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This is the closest you’ve received to a guarantee that you’re going to get out of your debt situation. However, Shizuha has some serious problems, and you don’t think she’s going to be able to solve them on her own. In all good conscience, you couldn’t risk letting her get away now. “If you really want to repay me, we should go see your sister. You may have your issues with her, but what you’re doing now isn’t right.”
When you see Shizuha’s scowl, you can’t help but feel a bit anxious. It wouldn’t be hard at all for her to ditch you, and then you’re right back where you started. She really stares at you, like she’s considering it. Then, she turns — and starts walking. After a few steps, the autumn goddess looks back at you. “Well? C’mon.”
A tense breath escapes your lungs. “Honestly, I thought you were going to take off running.”
“I do have some dignity left,” she grumbles, with crossed arms. “If I ran away from a human I owed gratitude, then I’d be in even more trouble than I am now. I’ll take you back to my sister, at least.” Then, she shakes her head. “Just my luck, though. I finally find a human I can talk to, and you’re one of them nosy types.”
You can’t really argue with that, given your profession. Yet, there’s something you have to be absolutely clear on moving forward. “Listen, if you really don’t want any help, just say so before you waste any more of my time. But think about it, because it sounds like the struggle for your very existence is yours to lose. From the way you’re handling this, it’ll either be back to living under your sister or meandering in the forest alone until there’s nothing left of you. Am I wrong?”
Shizuha drops her arms, blinks a few times, then looks past you to Mori. “Does he talk like this to you?”
“It’s actually kinda refreshing once you get used to it,” the cradled goddess answers. “Didn’t you tell me that you hated overly-polite humans, anyway?”
As you try to figure out what’s going on in her head, Shizuha avoids your eyes. “Yeah, well,” she mumbles. “Maybe.”
“How I say it has nothing to do with what I’m saying,” you argue. “Either I’m right or I’m wrong. Which is it?”
Shizuha sighs. “You’re more right than wrong, I reckon. I’ll think about it.”
Trekking through the forest with a brooding Shizuha at the head takes quite a while. At one point, she stops and looks around. “Huh. This ain’t right. Gotta backtrack a bit.”
That isn’t exactly reassuring to you. “If it’s going to be like this, maybe you should talk instead of thinking so hard you get us lost.”
She turns to show you a grim look. “Yeah, well, I’ve just been wonderin’ about what Minoriko’s gonna do when she hears what happened. She’ll be roarin’ mad, for sure. Maybe I shoulda run off before I gave you my word.”
You’re noticing a pattern here. “I’m going to make a wild assumption: you’re one of those people who acts without thinking it through.”
“Good eye, Mister Private Detective. My sister says that a lot, too.”
It’s not like you can fault the younger Aki. “Do you two bicker a lot?”
“Of course!” she answers quick. “What kinda question is that? Are you an only child or somethin’?”
“Yeah. I don’t really know much about siblings, especially sisters.” You pause. “Especially goddess sisters.”
“I ain’t sure if I pity you, or envy you.” She laughs a little. “I feel like Minoriko can be my best friend… or my worst enemy. It just depends on how we’re feelin’ that day.”
“And recently, it’s been more of the latter?”
Her smile fades. “Disagreements can do that to a pair of folks, no matter how close they are. And this is a mighty big disagreement between us sisters.”
“That’s why you don’t want to go back?”
She hesitates. “Minoriko’s plannin’ a harvest festival, like the kind we used to do back in the day. Nothin’ fancy — just small enough not to attract any tengu or kappa. If I stuck around the farm, I’d be part of it whether I liked it or not.” Her hands clench, and her eyes peer through instead of at you. “I tried to tell Minoriko that I gotta stand on my own, but she ain’t havin’ it. She thinks we gotta stick together, no matter what. That’s easy for her to say, when she gets most of the attention.” After a breath, she simmers down and looks at you again. “You’ve been on your own for a while, ain’t you? How is it?”
