Flandre nodded and addressed herself with a name I’d only heard her referred as once before, and had since forgotten. “My name is Françoise d'Albret, former Princess of Navarre, born 1508. My sister is Henrietta the Second, former Queen of Navarre, born 1503. The little one here is Francesca, a dear friend of my family’s house. I seek an audience with whomever is responsible for maintaining the barrier around this land; our house is dying from a lack of faith in magic, and we’d wish to immigrate here.”
The fox woman contemplated this introduction, her sage and unreadable expression never wavering. It gave me just a sliver of time to think about what she’d just said. So that was what her name had used to be… Françoise. I shivered to think about how close it was to my own name, the one she’d given to me. Of course it wasn’t her real name, no more than Henrietta was Remilia’s, but… it still made me think.
“Your fortunes have brought you to the right place,” she answered enigmatically, “though we shall see if your solution is as fortuitous. At present, you may call me Ran. There will be tea inside shortly, if you want for some.”
“Much obliged, Lady Ran.”
“Y-yes, thank you…” I added meekly, feeling that if I didn’t start talking soon I’d never want to. “Sorry about the hole.”
“Such a small hole in the Barrier is easily repairable; for now, pay it no mind,” she reaffirmed, smiling softly for the first time and winking those sharp teeth of hers. I still hadn’t gotten used to human-like people wearing teeth like that; aside from the vampires’ fangs, Thérèse was the only one who ever looked like that, and it spooked me every time. Lady Ran seemed nice enough, though. Together me and Flandre cautiously entered the house, Flan depositing the “pet” softly onto the porch first.
Ran slipped off a pair of wooden sandals and slid them off to the side of the door before entering the house proper; Flandre and I followed suit, observing the rather simple trappings of the domicile. It had a different sort of feel to it than the mansion; though it was smaller, it felt more open to me, rooms gently transitioning into other rooms rather than a myriad of thick walls. Not a familiar style, but not unenjoyable. We were led through a kitchen area to what I took to be a dining room, if only because there was a low table with cushions set up there; the table even felt like it had a heater under it or something of the sort. Ran fanned her robe out and sat down on one of the cushions, the soft blue plush immediately swallowed up by her many tails. Flandre crossed her legs and sat across from her, forcing me to nervously take a seat next to the fox-girl. It’s not that she was scary, mind, just… imposing, imposing and undoubtedly foreign.
Another strange girl busied herself at the stove with the aforementioned tea; presumably the “magical cat grl” Flandre had spoken with earlier. Compared to the stately Ran, her servant was positively comical, a fidgety little creature only a head or two taller than myself, with brown hair and cat ears to match, dressed all up in a black turtleneck and pants like she was planning to rob a house or something. She plodded over to us with the tea tray and set it down on the table none too gently, kneeling down on the open cushion afterwards. Her unsettling red claws tap-tap-tapped against the marble tabletop, polished and pure like they were carved out of jasper, while her orange cattish eyes continuously glared back and forth between Flandre and I.
“I don’t like ‘em; they look like trouble. Can’t I just kick ‘em out?” she hissed antagonistically in Japanese.
Ran looked authoritatively at her apprentice and scowled. “Now now, Chen, be polite; these women have come all the way from Europe to see us. We may at least give them a few minutes of our time.” Turning back to address us, she added, “You’ll forgive my servant Chen, but she does not speak English and is still rather young.”
Flandre smiled and ruffled my hair playfully. “Forgiven; I’ve dealt with more than my fair share myself. Thank you for your time.”
“There will be ample time to thank me later, I think,” she commented, pouring herself some tea and grabbing a square of some fried biscuit-like food with a pair of chopsticks. Turning back to Chen, she said, “Chen, dear, have some common sense; wearing black clothes during the middle of the day in wintertime won’t keep you hidden.”
The young cat pouted indignantly. “But a black cat is an ill omen! I want ‘em to feel afraid!”
Ran seemed quite skeptical at that comment. “Why don’t you go outside and check on your little friend; make sure she’s all right? The vampire woman was thoughtful enough to carry her here.”
