bright white-blue afterimage remained for a second or two afterward, despite having closed my eyes in anticipation. Marisa was on the floor, completely still save for the faint rise and fall of her chest.
“Now that that's done with, we can proceed,” Mima piped in, looking predictably bored at how things had turned out. “She'll have learned her lesson, hopefully. That's the way it has to be with her hard-headed sort.”
I said nothing. Alice didn't seem to understand what had just happened. I smiled at her and gently tugged at her hand, indicating that we should get a move on. The other guests murmured among themselves like they were yet to reach a consensus about what was going on. We walked calmly out of the room and into the fresh night. The fire raged at more than full intensity, spilling wild colors into the atmosphere. It contrasted the cool stability of the altar. I touched it, feeling the stone as if for the first time.
I sat Alice down on the stone. She looked at me quizzically, unsure as to why she was doing all of that. I made her lay down, carefully making sure she was resting comfortably on the slab. Then I looked over at Mima expectantly, wondering what came next.
“Step back,” she ordered, hovering near the scene with a concentrated look. I did as instructed, moving back a pace or two. Mima waved a scepter with a golden moon in our general direction. A field of energy enveloped Alice. Wisps of magical flame separated from the fire and danced in circles above the field. It was a dazzling sight. I could feel that my heart pumped faster and my eyes widened in awe as Mima acted. The field intensified, becoming opaque, and the flames mixed in. Gold, red, indigo, silver and a deep green were some of the colors the field flashed quickly in between. It reached luminous climax as the field shrank and became brighter. It reduced itself to little more than the size of the slab and the person on it before rapidly expanding and breaking up into a million different pieces of glittering phantasmagoria.
Awed, but not forgetting my impatience, I rushed in as the particles settled. I grabbed Alice,e finding that her eyes were firmly shut. I wondered if it had worked, after all. But only briefly. She stirred quietly, her eyelids trembling as she struggled to open her eyes. “Hey there,” I said softly. “How do you feel?”
“...” She opened her eyes, looking at me blankly, blinking in order to force recognition. “...Arc?” she voiced a little weakly.
“Yeah, it's me. Are you alright?”
“Yes. I am. What is the matter?” she realized that I was holding her. Alice looked around, evidently trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Her deep, unreadable eyes began to return to normalcy. “I thought we were inside.”
“That was weeks ago,” I explained gently, “something went wrong and you lost your memory. Can you remember everything?”
“Yes... apprentice,” she voiced with caution, like she didn't trust her own judgments. It was understandable. “I also remember... from a distance, you, the shrine. Then you were gone. And now this.” She frowned, evidently not capable of making sense of things. “How long has it been? Since my memory...”
“A few weeks,” I told her. “I've been trying to find out how to restore you all this time. A lot has happened.”
“Yes. You have such... intensity,” she looked at me with what must have been unintentional apprehension. “You do not feel like my student anymore.”
“I am,” I assured her, “I've just had a little help here and there.”
“Your scent... is also different,” she said bluntly. “It's not just that, but you're different. Mm, my heart beats faster for no discernible reason.”
“Mine is beating a little faster too,” I told her with a nervous little laugh. “I'm just glad to see you again. Whole, that is.”
Alice raised a hand, feeling the side of my face. “I suppose a 'thank you' is required,” she mused. “There is still a lot left to accomplish and not much reason to dally.”
“We're at a gathering,” I said, trying to explain the situation briefly, “magicians and others have come around at Mima's invitation.”
Alice's eyes widened. Her energy came back swiftly and she freed herself from my hold and sat up. She looked around, scanning the scene with intensity. “There are no such things as coincidences,” she said.
“Indeed not,” Mima agreed, sounding playful. “Enjoy your moment of tenderness?” she asked.
“Why am I here?” Alice asked.
“I suppose it was inevitable from the day your apprentice came into your life.”
“I see,” Alice nodded, understanding something deeper than Mima's words seemed to indicate. “Why now?”
“There is no harm in it,” Mima replied. “I also reward those with faith appropriately. This boy has been most faithful, if a little forgetful.”
“Does he know?” Alice asked, focusing entirely on staring down Mima.
“He must by now,” Mima said with a chuckle, “even if he doesn't want to admit it to himself.”