That’s a big question, but this isn’t the time or the place to lay yourself bare for the curious — the gist is enough. “I’m speaking as a human, but it was fine. You have to learn how to live with your own mistakes — like getting drunk and picking up a little girl off the street, who just so happens to be a foreign goddess.” You jab a thumb back towards Mori, as if it weren’t obvious who you were talking about.
When you don’t immediately hear a smug retort, you turn around — only to find that the little goddess is snoozing in the lightly-rocking arms of Hina.
“Wow,” Shizuha remarks with a grin. “Hina, you got some of them maternal instincts, don’t you?”
Hina looks up to Shizuha with a wide smile. “Not at all. I was never intended to produce any offspring. If anything, I am responsible for the deaths of countless children. Any of the motherly sentiments you accuse me of would burden me with an intolerable amount of grief.”
While you just stare at the rigid fortuneteller, Shizuha has no problem shrugging that one off. “I’m just sayin’,” she continues, “it ain’t a bad sight.”
“The little one asked that I do this,” Hina explains, “shortly after we resumed walking.”
Even with that poker face, this feels a little defensive for Hina. Mothers and children might be a topic best avoided for light conversation in the future.
But, this is all giving you some bad flashbacks of a certain cow-woman from your checkered past, so it’s time to put all the focus back on the lazy brat. “Hina, you don’t have to treat her like that. I know she’s injured, but hold her however you like. She can suffer a little bit.”
Hina tilts her head, but then nods. “Alright. I think I understand.”
With that, she slides Mori out of her arms, but keeps hold of one ankle. Then Hina hoists the little goddess up by one leg, letting her dangle upside-down. Her gentle smile doesn't falter as she begins shaking Mori rapidly from side-to-side. The kid goddess’s shirt falls down to her waist, revealing a pair of small breasts that you ignore — in favor of a smooth, lightly-tanned midriff that just so happens to be lacking bruises or any other indication of the injuries that are supposedly still bothering her.
It only takes a few shakes for Mori’s eyes to shoot open, and for her to start flailing about in vain resistance. “H—Hina! What are you doing?! Just let me down!”
“Okay then,” is Hina’s simple response, before dropping her.
Mori’s bare back hits the grass hard, and she stares up at the trees with a reddened face. “All the blood rushed to my head,” she moans. But, it doesn’t take long for her to jump to her feet with a vengeance. “What was that for, Hina?! I thought I was gonna pass out!”
She points to you. “PI suggested that you suffer a little bit.”
Smooth, Hina. Mori swings around to face you, her fists tight with rage. “Aw, I should’ve known! Do you have something against the handicapped? Are you some kind of cripple basher?”
Despite Mori’s menacing glare, you don’t really feel any guilt. “It’s no big deal, if your wounds are healed up. You seem to be standing just fine, now.”
She blinks, looks down, and then clutches her side. “Um, ooh, ah, it still kind of hur—“
“Don’t try it. I saw when your shirt fell down. The bruising’s all gone.”
Mori stands upright and grins at you, somehow maintaining a haughty attitude despite being called out on her act. “I’m impressed. It must take a lot of discipline to keep your wits about you when directly exposed to even a part of a goddess’s bare form.”
“Not particularly.” As she deflates, you continue. “So, you thought you could get Hina to carry you all the way back while I walked?”
“No! I just had to let things settle a bit, is all. It’s—uh, a very delicate process.”
Behind Mori, Hina giggles softly into her hand — looking very pleased with herself. She could have realized that Mori was trying to take advantage of her, and retaliated accordingly. If that’s the case, then Hina isn’t as dense as you thought she was.
There’s another source of laughter that’s much less restrained. “You three are somethin’ else,” Shizuha says. “I ain’t ever seen anything like it.”
You look to Mori, who just smiles. Whatever it is, you aren’t in on it. “Is she referring to how we talk to each other, again?”