“She’s a vampire?!” Whatever the fox had said, Chen’s eyes went wide with awe as she stared at Flandre attentively. I had no idea what was going on, but of course Flandre did, and she rested her chin on her hand coyly, staring right back at the girl.
“Do little kitties taste good~? I’ve never tried a little kitty before; you look so small and delicious, Chen~”
The girl suddenly made a very catlike snarl and slashed threateningly at Flandre, with no real intent to hit but every intent to come frighteningly close. She dashed halfway across the room so fast I felt like she’d just skipped the distance in between, stilling hissing at my companion venomously before vanishing outside. Flandre merely smiled at the situation endearingly, a sentiment the great vixen at our table did not share.
“That was… unpleasant,” she commented harshly, narrowing her eyes at Flandre suspiciously. “How do you make out I should respond to this?”
“Apologies, apologies,” she replied, stiffening her composure and getting back to business. “I’m a long-time sufferer of psychosis and mild schizophrenia; efforts to curtail it have been… shall we say, partially unsuccessful. I cannot promise it won’t happen again.”
“Hardly reassuring, Lady d'Albret… hardly. I’m not usually of the disposition to turn away refugees, but I will turn away ne’er-do-wells. Vampires have rarely of a trustworthy disposition, the old vampires even less so. Perhaps you will forgive my formalities, but despite my composure that does not mean I trust you any more than Chen.”
Flandre squinted her eyes back at Ran the same way she’d done, opting to match jab for jab apparently. “If I were in a position to be antagonistic, which I am not, I might say the same thing about kitsune; kyuubi no kitsune even more so. I hope for both of our sakes not all of those stories are true.”
I could see one of Ran’s white-gloved hands slowly start to clench up from what I took to be an insult. Time for me to step in; I hadn’t realized at first that Ran wasn’t exactly going to be cooperative.
“Umm, hi, me again. Françoise? Yes, you can shut up now.” I tried to put on a positive face whilst looking at Ran and thumbing nonchalantly at the so-called ne’er-do-well. “The psychosis isn’t actually that good of an excuse most days, Miss Ran; she just likes to show off in front of guests. I’m a pretty lousy voice of reason, I guess… but I’m all she’s got right now. Sorry about that.”
The tension in her hand relaxed, but that slight scowl remained as she looked me over ominously from behind her tea cup. “It may behoove you to allow her to talk less and you more, if that is your position.”
She set down her tea cup and closed her eyes, cupping her sleeves together sagaciously. “Perhaps now might be a good time to tell me exactly what events transpired to bring you here.”
And so, in a roundabout way, we did. Starting with a brief synopsis of Flandre’s past and moving up to Kay’s involvement with our house and beyond, Ran heard of our particular plight. The further we went on the less Flandre talked, until it really just turned into my mini-biography, most of which you’ve heard me tell you already. The regal fox asked for only a few clarifications, most of them related to Kay in some way, and hid her personal opinions on the matter perfectly. Throughout it all I really had no idea if we were advancing our cause by telling her about the bind we were in, or if we were only unwittingly proving to her that our house was too dangerous to be let inside the barrier. I mean, a genius magician, an unbeatable martial artist, two five-hundred year-old vampires, a girl who could control time… I hated to admit it, but technically speaking all of them together were a serious threat to anyone who didn’t trust them. And Flandre and I weren’t exactly the best representatives for our little circle.
By the time I’d finally caught our story up to meeting Chen, the cat in question had come back inside and sat down again, giving Flandre a noticeably wider berth than before and slowly inching her cushion towards her master. Ran had kept her eyes closed for a good few minutes, and took an uncomfortably long time opening them after I’d finished.
“A rather eventful life your family and friends have led, princess,” she finally said softly. “I must admit, I’ve spent so long inside this land that I’ve forgotten what other creatures have had to endure outside of it. That you managed to survive at all is rather serendipitous, let alone find us from almost ten-thousand kilometers away; have you ever met with a fatespinner?”
Flandre smiled and shrugged. “My sister has the gift, though she’s for the most part squandered it. One time out of a hundred, though, she’ll manage a small miracle.”