“Know what?” I jumped in on the conversation. “What are you keeping from me?”
“Ask your lover,” Mima chuckled again.
Alice turned to face me, lifting herself from the altar. Her eyes betrayed her. The stoic mask was wholly gone. Still, she said what was obvious, as was her duty, “it was Mima who separated my memories and personality from my body.”
“Why?” I asked dumbly.
“It was a result of your lover's actions,” Mima explained calmly, “she stuck her nose where it didn't belong. And, besides,” she smiled, “it got you to go see the other as well. As the expression goes, two birds with one stone.”
“It seems that we were both doing her bidding,” Alice observed, sounding apathetically unemotional about it. I did not know how she wasn't outraged. She donned a sardonic smile, like it was all expected.
“So you've been manipulating me?” I asked Mima point blank.
“Not especially. Certainly not to a higher degree than you've been using the magicians you've met. Have you stopped to think were all of your sudden powers have been coming from?”
“My... powers?” I retreated into my own head, trying to figure out what she meant. I hadn't been very successful with magic despite all of my so-called progress. Patchouli had dispatched me easily. Marisa was just caught off-guard. Twice. The second time it was borrowed power. “They're not mine.. I've taken them?”
“Well, yes. If you had stopped to think about them instead of focusing too much on your lover and her predicament you would have realized that there's something all too familiar about them,” Mima stated like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“My powers are gone,” Alice added to what she was saying. Not missing a beat, she concluded, “you have them.”
“Then... Marisa?” I asked, my thoughts going at the speed of light in every which direction.
“You are the one responsible,” Mima said with a smug smile. “All of these magicians have been reduced to nothing more than their thoughts because of you.”
“But, how?” I looked at my hands. It didn't feel true. I couldn't suddenly project torrents of energy at will. I couldn't manipulate dolls. All I could do was copy something I had seen before... I stopped my thoughts there. “Power doesn't imply knowledge of technique,” I said out loud to myself. The swirling chaos suddenly made sense. It was energy that wasn't my own. It wasn't in sync with me. It didn't belong to me. It was simply stored in me, ready to be called out if I knew the right key.
I burst out laughing. It was just too surreal.
“It seems that you understand the situation. Good,” Mima nodded approvingly. “Now then, can we get on with the rest of the festivities? Your mother would be disappointed at your lack of timeliness,” Mima directed the last bit at Alice.
“Apprentice,” Alice whispered, “no, Arc, you're the only one who can do anything now.”
“Do what? I don't understand.” I whispered back.
“Sure, go ahead, talk among yourselves. I'll pretend I'm not here too,” Mima said with some irritation. She turned her back at us, dismissing us as she went back towards the party.
“You're the only one with any magical ability,” Alice explained, “Mima should not be allowed to carry on doing as she pleases.”
“I don't know what she wants to do. And I don't understand my powers. What can I possibly do? I can't go in blindly hoping to disrupt something I don't understand.” I voiced my realistic concerns. A magician always needed a solid plan. Alice needed to remember that.
“Obviously she's not done using you. There's a reason why she needed you to have all that power. If only to be her lieutenant. Even if that's all there is to it, it means you're in a position of trust and easy access. If we're going to restore everything to the way it was, then we need to confront her sooner or later.”
“So what do you suggest we do?”
“...I'm not sure yet,” Alice said with a sigh. “It would help if you understood how to use the magic inside of you.”
“We're past apologies. Focus on the situation at hand.” She scrunched up her brow, looking pensive. “Have you had contact with all of the important magicians in Gensokyo?” she asked.
“I think I have. You, Marisa and Patchouli. I've been close to all three of you,” I stated. Vivid memories of just how close I had been flooded back. I was sure that that was Mima's doing as well. Another 'reward'. Somehow I was beginning to understand that side of her a little better. It meant that she wasn't in my head all of the time, at least. Just with some preplanned suggestions.
“There are more. And powerful youkai that aren't magicians as such but have magical energies. Are they all at the party?” she asked.
“I think it's a safe bet to say that they are,” I hazarded a judgment.
“Then she'll need to... expose you to them,” Alice said.
“How would that happen?” I asked.