“Yeah,” Mori answers. “I’m a special case, y’know. We would look surreal to a lot of people, if they knew what I was.”
“Surreal sounds about right,” you remark. “Did humans give you the proper goddess treatment, Shizuha?”
“Yep, with enough politeness and humility to make me vomit.” She cringes from thinking about it. “It was the worst at the harvest festivals. Everyone would bring all kinds of garbage and beg for me to treat them well — like I was out to take away everything they loved or somethin’. All I wanted to do was dance, drink, and celebrate the season, and they were all scared of me!” Then she frowns, and grows quieter. “But Minoriko, they treated just fine. When the harvest came in good, they would shower her with praise. If it ever came in bad, they would say I was angry at them and they needed to ‘calm my wrath’. I hated that the most.”
If you weren’t sure Shizuha had an inferiority complex before, you’re positive now. “Do you blame your sister for that?”
She shakes her head. “Ain’t her fault, and now I guess I got what I wanted. The humans don’t fear me, but they don’t notice me either. Winter’s comin’, then I won’t be able to do anything until next year — if I’m even around then.”
You and Mori exchange uneasy looks. Then, the little goddess walks up to Shizuha and stretches her arms out wide, beckoning her for a hug, which she kneels down and accepts.
“PI,” Hina calls you. When you turn around, she has her arms outstretched towards you in a similar fashion.
“N—not right now, Hina.”
Her arms drop, but not her smile. “I see.”
The two goddesses hold each other a moment longer, but as they separate, Mori reels her hand back and gives Shizuha a smack across the face loud enough to echo through the trees. “Cheer up, wuss.”
The autumn goddess looks more hurt than offended as she rubs her cheek. “Wha—”
Mori grabs her by the shoulders and stares her down hard. “You heard me. If winter’s coming and you want to gather faith your own way, then there’s no time to sit around moping. You’re going to kick that pessimism to the curb and replace it with glorious success!”
It sounds like she’s been watching too many kappa infomercials. What kind of nonsense is she going to offer Shizuha for only three easy payments of 3999 yen?
Mori continues. “And don’t worry, because PI and I are going to help you!”
Shizuha brightens up instantly. “You are?”
On the other hand, you feel a little dimmer. “We are?”
Mori lets go of Shizuha and turns to address both of you with a confident smirk. “Of course! It takes a flock to make a goddess, or something like that. We can rebuild Shizuha’s image from the ground up!”
The goddess in question looks cautiously optimistic. “You really think we can?”
This isn’t exactly what you had in mind. The priority thus far has been to reconcile Shizuha and Minoriko, but now Mori’s talking about a makeover or something. The thought itself isn’t bad, but the job comes first. “If that’s really what you want to do,” you tell Shizuha, “then the first step should still be talking to your sister. Even if she doesn’t agree, you need to tell her properly. Maybe you can even put her at ease if you convince her you’ve thought it through.”
“That’s a great idea!” Mori says. “All we have to do is figure out a way to appeal to the new Gensokyo! We’ll moderniz—“
Then she freezes, and her eyes go the distance.
You and Shizuha exchange confused looks. “Hey, Mori?” you speak up. “Is everything alright?”
Hearing her name snaps her out of it. “Nothing. I just reminded myself of—uh, y’know what, nevermind!” She laughs it off. “What’s important is that we think of a way for you to not just survive, but flourish! Agreed?”
“Alrighty!” Shizuha cheers, showing no signs of her depression from a moment ago. “I’m startin’ to get a little excited, even.”
You had imagined all gods would be wannabe-masterminds, but the eldest Aki seems remarkably simple. That kind of attitude would serve her well in connecting to the humans of today’s Gensokyo — so long as she maintains it. With Mori doing the brain work, Shizuha might actually have a chance.
But what about Mori herself? She’s a goddess too, so doesn’t she also need faith? Why help Shizuha? Does she plan on just piggybacking off her, as Shizuha did Minoriko all those years? Does Mori even care about gathering faith for herself?