“We shall see if that luck will hold,” she replied, standing up suddenly. “I will consult with my associate on the matter; she is the official administrator of the barrier’s integrity, not I. Feel free to ask Chen if you need anything. Be prepared to wait; my associate does not like being roused from her sleep at such an early hour.”
The foxy enigma twirled around and walked away without another word, her tails fanning out behind her like a bush of burning gold. I wondered what kind of person this “associate” of hers might be to consider the beginning of the afternoon to be “an early hour”, but considering how much of a mixed bag Ran and Chen seemed to be, I could only speculate wildly about this unknown third party.
An awkward silence quickly formed between the three of us, Chen now sitting at the opposite corner of the table to split the distance between us both. She just kept glaring and staring poisonously, which would have been extremely unsettling if she hadn’t simply looked as cute a button.
“I don’t like you,” she grumbled at us.
“She says she thinks your hair is silly,” Flandre translated incorrectly, though obviously I didn’t know it at the time.
I felt a little embarrassed and tugged my ponytail forwards. “Ohh, umm… w-well, tell her that I, uhh, I think her earring looks pretty cute.” I attempted a smile at the little cat, who only glared at me more.
Flandre shrugged and, again, misinterpreted the message. “She’s afraid you’re going to give her bad luck.”
Chen smirked proudly. “Hah. Tell ‘er she’d better stop thinking she’s better than me or I’ll put a curse on her!”
“She says wearing your hair in a ponytail is bad luck around here. You’d better untie it or you’ll get cursed with bad vision.”
I bit my lip; bad vision didn’t sound fun at all. And I knew enough to know that bad luck could exist in a place like this, too. I reluctantly pulled my hair tie free, sending my bushy tangle careening all over my shoulders. “Is… is this better, Miss Chen? Am I still going to get cursed?”
“She wants you to know that letting her hair down is a symbol of humility where she’s from. She acknowledges you as having the right of way.”
Chen nodded contentedly, pleased with the result, and began nonchalantly licking her claws. In between licks she staggered out her smug response. “That’s more like it… Miss Yukari’s the best of the best of the best, I’ll have you know vampire lady… And she picked Miss Ran as her personal shikigami, and Ran’s so strong she can have a shikigami too! And… And then she picked me! So you’d better watch out for me, both of you! ‘Cause I’m fast!”
“Chen says you’re safe; because she’s a magic brown cat she can protect people from curses, just like black cats give them away. She says you’re pretty lucky to be staying with her and Miss Ran; they’re such a good team nothing wants to mess with this house!”
I smiled nervously, not sure whether I should be happy with that reveal, or worried. But I still put on a pleasant faced and bowed to Chen, saying to her, “I, umm, I’d like to thank you for keeping me and my friend safe. I, I guess we’re both just nervous around strangers.”
“The fairy Francesca apologizes for the misunderstanding and is grateful that you didn’t hurt her. She hopes to repay you for your greatness provided she remains in this land.”
“Nymmmm… What kind of repayment?” Chen asked, now interested in the situation.
“She wonders what kind of movies are your favorite.”
“Oh? Well, I, uhh… Hmm, that’s kinda hard. I mean, I like adventure movies with magic a lot, but sometimes they’re kinda silly… I guess any of the ones where the good guy beats the bad guy at the end, but he helps out a lot of friends and learns something important about himself!”
“She offers to teach you about her culture by inviting you to her house and showing you a film about Western ideals. She adds that she lives in a rich mansion with many maids who can prepare any kind of food you could ever imagine.”
“…Any kind?” she wondered hungrily, running her wet tongue around her lips.
Chen scratched her chin with those ruby fingernails of hers, contemplating something I had hardly any idea about. Before long she smiled and nodded her head firmly. “All right then; apology accepted. Don’t think you’re going to get off the hook just ‘cause you’re not staying, either; Miss Yukari’s waaaaay too nice to turn people away, ‘specially if you passed the Ran test. Well… s’long as she’s awake, nnyehh~”
“Chen hopes she can come over to your house one day and watch one of your favorite movies with her; she’s interested to see what a movie from America might be like. And she’s getting hungry just thinking about all the snacks Sakuya’ll make for her~”
My smile became significantly more pleasant at that response, and I inclined my head towards the chocolate-haired cat again. “Well, I’d glad you’re so excited about it, Chen! I’ll have to think up a really good one.”