“I don't think there's grounds for a wild bacchanalia where it's a free for all...” she clearly was implying something I picked up on immediately. I didn't know if I would survive a scenario like that. “It would be messy and there is no guarantee of participation. No,” she shook her head, “she'll just have you spend a little time alone with each guest under some pretext.”
“Then there's still some time until her plan is complete? Assuming it depends on me being intimate with those strangers.” Though I was trying to be serious I could still feel a childish blush on my cheeks. I hoped that Alice wouldn't notice.
Alice nodded, seconding the assumption. “I assume that the shrine maiden is otherwise incapacitated?” she asked.
“Reimu is... not herself,” I stated. “Dark, violent and sarcastic.”
“Another safe assumption is that she's been compromised by Mima,” Alice said. “I can't say how yet but Mima knows the shrine like the back of her hand. She's able to manipulate anything within it.”
“I don't know if she was controlling Reimu. It was far less polished than she's been.”
“It may only be partial. I can control dolls because they're inanimate but if I tried the same trick on a person, I would have to know how to manipulate them. That would mean dividing up their ability to assert a coherent thought pattern. Appealing to base emotions and feeding in ideas gradually is theoretically the most efficient way. She is showing parts of her personality, non-dominant ones that are easy to manipulate. So in a sense she's semi-autonomous.”
Alice's cold assessment was staggering. She completely forgot the fact that we were talking about one of her friends. “Reimu is being used too,” I restated in my own words, hoping to move away from the unpleasant subject. “It sounds like she can use your abilities too.”
“Not through study, I'd wager,” Alice stared at me intensely. It almost made me look away. “There is a link between you and her. One that I failed to detect and excise. Or excise properly...”
“I can't trust my own power now?”
“Nor your feelings and thoughts, I'm afraid,” Alice told me what I had been denying all along. “There's something between you that's stronger than a simple bond. Yes...” Alice became quiet. “Maybe that's another way to go at it.”
“Eh?” I didn't follow.
“If she can reach out to you, surely you can reach out to her, that's all. I wouldn't know how.” she said.
“I've borrowed some of her power on occasion.” I told her about stunning Marisa. And feeling the condition of the shrine. That was definitely something that Mima could do and she simply had granted me temporary permission to do so as well.
“It is reversible. If I could figure out how to drain you of power, it may drain her of power as well.”
“Or just leave me powerless,” I said.
“I see that she's left suggestive messages in your head.”
“No, that was just me voicing a potential flaw in the approach,” I assured her. “A magician needs to be prepared for all contingencies. What would we do if that was the case? We'd be worse off.”
“True enough,” she smiled grimly, accepting my critique as valid. “We are getting a little ahead of ourselves.”
“I'm sorry, this is my fault as your teacher.” Alice made a rare apology. “If I had been more careful and thorough, none of this would have happened.”
“You couldn't have known, I don't think anyone could have.” I consoled her. It made my heart sink to see her herself again but act so vulnerable. It wasn't the strong, fiercely independent Alice I was used to. The one whose tender side was only shown when it was appropriate. That unbiased Alice was the Alice that I wanted to learn magic from and it was the Alice that I had developed strong feelings for.
“It is my failing nonetheless,” she affirmed, looking determined in her self-pity. “The best way to beat another magician is to win before having to actually fight. If you define the parameters of the encounter beforehand you'll have a definite advantage.”
“Yes, I remember that lesson,” I told her. “I remember everything you've taught me. Which is why I'm sure we're in good shape for whatever may come next.”
“So confident,” she said, “perhaps ignorant. I have done you a disservice with my lessons and there is no real way of making that up to you.”
Her pride was hurt. That much was clear. “Alice...” I started.
“And not mistress?” she sighed. “I suppose I don't deserve that title.”
“This is unlike you,” I chided her, “I can't believe you're allowing self-pity overcome you. We need to have our heads straight. Think about the important things. If I thought that you were a failure I wouldn't have risked so much to help you out. You're important to me.”
“So I seem to be...” she said. Her shoulders drooped as she sighed again. Thinking about the next thing to do was all fine and good and I knew she would pull through. Still, it would help her if she perked up a little. Defeatism was a dangerous alternative.
 “I trust you, so trust me on this one. We'll manage no matter what.”
 “I love you. I realized that earlier. I want to see where things go once we deal with this incident together.”