The goddess in question jabs your chest with her little finger. “Well, PI? Do you have any ideas?”
You swallow your unease and give her an easy frown. “Me? You’re the expert here.”
“Yeah, but we have to appeal to humans. That means you’re our sample — our target audience.”
You aren’t a good representation of the human population, but okay. “Shizuha, you said you painted the leaves. Why not branch out into other kinds of art?”
Mori snaps her fingers. “Ooh, yeah! Painting big murals on buildings and stuff is really popular outside the barrier! That would definitely be one way to get your name around.”
Shizuha doesn’t seem as enthused. “Well, uh, you see, when I say I ‘paint’ the leaves, I ain’t talkin’ about the conventional way with a brush. It’s like a power of mine. Lemme just show you.”
She bends down and picks up one of the many dying leaves on the ground that’s a pale shade of green. When she flattens it out with her hand, it instantly becomes a vibrant shade of red.
It takes a few blinks for the color change to register in your mind. “Wow,” you remark. “Like magic.”
“No, a divine power,” she corrects you. “Way different.”
Mori crosses her arms. “So you’ve never painted pictures?”
“Nah, it only works on leaves. I like decorating with them after they're painted, though. Sometimes I knock more leaves out of the trees so I can spread them out nice and even on the ground, or maybe bunch ‘em up into a big pile.” She pauses, watching you and Mori’s reactions, or lack thereof. “No good?”
“It’s not bad,” Mori says. “It’s just, um, I don’t really know what to do with that. You could flood the streets with leaves, maybe.”
“Why are we making it so complicated?” you mention. “Turning the leaves different colors like that is pretty amazing on its own.”
“You can’t just do that and expect people to believe,” Mori retorts. “It’s easy for you because you already have faith. But, if you pick a human off the street and show them that, they’ll think their eyes are playing tricks on them, or worse — come up with a scientific explanation.”
That’s absolutely true. You can believe that the two women standing before you are goddesses because that’s just how Gensokyo is. More than a decade of dealing with youkai and other nonsense has tempered your mighty tolerance of bullshit. Humans that have spent their entire lives stuck inside their daily routines just couldn’t comprehend the nonsense going on right outside their walls.
“Well,” you say to Shizuha, “is there anything else you can do with the leaves?”
She smiles. “Of course!”
Shizuha winds her leg back and drives her foot into the trunk of a nearby tree, sending a loud quake through its branches. A shower of leaves descends from the forest canopy, their lack of color signifying a lack of touch thus far from the autumn goddess. Standing firm, Shizuha continually rotates her arm above her. The leaves follow her direction and swirl as they fall, gradually becoming a small cyclone of red, orange, and yellow centered on her. When they finally settle, she scatters them all with a single flourish of her hand — some of them blowing by you. And yet throughout the entire showing, you never feel a bit of wind.
Shizuha averts her eyes from your awed gaze and starts to turn a similar shade of red as her leaves. “I—it really ain’t much. This kind of easy stuff won’t appeal to folks none.”
“No,” Mori says, “I think I see where PI’s coming from. You don’t have to do art like painting; it could be performance art!”
“Performance? Like on a stage?” Shizuha runs her fingers through her hair and looks away sheepishly. “Geez, I dunno about that. If I had a whole audience of people lookin’ at me like he is now, I’d probably melt where I stood.”
“Come on!” Mori goads her. “Goddesses don’t get to have stage fright!”
“I—I reckon that’s true, but uh, we should think of some other stuff too! Right?”
Mori thinks, then nods. “Okay then, we’ll brainstorm on the way.”
What should have been a shortcut became a detour, mostly because Shizuha was thinking so hard that you had to turn around a few times to get back on the right trail. The two goddesses “brainstormed” the whole time, but didn’t really come up with anything else. You stayed out of it and remained behind several paces, alongside Hina. The fortuneteller was refreshingly silent, and seemed to enjoy walking alongside you — maybe a little too closely at times.