“She also thinks your earring looks pretty cute.”
Chen smiled back as me and tilted her head sideways, letting the single golden ring in her ear dangle back and forth. She stuck out her thumb at me and, in very stuttering English, told me, “Yooou, iisssu hoakay~”
Holding back a little giggle, I answered back, “Dohmo arreegato, koisaiymass~”
Chen and I went for almost three years before we finally found out the truth about that day.
+ + + + + + + + + +
After that rather unorthodox ice-breaking incident, the mood had lightened up considerably. The three of us just wiled away the time casually, Chen explaining miscellaneous things about the new world, and us explaining miscellaneous things about our old one. She called herself a nekomanta or something like that; just a normal cat that had lived for so long in a magical land that she turned into a spirit cat and got intelligent (and human-shaped, apparently). Not all that different from a fairy, in my opinion. But of course that meant that even though she was technically twenty-seven years old, only fourteen of those actually counted in her mind.
Though Flandre’s constant translating slowed the pace of our conversation down and kept us oblivious of the time, I was still quite surprised that, when Ran finally came back, it was already four in the afternoon according to the clock on the wall. The only noticeable difference the several hours of absence had made was that she was without her hat, and perhaps just a tad weary-looking.
“My associate will speak with the two of you now,” she announced, very business-like. “I see you have all been enjoying your wait; most pleasant. Warming up to the strangers, Chen? Now that’s unlike you.”
“The Francesca fairy promised me a good movie and all the food I could eat if I went over to her house! Is Miss Yukari gonna let them stay?” Chen replied happily to Ran’s question, swaying her tails back and forth.
“That’s for her to decide. Come now; I’m sure they don’t want to waste any time.” While Chen cleared away our light lunch, Ran led us through a series of identical hallways I wouldn’t have been able to re-navigate if I’d tried. After I’d completely lost all sense of direction, Ran finally stopped in front of a door that looked exactly like every other door we’d passed, the only difference being a light violet card on the handle which read, “DISTURB, AND WISH YOU WERE NEVER BORN.” A second card hung right below it which read, “WISHES GRANTED HERE.”
Ran noticed Flandre eyeing the card as well, and sighed. “She is… unique. Mind your step; her sleeping habits are the least of her eccentricities.” The lady slid the door open softly and ushered us inside before going in herself and shutting the door behind her.
The first thing I did when I entered the room was lose my footing and fall face-first into a voluminous purple blanket. It felt like there wasn’t even a floor at all; the entire ground was composed of the softest mattress I’d ever felt, layered with the warmest and largest blanket I’d ever even dreamed of. I felt Flandre pick me back up and sling me over her shoulders piggyback style, giving me a bird’s eye view of the darkened room, whose only dim light filtered in from tiny windows that currently had the shutters drawn over them. I couldn’t believe how warm the room was, compared with the winter chill of the rest of the house. But I just chalked it up to magic and kept taking everything in stride. In the weak light, the floor just looked like a gigantic purple swamp, a humongous plush blanket twisted around the entire room, scattered with pillows and cushions of all kinds, both above the blanket and below. As completely impractical as it looked, I could not deny that it would have been the perfect place to sleep. Saved you from rolling off the edge of your bed, at least.
Ran seemed to know right where she was going, and floated lightly from cushion to cushion until she kneeled down in front of a barely-distinguishable larger lump of purple. I fluttered off of Flandre’s shoulders to try and get a better look, but I couldn’t see anything that looked like an all-powerful master of an unbreakable magic barrier.
“Yukari… Yukari, I’ve brought the two English girls in to see you,” Ran whispered at the lump, looking rather silly I had to admit. “Yukari? Yukari, can you hear me? Yuka…… She’s gone back to sleep.”