Eventually, Shizuha stops. “Alrighty. The farm’s just up ahead.”
Hina steps forward. “Then I shall take my leave.”
“Really?” you remark. “Why now, after coming all this way?”
“Unfortunately, my presence would certainly disturb Minoriko Aki, and ruin your mission.”
You look to the goddesses, who don’t seem to have any reaction. This is something else you’re not in on, it seems. “Why?”
“I bring misfortune wherever I go,” Hina explains quickly. “A farm is no place for someone like me.” Then she turns to leave. “Farewell.”
Mori waves goodbye, like it’s perfectly normal. “See you back at the apartments, Hina!”
Shizuha also waves. “Thanks a lot for your help! I’ll have to come visit you soon!”
The others move on as you continue to watch Hina walk away. Even though she smiled the whole time, something really bothers you about the way she slowly disappears behind the trees.
Nothing’s changed about the farm since yesterday, except there’s no sign of Minoriko in the fields.
“Is she at the kitchen?” you say, not particularly thrilled about walking even more.
“No,” Shizuha answers, “it ain’t time for that yet.” Then she takes a breath before calling out, “Sis! Where are you?”
You hear the scrambling of wood and metal, before Minoriko’s voice replies, “Over by the shed! I’ll be out in a second!”
Soon enough, Minoriko appears, looking significantly worse for wear than when you last saw her. She has bags under her eyes, sweat rolling off her face, and dirt not just on her feet, but all over. She walked strangely before, but now she seems to have explicit difficulty keeping her balance as she uses the wall of the shed to support herself. However, the smile she sports at the sight of her sister takes the focus. “Shizuha! So Mister Tsurugi found you after all!”
The elder Aki looks at you, confused. “Tsurugi? I thought it was just PI?”
Shit. You had forgotten about that. “It’s a name I use sometimes around people I’d rather not know I was a detective.”
“Oh. But wait, didn’t she hire you to find me? How’d she do that if she doesn’t know you’re a detective?”
“She didn’t hire us,” Mori speaks up. “She asked us.”
“Though I’m still hoping for a reward,” you mutter.
Minoriko looks at you, at Shizuha, and then at Shizuha’s clothing. “Maybe you had better catch us up so we’re all on the same page, Mister Tsurugi.”
And so, you and Mori give Minoriko and Shizuha a very short version of the events that brought you to the soup kitchen, to Minoriko’s farm, and then to the foot of the mountain and back. You leave out anything having to do with #kakashi, but you do admit being a detective to Minoriko, who doesn’t seem to mind.
However, she does very much mind the fight the three of you had with the bug youkai. “I beg your forgiveness,” she says with a deep bow. “My elder sister has inconvenienced you terribly.”
Shizuha flushes red. “Sis, there ain’t no need to worry about tha—“
Minoriko reaches up and pulls Shizuha down into a forced bow by the scraps of her clothing that remain. “That’s not for you to say!” she reprimands her. “Apologize properly!”
“R, right. I’m sorry, PI. I did something real foolish.”
“You already admitted that,” you remind her. “and hopefully learned from it. An apology isn’t necessary.” As long as you get paid somehow.
“Yeah, I wasn’t about to sit by and let Shizuha get eaten by that bug!” Mori remarks with a carefree grin. “PI and I were all over it! You really should have seen us, Minoriko.”
Minoriko frowns, less than impressed by Mori’s gung ho attitude. “As far as I’m concerned, you aren’t any better than she is. This man isn’t even a priest, and you led him into a battle with a berserk youkai. It would have been no surprise if he died!”
You spot a glare in Mori’s eyes quick, and move in front of her. “Don't worry, I’m a professional,” you assure Minoriko. “I’ve fought off plenty of youkai before.”