“Fran?” Flandre whispered to me. “Will you allow me to ask Ran if I’m allowed to try and wake Miss Yukari up?”
“…No,” I replied, not even beginning to think of the number of things that could go wrong with that idea.
We spent the next quarter of an hour gathering enough pillows from around the room to make seats for ourselves so that we wouldn’t sink into the floor, while Ran continued to try and wake this Yukari back up. I was almost afraid that we were going to fall asleep ourselves in this atmosphere if we stayed much longer; the comforting warmth was rather intoxicating. I’d feel like sleeping the day away too if I had a bedroom like this.
Finally, after what felt like the fifth or sixth “finally” that day, I heard a muffled groan coming from somewhere underneath the blanket.
“Yukari, Yukari, please, wake up; you have important guests.”
There was more muffled nonsense, and vague movements under the covers where Ran had leaned over to talk. I saw the fox woman try and rummage around for what might have been the edge of the blanket, which only caused whoever was under it to squirm more.
“Yes, I know it’s too early; I promise I won’t bother you again until March. These ladies have traveled halfway across the world to see you,” Ran pestered, finally catching a corner of the labyrinthine comforter and beginning to tug at it.
“Mmmmmm…. Mmmnnmnnmnnnmnn! Ttlllmmmmm… tlllmmm’nnn, wrrrthh hhllll fffrrrnnng.”
Flandre raised an eyebrow and leaned over to me. “…You catch any of that?”
I looked at her blankly, not really sure how to respond. “Not… really?”
“Yukari, please… you’re embarrassing yourself.”
“Mmrrrnnn… Dunn’t carrre…… ‘ay’cunn, weight’ill March… sleepy…”
The tugging at the blanket continued until Ran finally unearthed her quarry. What I saw was extraordinarily… unremarkable, actually. Just a normal blonde woman sprawled out on the mattress in a violet nightdress, head firmly sandwiched between two pillows. No wings or aura or alien appendages at all; I couldn’t even sense anything particularly magical about her. Rather pathetic, if you ask me.
One of her slender arms unattached itself from the pillow and groped blindly for the blanket. “Nnnngggghh… guvvve it baaahaack…”
Ran seemed to be getting a little perturbed. “Miss Yukari, really now; this will take two minutes. Can you act like you are the most powerful woman on Earth for two minutes?”
“Mmnnnmm. Nough. Blankie… want blankie.”
The hatless servant threw up her hands limply in defeat. “I give up. Ms. Françoise, you try talking to her.”
Flandre crawled forwards as Ran crawled back, squirming herself on her belly until her head was practically touching the sleepy woman’s pillows. Peering at the seam between them, she gently lifted the top cushion up just a sliver, looking into the gap and presumably into Miss Yukari’s face.
“Hi,” she greeted simply.
“Need you to teleport som’tin for me.”
“Fifty-six degrees fifty-seven minutes forty seconds north, three degrees forty-eight minutes fifty-one seconds west.”
“Nnnrrmmm… gimme a bit… tired…”
“Kay. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
Yukari pushed her top pillow back a bit; not enough for me to actually see her face, but apparently enough for her to see something besides Flandre’s. She dragged her free hand up in front of her face with painful slowness, and limply stroked the air like a cat pawing at sunlight. A sort of… portal, I guess you’d call it, opened up in the air in front of her. Nothing I hadn’t seen Patchouli do before, I suppose. Yukari’s was sort of an oblong oval shape though, each end pinched off by a fancy tied red ribbon like they were holding it in place.
I drifted over her shoulder to get a better look at what was on the other side. Earth, apparently, just minding its own business in space. The portal quickly zoomed in, centering around Europe, then the British Isles, then Northern England, until I lost track of its position and simply watched a blur of green, brown, and white whiz past. In the end, the image stopped perfectly over the familiar bat-like shape and octagonal walls of our precious mansion, all without a single hitch.
“Mmmnnn… d’you… nnnn… d’you, wunt th’ whole wull, r’just th’ house?”
“Walls would be nice.”
“Yeah. You need dimensions?”