Trying to help only turns Minoriko on you. “A professional? You don’t look like a professional when your face is bloodied and you look like you’re about to fall over!” She stops, having worn herself down to panting for breath. “I, I need to settle down.”
Now you’re starting to see what Shizuha was talking about. Minoriko may come off real nice, but she can get plenty worked up if given the chance.
After taking a moment to steady herself, Minoriko smiles brightly. “I apologize for that. The important thing is that everyone’s alright, and Shizuha is back home. Now, we can finish preparing for the harvest festival.”
You can see the discomfort on Shizuha’s face, and you doubt she’ll say anything against her sister now. Maybe she’ll find some way to ease into it, but—
“I ain’t helpin’,” she states firmly.
The younger Aki’s smile falls apart like broken glass. “Excuse me?”
“I made some mistakes, but I ain’t changin’ my mind. I still want nothin’ to do with the harvest festival.”
This isn’t exactly the stellar opening you would have hoped for, but it isn’t unexpected.
The color drains from Minoriko’s face. “You aren’t convinced yet? After what you went through, you still think we should gather faith separately?”
“I do. I love you, sis, but I can’t stand it anymore. For all these years, you’re the only one the humans ever loved. You stood for life, but I represented death. You could give them food, but all I did was play around in the leaves. If I’m always being compared to you, then I’ll never become anything.”
Each word Shizuha says batters against Minoriko until, by the end, the younger sister has water in her eyes. “I, I—” Then, she swallows it all back. “What will you do?”
“Performance art,” Shizuha tells her. “That’s what I’m gonna try. I can show off my leaves to all of Gensokyo, and—”
Minoriko shakes her head. “Performances? Shizuha, the tengu are watching everything we do. If we interact with too many humans at a time, if we even begin to show signs of gaining strength, then they’ll stamp us out like they did the others. While the tengu are in power, all we can do is try to survive.”
“Don’t you think that’s sad?” Mori finally cuts in. “You’re native goddesses. You can strive for something more than living off scraps.”
Shizuha gives the earth goddess a cold glare. “You don’t know anything. Most of the gods are gone, and Gensokyo’s dying. We are dying.”
Mori is undeterred. She returns the autumn goddess’s glare with a dark, worldly gaze that reminds you of the time she first mentioned her friends from the lake shrine. “So you think I don’t know anything? The Outside went through this a long time ago, Minoriko Aki. I watched followers grow old and die without acolytes to replace them. I watched my shrine become a tourist attraction, and then forgotten. I watched my strength fade away, until I was sure I would become nothing. Don’t tell me I don’t know about the decline of faith, because I’ve seen it firsthand, up until the cold end. So believe me when I tell you: Gensokyo is dying, but it’s not gone yet. There’s still faith, and there’s still hope.”
Minoriko watches Mori for a moment. Neither of them budge. Then finally, Minoriko sighs. “I want to believe you. But even if there is hope for Gensokyo to turn around, that doesn’t mean we can do anything now. The tengu’s grip may weaken in the future, but there’s no point if we gamble our faith away before then and disappear.” She gives you all a passionate, hardened look. “If Shizuha fails, then I fail, because I will not live without my sister.”
At least there’s no doubts the sisters care for each other. Yet, something feels wrong about Minoriko. Shizuha’s whole view is shaped around her younger sister being stronger and more successful than her. However, at this very moment, Shizuha is standing strong — though very conflicted — after being brutally attacked the previous night, while Minoriko has trouble even walking after doing farm labor. Shizuha is chased by hungry youkai, while Minoriko is not. Minoriko seems desperate for Shizuha’s help, but not the other way around. What does this say about Minoriko?
As the only human here, you have a unique perspective. What do you tell them?
 Minoriko is right. You believe that with the tengu watching them, the sisters’ best chance of surviving is working together.
 Mori is right. You believe there’s hope for Gensokyo, and Shizuha acting on her own will benefit the sisters the most.
 Nobody is right — except for you. (Write-in)