“Nough… Where—nnwwaaaahhhnnn—where’d, you want it…?” Another ribbon-tied portal popped into existence in front of Flandre, presumably giving her a bird’s-eye view of the countryside within the barrier. Flandre studied it for a minute or so intently; it was an important decision, after all.
“Mmm… My sister did always love it when our house was on a lake… Can you zoom in here?”
The second window blurred inwards, showing me that misty lake I’d glanced at earlier. Flan did some more thinking, probably trying to visualize what views would look best from different spots on the shoreline. Eventually she tapped at a gentle peninsula and nodded her head. “Right there; that’s a nice spot.”
The portals then did… something. I didn’t exactly see what, but suddenly there was a miniature model of our mansion and grounds sticking out of the first hole. I certainly hoped that wasn’t the real mansion, even though I had a pretty strong feeling that it was. Boy was the sky going to look weird for them…
Yukari tried to reach up and grab the mansion, but her arm gave up halfway and she just groaned sleepily again. “Rrrnnnnnggg… too m’ch wurrrkk… You do it.”
Flandre looked skeptically between the two portals and the mostly-useless violet lady. “Do what how? Who now?”
“Nngghh, you… you put the thing in the thing.” She gestured enigmatically with her dead fish of a hand, which was completely unhelpful. Flandre scratched her head, utterly confused, then stop caring about being confused and just sort of took the mansion out of one portal and stuck it into the other like a building block. I should have cared about the gravity of Flandre holding the fate of the entire mansion in her unpredictable hands, and how amazing and impossible this teleporting was, but the entire meeting with Miss Yukari had become so inane that I’d really stopped worrying about anything that didn’t make sense. Which was most of it.
The two portals did their weird zooming-out thing again, and suddenly I was looking at one portal where there was just a boring green field, and another where there was our bat-shaped mansion sitting on a gentle peninsula on the edge of a lake. I just sort of sat there and watched it all happen; it wasn’t like I could have done much else.
“…Couldn’t you have just done that yourself?” Flandre asked bluntly.
“…Okay, you’re weird.”
“Nnnhnn, m’kay~ So’re yough…”
Flan shrugged apathetically. “Thanks… I guess.”
“Ppttthhh… Thank’m me ina… ina Spring. Hate… wokun’nup…”
Flandre washed her hands of the babbling thing known as Yukari, and turned back to Ran. “Would it not be an incorrect assumption to assume that what I think just happened, just happened?”
“No,” she replied, equally enigmatic but apparently comprehending the question.
“Kay, just making sure we cleared that up. I’ma go back home and celebrate Christmas now.”
“Enjoy yourselves. You’ll be hearing from us again in a few months once she’s… cognizant.”
“Coo’ beans. Want me to carry you, Fran?” she added as an in-joke afterthought.
I shook my head. “I’m good, thanks.” As I hovered over to my companion, I felt a finger catch a hold of my sock. I followed the finger down to the hand that owned it, and the arm that owned it, and the friendly slacker who owned them all, head still cowering in her pillow cave. I floated back down to the ground and peered into the same little hole Flandre had been peering. As with the rest of her, there was nothing exceptional about Yukari’s face at all. She was just a sleepy-eyed, matted-haired, smooth-skinned good Samaritan that could move a house the size of a palace halfway across the world in her sleep, and probably could have cared less. So she was the strongest creature in the land?
I had a feeling I was going to like it here.
I blushed, feeling so completely inadequate at the moment, staring into the face of the lady who had saved my life. What does one say to such a person?
“I… uhh… I… Thank you. For… for everything.”
She smiled sleepily and ran her hand through my hair, as a mother would to her child. It was a feeling I couldn’t understand, let alone describe, just laying there in Yukari’s bedroom like that, with no sense of pretense or propriety. One of the strongest, and one of the weakest, sharing the most fleeting of moments together. She said three words to me, the only three words she’s ever said to me personlly in the few times I’ve seen her. For me, they signaled the end of a tired, worn-out era, and the beginning of a shining new one. Everything I knew was about to change…
”Welcome to Gensokyo.”